How I stay organized and remember everything, with no stress

Five years ago I made a change that has massively increased my productivity, cut my stress level, and allowed me to never forget anything important, ever.  These years, during which I’ve become a father, twice, and built a small business, have been not only the most productive, but also some of the least stressful and most enjoyable of my life.  I believe the system I adopted five years ago deserves a decent slice of the credit.  (Of course, small children can and do certainly add joy to life as well, but they’re not generally credited with reducing stress…)  
 
 
I came across this technique while looking not to organize my life, but to organize… my browser bookmarks.  Actually, that’s not quite right.  My bookmarks were very organized.  I had folders and sub-folders for every imaginable subject.  Hundreds of bookmarks covering all kinds of things I might someday need.  Except, rather than looking up those carefully sorted pages, I would instead find myself about to add to the collection, only to find the exact page I was about to bookmark already there, in the appropriate folder, bookmarked and forgotten months or years before.  So I figured, what’s the point spending all this time categorizing things if I never actually use them, or even remember I have them!  Wouldn’t it be great if I could just search the contents of my bookmarked pages, just like I search the web?
 
 
That thought led me to Evernote.  As you may know, Evernote is essentially a note-taking program.  Other examples include Microsoft’s OneNote and Google Keep.  These are all powerful tools, which can be used for a number of purposes.  They aren’t particularly opinionated about how you should use them.  At first I learned that I could use Evernote to “clip” webpages – basically bookmarking an entire searchable copy of the page.  That solved my initial issue (and is still working great; I rarely use browser bookmarks at all anymore, except as shortcuts to sites I visit regularly).  But more importantly, it got me interested in note-taking best practices.  How could this tool be used most effectively?  And that led me to The Secret Weapon.  
 
A bit melodramatic, but it lives up to the name.  The Secret Weapon describes a Getting Things Done (GTD) system, based around Evernote.  If you’re not familiar with GTD, here’s a primer from Lifehacker.  Basically, GTD is a system for organizing your to-dos.
 
I had never really felt the need for an organizational system.  Seemed like a waste of time.  I just kept a giant ‘sticky note’ tab in my browser with everything I wanted to remember.  Sure it had ballooned to probably 20 pages, most of which I never looked at, but hey, it was better than the crumpled sheets of looseleaf I’d used before that!  Still, that Secret Weapon thing and other endorsements of GTD were compelling, so I decided to give it a try.
 
 
Suffice it to say, it was time well spent.  I wasn’t exaggerating earlier when I said it has multiplied my productivity, eliminated stress, and effectively given me a perfect memory (for things that matter).  The reason for all of these things is simple: everything that matters goes into the system.  Once it’s there, it’s out of my brain, and I don’t have to worry about it.  Nothing can be forgotten, whether it’s something I have to do, something I want to try, something I’m waiting on someone else for, etc.  But at the same time, nothing has to be remembered, so no time or energy is spent keeping track of things.  It’s all just taken care of.  It. Is. Awesome.
 
I won’t bother describing all the specific details of how this works, since the Secret Weapon Manifesto (they do love their dramatic names) does it quite well.  Instead, I suggest having a read there, and then I’ll just cover a few highlights, and mention some tweaks I’ve made that I find make the system easier and more useful. 
 
OK, done reading?  Moving on then.  First of all, here’s what my setup looks like at a high level (click for a larger version):
 
 
The interesting part is over on the left.  At the top is the ‘Archive’.  Basically that’s the replacement for browser bookmarks (plus anything else I just want to save for future reference.)  Unlike bookmarks though, it’s fully searchable.  (You can even use an Evernote browser extension to have your notes show up alongside Google search results.)   Occasionally I tag things I put in there, but usually it isn’t necessary since the full text is searchable.1
 
The really cool part though is the ‘Current’ stack.   That contains everything I’m doing, expecting to do, might want to do in the future, or am waiting for someone else to do.  ‘Now’ is stuff I’m either working on now, or need to take some action on immediately.  I usually try to keep that to 2-3 things to keep it manageable, although I’m not always successful.2  ‘Next’ is obviously what’s going to go into Now, next.  Then there are further priority levels – you could have more or fewer; this works alright for me.  The ‘Waiting’ and ‘Hold’ sections are for things that can’t happen right away.  Tasks in ‘Hold’ are generally things that for whatever reason I’m waiting to do on or after a particular date.  (I also use Google Calendar for things that happen on a specific date.)  ‘Waiting’ is for anything that needs input from someone else.  So for instance if I email a question to someone, I’ll stick a note in Waiting so I remember to check back if I haven’t heard from them in a while.  Every note in Hold and Waiting gets an Evernote Reminder attached, so I’ll get a notification when its time has come.
 
 More recently I’ve also added the ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Ongoing’ notebooks for stuff that’s happening but can’t be ‘done’ immediately, and so I don’t want it cluttering Now.3 Once something is done, it goes, unsurprisingly, in ‘Done’.  I’ve also created an ‘Obsolete’ folder there, for anything that isn’t done, but is no longer relevant.  (I prefer that to just deleting things, because you never know when you’ll want to look back to remember something.)
 
So, that’s the meat of the system.  If you read that Secret Weapon page, you’ll notice the main difference is that I use separate notebooks for the priority levels, whereas they use tags.  I think notebooks are an improvement, because everything needs to have a priority, and any given task can only have one priority at a time – which is exactly how notebooks work.  So to move something from Next to Now, for instance, I just have to drag it over.  Using tags, you would have to both add the Now tag and delete the Next tag.  Not a big deal, but I feel this way is easier.  I’ve also got a handful of tags separated into various categories.  I may cover those in a later post, but the main thing to remember is not to make too many tags.  You can always search by keywords, so you only want to have a few tags that you’ll actually remember to use.  Get too many, and you’ll end up back in the millions of browser bookmarks situation, categorizing everything methodically, but never actually using it.  Finally, you’ll notice a bunch of funny symbols before most of my notebooks and tags.  Those are used both for sorting, and to group similar tags together so I can grab the right one quickly using autocomplete.
 
 
It’s worth emphasizing that this system works better the more you use and trust it.  You really want to put everything into Evernote.  The most significant example of this is email.  I’ve moved to a strict Inbox-Zero policy.  (From my previous Inbox-Several-Thousand…)  When I get an email, if I’m not going to respond to it immediately, I send it to Evernote (where it is categorized like any other task, based on when I plan to get to it).  For gmail users this can easily be done using the Evernote web clipper.  If you don’t expect to reply soon, you can always fire off a quick reply saying that you’ve received the email and roughly when you expect to get back to them.  And it will be true, because you never forget anything now!  This way, your inbox stays empty and stress-free, and you always know what needs to be done, because it’s all in one place.
 
Same goes for anything you need to do, really.  With the Evernote app and widget, you can use your phone to add a new note to your Now folder in seconds.4  Or even just take a picture of the thing you need to do/buy/whatever, and toss that in.  If it’s a complex task, you can also record it as a voice note rather than typing it all out.  The easier you make it to add tasks, the more you’ll do so, and the more second nature it will become.  As that happens, you will have fewer and fewer things floating around in your brain, competing for attention, and so everything you do will have your full attention.  Plus, when it’s time to relax, you can forget about all the responsibilities and be confident it will all still be there when you’re ready for it.
 
All this took some getting used to.  I’m hoping my experiences will help save you some of that time, but inevitably you will want to make some tweaks as well.  And of course it will take a while to get used to using your new virtual brain.  But when you do, I guarantee, it will be worth it.
 
 
1. One thing that can be handy though is to add a few keywords, if there’s a word you think you might use in the future to search for this thing, which isn’t already in the page.

2. My record is about 12, but usually I don’t let it spike that high for long.  Generally it just means I’ve added a bunch of new stuff, and need to take a minute to go through and prioritize.  That basically means just doing anything that will take less than a couple minutes right away, and putting everything else into its appropriate folder.

3. Or you can put it straight into a different folder, but I tend to just add stuff to Now, then when I’m at my desk, re-prioritize it as necessary.

4. The ‘Tomorrow’ folder in particular is great.  I have a habit to check it each morning, so it’s a great place for both things that literally need to be done tomorrow (ie, buy something from a store that’s closed right now), and for things that need to be done at some point every day, but that I need a nudge to remember.  Those are generally new habits I’m trying to form.  If they’re quick things, I’ll just leave them in Tomorrow and quickly get them out of the way when I check there in the morning.  For more significant tasks, I’ll move them from Tomorrow to Now when I check in the morning, then when they’re done for the day they go back to Tomorrow for the next day.  Sounds like a lot of messing around, but moving a note from one folder (notebook) to another literally takes two seconds, so it’s really not.  And it keeps my Now folder (and my brain) nice and uncluttered.

Image credits:

Where did the Separate Cities results go?

As you may know, the SearchTempest.com results are powered by Google and Bing.  Until recently we used a “Google Custom Search” to show results separated by city.  Unfortunately it appears that Google has now changed their policies, and permit only a single custom search per page, which means we are no longer able to show results for each city separately.  Unfortunately it also appears that when multiple cities are searched together, Google tends to miss more matching results.

There is some good news though!  We have just released a major update to our Direct Results mode, which allows you to get results directly from the source.  As well as giving you several options for how to group the results (by large areas, by state, or by individual city,) this also avoids the main problem with using Google/Bing results: delayed or missing listings.  Since the results come straight from the source to your browser, they are always complete and up to date.

In the past, Direct Results required you to click through each city individually, but we now combine multiple cities into each link, making it significant faster and easier to use.  (Although the old per-city Direct Results are still available if you want.)  You can learn more about Direct Results here.  In the coming days we will be making it new default view.  To give it a try now though, just flip the “Single List Results / Direct Results” toggle above the list of results to “Direct Results”.  Also, once we make it the default, you will still be able to switch back to the Google-powered Single List results using that same toggle.

We hope you like the new Direct Results!

Cities stuck “Retrieving Results from Google”

Update: Fix released

We have released an update that should make this significantly less of a hassle.  We now have built-in timers on in SearchTempest to avoid hitting this Google limit, so instead of being timed out and having everything break for five minutes, the worst you’ll experience is a few seconds delay (with a message explaining why).  This still might be an annoyance for larger searches, so we do have a couple other options for you as well.  Please see here for more info: http://support.searchtempest.com/hc/en-us/articles/226378827-Limit-on-number-of-cities-that-can-be-searched-in-a-short-time.

Original post

Some of you have probably run across this recently: view a few pages of results fine, and then all the cities just get stuck “Retrieving Results from Google”.  This issue just came up a few days ago, but what we’ve been able to determine so far is that Google have added a new limit to how many queries can be sent to their Custom Search API (which powers our results) in a short period of time.  We’re in the process of determining what those limits are, so that we can put our own limits in place to avoid hitting them.

For the moment, as long as you’re taking the time to read each page of results before moving on to the next, it’s unlikely you’ll have this problem.  Where it is more likely is if you’re searching for something rare, so a bunch of cities are skipped through quickly.  For now we suggest just taking your time with those searches.  Loading a chunk of 50 or so cities (including ones with no results), waiting 30 seconds, then loading the next chunk.  That should avoid hitting any limits.

Another option is to switch your sort order (using the “Sort” drop down on the results page) to one of the single list options.  That way a separate query doesn’t need to be sent to Google for each city, which will guarantee no limits are hit.

Again, we’re still actively working on this and hope to  have better work-arounds in place soon.  You can find more info here: http://support.searchtempest.com/hc/en-us/articles/205166587-The-results-load-slowly-

Default Results Sort Change

Update: There has been… significant… reaction in favor of sticking with Stacked Cities as the default, so we’re going to switch back, and look at ways to improve that view.  As always though, the sort order is entirely your choice, and can be changed using the “Sort” dropdown on the results page, just below the search bar.

SearchTempest is powered by a Google Custom Search.  Basically Custom Search is an API that Google offers, allowing other websites to run customized Google searches.  Like any search engine though, Google sometimes misses results, especially new ones.  We don’t like missing results, so recently we added Bing search as a backup option, to try to catch anything Google misses.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to search each city separately with Bing like we do with Google.  We can search all the cities in your search area at once though, and show the results in a single list.  And we have found that for most searches, this Google + Bing combination returns better results than the “Separate Cities” searches we do with Google.  Therefore, we’re switching the default sort to a single list, including Google and Bing.

The “Separate Cities” sort options aren’t going away though!  If you preferred that way of viewing results, changing back is as easy as clicking the “Sort” dropdown box on the results page, just below the search bar.  We’re also looking at creating a sort of hybrid view that could offer the best of both worlds.

Finally, we also still do offer our Direct Results view, which doesn’t miss anything, so that might be of interest to some of you, especially if you like having the results separated by city.  You can learn more about Direct Results here.

Floating

I recently read a great essay by Tim Urban at WaitButWhy on beating procrastination. (I found it, as you may have recently, via this great reading list.) Among the illustrative images, one thing stood out to me, here:

The Dark Woods - Credit: waitbutwhy.com
The Dark Woods – Credit: waitbutwhy.com

This image is used to build an analogy for beating procrastination, in which one must forgo guilty leasure in the “Dark Playground” by entering the “Dark Woods”, a path representing work and accomplishment. If one can make it all the way through the dark woods and complete the task without being enticed back into the leisure of the dark playground, one reaches the “Happy Playground”, a place of well-earned, satisfying leisure.

However, there is an alternative: Flow. As Urban puts it,

You occasionally even end up super-engaged with what you’re working on and enter a state of Flow, where you’re so blissfully immersed in the task that you lose track of time.

Flow is a fantastic thing: hugely productive and fulfilling. Just as the Dark Woods are surrounded by the Dark Playground, meaning that one is constantly enticed by the ability to quit the task at hand and return to procrastination, the Flow path is surrounded by the Happy Playground; it is possible to break out of flow at any point and enjoy your accomplishments.

However, I found it telling that the end of the Flow path wasn’t pictured. I’ve found that just as the Dark Woods can escape from the Dark Playground, the Flow path can “escape” from the Happy Playground. At that point it no longer feels like an option to just quit and relax. You’re *accomplishing* things! Leisure time would just be a *waste*. The Flow path also continues to spread out, becoming less focused, less productive. Eventually, you end up at a point where you’re no longer in Flow, you’re just *Floating* (or “Flowting”, if you like).

I see Floating as the flip-side of the procrastination coin. When you procrastinate, you know you should be working, but your instincts betray you and cause you to seek out unfulfilling entertainment instead. When you’re Floating, you know you’re no longer being productive and you should take a break, but now your instincts are telling you that you can’t waste time; you have to keep pushing, keep working.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a correlation between susceptibility to procrastination and Floating. One of the aggravating factors of the Floating state is the knowledge that a period of beneficial rest could ultimately lead to procrastination. Given their similarities, perhaps the remedies are similar as well. Perhaps the solution to Floating is structured recreation. I’m not sure. I do know it’s a real issue though. Perhaps now that I have something to call it, it will become easier to recognize and combat.

How to pin a Steam game to the start menu in Windows 10 (without special software)

This has nothing to do with Tempest or web development, but I just figured this out, and it might be useful to someone. For some reason, Steam lets you create desktop shortcuts to individual games, but there is no straightforward way to add a tile pointing to the game in your start menu. There are apps that will do this, but they require access to your steam account, and there is an intermediate step in opening the game.

There is a way to manually create shortcuts to steam games that you can put anywhere though, including the start menu. Here are the steps:

  1. Open Steam, right click on the game in your library, and choose “Create Desktop Shortcut”
  2. Right click on the new shortcut, go to Properties, and then copy the ‘URL’ section. It should be something like “steam://rungameid/212680”
  3. Right click on the desktop and go to New->Shortcut
  4. When prompted for the location, type “%windir%\explorer.exe” (no quotes), followed by a space, and then paste the URL you copied from the Steam shortcut. So, what you end up with should look something like, “%windir%\explorer.exe steam://rungameid/212680”
  5. Set the name of the shortcut to the name of the game.

You now have a working shortcut that you can pin to your start menu or taskbar. As a final step though, you can give it an icon matching the game. To do that, right click on the shortcut and choose “Change Icon…”. Browse to C:\Program Files (x86)\Steam\steam\games (assuming the default location for your steam install). In there you should see a number of Icon files with random strings of characters as names. One of them should match your game. Select it, and you will be able to set your new shortcut’s icon to match.

And that’s it! A bit of work, but it should only take a minute in total once you know the steps, and no special software is required.

One last note though: once you pin it to the start menu, don’t delete the original shortcut, or strange things will happen, like losing the icon. If you don’t want it hanging around on your desktop, move it to a different folder, like %AppData%\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs (your start menu folder), before right-clicking on the shortcut and choosing ‘Pin to Start’.

Marimedia Ad Network Does Not Pay

Over the course of running SearchTempest, I have had the opportunity to try out quite a number of ad networks. Unfortunately I’ve found that most do not have sufficient quality of ads nor earnings to warrant using them alongside Google Adsense. (One notable exception is Sovrn, formerly Lijit, which has been quite good for us.)

However, at least all the networks we’ve used so far do pay their publishers the amounts owed… except for one. We tried out Marimedia for a short time in early 2014. They now owe us several hundred dollars, which has been due for a year, and remains unpaid. We have sent multiple follow-up requests, and have been promised payment several times, but it never comes.

A few hundred dollars isn’t the end of the world, and certainly isn’t worth pursuing legal action, but I felt other publishers deserved to be warned. At least in our case, Marimedia does not pay its bills. I would avoid them.

If the overdue invoices are ever paid, I will update this post.

Update: About a week after writing this post, I was contacted by someone at Marimedia, and about a month after that I did finally receive payment. Since then I have been contacted twice by other Marimedia representatives with no knowledge of our past relationship, asking me to become a publisher for them. Also once after the invoice was paid, to arrange paying it. So, it seems like there’s nothing underhanded going on; they’re just really disorganized.

 

Hiring Manager

Of all the titles I hope to never have in my life, “Hiring Manager” is right up there with “Sanitation Engineer”. So if you’re applying to our job posting, please, just call me Nathan. Or use our company name if you prefer. But please, no “Dear Hiring Manager.” 🙂

Craigslist blocking Feedly again

It looks like craigslist is once again blocking Feedly from accessing its RSS feeds. This happened a few months ago when Feedly traffic apparently got high enough to hit an automated block on craigslist’s end. They made some changes to reduce their traffic, and things started working again… until now. As far as I know there’s no official word from craigslist, but it seems likely that Feedly has simply grown to the point where they’re hitting the block again.

Unfortunately this means that at the moment RSS feeds from craigslist (like the ones from our RSS Feeds Tool) are not updating on Feedly. Most likely they will get this sorted out in the next few weeks, but if you don’t want to wait, there are a couple options. First off, other popular readers, such as NewsBlur and TheOldReader appear to be working for now, although as people move over from Feedly it likely won’t be long before they’re having the same problems.

A long-term solution, although with a bit more effort, would be to host your own RSS server. If you like NewsBlur, you can actually self-host it on your own server (or home computer), which will not only avoid getting caught up in these kinds of blocks, it will also save you the annual subscription fee. Code an installation instructions can be found on Github here.

Another popular option with a bit more detailed installation instructions is TinyTinyRSS. There’s a primer on MakeUseOf here. Whichever reader you choose, self-hosted or not, you should be able to import the OPML files generated by SearchTempest’s RSS Feeds Tool. Let us know how it goes in the comments!

Edit: It sounds like a number of people have been having trouble lately with self-hosted RSS as well. This thread at TheOldReader might shed some light. Apparently craigslist recently made a change to how they redirect RSS urls, which TheOldReader says isn’t supported by many other readers. So if your RSS reader isn’t picking up craigslist feeds, you might want to ask them to look into that.

Maintenance

Quick tip for other businesses out there. Regardless of what business you’re in, or what kind of website you have, if your site goes down for “maintenance” every night, you’re doing it wrong.

Oh, and if your website is “closed” during non-business hours, you’re really doing it wrong, although it appears the standard culprits there are government agencies.

(Sheesh, don’t people know 2am is a prime working hour for us entrepreneurs? ;))