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Hacking Mail and iCal for GTD

GTD stands for “Getting Things Done” (the title of David Allen’s first book) and has become a shorthand way to refer to his methodology. You can read an official explanation on his site.

In a nutshell, GTD is a way to get control of all the things you need to get done by getting it out of your brain and into a trusted system. My favorite line from the What is GTD? web page is, “The only “right” way to do GTD is getting meaningful things done with truly the least amount of invested attention and energy.” Sounds great, right? And it really does work.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about my amazing experience with GTD because of a tweet. That post led to conversations with Kelly Forrister, a coach with the David Allen company and, ultimately, an invitation to be interviewed by David Allen for the In Conversation series on GTDConnect. I KNOW, RIGHT?!

One of the things that came up in talking with both Kelly and David was how much of the dialogue online about GTD is led by men. And yet, there are plenty of women who use it with great success. So, I figured — why not blog about it? It’s not directly related to technology, but I think it’s a relevant topic for busy people. And everyone I know is busy people.

So, here goes!

What is GTD?

I don’t want to spend too much time on the question of what GTD is because lots has already been written on that topic elsewhere. If you don’t know what it is, and are good places to start. I’d highly recommend getting a copy of the book, Getting Things Done, and reading it twice. Once just to get the ideas into your head and the second time to actually follow the steps outlined. Seriously. Read it twice (it’s a quick read). Then come back and read this post.

One of the things that appealed to me when reading Getting Things Done was that it wasn’t trying to sell anything. You didn’t have to buy a certain kind of planner, or device, or software. It’s a methodology that can be applied using a paper and pencil or the latest technology. Whatever works for you.

My System

So, what works for me?

When I started implementing GTD about four years ago, I was working on a company PC. I configured Outlook (as outlined in the GTD and Outlook whitepaper) and everything hummed right along. Three years ago, I left that job and transitioned to a Mac. Suddenly, I was adrift without a system and I ended up falling into a trap that I think a lot of GTD practitioners (and geeks) fall into: I started over-analyzing my needs and evaluating software to the point that my system stopped working very well. I tried Backpack, Remember the Milk, OmniFocus and a score of others.

Finally, I decided the best approach would be to figure out a way to bend the applications I already use all day, every day to my will. Namely, Mail and iCal. Why? Because my big issue with all of the software I looked at was that it was another thing to deal with: a web page I had to visit, an app I had to open. It was either too big a hassle or I would totally forget. So, I set about to make Mail and iCal my “system.”

1. Email

I have nine email addresses that I monitor regularly (work, Geek Girls, gmail, etc.). Using IMAP, I check all my email addresses in Mail. I can go through them at the Inbox level, or I can toggle the main Inbox open and see messages in each individual Inbox. Nice! If you have multiple email addresses (and these days, most of us do), I’d highly recommend configuring them to all go to one or two places (perhaps one for Work and another for Personal addresses).

I also have Facebook messages and Twitter DMs emailed to me so I don’t need to remember to check my Facebook messages and so I won’t miss any DMs sent via Twitter. With those added on, I have ELEVEN “inboxes” down to ONE. Nice!

Beneath the Inbox, I have subfolders for Action, Waiting For and Someday/Maybe items.

I also have a series of folders set up for Reference emails (stuff I want to keep but I don’t need to do anything with). For work emails, these are organized by client and project name. For personal emails, I don’t need to parse things out with the same detail, so I have one Personal folder where messages can be archived after I’m done with them. (I can always use Search to find stuff there if needed.)

2. Lists

A big part of GTD is keeping good lists: Projects, Someday/Maybe, Agendas, Waiting-Fors, etc. I use Notes in Mail to keep those lists. But, Mail then buries those lovely lists down in a section called Reminders and also allows for Notes by Inbox. Yuck. Too complicated. To make this simpler and cleaner, I set up a Smart Mailbox called Notes. Any Notes — from anywhere in Mail — are filtered into this Smart Mailbox:

Another important set of lists is your to-dos by context (@home, @work, @calls, etc.). This is where iCal comes in. Mail doesn’t allow for categories on To Dos — but it does allow for To Dos to be associated with a calendar. So, I simply created “ghost” calendars called @home, @work, @calls, etc.). Technically, these calendars show up in iCal, but I uncheck them so nothing shows up. They exist only as a way to categorize my To Dos. Then, I created Smart Mailboxes that filter these To Dos by context:

All of my Smart Mailboxes (To Do lists by context and Notes) are right below my Inboxes for easy access (Mail allows you to drag and drop your items in the left pane into the order you prefer):

3. Calendar

Another big part of GTD is the “hard landscape” — what do I HAVE to do on a certain day, or at a certain time. I have multiple calendars in iCal that I can use to keep track of dates and filter as needed: personal, Trixie (my daughter), Theo (my son), and family. My work calendar is managed using a different calendar system than iCal, but luckily that system has an RSS feed. So I subscribe to my work calendar in iCal — which allows me to look in ONE place to see everything I need to do. My husband uses Google calendar — which also has an RSS feed — so I subscribe to his calendars as well. So then I’m aware if he has an early-morning meeting that may affect our routine or is scheduled to be out of town on a day when I may have to travel for work as well. Since I set up my system before Google unveiled the ability to sync calendars, I bought (and still use) a little app called BusySync that allows me to add new events in iCal. (So, if I add something in iCal, it updates Google, which updates the calendar feed which means my husband’s view of the calendar stays up-to-date, too!) In an extra bit of handiness, any birthdays that are in my Address Book are also displayed on a calendar so, assuming important birthdays are IN my Address Book, I don’t forget to buy and mail cards.

So, with all of that I have EIGHT calendars all displaying in ONE place. And each calendar has a different color — so when I see “Dr. Appt” I know immediately whether that appointment is for me, my husband or one of my kids.

So, while it took me a little bit of time to get this all set up, now that it’s up and running it takes very little time to maintain. To add to or edit one of my lists takes seconds. And I like using it. That’s key: if what you’re doing isn’t fun and easy — you won’t want to do it.

Plus, it’s portable. Most of what I’ve listed above syncs to my iPhone. The only things that don’t make it over are my To Dos, but I can live with that. (And if I need a quick list to take with me to the store, an index card and a pen come along for the ride.)

Whether or not you “do” GTD, think about what tools you are using every day, and how you could streamline them to make life easier. And if you’re interested in my ninja advice on using calendars, check out this blog post.

Back That Thing On Up

This past Thursday, I gingerly celebrated what I hope is the end of weeks and weeks of laptop problems. The point of this post is so important, that I’m going to give you the punch line before I finish the setup: BACK UP YOUR DATA.

Trust me on this one. Last year, one of the smartest people I know (a developer, no less) had a computer meltdown and lost all of his cherished digital photographs. He spent hundreds of dollars on data recovery. This same person guiltily admitted to me a few weeks ago that, despite that experience, he’s still not backing up his data. Sometimes, smart people can be so dumb.

Hey, it’s a new year (I can still say that as long as it’s January, right?), and a couple of weeks ago I heard a local radio personality vow that 2009 would be the year that she became more tech-savvy. Obviously, I fully support that resolution, and learning how to back up your data is a fantastic place to begin. Because if your machine self-destructs (or is shoved into the next life by a jam-covered toddler or a cup of coffee), all the tech-savviness in the world can’t save you.

Here’s what happened to me: due to some problems with my wireless connection I had to wipe out everything on my machine and reinstall the operating system (new Geek Girls: this is known also as the OS. On my Mac, that’s OSX. If you’re on a PC it’s Windows Vista or another version of Windows. For the super geektastic it might be some version of Linux, like Ubuntu.). I actually had to erase and install the OS and restore my data three times. Four if you include Thursday, when I finally gave up, bought a new machine and transferred all my data over.

Lucky for me, I’ve been doing backups of my data almost daily since November. I have to credit Apple here for an application called Time Machine which makes it crazy easy to backup your stuff. All I had to do was buy an external hard drive (I went with a cute red Western Digital Passport), and every time I connect it to my laptop, my machine backs itself up. It alerts me if I forget to plug it in for a long period of time, warning me that “Time Machine hasn’t backed up in X days.” But, now that I’m in the habit, I plug in the external drive daily. It’s usually plugged in when I’m at home, and often at work as well (I just toss it in my laptop bag when I leave the house).

But, even if you’re not on a Mac there’s really no excuse. There are lots of online backup services out there. (Of course, you take a risk in that if the company you’re backing up with goes out of business, there goes your data. On the other hand, it sure is handy to back up your data somewhere far away so that if your house burns down your data is far away and safe. Just sign up for a well-known service and not anything named Billy Bob’s Backups or I CAN HAZ BACKUPS PLZ and you should be fine.)

The bottom line is this: think for a moment about how much you rely on your computer every day. Think about how much of your life might be on there. If your first reaction is, “Oh, I don’t have anything really important on there,” I want you to try one thing before I’ll believe you: turn off the computer right now and put it in a closet. Go for one week without using it. You can use other computers to access web sites or email, but you can’t use your main computer. After a week, tell me that you don’t have anything really important on there and I’ll believe you.

Honestly, I’ve felt completely lost without my stuff over the past few weeks. At work, I was unfocused because all my To Do lists are on my laptop. I didn’t know what personal errands I needed to run (also a list on my laptop), and don’t even get me started on all of the passwords I had to try and remember when I was on a loaner machine trying to visit all my usual online haunts.

So, if you do have anything really important on there (as most of us do), I’ll say it again: BACK UP YOUR DATA. It’s as easy as 1-2-3. Actually, wait, it’s as easy as 1-2:

1. Find a web site and  start remote backups ASAP. I’ve heard great things from many sources about Mozy. They even have a free personal account (up to 2GB). If you need more, you can get a subscription for less than $5 a month. Not bad. You can also check out this excellent PC Magazine article listing the best online backup services.

2. If using an online service makes you uneasy, start shopping for an external hard drive and back up to that drive regularly (but humor me and use an online service until you buy your drive and get everything set up).

If you’re on a Mac, the whole thing is dead simple with Time Machine and there’s no excuse for not using it. As soon as you plug the drive in, your machine will say something like, “Hey, I see you have a drive connected, can I please do some backups for you?”

If you’re on a PC, check out this excellent article from LifeHacker on how to automatically back up your junk.

Two steps. You can handle that. If you do only one geeky thing this year, do this one. You’ll thank me someday when there’s jam oozing out of your keyboard.

Geek Love

It was only a matter of time.

Yep, we here at Geek Girls headquarters have started getting inquiries from boys in search of a geek girl of their very own.

Ken from Indianapolis asked, “I’m a single 24 year old geeky guy…Where can I go to meet geek girls?!” and Dan from Brazil said, “…here in Brazil there aren’t cool chicks that get geeky, love games, [and] know bout technology…Do you have any idea of where we could look for those? Time is passing and we are really getting sad and lonely cause the non-geeks don’t fill in the blanks.”

Yes, Ken and Dan, I agree. There is nothing quite as awesome as a Geek Girl. As for where to meet them, that’s a bit tougher to answer.

Where the Geeks Are

Here’s my two cents: the best place to meet a truly geeky girl is probably, well…online. For example, my husband and I found each other via the perfect storm of geekery. One night, while I was bonding with my laptop in my single-girl studio apartment, Nancy sent me an IM with a link to a blog called the Kingdom of Squirrels written by a guy named Jeremy. “Hey,” she typed, “you should date this guy.” I checked out the blog, thought the guy looked cool, but suspected that he was so cool that he was either:
a) gay
b) taken
c) psychologically unfit
d) all of the above

By coincidence, Jeremy stumbled across my now-dead blog a few weeks later (he thinks via a directory of MN bloggers — this was in 2002 when there were far fewer blogs and before they were proclaimed dead) and left me a comment. I saw it, clicked over to his website and realized I had been there a few months before. We exchanged blog comments and emails for a couple of months, we saw each other in person for the first time when he came to see me at a poetry slam, we had our first real date a month later, and the rest is history. There was also a mix tape involved (well, technically a mix CD, but the effect was the same).

Finding the Elusive Female Geek

Obviously, you can find a geek girl anywhere you’d find any other kind of girl, but it might be tricky to figure out if she’s a geek. Sidling up to a girl at happy hour and asking if she knows CSS from RSS might not work so well. In my experience, what works best is to just put yourself out there, either via a blog where you write about whatever you are passionate about or an expert on, via Twitter, and on social networks like Facebook, Orkut, MySpace, or whatever is most popular in your country or age/interest group.

Next, cruise around and see who’s interesting. Let it happen naturally by commenting on blogs that interest you, or finding opportunities (like Meetups) to mingle with other geeks in meatspace. Whatever you do, don’t be creepy. Sending an IM or direct tweet like “Hey, baby let’s chat…” is sooo not going to work. It’s just like real life: you’ll encounter a lot of people, but you’ll only make a real connection with a few. Don’t try to force it, or you’ll come off all wrong and you’ll scare the girly geeks away. Be cool, man. Be cool.

What worked for Jeremy and I is that — first and foremost — we found each other to be interesting; technology just facilitated our relationship. Had it not been for the Internet, AIM and Movable Type, we might have never met (in fact, I probably should have invited Tim Berners-Lee and the Trotts to our wedding), but our relationship is based on who we are, not on the technology itself. It’s a bit of a happy coincidence that we are both geeks, but your odds of meeting a geek girl are higher online than they are IRL. So, just put yourself out there. See what happens.

That’s that. Don’t get the wrong idea, guys — I’m not turning this into a dating column. But, you asked and I’m here for you.

Good luck.

Pay-Per-Click Advertising, by Nina Hale

Geeky reader Jamie in St. Paul submitted the following question recently: “Could you talk a little about google ads and google ad words? What’s the difference and how does it work? I have a basic idea but I’d like to learn more.”

I know enough about the topic to be dangerous, but contacted fellow girl geek and search engine maven Nina Hale to give a more expert explanation. She was kind enough to submit the following explanation of Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising. From Google Adwords and beyond!

What is PPC and how does it work?

Pay-per-click advertising (PPC) is the practice of bidding on specific keywords when they are typed into search engines. You bid in an auction system for an ad to show based upon the keyword, channel, time-of-day, geographic location, or other factors. You only pay when someone clicks on your ad. Common ad networks are Google Adwords, Yahoo Search Marketing, MSN adCenter, and more recently Facebook social targeting.

The advantages of PPC:

  • the ability to launch, modify, and stop rapidly,
  • the ability to get onto the front page of search engines,
  • the ability to take searchers to a very specific landing page of your choice,
  • the ability to easily measure leads and revenue from the channel.

The disadvantages of PPC:

  • the market is mature and generally has efficient competition,
  • you must be able to effectively convert your visitors,
  • unlike natural search—it costs money for each click and once you stop funding it, it’s over. Meaning that natural search takes a lot of time to optimize, but once you’ve done it right, there is a half-life of benefit (but that also goes away).
  • PPC can be complex to manage which may require outside help.

Funding PPC

As the advertiser, you identify how much you’re willing to pay if someone clicks on your ad, and you compete in an auction system with other advertisers who are also bidding on those keywords. You can specify a maximum cost-per-click (CPC) for each keyword that will trigger an ad. A product that costs a lot of money and has a short time to purchase might be highly competitive. “Residential drug treatment” may cost $31 for each click. But “mouthguard for braces” might only cost $0.30 per click. But, even if you offer the highest bid you are not guaranteed the top listing; there is a complex system of ranking based upon a large number of variables.

You can set budget limits on campaigns for mere dollars a day, or go as high as the available volume of searches supports. You can also define geographic locations, times of the day, or where on the search result page you prefer to have your ad show.

Measuring PPC

Since you can track which keyword produces a lead or sale for your company, you should be able to know what CPC and conversion rate will make you money.  For example: if you determine that the keyword “mouth guards” sells $400 for each 100 clicks, you should be able to set a maximum cost you’re willing to pay for each click. All the networks use credit card billing and most of them charge you after the fact rather than having you pre-fund your account.

Brand Considerations in PPC

Because part of natural search optimization (SEO) requires a site to have keywords in the page copy that someone has searched on, PPC allows you to portray a more appropriate brand image. For example, if someone searches for a “fat farm,” and you want your website to come up in natural search, the word “fat farm” has to be very apparent in the page content. In paid search you can have an ad trigger from the keyword “fat farm” but the ad and your website could say “luxury weight loss resort.”

PPC Channels “search vs content” Networks

Most of the PPC ad networks have multiple channels: search networks and content networks. Search networks show ads on actual search engines, so they are based upon someone typing the keyword into a search box – clearly a pre-qualification to sales. Content networks are web pages where the keywords or keyword themes are present in the copy. Hence someone might be reading about the topic on another web site and see your ad. Clickthrough rates for the content networks are much lower, and have variable results based upon the industry and target.

Facebook PPC

Facebook social ads are a middle zone that falls into what is called behavioral targeting (BT). You identify interests people have listed on their profiles or updates, and if it’s in the Facebook database, you can show ads to that interest group. I’m a member of a Star Trek group on Facebook and had an ad shown to me for a Star Trek t-shirt, which I promptly bought. The Facebook database is currently not as extensive as it could be, and word is that they are working to expand this.

Types of ads on PPC

While text ads are most common, most networks now offer image ads, mobile ads, and listings on local maps as options.

When to Use PPC Advertising.

PPC Advertising does not grow demand, it captures demand that is there. It should have higher close rates because people are further down on the funnel. If there are people who are actively searching for what you sell, PPC is an excellent source of advertising.

You have to be able to close. If you don’t have an efficient manner on your website to get people to buy or start an inquiry process with you, you need to start there. It’s the “lead a horse to water” idea, if there’s nothing for them to drink, you wasted your money.

You have to be able to measure. If you can’t measure what happens on the website once people get there from a paid ad, it is going to be very hard to justify continuing the program. You can measure engagement in terms of time spent on the site, page views, etc., as well as actual sales and leads. Conversion rates for landing pages on PPC average 3.84% for in-house management of PPC, and 5.4% for outsourced managed PPC. (source: “MarketingSherpa Landing Page Handbook – second ed. 2008” Covers both B2C, B2B)

If you’re thinking about a long-term natural search investment, PPC is a good starting point. You can use this to show that search does create leads or sales for the company. Or you may find that it doesn’t convert and that you either need a redesign, better call to action, or different form of advertising. Natural search also takes a long time to really take hold, depending upon the competition on the first page.

If the natural search competition is too intense, PPC can work well. Sometimes you just can’t get past the Wikipedia’s of the world, the huge directories that have been putting $100,000 annually into natural search optimization, or the millions of fans who have been linking to a site. However this works in reverse, if there is a very competitive term, chances are there are lots of companies willing to pay a lot of money for a paid ad.

If you want to get a message up fast, such as in response to an article about your company, PPC is an excellent way to launch immediately.

PPC is a good way to test new designs or sales offers. Since you can direct traffic precisely to a page, you can do A/B tests to bring in traffic, test the response, then turn off the ad.

When not to use PPC Advertising.

If you want to grow demand, search is going to be more expensive and have worse results. They are better channels for building your brand. Sometimes you have a product that no one knows about and there is no exact demand for it. In this case, you can’t even target a keyword that fits. In this case turn to PR or media.

If you have a product that has a long research process, or is an “ambition” item, PPC may be hard. For example, lots of people want to liquidate their lives and escape to Mexico to live simply, but not many do it. Lots of them may be searching at 11pm after they’ve had a bad day at work. So spending lots of money for PPC ads about cheap Mexican property may get you tons of clicks and zero sales. Low conversion rates and high interest can be an opportunity for natural search where the long-term investment will result in “free clicks.”

Search is ok, but riskier for “pain points” because the customer is higher in the funnel when they don’t really know what they need to fix the problem. The lead time is longer as they research, and harder to attribute the lead to the original search terms.

Nina Hale, Geek

Nina Hale is Principal of Nina Hale Consulting, a Minneapolis search engine marketing agency that works with brands such as Edina Realty, Lifetouch Portrait Studios, Red Wing Shoes, and the Hazelden Foundation.

Reader Question: Parallels for Mac

This (great) question was submitted to the Geek Girls recently by one of our geeky readers, Vickie in Seattle:

Hello ladies. Well, it’s time for me to install parallels on my beloved Mac. I’m so resistant to this — it’s silly really. But admittedly it’s due to my long-standing distaste for Microsoft and my recent nightmare experiences with Vista and Microsoft Exchange servers. So, I’m wondering if anyone out there has any thoughts as to bugs, install issues, desktop sharing, back-ups, etc. before I head into this. Oh, and am I going to get a stomach ache when I see Microsoft desktop icons on my Mac?

I asked our resident Mac expert, and official member of the Geek Girls Men’s Auxilliary, Michael Koppelman for his expert advice and he had this to say:

I would first take a look at VirtualBox ( It is open source and works very nicely on Macs, PCs and Linux boxes. Parallels is very nice, though, and is probably a bit more mature, especially in terms of devices such as printers and network connections. In both cases you need to own a version of Windows if your goal it to run Windows. You can virtualize Linux and other operating systems, though, as well.

As for the Windoze icon induced stomach ache, well, a little pepto in the desk drawer can’t ever be a bad thing.   For the really specific information around bugs and backups, and every other little Parallels quirk, check out the Parallels Consumer Tech Blog.

Now, there may be some of you sitting there thinking, ‘what the heck is Parallels for Mac and why should I care?  Also a good question.  Simply put, Parallels for Mac is a program that lets you run Windows or Linux on your Macintosh computer (I know!  Why WOULD you?).  This is called ‘desktop virtualization’.  You may not be running a Windows machine, but you can feel like you are with this handy program.  So your desktop, your icons, your programs can all look and act like a Windows-based PC, when in fact you are working on your beloved Mac.  For more information about Parallels visit the website.