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Carlos Fenollosa

Carlos Fenollosa

Engineer, developer, entrepreneur

Carlos Fenollosa — Blog

Thoughts on science and tips for researchers who use computers

A simple script to postpone your own email

January 14, 2016 — Carlos Fenollosa

I somewhat use email as a task manager. Honestly, I believe we all do. We process emails in the inbox, then archive or delete them when we are done with them.

However, keeping track of emails that need a follow-up on a specific date can be difficult.

Around 2011 I wrote a script to perform that task. It is a very simple IMAP parser that searches for a folder with today's date and moves all its contents to a special folder named "Today".

Let me tell you my email workflow. I understand that not everybody works in the same way, but maybe you can get some ideas to improve your email handling.

My email folder structure looks like this. The interesting part is in bold.

Inbox
\_ Mailing lists
\_ Project folders
\_ ...

\_ Deadlines
     \_ Today
     \_ Tomorrow
     \_ 2016-01-19
     \_ 2016-02-02
     ...
     \_ 2017-08-01

I follow the GTD methodology, which essentially states that tasks should either be done on the spot, delegated, or deferred. Thus, my inbox is exclusively for new tasks. A couple of times a day I process incoming email and, like most of us, either delete it, reply to it, forward it or —this is the interesting part— move it to one of the "Deadlines" folders.

Instead of using the inbox as the "email task manager", I use a folder named "Today". I've tried both alternatives, and I find that it works best for me. Since it separates new tasks from tasks I've already processed, I can work my entire day on "Today" and totally forget about the Inbox, even if new email is arriving.

The "Tomorrow" folder is just a shortcut so that I don't need to create a new folder with tomorrow's date every day.

As you may have guessed, the script runs once a day in a crontab, at 6 AM, and moves all mail from "Tomorrow" and the folder with tomorrow's date to "Today". That's it. And that "simple trick", as fishy marketers like to say, saves me a lot of time and headaches every day.

There is currently a commercial alternative, Boomerang, which you may find interesting if you aren't comfortable with programming. I haven't used it, so I can't comment on that. In any case, I usually prefer writing a small script rather than using a third-party service.

Update: this script by Alex Kapravelos does something very similar, and it integrates with Google Apps Scripts.

Here it is, as a Gist. The code is definitely not the best in the world, but it works. Feel free to use it, modify it (BSD license), give feedback and leave comments.

I hope that you can introduce some ideas from this methodology to your daily workflow. it can be as useful as it's been for me.

Tags: software, tricks, productivity

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Simplicity

July 16, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

Marco pointed out today to Matt Gemmell's blog, and I've been reading some of his best articles.

I highly recommend his On productivity section, especially Simplicity, which I can really relate to.

He's a very talented writer, so if you have some time, read his Personal essays section, which is very emotive.

Tags: productivity, life

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My favorite podcasts

July 09, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

Listening to podcasts is a very interesting way to fill your empty time, especially while doing tasks that don't require your full attention, such as cleaning, eating or commuting.

Being a podcaster myself (Dame la voz, El Amuleto de Yendor) I think it is great for the community to share our interests and let us discover new shows that people we listen to recommend.

Of course, this list is tailored to my tastes. It is not a journalistic piece; I am not neutral. For example, you will see that the topics are heavily biased towards tech, startups and self-improvement. Unfortunately, I can't recommend other stuff since this is what I listen to!

I also appreciate concision; there is a lot to listen and little time, so the less rambling and the shortest, the better.

A final disclaimer; if any of the hosts mentioned here were to read this, which I find unlikely, please understand this post as honest opinion, constructive critique, and feel totally free to contact me if you'd like to discuss anything. As mentioned, I'm a podcaster myself and not every opinion I get is positive; however, the fiercest critiques—if respectful—are the best, because they help you improve. The best seasons at El Amuleto de Yendor came after our worst; we sat down, read all the harsh comments, and restructured the show and our attitude. We ended up getting our best critiques ever.

To summarize, if you are on this list, I admire you.

Podcasts I love

What can I say? The content is great; the episodes are well-planned; listening to them is a good investment of my time. I would pay for these, and in some cases, they have helped me earn money or become a better person. Yep, they are that good.

The Tim Ferriss Show

Blog - iTunes

Tim started his podcast just a few months ago, and boy, what had we been missing.

His show is a series of interviews with very interesting people related to the self-improvement topic. But what I like the most is how he spends some minutes getting his interviewee comfortable and then asks the right questions. I can't imagine how much preparation he needs before each episode.

He's the first of this post and for a reason. I can't think of any other podcast that, in so few episodes, has made me go "wow!" as many times.

Even if some of the titles don't seem attractive because of the topic or the interviewee, just go and listen to them for fifteen minutes. You'll be glad you did.

Kalzumeus

Blog - iTunes

Patrick / patio11 would be your regular programmer and internet commenter if it weren't because he spends an insane amount of time explaining what he has learned from his projects and sharing tips and advice with random strangers on the internet.

If you are planning to make money on the internet, you know, with your business and products or services, then you must listen to Patrick's podcast.

Ramit Sethi

Videos

Technically, Ramit does not have a podcast, but you can subscribe to its video feed and even extract the audios from the videos since the images are not that important.

His content is exceptionally great. It is obvious how he makes a living teaching other people to be successful. He knows the "what"s and the "how"s and he's a great speaker and an expert on persuasion.

From getting a raise to convincing customers, he presents a wide range of techniques, and more importantly, which are the psychological principles that govern them. Every video is a gold nugget, if not only for the information it provides, but because it distills small drops of how us people think and react.

Podcasts I like

I listen to every show, enjoy them greatly, and thrive when my podcasts app tells me there's a new episode. The difference between these and the former? I guess that would be quality; you can differentiate between shows on which the hosts spent a lot of hours and talent, and shows that are just enjoyable, useful and funny, but just not five stars.

However, that's not necessarily bad, since not every producer thinks spending a lot of time preparing a podcast is worth it. I'm actually one of those: top quality is not my goal. Thus, I can't blame others for that. Just listen and enjoy.

Accidental Tech Podcast

Blog - iTunes

ATP is my go-to podcast. It is funny, opinionated, has John Siracusa (read below), and a good balance between the three hosts.

Marco is happy and mildly isolated from the business world; Casey is a typical cubicle programmer like most of us, and John has enough experience both in life and computers that he is always spot on and brilliant.

If you only listen to one "computing podcast", and don't mind a high percentage of Apple content, let this be it.

The business of freelancing

Blog - iTunes

Brennan takes the lead of Patrick—actually; I don't know who was first— and teaches startup business.

The thing is that Kalzumeus is published very sporadically while Brennan is more regular. While I still think that Patrick's content is a bit better, The Business of Freelancing is an excellent substitute while we wait for Patrick to publish.

Podcasts I listen selectively

I'd like to listen to every one of these but, unfortunately, my time is limited. Does this mean I don't enjoy them? Absolutely not! Usually, they just cover a wider range of topics than my current interests.

The talk show

Blog - iTunes

Gruber's podcast is great and his analysis, though a bit biased—hey, who isn't?— is usually spot on. He's one of the people I go listen to just after an Apple keynote. While others still sing that "Apple's declining since Jobs passed" mantra, John cuts through the bullshit with data and reasoned opinions.

Other days he talks about baseball or friends I don't know, so well, I just skip those.

Startups for the rest of us

Blog - iTunes

If they didn't publish so often I'd listen to every show. I used to, but right now I just read the summary and select those which apply to my actual business situation. For me, this show is like the Wikipedia of startups: you don't need to read it all, just use it as a reference. And that's what I do. They're the reference of startups tips.

Anything John Siracusa appears on

List

I just love how John explains stuff. He always knows how to explain anything in order to make properly his point clear. I think his opinions are the most rational, well-founded you can listen to in a show. If he can't get a clear idea, then he has no opinion.

That is just fantastic for the listener, because you can trust his explanations, understand them, and decide for yourself. I can't count how many times I've been able to form my own opinion on a topic by just listening at John's.

Podcasts I used to listen to

"Oh, here come the bad podcasts," you may think. STOP!

I used to love these for some time, but now I don't follow them anymore. Sometimes it's because another more interesting podcast took its place or because they don't apply anymore to my situation.

Quit!

Blog - iTunes

Quit! is the first freelance-related show I listened to. It planted the freedom seed in me, and help me remove and rationalize some of the fears which are associated to jumping from a 9-5 job into your own business.

The problem is that after some shows and after that seed grew the podcast was no longer attractive for me. It is not a problem of the format, the hosts or the content, just that once you learn the basics—because they taught you, no less—then the show gets boring.

People call in to ask about the same questions, and the answers are always the same. Sometimes even Dan is noticeably bored by the callers. But, what can you do? There are only as many topics to cover, and after a while, they get old; how much money do I need as a cushion; where will I work; is it a good idea to work weekends on side projects.

This podcast is a must for 9-5 people who want to start their own business. Before the "I don't know how" phase, which gets covered with Kalzumeus and Startups for the rest of us, one needs to pass the "I'm not sure if I want to do this" phase. Quit! is for those people.

Dan should not be worried about me anymore.

This Week in Tech

Blog - iTunes Let me start by paying my respects to Leo, the best host I know. I want to be like him. Truth be told, I listened to TWIT every week until ATP started.

ATP is fresh, while TWIT sounds grumpy. ATP is usually positive while TWIT focuses on the negative. TWIT has been on the air for a while, and it's a business, while ATP isn't.

They are two similar shows but very different in most aspects. It so happens that I prefer ATP.

The Vergecast

Blog - iTunes

The Verge is a tech website that, unlike others, has good editors and good content. The podcast is exactly that: tech news and a bit of opinion.

If you like shows which cover current news, this is one of the best. I usually prefer analysis and opinions.

Back to work

Blog - iTunes

Everybody, including me, loves Merlin and Dan, but I just can't understand this show. More than 60% is crazy talk and anecdotes, and every once in a while, they discuss productivity tricks. Regrettably, in many episodes I would get nervous, thinking "is this episode going to be one of these crazy ones?", hoping I wouldn't end an hour and a half later feeling that I hadn't actually learned anything.

It's a bit ironic that a podcast about productivity takes a lot of its listener's time. As a matter of fact, if somebody made a monthly digest of Back to work including only the productivity content, I'd listen to it in a heartbeat.

That's it!

If you are a podcast listener, I hope you give any of these a chance. They are all great shows; listen to a few episodes and decide which is best for you. And please use the comments to recommend me new shows! I'd love that.

Tags: productivity, links

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No time. How did we get so busy?

May 20, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

Excellent piece by Elizabeth Kolbert on busy time. The HN comments are up to the article.

This topic also brings me to the workcrastination mentioned on the four hour workweek which I also mention in tips to work from home. We are humans and kind of feel empty when we have nothing to do, plus being busy is an excellent, accepted social excuse to get out of undesired work.

Eliminatint excess work from life requires a difficult mindset change. I have always been busy, and liked it, but now I'm trying to work less, more efficiently, and be fine with it. Let's see if it's worth the effort.

Tags: productivity

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Tips to work from home

May 07, 2014 — Carlos Fenollosa

Much has been said about working from home, but I usually enjoy these kind of articles, so here's my contribution to the productivity-tip bandwagon.

Environment

Your first goal should be to develop new routines but, to do so, the work environment is key.

The absolutely most important thing is ergonomics, and the main contributing factor is a good chair. There is no need to spend 500€ on a fancy chair, but don't work on a garden plastic one. Go and buy a nice office chair with armrests and a good lumbar region support.

If you don't get a regulable height desktop, make sure that the one you use isn't too tall. You will notice this quickly; if your elbows are placed on the armrests, and your wrists on the table, but your shoulders are in pain, it means that the table is too high. Dining tables are usually too high for the average person because they are designed so that the plate is not too far from your mouth, but that doesn't work for a computer.

Try to create an environment as close as possible to an office. This means paper trays, binders, pens, and so, but also avoiding other distractions like magazines, food, toys, etc.

Occasionally you'll want to work on the sofa after lunch, at the balcony on a sunny day or on the kitchen counter while making sure your dinner doesn't burn in the oven. That's fine, but it shouldn't be the norm. No matter how many startup movies you've seen, desks are important.

Having a specific work desk or "office room" will also help you separate work from leisure. Nowadays we do most of our leisure on a computer, but working from home can be very absorbing. As a rule of thumb, try not to work unless you are at the office, and try not to eat or have fun there. It will help your brain separate both things.

If you're a computer geek, there is not much I can tell you about the benefits of two monitors, a mechanical keyboard and a good mouse. Always do some research before buying a monitor, especially if you come from the Mac world and are used to their wonderful displays. Most cheap LCDs are fine, but if you do a lot of design you'll notice that the colors and pixel quality aren't the same. That's not necessarily bad, since most users will also use a cheap LCD, so you'll get a closer result to what they will see.

You do not need to rush and buy everything on the first day, but remember: pain is not "normal". If your body hurts while working, and it didn't hurt before, consider changing your environment.

The take home message seems to be spend a lot of money, and that is 50% true. The other 50% is be comfortable at your office. If working brings you physical or psychological pain, you will find every reason not to do it.

Routines

Routines, at first, can be forced with good planning. But what to plan?

Wake up early. I can not overstate the importance of this. If you wake late, your brain will be on that comfy it's late, the whole day is wasted, I'll do it tomorrow mode. DO NOT LET IT!

Some people say they work better at night. In my own experience, while true, that can be changed over a period of time and will bring more benefits. Try both for some weeks and choose the best for you.

Exercise. Everybody recommends that, but I'll be a bit more specific. Depending on your energy, routines, and schedule, try to either exercise first thing in the morning or before lunch. It's better to do it before the afternoon, because if you leave it for later, you'll spend the whole evening wondering when you need to finish work in order to have time to exercise. Also, there are a ton of benefits to exercise early, like increased energy and better hunger control. There is nothing worse than exercising before dinner, then eating a lot because you're starving, and then going to bed too tired/aching to sleep and with a full belly.

Get dressed to work. I sometimes cheat a bit and don't get dressed in the morning, because I exercise before lunch and don't want to put on clean clothes before showering. However, that's another benefit to exercising in the morning; it will force you to shower and put on new clothes.

Being dressed at home is a good thing. First of all, you're ready to go out if somebody calls. "Hey, let's go to the bar", "Nah, I'm on my pajamas, would need to shower and change...". That should never happen. Also, if you work from home you will probably need to go out shopping or running errands. Being ready helps to avoid procrastinating from that kind of work.

Second, you'll never have the temptation to go to bed for a nap. Never enter your bed during the day! You might get into a deep sleep and wake up two hours afterwards, either with a headache or worse, too refreshed to sleep well that night. Naps should always be taken on a sofa or armchair, sitting down comfortably and with an alarm set to 10-15 minutes, to allow your body and brain to rest but not enter a REM sleep.

Allow yourself fun time. If you wake at 7 and go to sleep at 23, you don't want to be working 16 hours a day, minus meals. Having too long workdays contributes to heavy procrastination. Set yourself strict deadlines and stop working after 7-8 hours every day.

That will leave you between 3-5 extra hours every day. Try to find new routines you like, now that you have the time! Play videogames, read a book, go outside for a walk, watch TV, paint, go sunbathing, whatever. You're at home and you don't need to act busy in front of anybody. More on this below.

When at home, routines are different and more flexible than in an office. Try to plan as many as possible and they'll turn into habits, which is a good thing.

Planning

Even if you have a boss, you will be responsible for planning your time. This is what I do:

Every Sunday evening I allocate an hour to plan next week's work and review the current week's outcome (next section).

I open my calendar and create mandatory tasks. Those are meals, appointments, meetings, etc.

Afterwards, I plan my routines. A workout hour before lunch every day, playing video games twice a week, reading for an hour after lunch every day, except on Mondays, because I watch Game of Thrones, etc. You get the idea.

Then I set work hours, between 7-8 every day. I fill those with tasks from my projects. I prioritize important tasks and do them first thing in the morning. I also know that I am more productive in the late evening, so I usually schedule maintenance tasks from after reading until mid-evening.

Observe your body and brain and don't lie to yourself. Plan realistically.

Finally, I don't plan weekends, but I trust myself not to waste them anyway. If you can't —nothing to be ashamed of— plan them too.

All schedules may and will be interrupted with unexpected work, but the mere act of planning your day and knowing what is the next task that you need to do is a great tool against procrastination and deterrents.

This is, more or less, a summary of the GTD methodology. If you haven't done so, please go and read Allen's book. It should be a required reading in all schools. If you prefer to plan your tasks daily instead of weekly, that's fine. Allocate 15 minutes at the end of every workday to plan tomorrow's work, and then don't check email until next day's allocated time. As stated before, that shouldn't be until you have been working for 2-3 hours in the morning.

After all this planning, we will need to regularly review it, not to feel bad about what we didn't do, but to adjust ourselves to reality.

Accountability

As said in the last sentence, we are only accountable to ourselves. We want to learn more about how we work, so it is a good idea to track your time.

I use toggl for time tracking, though some people don't like tracking every minute of your day. At least you should write down your weekly goals and review if you have completed or advanced them.

On Sundays, just before planning next week, I run through a quick summary of the current one. Did I do what I was supposed to do? If not, why? How did I spend my time? If you only track your goals, you won't probably identify your main time wasters. Being honest is a good exercise and a useful tool to detect and eliminate them. When you check Facebook for more than a quick glimpse, track it. If you're bored and go to Reddit, track for how long.

Planning and accounting are the two main tools to help you develop your own routines, tailored to your energy cycles and home environment. Remember that, again, they are just a tool, and don't feel too bad if it turns out that some week hasn't been as productive as you expected. Use the data to correct your next planning, and try to schedule more realistically.

The trick is to plan according to what you have learned will happen, and not according to what you wish would happen.

Ramit is always insisting on the importance of testing, and that's what you should do. After all, reading advice about other people's routines should be interpreted as a source of ideas to test, not as something written in stone.

You're working

If you share your space with another person, it may be tempting for them to suggest that you do housework because you spend all day there and they may be at a workplace. That is not fair.

However, it wouldn't be fair either to avoid housework at all. I suggest to play smartly.

For example, you're in a good position to do shopping and run errands, since you can shop when nobody else is there and avoid queues.

Allocate an hour of housework for every hour your partner is committing to, of course. However, you don't need to do it at the same time. If you're productive in the evenings but your partner is there and wants to do some cleaning, suggest to split the rooms, and do your part after lunch or when you feel like procrastinating. Trust me, when you have to call that stupid client, nothing will look as attractive as sweeping the patio.

Consider hiring cleaning services. If you're not familiar with the concept of opportunity cost, read a bit on the subject. Paying 10€ an hour and earning 50€ an hour is a net gain of 40€

The same goes for kids; consider paying a kindergarten for some hours so that you can work quietly and without interruptions. If you plan is to earn money working at home you can't spend the whole day watching your kid. We all know that the point of having kids is to raise them ourselves, but keep a balance between being a housewife/husband and earning money.

Avoiding procrastination

I have two good rules to avoid procrastination:

  1. Procrastinate actively. That is, if you don't feel like working, don't try to work. Feeling tired? Go take a 15-minute nap. Want to check Facebook? Do it. Don't feel bad about it. However, try to stop procrastinating after some time. Set an alarm.
  2. Don't plan heavy work at those times that you know you won't do it. For me, it's after lunch. I know I can't work, so I watch some shows or read a book for an hour. If I feel sleepy, I sleep. Otherwise, I read.

If you want to read the ultimate guidelines on avoiding procrastination and, what's worse, workcrastination, that is, being busy for the sake of it, check out The 4-Hour Workweek. Some spoilers:

  • Don't check email that often
  • Do important tasks first thing in the morning
  • Eliminate one useless time-consuming habit every two weeks

A final trick that works for me: 30 seconds of exercise puts me in a very motivated mood. If I don't feel like working but there is a deadline near, I'll jump out of the chair and run up and down the stairs a couple times, or do some pushups and squats. 30 seconds is enough, you don't need to be tired, just make your heart beat a bit faster and release endorphins. Try it!

Social life

Try not to be all day alone. This highly depends on each character, but if you live alone and work from home, do something outside. Have breakfast or lunch at a cafeteria, go to the gym, go grab a beer with friends after work.

It's not unhealthy to spend most of your day at home. What's unhealthy is to spend a lot of days without going out and talking to other people.

Enjoy it

Working at home has many advantages. Freedom, limited and honest accountability, and more importantly, the lack of facades. There is no point in crucifying yourself or forcing to follow office guidelines.

Just let me summarize this article in four quick bullet points:

  1. Work your environment to your advantage, make it comfortable to work at home, separate work from leisure.
  2. Be honest about your productivity, schedule smartly, account, test yourself, don't be busy just for the sake of it.
  3. Opportunity cost. Pay for services which are cheaper than your earning rate.
  4. Enjoy office freedom; go outside to read on a sunny day, shop at 3pm when shops are empty, play video games, learn a new language or how to play an instrument.

Tags: productivity

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Cloud tools: Google Docs is now good enough

October 26, 2011 — Carlos Fenollosa

We've recently been bombarded with the concept of "the cloud". Every company is using it now as an advertising term, so it's losing a bit of its semantic value. But what does it really mean?

Cloud computing means a lot of things, from distributed computing to distributed storage, ubiquitous documents and collaborative work. Basically, if your data is stored somewhere on the net, you can access it from everywhere and, optionally, work simultaneously with collaborators, then it's "on the cloud".

There are many cloud applications, but today I want to bring some attention to one which is mature enough for everyday use: Google Docs. It's so good that I've been using it for many years now, and there have been only a few occasions where I had to go back to use a local software to create a document. Those have been very specific cases where I needed to produce high-quality leaflets or presentations which need professional software.

Talking about professional, the quality of GDocs is, at least, good enough. At most, it is excellent. The spreadsheets is probably the most basic product, but the documents and presentations are great and they can perfectly be used for any serious work.

However, the highest advantage of using a cloud product is collaboration. There are some "revision" tools for MS Word which are good, but nothing beats collective editing of a document at the same time and rolling back to a previous version like a wiki. Collaborative document edition is definitely Google Docs's strongest point.

Obviously, there are drawbacks. The biggest ones are the inability to access your data when there is no internet or a server error—Google is known for its stability, but it sometimes crashes, believe me— and the lack of features compared to a desktop solution like Libreoffice/Openoffice or MS Office. Quick tip: remember to activate Google Doc's "offline access" to get a local copy of your documents even if the internet goes out.

A controverted point is that of privacy. Some institutions force workers to use local tools because of intellectual property or industrial secret reasons. If that's the case, end of the story, but keep in mind that once a document leaves the local mail servers all privacy is lost, e.g. one of the collaborators has a different email server like gmail or those of another University.

In a scientific environment it is still common to send documents to different people by email, then merging the changes manually and usually losing some of the revisions because of the document mess. That needs to stop. While the final version will probably be edited with a desktop software, there is no reason for a manuscript not to be produced with collaborative, "cloud" tools.

My advice here would be to give Google Docs a try, because it has changed a lot since its inception and it is nowadays an excellent editor, a backup solution, an ubiquitous server and a collaborative platform which will save you a lot of time and hassles.

Tags: productivity

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