The secret of simplicity

Joe Kisell
14 May, 2014
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“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” proclaimed Apple’s first marketing brochure. And that’s as true for the way you work as it is for the computer or phone you use. Just as Apple’s hardware eschews unnecessary add-ons and frills, you can benefit from paring what isn’t essential from your work style and focusing solely on what is.

In that spirit, JOE KISSELL offers a guide to ways in which you can simplify the nitty-gritty chores you handle every day: managing files and apps, dealing with email and arranging your physical workspace.

In each case, simplifying means eliminating duplication and maximising efficiency. It means that every app and file on your hard drive is there because it needs to be. It means not wasting time when managing messages. It doesn’t mean getting rid of everything, but it does mean keeping only what’s necessary.

Simplify your files

Clear out extraneous apps and files

My Mac is home to well over a million files. To be sure, a few hundred thousand of those are components of OS X itself or of the many applications I’ve installed. Nevertheless, the number of user-generated files I have accumulated over the years astonishes me.

Most of the time, those files just sit there minding their own business. But sometimes – for example, when I do a Spotlight search for a document and thousands of potential matches pop up – I start thinking that a bit of file simplification is in order.

Now in this context, simplify could mean delete – but it doesn’t have to. I may need a certain file only once in a span of several years, but that doesn’t necessarily make it safe to delete. Depending on the situation, simplification may mean reorganising files, creating archives, offloading files to an external disk or other strategies.

And, of course, it would be easy to get carried away with this sort of thing and spend endless time looking for every last way to optimise one’s files, but that’s sure to produce diminishing returns. Instead, I suggest concentrating on the easiest and most fruitful kinds of simplification.

Call Recorder. This program is great for archiving Skype audio and video calls, but do yourself a favour and uncheck ‘Record Calls Automatically’ – you’ll save tons of disk space.

 

Save time and effort

Ease of finding documents isn’t the only reason to simplify your files.

Having greater numbers of files on your computer also makes activities such as backing up your system, syncing files, repairing disks, upgrading OS X and migrating over to a new Mac more time-consuming. And, needless to say, all those files take up disk space, which is an especially significant consideration for anyone whose Mac laptop has a low-capacity solid-state drive.

Simplifying the way you organise your files and applications can also benefit you if you collaborate with other users, whether by going through a cloud syncing service such as Dropbox (www.dropbox.com), by using OS X’s built-in file sharing or by relying on a file server. The more easily your colleagues can locate documents, and the less trouble they have to go through to sync and store them, the happier they’ll be.

Which files should you simplify? You have to decide for yourself what’s working and what isn’t when it comes to dealing with your files, but I’ll give you a few examples of file types that are high on my simplification list.

Multiple versions of a single document. When I write a book or article, the file goes through numerous iterations as it bounces among the author, the editors, the tech reviewers and the publisher. Sometimes I have several dozen versions of a manuscript by the time I’m finished. In most cases, only the final version is useful, but occasionally I need to check back and see who made a certain change and when.

My preferred strategy for dealing with the old versions is to wrap them up in a zip file (select them in the Finder and choose File > Compress X Items) and then trash the originals.

Large files. Videos, music files and virtual machines from apps such as VMware Fusion are common space hogs, but sometimes it’s the weird little things you don’t expect that eat up enormous amounts of space.

For example, I like to use Ecamm Network’s US$29.95 Call Recorder (www.ecamm.com) for recording Skype conversations. However, if you have it set to auto-record video chats (as I did), you may find yourself saddled with a folder full of multi-gigabyte files in short order.

To remedy that situation, I first tweaked the app’s settings so that it would record only on demand. Then I deleted conversations that I knew I’d never need to listen to again, and compressed the few recordings that were still useful to me.

Installers. When I download software, I usually like to hang on to the installer so I can put it on my other Macs without having to download it all over again. I find that storing installers on a network device such as Apple’s $349 AirPort Time Capsule serves the dual purpose of getting them off my main Mac’s disk and making them available to my other machines.

Downloaded media. I purchase a lot of music, TV shows and movies from the iTunes Store, but I don’t have to store all of those media files on my Mac because I can almost always download or stream one of them whenever I want to.

Occasionally, however, Apple elects to remove content from the iTunes Store and, as a result, you can’t download it again even if you paid for it. For that reason, I prefer to offload my media to an external disk, just in case.

Try a utility

Certain other types of files hog space needlessly but are harder to identify. For example, caches, log files and support files from discarded apps are usually safe to delete. But it’s not a good idea to trash these files indiscriminately, partly because they may serve a useful purpose and partly because it can be challenging to figure out where all these files are and which ones you no longer need. In such cases, a utility can help you with this chore.

I have tried any number of disk-tidying utilities over the years, including uninstallers, duplicate finders and general-purpose tools such as Titanium Software’s Onyx (www.titanium.free.fr).

My current favourite – with one qualification – is MacPaw’s US$39.95 CleanMyMac 2 (macpaw.com). I like the fact that CleanMyMac can identify large and old files, delete caches and logs, uninstall apps, manage system extensions of various kinds, and even slim down an iPhoto library.

However, I never accept the default ‘delete everything’ options, because the program often identifies files that look disposable but are actually important to me. So I carefully review its selections before letting it delete anything.

Clean it. CleanMyMac can identify space-hogging files and delete them for you. But review its suggestions carefully, as it may make unwarranted assumptions about what’s disposable.

 

Simplify your app selection

Keep only the software that you truly use

Every time I read about a new Mac or iOS app in a category of software I use, I think to myself, ‘Oh, cool – that might save me some time and effort.’ I download the app and test it out, but more often than not, I quickly conclude that my previous solution was just as good, and I leave the new app sitting on my Mac unused and soon to be forgotten. From then on, whenever I see the app, I feel a vague, low-level anxiety. But still I accumulate more apps, and the cycle repeats.

No longer. Now I’m on a mission to simplify my selection of apps by choosing fewer, better tools; learning them well; and deleting the rest.

Reduce decision-making

Why should it matter that I have so many apps? It’s true, they take up space, but I could always delete them. And sure, money is a factor, but I could just stop buying new apps and paying for upgrades I don’t need. More important to me is the psychological cost of proliferating apps.

Every time I start to edit a photo, for instance, I think to myself, ‘Should I finally take the time to decide if Pixelmator (www.pixelmator.com) or Flying Meat’s Acorn (www.flyingmeat.com), both of which I bought months ago, will do a better job for me, or should I just stick with good old Adobe Photoshop Elements (www.adobe.com), since I already know how to use it to get my work done quickly?’ I invariably pick the familiar path.

Steve Jobs picked clothes he liked and then wore the same thing every day, to save time and mental energy. Consider applying a similar logic to apps: think about which tools serve you best, spend the necessary time to learn them and then just stop thinking about it.

Go deep rather than broad

One app category for which I have perhaps a dozen options is plain-text editors for iOS that support Markdown (daringfireball.net/projects/markdown) and Dropbox. To name just a few examples, I’ve purchased omz:software’s Editorial (omz-software.com), Philip Dhingra’s Nebulous Notes (nebulousapps.net), Alexander Blach’s Textastic (www.textasticapp.com), Prasanna Gopalakrishnan’s WriteUp (writeup.prasannag.com), and Quang Anh Do’s Writing Kit (getwritingkit.com).

Leaving aside the question of which of those apps is best, constantly bouncing between apps limits productivity. The more I use an app, the more efficient I become at using it. As soon as I switch to another product, I lose the benefit of muscle memory and usage habits.

If I had nothing but time, I’d force myself to use a new app for a week or two to learn it well, develop new habits and see if my efficiency improved compared with the previous app. But I’d waste time experimenting.

I think it’s better to choose an app based on the available information, learn it deeply, and then stick with it unless you encounter frequent annoyances or find that it lacks capabilities you really need.

Don’t jump at each new app

I’m not suggesting that you pick one app in each category and stick with it for life. Software evolves, and it’s reasonable to re-evaluate your needs from time to time – say, every year or two, or when you realise that the pain-to-benefit ratio of your current solution has become too great. But make the software you keep on your computer something you choose deliberately instead of just jumping at every new, shiny toy that’s getting some buzz.

For a long time I, like most of the rest of the world, used Microsoft Word for my word processing chores. I didn’t like it much, but it was the only tool that could accomplish certain tasks for me.

Then Apple’s Pages app improved to the point that it became an even better tool for me, so I invested significant time in learning its ins and outs. A couple of

years later, Nisus Software’s Nisus Writer Pro (nisus.com/pro), an old favourite, acquired new features that made it superior to Pages for my needs, and I switched again.

I won’t kid you, however; switching a major program like this can be time-consuming if you want to learn the tool well, and it takes a while for the new app to pay off in increased productivity.

Mail Act-On. One of my favourite extensions for Mail, Mail Act-On, lets you customise numerous aspects of Mail’s behaviour. You can create rules that apply when you send messages or that file messages, but only when you press a user-defined keyboard shortcut.

 

Make the choice

If you’re sold on the idea of simplifying your apps, keep these tips in mind.

Look for customisability. Extensions, plug-ins, and macros can make a good app great. For example, even though other, more powerful email clients exist, I use Apple Mail because I haven’t yet encountered an email client that matches what Mail can do when tricked out with the assorted third-party extensions I use.

Use multipurpose apps. The fact that an app does many things doesn’t mean it does them all well, but in some cases an app with several capabilities can replace a number of smaller apps. For instance, BusyMac’s BusyCal (www.busymac.com) replaces both Calendar and Reminders for me; and Objective Development’s LaunchBar (www.obdev.at) can function as an app launcher, calculator and Clipboard utility.

Sometimes you really do need two or more apps. Don’t forgo a genuinely useful app simply because it increases your app count. Sometimes apps have essential features that justify their use.

Delete the rest. Once you’ve winnowed down your apps, get rid of the ones you don’t want.

Now doesn’t that feel better?

Multitalented. LaunchBar is an unobtrusive app that combines an app launcher, a calculator, a Clipboard history and more.

 

Simplify your email

Find a system that suits the way you work

If your email is completely under control – your Inbox is normally empty, filing new messages is a breeze and you feel no anxiety at all about the number of email messages you receive every day or the number you’ve stored over the years – you can stop reading this article now.

For everyone else, I have a few suggestions to help simplify your email experience.

Consolidate your accounts

Most email clients, such as Apple’s Mail and Microsoft Outlook, can handle as many accounts as you throw at them, and of course it’s often necessary to keep your work and personal accounts separate. But be honest: do you really need email accounts from iCloud, Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, your ISP and so on?

You can simplify your email by picking just one as your go-to account and setting up all the other services to forward email to that primary address (so you don’t need to worry about sending everyone a change-of-address notice).

That way, even if you’re checking your email in a web browser, you’ll be able to see all your messages in the same place. Your email client will have less work to do, which can make it more responsive and your mobile devices will use less battery power and possibly even a bit less network bandwidth.

Trim your mailboxes

I used to have hundreds of mailboxes for filing saved mail. Then I drastically reduced those to a few dozen. Now I’m working my way down to the single digits. Although using separate mailboxes (or, in Gmail, labels) sometimes serves a useful organisational function, the combination of searches and smart mailboxes, or saved searches, can often accomplish the same thing.

And, not having to think as hard about where to put a particular message, or where to look for a saved message, can save you time and mental energy.

Some people advocate using a single Archive mailbox as a dumping ground for all messages you’ve read and want to remove from the Inbox. I don’t go quite that far, because I have certain categories of messages I can locate more easily if I keep them separate from the general population. Having fewer mailboxes makes filing your messages much simpler, especially on iOS devices.

iCloud forwarding. Go to the iCloud website and look under the Mail app’s preferences to find the option to forward all incoming messages to another address. You can even delete iCloud’s copy in the process.

 

Your goal should be to have the smallest number of mailboxes necessary to facilitate finding the information you need quickly. For example, my few remaining mailboxes include one called Travel (so that I can easily find everything related to a trip such as the flight itineraries and hotel information I have on my iPhone) and one mailbox called Money (so that all my receipts and tax-related documents reside in one place).

I no longer keep mailboxes for messages from individual friends or family members, because those are easy to find with a search or a smart mailbox.

Check messages less (or more) frequently

A number of people recommend checking email less often – say, once or twice a day – and leaving your email client closed the rest of the time to avoid distractions. For some people’s temperaments, that tactic may be exactly the right choice, and if you don’t tend to receive a great deal of time-sensitive messages, that method of simplifying is definitely worth a try.

For me, however, the better choice is to take the opposite tack – to check my email more frequently. If I did it just one or twice a day, the pile of messages would be overwhelming. So I keep my email client open while I’m working at my desk and I check my iPhone or iPad regularly when I’m not.

By answering or otherwise processing most messages as they come in, I almost never have more than a few messages in my inbox, which lightens my mental load.

Rethink Inbox management

While my technique for handling incoming messages works exceptionally well for me, my approach is just one of many; you may discover that a different solution fits your style better.

The crucial first step in mending your email ways is realising that neither email in general nor your email client in particular is to blame if your email experience feels out of control. Reflect on what’s not working for you and experiment until you find a good technique.

To be sure, you may benefit from products or services that do some of the heavy lifting for you, such as SaneBox (US$49 to US$69 for a two-year subscription; www.sanebox.com) or C-Command Software’s US$30 SpamSieve (c-command.com). A different email client might also help.

None of these options, however, can compose thoughtful replies to messages for you or eliminate the need to think about your incoming email entirely. Some aspects of inbox management will always require a certain degree of manual effort.

That said, here are a handful of tips.

SpamSieve. SpamSieve normally works behind the scenes to separate junk mail from legitimate messages, but it’s worthwhile to check out your statistics from time to time to see just how effective the tool has been.

 

Use server-side filtering. Both Gmail and iCloud, as well as many other email providers, let you set up rules or filters on the server that can file, delete or even send canned responses to messages that match certain criteria. Even though your Mac email client can do that too, relying on server-side rules means you benefit from that prefiltering even when using a mobile device.

Learn to love the Delete key. I’ve long been in the habit of saving almost all of my incoming messages, but those files take up a considerable amount of space, and they make operations such as running backups, performing disk repairs and migrating to a new Mac more time-consuming. Additionally, even if you use great search tools, having an ever-larger haystack makes searching for the needle you’re after that much more challenging.

So I’m trying to train myself to spend half a second before reflexively filing a message to consider whether I may ever refer to this particular email again and, if I think I won’t, to delete it. Each time I delete a message, it improves my signal-to-noise ratio ever so slightly.

Leave the past in the past. Should you spend a lot of time pruning the tens of thousands of messages you’ve already accumulated? For me, the answer is no, because having to think about each of them long enough to decide whether it should go or stay would chew up far too much of my time.

If I can delete hundreds at once – for example, if all the messages from a certain mailing list were also available in a web archive – that’s one thing. But otherwise, selective culling just isn’t an effective use of my time.

Archive locally. However, it is fair to ask whether all of those messages need to stay in my email client and on my IMAP servers. They almost certainly don’t, and you can reduce the amount of time your email client spends syncing with servers (not to mention that you can also recover server storage space) by using an app such as Pubblog’s US$99.95 MailSteward Pro (www.mailsteward.com) or one of its less expensive siblings, the US$49.95 MailSteward or the US$24.95 MailSteward Lite, to archive older messages locally.

Simplify your home office

Tweak its layout and clear out the clutter

The closets, shelves and drawers in my office are full of ageing technology, from old Macs and iPhones to keyboards, cables and adaptors of every description. I’ve accumulated a lifetime’s worth of office supplies.

Unneeded (or seldom-used) objects have a way of interposing themselves between me and the useful object I need right now. So I’m working to simplify my home office – not only by purging stuff, but also by rearranging furniture and electronics to reduce the time I waste searching for things instead of doing productive work.

If your office could do with some simplification too, these ideas may help nudge you in the right direction.

Optimise your office layout

Your office may or may not afford you much flexibility when it comes to the placement of things like desks and shelves. But taking the time to find the best arrangement of large objects can pay off in a big way.

I spent hours experimenting (on paper) with office layouts to devise one that would put my crucial technology within arm’s reach, and then an afternoon moving everything around. Now I don’t have to fight with poorly placed objects to get my work done.

De-junk and recycle

I inherited the pack-rat gene from my father, and as a result I find it difficult to part with any object that may conceivably be useful in the future. Even though my 2002-vintage titanium PowerBook G4 hasn’t been turned on in years and has zero market value, a combination of sentimentality and the nagging feeling that it could still, somehow, be put to good use makes me reluctant to part with it. Yet there it sits, year after year. Does that sound familiar?

Here’s the advice I’m giving myself: be ruthless. If you haven’t used an object in a couple of years, you can live without it. If it’s not worth money, recycle it. When an object gives you pause, be realistic about the likelihood of using it again. If the probability is less than 10 percent, put it in the recycle pile. Once you’re ready to move that stuff out of your office, check out our advice for recycling old tech gear.

One tactic that makes me feel better about getting rid of things is replacing three or four single-purpose objects with one multipurpose thing. For example, you may be able to replace an outdated printer, scanner and fax machine with a single multifunction device. Or replace several old, slow hard drives with a faster, higher-capacity hard drive that uses a USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt interface.

Organise what remains

I used to keep all of my cables and adapters jumbled in a big canvas bag. Now I sort them into small, neatly labelled drawers: one for USB stuff, one for audio stuff, one for iOS accessories and so on. That simple move alone has saved me tons of time and effort.

Once you’ve simplified and optimised your office, reassess its efficiency once a year, or whenever you notice the clutter gaining the upper hand again.

Gmail filters. Configuring Gmail filters is a two-step process. First tell Gmail what to look for (such as a sender or subject) and then specify what should happen to matching messages (for example, applying a label).

 

Simplify your social media life

Be choosy about who and what you follow

Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter can serve many worthwhile purposes, both personal and professional. They can also turn into a huge time sink – not only distracting you from more useful pursuits, but also dragging you down psychologically, what with all the snarky remarks, intolerant posts and general insanity the medium seems to induce.

I’m not suggesting that you give up on social media altogether, but I do recommend taking steps to increase its ratio of signal (worthwhile opinions and comments) to noise (anything you consider a waste of time). While you’re at it, you might apply similar principles to one-way media such as RSS feeds and web-based newsreaders.

Simplify Twitter

I choose the people I follow on Twitter very carefully, and I try to keep the total number small enough that I have sufficient time to read most of what they write: I figure that if I’m not genuinely interested in what they have to say, I shouldn’t follow them in the first place. If you follow more than a few hundred people, it’s unlikely that you can keep up with all of them, anyway. My advice is to seriously consider pruning that list. Even then, I unfollow people who tweet too frequently about topics I don’t care about or who simply tweet a lot (even if the content is great).

When I unfollow, I do so without prejudice, but sometimes I want to continue following someone – to avoid bruised feelings or as a professional courtesy – without having to see their tweets. (In case you weren’t aware, there are tons of websites and apps that can alert people when someone unfollows them on Twitter – for example, Unfollowers.me [unfollowers.me], Fllwrs [fllwrs.com], and Find Unfollowers on Twitter – and I know numerous people who use such tools obsessively.)

One effective approach is to use lists to filter your tweets, but I prefer to mute instead. Muting (also called muffling) is something you can do only in a Twitter client, not on the Twitter website, and it means you continue to follow the person but don’t see their tweets in your timeline.

In Tapbots’ $24.99 Tweetbot for Mac (www.tapbots.com), for example, you mute the tweets of someone you’re following by clicking the person’s icon, choosing Mute from the gear pop-up menu, and selecting a time period from one day to forever. Other apps, such as The Iconfactory’s US$9.95 Twitterrific (twitterrific.com/mac), also let you muffle hashtags.

Simplify Facebook

Facebook is much the same. You can unfriend anyone you don’t want to hear from anymore, and I occasionally do so when nearly everything a person posts is negative or inflammatory.

But unfriending someone is often considered a slap in the face, and social convention makes it difficult to do so for certain categories of people, such as relatives and work colleagues. (Similar to Twitter, Facebook does not automatically inform users when you unfriend them, but apps such as Unfriend Finder [on.fb.me/1gOI288] make tracking such actions a lot easier than scanning one’s list of friends and noticing that somebody is missing.)

Nevertheless, you can perform the Facebook equivalent of muting by telling Facebook that you want a person to stay on your list of friends, but you don’t want to see any of their posts. To do this, hover over the person’s name at the top of a post and click the Following button, which then turns into a Follow button.

The other person won’t know that you’ve made this change, but you won’t have to see anything they write.

Simplify news consumption

RSS is long past its heyday, but many people still use it, often through an app such as the free beta of Vienna (www.vienna-rss.org) or Black Pixel’s US$20 NetNewsWire (netnewswireapp.com), to keep up with news sites, blogs and other regularly updated content. Some sites don’t support RSS or do the job poorly, so I have a bookmark folder in Safari that I c-click in order to open each of its sites in a different tab.

Even though I wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings simply by unsubscribing from an RSS feed or abandoning a news site, I kept too many around, for too long, until I eventually realised that all those unread articles every day were making me anxious and inducing a false sense of guilt. So I pared them down to the bare minimums. (Note that if you follow someone on Twitter who always tweets links to their blog posts, then the corresponding RSS feed is redundant and you can unsubscribe from it.)

Although I still keep up with tech news, I’ve decided that it’s important for my mental well-being to avoid following other news (whether on the web, TV or other media). I still hear plenty of news secondhand, but I no longer volunteer for a full daily dose of sadness and rage over awful things happening in the world that I can’t do anything about.

And you know what? I’ve been much happier ever since.

by Joe Kissell

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