A few months ago I read this blog post by Marc Laidlaw: “Writing for Half-Life“, in which he talks about working at Valve on the story for the computer game Half-Life (1998).
This paragraph in particular spoke to me:
“The crucial milestone for me was the completion of our first rough mock-up of the entire game—in essence our first rough draft. I knew that once we could move through the maps from beginning to end, without cheating, we would all discover a new vision of the game. Something closer to the final vision. This was something I believed very strongly, based on my experience as a writer. First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish.”
That final sentence “first drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish” is what really stood out. I wrote it down in my to-do app and have referred to it on more than one occasion since then.
“Tolkien had no clear plan at all […] It is is an interesting, and for any intending writer of fiction rather an encouraging experience, to read through the selections from Tolkien’s many drafts now published […] and note how long it was before the most obvious and seemingly inevitable decisions were made at all. Tolkien knew, for instance, that Bilbo’s ring now had to be explained and would become important in the story, but he still had no idea of it as the Ring, the Ruling Ring, the Ring-with-a-capital-letter, so to speak: indeed he remarked at an early stage that it was ‘Not very dangerous’.”
Tolkien, in many ways, wrote himself into the story and, like the rolling countryside of the Shire around him, the plot began to develop and evolve. It was a gradual revelation to him: some aspects were obvious, others had to be teased out, and there was much revision.
I have found that a very useful thought to hold onto this year, not only while working on writing projects but in life in general. I don’t need to get things right first time. I don’t need to know how it ends, I just have to make a start.
This quotation from Ernest Hemmingway in A Moveable Feast (1964) has also been close to my heart:
“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”
All you have to do is write one true sentence… First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish… Now there is a plan for going forward into 2017: step by step, living forwards, living without fear, open to failure, open to living in the moment.
Who knows where 2017 will take us but I pray that we do it with integrity, with grace, and with compassion.
A few months ago I blogged about a new Google Chrome extension called Momentum that replaces the default Chrome ‘new tab’ page with a beautiful image that changes daily (they have since extended it with a premium version that imports todos from other applications such as Todoist).
Yesterday I received an email from David Gordillo from Noosfeer who have released a similar extension with the less snappy title of New Tab = A Movie to Watch + Watch List, which I shall refer to as NTAMTWWL.
In David’s words,
It is a Chrome extension that delights its users with movie pictures each time they open a New Tab. The more you interact with the extension, the more the recommendations will adapt to your taste.
You have also a Watch List, in which you can collect the movies you want to watch later.
The website, for the company behind it, Noosfeer, however, calls it “a content reader and aggregator.”
Unlike Momentum, which gives you the same image for 24 hours, in NTAMTWWL the image and movie recommendation changes every time you open a new tab: The Martian (2015), 25th hour (2002), We Are Your Friends (2015), Whiplash (2014).
While you can click on the little plus at the bottom of the new tab page to bookmark that movie, to watch the trailer later, I can imagine that you might easily forget or close a tab before you’ve saved that movie to your list. As I have done a few times since trialling the extension.
For full functionality you need to register an account with Noosfeer—the usual suspects are available including using your Google or Facebook account.
This is where it integrates with Noosfeer’s content aggregation functionality.
The extension invites you to enter topics that you are interested in, such as technology, movies, etc. Noosfeer then provides links to articles based on your topics. They claim to tailor the articles to your likes as it learns more about you.
The bookmarks link at the foot of the new tab page takes you to a list of suggested articles based on the topics you have identified, plus movies you have bookmarked, and articles that you have elected to read offline.
The extension page advises that you can synchronise with your Pocket account, but I can’t figure out how—it’s not very straight forward.
Update: It turns out that you need to sign-up for Noosfeer by logging in to your Pocket account. I was expecting that I could create an account (using Facebook) and then from within my Noosfeer account connect to my Pocket account. Simple instructions on the login page may have made this clearer.
Changes too often
My immediate response when looking at the new tab page was that it was attractive. Within just a few minutes I had already found a few films that I never knew about that look really interesting.
If you want to discover new films then this looks like a really ideal and unobtrusive way to do it.
However, even having used the extension for less than an hour I find the continuous change of image distracting. I imagine that if I continued its use it would affect my productivity: always demanding that I pay attention to this new movie to watch… or what about this one? Or this one here? That’s why I like Momentum: I have the delight of seeing a new image each day, but then it becomes part of the background of my day—it continues to inspire but it doesn’t distract.
I would be happy with a new film every hour or two, even one a day.
UPDATE: This has now been changed, so you can select to keep an image for 24 hours.
No 24 hours time format
One criticism I have: I would like to display the time in 24 hours format. While that may be possible, I couldn’t find how to change it. My Windows default is 24 hours format, so it’s not taking its lead from my system.
The settings appear minimal and whisk you off to the Noosfeer website to do nothing more than select topics.
Having used it for just an hour I have discovered a few films that I will certainly look out for. But the continuously changing background I found more distracting than endearing. I just know the way that I work best, and I need more continuity and fewer distractions, but your mileage may vary.
To be honest, personally, I can’t imagine using this extension, as I use Feedly and Pocket almost daily for following the content and blogs that I am interested in. I don’t have room for any more.
But here is perhaps the main issue for me. I expected to be reviewing a plugin that showed different movies on my new tab page, but I’ve ended up writing about a content aggregator.
Overall, I do wonder if this extension is trying to do too much. I felt like I’d installed it under a false pretence. I was surprised after installing it. I was expecting new tabs with movie recommendations. I didn’t expect a content aggregator behind it—I felt a little duped, if I’m honest.
While this isn’t the extension for me, if you are looking for a content aggregator and love your movies then definitely check it out on the Chrome web store.
I do hope they can find a better name, though. Noosfeer New Tab, perhaps.
One of my favourite new Google Chrome extensions (plugins) is Momentum.
Momentum replaces the default Chrome ‘new tab’ page with a beautiful image that changes daily, the current time, plus an inspirational quotation, the weather, and an optional to-do list.
I never used to use the shortcuts on the default new tab page, so I find this page much nicer. It’s fun, it’s friendly, it opens really quickly (unlike other new tab replacements that I’ve tried) and it’s inspiring, not just because of the quotation at the foot of the page, but the image giving you a 24 hours glimpse into another beautiful part of the world.
I used Outlook tasks a lot on both my desktop PC and my mobile phone (Windows Mobile then Android), so my requirements were:
Must be cloud based.
Must sync quickly between mobile and desktop.
Must have a native app for both Android and Windows 8.
Must be able to handle multiple contexts/projects.
Must be affordable.
Should have a usable Android widget to both add new tasks and view a particular context/project.
The first application that I consider was Wunderlist which I had trialled a few years ago before moving to Exchange. I thought it was time to give it another go.
I migrated my tasks into Wunderlist and used it for a few days.
I really love the aesthetics of Wunderlist. It looks uncluttered and simple, and I selected a rich wood-effect background to complement the dark grey wood wallpaper both my PC and smartphone.
Following the GTD methodology, I was able to create multiple contexts (e.g. computer, desk, finance, garden, home, shopping, etc.). Moving tasks from one context to another is as simple as dragging and dropping tasks. Further details can be added to individual tasks (due date, reminders, subtasks and notes).
I really liked the ability to star important or favourite items, and to view all tasks, grouped by context in the order shown on the left-hand sidebar.
Wunderlist was looking promising, and I probably would have continued to use it had it not been for two issues.
The first issue I had was more of a niggle: the Android widget it really fiddly to use. I love that you can scroll left and right between contexts but I found with my not-too-enormous fingers that I had to jab at the screen four or five times to hit the sweet spot before it moved.
The second is a known problem: there are sync issues between Wunderlist 2 and 3. The web interface and Android both use the newer version 3, the Windows 7 application uses version 2. When I used both in conjunction I discovered discrepancies in my data.
I didn’t want to use the Windows 8 modern UI app or have to access my lists through Chrome, and the niggle with the Android widget was enough to get me looking elsewhere.
I’ve long been a fan of Trello from Fog Creek Software. We use it extensively at work, and I use it to manage all my personal projects. So I quickly migrated my tasks from Wunderlist to Trello and used it for a few days.
As much as I love Trello for managing larger projects I didn’t really warm to it as a simply list/task application.
Contrary to my experience with Wunderlist, I was quite happy to use the web interface but then that’s how I have used it for the last few years. The Android app is great and improves with each release.
The Android widget didn’t give me the information that I needed, though: it isn’t granular enough for my requirements. All it offers is a list of cards assigned to me, optionally grouped by due date. The problem here is that it lists EVERY single card assigned to me, starting with those cards that are dated in the past. Right now that is 461 cards. All I wanted to see was all the cards within a particular board, or even better within a particular list on one particular board.
That was when I discovered Todoist which appears to be available for just about everything: web, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac OS, web, Outlook, Thunderbird, Gmail and Postbox. I’d love to see a plugin for eM Client—that would make my productivity life complete!
Todoist has a very minimalist and uncluttered look. On the left are your contexts, which Todoist calls Projects. It also offers labels and filters, but I don’t use either.
For the third time in a week I migrated all my tasks to yet another application. But this time they’ve stayed there… the ones that I’ve not checked off.
Todoist has met all my requirements. It is cloud-based, the Windows and Android apps work beautifully, I can add multiple contexts/projects, can easily drag and drop items from one list to another.
The Android widget does exactly what I need as doesn’t suffer from the same navigation issues that I experienced with Wunderlist. I’ve found that I use that a lot now, and the big plus (+) in the top-right corner of the widget allows me to add tasks quickly to any of my existing lists, and assign a due date too if I need.
The only thing that I miss from Wunderlist is the ability to view all tasks in one long list, [see correction below] but something that I found myself using much more than I ever did with Wunderlist is scheduling tasks. This is probably because Todoist offers two new views: ‘Today‘ and ‘Next 7 days’. (A perfect example of how user interfaces can affect user behaviour.)
CORRECTION: I’ve discovered a “View all” option listed under Filters. This lists all tasks by project. I wish there was a shortcut for this at the top of the application.
What is quite fun too is that Todoist shows your productivity trend and gives you points (which it calls ‘Todoist Karma‘), which I guess is there to help motivate you.
When you tick off items your points go up, when you don’t your points down.
I’ll definitely be sticking with Todoist for the foreseeable future, and I may even buy the upgrade to Todoist Premium which is a snip at GBP £18.00 per year, which gives you more project and label colours, task notes and file uploads, reminders, iCalendar feeds, etc.
A few weeks ago I blogged about moving from Microsoft Outlook (and an Exchange account) to eM Client using Google’s productivity tools Gmail, Calendar and Contacts. These are my reflections on using eM Client for the last month or so, having been a faithful Outlook user for the last 14 years.
My reasons for moving were three-fold:
Simplify—I was using at least three email accounts, as well as trying to synchronise Outlook calendar and contacts with Google. This way I could keep everything in one place.
Share—I needed a more robust way of sharing my calendar with (my wife) Jane, and she uses Gmail as her primary account, so it made sense to move.
Cost—Though they do offer a terrific service, buying an Exchange account from Simply Mail Services was costing me about £70 per year. I could put that money to better use.
My hesitations in moving were two-fold:
Email address—I really wanted to keep my [email protected] email address, and for email to send as that. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that was just vanity. So long as all mail sent that address was forwarded to me it didn’t really matter what email address I was sending from; besides some people were emailing me there anyway. (As it is I can configure Gmail to send as my own domain, I just haven’t done it yet.)
Email client—I’ve enjoyed using Outlook because I like having everything in the same place: email, calendar, contacts and tasks. I’ve adapted my workflow around this set up. and it works for me. I knew that Outlook wasn’t suitable but didn’t know of an alternative. eM Client proved to be a near perfect replacement.
Setting up eM Client was so simple. Upon installing the application I was asked to enter my account details. I typed in my Gmail email address and password, and eM Client did the rest.
The free version of eM Client allows you to connect a maximum of two accounts, the pro version (£29.95 GBP) allows unlimited accounts. I’m currently on the free version but I intend to upgrade to pro at some point, simply to support the company.
During the setup eM Client alerted me to the fact that I hadn’t enabled my Gmail account to use IMAP. This was easy to do within Gmail settings.
IMAP enables two-way communication between eM Client and Gmail, so any changes made in one client are immediately made in the others. This makes it really useful when trying to access your email from multiple devices, e.g. Windows and Android.
Once connected to my Gmail account eM Client took only a few minutes to download my email messages, calendar and contacts data.
I also connected my Facebook account which allows me to use eM Client as a chat client, and to update contact details and avatars from Facebook.
Review of eM Client
The following is a summary of my experience of using eM Client over the last few weeks.
Bear in mind that I am using eM Client only for Email, Calendar and Contacts. eM Client also supports Tasks and what it calls Widgets, which are plugins like an RSS reader.
I discovered, quite by accident, that if you right-click the left-hand panel you can decide which modules to display.
This also affects the shortcut keys to quickly navigate to these modules. With Tasks and Widgets removed these are now, for me:
Ctrl + F1 Mail
Ctrl + F2 Calendar
Ctrl + F3 Contacts
The full list of shortcut keys can be viewed at Tools > Settings > General > Shortcuts.
Using Gmail with eM Client
The email client looked very similar to Outlook, albeit with a simpler, cleaner look. The screen shows four columns (from the left):
Folders (Gmail labels)
Message (full text of the currently selected message)
Sidebar (showing contact details, agenda or chat)
eM Client comes with a number of built-in themes. I’m using a light blue theme called Arctic which is very clean looking. It clearly distinguishes the different areas of the screen: menu bar, mail folders, message, sidebar allowing me to get on and work undistracted.
Folders and labels
One feature I used a lot in Outlook mail was folders. Gmail doesn’t use folders. Instead it uses labels.
For many years I have used the following primary folders:
I tend to create sub-folders for Projects and Waiting for to make it easier to find emails. Then when the project is finished, or the item I’m waiting for (e.g. Amazon – CD order) has arrived I destroy the folder and either delete the emails or move them into the Archive folder.
In Gmail email can be categorised with more than one label. I have decided to use only one label per email. This matches the way that I used folders in Outlook. I find it simpler this way.
Something else I had to learn about Gmail is that “Inbox” is a label too. If an email doesn’t have the “Inbox” label then it is regarded as archived and appears under the “All Mail” label.
In eM Client Gmail labels appear as folders. So if I drag and drop an email into a folder in eM Client, it applies that label in the Gmail web client.
Once I understood these subtle differences between Outlook and Gmail I was happy to explore setting up rules to automatically filter my email.
Something that I relied on a lot within Outlook were rules. I created a lot of rules to filter all my regular newsletter and mailing list emails into a sub-folder called ‘Mailing lists’ (who would have thought?).
I’ve found this prevents my inbox from clogging up with ‘noise’, enabling me to see the more important emails from friends and family.
Gmail calls these rules filters. But unlike in Outlook, you cannot set up these filters within the eM Client. They must be done using the Gmail web interface.
Initially I thought that I might find this a bother, but in reality I’ve just accepted that this is the way it is. And besides, for each newsletter I only need to do it once.
It has also allowed me to review.all the mail I’m getting and decide whether I should cancel the subscription or not.
I tend to use the same rules for each message:
Skip the Inbox (Archive it).
Apply the label: Gareth/Mailing lists.
Never send it to Spam.
Also apply filter to X matching conversations.
As well as labels/folders, eM Client supports categories.
There are four contexts in which categories can be used: contacts, emails, calendar events or tasks. Categories can be unique to a context or shared across any of the four contexts.
You may set the context when editing the category.
I have still to finalise the categories, but I tend to use these only for grouping items within my “Action” folder/label. These are emails that I have identified that I need to do something with: reply to, read, or follow a link to download something, for example.
Something I used quite a lot in Outlook was “Quick Parts” where you could store standard replies to certain questions. I used these a lot for replying about Psion repairs or certain mahjong questions.
eM Client doesn’t support this feature. However, you can create a number of custom signatures and using the “Insert signature on caret position” option to can use this to insert these standard replies into your text. And unlike Outlook 2010 you may add more than one signature to an email.
If your reply is longer then you could opt to use templates. As far as I can see, however, you cannot insert template text into a reply. You may only use it to create a new email. So if you don’t mind a bit of copying and pasting then you may choose to do this. Otherwise, stick with the signature workaround.
When I used Outlook with a standard (POP3) account I needed an add-in to filter out spam emails; I used Cloudmark DesktopOne, which I found excellent.
After I moved to Microsoft Exchange I paid extra for a Postini server-side spam filter to be activated on my account, which I found gobbled up more than a few genuine mailing list emails.
Having moved to Gmail, only a few rogue messages have got through to my inbox, and I’ve had maybe only four or five false positives.
Right-clicking the Junk E-mail folder in eM Client allows me to empty my Gmail junk mail.
On the whole I have been able to use eM Client in exactly the same way that I used Outlook. In other words, my familiar workflow hasn’t really been upset.
The only real difference is needing to go to Gmail itself to set up mail filters.
I am actually surprised at how easily and seamlessly I’ve made the transition from Outlook to eM Client, after 14 years of using the former, but I suspect that reflects the quality and flexibility of the software.
Using Google Calendar with Em Client
As sharing calendars was one of the drivers for moving from Outlook I reckoned that this had better work seamlessly. And I’m delighted to report that it is.
I have five Google calendars that I display:
My default calendar (green)
Scottish Episcopal Church saints days (rose)
Regardless of the device (web, eM Client, or Android) Jane and I have synchronised the colours of the calendars. So my calendar is always green, Jane’s is always violet, children is always orange, etc. That way we don’t need to think twice about what we’re looking at.
eM Client draws its colours from Google Calendar itself. On our Android devices (Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini) you have to set the colours on the device itself.
I used to use a lot of colours and categories when using the Outlook calendar to denote different activities, e.g. coding, writing documentation, meeting in the office, meeting in St Andrews, meeting/conference outwith St Andrews, etc.
I expected to miss that when I moved to a mono-colour calendar but again I’ve surprised myself. The clarity offered by colour equals person has been really valuable.
I don’t use any categories now for events. eM Client comes with four built-in (vacation, must attend, needs preparation, birthday) but I don’t use any of them; you cannot delete these four.
Another decision we made was to give each other full read and write access to each other’s diaries. That way we can add appointments directly to each other’s calendar without having to go through the rigmarole of inviting each other to events.
Calendar for home events
Another innovation was to add a generic, shared calendar for home events such as which recycling bins go out and when, gas boiler service dates, car tax, etc.
I chose grey for that calendar which makes it neutral but helps it stand out enough to notice it.
Google Calendar’s recurring event feature was ideal for this calendar.
Like eM Client’s handling of Gmail, the lag between adding an event within eM Client and it appearing either on the Google Calendar web interface or on our Android device is minimal. It is almost instant.
While eM Client displays an Agenda view in the sidebar, I have not found myself using it and tend to leave the sidebar set to viewing Facebook chat contacts.
Tasks and calendar
One feature of Outlook that I used a lot was to drag and drop tasks from the sidebar onto the calendar.As it’s not possible to do this in eM Client I am now using Todoist to manage my tasks.
I now either manage the dates within Todoist itself or simply copy and paste tasks into my calendar. It’s a little overhead but really not that much.
As this was one of the primary functions that we needed to get right (sharing multiple calendars) I have been quite delighted not only with what Google Calendar itself offers but also how eM Client handles the management of these calendars.
Unlike Gmail there is very little that I have needed to do using the Google Calendar web interface, once we got the calendars created, shared and set to the right colours.
Using Google Contacts with eM Client
Google Contacts is yet another area where eM Client excels.
When I used Outlook (either standalone or connected to Exchange) I would every now and then import my Outlook contacts into Google in the vain hope of keeping them backed-up and synchronised. It was an overhead that I didn’t need and it’s been quite a relief, actually, to have them all in one place for a change.
There are five ways to view your contacts, as well as a couple of ways to filter them. The five views are:
Custom View (which by default shows you every contact card field in a spreadsheet-like table)
The default view is Business cards, and this is generally the view that I prefer. Each tile shows you the person’s name, email address, telephone numbers and/or company:
The coloured blocks on the left-hand side represent categories.
In Outlook I used to categorize almost all my contacts, but I used the Company field for that. I used this field to record where I met the person, e.g. National Youth Choir of Great Britain, School, Family, etc. I can use the “By Company” view to display contacts in this way; although it displays them by default as First name, Surname.
I have also created a number of key categories, e.g. colleagues, family, home-related contacts (plumber, joiner, etc.) so that I can filter my contacts by these categories.
These categories also come in handy when viewing contacts on my Android phone.
One thing that I discovered was that for contacts to appear in Google Contacts they seem to need to be categorized as “My Contacts”,
The other way to filter, of course, is by search. I would have found it handy if the search updated the list as you were typing but you have to hit Enter before the search begins.
Using a combination of categories, search and the scroll bar you can quickly locate the contact you are looking for.
Something I really miss from Outlook 2010, however, is the A-Z list down the right-hand side of the contacts cards view. This allowed you to very quickly navigate within your contact cards. I do hope eM Client adds this to a future version.
One neat feature, once you’ve connected your Facebook account to eM Client is the ability to have your contacts’ profile photographs imported into Google Contacts.
That obviously requires your contacts to be using Facebook, and for them to have used the email address that you have for them to be registered in their Facebook account.
Duplicates and conflicts
Occasionally things can go wrong. When I used a Psion to sync with Outlook on two PCs (home and work) I was forever needing to remove duplicate entries. This isn’t as big a problem with eM Client as it is in Outlook.
eM Client comes with its own built-in duplicate remover (Tools > Deduplicator…).
I found it pretty effective, to be honest. It found a number of duplicates and where possible it combined information very effectively and deleted the rest.
A couple of times while updating contact cards I found that I made too many changes in a short space of time. In these cases eM Client asked me which data I wanted to keep and which I wanted to overwrite: local or remote.
Another win. To be honest, I can’t see myself needing to use the Google Contacts web interface terribly much. More or less everything is handled very nicely within eM Client.
All in all, I am pretty delighted with eM Client. It does exactly what I needL which is to manage Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts in one place. I really couldn’t ask for much more.
Sure there are a few niggles, like the lack of A-Z navigation in Contacts, and needing to set Filters in the Gmail web interface, but really these are minor issues.
If you are looking for an Outlook replacement (and eM Client does support Exchange, Gmail, iCloud, Outlook, as well as other standard POP3 and IMAP email accounts etc.) then I can thoroughly and warmly recommend eM Client.
If I was to score it for its integration with Google services then I would need to give it a full 5/5.