Something I'd forgotten about, in those three years when I
wandered the Dark Side used a Dell computer, was the fun of playing around with new and exciting bits of software. I don't know why I was never motivated to find things to refine my Dell into the best "me" machine I could, and just stuck with the little bit of tweaking that the basic machine allows you to do, because I used to use quite a few add-ons on my old Apple computers. Then when I moved here, and started using NLLDH's old MacBook, the machine was elderly enough that I didn't think much about trying new things. But in fact, it was the machine's elderliness that led us to buy me this new one, and in the last week or so I've been having a ball trying out all the nifty software gadgets that everyone who has a Mac knows about already.
We bought me this machine so that I could try Scrivener, which is writing software intended to let you store and draw upon lots of different kinds of information while you write. You can draft, edit, and outline; you can view your files as index cards on a corkboard; you can do keyword searches. It's honestly pretty neat, and all I needed to see was a screenshot of a draft document open side-by-side with a PDF file to think I wanted to try this. Because how often have you had to flip back and forth between windows and applications to move from the thing you're writing to the thing you're writing about, and vice versa? The pathetic thing is that I haven't used it very much, because I haven't been writing anything lately that requires any serious research and thus would allow me to road test it properly (the simple book review isn't a great test case). If you'd like to read a better review, you can check out what Merlin Mann at 43Folders has to say.
But Scrivener was just the start. I've now also joined the large following accumulated by Quicksilver, a little launcher-type application that allows you to do a huge range of things without leaving your keyboard. I've never been into launchers prior to this - maybe because they always seemed mouse-dependent, and I eschew the mouse whenever possible? - but the way that Quicksilver allows you to do so much by keyboard has sucked me in. From any window or application, I can open up Gmail in 4 keystrokes (because god forbid I have to wait any longer than that to read my e-mail). I can e-mail text to someone. I can open any document on my hard drive. I can get the definition of a word. For a mouse-hater like me, it's wonderful. The intro tutorial here gives you a good idea of what Quicksilver can do, and I suspect I've only scratched the surface so far.
I've also become fascinated by various planner kinds of applications. Most of them are organized more or less around David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) (which, if you've heard of, you know has attained near cult status, and if you haven't heard of it, some of these comments won't make sense, but the Wikipedia entry might be helpful). I am not really a true believer, but some of the system works for me, and some of it I leave (e.g.: I really appreciate the idea that what you write down on a to-d0 list needs to involve verbs, not nouns, and that you need to break your projects down into their smallest component parts. Therefore, don't write on your to-do list something like "prescriptions," but instead, "pick up prescriptions at Walgreens," and if your project is "paint the backyard fence," don't write "paint backyard fence" - you need to write stuff like, "check paint prices online," "go to hardware store to choose paint," "buy paint, primer, rollers, and gloves," and "prime fence" before you can write "paint fence." The context thing is not especially helpful for me - Allen emphasizes dividing up your tasks by where you need to be to do them - at home, in the office, at the computer, etc - which is doubtless helpful for lots of people, but most of my tasks don't require very different contexts. I'm not calling people a lot, so I don't need a "@phone" list, that kind of thing. And Allen also advocates a "waiting on" list, where you put tasks you've delegated to someone else and can't do anything about until you hear back from them, which again, isn't really relevant to my life.)
Given my ambivalence, the programs that follow GTD really closely haven't been that appealing to me. For instance, Midnight Inbox is very very pretty, but it really screams GTD (and, not surprisingly, the business world) to me, and so there was too much of it I didn't want to deal with. Things, however, while still basically a GTD application, feels less restrictive (it also feels a little incomplete, as it's not yet officially available for purchase; you can download a free preview for the moment). I haven't worked out all the ways to get around it by keystroke yet, though, and as my fondness for Quicksilver suggests, that's a big thing for me. Even more promising is OmniFocus, brought to you by the people who created OmniOutliner (and OmniOutliner Pro), one of the best outliners out there (also something I've been playing around with). OmniFocus is fast, clean, pretty, and very negotiable by keyboard.
What is really intriguing me about these planner programs is that in conjunction with Quicksilver (and the Services that Apple makes available in Leopard), I can send new to-dos to my Things or OmniFocus inbox with a few keystrokes, from any application or window, whether or not Things or Omnifocus are up and running. I can also e-mail myself to-dos.
The downside to both Things and OmniFocus is that they cost money. I wouldn't say they're expensive (the full release of Things will be available for $39 if you sign up before the launch date and $49 after; OmniFocus costs $49.95 with educational discount, $79.95 without), but you know, money is money, and there are a lot of neat free web-based services out there. Lately I've been enjoying Remember the Milk, which allows you to create to-do lists, organize them by project or due date, and give them tags. What's really spiffy about Remember the Milk is that again, you can rig it to work with Quicksilver, so you can send yourself tasks even when you're not on the Remember the Milk site (you do need to be connected to the internet though, of course). And even spiffier (at least, if you're someone like me who has her Gmail inbox open just about all the time) is that you can arrange for Remember the Milk to display your to-do list next to the messages in your inbox. You can also arrange for your to-do list to get sent to Google Calendar or iCal or Microsoft Outlook, where they appear either in traditional to-do list format or, if they have due dates, as events on the calendar itself - so you can integrate online to-dos with online (or offline) calendars.
Personally, I haven't decided yet if I want to make the shift to organizing my life electronically. At the moment, I have a paper planner that I really love, and it's one of my last refuges from the digital world. I like writing by hand, and I love pens, and it turns out that besides grading papers, organizing my life in my paper planner is one of the few occasions I have actually to use all my nifty pens to write things by hand. There's something really satisfying about crossing out by hand a task that I've completed - it's much more tactile than clicking in a check-box and seeing strikethrough text appear. I like the way each page of my life is physically separate in my paper planner, rather than running together on the screen. I find it more revealing to flip back through my paper planner to see what I had scheduled when, and what I got done when (and how many days in a row I had to write down a task before I completed it), than to scroll through screens on the computer.
The only problem is that I have to make sure to open up the paper planner and write things down, and check it to see what it is I'm trying to accomplish on a given day, and I'm not always very good at that (I go through very organized phases and very unorganized phases - the latter are usually when I'm either too busy to look at the planner, or when I have so little scheduled - like over winter break - that I can't be bothered to look at it). I'm not sure I'd be any better about this with an electronic planner, but given how much I love my new laptop, and how often it's open and I'm staring at the screen, the change is worth considering.
Anyway. I realize I'm probably the last person to discover these different applications (and I know I've read about some of them on people's blogs anyway), but it's been fun fiddling around with my computer again.