Digital Tools of the Trade

by RS on November 19, 2011

A page from Benjamin Franklin's Calendar.

Benjamin Franklin’s calendar is admirable, but what’s more impressive was that he had a stick-to-it-ness to complete all his daily tasks and reach his goals that to a mere mortal like me seems impossible to achieve.

I love calendars and to-do lists. Every year I vow to emulate Franklin and keep myself better organized, and every year I spend too much money on beautiful leather bound calendars for desk and purse, along with fancy pens, sticky notes, and just about any gimmick that will be an incentive to keep my daily tasks in order. What happens, though, is I end up writing everything on backs of envelopes and napkins; I lose my pens or a certain Beagle decides to make a notebook or pen his chew toy of the moment.

A Certain Beagle. Photo by Rebeca Schiller

I’ve eschewed the lovely Filofaxes, Moleskine, and Clairfontaine notebooks, sticky notes and pens, and now this mania to keep organized has shifted to software productivity tools. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who read this blog: I am a self-admitted software junkie. I love planning out my day and setting up alarms to remind me it’s time to do a certain task; I love the entire concept of organization… until it’s time to actually do the task.

But I’m getting better and after playing around with certain tools there has been some progress. I’m developing a method to my madness in getting my tasks accomplished and reach my goals. So if you’re interested of how I keep my messy house in order, here’s a rundown of some of the programs I use:

At the top of the list is Scrivener. There’s no question that using Scrivener has helped me keep all my writing projects organized. I use Scrivener for everything and that includes this blog, Julius, all the articles I edit and write for HAND/EYE Magazine. What’s my favorite feature? There are too many to list, but I’m fond of the document notes, and the scratch pad. Both allow me to jot random ideas that might pop in my head while I’m writing an article, a post or working on Julius.

A Certain Ditzy Beagle. Photo by Rebeca Schiller

One of my key issues is that I putz my time away. Because I have the attention span of a certain ditzy beagle there are many times throughout the day that I need to force that will power to keep me away from email and the virtual break rooms (Twitter, Facebook, and Google+) so I use one of two applications: Freedom or Self-Control. I wrote about Freedom back in the middle of June, used it and liked it, but  a month later I discovered Self-Control. It’s similar to Freedom, but I like it better because it doesn’t block everything. The issue I have with Freedom is that it blocks out all Internet based resource applications. Thus, I can’t use my dictionary, or any of my style books (AP or CMS online). With Self-Control, I can create a blacklist of the programs I want to block and not access as well as a whitelist of those I need. It works well and it keeps me less distracted. Incidentally, Freedom cost $10 after the trial period and Self-Control is free.

As far as keeping a to-do list, I’ve tried just about everything from calendars to sticky notes and nothing seemed to work for me, except those stray envelopes or napkins. I’m a huge fan of Yuvi Zalkow and in one of his presentations on time management he recommended Omnifocus, which allows you to to store, manage, and process tasks into actionable to-do items. Although there is a bit of a learning curve, I like the program’s flexibility. And so far it has helped me with prioritizing numerous projects and completing my tasks.

For some projects, I tend to type the same thing over and over again and after a while it becomes tedious and time consuming. I’m not a programmer so I can’t design a macro that will allow me to write the same snippets in just a few keystrokes. But I don’t need to learn how to design macros because the very handy TextExpander does it for me. With a minimum of three letter abbreviations of sentences or words, I have ready-made standard responses, I don’t have to type out names and titles I use often. The best part is that there’s no learning curve at all.

For web research, I use Evernote, which is designed for note taking and archiving. A note can be a piece of formatted text, a full webpage or webpage excerpt, a photograph, a voice memo, or a handwritten ink note. Notes can also have file attachments. Notes can be sorted into folders, then tagged, annotated, edited, given comments, searched and exported as part of a notebook.

One of the most time-consuming tasks I usually face is trying to find a file, and it’s much harder when all the files are the same blueish-gray color. Mac gives you the option to color label your files, but it’s not the label I want colored, but the file itself so it will stand out. There are several applications, some on the expensive side, difficult to use, and glitchy. I recently discovered Folders Factory that allows you to create colored folders with logos, photos, labels. It’s quick, easy to use and for $5.99 it’s worth every penny. Now I can open up my finder go to document files and easily find my folders because they pop with color!

And now with all these tools to keep me organized, I think I can follow in Ben’s footsteps. I may never reach his level of greatness, but at least I’ll finish a handful of projects.


Cecilieaux Bois de Murier
Cecilieaux Bois de Murier

A few comments.

Don't get too carried away with Ben Franklin. His ideals and his behavior were not one and the same.

The software you mention is all very Mac-centered and almost everything is commercial. There are freeware and free open source equivalents. I'd like to suggest a few:

For macros, I use AllChars ( in Windows. I am working on learning Autokey, which runs on Windows, Linux and even Macs, but this is more a scripting language than a simple text expander.

You don't note it, but Evernote is free and in can be made to run in Linux.

Any good file manager should have a decent file search function, one that allows you to move the file if you think it belongs elsewhere. I collect file manager apps and there are literally tons of free ones in the Windows and Linux worlds. The best are those that imitate the old Norton Commander from DOS.

My personal favorite is Servant Salamander, which has a pay version and a free (older but useful) version. (

Another set of file managers that a real speed-demons are the text-based file managers: Midnight Commander (there are *nix versions one Windows version and even Mac). The *nix version is at in source and binary form. The Mac version is available at The Windows version is available at or

Yuvi Zalkow
Yuvi Zalkow

Rebecca! I'm honored that you mentioned me in your post... But even more, I love how you cover a bunch of techie tools while remaining so down to earth regarding how and why you use these tools. (So easy for us to get lost in the tools themselves... at the expense of getting anything done.) And then so great to frame all this with Ben Franklin's productivity methods! Wow. Beautifully done...

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