Monday, December 26, 2011

Getting Things Done with Thunderbird


Let me ask you a question: have you ever used todo lists? I have. Lots of them. And I don't like them. Some require singing on to an online service, and collaboration is clunky, or require money. And then they require your team members to use the same service, let alone people outside of your organization. Some are just downright too basic, and don't sync between multiple computers. But there is a bigger issue, so let me tell you what I do instead and why.

Many of my tasks (stuff on my plate) come to me through email. So, if you have a todo list that is separate from email, you will end up copying and pasting a lot back and forth. Yes, I know you can create todo items from email, but you still need to make sure your todo list stays in sync with your email.

Yes, I have read David Allen's "Getting Things Done", and I love the book. I have tried the paper approach he describes, but I ended up having to write down things that come in through email. And then when the piece of paper shows up on top of my list, I have to dig through the email and locate the item so I can work on it. In all fairness, David's book is not so much about using paper, it is more about the process.

My Approach

So, a far easier approach is to overlay the todo list with your emails. To do so, I am using labels, and I do that in Thunderbird (There are a few tutorials on the web, e.g. : see here).

I have been using this setup since the Summer of 2011 and haven't modified it since the initial setup.

I have renamed the standard thunderbird labels to

"DoNow" and "Do". I really see no need for more than two categories of urgency. You either have to do it NOW or do it a little later. DoNow versus Do only refers to time, both are important. I do not believe there are unimportant things you need to do. If they are unimportant, you don't need to do it. If you need to do it, it is important.

'WF' : Waiting For. I use it to mark emails that I have sent to someone asking for some action. I also use it to track purchases I have made when the order confirmation email comes in, or when the confirmation of a paper submission comes in.

'Someday/Maybe' : I use it for keeping interesting things around for later. Say: a funding opportunity that may be interesting in the future, or a new journal asking for submissions.

Email Triage

I have 'new mail' notifications turned off, so I only check my email when I'm done with something. Yes, I split up my work in 15 minute chunks, so I never miss out on something really urgent. Most of the triaging goes on in the morning though.

So, once I open email, I hit 'N' to go to the next unread email.

If an email comes in and I can do what is being requested in less 2 minutes, I do it right away. This is on of the most powerful things in the David Allen strategy.


So, an email comes in requesting if I can review a paper. I decide whether I want to do it, and if so, I hit the key "2", the shortcut for applying the label 'Do' in my label setup. 

An email comes in asking for some information, I hit '2'

An email comes in saying we are out of gold for our evaporator, I hit '1' for 'DoNow'

An email comes in with a confirmation that I purchased something, I hit '5' : WF

I ask somebody to do something, I mark that email with 'WF'

Actually Doing Stuff

Now the time comes to do something. I hit the use the Quick Filter bar, and select 'DoNow' and do whatever is there. Afterwards, I hit 'Do'. I also have search folders setup, but prefer filtering my inbox instead. That way, if there was more communication on that task, I can quickly navigate the message thread.

WF : Waiting For. At the end of the day, I see what I have been waiting for. If things have been completed, I clear the label. If there has been no response, I choose to either send a reminder, or wait a little.

Someday/Maybe. Every once in a while, I revisit this list (about every week), and see if there are things that I want to work on now. In that case, I change the label to 'Do' or 'DoNow'.

Closing The Loop, Capturing Off-Line Action Items. So, what do you do if there is something on your plate that did not have an email that originated it? Send yourself an email! Like I said, most of my action items originate in email, so this rarely happens. But, if someone asked you in the hall to do something, ask them to send you an email, or, what I do, is send them an email with a summary of what you discussed and what actions were agreed upon. And apply the appropriate label. WF for if they need to do something, or 'Do'/'DoNow' if I have to.


What was the action? The problem with using 'email as todo list' is that you need to remember what action was required based on an email, or you'll have to reread the email every time you see it. This is a little bit out of line with the Zen approach to todo lists: only put things on there that are actionable, and use language that is action oriented ("Follow up", "Read", "Think about", "Do", "Write", "Google"), but it works for me. Besides, this is not too much of an issue, as long as you remember what action item was required. As a workaround, you could respond by sending an email to yourself, where you write what action is required and apply the label to that mail.

Dates: No capturing of due dates. If it is really important, and requires long stretches of work with not too many little tasks, use your calendar.

Final thoughts

And it's portable! Since I use thunderbird to access my google mail through imap, both thunderbird on my mac as well as linux machines are always in sync, and that includes the labels. Just make sure you name the labels the same on all thunderbird installs. Sometimes I need to restart the applications to force reloading labels, especially when coming to work, when I have been applying and changing labels on my laptop, and want to continue on my desktop.

Threading provides history and context. One of the greatest advantages of using this method is that you can always use the threaded message view to see the history and context of that action item. In addition, that also helps if you forgot to clear the WF label if you forgot to do so, because you see the follow up messages right below it.

Thread hijacking and multiple action items per email. Sometimes threads get hijacked, or you get a message with multiple action items associated with it. In that case, forwarding separate emails to yourself with separate action items may be advisable.

Cross-platform and -organization. As all my communication is through email, the collaboration and communication aspect of this todo list comes for free and it works across organizations! 

No context. A lot of David Allen's framework is about contexts: At Home/At Work/Behind Computer. I don't use them, as I almost always have my computer with me, or I know I can only do a certain task when I'm physically at work or at home. If you want, you could have a third label 'AtHome', yes, you can have multiple labels, and use that to provide some context, but I don't. I do minor triaging on my cell phone, adding stars to things I need to apply labels to when I'm behind the computer. Yeah it is not ideal, but my silly phone email does not do mail labels and I'm not in the market for a new phone just yet.

No associated files. I wish there was a nice way to link files and folders to action items. So when you start work on a certain task, you automatically open the right file and folder. This would be especially useful for actions that have a long lead time, and documents don't get revisited until a few months later. If possible, I keep the attachments around and work off that. 

Finally. Always be aware of the 'next thing'. When you clear a label, always ask yourself if there is a next action item that is supposed to follow after this one. Rinse, Repeat, Enjoy :)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Podcasts I Listen To

Keeping me informed, entertained, and sane during my daily commute.

This is what I listen to

Back To Work
Good show about working efficiently, presentations, planning, heavily inspired by Getting Things Done

The Command Line Podcast
Tech news, interviews, creative commons culture, monologues

Stanford Entrepeneurship Corner
Lectures by entrepeneurs, lots of them in the dot-com sector

Engadget Podcast
Gadgets, gadgets, gadgets

Futures in Biotech
Every episode has a specific theme in biotech. Interviews with great people. 

Floss Weekly
Every week interview with leader of an open source project. 

Hacker Public Radio
Random bits

Linux Outlaws
Linux news and views, great banter, rants are epic

The Naked Scientists
Science news, question of the week, kitchen science projects

The MythTV Cast
News, tips, and tricks for MythTV, the PVR software we run at home

NPR Planet Money
Basically Freakonomics in a weekly show, e.g. find economics in Gangnam Style

Peach and Black Podcast
All things Prince. News, reviews of albums

NPR Science Friday
Weekly science show

Security Now
Probably my favorite show: propeller-head descriptions of the basics of crypto, how the internet works, security news, Q&A, with excursions into latest finds in Scifi etc.

The Vergecast
Tech, gadgets. Hosted by the former Engadget editor in chief.

This Week in Science
Pretty much says it all

This Week In Startups
Great show, interviews with entrepreneurs and investors, news.

This Week in Tech
Roundtable discussions of the news

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me
The famous news quiz

This is what I watch
no ... I don't watch and drive :)

The Ben Heck Show
Building stuff, modding

Engadget Show
Gadgets, gadgets, gadgets

On the Verge
Tech, gadgets, in a talk show format, with great interviews, reviews, and discussions

Geekbeat TV
Gadgets, tech news

Make TV
Making, building


Evers Staat Op

Edit Nov 5, 2012: 

Added Planet Money, The Vergecast, On the Verge, This Week in Startups 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

If you're not confused, you're doing it wrong

Whether you're working in the lab, trying to discover New Things, or taking a class, trying to learn New Things, you will invariably get confused.

This is a good thing

Classroom. In order for your brain to absorb new knowledge, it first needs to be open to it. You will not be able to absorb the new facts presented to you until your brain has had a chance to mark the facts currently stored as 'inadequate to explain presented facts'. The first order of business, therefore, is to make sure that all old knowledge is marked as such. The best way to do this, is to frame questions and demonstrations in terms of old knowledge, and demonstrate that the old knowledge does not adequately describe these new facts: confusion.

Lab. When you're working in the lab, trying to discover new things, you want to be in a territory that is uncharted. The best way to make sure of that is to do something that nobody else has ever done before. Therefore, the confusion that you encounter when seeing something unexpected is the best indicator that you're on the right track. Confusion, therefore, is a Good Thing. As Isaac Asimov wrote : The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but "That's funny..."

When I'm in the lab, and I encounter something confusing, I know I'm doing something right. Conversely, if I'm not confused and find myself seeing things that I, or others, have seen before, I know I'm doing it wrong.

That being said, this all should ultimately lead to understanding and a resolution to the confused state of mind. If that is not the case ... well ... I'll be writing about the future.

Friday, May 27, 2011

MacBook Air and MacOSX : likes and dislikes

A few days into using my 13" Macbook Air and Mac OSX, these are my likes and dislikes. Note that I am coming from Ubuntu Linux (and I have definitely not given up on that for my lab computers, even run it in virtual box on this air) so that is what I am comparing the MBA/OSX experience to.


1) Spotlight. I love the ability to quickly search through all digital assets: documents, pictures, music, email, contacts, and calendar. This is simply amazing, I cannot imagine how I ever lived without it. It does require you to use the OSX way, though, e.g. commit to The Tools: use native OSX apps and store stuff locally or at least register cloud services with them. I've set up an rsync job to synchronize my documents with my lab computers.

2) Weight/screen size. My previous laptop had similar weight to this machine (EeePC), but this MBA is so much more powerful, and has a much larger screen (13" vs. 10")

3) Solid state hard drive. It is so fast and makes no noise, it's got no moving parts after all. I was worried that I wouldn't be comfortable with only 128Gb of space (my EeePC has 160Gb and that was getting tight), but it turns out so far that it is more then enough. I don't know if I'll be comfortable on a data diet in the long run, but - frankly - I only need my documents to Get Stuff Done.

4) Instant on. Closing the lid puts the machine to sleep and it wakes up in a few seconds. This is probably so fast because of the solid state drive, but it is a major convenience. On the EeePC, I would often not put the device to sleep because I anticipated using it later on, but then I would worry about the battery life. Now, I just close the lid, knowing that my battery life will be fine and the machine will be there for me to work with when I open the lid.

5) Gmail and Exchange integration. All calendars, email, contacts are synced, nice!

6) Python and Perl are installed out of the box

7) The Terminal. It's there, 'nough said.

8) X server. Love being able to ssh -X $host and run X apps from other machines.


1) No package manager. Like I said, I am coming from Ubuntu, and it is so nice to be able to manage/download/uninstall all applications through one interface. This also pulls in updates and security fixes. You really can't beat that. Maybe the App store can solve that. On that note:

2) Shareware, it's the 90s all over again. I find it hard to find good tools written by passionate people that do not charge a few bucks here and there. It is probably me being spoiled with such awesome open source (and free) tools in Ubuntu that puts me in this place, and it is definitely a Dutch thing (being 'cheap'), but I've gotten so used to it! Macports might fit the bill though ...

3) Keyboard shortcuts. I've gotten used to my keystrokes and have a hard time getting used to new ones, or they don't exist. For instance: where is the shortcut to 'go to next unread mail'? Yes ... I think There's A Script For That. 

Things I did for a smooth transition, aka The Cloud is Your Friend:

1) Use Gmail/IMAP for mail, continuous and cross platform access to your mail. Yes ... I have a fetchmail job running on my linux box to keep my own copies of mail in case Gmail pulls a PSN, or an Amazon EC, pick your "Cloud Goes Down - Where's My Data" disaster story.

2) Use LastPass for password storing and management, using PIE = 'Pre Internet Encryption' (Security Now is your friend)

3) Use Zotero for managing references

4) Rsync for everything else

5) Hamachi (now owned by logmein) for managing your own private network with NAT traversal. Keep pinging those peers, though.

The Future/Things I Haven't Done Yet

1) I hope to explore AppleScript a little in the future, it seems to be a great tool to customize and automate frequently used tasks

2) I haven't written anything in Latex yet, but TexMaker seems to be able to cope with what I've written so far.

3) RSS reader. I use LifeRea on my Ubuntu machines and keep it running. I rely heavily on search folders to make sure that I pick up things relevant to my field (keywords : graphene, nanotube, DNA, nanopore) sooner rather then later. This is a great tool, and I haven't had a chance to explore alternatives yet. No, Google Reader is not good enough, no search folder, which, if you think of it, is rather ironic for the #1 leader in ... wait for it ... search!