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Bloke redux, the 15 minute emergency office, and a short automation experiment

A little grab-bag post today.

First, yesterday in Western MA, USA, we had a beautiful, exciting, and hazardous ice storm. The latter I experienced first hand (first foot, actually) when I slipped on a near-frictionless driveway and broke my leg (fibular fracture). This is three months on the heels of a broken thumb, so I feel a bit like warmed-over poo. And yes, there's some self-judgment involved as well.

So this week some short, but hopefully high-value mini entries [1].

Moving offices

Because my office is upstairs, I needed to set up one on our first floor. (What - Matt stop working!?) With my dear wife's help, we got it done in 15 minutes. I think this is remarkable. All it took was moving down:
  • Action system (already portable; and remember, it's only a calendar and three lists - Projects, Actions, and Waiting For)
  • Laptop computer and headset
  • Portable phone
  • Stacking shelves (inbox, action support, working project folders [2])
  • Desktop supplies (many in one place - my spinning organizer)
  • Mail-related items (envelopes, stamps, and thank you cards)
  • Printer
  • Legal pad (supports my collection habit)
(For how much such a system simplifies moving the entire office, see Another GTD Plus - Moving offices made much easier.)

Windows text automation tools experiment

Over the last month I've been trying a few tools to automate my computer workflow on Windows [3]. In the productivity blogosphere, reviewing and using tools like text expansion and auto-completion is common, so I thought I'd give some a whirl. I looked at two categories: Text auto-completion (in which the program figures out the word/phrase you're typing and types it for you), and text expansion (in which you tell the program which word/phrase it should type). In other words, programs where it decides vs. when you decide. (Note: This separation is fuzzy - there's crossover between the two.)

The verdict: The latter class is much more useful and flexible, and

For auto-completion I tried these programs: LetMeType, IntelliComplete Professional, As-U-Type, and AutoTyping. My conclusion: Increasing typing speed would provide more benefit, due to completion not being 100% (which is probably impossible). Put another way, it was slower cycling through completions searching for the correct one. That said, of the ones I tried, LetMeType was the most usable.

(Side note: Interestingly, I had trouble finding one that was under active development. Makes me think either a) it's a dead end, or b) no one's created a great tool yet. Opportunity?)

For text expansion I looked researched a bunch of them [4], and ended up trying AutoHotkey first. It is free, powerful, under active development, and has a supportive user community. My conclusion: It's pretty darn neat, passed the "I'll keep using it" test, and was good enough to not try any others. And its scripting library can do about anything. I haven't integrated it deeply with Firefox yet, but I hope it will replace CoScripter (I like tool consolidation if possible). It supports UI macros as well (click here, etc.) There's a nice introduction at lifehacker: Hack Attack: Knock down repetitive email with AutoHotKey.

Note that I used the geeky edit-a-text-file approach, and did find the syntax to be a bit confusing at first. I believe there's a graphical front end, though. If you want a friendlier UI, definitely check out ActiveWords - it is pretty, but still has a large scripting library.

Mac users may want to check out this Spell Catcher vs. TextExpander vs. Typinator vs. TypeIt4Me, etc..

So tell me: What's your experience around this been? Got a favorite you can't live with? Do tell!

  • [1] Yes, I realize that most blogs are only entries like this. I look at it a competitive advantage - more depth, but fewer posts.
  • [2] I am very careful about recommending this to clients. Before working with me, most people have tried some kind of system for managing working files - either stacked on surfaces or sitting upright in step folder stands. The main problem with these is using them as action reminders. Why? Because when they have 10 minutes, it takes far to long to find the next action. Just determining the action from one folder could take 10 minutes! Instead, the best practice is to have a centralized action list from all projects. This frees up folders to do what they're meant to: hold project-related materials. This changes the nature of having folders on desks from action reminders to support - it's merely a convenience to save a few seconds looking through their (A-Z!) filing drawers.
  • [3] I would *love* to switch to a Mac - Windows' instability and inefficiency (and this is on XP, not Vista) drives me nuts. What's holding me back? One-button laptops, and PowerPoint and Quicken compatibility. I realize the latter can be solved by virtualizing Windows, but that seems like missing the point. I'm open to convincing, though...
  • [4] The top candidates seemed to be ActiveWords, AutoHotkey, and Texter, but there are many other worthies as well.

Reader Comments (37)

This will be a non substantive reply only to commiserate on the ice issue. We also got the rain disguised as sheets of ice over here in Somerville. I've got a swollen kneecap, a bruise on my hip, and a scratched palm to prove it. No broken bones though---I was lucky. I know several people who didn't fare so well. Heal quickly!

December 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca


Sorry to hear about the broken leg. I am just south of you in Agawam, and we had plenty of ice down this way, too.

I was amazed that you could move a workable office downstairs in just 15 minutes. But when you explained how you had it all set up, it made sense. A great example of productivity in action!

December 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRay Fowler

Oh no! Matt ... sorry to hear about a broken leg. That's generally unhelpful to the self-employed!



December 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Sorry to hear of the broken leg! No snow or ice here in the UK yet.

In reference to your question about text autocompletion, you didn't say what programmes you're using. Open Office writer does text autocompletion as standard. Once you've got used to it, it works well.

December 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterArchaeogeek

Thanks everyone - much appreciated. Should heal pretty fast (lots of exercise and good diet - payoff!)

Rebecca: Get well soon!

And: I don't judge replies. I got push-back once from someone for a short "that's interesting, good luck" type of reply, and I don't buy it. As the man said, [ I think that, any lovin's good lovin | http://www.tsrocks.com/o/overdrive_bachman-turner_texts/aint_seen_nothing_yet.html ] (my 80s rocker roots coming through ;-)

Ray: Thanks re: productivity. I think teaching this is a bit like religion: In some ways you're held to a higher standard than others. I'm sure you understand.

Michael: Quite right re: self-employment. No sick leave!

Archaeogeek: autocompletion ... programmes you're using ... Open Office: Good question. The advantage of a single program is that a) it spans all programs in the OS, and b) does so uniformly. I still use Firefox's very cool Google search completion, BTW.

Programs I use: Firefox, WebDrive, Emacs, Putty, Open Office writer and spreadsheet, Excel and Word as needed, PowerPoint, and Skype.

(Hey - I could use a tasty beer, but not one quite so aged: [ Archaeologists revert to type, discover ancient brewery | http://www.archaeogeek.com/blog/2007/12/05/archaeologists-revert-to-type-discover-ancient-brewery/ ] ;-)

December 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Sorry to hear about the leg Matt! Ouch.

I'm a big fan of Autohotkey myself. I've been using for months (year?), but have still only scratched the surface of what it can do. Yes, I use it for text completion (e.g., instead of typing my entire signature block), but I also use it for dates, e.g., typing the date of next tuesday (in three different formats no less, depending on what application I'm typing the date into). Plus, I've started getting into it actually *doing* things.

I find that the combination of AHK, SlickRun, and Launchy (plus a small smattering of DOS and Perl scripts) lets me do quite a few things more or less automatically now. It's very cool that I can keep adding to my stable of tools with just a few keywords :)

Hope you feel better soon. (I have the image of that Aflac duck squawking and sliding down an icy driveway - there's advertising for you!)

December 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterGTD Wannabe

Thanks GTD Wannabe. That's a good image :-)

combination of AHK, SlickRun, and Launchy (plus a small smattering of DOS and Perl scripts) Have you documented this somewhere on your blog? I'm surprised AutoHotKey doesn't supplant the others...

December 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Bummer on the broken leg.

Some good stuff in this post (I do need to check out AHK soon). But what's a "one-button laptop"?

December 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterHandy

Thanks a bunch, Handy. a "one-button laptop"? It's a pet peeve with me that Macintosh laptops still have a single mouse button. Apparently it's [ Steve Jobs | http://fakesteve.blogspot.com/ ] deal-breaker: one button on all mice. You can buy 3rd part multi-mice buttons, but the built-in laptop one is all that's available.

Why do I care? 1) I'm a power user, and the frickin' right mouse button is awesome. (Actually, you could argue that getting rid if the right button would motivate one to use keystrokes, which are *much* faster...)

2) It bugs my design sense that there actually *is* a right button, but it's hidden - you have to hold the propeller key then click to get it. So Jobs didn't get rid of the right button, he just made it very hard to access...

My 2c of course...

Thanks for reading.

December 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

I am very sorry to hear about your broken bone and hope you will get better very soon.

December 12, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPascal Venier

Sorry to hear about your leg, Matt. I wish you well with the healing process.

I'm on a Mac, and I'm using Typinator for text expansion; it works well for me. I haven't tried any other tools to do some sort of comparison, though.

I bought it after reading Bit Literacy, which convinced me I needed this type of tool. Typinator was one of the two options author Mark Hurst listed for the Mac.

I use it for pretty basic stuff, like the e-mail replies I send repeatedly in my role as a Freecycle moderator, and my standard craigslist posting. It's much quicker than the cut-and-paste routine I used to follow.

Oh, and I always use an external mouse with my MacBook, so I don't really care about the built-in mouse. My Apple wireless mouse has a right-click option - that I believe was turned off by default, but that was an easy change.

December 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJeri Dansky

Thanks very much, Jeri. Quite useful. An external mouse is a good idea - once I'm off my back!

And congratulations on a continued [ organizing practice | http://www.jdorganizer.com/ ]. I'm always impressed by people like you who make a go of it. Well done.

December 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Hey Matt, sorry to hear about your leg!

I slipped once on the soapy surface at a DIY car wash and never went back. I can barely make it down my driveway on a sunny, clear day without tripping over something.

So you won't see me moving to a snowy, icy place any time soon.

December 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Braithwaite

Thanks, Lisa. The car wash sounds nasty.

December 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Get well soon, Matt...

Hey what the hell is an action system? I am not a lifelong reader of the blog but only recently happened upon it. ANyhow I did a site search and only managed pull up a couple of meagre articles.

So are you just referring to the idea of a support file for your calendar/ticker? A system sounds like so much more Can you elaborate on this??

December 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterjp

Sorry to hear about the leg, hope it mends quickly.

December 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPenny

Matthew wrote:

"Ray: Thanks re: productivity. I think teaching this is a bit like religion: In some ways you're held to a higher standard than others. I'm sure you understand."

Okay, you got a good chuckle out of me on this one. And yes, I do understand. :-)

December 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRay Fowler

Good luck with the leg.

I've had very good luck with ActiveWords which also does the text expansions that you mentioned. I've never tried AutoHotKey, but that's because I have 15 years experience with QuicKeys that I've been using since I was a Mac geek. QuicKeys is expensive, but has a good GUI. ActiveWords and one of the macro programs make a formidable automation system.

December 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterErnest

Penny: Thanks for the support. Maybe I should take up knitting - your work looks great.

Ernest: Thanks for your experiences. I appreciate the 15 years of compiled muscle memory - I'm that way with Emacs, and it would be very difficult (and foolish!) to throw that away.

jp: what the hell is an action system? Sorry about that - I'm not being consistent in my terminology. I often call the system I teach an "action management system." This is because everything in your life comes down to whether it needs to acted on or not, what the action is, and how it should get done (and by whom).

To enable making that all happen, you track it using four tools: A Calendar and three lists (Projects, Actions, and Waiting For). I won't go into it here, but briefly:

o The Calendar holds only date-related action, e.g., appointments and reminders. No todos.
o The Actions list holds tasks that can be done in one sitting, e.g., an hour or less.
o The Waiting For list tracks delegated items, including to other people, things you've ordered, refunds, etc.
o The Projects list is a master index of larger tasks that will take more than one action to accomplish. Each project has at least one action on the Actions list.

I think it's very surprising there are only four needed!

That's extremely brief - if it doesn't help, give me a holler.

December 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Update re: Macs: I've had some emails and phone calls from happy Mac users regarding my concerns. A summary:

o Quicken is available for Macs (but is still rated as low as the Windows version - oh well)
o PowerPoint issues are around fonts, and can apparently be ameliorated by using fonts available cross-platform (e.g., Ariel)
o One-button mouse: Most people either use the keyboard-plus-mouse simulation, or use an external mouse

I'll seriously consider it when the next chunk of consulting money comes in. As a CS geek, I very much appreciate the Mac's stability that's based on a solid kernel...

December 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Okay Matt: That was a great explanation; that makes a whole lot of sense. I've got something similar with one elaboration: I call "The working plan.."

[I hope I dont digress this thread too much. I'm not sure if you look at Comments as article specific of a sort of free flowing discussion.]

Anyhow: The working plan is a sort of things to do list but it is based on a current project I am working on right now AND it can change at a moment's notice. Unlike a Things to Do list where you basically can only cross them off, you cant re structure a Things to Do.

Example; I go to the library to do legal research. The plan was: a) get stuff on dog bites postman, b) locate address of witness; c) make copies of evidence.

I go to the library I find a bunch of cases on dog bites postman. Call from my mentor/boss: "Did you find anything?" "Yeah a whole bunch of cases, in fact you know that law of canines? There is a whole line of cases that has to do with golden retrievers that..."

Me; "Should I go back now and get that witness?" Mentor: "No we can have someone else do that. IF YOU'RE MAKING GOOD PROGRESS ON AN ISSUE NOW, DONT JUMP OFF IT."

Principle: What's the best use of my time RIGHT NOW?

That principle has been mentioned many times here and in other motivational materials.

So the working plan changes, at the drop of a hat when you make an insight, hit a goldmine of wealth, find a new argument. etc.

It is most useful when under a strict deadline like writing a brief. As you get down to the last day or so, you are so focused on tasks like proper footnoting or making the table of contents, that you can lose sight of the fact that I need to wrap up section C by 7 PM and I need to call that printer by 8 PM.

So that's kinda the idea...

December 15, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJP

Hey, JP.

I hope I dont digress this thread too much. Not at all - this kind of discussion is great.

First, neat system. They key is that it works for you - well done. My comments/questions:

o Does focusing on the current project (which sounds like Mark Forster's current initiative) cause trouble because other work isn't happening? I wonder if the latter becomes a crises - the Covey quadrant of important but not urgent.

o I do think restructuring the todo list (Actions list in my case) is crucial. Adding and removing are both pretty important...

o Principle: What's the best use of my time RIGHT NOW? Yep - AKA "Lakein's Question"

o So the working plan changes, at the drop of a hat... Actually, one of the things I love about what I teach is enabling this kind of flexibility. I completely agree that it's crucial. Some would argue, though, that you can't get it without knowing *everything* you've committed to do. In other words, you can't properly answer Lakein's Question without a comprehensive list... Thoughts?

o under a strict deadline like writing a brief A great example of when you have to focus and be flexible, yet be aware of whether you need to change in a moment.

Thanks again for your thoughts - stimulating!

December 15, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Oh Matt! Hope the break mends fast! On the mac thing: Get a MacBook Pro - it is intel based, and using parallels, it runs Windows natively, so you get the best of both worlds. All the productivity, and the ability to go back to Windows for PowerPoint, Word etc...

December 15, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBenjamin

Hey, Benjamin - The good wishes and Mac recommendation are much appreciated. The final concern is price - I can buy a pretty powerful Windows machine for a pretty reasonable price.

P.S. I'll have to learn about OpenID.

December 15, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell

Okay in response to matt:

Q: Does focusing on the current project (which sounds like Mark Forster's current initiative) cause trouble because other work isn't happening?

Not really because the Operating Orders or the Working plan is really only used when Im on a deadline and it is specific to that project. So it sort of ensures that I will keep that project on the expected trajectory.

Usually this is something that is due in 24 or maybe 2 or 4 or 6 hours. And I'm counting it down. I know just about how much time certain tasks will take e.g. footnotes, give about an hour of grunt work to them and I know they'll be ready.

Other, usually creative, tasks the time is not so easy to estimate. Other tasks cannot be done until other tasts are finished. E.g the table of contents CANNOT be drafted until the outline is made. The Outline of the argument must come from first. But the page numbers in the Table of contents, well they have to wait; in fact they may come in at the last minutes as the text is changing continuouslu. And the page numbering in the ToC maybe jettisoned at the last minute, I mean if its off by a page or two well it's not make or break.

It is useful because it relates to the idea of the ubiquitous idea catcher or whatever you call it. Let's say there are different modes my brain is in w/ 6 hours left on the project. One type is grunt work like typing or footnoes, and there is another like totally stream of conscious like creating new argumetns and there is other type of thinking which focuses on stuff and has to think about it, e.g. an outline....

Example. My brief is due in 6 hours, My working plan says I need to really get section B typed there is nothing there. Okay so while I am typing that a new argument hits me...so I have to put it on a post it and slap on the easel I cannot look up from this typing task...then as I type I notice the Table of Contents in sec. B is totally messed up; let's re-do that now while I am here (better use of time) no sense coming having to come back to this....okay now back to typing and finish that.

Now: I look at the Operating Orders I was just operatign under: Says "1) Type sec. B; 2) read opposing argument finish by 5 PM; 3) Cases on Golden Retrievers (by 6 PM). 4) Page numbers for Table of Contents (6:30) . 5) cover letter..

Okay sec. B is typed. But that idea I just wrote down. That is now the key argument, forget reading the other brief i dont care what they said, this is where it's at. And Golden retrievers? I dont need that with the new argument And page numbering...? I've just got done most of the page numbering when I went back to B. so hell dont even worry about that it's mostly done.

And as Im sitting here I see the opponent's address, so let's make the cover letter now so it'll be ready when I fly out the door.

So new operatign order:

1) Re draft new argument by 6 PM; 2) tie in to section A. 3) RE do outline/table of contents to reflect that (by 7 PM).

So the plan change rapidly to adust to new conditions. Some stuff may come off the order w/o even getting done, other stuff was saved for later has now moved up in que.

Mostly it has to do with queing up these projects, as for many of the tasks you can assign a time frame, so they are placed w/ that in mind.

And as I am typing more ideas will come to my head; and other stuff will take care of itself w/o actually planning on it...

Hey I had another question you mentioned in connection with the Business Card cube or something. You mentioned that our brain operates in different modes...

How many types of modes are there and can you define? I'd be interestd.

December 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJP

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