Thursday, December 28, 2017

My Geeky Year in Review: 2017 - Apps I Used and Tips I Tried

Year after year, the tools that I use typically change. But the ones that last are usually here to stay.

To start, let's review last year's roundup:

Tool Status Notes
Habit tracking with Loop Still using! I've been tracking tasks that I want to make sure to accomplish each day. There is something so satisfying about tapping those tasks to check them off.
Investing with Acorns Nope, but maybe in the future! I liked this idea a lot but when our budget became tighter this year, I didn't like not knowing when or how much money would be transferred from my bank account. I wish the roundups were immediately withdrawn instead of in a lump sum.
Gym tracking with FitNotes Nope, but maybe in the future! My gym membership lapsed a few months ago. I plan to renew it but family budget constraints have put that on hold.
Daily journaling with IFTTT Still using! While I don't manage to journal every day, I do use this quick method to jot down a sentence or two on a regular basis.
Recipe organization with Evernote Still using! I add new recipes to my Evernote notebook on a weekly basis. To keep up with the tag structure that I implemented last year, I make sure to update any recipes that I've cooked with the 'MADE' tag, and add tags when clipping from the internet.
Track what I've readin Airtable Still using! I haven't done as much reading lately, but when I do, I make sure to update my custom Airtable database with at least basic information about the book.
Scanned my journals into Evernote Completed This was a project that I'd been working on for quite some time and just a month or so ago I finally finished it up! I scanned all of my paper journals from my childhood and teenage years into Evernote using a Doxie scanner. It was labor intensive, but allowed me to get rid of the paper copies without a hint of guilt.
1 Second Everyday videos Still using! While I haven't exactly stuck to taking a video every single day, I'm at least saving multiple videos per week. It's a fun way to look back on highlights (or just daily monotony) from the year.
Google Reminders Still using! Combined with Google Calendar reminders, using the voice recognition to remind myself about future tasks has been pretty effective.

Now, what about 2017?

This year, I didn't add a whole lot of new tools and techniques to my geeky repertoire. Instead, the focus seems to be on LESS. Less social media. Less digital clutter. Less time-wasting.

Below is an overview. I'd love to hear about what you've implemented this year to improve your efficiency or organization (personal or digital). Please share in the comments.

1. Personal messaging with Marco Polo

Marco Polo is an app that lets you basically send video messages back and forth.

It's a lot quicker than recording a video and texting it.

I'm only using it with a handful of close friends and family, but I've noticed that I feel a lot more connected with those people than I had just with social media and texting.

I like that I can send a message when it's convenient for me, and the recipient can watch when it's a good time for them, although sometimes the conversation is back-and-forth in nearly real-time.

These video messages give me the personalized feeling of a video call without being as obtrusive. (My introvert might be showing a bit there.)

2. Google Keep - for saving links and so much more

I've been using Keep for a while now, but in the past year I've altered my usage. I used to switch between Evernote and Keep and hadn't defined when to use which. But here's my current method:
  • Evernote = for things I want to save long term (recipes, journal entries, contact prescriptions, etc)
  • Keep = for things that I want to reference or take action on in the near future, or am not sure I want to save yet (articles, recipes that I want to try before saving to Evernote, coupon codes, blog post ideas, etc)

I want to determine a color coding key, but for now I'm not that organized. I've just started using labels, such as Coupon, Research, and To Purchase. I love that I can add reminders to specific notes too!

I also appreciate that I can edit my notes on any of my devices.

3. Walmart Grocery

Walmart now offers a grocery pickup service. You order your groceries online, schedule a pickup time, drive to a specified parking area, and they load your car.

I know there are other stores that offer this (Target and Fred Meyer are two that I've heard of) but this is the first one I've tried.

Here are two instances that made me especially appreciate this service:
  1. When I was sick and needed some cough medicine, Emergen-C and ingredients for soup. 
  2. When I had a super busy day and was cooking a dinner in the evening - I ordered the ingredients I needed to make several recipes by having the Walmart Grocery site open in one browser window and my recipe in another.

A side benefit is that using this service helps me stick to my budget as I'm not wandering around and buying things that I don't really need.

4. Organized my inbox LESS

I used to be proud of my color-coded and organized email inbox. But lately, I'm more focused on just doing the stuff and less on making it look nice.

I've stopped using most of the labels that I previously organized meticulously. Instead, I just rely on Gmail's search functionality.

So close to Inbox Zero! And note: no labels.

5. Smartsheet for work tasks

Usually my preferred task management tools fade over time, but Smartsheet (for my day-job work tasks) has been going strong for most of the year. I really like the ease of customization, and how easy it is to drag and drop my tasks in card mode to update status.

For personal use, I keep trying to use Trello but I just can't figure out a use-case yet. I likely will someday... because I remember feeling the same way about Evernote back in the day, and now I can't go a day without using it!

6. Workflowy

In a moment of organization desperation, when I couldn't seem to organize my thoughts and upcoming tasks well and needed a tool that didn't have a steep learning curve to get myself over the hump, I started using Workflowy.
Organizing my annual work goals and objectives with Workflowy

It's a really handy tool that helps me to focus on getting ideas down and organizing my thoughts, instead of worrying about how to format the content.

I'm trying this out for my work life and personal life. One particular project that I'm excited about is a novel that I've been attempting to write. I've made limited progress and was feeling overwhelmed, but after using Workflowy to outline the entire story, it's actually starting to feel doable.

Documenting my novel ideas

7. Less social media


I recently tested out deactivating my Facebook account. I only posted a few times in the last year and have noticed that my interactions have become less meaningful over time.

In addition, Facebook's reminders of what I posted in years prior often stirred up negative memories: the loss of a dear friend, a former relationship that didn't end well, things I shared when I was stressed. I'm not sure if I'll delete my account entirely; there are still some good memories there. But I don't see it adding a lot of value to my life at this point.


I still like to explore Pinterest when I'm looking for something specific, but it's amazing how much of a time-drain it can be when I find myself just 'browsing'.

For me, Pinterest isn't the best way to organize ideas because there isn't a secondary level of filtering/sorting. eg: If I want to separate recipes I've made from those I want to try, without transferring pins from board to board. I prefer Evernote for that. I add recipes to a Recipes notebook and then add labels like 'Made' and 'Breakfast'.

I also don't like the fact that I can't verify that the source of a pin is valid. For example, I might find a recipe pin that looks wonderful but the underlying blog that originally hosted the content is now private. That's disappointing. When I find a recipe (or other content) that I want to save, I clip it to Evernote for safekeeping.

As I've realized that saving things on Pinterest doesn't work for me long-term, I've gradually migrated the majority of my pins (after verifying valid urls) to Evernote where I can more easily organize them.

8. Started mind-mapping some long-term goals with Coggle

I've never quite understood how to apply the idea behind mind mapping in a practical way. I liked looking at other people's mind maps but just couldn't figure out how to utilize them myself.

I'm still figuring this out, but I started using Coggle to create a collaborative 'Our Future' map with my husband to document some long term goals and life plans.

That's it!

I really wanted to make it to 10, but maybe the fact that I'm not adding a plethora of new tools means I'm better utilizing the ones I already have. Maybe.

What did you implement this year to stay organized or improve your personal productivity?

Note: This post is not sponsored by any of the companies/tools that I've mentioned here. These tools may or may not work for you. I'm just sharing what I've found useful personally.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Blog Cleanup - Archiving Historical Posts

I received a notification recently that my domain is going to expire in the near future. I don't want to lose the domain but whenever I renew, I find myself questioning the reason behind maintaining it.

As I mentioned in my last post, I haven't quite figured out what the future of this blog will be. But, in the meantime, I've decided to do some cleaning up. I'm modifying the layout and clearing out some historical posts that aren't applicable anymore.

If you maintain a blog, have you archived your past posts? or do you leave them for posterity?

I'd love to hear your tips and suggestions. Please leave a comment below.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Creating a Graphical Comparison Without Graphics

Long time, no posts. I'm trying to figure out where this blog fits in and whether or not I can (or want to) continue updating it on a regular basis. For right now, I'm just posting when the urge strikes... which obviously isn't often. Thanks for bearing with me.


Yesterday, I was working on a slidedeck that included a comparison of several different technical solutions. At the end, I wanted to convey a visual summary of the risks and benefits of each option.

Five minutes before I was to present the slides, I was frantically googling to find the perfect icons to use. I wanted some sort of red/yellow/green lights or gauges, some way to show high/medium/low risk or represent level of effort.

I couldn't find anything that I liked (and didn't have to pay for). I realized with just a minute or two to spare that I didn't need anything fancy for what I wanted to communicate. I could use simple colored bars in a table on the slide. 

I had started off with text (low, medium, high) and changed the color of the text to correspond to a rating. Then I added highlighting and adjusted some spacing so they'd all be the same width (which is why the text looks a bit funny). 

The resulting chart effectively conveyed my message. 

Just a little reminder that sometimes simple is best.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Research Project: Getting Feedback on Internal Support

A large chunk of my job involves providing support for co-workers - answering questions, modifying data for them, researching ways to boost efficiency, etc.

I've been curious about quantifying how I'm doing with keeping my coworkers happy. At the end of the year, I'd like to be able to say something like "I provided support to ## people with a satisfaction rating of 95%."

Is this actually valuable? I don't know. I find that as an internal support person, I would like more than a '## task completed' rating when it comes to my own personal evaluation of how I did during the past year. (Side note: I am not part of an IT department. This kind of tracking is something that I'm only curious about for my personal use. I'm sure it would be a lot more obviously beneficial for IT or a larger team.)

I started doing some research into methods of tracking 'customer satisfaction'.


  • Unobtrusive
  • Easy to add to my email signature
  • User friendly (goal: 1 click and done)

Here are a few of the options I found:

  • Spridz
    • 7 day free trial, one pricing plan with unlimited usage ($499/year)
    • Nifty analytics / charts and graphics
    • Integrates with help desk apps (like Zendesk)
    • From what I can tell, it seems like you use a link that then sends the recipient to a 'feedback page' where they can vote. This doesn't work with my ideal of one-click solution.
  • Customer Thermometer
    • Base plan is $29/month for 50 'credits' (one response = one credit)
    • Nifty analytics / charts and graphs
    • Lots of rating icons to choose from (custom supported too)
    • Supports creating email polls and timed notifications/reminders - I imagine this would be handy for people doing a lot of external customer support.
    • Customizable landing page based on the rating - This is a neat idea for businesses!
  • Hively
    • Free plan for up to 3 users (with some limitations), after that it's $15/month
    • Nifty analytics / charts and graphs
    • Can customize the appearance of the 'smileys'

Based on the screencaptures on their website, I prefer the interface of Spridz. But, I think it would be more valuable for a team scenario rather than an individual user.

The only option that I found that had a free 1-user plan was Hively.

I'm currently testing it out, but I'm not even sure if this method is the right one or if this kind of information will be useful to me in the future. I'm just curious.

To keep it subtle but still noticeable, I changed it from an image-based line to text.

(Hively text voting links at the bottom of my email signature)

What about you? Have you found another way to gather feedback in an unobtrusive way? Or do you feel that trying to track satisfaction when it comes to internal customer support for a single person is pointless? Leave a comment, let me know.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

5 Geeky Ways to Help Keep Married Life Organized

Next week, my husband and I will be celebrating the day five years ago that we started approaching life from the perspective of 'us' instead of 'I.'


Sharing your life with a partner involves a lot of adjustment in those first few years, and not just as it relates to how toothpaste tubes should be squeezed or what to do with the toilet seat. Many practical aspects of everyday life become collaborative projects. And here is where technology can help.

We are using the following techniques to help keep our little family organized, maintain appreciation and build a marriage that we are proud of.

1. Keep Track of Milestones & Adventures

I've mentioned recently that I use Evernote to journal. In addition to ramblings about daily life, I have a tag specifically for journal entries about marriage milestones or special occasions, like anniversaries.

Clip from a photo journal of an anniversary trip

A shared Evernote notebook is a good repository for scans of cards, copied and pasted song lyrics, clipped poetry or anything else that feels like 'us.'

I also have a specific hashtag on Instagram that I use for photos representing these kind of occasions, so I can easily view all of them at once.

2. Keep Track of.... All That Other Stuff Too

Occasionally, I find myself filling out paperwork for my husband and I can't remember little details. So we keep track of things like license plates, contact prescriptions, allergies, etc. in a shared Evernote notebook.

A note in Evernote with information that we occasionally need access to

3. Don't Forget the Little Things

Whenever my husband does something adorable or unexpected, I jot it down in private note in Evernote. I take photos of flowers that he picks up, scan little love notes that he leaves on occasion and write down sweet things that he says.

Then, when we are stressed or going through a phase of not communicating as well as usual, I review those little expressions of love. They remind me while things aren't always easy, our relationship is always worth the effort.

Photo + a simple memory
Scan of a note

4. Work Together to Achieve Financial Goals

I don't like to talk about money or my past financial mistakes. It makes me feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. But, we've found that having a shared budget makes everything easier and helps me keep my financial anxiety in check.

For the first half of our relationship, we maintained separate bank accounts and paid bills independently. It didn't work well.

We eventually realized that we needed to create a budget, so we created a Google Spreadsheet and itemized our income and monthly, incidental and annual expenses.

We periodically review our budget in this shared spreadsheet and make adjustments as needed.

Once we started using Simple and their awesome Goals functionality, we were able to work toward paying off debt and start sticking to a budget.

Simple recently made shared accounts available in beta and we jumped on board!

5. Stay Organized with a Family Calendar

We maintain a shared "Family" calendar using Google Calendar that we both access with our mobile devices (on both Android and iOS).

Having this as a separate shared calendar associated with my email account means that I can create private events like my daily schedule or personal reminders on my primary calendar. But for anything that involves us both or that my husband should know about, I add it to the Family calendar.

Another shared calendar (that I've named "Finances" for obvious reasons) keeps track of monthly bill due dates and payment plans for unexpected bills like medical expenses following an emergency surgery.

Each monthly bill event has a reminder a few days in advance to help prevent late payments. When I make a payment, I update the event for that month (not the whole series) to include "PAID" in the title and the amount applied to the account. This makes it easy to confirm at a glance that we paid those bills.

Here's how to create a shared Google Calendar.

What about you?

Have you found any specific technology useful in keeping your family organized? Please share in the comments!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

How I Became Geekier in 2016 - 10 Productivity Ideas

It's been nearly a year since my last post. Super lame. I've had lots of ideas of geeky things to share but I just haven't gotten to the point of actually drafting them. I used to be so much more motivated to blog. 😐

But today, I thought I'd share a yearly summary of geeky things I tried and learned this year. The last time I shared a post like this was in 2010. 7 years ago! A lot has changed since then.

I find myself continually refining my methods of personal organization and my use of technology to help me be more efficient with everyday tasks. Read on for more information about these 10 ways that I became geekier in 2016:
  1. Started tracking daily habits
  2. Began rounding up my purchases and investing that money
  3. Joined a gym and began tracking my workouts
  4. Started keeping an easy (almost) daily journal
  5. Organized my Recipe notebook in Evernote with tags
  6. Organized my reading list and collected quotes in Airtable
  7. Began scanning hardcopy journals into Evernote
  8. Began documenting life in 1 second videos every day
  9. Started using Google Reminders more
  10. Tried to figure out how to help my future self accomplish tasks that I struggle with
Note: I use an Android phone and Mac computer, so any apps or software that I reference below are for those operating systems. If you're interested in any of the techniques I've tried, I'm sure you can find apps for whatever OS you are comfortable with.

1. Started tracking daily habits

I'm working on living a more balanced life and to help remind me of my daily goals, as well as track how successful I am at sticking to good habits, I began using an app called Loop.

Loop lets me create widgets on my phone that I can tap when I've completed the goal for the day. I can also specify how often I want to set the goal for myself (which affects analytics for tracking my success), such as exercising 3 times per week, working on showing 'personal interest' (which for me means showing interest in other people's lives, like sending someone a card or striking up a conversation with a stranger) and speaking my husband's love language every day.

Habit widgets on my home screen

I can also check them off in the app

2. Began rounding up my purchases and investing that money

I've always been really intimidated by investing. This year I discovered the Acorns app that rounds up your purchases to the next dollar and invests that money for you. You can choose the level of risk for your portfolio (I chose the most conservative one). In just a few months, I've invested about $60. That's a pretty small amount, but it's a start.

Acorns costs $1 per month, but allows you to invest or withdraw your money at any time at no charge. If you're interested in giving it a try, here's my referral link (we both get $5 if you start using it!).

If you don't want to invest your spare change but still want to automatically save it, check out Qapital. It lets you create rules for saving, like 'save $1 every time I make a purchase at Starbucks' or use the roundup method like Acorns uses. It also works with IFTTT (super cool!), so you could create a rule like 'save $1 every day it rains'. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, that rule could yield a nice little savings account over the course of the year. 😊  There are no monthly or annual fees. Qapital doesn't work with my bank yet but I'm going to check for updates later.

3. Joined a gym and began tracking my workouts

After years of being terrified (not exaggerating!) of joining a gym, I finally got over my fears this summer. I found a great deal on Groupon for a month membership at a local gym, which included two personal training sessions. The training sessions were critical in getting over my fears; I was intimidated by all the machines and my personal trainer gave me the support and guidance to try them. After that month trial, we went ahead and paid for an annual membership. Since joining, I've lost around 16lbs and am really happy with increases in my strength and endurance.

To help me keep track of progress and create workout routines, I'm using FitNotes. I like that I can set goals, track my personal records and organize my workouts so I'm not aimless.

Another perk of joining the gym is that the company I work for offers a fitness rewards program through Incentfit. I get a financial reward for gym visits and exercise, up to $20 per month! This ends up paying for my gym membership. 👍

Side note: I wouldn't have had the guts to join the gym without my husband. Working out together has become a really rewarding (albeit challenging) bonding experience.

4. Started keeping an easy (almost) daily journal

One of my goals for the year was to journal more often. To make that less intimidating, I set up a IFTTT applet that runs when I tap a button on my homescreen and appends a sentence or two with a timestamp to a single note in Evernote that I've entitled "[BLURB JOURNAL] 2016". For the year, I saved 115 entries with that handy little button. I like this method, so I've updated my applet for 2017.

Side note: Here's the method I used to set up my journal applet, although a few things have changed with IFTTT's apps since then. Now everything is rolled into a single app rather than a separate Note and Do app.

5. Organized my Recipe notebook in Evernote with tags

For the past few years, I've been saving recipes in an Evernote notebook. I had accumulated several thousand, either from scanning printed recipes, browsing the web or jotting down notes from meals made by family members.

But, I struggled with how to organize the notebook effectively. There were a lot of recipes that I saved and then forgot about.

So, I went through the whole lot of them and deleted any that I knew I'd probably never make. I created nested tags for the categories I wanted to use, like appetizers, desserts, dinners, etc. Then I tagged anything I had made (and liked) with a 'MADE' tag. That way, I can search specifically for slow cooker recipes that I've made, for example.

Some of my recipe tags in Evernote, nested under a main Recipe tag for easy organization

Filtering through and tagging the recipes took some time. But, I've already noticed that it is a lot easier to find what I'm looking for. In the past I relied on keyword searches, but often I don't know exactly what I want to make... I'm just seeking inspiration for a yummy breakfast or an easy meal that I can cook in the pressure cooker. Utilizing the tags has helped me to try new recipes and in doing so I've added to my repertoire of family favorites.

6. Organized my reading list and collected quotes in Airtable

I discovered Airtable this year (thanks Antonio!), and I'm a huge fan. It's a tool that allows you to create easily navigable relational databases. It's like Microsoft Access married Google Sheets and they had a super smart and handy baby. 😃

I had been keeping track of books I've read or want to read in a Google Sheet. For most books that I read, I had been typing quotes into a note in Evernote, but that was rather tedious. So, I started using the Kindle app for digital books I check out from the library, which saves any highlighted quotes and makes them accessible from my Amazon account (here's where I access mine:

My book list and saved quotes resided in two separate locations. To unite them, I created an Airtable database where I can view filtered or grouped lists like 'books I would recommend', 'series I've liked', etc. I've also pasted quotes from my Kindle highlights and associated them with each book. This level of personal organization makes me feel at peace. I can extract a list of my favorite authors or figure out which series I haven't finished yet (whenever I find a new series I like, I input every book and then mark off them off as I read them), so I'll never be at a loss for what to read next.

Gallery view of some of my favorite reads - I added a field for the cover and drag an image into it for visual organization

List view, grouped by Series

Quotes that I've copied and pasted from my Kindle highlights

When I come across a word I don't know while reading, I highlight it in a different color in the Kindle app and add it to a list of vocabulary words in my database.

Airtable supports viewing tables in several ways - I use the list (like a spreadsheet) and gallery most.

PS - I occasionally post quotes from my favorite reads here.

7. Began scanning hardcopy journals into Evernote

I've been journaling since my pre-teen years and have accumulated quote a few bound notebooks. In an effort to reduce clutter, I'm trying to digitize as much as possible and those notebooks have been one of my latest scanning endeavors.

The notebooks aren't standard in size or format, and I wrote on both sides of the pages. So, I've had to cut them apart in order to scan with our Doxie portable scanner. After scanning, I use the Doxie app to clip journal entries together and then import them into Evernote. Some of my journals include several years' worth of entries. I'm still figuring out how I want to organize these, but for now I'm grouping them into a single note in Evernote. Eventually I may split them by date.

The process is slow, but I'm just focusing on one journal at a time and scanning whenever I have extra time. I'm excited to be able to destroy the paper copies.

8. Began documenting life in 1 second videos every day

On the day that I turned 31 this year, I started using the 1 Second Everyday app to save a video snippet every day (or almost every day. I manage to remember about 75% of the time).

When my 31st year is over, I'll use the app to compile my daily videos. It's a fun way to look back on memories.

9. Started using Google Reminders more

I've been using Google Tasks for some time but I was never quite satisfied with the fact that I couldn't get reminders or view them on my calendar on my phone. But Google Reminders have fixed all that. Plus, they sync between my devices and all the Google apps that I use - like Inbox, Keep, Calendar and Now (on my phone).

When I want to remind myself to send someone a card next week or start the oven at 4pm or make a salad to bring to a party, I use whatever device I'm on to add the reminder. Most often, I use Google Now's voice recognition and just say "Okay Google.... remind me to make a salad for the party on Saturday at 1pm'. I get an alert on my phone at the appropriate time and can snooze the reminder for another time or day if needed.

10. Tried to figure out how to help my future self accomplish tasks that I struggle with

Sometimes I find myself struggling to accomplish a specific task, like submitting an expense report for work or paying a specific bill. Lately, I've been trying to ask myself "Why am I struggling with this? What would make it easier?" Sometimes the answer is that I can't easily recall how to complete the task, like the steps to enter that expense report. Other times, the information I need to complete the task isn't easily accessible, like the website or account number for paying the bill.

Identifying these scenarios and figuring out how to best help my future self with them is an ongoing project.

But here are a few examples of the solutions I've implemented:

  • Problem: I can't remember how to prepare an expense report
    Solution: I created a note in Evernote with screen captures and a link to the website I need to use for expense reports
  • Problem: I forget where to go to pay this bill and I don't always have the account number handy
    Solution: In the Google Calendar event that reminds me to pay the bill, I added a link to the website and the account number in the Description area

What's next for 2017?

I never get tired of learning more about personal organization and productivity. I'm excited to continue with some of the habits I've established this year and work toward being even more organized in 2017.

Do you have any personal productivity tips that you've found successful? Have you improved your digital organization in the past year? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Note: I have not been compensated or prompted to use or post about any of the apps or tools I've mentioned in this post. I just like to share what has worked for me!