Archives for January 2008

Email Nirvana, via Xobni and SimplyFile

My email is typically out of control. I routinely used to have messages that were more than a 4-5 months old in the Inbox. My offline pst was large, with a folder structure to reflect the different activities I did. Moving messages to specific folders was pain, so was searching for a particular message, or a hundred other things one wants to do to get a grip on things but just cant seem to do anything to alleviate the situation.

All this was until I discovered two tools, Xobni and SimplyFile. I shall talk about the latter first.

SimplyFile – As the name indicates this is a really useful add-in that makes the proces of moving mails to specific folders really simple.

It might seem like a trivial thing but trust me when you have mails coming in like water from a fire-hose, you want to take quick action on them(or push them to a specific folder, or task them for later action etc). The ounce of proactive action right when you see the mail is often the last opportunity to keep your Inbox organized.

Now after almost a decade of using Outlook a lot I can proudly claim SimplyFile has brought the size of my Inbox to just a handful of mails, sometimes even less than 10.

The trick is this – right after a mail arrives and you click on it, SimplyFile suggests a folder in your pst folder where it thinks the mail should be moved to. If the suggestion seems appropriate, click a button and the mail is moved. If not, then change the folder and the message is moved, note that there is no button clicking. The app seems to learn and predicts quite accurately based on past patterns. I have yet to see a case where it goofed up , but am checking where the edge conditions lie.

I also noticed that I use Outlook tasks more now than before, SimplyFile provides a one click mechanism to add a new task based on a email. This has been amazing to me, no copy/paste of content, just a click and the mail’s body, subject, attachment etc is made part of a new task. Set the date/time/reminder and save!

Small improvements but makes an enormous difference for those who live within Outlook. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Xobni – Weird name, but boy what a product! Its nameis ‘Inbox’ in reverse but thats the only thing that is out of place about this product. Again an add-in for Outlook. Check the demo here..

There is way too much to talk about but the features that floored me were

  • Threaded conversations – GMail style conversations!
  • Search – I hated enhanced Outlook search. I used to use LookOut that was later acquired by Microsoft, which then morphed into something that carried too much baggage! Now search is quick and relevant. One thing did nag – search is submitted on inbox and the internet. The internet is totally unncessary, am in Outlook let me remain there.
  • Analytics – Whom did you mail the most? What was the active period in which you received mails? What about sent message times? Not immediately useful but provides great insight into communication patterns within your network
  • Stay in touch! – Provides list of people whom you have not mailed in a long time πŸ™‚
  • Usability – Honestly I never used the To-Do bar in Outlook 2007. May be its a defect in how I cognize UI elements, may be am very left-oriented! But ever since I started with Xobni my focus has been on it to execute most of my tracking tasks. So much so I have minimized the Navigation bar altogether, freeing up more screen-estate!

This is how personal productivity apps are supposed to be. Xobni is in invite only beta right now. You could register to be sent an invite. Those who got the invite already could send 5 invites each. If you would like one, on a first come first served basis, please drop a comment with your mail id.

Have any of you used Xobni or SimplyFile? What has been your experience so far?

As for myself Email Nirvana is at hand!

[update: The invites are gone now. Sorry!]

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RescueTime – So perfect yet…

Problem How to measure the time spent on a task? There are a variety of methods, ranging from time keeping in a paper journal to little notes of paper and electronic variety that have been proposed and used. But each of these requires the individual to take note of the start and end times.

This requires a significant amount of discipline to do, which in spite of good intentions might not be feasible when juggling multiple tasks.

Especially for those tied to a computer, with the cost of shifting attentions and applications being couple of key strokes, its easy to get distracted onto something else.

And at the end of day, or the week, when the time arrives to submit timesheets, or even work out number of hours a client needs to be invoiced, its easy to get lost searching through the mails, notes etc to see where time was spent.

Solution Enter RescueTime.

RescueTime is billed as a personal productivity app, allowing a user to see where time is spent while huddled away on their computers. The app has one of the smoothest user experiences I have encountered, especially for a task as intrusive as timekeeping.

Implementation A small installer for the client machine does the job of time-keeping. This data is then sent to the RescueTime website where this data is shown in pretty, yet functional, charts etc.

My experience What I liked immensely about this app is the totally effortless way in which I could know the break up of time spent. Below is an actual chart after using the app for a day. RescueTimeChart

What is missing?

Though the app has been a pleasure I have had to stop using it. The reasons are:

  • Capturing times on applications used is not enough – This has been the big reason for me. I use Outlook to co-ordinate work on multiple task streams. To say I spent 3 odd hours on Outlook is just inadequate. That said RescueTime seem to be addressing this, according to a question in a feature survey, by capturing the name of the file one works on. But even this would be insufficient. 
  • Lack of calendar integration – This is big. When I have a scheduled meeting, any file or app I touch should be implicitly linked. That leads me to the most important reason of all..
  • Lack of Activity context – Multiple activities, each with their own timeline, often overlap and override planned priorities. Each activity will require me to touch multiple apps, mails, files. From a reporting perspective I view each of these artifacts as belonging to the same logical task. I want my reports to be at the level of my activity. Individual entities or applications I have touched should be there but they are not my focus. Allow me to define my activities and switch them easily. Even better infer activity context based on semantics, say based on email subject know that am working on a deal for Acme Corp.
  • Lack of Outlook integration – How many of my activities are planned? How much time was spent on todos/tasks on Outlook?

All said, RescueTime should definitely be given a try. If awareness is the first step towards any meaningful goal, then RescueTime provides you remarkable insight into how you spend your time. What you do with that information will still be upto you!

[update: Other posts from the web that cover RescueTime]

Twitter, Hashtags and the 1 Letter Taxonomy

Jeff Jarvis started it, by wanting to use Twitter to post reviews of movies, books etc. Stowe Boys, rightly, pointed out that Hastags could be used to add metadata to individual messages, which Jeff acknowledged in an update to the original post.

Stowe seemed to have liked my comment about extending his original suggestion of using #* to mark all reviews.

My proposal was to have a one letter taxonomy under Hashtags, just like #* – one letter because we have already consumed 2 chars(3 if you include a space seperator), leaving only 137chars for content. And these would be the top level tags that one could apply. Further hashtags could, I suppose, be added as the author sees fit. My initial list follows-

Hashtag

Description

#* All reviews
#$ Finance related content
#? A question
#! Alerts
#+ Reminds of redcross, hence any humanitarian stuff
#^ Any geographic stuff(or fashion?)
#& Relationships
#, Continued from previous twitter message
#= Adult!
#’ Weather

Obviously, this is just a draft list. Would love to hear your thoughts, just drop comments or mail me at cr dot mahesh at gmail dot com.

As next steps we can create Yahoo Pipe based feeds to filter based on the type of hashtag one chooses to listen to. Or even PopFly. Could be a good time to play with both of these toolkits.

And what do you think of nanoformats? Microformats for Twitter! And the benefits listed for this would be applicable to our one letter taxonomy too.

For those getting to the party a little late- Twitter is a short message service, with a maximum length of 140 characters, that has a variety of means to push content to the web cloud. You would not be alone in thinking the content length restriction is a crippling limitation. But the uptake within the blogosphere indicates something big, albeit 140 chars at a time, could be brewing here. Be it covering disasters, conferences, reviews or just gossip its all done here. For instance I covered a training program on coaching skills on my twitter yesterday. There is a little more info about Twitter here in my earlier post.

I liken Twitter to a Haiku – the short form individual communication, as compared to the long form of blogs. And like Haiku, brevity of length does not always imply inability to bear meaning or beauty.

[update: Added hashtag for weather messages]

Metadata for Twitter

I find Twitter to be the ideal medium for posting short messages, especially with its GTalk integration on a Blackberry, its always on and with me.

But I have found it difficult to categorize messages. Hashtags, a new service, aims to cure that shortcoming. Mark any word in a twitter message with ‘#’ and the service would pick it up. This is like tagging for twitter messages, would help group and track messages with a certain tag.

But it does seem a little weird to have metadata(atleast 1 char) within 140chars worth of text. And possibly more if the tag does not appear naturally within text.

I have been using this for the last couple of days to note quotes from two books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. You can follow me on Twitter if you want to cover the highlights of these books without effort! The hashtag I am using is #bookquote. Let me know if you would like a tag on a per book basis.

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