The next step in task management

Just a quick note cause I’m so excited about the following two services:

Amazing Marvin has just about everything I need t manage my tasks, including time tracking and pomodoro timer. And the team that is building the tool is absolutely amazing (just look at their changelog!

and

SkedPal is an auto-scheduler which automatically schedules and reschedules your task based on various Time-Maps.

I don’t even have time to add images to this post at the moment but I thought if I don’t write this post now, it’ll probably be another month before I do it. Please do let me know if you have used either of these and what your experience was.

Note: The link to SkedPal above is an affiliate link which gives both you and me a 10 percent discount on the subscription. Note, however, that I am, not yet ready to give an informed opinion about how well it works. But if you’re willing to give it a try, you might awell use the discount link. ūüôā

Noggle: search the content of all your files

Noggle

I previously wrote about how two Desktop Search programs, Lookeen and X1 Search) miserably failed me and recommended a little free program called “Everything” to quickly find any file on your computer. I use it everyday and rarely use the Windows Explorer anymore to locate a file.

But there is one limitation with Everything: Setting it up so that it also searches the contents of your files is not easy and when you have it set up and it finds a file based on a search term it contains, it still won’t tell you where in the file you can find the term. You will have to open the file and do another search within the file.

Not a big deal, you may say, but a couple of weeks ago, I discovered Noggle and I’d like to encourage you to try it out (and report back here, if you like). I have not yet used it enough to give a final verdict, but I looks like it pretty much beats any other desktop search program I’ve tried. And: it’s free for non-commercial use.

Unfortunately, the UI diverges a lot from the standard Windows experience so that you’ll have to experiment amd try stuff out a bit. I suppose you get used to it after a while.

UPDATE 13 january 2019: On my computer, Noggle hast started to use loads of CPU power while indexing seems to have gotten stuck.

UPDATE: 19 february 2019: I mentioned earlier that Noggle may have become abandonware because I had difficulties getting a response from their support. While support later did get back to me and we managed to get rid of the high CPU issue, but I’m still unsure about whether Noggle is still being actively developed. I anyone knows more, please comment below.

Duplicacy is my new backup solution (after CrashPlan shut down)

Image result for duplicacy logo

I have been using Crashplan as my backup tool since February 2015. At the time, I bought into their four year family plan (=multiple computers) for 429.99 USD. But Crashplan turned out to be a memory hog (especially if you have a multi-terrabyte harddrive) and it was clear that I want a better solution so I started looking for an alternative in 2016, one year before the subscription was supposed to end. I focused on software solutions that would allow me to back up to whichever storage I want so that I would be in better control of my data (Crashplan at some point deleted an entire backup of mine because the computer it was associated with hadn’t backed up anything for more than six months. Apparently it was in line with their Terms of Service, but deleting backups is not a goof thing to do for a backup company).

I spend a lot of time testing various solutions, including Arq, Goodsync, Cloudberry, SyncBackPro and Syncovery. Goodsync, Cloudberry and SyncBackPro were out pretty quickly [Note that the notes about those three are from 2016 and things may have changed]:

Cloudberry cannot handle backups larger than 1TB unless you buy the enterprise version for 300 USD. It’s crazy!

Goodsync had crap customer service (reasonably fast response, but useless and not answering my question) and it was designed more for syncing than for backing up (although backing up is possible).

With SyncbackPro, the restore process seemed rather complicated and once a folder is selected as the source, you cannot add other folders to that backup job. (Well actually you can change the source folder and the original stuff in the backup will remain but will no longer be backed up.)

Syncovery was very promising but I kept bumping into bugs and errors and I spend a hell of a lot of time helping the developer debug these problems and he actually ended up compensating me for some of that work. So while my experience with the software was not so good in the end, I can only say good things about the support by the developer. He listened patiently to my problems and although he insisted that he has lots and lots of customers where the software works fine, I did manage to convince him to look at the issues I had (this is how it should be but not all developers/companies do that) and we managed to track down a couple of bugs but it seemed a neverending story and so I eventually decided to scrap syncovery and start looking anew, even though this entailed that I would probably have to pro-long my Crashplan subscription another year.

This is when I discovered duplicati 2 and although it was still in beta, it looked very promising. In particular, I liked that it is open source and future proof in the sense that I would always be able to access my encrypted data, even in decades when duplicati may no longer be maintained. Because I did not like the existing support channels (gitter, google groups), I helped the developer set up a discourse-based support forum which has attracted a lot of users since its launch in August 2017, partly, I suppose, due to Crashplan announcing the end of its service for home users, many of whom explored duplicati as a possible crashplan alternative.

Unfortunately, I kept running into issues with duplicati (mostly having to do with the local database being corrupted and repair not working) and bug fixing went slow, as it is a hobby project for the developer. With my crashplan subscription drawing closer to its definite end in April 2018, I decided to try yet another alternative: duplicacy.

Duplicacy worked more or less flawlessly from the beginning (though less technophile users may find it to complicated to use) plus it has a killer feature that I have not seen anywhere else so far: cross-source deduplication. In plain english, this means that when I sync my files to different computers via dropbox or similar services, they will be uploaded only once: The program notices that these files are already backed up and will not upload them again, thus saving a pile of space.

So if you don’t have a backup solution yet (or are unhappy with the one you have), I highly recommend you look at duplicacy (I use the command line version, but there is also a GUI version).

If you find it too “technical”, you should give duplicati a try: the development seems to have made significant steps forward in the past couple of months and many people are already using it without any of the issues that I had. I still think it is an excellent solution and the thriving community is very helpful if you encounter problems (I am still trying to convince the duplicacy developer to setup a similar forum…). If you are interested in how I’m running scheduled backups using the Windows Scheduler, let me know.

I am currently using duplicacy with pCloud, which, unfortunately, I cannot recommend at all as a cloud storage provider, but that’s a different story.

Oh, I should mention that another advantage of duplicacy over duplicati for me was that duplicacy even runs out of the box on my rather old Netgear ReadyNAS Ultra (which runs on Debian Etch), while duplicati doesn’t because it needs a newer version of Mono.

UPDATE: Duplicacy now has a very user friendly support and discussion forum at forum.duplicacy.com.

TimeCamp introduced edu discount

I recently noticed that TimeCamp, the time tracking tool that I’ve been using for almost two years now¬†has introduced a discount of 50 percent for non-profits, universities, students and schools. And that is 50 percent on top of the 25 percent that you get if you pay yearly. So that means, you currently pay 3.50 USD per month if you pay monthly or 31.50 USD for a yearly payment, which is 2.63 USD per month.

If you want to know why I prefer TimeCamp over other time tracking services, check out this blog post, where I go into details. I want to emphasize, though, that TimeCamp is not perfect. For example, they do have server outages every now and then and although their integration with Asana is better than any other time tracking service, there are still problems like the occasional orphaned timeentry (although the task is under a project in Asana the time entry in TimeCamp has no parent), which messes up your entire stats. Indeed, for anyone whose income depends on correct time entries and correct calculations of durations, I cannot recommend Timecamp because it has repeatedly produced faulty reports so that you really need to double and triple check your data before you can really believe it.

Lookeen and X1 Search suck! – Everything just works

Haha, what a weird title! So let’s get this straight first: with “Everything”, I mean this little freeware program called Everything, which allows you to find any file on your computer within one second. Literally. I’ve been using it for years and it’s about time I mention it here. You just press a shortcut of your choice (In my case: Ctrl + Shift + J), a search window opens:

everything1

You start typing whatever you remember about the file, say, you know it’s in your dropbox and it’s a png file, so you type “dropbox png” (without the quotation marks) and it will immediately show you all png files in your dropbox (make sure you have “Match Path” activated in the Search Menu):

everything2

As you can see in the screenshot, you may not even have to type the whole word dropbox. – Of course, if you know the file name (or parts thereof) you would type that. Doubleclick the file to open it or drag and drop it into your email to send it off or whatever you want to do with it.

Now, everything has its limitations, and so does Everything: it only indexes file names and paths (i.e. the folders and sub-folders where the file is stored). So when I found out about two desktop search engines, Lookeen and X1 Search, which will even index the contents of your files, I was enthusiastic about the possibilities that would open up, for example to search all my pdf journal articles for a particular word or phrase.

So I tried both. And both were a nightmare. Both of them kept using a significant proportion of my CPU for several days, allegedly still indexing all the files, but eventually I figured out that since X1 was not accessing the disk at all, it must have crashed. I went back and forth with their support for a while, but to no avail. The user experience was crap, even when I finally did manage to get it to finish indexing and could run som searches. One problem was that some pdf files were not displayed properly, it was just a mess of letters and symbols (though I think that was eventually fixed, if I remember correctly). Like this:

But the main problem is that if the pdf is a scanned document, it will only bring you to the page where your search term is, but it won’t highlight the term (the pdf viewer they use can’t¬† do that kind of overlay over an image, as explained here).

Lookeen wasn’t any better. It never stopped using CPU and I’m not sure if it ever managed to finish the indexing job, but I did conduct some searches and here the problem is that it doesn’t even take you to the page in the document where your search term is. The email search in Outlook didn’t work properly (worse than Outlook’s own, if you know what that means).

Sorry, this is not a proper review but I just couldn’t be bothered to write it up, because the verdict is just so clear: don’t bother. Or if you do want to try either of them and you encounter problems, just uninstall. Otherwise you’ll just waste your time. If, however, you do not encounter issues, please comment below and let us know.

The main point of this post was, however, not to bash X1 search and Lookeen, but to praise Everything, which just works (and it just takes seconds until a newly created file is available in the search).

A commercial alternative to Everything, btw, is Quickjump. It does exactly the same as Everything and it works fine (I used it for quite some time before I found Everything) but it’s not as flexible as Everything (which lets you customize a lot!), so I don’t see why you’d want to spend 30 USD on something you can get for free. Thank you to David Carpenter and the other contributors for giving us that nice piece of software!

A fascinatingly simple method for getting focussed (and the science behind it)

focusatwillIf you are urgently looking for a way get focussed right now, just head over to focus@will and everything will fall in place. If you want to read my quick story, read on.

I am almost a bit embarassed to admit that I only found out now just how much it helps to listen to music while working. More specifically, it helps me to get (and stay) focussed. Until last week, I tended to frown at all those hipsters with their headphones on while working on their laptops MacBooks. Like: “Yeah, as if listening to your favourite music is going to help you focus…”

Turns out, I was so wrong (but also a little bit right). Wrong, because I’m now listening to music while I work and it is incredible how much it helps me to focus. Right, because I’m not listening to my favourite music.

As an academic, I always have an open ear for scientific arguments and when I learned the mechanism behind why listening to music helps you focus, I got curious: Basically, the theory goes like this: when our brain is focussed on a specific task or goal, it eventually gets used to that goal and it becomes increasingly boring. It’s called “goal habituation”. So what happens is that your brain is starting to “look for” something new and more exciting than that task that it’s been looking at for half an eternity (read: 10 minutes?). So that’s when you start checking your phone or remember that you really need to add something to your shopping list.

And this is where the background music comes in: listening to (the right) music apparently keeps your brain just busy enough to not get bored but not too busy so that you are distracted. In other words, it prevents (or perhaps: mitigates the effects of?) goal habituation.

The trick is that the music has to be such that you neither particularly like it nor dislike it.

It sounds plausible, doesn’t it. So I got curious and tried out¬†focus@will¬† last Friday and was baffled how well it worked. I got so much done! I had achieved similar states of flow before and without music, but those were special moments, when something really cought my attention and no other important things were on my mind.

But I decided not to believe this until it worked multiple times. So I turned it on on Monday too and it worked just as well. And so it did on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and right now (Friday again). So I am confident now to say: this really works for me.

In fact, I’ve almost become addicted (in the good sense): I now sometimes find myself craving to get back to my desk, turn on the music, and get flowing again.

I combine focus@will with the PomodoroTechnique, which means that I now consider any 30 minute slot between two scheduled things a slot in which I can get something done, instead of thinking: “oh well, I only have 30 minutes, it’s not worth working on that article because by the time I get started, I have to stop again.” Now I say: “Yippieh, 30 minutes, that’s perfect to do one flow-pomodoro session” and off I go.

Another advantage with the focus music might be that colleagues will learn: when s/he is listening to music, s/he is working working hard and doesn’t like to be interrupted.

Okay, enough for today. I’ll update this post if my opinion about flow@will changes. In the mean time, please let me know if I’m the only one who is so fascinated with this tool or if you have similar experiences. More importantly: if you feel it’s not working for you, please leave a comment so that this review get’s some necessary balance.

Also, I’m wondering if anyone manages to achieve a similar effect with a Spotify playlist (or their 1980s mixtape, for that matter). If you are already paying for Spotify (I don’t), it might be worth trying one of their ambient or chill playslists first…

 

UPDATE1: After two months, I am still using focus@will, but not as often anymore. I’m not sure whether this is because I’m getting tired of it or because I have just had so much to do in the past couple of weeks, that I was constantly focused anyway. I guess it also depends on my mood, some days background music is just the right thing while on others, I just want quietness.

UPDATE2: About 7 months later, I am still using focus@will occasionally but the past months I have been pretty busy with teaching and administrative tasks where I don’t need the kind of deep focus, or rather: it doesn’t help me when I have a lot of smaller tasks to do. I do have one gripe with focus@will though, and it somewhat upsets me that they don’t seem to care about fixing this: when you listen to the same channel for several hours (the other day I was on it for more than four hours in the morning and then another four hours in the afternoon) you get to hear the same stuff multiple times. I told them months ago and considering the price tag, I would expect something better. But they haven’t fixed it.

Weava: best tool for online research (and offline pdfs)?

I just discovered this tool called Weava that helps you annotate websites and pdfs and collect the snippets that you highlighted on various pages. I have hardly tried it yet but thought I’d briefly mention it here because what I have seen so far looks really exciting. It’s pretty much what I’ve been looking for since years.

As you know, it is easy to discover ever new things or snippets of information on the web (including on the websites of academic journals where you went for one article but end up finding three others). What happens is that I end up having about 356 open tabs in my browser because I don’t want to loose whatever I just found but I don’t have time to look at it more closely now. Yes, that’s what bookmarks are for. But bookmarks only save the link to the whole page. With Weava, you save the snippet of information that is relevant on that page.

Anyway, I don’t want to convince anyone. That bookmarking use case is not even the primary use case for which the app was designed. They started off wanting to help students do research online as well as – perhaps more importantly – systematically read and annotate pdfs, perhaps even collaboratively. And then they noticed that not only students are using it…

To really answer the question in the title, some more research needs to be done, because, of course, Weava is not alone. Here is a list of Weava alternatives that probably should be part of a comparison:

I’ll stop here because the list could be continued almost indefinitely. So what do you do when there is such a large number of similar services to compare? I don’t have time to look at them all (but see here for a previous little review I did). So in those situations I try to find open source or at least non-profit projects that seem to be active and promising. And in this case, these would be¬†Zotero with¬†Zotfile and¬†hypothes.is.

If you have some experience with any of these, please share it, even if it’s only a brief “why I like it” or “why I don’t like it”.

Time tracking and task management for academics

I have been tracking my time for almost 9 years now and I have changed systems several times. I have also used various task management (or project management) tools in the past years and since about a year or so I have managed to integrate the two.  In this post, I wan to share my experience and perhaps make your choice of tools a bit easier.

I will mention the tools I have used in the past only briefly and the suggest three¬†scenarios which I think are the best solutions you can find these days, depending on your needs. If you can’t be bothered reading the whole story, here is¬†the gist of it (or tl;dr):

Scenario 1: If comprehensive time tracking is not so important for you and you are mainly looking for an easy way to keep track of your task, KanbanFlow is for you. The free version is perfectly sufficient for scholars but when I used it I actually signed up for the paid plan (5 USD per month) because I liked the swimlane feature.

Scenario 2: If you want to¬†track your time throughout your workday,¬†get a visual idea of how you spent your day (or week) and integrate that with your task management tool, then your best solution is using Asana for your task management in combination with TimeCamp for time tracking. Asana is free for up to 15 people, so you can even use it to coordinate work in a team but you’ll need to pay 6 USD per month for TimeCamp if you want to integrate it with Asana.

Scenario 3: If you are just looking for a time tracking tool and keep your task management entirely independent from that, I suggest you go for Yast. As an academic (student/teacher) the developer will Рupon request Рgive you a free premium account (which normally costs 6 9 USD per month) but you may not even need that if the free account works fine for you.

So much for the quick summary and recommendations. Now comes the whole story.

Timepanic

tipenscreenshot01
Sample Screenshot from the developer’s website

I started using TimePanic back in 2007¬†simply as a means of finding out where all¬†my time was disappearing to. At the end of the workday I¬†often found that although I was certainly busy the whole day, it felt like I hadn’t really achieved as much as I wanted and wondered what I had used my time for.¬†TimePanic is an offline Windows program that allows you to define certain keyboard shortcuts for switching to a specific task,

(For example, I had one of the F-keys set to “Chat with colleague” because when a colleague walks into your office to ask you something, you don’t want to start clicking all over the place to set your time-tracker to “Chat with colleague” before you actually react to him or her. So a simple key press would achieve that. And if you want to track who you actually spoke to or about what, you can fill that in afterwards)

and which shows¬†allows you to produce detailed reports about how much time you spent on which¬†task or project or how you spent your day or week or whatever.¬†You can also define a day as a holiday or sich-leave or vacation etc so that you don’t end up wondering why you worked so little in August 2009¬†or so. (This feature is actually something I miss on all other time tracking tools I have used and tried so far!) Timepanic’s price is not cheap at 39 EUR but I have never regretted spending that money, even on my tight PhD student budget at the time. The developer was very responsive when I had questions or suggestions and the software¬†was very user-friendly.

The most interesting (and somewhat ironic) effect of starting to track my¬†using TimePanic was that I became much more aware of what I was doing already while I was doing it, simply because I had to log it. And perhaps more importantly, I became very aware of distractions (self-distractions and distractions by others) as well as any change of task, again: because I had to log it. It’s a nice example of how the¬†measurement changes what it measures. (They observed the so called Hawthorne effect already decades ago with industrial workers, but it’s something else to actually experience it in yourself!)

So for anyone wondering whether time tracking is really worth the effort when¬†you can’t use it to bill anyone,¬†consider this self-disciplining and consciousness raising effect. Indeed, I¬†rarely actually run any big analysis on my time-tracking data (although I do intend to do a little longitudinal study over the years one day. When I have time ūüėČ ¬†I just look at the day and the week and 80 percent of the time I’m only interested in the total time worked. Not even the project, let alone the task break down. But I do look, for example, at how much time I spend to peer review a paper – 8 hours! And I can’t seem to be able to do it much faster ūüė¶ ¬† – or on publishing a paper (170 hours), but checking these things remains the exception. It’s just too frustrating to see how much time stuff actually takes!

Another reason to track your time as a scholar is to get rid of that bad conscience of not working enough. Or you might even be able to use your figures in negotiations with colleagues about how much time should be allowed for what kind of task. This may not be relevant in many parts of the world, but¬†at Swedish Universities, your employer actually keeps track of your workload (and hence how many more tasks you should take on in a certain time period) and they use certain standard rates to estimate your workload. For example, at my department, correcting an exam gives you 20 minutes (sic!) and for giving a 1 hour lecture, you get paid 4 hours etc.¬†When such rates are negotiated, being able to say “I have been tracking my time over the past X years and based on that this kind of committee usually takes X hours or work” might actually have a certain weight.

I left TimePanic because I wanted a graphical representation of my daily timeline. I wanted something like this:

yast-timeline
Yast’s visualization ¬†displays of how you spent your day is quite unique in the diverse world of time-trackers

I asked the developer and since it wasn’t on his roadmap at all, I¬†decided to go online, even though I would have preferred to be independent of the internet when it comes to time tracking (yeah, I know. But, hey, this was in 2011/12 when people still had a life outside the internet!).

Criteria for an online time tracking tool (choosing Yast)

I tried out a whole pile of online time tracking tools (and the number has multiplied since!) and thanks to Evernote, I still have my list of features that I used when comparing various options. Here it is (with some quick comments added):

  1. many projects, tasks and sub-tasks (and sub-sub-tasks…)
    • All tools offer that, but the question is¬†whether and how much you have to pay for it. Sometimes the free plan is limited to one or two projects (like Harvest or Freckle) or don’t allow sub-projects/ tasks (like Toggle).
  2. logging of time of day (not just duration)
    • Many online tools (including KanbanFlow¬†or Freckle) allow you to aggregate the time you have spent on a specific task, but they¬†will not remember when¬†you spent that time. Which implies: there is no time-line like the one shown above. At best, you get pie charts of how much of your time went to which project etc.
  3. easy switching between tasks/activities
    • after all, I’m gonna do that multiple times a day and ideally it should¬†take zero seconds to so it.¬†With it’s shortcuts-feature, TimePanic is probably still best at that. Because it is running on your computer, you can use global shortcuts to control it even when it is running in the background. With web-based applications, you have to at least bring¬†your browser to the foreground and click some button. But the point with this criterion is basically that¬†there should be a list of recently used or favourite tasks that I can start by clicking on them and starting one will automatically end the previous one.
  4. graphic display of projects over time (stacked)
    • I think what I meant by that was that I would like to be able to see, say, over the course of a year, which projects I¬†was mainly working on each week or so. I don’t think I found this in any tool I looked at.
  5. android app or at least good mobile browser interface
    • If I’m going online, I at least want the benefit of being able to log my time also when I’m not at my desk but, for example, doing field work. Also good when you leave the office in the evening and notice you didn’t turn off the timer…
  6. note or comment field for each logged activity
    • This helps you to better understand afterwards what you were actually doing. I use it especially for big chunks of work (several hours), also to indicate that this record is correct on not a mistake of a forgotten timer. Having a comments field also prevents you from breaking down your tasks into too many small tasks. For example, if you have a¬†task “write review for article XYZ” you might be inclined to have sub-tasks like “read the manuscript” and “write comments to authors” and “write comments to editor and submit”, but with comments, you can just write that into your comments field (unless you really want a formally exact break down of how much time you spent in each)
  7. defining the activity before it ends
    • This may sound strange, but I have seen tools¬†where you just start a timer and only when you stop it will you be asked to say what you actually did during the tracked time. I don’t like that, not only because it defeats the¬†disciplining effect mentioned earlier, but also because when I move on to the next task, I don’t want to thinking and writing about what I did but about what I’m about to do.
  8. offline use possible (cache or whatever)
    • I you’re tracking online, an internet or server outage¬†just 30 minutes will interrupt your workflow and create extra work to fill on the gaps when the connection is back. Unfortunately, Yast had quite a few server outages and does not have an option for offline use.
  9. Not too business oriented
    • The thing is, most time¬†trackers are designed¬†either for freelancers working for clients or companies¬†tracking the time of their employees (or a combination thereof). Since this is not what we do as scholars, we need to adapt these systems for our purposes and I’m fine with that, especially as long as I’m on a free plan. But there are limits to what I’m willing to use. For example, it’s fine to have an option to track time not only against projects but also against clients, but if the user-interface is designed in such a way that I am constantly asked to enter the client details or I even have to make up mock clients so that it works, then that tool is not for me.¬†And then there are many tools that are more focussed on facilitating¬†billing rather than tracking and analyzing time use (e.g.¬† MakeSomeTime)
  10. Low cost
    • Since I won’t make more money¬†because I¬†track my time, I don’t really want to pay a lot for this, perhaps I can even get it for free?

I will spare you all the details of my notes (which are four years old now). Suffice it to say that I eventually chose Yast¬†because it fulfilled criteria 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10. I can still recommend it if you don’t want to integrate your time tracking¬†¬†with your task management too (scenario #3 above). So here it is. This is what it looks like:

yast
The Yast user interface (At the top, I chose the weekly timeline view for this screenshot, as opposed to the single day view shown above)

 

KanbanFlow

Now, lets leave time-tracking aside for a moment and look at task-management. Until a couple of years ago, I was not using a particular task management system or tool but some combination of Outlook tasks, Outlook Calendar and some kind of lists (even on paper, yes!) But then I learned about the kanban method which apparently originated from lean manufacturing in the automobile industry, was then adopted in software development less than a decade ago. Although the original idea was to coordinate tasks and workflows in teams by visualizing them on a whiteboard, the Kanban was soon adopted to the personal level: the personal kanban. And while you can do this with paper notes on a pinboard, the digital version obviously bears a lot more potential.

So I looked around and tested quite a number of online kanban tools (such as: Kanbanery, Pivotal Tracker, Agile Zen, LeanKit Kanban, Kanban tool, kanbana, targetprocess, and, well, Kanbanflow). I will not go into any comparison here because I think¬†for scholars¬†the best choice is by far KanbanFlow and¬†if you do a bit of comparing yourself, I am quite confident, that in the end, you will agree with me (please leave a comment below if you don’t – or if you do!)

The fact that KanbanFlow is the only Kanban tool with an integrated Pomodoro timer is already a fantastic advantage over other tools (find out more about the pomodoro method here). In addition, it allows you to track how much time you spent on each task, simply by clicking a button on the task-card (which you obviously are looking at anyway, when you are working on that task). I already mentioned the (paid) feature of Swimlanes which I used to separate teaching, administration, and various research projects from each other.

So I used KanbanFlow as a task-management tool for quite a while in combination with Yast as a time-tracker and it works fine.¬†But¬†at some point I noticed that I am¬†not really using KanbanFlow for all my tasks. Sometimes I wouldn’t open it for days because I knew exactly what I had to do during those days anyway. But that also meant that I wouldn’t rely on it as my main task list, as the place to write that important thing that must not be forgotten, because I¬†could not be sure that I would look at it when that thing needed looking at.

At first, I considered using the then new time-tracking feature in KanbanFlow instead of Yast so that I would open KanbanFlow first thing in the morning in order to¬†start tracking my time. In order to do that, I would need to put all my tasks into KanbanFlow, and that’s where the problem started. The hierarchy of projects, sub-projects, tasks and sub-tasks that I had built in TimePanic and Yast over the years was quite complex and KanbanFlow wasn’t built to accommodate that kind of complexity in one Kanban board. The idea in KanbanFlow is to have one board per project. Technically, this is not a problem because you can easily create as many boards as you want. But¬†I did not want to switch between boards, for example, when I finished preparing a lecture (in the “teaching” project) and start to prepare the interviews for a research project. And imagine the hassle when I student (teaching project!) comes in while I’m working on those interviews).

Besides,¬†Kanbanflow’s time tracking is still rudimentary and since the developer said that this isn’t going to change in the near future, I decided to look for another solution. I still like Kanbanflow very¬†much and may well change back to it once it’s time-tracking is a bit more sophisticated. So if time tracking is not a priority for you – perhaps you only want to know the time you spent on certain tasks but not on others? – then I suggest you should give KanbanFlow a try.

For me, abandoning KanbanFlow unfortunately meant that I would also leave Yast due to its lack of integration with any other online tools which made it impossible to find a task manager that would link to it.

The solution I came up with after some¬†comprehensive testing and which I am still using today is Asana in combination with TimeCamp. I hope to write about this setup in more detail in a separate post (please comment below if you’re interested in reading it), so I will keep it short here.

Asana and TimeCamp

The beauty with this combination is that TimeCamp offers a browser plugin (Chrome only!) that puts a time tracking button on each and every Asana task and when you click it, it starts/stops tracking time against that task in TimeCamp. Like this:

asana
The (very customizable) Asana user-interface with the TimeCamp tracking button. On the left is the task list and on the right are the details of whichever task you select from the list.

This means that I don’t even need to open TimeCamp any more except for reporting purposes, i.e. if I want to know how much I worked on that day or whatever. Most of the time, I am only looking at Asana and tasks or projects I create there are automatically transferred to Timecamp and when I move them around in Asana they are also moved around in Timecamp so that my Time-Tracking and my task hierarchy are always in sync.

If you want to give it a try, please use this referral link to sign up. And let me know if you want to know more about this setup. It might encourage me to actually sit down and write it.

I just realize that with this referral link at the end, this looks like I wrote this whole thing only to get you to sign up for TimeCamp. But believe me, I have long planned to write about this and I only recently discovered that Timecamp have a referral program, so rest assured that my review here has not been biased in any way¬†by the prospect of getting a¬†reward for referrals. In fact, I still have some critical remarks to make about TimeCamp, but they won’t deter me from recommending them and I need to catch some sleep now. In the mean time, feel free to ask questions below, which can guide me when writing my¬†next post.

 

The Xcanex document scanner: update #3

Xcanex-scanner¬†This is a follow up to my previous review posts (1, 2)¬†on the Xcanex document scanner from piQximaging. Just a quick one. As you know, I like to complain about everything that doesn’t work perfectly, so this is of course about some more complaining…

But before I start complaining, I also need to say that I have come to appreciate the scanner to make a few scans here and there: e.g. the when I was ripping some CDs the other day, whose covers I could not find online, I just flipped them under the scanner and it was just a matter of seconds¬†until I had the cover image saved with my ripped¬†audio files. Or some of those official letters that you don’t know whether you will ever need them – probably not – but you don’t want to have them pile up on your shelf: I now just scan them, save them in Evernote or wherever, and get rid of the paper copy. I’m starting to think, maybe I would actually spend those 300 USD for the device (mine is a review copy).

But¬†I guess I’d do some comparison work, especially regarding scan quality. In my last update, I already showed¬†illustrated the limits of the device compared to a professional photocopying-machine-scanner,¬†but I’m not sure how the Xcanex would fare when compared to something in the same price range or even with the various smartphone scanning apps out there, which do pretty much the same. But I’ll leave that comparison to others to make (please do tell us in the comments below!).

So, here is what I want to complain about (of course hoping that the developers will fix this in the next software update): I just scanned about 100 business cards that I¬†have collected over the years. The good part is that the scanner offers timed automatic capture (i.e. it does one scan ever x seconds) so you just flip those cards under it, one after the other and it captures them, no problem. But once I had them all scanned, I wanted to drag-and-drop some of the scanned cards from the perfecapture software directly into Evernote. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

OK, let’s do copy-and-paste then. I tried to select a couple of scans and paste them into an Evernote-note. Well, it doesn’t work either. It only works with single scans. And¬†when selecting a single scan, you cannot copy it with your usual “Ctrl+C” shortcut. No. You have to click on the “copy” icon of the¬†perfecapture software. I think that’s quite cumbersome!

Next problem:¬†after I copied¬†various cards into Evernote, I wanted to delete them from the perfecapture software. At first it worked (or did it?), but now I cannot delete any of the scans. I don’t understand why. Maybe I hit some shortcut that protects scans from deletion? To be honest, I haven’t bothered to check the manual on this (laziness, but also experience that manuals rarely help with these things). Anyway, if this is not a bug, I think it should be transparent to the user why deleting is not possible (instead of the “delete” key just having no effect at all).

So, how do I get this scanning job finished without losing any card by not saving it? My last resort is to save all scans in a temporary folder and then drag and drop them from there into Evernote. So I selected all scans and hit “save”. Well, unfortunately, perfecapture is now asking me for each and every scan to manually confirm the file name. And no possibility to select “apply to all” or something like that. And it takes about a second¬†between the save-dialogues to come up, so here I sit, spending another two minute just to save those scans. Developer fail!

Speed-reading pdfs using the “Spritz” technique

sprint reader logoA couple of days ago, I came across Spritz, a company that is popularizing a speed reading technology whose name I’ve forgotten called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation.¬† You get the idea once you look at the Spritz website. I immediately thought that this could be a way for me to read all those texts that I have to read as an academic a lot faster.

I am a very slow reader for three reasons: the first is that I look up every other reference and almost all footnotes. Sometimes I get so distracted that I even look up some of the references and start reading those instead (and so on).

Another reason is that when I read an interesting paragraph of sentence, that often triggers my own thoughts and associations and I start wandering off, thinking about how I might integrate that idea into my own text or whatever.

Finally, the third problem is that I simply read slowly, I guess because I really want to understand and thing through everything, rather than focusing on the essentials.

Now, I don’t want to philosphize too much about the pros and cons of speed reading here. Suffice it to say that if the aim is to get through a text reasonably fast at 350 words per minute with at least superficial understanding of the content (or even ridiculously fast at 800 wpm with probably minimal understanding but a rough idea), then this Spritz technique seems adequate to me, and I have indeed read two articles that way yesterday.

My point here is to show you how to read pdfs using this technique (not the original Spritz itself, cause their app is not released yet) because the reading apps that are out there at the moment seem to work only with plain text, while most academic articles come as pdf files.

It’s not a big deal, actually, but it took me a while to figure it out nevertheless. All you need is the Chrome bowser with the Sprint Reader extension installed. You also need to make sure that you have the native Chrome PDF Viewer enabled. This is the case by default, but if you are using Adobe Reader or Adobe Acrobat, you might have disabled it. In order to enable Chrome PDF Viewer, type “chrome://plugins/” into Chrome’s address bar and scroll down to find Chrome PDF Viewer and, well, enable it. The following will not work with pdf-files that are not displayed using Chrome’s PDF viewer.

You can now use Sprint Reader to speed read not only text on websites but also your locally stored pdf files (just drag them into the browser). Select the text you want to read, right click and select “Sprint read selected text”. There you go. (Needless to say that your pdf file needs to have actual text in it, not just a scanned image of text. If you have an image of text, you need to run some OCR on it.)

The Sprint Reader extension in action
The Sprint Reader extension in action

I recommend setting the “pause after period” higher than the default 450 milliseconds. I’m currently using 900. I also set the “pause after paragraph” to 2000, but that basically has no effect when reading a pdf, because there seem to be no paragraphs in there that the Sprint Reader would recognize as such, unfortunately.

There are also a couple of other drawbacks that we currently will have to live with, especially that the reader will – not surprisingly – read all the text in the pdf, which means it will also read the header on each page, the page numbers, and – most annoyingly, the text inserted on every page by various publishers, such as:

This content downloaded from xxx.xxx.16.16 on Thu, 17 Apr 2014 06:49:43 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

You will also encounter problems when there are tables and figures in the text, but hey, otherwise it works okay.

Why did I chose Sprint Reader and not any of the many other similar services and extensions such as Spreed – speed read the web, Spread Speed Reading Extension, Spreeder, or OpenSpritz, to name but a few? Well, it’s the best of them all. It’s not perfect (I did encounter a couple of crashes or whatever it was when it simply did not work until I restarted the browser), but it is very customizable and it works with pdfs, which not all of the others do.

Having said that, here are some suggestions for improvement in Sprint Reader, especially for people like me reading scientific texts:

  1. Add an option to exclude (i.e. hopp over) brackets containing a four digit number. Why? Because that would exclude all references provided using an Author-Year citation style and make reading academic texts a lot easier.
  2. Recognize abbreviations such as e.g. and treat the dots in these differently (i.e. don’t apply the “pause after period” rule). One quick way of minimizing this problem could be by checking whether the dot is followed by a capital letter. If not, it’s not a period.
  3. It would be nice to be able to exclude customized strings, such as “This content downloaded from xxx.xxx.16.16 on Thu, 17 Apr 2014 06:49:43 AM All use subject to¬†JSTOR Terms and Conditions” (see above)
  4. Ignore hyphens at line breaks and join the words to one. The few cases where the hyphen should not be eliminated because it is a hyphened word, are negligible.
  5. Recognize paragraphs in pdfs (see above). I’m not sure whether this is possible, but I might as well add it to my wish list.
  6. Add a keyboard shortcut for quick rewind as, for example Spreed has it (I think it was spreed anyway). In addition, it would be nice to have the replay at a lower speed and then back to normal speed when passing the point where the rewind was initiated.
  7. The extension should not be dependent on the text selection in chrome, once it has started. This is feels almost like a bug to me, although it is not, but it is a bit of a pain in the *** that you cannot unselect the text you are currently reading without the reader losing track of it. It would be better if the reader would load the whole text into its own memory, once you press play, making it independent from what happens in the browser.

UPDATE: I just realized that the Sprint Reader sometimes seems to have problems rendering text in pdfs. I have a pdf in which it reads some of the text without problem but when I select and right click other parts, there is not even a possibility to select “Sprint read selected text”. In fact, this may be a problem of chrome (or the pdf?) and not the extension. Either way, be prepared to encounter this problem with your favourite pdf file…