Tools I use for handling information

by David Harris on January 19, 2011

We’re all drowning in information. Managing it all takes practice and some thinking but, also importantly, the right set of tools.

There are as many ways to manage your information as there are people but I want to describe what I use. I’m structuring this by function rather than by tool because it’s what you want to achieve that’s important and you can’t lose sight of the goal. If you’re a gear junkie, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in the latest toys.

You might choose different tools but you should have something for each of these functions.

My memory–There is no question for me that Evernote is the most important tool I have for storing information. I can save pretty much any type of document electronically, or photograph things in my surroundings as I go along. Just yesterday, I really liked the design style of a wedding invitation so I took a snap of it and uploaded it with the Evernote app on my phone. The best part of Evernote is that everything is searchable, even text in pictures. I have been amazed when Evernote finds a word in my almost incomprehensible scrawl in a photo of a whiteboard! Evernote also does character recognition inside PDFs so makes them searchable. (You need the $5/month version for PDF searching and much higher upload limits–well worth it.)

My text input device–If I am anywhere other than my desk, I tend to use my iPad with a wireless Bluetooth keyboard. It is light and compact enough to take everywhere I go and it helps prevents me from getting distracted by filling the screen with blank page for me to cover in e-ink. I have also been known to use the keyboard with my iPhone if I haven’t had the iPad handy or the batteries died. Yes, this is written on my iPad. I also carry a backup notepad with my favorite pen. But don’t get me started there as I’m something of a stationery junkie.

My canvas–On the iPad, I tend to use PlainText for typing. It stores documents on the iPad and synchs them to the cloud when it is online. It handles folders nicely and is just a pleasure to use. It really is simplicity for writing. I’ve also used Elements which is quite good but limited in its interaction with Dropbox and it’s file management.

My file cabinet–Evernote is keeping a lot of my miscellaneous information but I like to keep my documents in the cloud via Dropbox. Dropbox is free and easy to use, allowing easy access and easy sharing with others. It allows me to get to my documents on my desktop computer, net book, iPad, or iPhone, depending on which I have to hand.

My paper processing–When I moved to my home office, I realized I had tens if thousands of printed pages which I wanted to keep but might not really need. Furthermore, it would have been impossible to find what I needed in them. So I invested in a commercial paper cutter, the Come 4700, bought on eBay. With it, I proceeded to slice the spines off documents, magazines, and even some books that I only really wanted in electronic form. Pretty much anything paper I reduced to single pages. Then the magic happened using the Fujitsu ScanSnap sheet-fed scanner. It scans double-sided in color at up to 20 pages per minute as PDFs or other formats with one button press. Then it can run character recognition on it all and leave you with a searchable PDF. The huge pile of documents is either searchable from my desktop computer or from Evernote for the documents I am likely to want on the go. Then all the paper went to recycling.

My finances–I either scan or photograph my work receipts into Evernote at home or on the road. Then I stuff the originals in a big folder just in case I ever need them in physical form.

My red pen–When I need to edit documents, I like to do it in plain text so I tend to use Plaintext if possible. However, I’m often sent Word documents or Excel spreadsheets. I open these on the iPad with Quickoffice. It doesn’t show all the markup people do on Word documents but I am less likely to be doing that work on the go so I just use Word on a desktop computer. On my desktop computer, I like to use Notepad++ for plain text editing.

My e-reader–At the moment, I’m most fond of Stanza on the iPad. One killer function for me is the ability to very easily change the brightness of the screen by simply swiping up or down. It’s amazing how often this is handy. You could do it through iPad settings but that is annoying. The other great part of Stanza is that works well with lots of other apps so you can open all kinds of documents in it.

My reminders–I’m not slavishly devoted to David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology but there are some really good aspects. The design community firm Behance has developed what it calls the Action Method for making to do lists. The iPad and iPhone apps work really well for me to get my tasks out of my head and into one place, both business and personal, and allow me to check what I am forgetting to do. It’s a good planning methodology as well, focussing on what you should do next and pushing you to action rather than bogging you down in too detailed and unrealistic a project plan and timeline.

My social media interactions–For facebook on the iPhone, I use the official app but it’s quite limited in what it can do so I tend to only use that for checking if I have important notifications. On the iPad I just use the full website, which does everything except chat. The official Twitter app works really well on the iPad and iPhone so that is my main tool. I keep Tweetdeck on hand also for some occasions and on a desktop computer.

For chat–I have gone mostly cold turkey on chat and only using it when I have a specific need, which is rare now that I’m not in an office environment. Most of the people who would chat with me will find me on facebook or gmail to chat if they want to. However, skype is a standby for voice and video chat and some text. IM+ is by far the best chat client for iPad and iPhone and I’d recommend it if you are hooked on chat.

My utilities–There are a bunch of other things I need to do with documents and I use various apps for them. When I need to unzip an email attachment on my iPad, I use iUnarchive Lite and send it off to Stanza or Quickoffice.

The list

Hardware

  • Desktop computer
  • iPad
  • iPhone
  • Apple Bluetooth keyboard
  • Come 4700 paper cutter
  • Fujitsu ScanSnap

Software

  • Office
  • Notepad++ (free)

Apps

  • Action Method ($1.99 iPad, free iPhone)
  • Dropbox (free)
  • Evernote (app free, see below)
  • Plaintext (free)
  • Stanza (free)
  • Quickoffice ($9.99 iPad)
  • iUnarchive lite (free)
  • Twitter (free)
  • Tweetdeck (free)
  • Skype (free)
  • IM+ ($9.99)

Service Subscriptions

  • Evernote ($5/month)

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