Technology aside, the best way to be productive is to figure out what needs to be done and then do it in an orderly manner.
This isn’t a Linux post per se, but it’s good advice for organizing yourself—using whichever tools work best for you.
I switched from Outlook.com to FastMail a few weeks ago. There were three variables behind the switch:
- I felt bad using a Microsoft product—albeit a fantastic one!
- My girlfriend switched and was a big fan.
- The nagging sense that Microsoft would eventually bail on custom domain support for Outlook.com (they bailed on new custom domain support two years ago but have continued to support existing setups, which is pretty nice but not encouraging).
I had heard nothing but good things about FastMail and while my initial experiment with it two years ago wasn’t great, I felt more committed this time.
I’m not sure if FastMail’s documentation got better or if I was just in a better headspace this time, but getting it configured was pretty easy. I have a lot of old email addresses from old web projects but setting up the domain records was simple, with detailed steps from FastMail. I had one issue that the help desk resolved fairly quickly (FastMail has great email support).
I was shocked how fast their servers are. I never considered Outlook.com sluggish, but Fastmail flies. I get email notifications within nanoseconds of the mail hitting the server—across all of my devices.
FastMail makes it very simple to manage multiple email accounts from its web interface. Sending mail from different accounts/domains is easy and adding accounts is also easy. I’m not using Fastmail to check other email service accounts, like Yahoo! or Gmail, but the documentation says that’s possible.
The web interface is nice. There are shortcuts and in general, the web interface feels like a client, which is important to me.
Last time I used FastMail, the spam filtering was awful, but it’s been just about flawless this time around.
Fastmail has an Android client that crashed a lot on me so I use CloudMagic and there haven’t been any issues.
Fastmail also has a calendar that uses CalDAV. As long as I was switching off of Outlook, it seemed like a good time to finally get off of Google Calendar, which I don’t use that much anymore, anyway. I moved a bunch of birthdays and personal appointments to the FastMail calendar and I’m now officially done with Google Calendar. I’m able to get the FastMail calendar on my phone with CalDAV, although I did have to pay for an app to make that happen. The Fastmail calendar is great. It has a simple interface, does reminders, and shows dates and times, which is sort of the life’s purpose for a calendar.
Fastmail also allows you to sync contacts with Thunderbird (via a plugin) and with your phone (via CardDAV). I’m not using CardDAV on my phone but I am using it with Thunderbird. What that means is between the calendar, mail, and contacts, that Thunderbird is like an enterprise client. I think of it as Outlook, only faster.
FastMail always had good security options but just pushed out a big update a few weeks ago. They simplified their security tools, making them more like other services. The updates included easier-to-implement two-factor authentication and application-specific passwords. What I like (and appreciate) about the application passwords is that they’re data-specific, so the CalDAV password Fastmail generated for my phone doesn’t provide access to my mail or contacts. And if you lose or retire a device, you can go into FastMail and pull the access. Just make sure you clearly name your application-specific credentials.
The web interface times out after a few hours of inactivity, which is actually kind of annoying on a personal level. But I’m enough of an adult to understand it’s a good feature from a security perspective.
FastMail is based in Australia, which is a privacy-centric country. Privacy wasn’t a huge factor in switching to FastMail, but it’s a nice plus.
FastMail isn’t free, although there is a free 30-day trial. Prices range from $30/year for barebones email without domain management to $90/year for a business class account. I’m grandfathered into $40/year package, but they have something comparable, with more storage, for $50/year. As I’ve mentioned before, I like paying for services since it gives me recourse if something doesn’t work. And less than $5/month is a small price to pay for something as important as email. And your calendar. And your contacts…
FastMail isn’t a Linux product per se, but it uses lots of open standards so that you can interface with it effectively using your own tools. You’re not locked in to one client or tool. And that’s the beauty and dream of Linux-—to use your own tools the way you want to.
I was looking for an old email a few days ago and I wound up in Google Inbox, which is an alternative interface to Gmail. It felt like Google was trying to handle my email for me and I didn’t appreciate it. FastMail lets me choose how my email is handled. Which is the way it should be.
I’m actually embarrassed I didn’t move to FastMail sooner. It’s a great, open product that any Linux user should love.
If you’re trapped in a proprietary email system, why not buy a domain, sign-up for FastMail, and free yourself?
What works: Everything! The email. The calendar. The speed. The service.
What doesn’t work: Nothing!
Who should work with it: Anyone who doesn’t want to be trapped in proprietary email and calendar environments.
I’m off of calendars-as-to-do-lists but I’m also curious about people who can make it work.
Have you used a to-do list app that’s asked you, Do you really have time to achieve all this today?
This is a great point. Your daily/weekly/monthly/life goals need to be realistic. Calendars help with that. I don’t keep my tasks on my calendar anymore, but I always have my calendar open when I’m scheduling when my tasks are due.
The challenge of meetings and calendars is a tough nut to crack. We want shorter meetings, but scheduling people can be so hard that we often have to make meetings longer to make them worthwhile. Which makes scheduling meetings harder. Which means we have to go even longer with our meetings. It’s a vicious cycle.
The idea of goal scheduling is interesting, but you’re eventually going to have to schedule some sort of meeting to support the goal. And then we’re right back where we started.
I’ve been thinking about productivity a lot lately. This is an interesting list. I don’t necessarily agree with “To-Do List Zero” as a concept, though. Life and work get in the way and when you focus on getting your list to zero, you’re working on your list and not on your work. And prioritization is complicated. If it’s on my list, it’s a priority. If it’s not on the list, it’s not important. For me, importance is a binary.
But in general, the first three to-do list concepts are solid:
- Take it everywhere
- Capture everything
- Break it up in small tasks and make them actionable
There’s a lot of great advice here, but the big takeaway is to use email for email and lists for listing. Also, as you might have guessed, I’m on a bit of a productivity kick.
I had a complex relationship with Evernote. I used it for quite a while but recently began to have trouble finding stuff in it. It had gradually become a junk drawer where I stuck things I wasn’t sure what to do with. The problem was when I would return to Evernote, I couldn’t effectively see what I had saved. It was essentially a giant pile of notes and while there was an order, reviewing what I had was still tough.
The Evernote interface had also come to feel clunky to me. For example, the web client would return me to the top of my list of saved items whenever I deleted or moved something, which was annoying in notebooks with long lists. The mobile client took a while to open, so it wasn’t great for capturing stuff on the fly. The only things I loved were the Chrome Web Clipper, which I used to screenshot maps and directions into my phone and the ability to email notes into my account. Other than those two features, using Evernote felt like a chore.
It was time to find another note-taking tool.
I ran through the usual suspects for online note-taking. I found Thinkery and loved it but it’s no longer supported and the plans for it seemed amorphous at best. I opted into a Dropbox Papers trial, but it was really more of a word processor than a note-taking tool. It didn’t support tags and there wasn’t a mobile client. OneNote also didn’t have a simple tagging concept and also felt like overkill. It’s a great tool, but way more than I needed for my basic notes to myself. I also took another look at SimpleNote, but the web interface felt uncomfortably slow to me. As with Remember the Milk, I saw recommendations for Emacs and org-mode and as with Remember the Milk, it seemed like a lot more work than I was willing to commit to. I was aware of Google Keep, but stayed away from it because of Google’s awful track record with services. If Google hadn’t kept Notebook going, would they really hang on to Keep?
I also looked into the various tools available via Sandstorm, but nothing looked very good to me in terms of interfaces. I wanted to choose an open source tool, but not at the expense of usability. It’s the same reason I rejected a text file solution—it seemed tough to deal with on mobile.
Unfortunately, I never found anything that worked for me, so I gave Google Keep a try, emboldened by the fact that you could easily save notes into Drive. I figured when Google killed Keep, it would be easy to get my notes out. Keep turned out to be a good interim solution; so far it’s working for me.
Google Keep has a nice, simple interface. There’s no way to format text and you can upload images, but not other file formats. You can change the color of your note, you can add checkboxes, and you can add labels, but that’s about it. All of these limitations make Keep incredibly fast. You’re limited to 50 labels, which feels arbitrary to me, but other than that, it does what I need it to.
What’s been more helpful than Keep is the process of going through my old Evernote notes, while moving to Keep.
Reviewing those notes and seeing what I had used and not used informed my approach to Keep.
For instance, I had a lot of disparate links to bars and restaurants that were pretty much impossible to find. So in transitioning to Keep, I put them all in a single note, organized by borough. I had gift ideas spread across different notes, so I consolidated them. Some of my issues with Evernote weren’t Evernote issues, but my own. Note-taking software isn’t a junk drawer. You need to organize your ideas. You can’t just cram everything into a tool and expect the tool to make sense of things for you.
So one of the things I did with Keep was create a *to file tag, which I use when I add something new. This is a label I can revisit weekly for the purpose of properly organizing things I’m adding. If I see a cool bar I want to try, I’ll add it to Keep as *to file (the asterisk forces the label to the top of the label list), and then when I do my weekly review, I can put it someplace more meaningful, like on a list of Queens bars and restaurants or even on my Remember the Milk to-do list as a place to visit at a specific time.
I could use this same process with any note-taking tool. But moving all of my notes from Evernote to Keep clarified the workflow for me.
Keep has a Reminder feature I don’t use, but I imagine it could work as a to-do list, also. I haven’t used this, although the quick-and-easy way to automatically add checkboxes to text is fantastic for my weekly shopping list.
The mobile interface is also great. It opens quickly and makes it easy to jot down ideas. It’s so easy, I don’t miss emailing notes into my account, which I did a lot with Evernote. But that was partially because the Evernote interface was so tough to deal with; I was just trying to avoid it.
Google Keep has a fast, sparse mobile interface.
Evernote does everything, which is great, but for me, it became this black hole where I put everything, and that created a problem. When you have everything, you have nothing. So the narrower scope of Google Keep is a feature. Learning that a lot of the things I used Evernote for don’t require an online tool was also helpful. For example, I saved all of my electronic manuals in Evernote. But because Keep doesn’t support PDFs, I just have the files on my computer, which makes more sense.
I’m sort of zen about Google Keep. If it lives on, my notes are fine, and if Google bails on it, it’s simple enough to export my data into readable files. But I feel like I have a good handle on what’s in Keep, so if/when Google abandons it, moving to something else won’t be catastrophic.
What works: Great, fast interface
What doesn’t work: Google’s track record with non-search products
Who should work with it: Anyone looking for a very simple way to take text-based notes across devices.