No doubt about it: technology is a boon for leaving a lighter footprint and spending less time and energy on the administrivia of life. You can carry your entire book collection in the palm of your hand, or visit your credit card provider’s website from any device anywhere in the world instead of stuffing a file cabinet with paper statements.
But as I discussed in last week’s post about email, the online world can also function like a closet. You can stuff things in there with no rhyme or reason, making the entire endeavor useless and frustrating until you hide it behind a door (or an off switch). It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve developed a stable of digital tricks that help keep me productive and organized, and help keep my family charging forward through life. None of them costs any money, by the way.
For tracking, and sharing: Google Docs
I am a Gmail user, as I wrote last week. I mentioned in a previous post about meal planning that Lindy and I keep our weekly schedule and list of favorite dishes in a shared Google Doc. We use that system for documents we share and update frequently, such as summer travel plans, house-sitting instructions and a list of home contractors. I also use Google Sheets to track our budget and to build and keep a training schedule for races like the one I ran yesterday. These documents and spreadsheets are updated in real time and are easy to use on desktops, tablets and phones. On mobile devices, you can even edit them offline.
For curating photos: Picasa/Google Photos
In my post extolling the virtues of Amazon Prime, I mentioned an amazing feature: automatic photo backup. Whenever my Samsung or Lindy’s iPhone is connected to wi-fi, they automatically upload all new photos into our Amazon account. In practice, this means we never have to think about backups, and we each have access to each other’s photo collections. It also means dozens if not hundreds of photos, including the one of the stupidly-misspelled sign at work that one of us texted the other one time, are backed up for the ages every month. There’s no curation.
I don’t need to do my curating publicly. I’ve never used Instagram and rarely post photos to Facebook or Twitter. But I do like to share pics with family members and even (gasp) print a few out for the family photo album once in awhile. For that, I turn to Picasa Web Albums. It’s also a Google product, and it’s undergone a number of changes over the years including a flirtation with the now-dead Google Plus. (I think it’s going to be Google Photos soon.) There’s nothing special or overly sophisticated about it. It’s just comfortable knowing I can create a new photo album each calendar quarter, update it with photos a few times a month, and share it as I like. It’s not subject to the same storage or time limitations as the photo-printing service sites are, either.
For important documents: Dropbox
Here’s where the things that could go in binders or a filing cabinet at home (or worse, on a local hard drive) go instead. I’ve got work samples, my resume, financial and legal documents all organized and safely stashed away in folders in Dropbox. The system works differently on a desktop computer than it does on a mobile device, but that’s by design and to the user’s advantage.
On a desktop (or laptop), the Dropbox app installs itself to look like a local folder like My Documents. But it’s a virtual folder instead. This means when you open it on your computer, you have copies of all of documents that are in your Dropbox folders. When you change and save one of those files to the same location, you’re actually saving it online. To share these, you can create and send a link to any file or folder to anyone by email.
Meanwhile, you can open up the Dropbox app on any mobile device and have access to view — and sometimes edit — any of these files and folders. If you have the Microsoft Word app on your iPad, for instance, you can use it to edit a Word document that’s in a Dropbox folder, and save it right back to the same location. You can use any other device to see the updated file instantly, including your desktop computer, and anyone who uses a shared link automatically gets the latest version. There’s no more emailing attachments and getting confused over whose version is the most current.
Want to look up last year’s tax return to fill out a financial document? Dropbox. Pull up that presentation for a conference because you forgot your thumb drive? Dropbox. Have a place to stash the inspection report for your new house? Dropbox.
Dropbox is free. You can pay more for extra storage, but I’ve never felt the need.
For throttling the information fire hose: Instapaper
I use online tools to cater to and build upon my strengths, but also to mitigate my weaknesses. Big weakness: I want to read. All the things. Right now. And always. I was a journalism major, I read fast, I have multiple interests and am a sucker for good storytelling. It’s true that I spend a bit of time on Facebook and Twitter looking at wedding pictures and hearing about people’s lousy commutes, but the most consistently interesting and useful thing I draw from those sources, among others, is things to read. Unfazed by the untimely demise of Google Reader three years ago, I continue to subscribe to dozens of blogs and other news feeds using Feedly, an RSS reader. (Quick tutorial on RSS for the uninitiated, and you can even use it to subscribe to this very blog.) Family members email me things to read all the time too.
There are limits in life, and along with all of the interesting pieces of online content are other things I want to read (like books) and things I need to read (like the various industry publications and documents that cross my desk at work). Simply put, I used to stop whatever I was doing, whenever I found something I felt worthy of reading, and read it. You can probably guess the obvious flaws in that approach. Destructive to the attention span. Inimical to productivity.
That’s why I’m so glad I discovered Instapaper. It puts you back in control of your reading list. Simply put, Instapaper is a mobile app and browser add-on that allows you to save anything on the web to read later. Yes, it’s a bit like a browser bookmark. But imagine a single list of browser bookmarks with headlines and a small excerpt of each article below it. And then imagine you can click the headline to read any of those articles, in plain text format without any ads to distract you, from any device at any time, without being connected to the Internet. You have an estimate of how long each piece will take you to read. When you’re done with the article, you can delete it, keep it or stick it in a folder for later. That’s Instapaper.
In practice, this means I almost always read everything later. I’ll be receiving potential reading material from all of the sources I mentioned all day. To Instapaper something, I use a browser extension in Chrome or Firefox on the PC, the Share button on iPad or Android, and a built-in function in Feedly. The Instapaper app downloads these newly saved articles periodically, and I’ll usually set aside a couple of times a day to read what I’ve saved. The offline functionality makes it easy to catch up on my reading during my subway commute.
Some things sit in my Instapaper list until I get to them, which is by design. So I’m not always as caught up as I could be if I wanted to be able to watch the exploding watermelon live, or tweet about Chewbacca Mom while she was trending. But I don’t really care. I’ve reclaimed my reading list and my attention span, both of which are far more important to me.
A word about security.
For someone who is moderately risk-averse, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about security. Yes, there are nefarious types out there. I don’t think my life is interesting enough for the North Korean government to take notice, but personal information does turn up online all too often. In the past couple of weeks alone, I received word that my bank is sending me a new debit card and LinkedIn forced me to change my password. But there are also risks in handing your credit card to a stranger at a restaurant or reading it out over a cell phone to place a catalog order, just as there are risks in doing all of your business in cash and keeping your files on paper.
My view is that it’s wise to know the risks, acknowledge them, work to mitigate them and then go about your business. I check our bank balances using Mint once a day and look at our budget versus every transaction at the end of every month, so I will know if anything is seriously amiss. I clear cookies and all personal information automatically whenever I close a browser window, and I have lock codes on both my phone and my tablet. I also use 2-step authentication for Lindy’s and my Google accounts and a number of others, and I have the authenticator app on both of our phones in case of emergency. This means a six-digit code that comes up in the app is needed to sign into these sites in addition to a username and password. It makes life much more secure.
If you’re serious about spending less time on things that don’t matter, take an hour or two out of your day and set up a simple online organization regime. It won’t cost you anything except that initial time investment. And it will free up space in your brain for everything in life that’s matters more.
Also published on Medium.