Cut up your credit cards the right way

One of the most useful devices I have in my study is my trusty Fellowes cross-cut shredder.

Sadly it’s not quite so hardcore that it handles CD-ROMs or credit cards but here’s a video to show you how to cut up your credit cards so that they cannot be used to glean any personal data from it.

Windows Mobile 6.1 broke my life!

O2 Xda Zest

About 3-4 weeks ago my beloved O2 Xda Orbit phone started to act erratically, randomly switching itself off according to its own unfathomable set of rules. It was okay when plugged in, but it was getting increasingly impractical pulling an extension cable along Market Street when I went out for lunch.

I figured that resetting the Xda Orbit to factory settings was what it needed and spent an evening reinstalling everything. To no avail. It would still randomly switch itself o…

Zest

I put up with it over a weekend and telephoned O2 the following Monday morning and ordered a very similar device, the O2 Xda Zest; a rebranded Asus Crystal.

There was so much that I liked about the Xda Orbit: the built-in GPS, WiFi, GPRS Web browsing, FM radio and I could synchronize it with my PCs at both home and work. The Xda Zest seemed to offer much the same, only with a much improved screen (proper VGA 480 x 640 pixels) and a much, much faster CPU.

Except the FM radio.

And, as I discovered to my cost, synchronizing with two PCs!

Windows Mobile 6.1 flaw

You see, I naively followed the assumption that the next version of something would be a little better than the previous version of that something. That’s how advertising has reeled me in so often during these last 30+ years.

“Ooh! look! A new one. It must be better. I want it!”

Isn’t that how it usually works?

Seemingly no-one told the Windows Mobile team that. Because it seems that there was a fundamental flaw in Windows Mobile 6.1: it wouldn’t synchronize with two PCs! Even though that’s one of its key features.

Which seems a bit like buying a new car, getting it home and discovering that it drives on A-roads but not your local streets. You can use it at work, but not at home.

Getting Nothing Done (GND)

Which for many people wouldn’t be a problem, but for the last 3 years that’s been the backbone of my organization system. No matter where I’ve been, at work, at home, out-and-about, I’ve always had a full picture of my appointments, commitments, contacts, tasks and priorities.

When I worked from home, in the parish, things were in many ways easier: I had one PC with which I synchronized my Psion 5mx. It was an almost flawless system. But the introduction of a second base, my office, added a new level of complexity. Windows Mobile 6.0 (just about) handled it admirably using ActiveSync (though quite often more correctly spelled ‘ActiveSink’!). Windows Mobile 6.1, however, has let me down quite spectacularly. And not just me, as a quick Web search will prove.

For the last 3 weeks or so, however, I’ve been at sixes and sevens. Thankfully, because I’ve been backing up my Outlook PST files more often than usual, I’ve not actually lost any data but on more than one occasion I’ve ended up with a lot (a LOT) of duplicated data which is just as time-consuming to deal with.

And all the while not entirely sure of the whole picture of my life, which is rather unsettling for someone who is usually so on top of things.

What to do?

So where do I go now? How do I recover my sense of being-on-top-of-things?

  1. Sync my Psion with both

    I tried that, but again the Psion wasn’t really designed to be synchronized with more than one PC. I get errors, so have to re-sync from scratch and end up either duplicating data or reintroducing data that I’ve already deleted on one of the platforms.

  2. Google Calendar

    I’ve tried to synchronize my Outlook calendar with Google Calendar using Google’s own Google Calendar Sync. But it didn’t synchronize all my events, and what about my tasks?

    I’m going to try out XTNDConnect PC to synchronize Outlook with Google Calendar and see how that works; I’ve already tried it synchronizing Outlook with Windows Mobile 6.1 but it duplicated everything!

    Outlook 2007 will allow me to subscribe to an iCalendar feed, such as that offered by Google Calendar, which is great for when I’m at my desktop — but what about when I’m out-and-about with my my phone (or Psion)?

  3. Remember the Milk

    I then tried Remember the Milk to synchronize my Windows Mobile Pocket Outlook tasks with this online task application. But I have over 100 tasks and it didn’t copy over the categories.

    One “inbox” task list of 120 tasks really wasn’t useful.

  4. Psion

    At the moment I’m currently synchronizing both work and home calendars with different Agenda files on my Psion. It’s not ideal but at least I still have all my data in one place.

  5. Hosted Microsoft Exchange

    I have also been considering buying a hosted Microsoft Exchange account. That way — I guess — I could access all my data from work, home or on the move on my phone or via the Web. But I don’t have any experience of Exchange so would welcome people’s comments/thoughts.

It’s been a frustrating time, but I am willing to move on and use something else … I’ve just not found the right solution yet.

Review of GTD Agenda

Gtdagenda.com

Back in October I got an email from Dan Baluta from Gtdagenda.com asking if I’d take a look his web application.

Of course, I was delighted to … but then a few things got in the way (I came down with a bug, and then Reuben and Joshua arrived, and then I got shingles, and then I didn’t sleep for a few months!).

Finally, this week, I’ve managed to have a good poke around the application and get to grips with much of what it does. Here are my initial impressions.

Getting Things Done

As the name might suggest Gtdagenda.com is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method of productivity.

In the words of David Allen himself:

… the subtle effectiveness of GTD lies in its radically common sense notion that with a complete and current inventory of all your commitments, organized and reviewed in a systematic way, you can focus clearly, view your world from optimal angles and make trusted choices about what to do (and not do) at any moment.

GTD embodies an easy, step-by-step and highly efficient method for achieving this relaxed, productive state.

It includes:

  • Capturing anything and everything that has your attention
  • Defining actionable things discretely into outcomes and concrete next steps
  • Organizing reminders and information in the most streamlined way, in appropriate categories, based on how and when you need to access them
  • Keeping current and “on your game” with appropriately frequent reviews of the six horizons of your commitments (purpose, vision, goals, areas of focus, projects, and actions)

GTD core

As such, Gtdagenda.com has four main tabs which are at the heart of the application:

  1. Goals
    Record your primary areas of responsibility, assign them to categories (e.g. work or personal)
  2. Projects
    Define your projects, assign them to related goals and give them a priority (1-5).
  3. Tasks
    List the tasks required to carry our your projects, tell the application which project they belong to, and what its Context is (these are defined elsewhere).
  4. Next Actions
    Lists the tasks that you’ve assigned as Next Actions — ideally you’ll have one task per project classed as a next action, as projects move forward one task at a time. Next Actions can be emailed to you on a daily basis, which is quite neat.

Additional features

Besides the core four tabs that are at the heart of GTD Agenda there are three further sections:

  1. Checklists
    I love this utility: define things that you need to do often (e.g. exercise or update your blog) and then check them off when you do them. (See screenshot below.)
  2. Schedules
    Schedule daily or weekly activities; these can be linked to projects.
  3. Calendar
    It’s a calendar!

Checklist and graph
Screenshot from the checklist screen

I was about to write that there were four further sections, because above the Checklists, Schedules and Calendar options there’s a button for “Contacts”. I expected that this would have allowed me to record key contacts related to projects or tasks but it appears instead to allow you to send invitations to friends. But it doesn’t explain exactly what the invitation is for.

The official tour

For more details, including more screenshots, check out the Some of the things Gtdagenda can help you with page.

As an aside, it’s a shame that this page isn’t linked to once you’re logged into GTD Agenda. It might be more useful than the existing Help page, which would be better labelled “Support”.

Prices

There are three price plans for GTD Agenda: Free, Basic and Premium. As you’d expect the more you pay the more features you receive.

Features Free Basic Premium
Goals 3 30 Unlimited
Projects 5 50 Unlimited
Contexts 5 50 Unlimited
Tasks Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited
Price Free $39.45 / year $69.95 / year

These were correct at the time of review, check the GTD Agenda website for up-to-date details.

My impressions

Ease of use

On the whole I found GTD Agenda pretty easy to use, but that’s because I’m already pretty familiar with the GTD methodology. I wonder how easy someone less familiar would find it, particularly as the Help option is more than sparce. I had to log out and check out the guided tour pages to find out more about some of the features.

As a test I took a few of my actual Goals, Projects and Tasks and entered them into GTD Agenda. It only took me a few minutes and the results were pretty decent. Clicking on “Move domain hosting” project gave me a good overview of the project (start date, related goal, number of tasks, progress and notes).

Goals

While I found it easy to add new goals I couldn’t work out why GTD Agenda had immediately categorised two of my goals as “Completed”. Sure enough they had no projects assigned to them, but neither did two other goals and they were classed as Active. I wasn’t sure if I was simply misunderstanding the model that it was using, other if this was a bug.

What does annoy me though is the compacted list of “My Goals” that appears at the top of every page. I don’t think it helps and it takes up too much valuable screen space.

Tasks vs Next Actions

I find the two tabs for Tasks and Next Actions to be a little cumbersome, I would have preferred one but with more options.

The Tasks tab shows a list of all defined tasks; the Next Actions tab is essentially a filter to display only those tasks that have been defined as the next action to take a particular project forward. I can see why this has been done, but I think that it would have been more efficient to have done this on the Tasks tab.

At the moment within Tasks you can group your list by either priority or project. I would have liked two further options: as I said, show Next Actions, and Group by Context. That’s how I work: within a particular context, e.g. sitting at my desk, I like to see a list of all the tasks that I could do here.

Disappointments

Aesthetics

I remember WordPress before version 1.0. It was nowhere near as slick as the current version (in fact, here’s a screenshot of WordPress 0.7.1, which is the first version that I ever used):

WordPress 0.7.1

So I have hope for GTD Agenda, because I think that its design is the weakest aspect of the application.

Having been using ZenDesk and BaseCamp for a few months GTD Agenda by comparison feels somewhat clunky and a bit retro. The application, in my opinion, could do with the loving attention of a Web designer and information architect.

Even a brief liaison with a CSS Framework would make the world of difference.

Heading

I find the heading “Gtdagenda.com” difficult to read and am disappointed that you can’t click it to take you back to your GTD Agenda Home page. Not least because I instinctively do it time and again.

Layout

How some of the screens are presented too could do with some strategic tweaking, for example, how categories and priorities are displayed. As an example rather than the priorities being listed at the end of each line (see below):

My list of goals

I’d have preferred the use of headings to clearly group Priority 1, Priority 2, etc. I don’t find the “Priority 1 line” useful, not least because the text is 6 pixels high and I’ve got bad eyesight.

Integration with existing systems

I already use a number of tools, desktop, mobile and online, to carry out my GTD-style organisation. I use Microsoft Outlook synchronized with my mobile phone, and also occasionally with a Psion and a Google Calendar (depending on my requirements).

But there was no way for me to import any of that information into GTD Agenda. Everything I wanted to enter into GTD Agenda had to be done manually. And once it was in there, I couldn’t get it out again — there is no obvious way for me to export my data other the calendar as an iCal feed into Outlook 2007.

As such, if you start using GTD Agenda it looks like you’re locked into using it exclusively. And if you don’t have Web access where you are you can’t easily add new tasks, although if you have mobile Web access there is a mobile version: www.gtdagenda.mobi/.

Conclusion

On the whole I like Gtdagenda.com. It has some useful functionality, it’s quick and easy to setup (assuming that you know your way around the GTD method) and has some nice features (email notifications of tasks, iCal feed, checklists), and I like the sidebar featuring a calendar, and lists of contexts and projects.

If I were to give it a score, I’d give it 3/5. It’s not quite polished enough but if some of the minor design flaws were tweaked, the application given a facelift I think and the import/export issue addressed I think GTD Agenda could be a really useful tool, even the free version.

Certainly, if you’re looking for a Web-based tool for managing your life in a GTD-style then certainly consider GTD Agenda, or at least keep an eye on its progress.

Reinstalling Windows XP Professional SP3: Operation PC Forgiveness 2008

Screenshot of Windows XP

This week I’ve been enjoying a holiday at home with Jane: a chance to enjoy peace and quiet together for the last time before the children arrive, and to reinstall Windows XP on my main desktop PC. That’s been the main reason for my lack of recent blogging, and not laziness — oh no! Not that. No way!

Slowdown to upgrade

It’s a common problem with Windows: it gradually slows down over time. I install and uninstall all sorts of software on it, I use it every day for everything from checking emails to coding, photo editing to video creation. I’m not surprised it slows down over time.

But this time it was getting really bad. At times it wouldn’t boot properly (hardware driver conflicts I think). There was a serious issue with my sound card: if I played a Flash movie (e.g. YouTube) while listening to an MP3, for example, it would send my audio player crazy when I closed the browser window, playing any non-Flash audio two or three times too fast. It made everything sound like the Chipmunks had formed a metal band!

I also wanted to upgrade a couple of major pieces of software:

as well as various hardware drivers:

It was clearly time for Operation PC Forgiveness 2008.

Backup

On Monday and Tuesday I backed up everything. I used Second Copy 7.1 to copy the contents of each partition one-by-one to my external harddrive (Freecom 500GB).

I’ve tried various other applications over the years that take either images of the partition, or backup to a proprietary format, or first compress the files before storing them in a zip file, but in the end I’ve returned to a simple 1:1 copy on an external drive. That way I can access these files at any time from any PC without having to first install any 3rd party applications.

Second Copy

Second Copy allows you to create backup profiles that can be run either individually or within groups. So I have groups for:

  • Applications (e.g. Microsoft Money files, Microsoft OneNote data, WeBuilder settings, Windows Boot.ini file, Second Copy profiles, etc.
  • Outlook PST files, backups and stuff
  • WeBuilder reinstallation
  • Ultimate Backup to external hard drive

There are a few backups that I do manually, for example Firefox bookmarks and anything else that needs to be exported.

Screenshot of Second Copy

This way I can make sure that all my personalized settings have been backed-up before I run the “Ultimate” backup group profiles and copy it all to my external drive.

A couple of things that I always do when doing a reinstallation are:

  • Install and take a print out of all my installed applications using Installed Program Printer.
  • Take a screenshot of desktop (for location of icons).
  • Take a screenshot of Start Menu (for labels and icons).
  • Take a screenshot of the Firefox add-ons that I have installed.
  • Backup Programs folders within Start menu (both All Users and my username profiles). This way I can see how I organized my Start menu.

Reinstall Windows XP

With the backup complete it was time to bite the bullet and reformat my C drive. I have 12 partitions on my hard drives so wiping C simply takes out Windows and programs, all my data, images, videos, music, etc. are safely stored on the other partitions (and now also backed-up).

One thing that I forgot to do before I set the Windows XP installation CD loose on C: was to deauthorize iTunes. D’oh!

Essentials for a Windows XP reinstall:

  • Windows XP with SP3 and IE7 slipstreamed into it.
  • Latest hardware drivers, already downloaded and saved to another partition, external drive or CD-ROM.
  • TweakGuides Tweaking Companion for XP to follow advice on best order to install drivers, and various system tweaks to improve performance.
  • Notebook and pen (to write down everything you do, error messages, settings, passwords, etc.).
  • Laptop (or other PC) for looking up advice, error messages, etc. on the Web.

Reinstalling XP and hardware drivers took a couple of hours. Reinstalling the rest of my software took the best part of a day and a half. I have almost all my applications stored on another partition (I:) and categorized which makes it very efficient to reinstall:

Screenshot of Install partition

Reorganize All Programs within the Start menu

Once I’ve installed the bulk of my applications, run Windows (or Microsoft) Update a couple of times to make sure that Windows and Office are up-to-date, and done a cursory defrag I always reorganize the Start menu.

This is how the All Programs part of my Start menu looked after I’d installed most of the applications that I use regularly:

Start menu with three columns of programs

That’s three columns with around 85 entries. Even though I’ve done a “sort by name” on the list it’s still a mess! What it needs is some categorization to group similar applications together.

All users

I generally start with the “All Users” folder (right-click START and select “Explore All Users”). I then create a number of new top-level folders to act as my main categories. These are generally the folders that I begin with:

  • Accessories
  • Bible
  • CDRW
  • Fonts
  • Games
  • Graphics
  • Internet
  • Labels
  • Mindmaps
  • Money
  • Multimedia
  • Office
  • PDF
  • Printers
  • Programming
  • Scanner
  • Startup
  • System
  • Windows Mobile
  • WinZip

All Users Start Menu Programs

As it happens, these are also the main category labels that I use on my Install partition (I:). Keeping a one-to-one relationship between the start menu and the install partition makes it really easy to find installers should I need to perform an upgrade or reinstall.

Having a limited taxonomy makes it really easy to find any application that I have installed: all my graphics applications can be found under Graphics, office applications under Office, etc. It sounds obvious but I’ve seen too many users wasting precious time hunting through an unordered list of 60+ applications.

Sort the rest

Having created these new folders, I then move the remaining installation folders and icons into them before performing the rest of the clean-up on the Start menu itself, creating any sub-folders as necessary. For example, within Internet I always create:

  • Browsers
  • Email
  • Firewall
  • FTP
  • Instant Messenger
  • RSS
  • Server
  • Twitter
  • VoIP
  • Web Building

I prefer to use generic terms such as “Instant Messenger” and “Firewall” than “Windows Live Messenger” and “ZoneLabs ZoneAlarm Pro” as I find it easier to find them this way, it also doesn’t lock me into a particular application as I can use the same folder structure regardless of the applications that I have installed.

I also use this arrangement on my PC at work and on my laptop so it allows me to have different applications installed but use the same organizational structure.

Start menu lite

While it usually takes me about 30-45 minutes to sort out my Start menu at the start it must save me hours each month when looking for applications.

My new, slimmed down start menu then looks a bit like this:

Start menu

Now I have a clean installation of XP, with (almost) all my software installed and I can find things on my Start menu. Now I can get on and do something productive!

How Bill Gates works (2006 article)

Interesting article “How I Work: Bill Gates” from 2006 about how Bill Gates (you know, that bloke with the software house) works. Good insights into his productivity methods.

It seems to boil down to:

  1. Three monitors (email, current work item, browser)
  2. Email filtering
  3. Ignore “the toast” – pop-up email notification
  4. Email, Desktop folders and Calendar instead of to-do lists
  5. SharePoint to collaborate on projects
  6. Search
  7. Whiteboard

I can certainly vouch for three monitors, email filtering and the whiteboard.