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Digital Tickler File on OSX Using Hazel

Tony Green

I've never really found a place in my physical life for a tickler file in my Getting Things Done workflow, they seem like a great idea but I have no real world paper to manage.

When carrying out GTD training, I'm often asked if there is digital equivalent of a tickler file. I'm usually training fairly technical people who're trying to embrace the paperless lifestyle, the idea of having a draw dedicated to 43 folders and having to remember to check it isn't that appealing. Tickler files only work if you have the discipline to check them daily.

There are various ways to fake a tickler file, some of which I use already. My current method is to put a link to the file I want "tickled" into [Omnifocus][omnifocus] with a start date of the day I want to see it. That works pretty well and certainly gives the desired (fully automatic) result.

Well, this would be a pretty short post if that was the end of it..... But it's not.

I was over in Houston doing training a couple of weeks ago and the topic of tickler files came up again. We discussed the idea of having a digital version of the tickler and some people though it would be really useful. I put a loop into Omnifocus's inbox and didn't think too much more about it.

A few days later I was at the airport processing my inbox while waiting to board. I got to the inbox item "Digital tickler files?" and when I got to the standard GTD question of "is it actionable?" I decided, "yes, it is".

I spent the next couple of hours figuring out how to setup a fully automated tickler file system on a Mac using a wonderful tool called Hazel. For those of you who (for some unknown reason) don't know what Hazel is, I'll quote their website : "Hazel watches whatever folders you tell it to, automatically organizing your files according to the rules you create."

I use Hazel extensively to manage my files, handle my filing, organise my backups and perform housekeeping on my directories, amongst many other things. I figured if there was a tool that could take care of the hard work involved in a digital tickler file, Hazel would be it.

What I've come up with is a couple of rules that take your files and put them under a tickler directory structure, which Hazel manages. The rules also then "untickle" the files on the day that you've requested them back, moving the files back into a specified directory.

Enough waffling, let's get into how you can set this up. Firstly, obviously, you need a Mac running the Hazel. At the time of writing this I'm running version 3.1.3 of Hazel, I'd recommend a recent version as one of the conditions (Current Time) was only recently added to the product.

You need to decide two things, which directory will be your "inbox" and which directory will contain your "tickle" directory. I use my Downloads folder as an inbox and put the tickle directory on Dropbox under $user/Dropbox/Documents/tickle. You can obviously change these to suit your setup.

Hazel.png

You then need to download the rules and import them into Hazel. The rule "Downloads" needs to be associated with your chosen inbox folder, the rule "tickler" needs to be associated with your chosen tickle folder.

Once those files are in place, you can start testing. Easiest initial test is to add a filename suffix to a file in your inbox. Hazel will look for anything that has a filename that ends in - tickle MMM DD (e.g. example - tickle Jan 01.txt). Hazel will strip out the - tickle MMM DD and put the file into your tickle folder in a structure like this tickle/MMM/DD. You can use textexpander to automate the addition of the suffix, there is a snippet in the download which will help you out.

Once the file is in the tickle structure, you can safely forget about it. On the day you've chosen, the file will automagically be placed back into your chosen inbox folder, ready for you to work on it.

tickler.png

I'm actively developing the code, but it seems pretty solid at the moment. You can download the code from my GITHub site.

If you have any comments, suggesitons or problems, feel free to e-mail me.

To Evernote or not to Evernote

Tony Green

I've been trying for about a year now to switch over to pure text files for all of my documents. I love the simplicity, the portability and the longevity of text files. Not being locked into proprietary formats and being able to chose which application I want to use to write my documents, all lofty and noble goals. I've taught myself Markdown and love writing everything I can in it.

Only problem is, about three years ago, I got myself entrenched in Evernote. I use Evernote for a huge majority of my document storage, from images, spreadsheets, presentations to PDFs and text files. Using Hazel and my beloved ScanSnap scanner, I've completely embraced a paperless lifestyle. I just feed the paperwork into the scanner, it scans both sides, performs OCR on the document and decides what to do with it.

Hazel reads the file and if there is a rule set up for that type of document, it automagically renames it, pushes it into Evernote, tags is appropriately and removes the file. If it's something that needs some action (bills etc), then an Omnifocus task is created with a link to the Evernote note inside it.

That's some pretty frictionless automation.

Once it's in Evernote, everything is searchable. It's available on all my platforms and has yet to let me down.

So, here are the problems:

  • Evernote doesn't support plain text files (all text files in Evernote are HTML behind the scenes)
  • Evernote doesn't support Markdown
  • I can't use external editors to manipulate Evernote files
  • While I'm not locked into a proprietary format, it does feel to me a lot less open than a plain file system full of files (my UNIX side coming out!)

The other thing is that writing in Markdown just feels right.

Moving from Evernote will be a huge deal for me and something I'm really not sure I'm ready for. Using something like openmeta might help me get over some of the problems and spotlight searching is a lot more robust than it used to be. For much more tag related awesomeness, checkout Brett's blog. My Evernote system contains 3,000+ notes and I've finally managed to get SWMBO into searching within Evernote for things.

I think I'm going to spend some time hacking up some Hazel rules to dual dump into Evernote and into a filesystem and see how things go. I'll update as I go.

Automation? Should you scratch that itch?

Tony Green

Since learning to code, I was always taught that the keys to decide you need to automate something were: laziness, impatience, and hubris, nicely summed up by The Three Virtues

As a sysadmin, I'm really familiar with the drive to spend three hours automating somthing that would take you two hours to do manually... but what if you needed it again??

I'm no longer a hard core UNIX guy, but I spend a lot of time working on my Mac, usually driving Omnifocus, Dropbox, Evernote or occasionally actually coding in perl/shell/ruby/python.

It is very enticing to use coding as the illusion of productivity. Easy to feel like you're not procrastinating when you're making progress on something that REALLY doesn't matter.

There are times, however, when automation and coding can really help. The time I spend hooking my Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner so I can scan to my Mac, into Hazel and then auto-filled into Evernote and/or Omnifocus saved me litteral hours a month. I'm writing up a longer post on that for the future, but in the interim, you should check out Katie Flloyd's post on the subject, it's where I got the inspriration from.

I was reading a post earlier today and it detailed five reasons to automate and they really resonated with me:

  1. The potential time savings. This is based on estimates of how often I think I’ll have to repeat the task, how long it takes to do manually, and how long it’ll take to write a script (or macro or Automator action or whatever).
  2. The entertainment value of creating the automation. For example, I’m currently beta testing an app that’s adding a sort of scripting language to an upcoming release. Learning the language by writing a few scripts in it was fun. I’ll certainly use the scripts I wrote, but I’ll never get back the time I put into them. That’s OK with me.
  3. The annoyance I feel when doing a task manually that could be automated. This is the flip side to the entertainment and relaxation value Clark talked about. I hate hate hate doing repetitive tasks when I know I could write a script to turn several steps into one. I know this is a personality defect that keeps me from being as efficient as I could be, and I try to keep it in check, but it’d be foolish to deny it exists.
  4. The value of learning a new technique or library and keeping sharp with what I already know. I write scripts to get my professional work done, and the more nonessential, recreational scripts I write, the more efficient I am at writing the scripts I need to get my job done.
  5. The value it might provide to others. I’ve learned so much from people who share their knowledge on the web, I feel compelled to reciprocate. This is, I confess, almost never my initial motivation, but it the reason I sometimes add a little extra polish to a script that’s already working.

Dr. Drang really hit the nail on the head here. I suffer from #2 and #3, but justify it by thinking it's #1, #4 and #5.

That's what I get.....

Tony Green

..... for taking two weeks off to do a trip to Manila.

My Omnifocus needs some love and attention. Spending two weeks teaching GTD certainly has put me in the right mindset to overhaul my system and clean house though.

Screen Shot 2013-04-17 at 10.07.43 PM.png

One lesson I really did learn when carrying out the training, was the importance of teaching about a start date, reoccurances and sequential ordering in tasks.

Being able to plan in tasks which happen every year or two (license renewals, insurance, maintence of certifications etc) means you're really freed up to concentrate on the day to day.

I regularly get next actions popping up into my lists for things I had no idea were coming up, but had been appropriately planned and parked when they were in my mind.

Add that to the wonderful Omnifocus templates and you've got a real digital version of a tickler file, without the headache of actually maintaining it.