Category: Tech Tips for Trade Unionists

10. Spring cleaning to make our inboxes manageable

techtipsfortradeunionistsLots of people complain that they get tons of spam, but on closer examination, you learn that what they’re getting are messages from mailing lists they’ve signed up to, or from social networks they’ve joined, or from companies they’re purchased things from.

That’s not, properly speaking, spam.

But it is a headache and there is no simple cure.

Here’s what I do:

Once a year, usually in summer, I set myself the task of doing a cleanup of the lists I’m on. My goal this year was to get off 100 lists and I did manage to reach that.

Every day during the summer, when I look at my inbox, I try to pick one message that has come in which I really don’t need to receive. It can be an advertisement from a company I have bought something from, for example. Usually, if it’s a legitimate company, the message itself will contain a link to get off their mailing list.

The same is true of the messages one gets from Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on. There’s often a link on the email message itself telling you how to stop getting more of these.

Sometimes you do need to go the website that’s sending you such messages and change the instructions there.

Often it’s mailing lists for organizations that may well be worthy, but you don’t actually ever read their messages or act on their appeals. Unsubscribe from these. No one will take personal offense if you. (Unless of course it’s LabourStart — don’t ever unsubscribe from that.)

Sometimes, rarely, it’s just someone, an individual perhaps, who is keen to send on messages to people who haven’t really asked to read them. In those cases, a polite request to be taken off the mailing list is all that is needed.

Once I’ve done this “spring cleaning”, and I combine that effort with blacklisting the spammers and using a strong spam filter, I find that my inbox becomes manageable — until next summer, when I start all over again …

9. How to increase your typing speed on a smartphone

techtipsfortradeunionistsIf like me you grew up typing on proper keyboards, you may have gotten rather fast at it. Writing things down with pen and ink can seem unimaginably slow. But newer technologies can also seem to require a real slowing down — such as trying to type on a smartphone.

Even on the largest screens, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note series — phones that are so large and so like tablet computers that they’re called “phablets” — even on those phones, the on-screen keyboard is tiny.

It’s not just that writing a book on such a device is near-impossible, even composing short text messages can be painfully slow.

Enter predictive text. You’re probably already familiar with this — you start sending a message to a friend to say you’ll be late to the meeting, and you get suggested words as soon as you begin typing a letter.

SwiftKey, which is currently available only for Android phones and will not work on Apple’s devices, is predictive text on speed.

It uses not only dictionaries to guess your next word, but uses everything you’ve ever typed, or anyone has ever typed, to guess the next word.

The result is along the lines of this — you want to tell someone you’ll be late for a meeting, and SwiftKey can practically write the whole sentence for you, guessing the next word without you even typing in a single letter.

Because it knows you, it guesses (often quite surprisingly) who you are writing to and fills in the correct proper names of people and organizations and places.

I now compose text messages and emails on my smartphone at a fraction of the time it used to take — indeed, I probably compose things faster on SwiftKey than I do on a proper keyboard at my desk.

If you’ve got an Android phone I strongly urge you to download SwiftKey from Google Play and try it out.

8. Who needs calendars?

techtipsfortradeunionistsThere’s an artificial difference, I think, between calendars and to-do lists. Each one can replace the other — regardless of whether you’re using a smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop PC, or even pen and paper.

This is because pretty much every calendar entry is a task — such as going to a meeting, or a deadline you’ve noted for something you have to do, or even a birthday or anniversary.

And tasks are, or should be, linked to specific times or days. It’s not enough to say that you’ll write a report — you should decide when you’ll write it by. Nearly every task I have has a due date, even if these are sometimes aspirational only.

Because calendar entries and tasks overlap in so many ways, I use ToodleDo for both.

So how do I distinguish between a task that should be done today, but could wait until tomorrow, from a calendar entry such a doctor’s appointment? I use priorities for that. The top priority, which in ToodleDo is displayed first and is bold-faced, is for time-specific tasks, such as a 12:00 appointment. I always put the time as the first five characters in the task description, e.g., 12:00 Doctor’s appointment. As nothing else appears in the top priority tasks, I can easily see when I have free time on a specific date, just as I would in a calendar.

In the past, like many of you, I’ve used both a calendar and a to-do list and found it confusing and redundant to do so. And this was even the case when using personal information managers that would display both calendar entries and tasks on the same screen.

7. Lifehacker

techtipsfortradeunionistsThere are people who spend lots of time thinking about ways to be more productive. In fact, sometimes they spend so much time on this that they actually get nothing done at all.

This is called in the business — “productivity porn“.

But for those who just want to dip into the subject from time to time, to learn about new ideas and technology (software and hardware) to make our lives (work and home) a bit easier, I’ve found Lifehacker (“Tips and downloads for getting things done”) to be a great starting place.

The Productivity section is essential reading — especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed with work and not getting enough done.

But don’t spend too much time there …

6. The best to-do list software

techtipsfortradeunionistsI’ve used a lot of tools to keep my to-do lists — going way back to the pre-Internet days of using pen and paper. (Which I still use from time to time.)

It amazes me that some people don’t use to-do lists at all — I can’t imagine not using one.

My favorite to-do list was actually the one Palm created for their original Palm Pilot hand-held computers in the late 1990s. They had everything one needed on a portable device and I loved it.

Sadly, Palm is no longer with us, and we’ve all moved on to web-based tools.

Those tools have to work really well on the web, but also on your smartphone and tablet.

In other words, we need to-do list software that works in the cloud, so that it can be edited and viewed while one is riding on a bus, or glanced at first thing in the morning before leaving for work, or at the end of the day — as well as during work on your desktop.

My favorite for the last several years has been Toodledo.

Some people find it too feature-packed — but I love the fact that it does everything I need a to-do list to do.

Some of the really popular to-do lists lacked some essential features (essential to me, at least) but not Toodledo.

For example, the acclaimed Wunderlist for a very long time didn’t allow recurring tasks. (I think it does now.)

I use Toodledo for all my work stuff as well as home and personal — these are stored in different folders.

I even use it as a calendar (more on that later).

There’s a free version to try out — let me know what you think.

5. Your inbox is NOT a to-do list

techtipsfortradeunionistsPart of getting to the Holy Grail of an inbox with nothing in it means knowing what to do with an email that requires you to do something.

Let’s say someone writes to you and asks to you to do X.

You could immediately do X — if it takes only a very short time, why not? That’s the advice given by David Allen, the personal productivity guru behind “Getting Things Done” (GTD).

But what if it takes a longer?

Some people file the email message in a folder with a name like “tasks” or “to do”.

Others leave it in the inbox until they’ve actually done it.

Both are bad ideas because email inboxes make for terrible to-do lists.

This is in part because the most important field in any to-do list is the description of the task — and in emails, this is usually the subject line, and these are notoriously bad.

So if someone asks you to, say, book a meeting for a room, the subject line of their email might be “Re: Friday”.

But if you were to create this as a task in a to-do list, you’d give it a description like “Book a room for the Friday meeting”.

To-do lists (and more on this in future tips) also feature fields like categorization, due-dates, priorities and recurring tasks — all of which can be sorted and displayed.

None of these fields are readily available in email inboxes.

So here’s what I do to keep my inbox empty:

  1. If the task is something I can do very quickly, I do it.
  2. If not, I create a task in my to-do list.

In both cases, I archive the email message.

The result is an empty inbox and a longer to-do list — which is the way it should be.

4. Yes, there is an alternative to Google Search

techtipsfortradeunionistsI realize that the word “Google” is now a verb, and we all Google things now and then, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are several reasons not to use Google, not least of which is privacy,

I don’t like the idea that a giant, privately-owned business can know everything I search for, read all my emails, and know every web page I visit.

Yet this is what happpens when you’re signed into Google Chrome as your web browser, use Google to search and Gmail as your email.

One very good alternative has the ridiculous name of DuckDuckGo (don’t ask).

It works as well as Google, and it doesn’t spy on you.

Check out this page – Google tracks you.  We don’t. An illustrated guide.

And it’s dead easy to add as a replacement to Google in Firefox and other web browsers — maybe even Google Chrome as well.

3. Getting to an empty inbox – the key is FIFO

techtipsfortradeunionistsEveryone struggles to cope with massive numbers of emails — but there are tried and proven ways to manage this and one of the oldies-but-goodies remains FIFO.

That stands for First In, First Out.

Or in Plain English — answer the oldest messages first.

This is not always easy.

In many email clients, like Gmail, you’re shown the newest messages first and you’ll likely try to answer them as they come in.

But this is the worst way to cope with an inbox, as it turns email into a live chat rather than what it was designed to be — asynchronous communication.

That’s a fancy way of saying: emails should be answered when you have the time to answer them, and not the way you answer the phone — when it rings.

As Gmail is very bad at sorting your emails in reverse chronological order, I’m going to suggest something different later in this series.

But even in Gmail, you can get to the oldest messages and answer them first.

You can even set yourself goals — such as having no messages in your inbox older than one week, or older than 48 hours.

Eventually, you may get down to 24 hours, which is my personal goal.

That means if you write to me, I’ll try to get an answer to you within 24 hours — but others who got here first will get answered first.

2. Remembering all those passwords – a little trick that works

techtipsfortradeunionistsThere are two basic rules about passwords on the Internet:

1 – Don’t use the same password more than once.

2 – Make sure the password isn’t an easily-guessable word.  Ideally, use a combination of upper and lower case letters and numbers.

So what happens when you have accounts on Amazon, Gmail, eBay, and elsewhere?  How do you ensure a minimal level of security?

One way is to write them all down somewhere — more on this later in this series — but that’s insecure by definition.

Here’s a better solution: don’t create passwords — create a password formula that you always use.

Let’s say you want to have a password for Amazon that’s different from your password on Facebook.

Do this — create a password formula that could be something like this:

  • The first 2 letters come from the website that you’re creating the password for — e.g., ‘fa’ for Facebook, ‘am’ for Amazon, etc.
  • The next 2 letters are in upper case and mean something to you, but are not your initials — e.g., MX or ZP.
  • Then you add four digits — not your year of birth! — but ideally a random set of four digits.

The only things that change for the password from site to site are the first two letters.  The others stay the same.

So your Amazon password becomes am3759XZ and your Facebook password would be fa3759XZ and so on.

These are different passwords for every website, and they’re not easily guessable unless you’ve shared your formula with someone.

You don’t need to write them down — you just need to remember the final 6 characters (in this case, 3759XZ).

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t stick with any password for very long — I change mine every month.

And do NOT use this system for your bank or credit card accounts — you should have a totally separate system for that.

1. LibreOffice

techtipsfortradeunionistsNot long ago, a friend asked me if he should buy a copy of Microsoft Office for his new Windows laptop — or should he get a friend to give him a “free” (i.e., pirated) copy.

My answer was one word: “LibreOffice”.

LibreOffice derives from the famous OpenOffice project, which still exists, and is the free (free as in beer) alternative to Microsoft’s expensive office suite.

It has a word processor, spreadsheet, database and power-point-like software.

And yes, it can import Microsoft Word files and export files to the Word (.doc) format.

If your union is still paying to use Microsoft’s office software, isn’t it time to check out this free and equally good alternative?