Monday, May 12, 2008

Managing personal projects the Spinuzzi way

I recently received an email asking for suggestions about personal knowledge management. Since I like to reuse my efforts, here's a modified version of what I suggested.

Personal knowledge management is by nature an idiosyncratic thing, so my ideal ecosystem will be different from others. That being said, I came to the conclusion a while back that omnibus solutions don't work all that well: usually software will do one or two things exceptionally well but is mediocre at other tasks. So I've been gravitating toward mashup solutions that preserve interoperability as much as possible.

Also, I've gravitated toward solutions that leverage mobile tech as much as possible: services that offer mobile interfaces, services that take and send text messages. That's mostly because I'm not working consistently in an office, and I like to check the calendar and set tasks on the fly; your mileage may vary.

So here's the criteria I have for applications:
  • Tags. If you're going to work across services, you need to be able to filter everything via the same set of tags (or labels, in Google's terms). Tags allow you to specify project, role, etc. and to bring the same shape to data across services. Currently there's no way to synch tags across services, so I do this by hand, and ruthlessly prune. With a little initial effort, you get unanimity in tags across services. When it works, you can pull everything relevant into the same view. You can also assign the same data to multiple tags, meaning multiple roles and projects -- something that early web-based PM software such as Basecamp wouldn't allow.
  • Mobile interface. Mobile interface accessible through a mobile browser, SMS (texting) interface preferred.
  • Stability. Got to have uptime; preferably an established brand that will not disappear tomorrow.
  • Data portability. Don't want to get trapped in a particular service. When necessary, apps should be able to share. Open APIs.
  • Developer community. I don't write applications, but it's nice that others do. So I tend to use services that are supported by large user communities that develop plugins and etc.
So here's what I currently do:
  • Email: Google Mail. I use GMail's tags (aka labels) extensively, and I like that I can assign colors to tags so I can visually scan through messages as well as filtering by tag. You can set filters to autotag messages. GMail also has a great mobile application if you like to check email via phone.
  • Tasks: Remember the Milk, RTM has a GMail plugin so that you can see email and tasks in the same window. It also has tags. The tags aren't color-coded, but you do get a tag cloud, which is nice for seeing which projects are more fully developed. Mobile interface too.
  • Documents, outlines, notes: Google Docs. I collaborate extensively, so the sharing features are great. With Google Gears integration, you can work offline as well, although you might prefer authoring in Word and uploading. Tags are color-coded in the same way as GMail, and I use the same tags and colors across the two. I dump all texts into GDocs that aren't confidential -- notes, ideas, outlines, chapters. I also coordinate complex collaborations in a spreadsheet. An excellent search feature also allows search-as-you-type. Again, the big advantage is tagging, which allows you to filter by project, role, or whatever. Mobile interface too.
  • Calendar: Google Calendar. Same as above, plus GCal accepts appointments and sends reminders through text messaging.
  • Trip scheduling: I haven't used it yet, but I intend to use TripIt: <>. The big news is that when you get a trip itinerary emailed to you, you forward it to TripIt and it parses the email, creating a unified view that you can access via mobile and share with individuals or the world. TripIt accepts airport reservations, hotel reservations, etc. and offers granular control so that you don't share everything on the itinerary. If your acquaintances also use the service, TripIt will inform you when you and they are in the same city and for how long.
  • Notes. I've been using my blog to think out loud about tech issues and to review books; the book reviews in particular become raw material for my articles and books. The blog's an important part of the ecosystem, but it's not attached to particular projects, so I don't tag blog entries the way I do everything else.
Depending on your work habits, you might check out other more unified solutions. There are several desktop solutions such as CircusPonies Notebook <>, Curio <>, and DevonThink <>, but I've found them to be rather limiting.

Do you want to discuss your own information ecosystem? Leave your take in the comments.


lonto said...

These are good tips. The only thing that currently keeps me using DEVONthink Pro is the ability to organize all of the related PDFs.

What method do you use for managing the related PDFs?

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Hmm, I don't deal much with PDFs except for journal articles. Those I keep in a flat file structure and name by author and title.

I used to use Yep, which is sort of an iTunes for PDFs, but it became harder to manage than simply pulling the PDFs.

I should also mention that I use Quicksilver, so I can find PDFs through search-as-you-type. That was a big reason that Yep became less attractive to me.