December 15, 2006

Feed Icon

For both subscribers and publishers, feeds are a useful addition to the tools we use to distribute, consume, and manage information.

Benefits of subscribing to feeds

Key steps toward addressing the problem of information overload include classifying & prioritizing the information you receive, and reducing the amount of work required to get the information you want. Feeds and a feed reader can help you redirect some information away from your email inbox and automate the retrieval of information you may currently be getting manually.

  • You can stop checking websites for updated content — the content comes to you. Once you subscribe to a website's feed, you never have to go back and check for updated information. Think about how many sites you visit on a regular basis &mdash news, sports, weather, stocks, blogs, etc. A feed reader automatically checks sites you choose on a regular basis, and lets you know if there's anything new. You can truly "set it and forget it".

    Dave Winer, widely credited as the "father of RSS", described feeds as automated web surfing:

    "...when people ask what RSS is, I say it's automated web surfing. We took something lots of people do, visiting sites looking for new stuff, and automated it. It's a very predictable thing, that's what computers do -- automate repetitive things."

  • Free up your email inbox for correspondence. As an information tool, email has long been overloaded as a catch-all for information people want to send and receive. A lot of the email we get isn't correspondence, and often doesn't deserve a high priority. The problem is, we don't have enough control over what we get via email — it just arrives and competes for our attention. One part of the solution is to direct information away from your email inbox and into your feed reader, a tool that's purpose-built for managing information you want to see but don't need to necessarily respond to via email.
  • Put "read-only" information in its place. Feeds are well suited to one-way and "read-only" communication, and a good feed reader can help you manage a wide range of information you might be getting now via email or by visiting individual web sites. You can use feeds to:
    • keep current with the latest news
    • monitor stock prices
    • get weather updates
    • check the traffic report
    • track a package
    • share links to websites
    • monitor topics of interest (using a "search feed"; a feed of search engine results)
    • read blogs
    • keep up with busy discussion groups

    Consider how much less cluttered your email inbox might be if you redirected some of the information above to a feed reader. It's worth noting that the tagline for Google Reader is "Your inbox for the web." Email is great for two-way communication, but for information you just want to read, a feed is often a better choice.

  • You can unsubscribe with confidence. You own and manage your list of feed subscriptions, not the publishers. Unlike with email lists, when you want to unsubscribe from a feed, it's your choice and it happens immediately — you don't have to ask, wait for confirmation, or wonder if it's really going to happen.
  • The content has a consistent look & feel. Given the variety of website designs, getting to the actual content you want on each website can take a while. With a good feed reader, the content is all displayed using a consistent interface. Feeds are typically more content-centric than design-centric. Some feeds contain ads, but they're often displayed inconspicuously compared to looking at the same content on the publisher's website.

Benefits of publishing feeds

Publishing feeds lets you maintain and update your content centrally, and stop worrying about how to distribute it.

  • You get the centralization benefits of a web page & distribution benefits of email. Once you send email, you can't make changes if the information needs to be updated; you have to send a new message. When you publish a feed, you maintain the content centrally. When you update content, subscribers automatically get the current version &mdash in some cases highlighted as updated, depending on the feed reader — even if they already seen the previous version. Any time they refer back to it, they'll have access to the most current version; with email, they'd have an out-of-date copy. (Note that some feed readers keep copies of previous versions.)
  • You don't have to do anything to notify your audience. Feeds solve the problem of notification; there's no more having to ask people to "check back soon" for updates, or ask for their email address. Neither the publisher nor the subscriber has to do any work to be notified when new content is published; feed readers do the work for us.
  • You don't have to maintain email lists — you can stop sending content and let subscribers come get it. When you publish a feed, subscribers take responsibility for consuming your content. You just publish it, and you're done; people who want it can get it. People may be more likely to subscribe knowing that they have full control over unsubscribing. (If you want to know who your subscribers are, you can create an individual subscription form and publish a unique feed for each subscriber. This could be a great way to provide spam-free, individualized, direct communication with your audience.)
  • There's a high probability your audience wants what you publish. People have to consciously subscribe to feeds, and don't usually do so by accident. When someone subscribes to your feed, there's a good chance it's because they want the information you provide.
  • Non-email communication may be better received by your audience. People are tired of being inundated by email, and often ignore it when they feel overwhelmed. By publishing a feed, you give people a choice in how they consume your content, and they may be more likely to do so as a result.


Feed Icon

You can reduce noise and clutter in your email inbox by subscribing to feeds of discussion groups and forums. Keep your email subscription so you can participate, but filter the group's email list messages away from your inbox.

  • Check to see if your discussion group publishes a feed. If you're on an email list for a discussion group or forum, but don't usually participate in the discussion, see if you can subscribe to a feed of the discussion. For example, you can subscribe to feeds for both Google Groups and Yahoos Groups. (Regrettably, feeds from Yahoo Groups seem to be just summaries of each post.)
  • Subscribe to the feed, but don't remove yourself from the email list. Instead, setup a filter in your email to bypass your inbox, and send the list messages to a folder. This gets them out of your way, but allows you to access them if you want to respond to a message.


Use your feed reader for "read-only" monitoring, and reserve your email inbox for correspondence.

Redirecting the discussion to your feed reader reduces the clutter and interruptions competing for attention in your email inbox. This reduces the burden on email — a tool we all know is overloaded — and makes it easier to use for correspondence; two-way communication.

December 06, 2006


Google logo

You can see several of your Google Reader subscriptions at once by putting multiple Google Reader gadgets on your Personalized Homepage. Each gadget can display a different folder or tag in your Reader subscription list.

If you use Google Reader (it's worth serious consideration!) and you're not using the Reader gadget on your Personalized Homepage, you're really missing out. This miniature interface to the full version of Google Reader is extremely useful, with pop-up "bubbles" for quick reading, the ability to switch between your folders & tags (but sadly not individual subscriptions) and smooth scrolling, all without taking you away from your homepage. You can multiply the benefits of using the gadget by putting more than one on a single homepage tab.

Google Homepage Reader Gadget Birds-Eye View


Look at a single page for a "birds-eye view" of your Google Reader feeds.

  • Scan the latest headlines or read entire articles right from your homepage. You don't need to go to Reader to see your feeds. You can get a quick update on several feeds at a glance, right from your homepage. If you want to read more than a headline, just click on it, and a "bubble" will pop-up and display the entire article. It's lightning fast, and you don't leave the homepage.
  • Syncs with full version of Google Reader. All the Reader gadgets stay in sync with your full version of Reader, so if you read or star something in a Reader gadget, it'll be that way in the full version, and vice versa. The basic feed gadget doesn't do this, since it has nothing to do with Reader.
    • This is a key feature, and it's worth highlighting: I can use the full version of Reader, Reader gadgets, or Reader Mobile to read feeds from almost anywhere, and state is always maintained. That means there's no downside to any of the methods, and it makes reading feeds easy and efficient.
  • Manage just one set of subscriptions. You've long been able to put multiple basic feed gadgets on your homepage, but if you do that and use Reader as your primary feed reader, you've got two sets of subscriptions to deal with. The Reader gadget uses the subscriptions you're already managing in Reader.


Add a Google Reader gadget, press the Back button, add another, repeat. It's that simple.

Tip: Create a separate tab. If you plan to put multiple Reader gadgets on your homepage, you may want to start by making a separate homepage tab for them. Once you've done that, make sure you've got that tab selected, since gadgets get added to the current tab.

To add multiple Google Reader gadgets to your Google Personalized Homepage, follow these steps:

  1. Find it. Find the Google Reader gadget in the Homepage Content Directory. (You can either click on the link here, or go to your homepage, click on "Add stuff", and search for "reader").
  2. Add it. Click the "Add it now" button.
    • This will take you back to the Homepage Content Directory, and you'll see a "Back to homepage" link at the top left of the page. Do not click that link yet.
    • If you are not redirected to the Homepage Content Directory, you'll probably see the "Add it now" button disappear, and in its place, a check mark next to "Added". If you see that, you should be able to reload the page, and skip the next step.
  3. Go back. Use your web browser's Back button to go back to the previous page.
  4. Add it again. Click the "Add it now" button again.
  5. Repeat. Repeat the two steps above until you've added as many Reader gadgets as you want.
  6. End. After you've added your last one, click on the "Back to homepage" link.

Tips & Tricks

  • Each Reader gadget is an individual. You may find that you want different behavior for different feeds, depending on what they contain or how often they update. Try configuring gadgets to display various numbers of items, or changing whether or not they display items you've read.
  • See what you've starred. I star articles to highlight them for further reading or action. Putting my Starred Items on my "BirdsEyeView" tab ensures I don't forget about them, and makes them quick & easy to access.
  • You can scroll within each gadget. If you want to see more than the max of 10 items per gadget, you don't have to open Reader, you can just click on the up/down arrows, or hover over the gadget and use the scroll wheel on your mouse.

Feedback and suggestions to the developers

I've become a strong advocate of Google's Personalized Homepage, and an was instant convert to Reader as of it's redesign. I'm really impressed that the two work together so well, and the developers of both should be proud.

To the developers of Reader and the Reader gadget, thanks for such a nicely executed, well thought-out tool (and service)! Please consider these suggestions:

  • Enable us to choose individual subscriptions to display in the gadget. Currently, the gadget allows us to choose a folder or tag to display, but not individual feeds. (Each "folder" in Reader is a mix of the feeds it contains.) I know "river of news" style feed reading is all the rage, and it certainly has its benefits (I've advocated feedmixing myself). That said, it would be nice to be able to specify a particular feed to display in a gadget, just as we can do in the mobile version of Reader.
  • I'd like the option to auto-hide the bubble if I move the mouse away from it. That would mean one less mouse click, and potentially faster navigation. (Note the word "option"!)


I was inspired to try putting multiple Reader gadgets on my homepage by thinking about:

  • Dave Barnard's comment that he'd like to be able to customize what shows up on PopUrls.
  • Marshal Kirkpatrick's recent comments on using a startpage as a component of his feed-reading in his recent Open Sourcing My TechCrunch Workflow post. Marshall writes:
    Almost anything can be read by RSS feed, so you can display almost anything on a startpage. These services fulfill a very specific function for a person working on the web - they provide a one click view of updates from various sources, inside the browser and distinct from the more heavy duty environment of a feed reader.

July 08, 2006


Firefox logo

Use the Firefox address bar instead of the built-in search box to search any website or search engine.


By default, if you enter a search query in Firefox's address bar, the browser will perform a Google "I'm Feeling Lucky" search.  You can change this so it will perform a normal search using Google or any other search engine you want.

Firefox search from address bar


Fewer text input areas = simpler & faster searching

It's much more efficient to use a single input field for all text entry, rather than one for addresses and another for search. This eliminates the need to think about which one to use based on what you want to do, which means one less keyboard shortcut to memorize, and one less decision to make.

Computers can do a pretty good job of figuring out what to do based on what you enter, so let the browser work for you, and get in the habit of always using the same keyboard shortcut to jump to the address bar, whether you're navigating or searching.  After you try it for a while, you'll wonder why anyone would want two text input areas. No, it's not perfect, but it works great 99% of the time.

One less thing on the toolbar

Now you can free up space on the toolbar by removing Firefox's built-in search box (right-click on the toolbar, select Customize, and drag the search box off the toolbar).  If you were using it to access other search engines, try setting up Quick Searches for those instead.  Quick Searches use the address bar, and let you quickly perform a search on any website or search engine.


Make a quick change to your user.js file, then restart Firefox

Edit your "user.js" file, and add:

// Change to normal Google search:
user_pref("keyword.URL", "");

You can substitute the URL with the appropriate syntax for whatever search engine you want to use.

You may have heard about making changes like this by typing "about:config" in the address bar, but as far as I can tell, those changes apply only to the current browser session, and don't persist when you restart.

Note: You must restart Firefox for this change to take effect.


May 25, 2005

Maybe the better question is, "Should we take a different approach to tagging email vs. other information?" 

I know a lot of people are jumping on the "don't even bother to categorize email" bandwagon lately, and I'm considering what aspects of that approach are applicable to how I operate.  I've dramatically flattened my work email folder structure in the last couple years, and now I put things into much broader categories.  My over-categorization eventually led to excessive effort to find anything, but that was before client search tools & interfaces began to really improve (e.g. Tbird's quick search & saved search folders).

I often see the argument, "But I can always search my mail!", and that's true.  In fact, as the tools are evolving, I'm becoming a huge advocate of using search, but I don't think that precludes manual categorization; I think it's an additional capability.  People seem to be increasingly recognizing the value of tagging information, and Gmail's "labels" are essentially tags, so why exclude email?   

As good as search tools are becoming, there is still value in doing some "pre-processing" (specifically, I mean categorizing it, using whatever means available, tags, folders, etc.) of email.  As I've noted before, adding tags enriches information and improves search results, among other benefits.


A hybrid approach?  Email is different than other information we manage 

I've often prided myself on how quickly I can find any email message, but in fact, I don't refer to my saved personal mail as often as I used to think I would.  I do actually refer to my saved work mail a lot, and  that's largely due to the nature of my job & culture of my team.  By contrast, I tend to refer to my non-email files (e.g. documents, spreadsheets, notes, photos,etc.) quite often.  (Interesting!  I do this much more with my personal files than work files; probably because most of my work stuff is email-based.)  Given that, maybe it's not important that email be as "enriched" as other information.   Of course, this depends on how and for what purposes people use  email.  Perhaps we should use a hybrid approach, relying a bit more on search and expending less effort on pre-processing, since many of us probably:

  • have a more rapid influx of email relative to other information we accumulate
  • have many more email messages than non-email files
  • don't refer to saved email as much as other saved information
These two "balance questions" come to mind:
  • value gained by enriching information (by tagging/categorizing it) vs. time & effort spent time doing so
  • effectiveness of pre-processing vs. searching
Clearly, the frequency of receiving and referring to the information are two of the factors that must be considered.  I think this balance is shifting as search tools improve, but there will always be value in some pre-processing.

I'm curious to know if other people are thinking about this question in the context of email vs. non-email information.  Email definitely has different characteristics than other information, and I think it is important to distinguish the two.  For example, we typically use different tools to manage each -- email client vs. file system browser/command line -- and historically, there have been good reasons for this.  How do you manage & process email vs. other information, and why?



Migrated from my former blog


By Taylor - Wed 25 May 2005 08:00 PM PDT

I can always search email....and typically I find that email only has "time" relevance, i.e. you rarely go find that email from a year ago! Therefore I think it is a complete waste of time (and have said this for years) to perform any kind of categorization, tagging or other such "pre-search" work.

That said, there are times when it makes sense to categorize, or otherwise distinguish certain types of email (there are always exceptions to the rule, right?). In the past I have found these to be certain kinds of feeds, e.g. housing/rental listings - which would now be sent to bloglines anyway, or highly relevant threads/conversations, maybe a re-fi or something else high priority.

For everything else, a thread typically is no longer than 4 messages (at the most!) and can be found easily by scanning back (manually, if I used Google maybe I wouldn't, but Yahoo!'s search is somewhat poor) a few days worth, or performing a hard search.

A final reason why I think it's a waste of time to pre-search email - it's a high-volume, medium response type of information, which is why it's relevancy drops off quickly with time. I *already* spend too much time on email, I think it's not worthwhile to spend more (and most of my time spent is not searching).


By James E. Lee - Wed 25 May 2005 09:06 PM PDT

Clearly we agree on some general points, but we take our (age-old) arguments/approaches to different extents.

Part of that may be due to the fact that my work is extremely email-centric. I should have made it clear that I rarely refer to my personal mail; in thinking further about it, I actually do so fairly often with my work mail, since email such a part of my job and my team's culture. I'm going to go edit the article to include that point.

For me, such a heavy emphasis on time relevance doesn't work; I am terrible at remembering when a given subject was current, and I prefer to leave that to a computer to tell me. That's part of why I like some pre-processing. I think we'll always be at different places along this particular spectrum, but it's good to keep the discussion going!

May 14, 2005


I often lose thoughts and ideas because I fall into the trap of wanting to completely flesh them out before I write them down

This usually results in me just not writing them down at all.  My tendency toward perfectionism with regard to writing is part of why it took me so long to start blogging; I never wanted to make the investment in time & effort to write stuff down because I set fairly high standards for myself to meet before I consider something ok to publish or share.  I still struggle with this, which is why I have several draft blog articles.  In fact, my "Blog Articles I Plan to Write" was one of my early attempts to force myself to just get some ideas recorded, even if not fully formed or explained.

I've always thought of myself as a decent writer, but writing for my blog is a good reminder that writing well is quite a challenge, and editing is where much of the effort really goes.



Create a "thought pad" for quickly jotting down draft ideas & thoughts

I needed to give myself a way to record my thoughts in rough form, before I do any processing on them, so I don't have to worry about whether or not they're fully formed or presentable.  So, I started keeping a "thought pad", where I can jot down stuff that occurs to me during the day, and save it for future reference in case I want to think about it more, write a blog article, or discuss it with someone.

Thought pad concept

I've written before about the benefits of taking notes, which I think is great in many circumstances, but I see this as a less formal/structured, more "personal" activity; it's more like doing periodic "brain dumps".  So far, it's been working great!



Record thoughts quickly & get stuff out of your head 

Many of my thoughts and ideas "recirculate" through my attention from time to time.  This is inefficient and distracting when it happens in an unstructured way.  It's great to revisit ideas, but not when they're just bouncing around in your head while you're focusing on something else. 

Writing thoughts down (or otherwise recording them) somewhere helps get them out of your head, so you can revisit them if and when you choose.  Eventually, you can start trusting yourself to have recorded a given thought and purposely expunge it from your head until you are ready to consider it further.  This idea of getting stuff out of your head is one of the concepts David Allen discusses as part of his Getting Things Done method.


My Approach

On-going draft in Gmail, or send myself email from my smartphone

Currently, my thought pad consists of sending myself a daily message to my Gmail account, which is just one of many ways to manage stuff like this.  If I'm not at a computer, I send myself email via a text message (SMS).  Yes, I can use Gmail mobile from my smartphone, but it's a lot faster to just compose a new text message, address it to "121" (Cingular's SMS-to-email gateway) and use the Insert Text feature to paste in my email address.

Here are some of my methods:

  • Keep an on-going Draft email each day (if I have something to write down, which is more often than I realized!) with the subject "THOUGHT PAD - YYYY.MM.DD".  Gmail makes saving a draft quick & easy (automatic, even!), and unlike Yahoo mail, once you create a draft, future saves are updates to that same message; Yahoo Mail creates several copies, each is a later revision with the most current updates.  I'm sure that works for some people, but I don't care for it.
  • Send it to myself before I go to bed, and label tag it "thoughtpad", so I can easily review all my entries.

  • Date stamp each entry  - By using a daily email message, this happens automatically.  (For me, daily is enough granularity for date stamping; I don't need to know that I had a particular thought at 10:13 on a given day)
  • Keep it all in one place - If you let your ideas get scattered among different systems, it'll be harder to manage them and refer to them.  As I said, if I'm not near a computer when I have a thought to record, I email myself from my phone & tag it "thoughtpad" later.  (Yes, I know I could auto-tag it by sending to "", but even choosing that  particular email address slows down the process; it's trivial to tag it later from a computer.)   Whatever system you choose to record your thoughts, be consistent in using it. 
  • Keep it simple & quick! - The point is to reduce the burdens of further consideration, putting thoughts in context, formatting, organizing, and the other various things that can make it feel like a lot of time & effort are required before writing something down. Just getting it written down is the point.  You can save all that other stuff for blogging!
  • You don't even have to write full sentences - Sometimes, just a phrase or couple of words is enough to trigger the rest of the thinking about an idea


Nothing is set in stone 

I'm not sure that email is the best for doing this, but I confess, I like using Gmail's rich text editor, and I'm having a hard time reconciling that with my general recommendation to use plain text for taking notes, a related activity.  And there's the benefit of Google search, since it's in my Gmail.  But, it's not available off-line (but with my phone, it's really rare for me to be in that state).   I'm also not sure that daily is the right boundary (maybe a weekly thought pad would be better, but then I'd probably wish I'd date stamped each day's entry anyway), but that's one of the reasons I'm such an advocate for recording information in digital ("electronic") form; it's very easy to change.

May 06, 2005


Notes iconTaking notes improves your ability to focus on interactions and ideas, reinforcing your engagement and comprehension.  Take notes to increase your productivity when planning and managing tasks & projects, having "administrative" conversations.


"Administrative" conversations are those you have when you're managing daily administrative tasks and chores, like scheduling appointments, planning vacations,  reporting an insurance claim, calling to change your mobile phone plan, etc.



Notes are useful while you're taking them as well as for future reference

The value of taking notes is often realized after you've taken them, but even the act of taking them has several "real-time" benefits.  Notes help you:

  • clarify and structure your thoughts & actions
  • keep track of what's happening
  • reference what has happened
  • plan what needs to happen next
  • keep an accurate record of ideas, facts, and information
  • reinforce your understanding of information
  • improve your access to information



The more you take notes, the more you'll benefit from doing so

I take notes all the time; for example, when:

  • talking to my tax guy
  • researching something I want to buy
  • setting up & scheduling my mom's Mother's Day spa treatment
  • changing my insurance deductible
  • calling to report a cable problem
  • planning a project at work
  • listening to my mortgage guy explain the details of our refinance
  • solving a problem, so I don't have to hope I can remember the solution if it recurs

You don't have to wait until you have a "project" or a meeting to take notes; they're valueable even for minor tasks.


You'll always know where you put the information

Think of all the times you get a confirmation number for something; if you're already taking notes, you are ready to write it down as soon as they give it to you, and you always know it'll be in your notes, as opposed to on some random scrap of paper or one of the 47 cloned Post-It notes around your desk.

Make your interactions more efficient

I often start a notes file before I begin a task or interact with someone, so I can plan what I want to do and prepare what I want to say.  If I'm calling someone and I have several questions or issues to discuss, writing them down in advance, frees me from having to keep everything in my head while I listen.  I try to summarize & write just facts while listening, then expand later with my commentary/thoughts if necessary.  That way, I can just move on to the next issue or question without pausing to try to remember it under time pressure.  This is a very nice way to work, and I recommend you try it out.


Save information in a more reliable place than in your head 

I try to take advantage of downtime at work to write down my thoughts.  Chances are, I'm thinking about things I need to get done anyway, so I might as well record those thoughts so I can start figuring out how to do the things rather than what I need to do.  I almost always find that the result of doing this is a great sense of relaxation. David Allen talks about this idea (getting stuff out of your head) in more detail in his book, Getting Things Done.

No more wasting time refreshing everyone on details 

Have you ever forgotten the details you agreed on with someone while planning something with multiple phases?  Taking notes while you plan (or preparing them beforehand) relieves you of having to try to remember the details, which is often not the best use of your mind.  That's why they invented writing!  Sure, it's usually not a big deal, but you can be much more efficient in your interactions if each conversation doesn't have to begin with "Can you  refresh my memory and go over your recommendations on implementing the third phase again?"

Sometimes having a record of the details can give you the advantage; many people don't have a precise record -- especially from memory --  and when there's a dispute, it's hard to argue against someone who took notes.

My approach and implementation

Some of my thoughts & tips on taking and managing notes

  • Consider using plain text - There are many systems and software packages out there, and I don't want to start a religious war, but at least consider the value of plain text files.  I've never had to convert from plain text, and I can use plain text files on any platform/device/interface; it is truly portable.  (That said, HTML & XML are technically plain text, but I digress...)  Sending an email message to yourself is effectively plain text too, though I have other reasons why not to use email for that, which I'll discuss another time.  If email works for you, use it!  As David Allen says, (I'm paraphrasing) have as many systems as you must, and no more.
  • Use a standard header - Notice that email messages have a "header" section that includes information about the message.  This has several benefits, and they apply just as well to notes.  Consistency  and standardization will almost always serve you well.

    EXAMPLE 01 - Header information ("metadata")

        SUBJECT: Refinance 2005
           TAGS: home, house, mortgage, refinance, money, credit
         STATUS: OPEN
    NEXT ACTION: Call to get a status update
        CONTACT: Joe @ Mortgage Broker Co. 800-555-1212
           DATE: 09:00 2005.04.01

  • Add your own tags - Tags are very useful for organizing and finding information.  You can add your own tags to most documents and start realizing the benefits immediately, such as the ability to create relationships between your various sources of information.  See the example of tags above; I don't have to remember where I filed my notes on the refinance -- I can search for it using various related words, and several of the words I think of will lead me to the notes file, as well as all the other files that have the tags.  You can  experiment with using multiple tags to develop different levels of tag intersections.  (I'm sure that soon goes down the path of data search theory...)
  • Sidenote: I'm going to add this point about creating relationships to my article on adding your own tags to your documents; the idea had not yet occurred to me at the time I wrote that article.  This is one of the things I love about blogging; it helps me refine my thinking and consolidate the information and knowledge in my head.  I guess I could say blogging is like taking notes on my thoughts!
  • Add a "STATUS" tag to your header - This lets you search by status (e.g. find all "open" or "closed" issues)
  • Add a "NEXT ACTION" tag to your header - David Allen's "Getting Things Done" method emphasizes thinking about your tasks in terms of what is the next action you need take.  Including this tag in the header section (and in the body, as needed) of your notes lets you search for all next actions, and enables you to scan just the header of your notes and know what you need to do.  (Added: 2005.06.28)
  • Use a standard file naming convention - Use whatever convention works for you, but consistency is key, especially for searching (e.g. "notes * 2004" to find all my notes from last year). 
    • I recommend you include the date at the end of the file name; depending on the type of notes, it may be better to use only the year, or to use the full date (use YYYY.MM.DD, and it will sort nicely on your computer).  Putting the date at the end lets you use the beginning of the file name for sorting by Name; if you have several files with the same beginning but different dates, you can sort them by Name and you'll get automatic date sorting for free.  I begin the file name with "NOTES" because I put notes files in various folders, and want to be able to find the files easily, even just by looking at the names.
    • The convention I'm using now is:

      EXAMPLE 02 - My notes file naming convention

      NOTES - Refinance - 2005.txt
      NOTES - Cingular - 2005.txt
      NOTES - Exploratorium Outing & Picnic - 2004.08.24.txt

  • Use one file per vendor, not one per issue with each vendor  - This way, you know that everything related to a vendor (e.g. Cingular), whether it's changing service plans or resolving problems, is in one place. (Credit goes to Ania for this idea.)

  • Put the most current info at the top - I keep my notes in "reverse chronological order".  This is useful because the most current (and often most relevant) information is at the top, and I don't have to "move" very far to get it or start adding new info.  I'm curious to know whether anyone has a good argument for putting newest at the bottom.  If you do, leave a comment!

  • Add a timestamp to each entry - Sometimes, the when is just as important as the what, or more so.  Timestamping -- which should always include the date -- is incredibly valuable, and you should do it even when you do jot something down on a Post-It.  Timestamps increase the richness of information, and help you search.  Again, consistency is key,so use a standard format & location/structure for your timestamps!

    EXAMPLE 03 - Timestamps & consistency

    16:20 2004.04.20
    + This is another sample entry

    13:15 2004.04.19
    + This is a sample entry in my notes file

    • I use plain old Notepad (on Windows) to take notes.  One nice feature of Notepad is that the "F5" key will insert the current date and time.  (I know, I know, there are all kinds of other, better tools.  I'll get around to finding one I like, but for now, Notepad is everywhere, free, and really fast.)
    • Note that the timestamps in the example above are in the format, HH:MM YYYY.MM.DD HH:MM.  I generally believe it's best to go left to right, from most significant (year) to least (minute), but  Notepad insists on inserting the timestamp using the format above.  The more I use it, the more I don't mind, since in practice, the most significant info is often the time, if I make multiple entries in a single day.  So maybe it's not so bad.  In any case, using F5 is extremely convenient, so I'll live with it.

More thoughts & ideas

Search your notes for more than just words & phrases

  • Use a search tool - Modern search tools (e.g. "desktop search" tools from Copernic, [my favorite] Yahoo, and Google) let you apply custom, dynamic filters to your information.   Whichever you prefer, a search tool can be extremely powerful.
  • Don't limit searching to the idea of finding a document or phrase - Think of your search tool as a way to apply filters to your data, or see information through different "lenses".  This enables you to identify and make use of patterns and groupings (e.g. find all notes with "STATUS: OPEN").


Managing & archiving notes files

  • Keep only what you currently need right at hand - You probably don't need to frequently refer to notes about something you dealt with in 2003.  Consider creating an "Archive" folder.  The ideal solution would be if we could have something like Picasa's date range selection slider in file system browsers:
SCREENSHOT - Picasa date range selector 

Future additions

  • Structuring & formatting entries
    • Consistency
    • Simplicity
  • Paper's okay, but digital has compelling advantages
    • No holy war please!  I know some people love papger, and it has its uses, but I want to present some facts for consideration.

Adding STATUS tags to your notes allows you to search for everything that matches a given status. 

I keep notes on almost every task/project/etc. that I'm managing, whether it's changing my mobile phone plan, figuring out what we're doing for Mother's Day, or refinancing our mortgage.

I currently use "OPEN", "HOLD", "TODO", and "CLOSED", but the great thing about tags is they aren't static; you can use whatever tags make sense and are useful to you, and change them as you see fit.

Use multiple status tags - (Added: 2005.05.09) Note that you can use  more than one status tag, for example, not all "OPEN" issues are necessarily "TODOs", but some are.  In those cases, just add "STATUS: OPEN, TODO", and your search tool should find the notes whether your search for "STATUS: OPEN" or "STATUS: TODO".

SUBJECT: Refinance 2005
   TAGS: home, house, mortgage, refinance, money, credit
CONTACT: Joe @ Mortgage Broker Co. 800-555-1212
   DATE: 09:00 2005.04.01

When I search for "STATUS: OPEN", I get a list of all my notes on unresolved tasks and projects, which is another approach to the idea of having a task list.  This way, I can easily review & prioritize what I want to work on next, with all the related notes right at hand, a click away. 

April 05, 2005

I'm in the process of evangelizing blogs & feeds to my friends and family, and just saw Michael Hyatt's post, How to Read Blogs on his blog, Working Smart (one of the first productivity-related blogs I found).

The article Michael references provides a good introduction to reading blogs. Although I could link directly to the article, Michael already wrote a nice introduction, and should get the credit for the reference. Plus, his blog is worth a look, so I've linked to his intro rather than the actual article.

Feed readers -- the tool of choice for reading blogs -- are important technology and will dramatically improve our ability to manage information more efficiently. As the referenced article's author says, it's tough to convince people of why they should read blogs. I think, though, that we can at least help them do so efficiently, and the benefit of feed readers is that they are useful for any syndicated content (e.g. AP news), not just blog content per se. So, even people who aren't "into blogging" can get value from feed readers.