Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Personal Organization Tools

I used to be very disorganized.

The first useful organization tool I employed was a Franklin Planner calendar notebook. I used the pages that gave a day's schedule on the left, and offered a lined note page on the right. (To find Franklin's one-page-per-day format, you may need to scroll.) If you don't use the Planner, of course it does not work. However, if you have it with you nonstop (students can carry it in a backpack; it's not small, and if you walk around an office folks will quickly notice that you are using it and that you refer to it constantly). You need to refuse to make any appointment without the Planner in front of you, and to write everything down the moment it becomes a plan. I can scan a page's calendar and immediately see where I have an open time slot and how big it is -- figuring out whether you are available to do something becomes a snap.

The key to success is about 15 minutes of ritual: every day, the undone tasks are evaluated for their continued relevance and moved forward (with new priorities, if delay has changed things) to the next day's task list.

"But," I hear you saying, "that thing is huge."

Well, yes. It is. On the other hand ... it works.

The downside?

The Franklin Planner is a peculiar page size, it has a hole-punch pattern you'll not see elsewhere, nobody seems to make compatible pages, everything associated with it costs a small fortune, and the whole thing is pretty big. Not to mention, you will probably not carry more than a month or two of daily pages with you. Other appointments, you will write onto month-labeled tabbed cardstock pages (which have very little per-day room) and then transfer to your pages when you put that month's pages into the tab. When you need extra scratch paper for a busy event (you will be carrying this thing with you everywhere, so you'll naturally write all kinds of notes in it), you will be using Franklin's high-dollar paper.

Synching? Heh, heh.

Organizing In The Era Of The Computer

I tried using Lotus SmartSuite's calendaring software, when it was available for OS/2 Warp (when OS/2 Warp was itself available), and I found that moving from paper to computer and back was a drag. An unexpected benefit was, however, that Lotus SmartSuite's calendar allowed events to be calculated on the basis of a certain number of days offset from some other date, or some other recurring thing like the day of the week in some month ... so you could create an algorithm for generating an accurate Election Day -- the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November -- and allow you to schedule an event three days before that event whenever it occurred every two years. I've never seen another program as flexible with its event scheduling, excepting Perl, but then, neither Palm Office nor iCal (the only one's I've personally used since the 2003 posting about Perl's date/time magic, though I've seen enterprises using homegrown Microsoft's SQL Server product, though I was amazed based on the behavior of these homemade time-sinks that they were still in operation anywhere) have given me a UI that made using Perl's date calculations easy to do.

So, in Lotus SmartSuite I was able to make anniversary events that L could not anticipate, but which I could treat as very serious and honor with great reverence and L was unable ever to call me to task for missing these events because L had no idea how they were calculated. So events like the Counter-Anniversary (based on things like our first date and the date I took L to a birthday dinner for several months after) have been effectively shuttered due to technological complication. Long live Lotus!

Organizing In The Era Of The Portable Computer

With the advent of the Palm Vx, I was suddenly able to put all my scheduling and calendaring information in my pocket. When the year passed, I didn't need to revisit my contacts list to see whether I should re-write several pages to make additions and deletions more legible; I just kept adding and deleting them and it worked like a charm. What's more, the Palm Vx promised to synch with my computer so I could potentially type at full speed into a contact's notes section, or to add contacts that came to me at home, then synch it all up. Unfortunately, Palm's (PALM) commitment to synch on my Mac (by then, OS/2 had been discontinued and I had experienced enough Microsoft products at work to understand I couldn't afford to keep them running at home) was pretty poor, so I ended up keeping track of a lot of this stuff using the Palm Vx stylus and the Palm Graffiti, which had some pretty outlandish effects on my actual handwriting.

This seemed to be going pretty well -- event notifications, consistent access to my contacts and calendars, unit I could use a few days without necessarily having to charge -- but the device started behaving oddly. I'd tap with the stylus, and it'd recognize the tap off to the right and up. I'd open the application that enables users to re-educate the Palm as to where the user is really tapping, and soon the device would be unusably wrong again. I was driven to a variety of solutions, when the unit was so borked that it couldn't recognize I was trying to launch the "digitizer" app that retaught the device where I was trying to tap, including hard resets that vaporized all the data. It turns out that the Palm Vx had a design flaw: the row of little sensors that attach to the screen bottom and let the unit feel taps apparently tended to fail, and with the failure, any hope of accurate tapping.

By the end of my use of the Palm Vx, I was so disgusted with its unreliable behavior and Palm's disinterest in doing anything about it that I had very little interest in spending hundreds of good dollars on the chance a subsequent product was more durable. Of course the subsequent products seemed thicker, as they used replaceable batteries. I gave up in disgust.

Current Portable Scheduling Solutions

Apple's iPod wasn't much of a solution, as it didn't have data input, and the iCal application was so slow that using it for routine work was absolutely intolerable. I wasn't even tempted to think Apple had a solution for some time.

Now, Apple's announced not only synchronization (by plugged-in synch, or wirelessly via a Push Notification Server) with users' contacts and calendars, or even their employer's, but -- you'll never believe this -- has launched a phone that accepts stylus-free touch input. You may not have heard of this thing, as it's been available only in connection with selected wireless carriers (it's a cell phone, not a desk model, so the screen is not too big) and only sold by Apple in a couple of countries. Next month Apple will take the wraps off a phone with higher communication speeds, a built-in GPS, support for third-party software, and carrier support in more than five dozen countries. Given that Apple is opening a retail store in China, I'm thinking that a carrier in China is on the horizon, which should help my shares.

I will focus my comments on Apple's iCal into another entry. Suffice it to say, it's not ready for prime-time (well, not on J's G5 iMac, anyway). On an 8-processor beast, maybe it's usable, but for me it's such a slug when one looks at the chilled-molasses response of the user interface that one can't be sure of hitting the right button. For example, I tried adding to my list of "participants" in an "event" that was a doctor's appointment all the people I expected to be at the "event" so I could see what the application did with the information. The application was so slow changing the buttons and labels that after I added the doctor's name and clicked "done" I noticed the "done" button change to "send" before the click was registered. I tried getting the Mail.app to close down before it sent an invitation to the physician to the doc's own office to see me, but alas, when iCal is eating up all the processing power available for your computer's user interface, you are kinda screwed.

And please don't tell me to recall the email. The only thing "recall email" does is to send another email stating you wish you could take back the old email. Maybe if everyone involved has the same email client they can agree those messages should be honored, but I've never seen it work.

While Apple's iSynch has gotten slightly less apt to fail, I'm not yet persuaded.

However, all this Apple stuff will have to wait for another entry. I've had poor luck getting Apple to respond to bug reports, though I've had a couple of spectacular successes. My future plan will be to explain in graphic detail just where Apple's products fall down, in the hope Apple does from embarrassment what Apple might otherwise never get around to doing out of an actual sense of obligation to do right.

The upshot? I have an iPhone but I'm not yet back to the level of utility I enjoyed using the Franklin Planner. I'm hoping the next round of software and hardware updates (including my desktop) will put me in a better position to keep atop of all my myriad tasks and projects.

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