88 Tech Tricks to Turbocharge Your Day
By Gina Trapani

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2007 Gina Trapani
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-05065-1

Chapter One

Free Up Mental RAM

Your mind is a powerful computer. But sometimes it works against you instead of with you. Your brain makes complex decisions and stores years' worth of information, yet there's one thing it doesn't do well: think of what you need when you need it.

When you're walking past the dairy section at the grocery store, you don't realize you've only got a day's worth of milk left in the fridge at home. When do you remember the milk? When you're standing in the kitchen with a box of cereal in your hand.

Short-term memory is a lot like RAM, the temporary memory on a personal computer. It's where you keep all the things you see and experience, and the thoughts that pop into your head throughout the day: "Gotta call the vet when I get home." "Didn't realize that new Italian place is there, should invite her out to dinner this weekend." "Wonder how much a Spanish class would cost." "Darn, I never emailed Jim back about those forms!"

Productivity expert David Allen says these types of thoughts all represent unfulfilled commitments you've made to yourself - what he calls "open loops" - that distract and overwhelm you, creating stress, anxiety, and a constant sense that there's too much to do: "Your conscious mind, like the computer screen, is a focusing tool, not a storage place. You can think about only two or three things at once. But the incomplete items are still being stored in the short-term-memory space. And as with RAM, there's limited capacity; there's only so much 'stuff' you can store in there and still have that part of your brain function at a high level. Most people walk around with their RAM bursting at the seams. They're constantly distracted, their focus disturbed by their own internal mental overload."

Whether it's remembering that you're due to make a dental appointment, or stowing away that tidbit of information you found online for next week's presentation, the only way to deal with all the stuff in your head is to get it off your mind and into a system that can help you recall it at the right time.

This chapter explores various capture systems that offload distractions, pop-up thoughts, and to-do lists to your computer for easy recall, timely reminders, and, ultimately, a clear head.

NOTE For updates, links, references and additional tips and tools regarding the hacks in this book, visit (Append the chapter number -, for example - to go directly to a specific chapter's updates.)

Hack 1: Email Your Future Self

Level....... Easy Platform.... Web Cost ....... Free

Every day you've got a lot on your mind and a lot to do. As a result, it can be nearly impossible to remember mundane recurring tasks - like when it's time to change the oil or go to the dentist - or even important yearly events, like friends' and family birthdays.

Lots of PDAs and calendar software applications have some kind of reminder feature, but who knows what you'll be using next year when Mom's birthday rolls around. What you do know is that you'll still be checking your email.

There's a simple way to get email event reminders without being tied down to particular software or device. The free, web-based Yahoo! Calendar ( can email or text message you event and task information on the days and times you specify. Create a time-based reminder file that emails your future self the data you'll need to know at just the right moment in time with Yahoo! Calendar.

NOTE Like Yahoo! Calendar, Google Calendar ( .com), is also a free, web-based calendar that can send reminders via email or SMS (Short Message Service, also called text messaging).

To get your reminder file started, go to Yahoo! Calendar, sign in with your Y! ID, and then follow these steps:

1. Click the Add Event button at the top of the Calendar. The Add Event page opens. 2. Name your event in the Title text box - Mom's birthday, for example. 3. Use the drop-down lists to select the date of your event. 4. Enter the reminder message you want to receive about your event in the Notes text box. Include all the information you'll need to accomplish the task or manage the event. 5. Scroll down to the Repeating section, and click the [Show] link to expand it. Choose to Repeat Every Year. 6. Scroll down to the Reminders section, and click the [Show] link to expand it. Click the Send a Reminder option and use the drop-down lists to set it to send you a reminder anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 weeks before your event. Choose how to receive the reminder: an IM (Yahoo! Messenger), email, or SMS reminder, as shown in Figure 1-1. Be sure to check the time zone in which your reminder will be sent. (See the Note at the bottom of the Reminders section. If the time zone is incorrect, click the Change It link to remedy the situation.) 7. Click the Save button at the bottom of the page to save your event.

That's it: you're guaranteed to always get a message from yourself before your mother's birthday: "Order flowers for Mom! Her birthday's in two days!"

Repeat these steps for each event or task you want to remind your future self about. Beyond birthdays, due dates and oil changes, some other ways to use your Yahoo! reminder system include:

* Remember tasks that need to be done far in advance. You call the fireplace cleaner guy in February for an appointment and he tells you to try back in July. Add a summer email reminder that says, "Call Joe Fireplace Cleaner at 555-1212 for an appointment." Notice the phone number: make it as easy as possible for your future self to get the task done. * Send yourself info on the go. On Monday, you make plans to go to the roller derby Friday night with friends. So you add an event to your Yahoo! Calendar for 5 p.m. Friday night that sends a text message to your mobile phone: "Gotham Girls roller derby tonight at Skate Key, 4 train to 138th street. Meet outside at 7:15." Directions and specific time are included - the more info, the better. * Interrupt yourself. You're super-involved in a project at work, but you have lunch plans at 1 o'clock across town. So you set up an IM reminder to go off at 12:30 that says, "Lunch at Frank's! Get going or you'll be late!" * Don't forget the boring but necessary tasks. Set up quarterly, monthly, bi-weekly, or weekly reminders for mundane tasks like the following: Water the plants Get a haircut Send the rent check Invoice client Mail out estimated taxes Yahoo! Calendar allows for pretty much any recurring timeframe for events. * Get in on events early. When you find out tickets go on sale in two weeks for your favorite band's next show, set up a reminder for the day before to round up the troops and storm Or send yourself a reminder to get reservations the very day they start accepting them for Restaurant Week, or SMS yourself an hour before an eBay auction is scheduled to end. * Create a long-term plan and stick to it. Say you commit yourself to a year-long savings plan to sock away $200 a month for that vacation to St. Croix. Send yourself an email each quarter that reads, "Hey, self, you should have $xxx in savings right now. Don't forget how great that Caribbean vacation will be!" * Reflect and review. Each New Year's or birthday, write yourself an email describing your successes and failures of the past year, and your hopes for the next. Schedule it to arrive exactly one year later. Sure, this sounds like a lame high school writing assignment, but it's actually a fun way to surprise yourself with insight into where you are and where you've been.

NOTE Backpack ( is another excellent web application that includes an email or SMS reminder feature.

Hack 2: Manage a todo.txt File at the Command Line

Level....... Advanced Platform.... Windows XP and Vista (Cygwin), Mac OS X, Unix Cost ....... Free

A plain text file is a simple and effective way to keep track of your to-do list. But you don't want to fire up a full-fledged text editor like Notepad every time you update or add to your todo.txt file. Bypass the time-consuming point-and-click graphical user interface (GUI), and use keyboard commands to search, sort, add, and update todo.txt at the command line.

The Command Line Interface

Before there were windows, icons, and the point and click of the mouse, people performed actions on a computer using text commands at a prompt. Although the command line isn't the most intuitive way to interact with a machine, even in the age of the well-developed GUI, Unix experts, power users, and other people who perform the same actions over and over have turned back to the command line because it saves time. Textual commands keep your hands on the keyboard and enable you to perform repetitive tasks quickly. The command prompt doesn't have check boxes, input fields, tabs, radio buttons, or menus - there's simply one input field.

The disadvantage of the command line is that it's not as easy to intuit the commands you need to get your task done; further, once you learn the commands you need you have to commit them to memory. Still, for something you do daily like manage your to-do list, a command line interface will save you time and effort.

NOTE The built-in Windows command line doesn't support the script described in this hack. Install the free Unix bash emulator Cygwin (http:// to run it. See for more information on installing and using Cygwin.

Why Plain Text?

Plain text is application- and operating-system agnostic. It's searchable, portable, lightweight, and easily manipulated. It's unstructured. It works when someone else's web server is down or your Outlook .pst file is corrupted. It's free, and because it's been around since the dawn of computing time, it's safe to say that plain text is completely future-proof. There's no exporting and importing, no databases or tags or flags or stars or prioritizing or Insert-Company-Name-Here-induced rules on what you can and can't do with it.

You want to get information in and out of your todo.txt in the least distracting way as possible. You can use a text editor like Notepad to add to the file, search its contents, and update it, but navigating a lengthy text file that way can be cumbersome. That's why I've created a shell script, called, which edits, searches, and lists items in todo.txt without requiring an editor.


Before you use the script, create a todo.txt file and save it to your hard drive. Remember its location.

Then, to get started interacting with your todo.txt at the command line, install and configure the script. Here's how:

NOTE Windows users, all of the following commands should be executed at the Cygwin prompt.

1. Download the package from download/ and unzip it. The package contains two files:, which is the script itself, and .todo, which contains its configuration settings. 2. Using the text editor of your choice, edit the section of the .todo file that reads: # Your todo.txt directory TODO_DIR="/Users/gina/Documents/todo" Replace /Users/gina/Documents/todo with the path to the directory where your todo.txt is located. For example, it might read: TODO_DIR="C:/Documents and Settings/yourusername/My Documents"

NOTE Some operating systems (like Mac OS X) hide files that begin with a dot like .todo. For more on how to set Mac's Finder to stop hiding your .todo file, see 3. Make the script executable by using the following command: chmod +x 4. Move the .todo configuration file to your home directory like so: mv .todo ~/. 5. Type ./ to see the usage message: ./ Usage: [-fhpqvV] [-d todo_config] action [task_number] [task_description] Try ' -h' for more information.

Now you can execute commands on todo.txt. However, you don't want to type every time - that would get tiresome quickly. Instead, alias the command to a single key, such as T. To do so, add the following line to your command prompt configuration file. (In Windows/Cygwin, that file is ~/.profile; for Mac OS X users, it's ~/.bash_profile; and for Linux users, it's ~/.bashrc.)

alias t='/path/to/'

Replace /path/to/ to the full qualified path of your script.

For updated instructions, notes, and more information about setting up, go to


The script provides several commands for interacting with your todo.txt file. It assumes the file contains exactly one task per line.

For example, to add a task using, type:

t add "ask Tom if he wants that old bike in the garage"

When you press Enter, that text is appended to the end of todo.txt. Notice that quotes are required around the text of the task. Alternatively, simply type t add and enter your task at the prompt - no quotes required.

To list all the items in todo.txt, type:

t list

Here's an example result of using the t list command:

01 ask Tom if he wants that old bike in the garage 02 pick up the dry cleaning 03 RSVP to the co-op board meeting

You'll notice that every task has a number (which is actually the line number it appears on in todo.txt). Use those numbers to reference lines and perform other actions. For example, you can delete line 3 using t del 3, or replace the contents of line 2 with t replace 2. Get a complete description of all the commands available in by running t -h.

Although being able to edit a text file without a GUI editor is convenient, the real power in comes from its capability to search and sort your todo.txt. First, however, be sure your list can be filtered.

Create a Sortable, Searchable todo.txt

An effective to-do list has all the information you need to answer the question: "What should I work on next?" Sort and search your to-do list using three important filters:

* Context. Getting Things Done author David Allen suggests splitting up your task lists by context - that is, the place and situation where you'll work on the job (indicated by the shorthand character for "at," @). Messages that you need to send go in the @email context; calls to be made, @phone; and household projects, @home. That way, when you've got a few minutes at the laundromat with your cell phone, you can easily check your @phone tasks and make a call or two while you have the opportunity. * Project. The only way to get through a project is to split it up into small, doable chunks. Those small tasks move a large undertaking forward, so you need to access all the tasks associated with a large project. To move along a project like "Cleaning out the garage," for example, you want to choose the next logical action for that project on your task list. "Clean out the garage" isn't a good to-do item because it's actually a collection of many smaller tasks, but "Call Goodwill to schedule pickup" in the Clean Out Garage project is. * Priority. Your to-do list should be able to tell you what the next most important thing for you to get done is - either by project or by context or overall. For example, a call back to a potential client on the verge of closing the deal might be higher priority than a call to an existing client just to check in and see how things are going. Or getting back to a coworker who's waiting on you to complete a project will have a higher priority than scheduling a lunch with friends. In general, to-do items with deadlines within the next few days are always higher priority than tasks with a flexible deadline (that is, within the next few weeks). Your to-do list should let you see which tasks are higher priority than others, so you don't leave your co-worker hanging while you make restaurant reservations with friends.

This is possible even in a simple, unstructured todo.txt file.

NOTE See Hack 60, "Make Your To-Do's Doable," for more on writing a manageable to-do list that doesn't paralyze you with overwhelming tasks.


Excerpted from Lifehacker by Gina Trapani Copyright © 2007 by Gina Trapani. Excerpted by permission.
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