Outlook attachment reminder macro

Spotted on LifeHacker: Mark Bird’s Outlook Attachment Reminder.

This Outlook macro will politely remind you to attach a file if it finds the word “attach” in your email and no actual attached file.

I’ve just tested it in Outlook 2003, and it sure does work … and you get to pretend that you’re a programmer for a couple of minutes.

In other news: hands up who knew that there was a Visual Basic Editor shipped with Outlook?

Smarter web design article in .net magazine

Smarter and faster web design

The current edition of .net magazine (October 2008, issue 181) has an interesting feature article entitled “Smarter and faster web design”.

Magazine writer Craig Grannell promises “you don’t need to work harder, or for longer hours, to get better results. You just need to work smarter!” A sucker for productivity tips here’s my take on what he has to say:

1. Get away from the computer

This is one my favourites, and one that I use all the time. Well, not all the time, otherwise you’d never find me at my desk!

Lateral‘s Simon Crab offers this thought:

“… today’s web designers have a subconscious belief that the computer will provide an answer as long as they sit in front of it for long enough”

Instead of sitting staring at your design software of choice (Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro Photo, Publisher, Illustrator, Visio, etc.) he suggests going out and get a different perspective on the world. Go to exhibitions, browse magazines at the newsagent, walk around and look around you.

I can’t remember where I first learned this, but it’s been really helpful advice. Get inspiration from other non-Web environments. I’m forever ripping out pages from magazines, scanning them or simply gluing them into a scrapbook. I’ve found inspiration in books, magazines, TV, architecture, fashion, nature … step away from the computer!

2. Explain the idea to a non-techie

I don’t know how many times Jane has patiently sat and listened to me wittering on about some design idea, and then pondered carefully as I finish with the killer question “Does that make sense?”

Crab notes:

“A foolproof test is verbally explaining an idea to a non-designer. If you can’t succinctly explain a concept and get across how it will look and feel, it’s probably not a great idea.”

3. Paper and a pen

This was a tip that struck a chord with me: use simpler tools. Don’t rely on massive, expensive software applications. Get back to basics.

I have a home-made pad of A5 paper next to me on my desks, both at work and at home. Any scrap A4 paper that would otherwise go into the recycling box gets ripped in two and bound together with a foldback clip.

The next bit of advice is from usability guru Jakob Nielsen:

The most important tools for a smart designer are a pen and plenty of paper. This is all you need to do user testing — no fancy lab required. Just sit next to a customer as they attempt to use your website.

Mock things up on paper first. Show it around. Get the big things right first, before you waste time writing code that might never be used.

And for those who say “I can’t draw” advice from GapingVoid:

They’re only crayons. You didn’t fear them in kindergarten, why fear them now?

4. Simpler software

37signals founder Jason Fried:

[Our software products] do a few things really well and get out of people’s way. And when products do a few things really well, they’re more pleasant to work with, and easier to learn and understand.

Find software that does this for you. A few of my favourites:

I use these applications again and again for specific tasks because they’re quick, simple to use and reliable. I’ve got other, bigger applications that will do these tasks but these do it for me quickly.

5. Getting Things Done

Interesting advice from Khoi Vinh from NYTimes.com about GTD:

Unless you really feel GTD is perfect for you, don’t bother. It’s over-rated and just about the (admittedly satisfying) pleasure of organising a system for getting things done, rather than actually getting things done.

I can see that, but I would also say: don’t reject it simply because it doesn’t work for other people. Give it a go, and adopt the things that do work for you, such as a zero-inbox policy.

I was impressed with Andy Budd’s approach to email. He answers emails that take under five minutes, deletes the junk and then files the rest in folders with titles such as:

  • Action
  • Hold
  • Respond
  • Waiting

I’ve been inspired to try something similar.

6. Reuse code

Re-use tried and tested modules of code, for example:

  • Frameworks for CSS, PHP, JavaScript
  • Base it on the default WordPress code (clean, valid and well-structured code)
  • Create your own library of code (many code editors allow you to store these as snippets)

I loved Edward Barrow’s reason for using prebuilt libraries:

He likens using a prebuilt library to “getting an expert programmer to work on your project for free”.

Whenever I do something new I now ask myself whether this is something that I’m likely to need again. If it is I’ll store it as a snippet in WeBuilder 2008, my main code editor.

I categorize everything and have folders and subfolders in my code library arranged like this (I’ve expanded the HTML folder):

  • Apache
  • CSS
  • htaccess
  • HTML
    • !DOCTYPE
    • Basic Tags
    • Elements
    • Forms
    • IE Conditionals
    • Meta
  • JavaScript
  • jQuery
  • Lorum Ipsum
  • Microformats
  • PHP

I’ve got all sorts of goodies in here, that I don’t have to go searching for because I know they are there at my fingertips.

7. Source control

Before I discovered Subversion I used to create my own version control system. But I ended up with umpteen files and folders along the lines of:

[backup-070620]
[backup-070621]
index2.html
index3-test.html

It got ugly, and if I made a mistake or needed to roll back to a previous version I couldn’t very easily do it. I then discovered FileHamster but I couldn’t quite get the hang of it. I found it a little too intrusive.

I was then introduced to Subversion, and discovering that you don’t need to incorporate it into Apache server I installed the Subversion server onto my PC at home and it’s been great! I use the TortoiseSVN client.

Quoting once again from the article in .net:

“In fact, the simplest and smartest investment you can make for any project is to use some sort of version control system,” says Aral Balkan, web developer and conference organiser.

What are your tips?

What are the tools, tips that you find most useful, that make you most productive?

How I took back my life

Filing

On the whole, over the years I’ve managed to keep myself pretty well organized. As a child growing up I was always reorganizing my room: rearranging the order of books, folders, stationery, … everything! If it wasn’t nailed down I moved it. It’s probably inevitable that I should get a job working as an information architect!

A few friends have been urging me for months to blog about how my organizational method works for me, so here it is. But before I get onto that, here’s a little of the journey that led me to where I am.

A short history of organization

I always knew there was room for improvement. I’d adapt and improve my methods for filing documents, managing tasks, keeping a diary. At Selkirk High School I had my trusty school diary — when it wasn’t being stolen and scribbled on by Phil Graham — which recorded what I should be doing and when.

In 1989 I moved to St Andrews and I bought myself a cheapish Filofax clone, which I loved and cherished and packed full of useless stuff that probably made me less productive. But it did have tabs, and a lot of coloured paper — that’s got to count for something, surely.

In 1996 I bought my first Psion, a Siena 512KB. It was a life-saver: now I could keep everything in it, neatly organized. No more scribbling out entries, no more running out of contact sheets because everyone listed under “S” had moved and moved again.

My Psion became central to how I organized my life. And then I discovered that I could synchronize it with Schedule+, and then Microsoft Outlook 2000. The joys!

Crisis

Fast forward to 2003 and you’ll find that Jane and I have just moved from Inverness to Edinburgh. I’m now working with two parishes and I’m beginning to panic. The organizational methods and techniques that I’ve evolved are now being stretched to the limit and I’m beginning to panic.

Really beginning to panic. I just couldn’t keep on top of everything that I needed to do. I remember one morning where I was sitting at my desk in the study and my head was spinning. I had so much to do, but really didn’t know where to start.

I needed assistance, and I need it immediately.

Take Back Your Life

I found it in a book called Take Back Your Life by Sally McGhee, as documented on my blog entry of 25 January 2005.

Take Back Your Life book cover

It’s a really fantastic book, that draws on David Allen’s Getting Things Done techniques but instead of notebooks and diaries and baskets McGhee advocates the use of Microsoft Outlook and a PDA. Works for me!

So this is what I do:

1. Collection points

From my blog post of 2005:

One of the first steps, McGhee says, is to work out how many collection points we use. That is, how many locations do you collect information and tasks from? I was amazed to discover that I had 28 different locations. I’ve now reduced this to eight, which is far more manageable.

Three years later and I now have four (give or take):

  1. In-tray
  2. Mobile phone/PDA
  3. Telephone/answering machine
  4. Email

In tray

My in-tray at home

Pretty much everything goes into my in-tray at home:

  • all mail
  • books
  • CDs
  • contents of my bag
  • documents
  • magazines
  • scribbled notes
  • telephone messages

Really, whatever I need to deal with or sort or tidy away. It all gets dumped into my in-tray. It’s reassuring to know that anything that I’ve not processed yet goes into my in-tray, into the one location that is my main collection point.

At one point in Edinburgh I had no fewer than eight in-trays in my study. It was totally unmanageable.

You’ll notice that there are two in-tray stacks — the one on the left is mine, the one of the right is Jane’s. My in-tray has three levels:

  1. In
  2. Post out
  3. Waiting for

PDA/Outlook

Anything that doesn’t go into my in-tray goes directly into my PDA (O2 Xda Orbit running Windows Mobile 6) or into Outlook Tasks or Calendar — and since my PDA synchronizes with Outlook at both home and work everything ends up in Outlook.

So when I sit down to work out what I need to do I really have to look in only two locations:

  1. My in-tray
  2. Outlook

2. Processing my in-tray

In-tray contents moved to my desk

The next thing I do is begin to process my in-tray. I know from experience that even if the tray is stacked 12 inches high I will still get through it in under an hour. It doesn’t intimidate me how much stuff is in the tray. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m reassured that everything I need to deal with will be processed in one sitting.

I move the contents of my in-tray onto my desk, and starting at the top work through it piece by piece making a decision on every item. There are four options:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

A lot of stuff I can do in less than 5 minutes. Some things just need reading, or throwing into the recycling, or filing away in my filing cabinet:

Filing cabinet

Anything that needs to be deferred for later I add to my Outlook Tasks. Sometimes I’ll add it to Outlook and file the documentation in the filing cabinet (because at least I’ll know where it is when I need to find it later).

3. Processing Outlook Tasks

Usually within 30 minutes I have a clear desk, a few items in my Post Out tray and it’s time to move onto my Outlook Tasks. This is to deal with tasks that I’ve promised to do when I’m out and about, or at work, or have entered into Outlook while processing my in-tray.

Screenshot of Outlook Tasks 2003

Outlook allows you to categorize your tasks, there is also one, default uncategorized group into which any new item is automatically added. Following the guidelines in Sally McGhee’s book I have categories such as:

  • Home Projects
  • Work Projects
  • Blog
  • Computer
  • Desk
  • Home
  • Phone
  • Shopping
  • Waiting for
  • Someday Oneday

Download your head

Before I go any further I often start by ‘downloading my head’: getting out of my head those things that I said I’d do but haven’t recorded anywhere else. This is a great opportunity to stop relying on my memory — that’s why I used to get so stressed.

The first time I tried this exercise I ‘downloaded’ over 85 items … and then was amazed at how relaxed and calm I felt. But it stood to reason that since I was no longer relying on my memory to hold everything it freed my brain to do what it does best: think and plan.

Process

Using similar criteria for dealing with my in-tray I’ll start at the top and work my way through the list, making a decision on each item:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

Some items I do immediately, then delete from the list. Other items get deleted immediately, usually because I’ve decided that it’s no longer a priority. Further items may get delegated to someone else so I’ll either write to them or email them.

If I defer an item in my task list I’ll usually do one of two things:

  • Categorize it within Tasks — these I think David Allen calls “contexts”: where do I need to carry this out? At home, at my desk, on my computer, when I’m shopping? Or …
  • I’ll schedule a time for it by moving it from my task list into my calendar

4. My calendar

This last step was one of the most significant when I moved to this method. Now I have everything in one place: in Outlook (and synchronized on my phone/PDA), I know what I’ve said I’d do (my tasks) and in many case when I’ll do them (my calendar).

Further improvements

I’ve been using this method now for about 3.5 years and I keep refining it, tweaking it to make it a little better and more effective, particularly as my responsibilities change and as I respond to the different tasks and projects that I take on, both at work and at home.

I know when I need to go back to my task list and calendar and start planning again because it’s at those moments that I begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed. It’s during those moments that I realise: I’m not managing my tasks, they’re managing me. Then half-an-hour later once I’ve processed my in-tray and Outlook tasks and scheduled things I feel relaxed and in control once again.

That’s about it in a nutshell. The only really significant thing that I’ve missed out is how I manage my projects within Outlook, but perhaps that could be a post for another day.