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My Organisational Journey (Work in Progress)

Here I recount how my use of tools for organising my life has evolved over the years.

Early 2006

  • First online presence (Bebo account, email, MSN)

Late 2009

  • Started using ’grown up’ social media (Twitter first, then Facebook)

Late 2010

  • Switched to Ubuntu operating system from Windows, in order to bypass parental controls limiting screen time.
  • Used Dropbox for storage.

2011

  • Managed my own music collection.
  • Used Google Picassa web for photos
  • Uploaded photos to Google+ for storage
  • Stopped using Google entirely for a while after they emailed all my contacts telling them I had ’tagged’ them in photos on Google+. The albums were private, and the tags were carried over from Picassa automatically, but Google took the opportunity to use my name to attract my larger network.
  • Deleted social media
  • My first website (seanhealy.tk). I set it up for free, and the only real content was a mission statement about how I wanted to become an architect.

Early 2012

  • Used a paper calendar focused on a singular goal (leaving cert)
  • Large chunks of work
  • Minimal exercise
  • Used Thunderbird for email

Late 2012

  • Learned vim, and then used it for taking notes, but with little structure.
  • Created social media accounts
  • Factored exercise heavily into schedule
  • No granular planning for several years starting at this point

2013

  • I was first introduced to LaTeX, but I didn’t use it properly for a few years.
  • First account on a git service (GitHub). Got a few work opportunities through appearing in search results.
  • First account on LinkedIn

2014

  • Maintained one large text file containing unstructured notes (mostly related to creative writing).

2015

  • Used Google docs heavily.

2016

  • Started using LaTeX to write papers and notes.
  • Started using text-based email client, Mutt.
  • Took up cycling for commuting and holidays.

Early 2017

  • Started granular planning again (first time since 2012)

Late 2017

  • Started using Scrum in work, and Kanban in personal projects.
  • Started looking into my finances for the first time ever, using a spreadsheet of expenses.
  • Gave up on the spreadsheet; filling in all my small purchases (snacks, etc.), and breaking down receipts into individual items took up too much time.

Early 2018

  • Deleted social media accounts
  • Deleted GitHub accounts, looking at my old code was too cringe.
  • Set up self-hosted git instead.
  • Also: Self-hosted cloud notes system (homemade, it was just one big TXT file behind a password wall in the browser)
  • Also: Self-hosted RSS aggregator (ttrss).

Late 2018

  • Used GNU remind for calendar and agenda. The system was very limited, and event times were difficult to change. Poor documentation online.

2019

  • Tried to self-host my own email server, but gave up after it emerged that my emails weren’t arriving in the inboxes of major providers (Google and hotmail).
  • Went back to keeping a paper diary and journal.

Early 2020

  • Switched to Emacs, because I heard that using Org-mode could make me some kind of superhuman.
  • Org-mode for calendars, hierarchical notes, emails, authoring (journals, blog posts, wikis, etc.), and later on, email too.
  • Rejoined GitHub to focus on my dissertation project.
  • Signed up for Spotify to obtain study music.
  • Relied on notmuch and mutt to filter out most of my emails.
  • Large physical library.

Today (Late 2020)

Email

  • Gmail (everything forwarded to the one inbox, filter rules applied there).

Authoring

  • Org mode (for my Wikis, blog posts, letters)

Organising

Notes

  • Real life paper
  • Google Keep
  • Google Tasks

Calendar

  • Google Calendar

Finances

Homemade programs for managing finances, including…

  • Scripts for parsing statements from Bank of Ireland (in PDF and Excel format)
  • A Script for parsing Revolut statements
  • R programs to produce graphs

Homemade programs for collecting information on deals in nearby supermarkets (in progress)

The Lidl app

I use this to collect most of my receipts in a digital format. Unfortunately the export options produce image files, which are hard for programs to parse. I’m still working on programs to parse receipts and integrate the information into my financial data. For now, I have dormant receipts data; my personal financial reports lump shopping into broad categories (groceries, online purchases, etc.)

Music

Radio

I don’t curate my own music anymore.

Books

Kindle for light books and fiction.

Physical copies for dense books with tiny mathematical notation

Storage

  • A routine rsync to a small virtual machine in the cloud

Dropbox (free 2GB version)

I use this to sync photos between my phone and computer. I organise my photos into non Dropboxed albums before I can reach 2GB.

News

Press releases from gov.ie

I wrote a small script to convert certain gov.ie Publication releases into an RSS feed. I use this as a source for what is going on in the country. It’s slower than social media, but I like it that way. A mean of 3 things appear in this news feed per day. It’s way more active on weekdays than on weekends though.

I also follow the feed in Irish (Gaeilge), in order to keep my language skills up to scratch.

EU newsroom’s highlights feed

The EU’s newsroom website was good enough to provide RSS feeds of their own:

A mean of one news item per day appears in each feed. I read each story first in French, then in English, then in German. This doubles as study towards language learning.

I use this reading order so that I can strengthen my French (which is already strong), so I can self-correct any errors I make (via reading the English next), and finally to work towards some level of basic German, by then reading the German version. Hopefully my brain can make good connections this way.

The Economist (weekly print + digital edition)

I recently subscribed to this because I’ve heard The Economist is very high quality. Their weekly edition has global coverage, yet a limited number of news items (it’s a physical magazine). Paper is easier on the eyes too.

rss2pdf

I prefer reading in print, because my screen time is largely taken up working as a programmer. I have a script for converting RSS feeds into magazine-style PDF files, which I then print. This is slightly more environmentally friendly than getting print editions, because the paper is never glossy, the ink is all black and white, I optimise for space usage, also excluding ads and sections I’m not interested in.

Navigation

OSMand

I use this open source offline map app on my smartphone. I like it because it lets me forget about the issue of internet while cycling in places with poor reception. Google maps does some level of offline caching, but their offline map isn’t guaranteed to be accurate. OSMand also allows you to easily import GPX files, which is the format I use when planning long cycle trips. Adding place marks is easy enough too.

Google Maps

OSMand has one flaw: It doesn’t cover businesses very well. When someone tells me they’re near Business X, then I use Google maps.

A warning: Don’t use Org-mode as your calendar and agenda

Org-mode is great for authoring. But as a calendar and agenda replacement, I found it unwieldly. There are so many features and ways to achieve and configure things, you may end up with a big mess of hierarchical TODOs. To get visual representations resembing timelines you need external libraries, and these libraries do a bad job of it. One such library is calfw, which shows a calendar, but not the timeline blocks I’m used to seeing in larger products. It’s hard to visually see timetable conflicts, overlapping items.

There are many ways to create events. One way is to use a SCHEDULED attribute under any org heading. You can also put a DEADLINE attribute. You can also put a date on its own, and that date will then place the org note in the calendar.

You can set priority flags next to TODOs, there are many options (A to E). Org-mode with productivity plugins like Evil-mode allows users to create a lot of TODOs very quickly. But if you want a TODO to transition to DONE, you generally have to mark each one as DONE manually. This ties you to your laptop. Or maybe you could use your phone? Well yes, there is Orgzly, an Android app. It links up to Dropbox, but the syncing doesn’t really work. When you save a note in the app, it will probably push the changes to Dropbox. But the opposite is not the case. When you save on your laptop, the new note and TODO changes don’t appear in the app. Maybe they do after a while, but with a properly syncing system, things should sync quickly. In short, using Org-mode across your smart phone and computer is a pain, and I don’t want to carry my laptop in a bag with me everywhere I go.

Let’s talk about missed appointments. Life throws unexpected things at us all the time. In a cloud calendar system, what do you do when that happens? You drag a big blue blob representing a timeline from one time location to another. You can even scale the timeline in a way we’re all familiar with from scaling windows all our lives. When you drag an appointment from one place to another, the conflicts are right there next to the new location of your blue blob. You then just drag those other events to new times. It’s pretty simple. With Org-mode as your calendar system, you need to change the start time and end time as plaintext. To find conflicts, you then navigate to your agenda view, and start scanning manually through rows of text, searching for overlaps. This is assuming you’re on a laptop. Finding time conflicts is harder on a smart phone.

Let’s talk about meetings. Nobody wants to be that guy in the meeting with their head in their laptop. Org-mode is no good for meetings. So what was my solution to this? Take notes on paper in meetings, then transfer those notes to Org-mode manually every day. Problem is, if you’re an employee of some sort, which most of us are, transferring notes to digital format is a waste of company time. Okay, so do it at the end of your work day? Nope, just leave your hand-written notes on paper, and forget about it.

What are the benefits of digital over hand-written notes anyway? Let’s see.

  1. They’re more easily searchable. This is only the case for searches based on text. Time and date based searches are just as easy on paper, provided you organised your notes by date.
  2. Content is easy to copy-and-paste. But in meetings nowadays, the stuff worth copying and pasting (long URLs, etc.) can be obtained afterwards by asking for a copy of the slideshow, or whatever else was used.
  3. They use up less space. That’s okay though, I’ll be throwing out most of my meeting notes when I move onto a new product or team.
  4. They’re easy to backup. So are paper notes. Quick fix: photograph your hand-written notes after the meeting. Maybe some day you’ll even have a smart piece of software to convert your photographed notes back to text.

Let’s talk about archiving. In Google Keep, to archive a note you swipe right on it. It’s like you’re pushing a post-it off the side of your desk onto the floor. In Emacs and Org-mode, you set up an archive file. Some authors prefer one archive file per concept (TODOs, notes, agenda, etc.). You configure a keybinding to archive notes. A few months later, you’re looking through your massive archive file, and your Emacs session crashes. Okay, so obviously after a certain stage, you should break the archive file down into smaller parts. Maybe you can automate this. But this all takes time, and time is valuable. For most people you’re making a choice.

  1. Waste your company’s time,
  2. Waste time you could be spending with loved ones.
  3. Waste time you could be spending uncovering the meaning to life and the universe.
  4. Sleep less.

Also, everyone seems to use Google calendar. You can do team stuff on Google calendar. Emacs Org-mode is more like your own lonely island of life planning.

Okay, I could go on. But basically, this boils down to one word: resignation. I love the idea of text-based life planning. I love the idea of having a large corpus of my life plans to look back over when I’m 65. But the ecosystem for Org-mode is just so small, and the fans are so fanatical, it’s really hard to figure out if the thing is truly worthwhile, or if people are just using it as a nerd status symbol. It was so hard for me to figure this out, I actually went the route of trying out Org-mode for months. I tried it for everything, email, calendar, TODOs, shopping lists, finances. But the truth is, after all that time and excitement, I determined that Org-mode (for me) is a perfect authoring tool, but not the perfect life organising tool.

There is a fallacy in the Org-mode community that if you just keep configuring, and keep adding the correct libraries, you can consolidate all your organisational needs in one application (Emacs). There is a dream of this hacker type who gets an email, immediately opens it up in their Emacs buffer. A few key presses later, that email is a TODO, or an agenda item, or a checklist, or the bones of a blog post. I don’t think we’ll ever get there though, because having worked in software companies, I know that this level of UX integration costs millions to build. People overestimate themselves too. We are creatures of habit more than anything else. Maybe you can create an excellent keyboard shortcut for everything in your life, but you will only remember the top N shortcuts you use most often (N varies from person to person). And if you go on holidays for a few months, good look learning all your cool little hacks again, just to create some TODOs and appointments. No thank you, I’ll stick with paper and GUIs for this one.

A clever program or script isn’t always the solution

Author: Seán Healy

Created: 2020-10-18 Sun 21:18

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