Life Hacks Live


Danny O'Brien and Merlin Mann (click to enlarge)

Danny O'Brien offers a recap from last year (as bumper stickers):

  • Hackers love plaintext
  • My other app is in ~/bin: hackers use scripts
  • Super prolific geeks do it in public with complete strangers and like it. That is, they share.

These techniques are not just for alpha geeks. The theory is that they can trickle down to the masses. So what does that look like?

  • decent email search (Gmail, Lookout, and Tier Spotlight)
  • easy webscraping (no one's done this yet for the masses...)
  • keyboard macros for Windows/Linux (QuickSilver)
  • filepile for everyone (Flickr, Novell's iFolder, Groove)

Merlin Mann takes over to talk about 43 Folders, a place for finding out how to get things done. He calls it "a framework for making progress on the things that are important to you." The other big thing about 43 Folders is the low-tech and paper hacks.

Its important to create rules of thumb that help you avoid failure. Example: the ticket-forehead rule. Anytime you go somewhere that requires tickets, everyone in the car has to take their ticket out and hold it to their forehead and look around to make sure everyone else has their ticket. Stupid, but effective.

So, Danny takes back the mic to talk about what crossed over and why. Text editing didn't cross over. People like text files, but they didn't like text editors. Programmers have an affinity for text editors, but other's don't. So, with that, three mysteries present themselves:

Why the keyboard? People on 43 Folders love knowing about keyboard shortcuts and other ways of using the keyboard. Using the mouse is faster than they keyboard, but people don't report that. Is it because using the mouse is boring, but keyboard shortcuts present a mental challenge? One theory: Using the mouse is faster, but transitions cost time. Tippies (technically inexperienced people), get lost and never approach the stage where they gain from staying in the flow.

An example: Quicksilver is better than Alt-tab because Alt-tab has no muscle memory. There's no way that you can change tasks using Alt-tab without changing flow, even though you're still using the keyboard. QuickSilver allows muscle memory.

Another mystery: why the big screens? The productivity bump from large screens is true across the board (even true for tippies). Mary Czerwinski has done studies of this. The bottom line, having windows that don't overlap allows users to move between applications without significant context switching. Easier navigation is the key.

Third mystery: why are we so distracted? "Improved focus can be achieved through activities such as meditation, yoga, and turning off instant messaging." (Ulrich Mayr). This is a classic example of micro-events and their capacity for disruption. Geeks bore easily and we've built systems that keep us distracted.

The first wave for protecting flow as to eliminate navigation. The second wave will be eliminating distractions.

This year's killer apps:

  • Google suggest (protects flow)
  • Rise of the passive informant (things like dashboard)
  • A unified notification UI (e.g. Growl)
  • The nightmare of desktop search (could be more distracting) The return of Wordperfect (it was the only thing on the screen)

So, back to Merlin. A life hack its a patch that you apply to something you do to make it work better. How do we get beyond the idea that we have to patch things that don't work well. There hasn't been much innovation on functionality and integration of things like email and calendars. The system is broken if its up to me to find out when something has happened. Our computers have switched to interrupts, but we still poll.

Why can't I set filters on my email to notify me when interesting and important emails come in. Merlin uses Summary.Net, a log analysis program that tells him when unusual things happen on his Web site so he doesn't have to constantly check.