Gestures, Filters, and Scripts for Efficient iOS Email Processing with Gmail and Mailbox

I recently wrote about how I handle email, a lot of email. In summary:

  1. Schedule email processing; I mainly process my email at the start and the end of every day but I do dip in and out during the day.
  2. Process each email only once; read it then either archive, answer, or action it.
  3. Archive emails that don’t require further action; answer those that can be responded to immediately; action those that require further attention or follow-up.

This keeps me sane and productive.

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A 10-Step Plan for Productive Email

This is the second in a series of blog posts that I intend to write about my productivity practices. The first described my general approach to email, tasks, and scheduling. In this post I will focus on email.

I used to deal with a lot of email. It got me down. It was a constant pressure and it made me feel unproductive. I still deal with a lot of email. But now I am in charge. I am more productive because I get more done in less time and I feel much better for it. Here’s my 10-step plan.

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Yet Another Productivity Post

Recently I have found myself giving a few talks to young researchers and faculty on how I manage my time to get things done. During these talks I have described some of the tools and techniques that I use to manage my time – something I thought was obvious – only to receive a barrage of questions and requests for more information. So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts on this topic. This post covers the basics at a high-level and in future posts I will take a deeper dive into email, tasks and calendars.

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Sensors 2.0 – Beam me up.

Some interesting things seem to be happening in the sensor space recently, particularly in area of food scanning and nutrition monitoring. Monitoring food intake is a common feature of many life-logging, exercise tracking, and quantified self apps these days but it has always felt clunky and unsatisfactory. The standard approach is to expect people to simply log what they eat. Some apps take a bit of the guess work out of this by providing users with access to a database of common foods to choose from. Others go a step further by, for example by allowing users to take a photo of their food which is then analysed by experts or crowdsourced calorie counters; check out the Meal Snap app for instance.

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Living on Air

I love my MacBook Air. My 2012 version is the second I have owned and it is hands down the best laptop I have ever used. Speed, size, weight, battery life are all great. But for some reason, lately I have been thinking that it is too heavy. Yes, the MacBook Air – more or less the thinest, lightest, laptop ever – is too heavy for me. In truth it is not just the Air. It is the Air (1.35kg) plus its charger (approx. 200g) plus the iPad Mini (300g) that I always carry, and the logitech keyboard for the Mini (just over 200g). That’s more than 2kg in total.

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3-2-1 Backup!

In my experience PhD students tend to finish in batches. I wish it wasn’t that way but for me it is, mostly because of funding cycles. This means that once every 4 years I have between 4 and 8 students finishing up. It’s a stressful time for them and for me. And, unfortunately, every cycle there is a reasonable chance that one of them will experience a catastrophic loss of data, due to a hard-drive crash or equivalent, which really exposes weak backup policies. For a PhD student it can be devastating because it can mean a loss of thesis and experimental data that could in the worst case set them back years.

Thankfully it has never come to this because I always hammer home the 3-2-1 rule of backups:

3 – Keep 3 copies of everything.

2 – Keep backups on 2 different media types or at least in 2 different locations.

1 – Make sure one backup is offsite.

I use a variation on this approach as follows. First I keep a copy of my main Documents (root) folder sync’ed through Dropbox. There is a particular trick to doing this and care needs to be taken – check out these instructions – but once it is done you will have a backup stored by Dropbox. A great advantage of this is that you now also have access to all of your Document files from Dropbox on any of your other devices or through a browser.

Second, I use Apple’s Time Machine to perform daily incremental backups to a hard-drive at work. This also allows me to recover lost files using Apple’s great Time Machine browser.

Third, every week (more or less) I create a clone of my laptop drive using Carbon Copy Cloner to a USB drive at home. This means that I can boot up from this external drive in a pinch if I need to and have access to up to the second files via Dropbox.

This has worked well for me, allowing me to recover from some bad drive failures without any significant downtime.

That said I am currently evaluating how I might be able to spend more of my time in the cloud, as a strategy for ditching my laptop, or at least not carrying it everywhere. I plan using a iPad Air with a keyboard as my main machine. No doubt this will introduce some new backup and syncing challenges…

Activity Sensing & Personal Analytics

I think that this year will be the breakout year for wearable personal analytics gadgets, those bracelets, clips, shoe sensors and apps that count our steps, track our fitness, watch what we eat and analyse our sleep patterns. This month saw these gizmos capture some significant limelight at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas with everything from smart watches to kids pedometers, and from geeky bangles to the now notorious Hapifork (yes it’s a fork, but it buzzes to tell you to slow down when your are eating too fast!).

In the past these types of gadgets have tended to focus on measuring one type of activity, perhaps sleep, or counting steps and measuring distance and speed with the help of a connected phone app; it all really started back in 2006 when Apple announced their partnership with Nike and launched the Nike+ pedometer, which communicated with your iPod nano as you exercised. But today devices like Jawbone’s UP are taking this a lot further, by combining activity tracking with sleep monitoring and allowing you to track your eating. And I must say there is something very compelling as you start to use these devices and related apps as you quickly become immersed in your personal activity data. It’s fun to slice and dice your progress as the weeks roll in to months.

I think that two things will happen this year to push this tech into the mainstream. First they will be come truly wearable. This means that their batteries will last for days, they will offer over the air synching, and they will survive a trip to the shower. They will also start to look good!

Second these apps and devices will start to get a lot smarter. Right now I need to tell my iOS RunKeeper app when I am jogging vs cycling vs skiing. But in truth this information is hiding in plain sight in the patterns of accelerometer and location data the app collects. Data that this year’s new crop of apps will start to mine and use. How exactly? Well identifying the activity is just the first step and, truth be told, not a terribly interesting one. The next logical step will be to use this data to make recommendations to people for new products and services, running shoes or fitness programmes, for example. Maybe offer a discount for a local gym that specialises in the type of cross training that you are not getting from your run-focused fitness schedule. Will my app recommend a change in my activity or eating habits to aid a better night’s sleep?  Or what using our activity data to identify and create communities of like-minded people to exercise together. This is all just around the corner. And as I wrote this blog post I came across Amiigo on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, which aims to do much of this by June this year.

At last. Sketch. A Vector Graphics App for the Masses.

A big part of my day is spent writing (scientific papers, lectures, research proposals, business plans etc) and a big part of this is diagrams, charts, and other visual elements. I like creating visuals. I’m not especially good at it but it’s enjoyable and a great way to really capture the essence of a complex concept. I’m embarrassed to say that in all of this time (almost 20 years) I’ve come to rely mainly on the likes of Powerpoint (and sometimes Keynote) to create these visuals. What’s wrong with that you might ask? Well these are both capable presentation packages but their core competence is the creation and management of slides, not creating art work. Sure they provide some powerful drawing capabilities, choc full of all of the usual tools that one might expect (shapes, lines, curves, elaborate files and patterns) but they stop far short of the type of capabilities available through Illustrator or Photoshop.

So why not use Illustrator and Photoshop? I’ve tried but these are great examples of feature-bloat. Both options provide so many features that it’s difficult to know where to start and I have always found myself wondering whether “I am doing it right”. So back to Powerpoint and Keynote it has always been.

Then earlier this week I came across Sketch for the Mac, which promised Illustrator-like vector graphics but with a minimally viable feature-set and a great Mac interface. I must say that after only a few hours of use it doesn’t disappoint. The interface feels familiar in the way of great mac apps. It provides all of the shape creation and text tools that one would expect but it also exposes a number of hugely powerful vector manipulation tools that are absent from the likes of Powerpoint and Keynote. For instance, the ability to create new shapes by logically combining individual shapes (union, intersection, difference, overlap) is fabulous and working with simply layers is a godsend; I am always ‘loosing’ my shapes in Powerpoint as they become hidden in a mess overlapping elements. There is also a very powerful set of fill features that allow for the usual colour, gradient, and texture fills, but also make it possible to combine and blend fills together.


Sketch is available for a free  30-day trial from the Sketch website. After that it’s a €45 purchase from the Mac App Store. I think I’ll be getting it once the trial period expires and the app is certainly garnering some strong reviews and here’s a useful video walk-thru that gives a good overview of the basic capabilities.