Friday, January 20, 2012

Tech Savy

January has a tradition for me of being a month of reassessment and reorganization. Its typically cold out, dreary, windy, dark; plenty of valid reasons not to run outside in my Hawaiian shorts and have a picnic. This week in particular, the weather has given the entire northwest a great big slap in the face. Meetings are cancelled, classes are delayed, folks are hibernating.

Instead of giving in to a bad case of the lazies, or staring longingly out the windows dreaming about being on the mountain, I have decided to use this time to get it together for 2012. After all, I want to look nice when the world ends.

I've never been one to fear technology, 'Luddite' would not describe me in any way. However, I sometimes worry that in my steamy embrace with technology, I'm failing to take a step back to see if this relationship is actually healthy. Therefore, I'm taking this snowy opportunity to streamline the technologies in my life, see if I can make them a time saver instead of a time suck.

Spend 3 hours blindly scrolling through Facebook while my eyeballs dry out? No thanks. Show up late for work because I got distracted reading articles on Jezebelle? Not me, no sir.

I have ways of making me organized.

I am learning to make the internet more like an attentive personal assistant and less like an unruly puppy that's super-cute but craps on the rug when you're not looking. Just kidding...I love you, Internet.

Useful tools on the web are completely changing the way I organize and complete tasks. In order to share my productivity with the world, I have put together a list of the best things I've found so far.

1. Evernote - Requires online signup with the option of a program download
Over the holiday, a friend introduced me to an online program that allows you to make lists, bookmark websites, keep photos, and basically eliminate the need to stuff your pockets with the post-its and napkins that I randomly scribble on.

Evernote can be accessed from any web browser, has a download-able program for your desktop computer, and also syncs with a phone via an android or iphone app. In fact, yesterday I started typing this blog post in the Evernote app on my phone, and I'm currently finishing it up in the full program on my computer.

I have transferred all of my shopping lists into the program. No more paper! Now when I'm at Costco, I simply open the app on my phone and scroll through as I dump giant containers of mayonnaise into a cart the size of Vermont.

2. Google Calendar - Comes with Gmail
One of the great things about working for yourself is that you can completely get lost in your work and activities; your time is your own. Preparing all of my class materials far in advance and having a variety of techie tools to keep me on track pretty much allows me to wander through life like a 5-year-old. My most pressing concern is 'when is snack time?'

This is where the Google Calendar comes in. I already use Gmail for most of my email communication so it was pretty easy to click that little link that says 'calendar' and get started. Google Calendar has a reminder function that I set up to ring to my phone 20 minutes prior to meetings and an hour prior to work to give me time to get ready. It allows me to add events via my desktop computer or via my phone, eliminating the need to write something down then transfer it into the calendar at a later time. No more paper(!), no more lost information, no more obsessively checking the time. When the bell rings, I go to work. I'm well trained.

3. Pick&Zip
- Requires a Facebook login ID
This handy tool is one I discovered while planning my 2012 photo project. One of my goals this year is to take all of the photos that I have stashed away in physical albums and to scan them so I can have digital copies.

This means they will always be safe from fire, they will be available to any family or friends who want them, and I will actually look at them from time to time. I mean, really, how often do I sit on the floor in front of the bookshelf and drag out the old albums? Almost never. But if I'm on Facebook, or importing new pictures into iPhoto, I often stop for a moment to relive old memories. With the way my life is so digitally centered these days, I need to find new ways to 'stop and smell the roses.'

Scanning is the only way to get my traditional photos into a digital format. But what about photos that are already digital? What about all those parties and events I've gone to where I wasn't the one behind the camera? All of those pictures are up on Facebook, but I don't have the time or the patience to click through and download them one-by-one.

That's why I was ecstatic when I found Pick&Zip. It is a Facebook downloader that allows the user to get all of their own photos and all the of the photos where they have been tagged. It also allows you to select albums from your friends pages and download those entire albums. You end up with a ZIP file that can be uncompressed and added to your favorite photo program.

Done and done.

4. Shutterfly - Requires online signup
Step two in the photo project required me to find some online storage for my precious memories. I already have my scans and downloads backed up on an external hard-drive, but I want an extra layer of protection. After all, scanning every photo you've ever taken is a lot of work, work I wouldn't like to repeat.

So I signed up for Shutterfly and put all of my photos online. While I was setting up my account, I poked around a bit and was excited to see that I can also sign up to have cards for Christmas and birthdays sent automatically. I can choose my favorite photos and use them for the covers of the cards, keep an address book, and set up dates for mailings. Never again will I send out my Christmas cards late.

5. Spotify and Pandora - Both require online signup
These aren't really productivity tools, but they are changing the way I think about accessing music. Pandora is an oldie for me, I originally signed up for a few years ago and had it playing constantly at work, it remains a favorite. Music is a big motivator for me, it keeps me moving, so having an internet radio station has gone a long way to keep me productive. I often find that I'm about to get up and wander away from my desk, but then a really good song comes on and I forget to quit working. I have the Pandora app on my phone and run it through my car speakers when I go up the mountain.

Spotify is a more recent addition to my program arsenal. At this point, I don't open it as often as I open Pandora, but when I do, I have a clear purpose. The benefit of Spotify is that you can type in any song you want to hear (provided that it's in their database) and hear it instantly. So let's say that I've had 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' stuck in my head for three days and it's driving me nuts because I only remember the chorus. Now I can pop in to Spotify, cue up the song, put it on repeat, and sing along passionately for as long as I want. It also allows you to play an entire album, letting you discover songs by a favorite artist you might never have heard before.

The best thing about all of these programs is that they are all FREE!!!!!!

Each one (with the exception of Google Calendar) offers a 'Premium' version with added bells and whistles. Or in the case of Shutterfly, offers you add-ons like photo prints, books, the card mailing feature, etc.

I'm not new to the internet, but I am relatively new to the concept of using it to improve day-to-day routines. It's blowing my mind a little to think of being online less like being in a giant library of people's thoughts, and more like being in a room full of tools that can build the perfect me: productive, organized, creative, and thoughtful.

Only time will tell if these tools help to hone those skills, or so thoroughly remove them from my responsibility that I lose those skills entirely.

But that's a worry for another day, I'll add it to my calendar for 2013.

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