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Take Control 2018 Survey Results

Back in July I sent a survey to our mailing list so that I could get a better understanding of what our customers want and how we can provide that. I was completely unprepared for the huge volume of responses: 2,836 people filled out the survey (even after removing duplicates). Wow! First, let me say thank you. The information you provided was enormously helpful. I truly appreciate your time and the thought you put into your responses. This data will help us make Take Control better as time goes on.

It took a long time to sift through the survey results, largely because I provided far too many free-form “Other” choices and distilling those into consistent, countable options was a bit of a challenge. Well, that’s a lesson learned for next time.

Later in this article (click here to skip ahead), I repeat each of the 20 questions from the survey, along with their responses. After each question, I have a brief commentary. But first, I want to share some important background information that will provide context for the survey questions and their responses. (It’s long. You don’t have to read it. But you might find it interesting.)

We can’t please everyone…and that’s OK

If you look at the summary of responses to question 20, you’ll see perhaps the clearest example of contradictory feedback we get. It’s a recurring theme: one person says we should definitely offer subscriptions (I have more to say on that topic in a moment), another says they hate subscriptions. One person says we must do video; another person says we must not. Many people insist that we offer our books on paper, and many others say they’d never, ever consider buying a printed book from us. For every customer who complains that our books are too basic, someone else complains that they’re too advanced. The list goes on and on. No matter what your opinion is, or how strongly you hold it, I guarantee you that someone else holds the opposite opinion, with equal fervor.

We pay attention to all the feedback we get, and we take it all seriously. Of course, we will never, ever be able to make everyone happy—and it would be folly to try. We’re going to focus on our strengths, do the best we can do with the resources we have, and accommodate as many of the big customer requests as we reasonably can. But we’re not going to lose any sleep about the fact that any decision we make will displease some people, because we’re all just human, and that’s life.

How we decide which books to publish

Our list of potential book topics is a mile long, and constantly growing. Many of those topics were suggested by customers; others came from authors and various other sources. We can’t do everything, though, so we have to give careful thought to which projects we pursue. How do we decide? Well, it probably goes without saying that survey results like these inform our decisions. However, they’re only one small component. We have to ask ourselves:

  • Can we cover the topic adequately in a Take Control book? Some publishers put out technical books that are many hundreds of pages (and sometimes over 1,000 pages) long. We’re not in that business. We do short- to medium-length books, and in our experience, the optimal length—what we typically aim for—is about 150 pages. That’s not a hard and fast limit, but when we know a topic is so ginormous that we can’t possibly do justice to it in a Take Control book, we say no.
  • Do we have the right author? Although many of our authors have wide areas of expertise, some topics require the touch of a person with extensive experience in a specific area—plus the ability to clearly explain the topic to a general audience. If we can’t find that match, we won’t do the book.
  • Will we sell enough copies? As a very rough, ballpark figure, a typical Take Control book has to sell at least 1,500 copies just to break even. That is: we have to pay editors, we have various production and distribution costs, we have the usual overhead of running a business (like paying our employees’ salaries and health insurance), and most of all, we need to do our best to ensure that our authors are reimbursed (in the form of royalties) for the considerable time and effort they put into writing books. (And, of course, books that are more than minimally successful give us the financial resources to do more!) So we have to judge, based on the available information—including what we know about our audience and the past performance of similar books—how well a given title is likely to sell. If we have an idea for the Greatest Book Ever but we’re not convinced we can sell enough copies to make it worth everyone’s time, we won’t do it.

So if you’re wondering why we don’t have a book on such-and-such topic, the above reasons may be why.

But there’s another element here…

How we decide which books to update

Some of our books are updated fairly regularly, some less often, and some are never updated. And some of our books are updated for a while, but then later discontinued.

A number of survey respondents asked why we don’t just keep all our books up to date indefinitely. (And, some wanted to know why we don’t keep them up to date indefinitely for free!)

The simple answer is that updating books takes time, and time is money. If I ask an author to spend two weeks working on a free update to their book, they’ll want to know whether they should reasonably expect two weeks’ wages for their effort (again, in the form of royalties). If the book in question is selling well, and the update results in considerably more sales, then the answer is probably yes. If it’s an older book or isn’t selling well, the answer is probably no.

Paid updates (that is, new editions) change the equation, because they make it much more likely that the author will be compensated for the time they spend writing the update. On the other hand, editing expenses for new editions are also higher. And because we charge much less for updates than for new books, the point of diminishing returns arrives sooner.

In any case, an author always earns more money writing a new Take Control book than updating an old one. So there often comes a point at which we can no longer make a financial case for an author keeping an older book up to date, even if the update is paid.

That said, I want to mention one specific title that many people asked about: Take Control of 1Password. Yes, an update is coming. I wish I’d been able to get it done sooner, and I’m sorry for the delay, but it will be done as soon as I can manage it. Really!

What about subscriptions?

One of our survey questions (number 13) asked about a membership program, and that led many people to ask, in the comments, about subscriptions. Specifically, why doesn’t Take Control offer an all-you-can-eat subscription package (like Netflix or O’Reilly Safari, for example), in which customers pay a flat monthly or annual fee and then get access to all our books? Wouldn’t that be great? (And besides, everyone’s doing it, right?)

We are not going to offer an all-you-can-eat subscription. Here’s why.

Several years ago, while Adam and Tonya Engst were still running Take Control, we had long, long discussions about a subscription offering. In fact, they did most of the infrastructure work that would have been needed to offer such a package. I, personally, pushed for this idea repeatedly. I thought it would be fantastic.

Since this hadn’t happened yet when I took over the business, I looked into it deeply. I wanted to make it work! I did research, made lots of spreadsheets, looked carefully at many different formulations of a subscription model. But no matter how I ran the numbers or how cleverly I tried to adjust the parameters of the program, I came to exactly the same conclusion every single time: it would be great for our customers (Yay! A huge supply of cheap books!) and great for me as the publisher (Yay! A reliable source of recurring revenue!), but terrible for all other authors. There is just no way to spin the math in the authors’ favor: no matter how we structure the accounting, any all-you-can-eat subscription package would definitely result in authors earning way less than they do now.

That’s a pretty big problem, because our authors are all freelancers, and they’re all earning too little as it is. If their Take Control income slipped even further due to a subscription program, they’d have no incentive to ever write a book for us again. That, in turn, would leave us with no books to sell. I think you can see how that would be a bad idea!

I can’t tell you how many people have said, “Yeah, but why don’t you just ____” followed by any number of reasonable-sounding suggestions. Sorry, but if you knew what I know about our business, you’d agree with me that the math still doesn’t work.

However…

There may be a way for us to all have our cake and eat it too. That membership idea from question 13 is one example—in that model, although there are no guarantees, the odds strongly favor authors earning more than they do now. Customers would still have to buy individual books, but they’d do so at a huge discount. What authors lose in revenue per book sold, they’ll likely (more than) make up in volume—that’s what happens every time we have a sale, after all!

There are other possibilities too. We’ve had extensive discussions about other sorts of memberships or subscriptions that might scratch this particular itch without harming authors or the business. It’s just that these other potential models all have limits—in no case do they give customers open access to all our titles. And one thing we don’t want to do is to create a complicated system. We want to keep things simple for our customers, and for ourselves.

So, although you should not expect to see an all-you-can-eat Take Control subscription, there may in the future be other types of memberships or subscriptions that you’ll like because they’ll save you money while giving you access to more goodies. But any subscription or membership will have to wait until our new website is ready (see below).

What I didn’t ask about and why

We got loads and loads of comments about certain things I intentionally left off the survey—that is, things I already know we have problems with, and already have a plan to address. Let me say a few words about some of these:

  • Our website: The Take Control website is desperately in need of a complete overhaul. It’s too slow, it’s confusing in several respects, it makes the information you’re looking for too hard to find, and…I think I’ve seen just about enough of that wood grain! I have an extremely detailed plan written down for a shiny new website that addresses all the shortcomings of our current site (and indeed, work has already begun). But because this plan involves quite a few people, many moving parts, and lots of money, it’s not something that can happen overnight. All I can say right now is “sometime in 2019,” though I certainly hope it’s earlier in the year rather than later. Here are some of the many things we’ll be addressing:
    • Payments: The checkout and payment process should be much smoother. We also want to accept Apple Pay. In order to accommodate these needs, we’ll be moving from eSellerate to a new payment processor.
    • Your library: It should be much easier for you to figure out, for example, which of the books you’ve purchased have updates available, whether those updates are free or paid (and, if paid, how much they cost), and what the process is for getting the updates. You should have more control over sorting and managing your library.
    • Other content: Did you know Take Control Books has a blog? And that each individual book also has a blog? If not, I don’t blame you. They’re hard to find, and rarely updated. And there’s lots of other stuff we could put on our site too, such as articles that cover topics too short to make a book out of. We need to do a better job of offering useful information on our site besides just the books, and giving our customers reasons to keep coming back to our site even if they’re not in the market for a particular book.
  • Email: Our current system for sending email messages about new and updated books is incredibly clunky, and we can’t offer our customers much control over what types of email they receive or how often. We plan to redesign our entire email system along with our website. (One likely result of that redesign is a greater likelihood that our messages will get through to you rather than being rejected by a spam filter along the way.)
  • Book formatting: The current design of Take Control books—including both the covers and the interior layout—is due for a big makeover. We think we can make our books more attractive, easier to read, and more adaptable to other formats (notably print).

Did you know?

Based on many, many comments in survey responses, I discovered that there are several things we’ve apparently done a poor job of communicating. I was surprised at how many people were unaware that we offered these features:

  • Free samples: We offer free samples of all our books! These samples (in PDF format only) contain all the front and back matter of the book, including the table of contents, plus the first two pages of each chapter. If you visit the page in our catalog for a book you don’t already own (or if you’re not logged in to your account), you’ll see a little yellow “sticky note” in the lower-right corner of the iPad frame that holds the book cover. The note says “Free Sample”; click it to download the sample.
  • Your library: You can always see what books you’ve purchased from us, re-download any book, or download other formats (PDF, EPUB, or Mobipocket) at any time. To do this, go to our website. If you see “Logged in as your name” at the top, just click the Your Books button to see your library. Otherwise, fill in your email address and password and click Log In. You can also use this link as a shortcut to go directly to your library.
  • Contacting authors: Near the end of every one of my books, in the About the Author topic, I include contact information for myself. Most other Take Control authors do the same. If you have a question or comment, use the link provided there to contact us directly. If an author doesn’t include contact information, you can use our general-purpose contact form. (I can’t tell you how many times someone has Googled my name, and then gone to my personal website, and then found my own contact form there, in order to send me a message, when they had my email address in their book all along!)
  • Discounts and other special programs: See the comments after question 18 for information about other Take Control features you may not have known about, including discounts of various kinds.

Remember, we’re just people

Take Control Books is part of alt concepts inc., a company with exactly two employees—me (Joe) and my wife (Morgen). We work out of our home. All our authors and editors are freelancers. Most months the business earns enough money to stay in the black, and the occasional extra-good month usually balances out the occasional extra-bad month. But we’re not a mega-corporation with cash to burn or lots of people to throw at every new project or challenge. We’re just ordinary folk doing our best to make a living by helping people understand technology better. We appreciate your support! We like talking to our customers, and we hope you’ll think of us as friends (or at least neighbors). We also hope you’ll be understanding if we can’t accommodate every request, or do so as quickly as you like.

With that, let’s get on to the survey results!

 

SURVEY QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Note: The graphs may be hard to read on an iPhone screen, especially in portrait orientation. If you’re having trouble seeing them, try this version in Pages for iCloud instead.

1. In general, which broad categories are you interested in reading books about? Check all that apply.

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The top two responses here were exactly what we expected. Given the percentages of people who expressed an interest in reading about privacy and security, protecting your data, and digital photography, I would have expected our books on those topics to sell much better. That makes me go hmmmmm. In any case, looks like there’s not much of an audience for those last few categories, and that’s useful to know.

2. Which of the following platforms do you use regularly? Check all that apply.

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No surprises here, considering so much of the Take Control audience originated with TidBITS and, to a lesser extent, with Macworld. We will of course continue to publish books on Apple’s platforms, but where it makes sense, we try to include coverage of other platforms too, to make our books useful to the widest possible audience.

PRODUCTS

Some Take Control books cover specific hardware or software products. The next three questions have to do with product-specific books.

3. Which of the following APPLE software products would you potentially be interested in reading a book about? Check all that apply.

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Within the Other category, there were quite a few write-in responses for apps we already have books on, such as Pages, Numbers, Photos, Apple Mail, and Preview. A few people said they meant that response to mean they wanted updated copies of those books, but we asked about updates in a later question. I suspect many people were unaware that some of these books our in our catalog already, and we need to do a better job of making that obvious.

Anyway, we hear you loud and clear that you’d like to have a book on Siri and a book on Notes! I’m happy to say we have authors in the early stages of working on books on those two topics already. After we see how well those books do, we’ll consider what topics to tackle next.

4. Which of the following THIRD-PARTY software products would you potentially be interested in reading a book about? Check all that apply.

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As with the previous question, the Other category included numerous votes for third-party apps we already have books about (including Adobe Lightroom CC, DEVONthink, 1Password, and Scrivener); the same statements apply.

Note that the scale is different between this question and the last—although Evernote got the most votes, that figure is only a fraction of what the highest-scoring Apple apps from the previous question received.

Unfortunately, because of the comparatively smaller numbers, the responses to this question do not give us a clear mandate. Many of these apps are extraordinarily complex, meaning the books would be long (both in page count and in time to write and edit them). The number of votes don’t convince me that we’d sell enough copies to break even. I’ll also mention in passing that given recent news stories about layoffs at Evernote, I’m not terribly sanguine about the app’s future.

5. Which of the following CLOUD APPS or SERVICES would you potentially be interested in reading a book about? Check all that apply.

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Yet again, numerous people asked for books on cloud apps and services we already cover (including Dropbox, iCloud, and Slack).

I was surprised to see so many votes for a book on Gmail. Indeed, that figure made me quite sad, because—speaking both professionally and personally—I have rather strong negative feelings about Gmail. I told the other authors, only half in jest, that if we ever did a book on Gmail it would have to be called Why You Should Not Use Gmail (and How to Quit). I wasn’t surprised to see such a strong showing for WordPress, but that’s another one of those apps that’s fantastically complex. It would be a challenge to do it justice in a Take Control book, and given the number of votes, I’m skeptical that it would be financially viable for us.

PROCESSES

Many Take Control books describe processes—for example, backing up your Mac, organizing your photos, managing your passwords, running a paperless office, or upgrading to a new operating system. The next question involves processes, as opposed to specific products.

6. Which of the following processes would you potentially be interested in reading a book about? Check all that apply.

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Networking guru Glenn Fleishman is already hard at work on the #2 topic in this list—managing your Apple ID. I think it’s going to be fantastically useful. Numbers 1 and 3 (file management and using an iPad as a primary computing device) are actively under consideration. I expect we’ll do both at some point, though considering everyone’s schedules, I’m not yet sure when. And we’re considering whether some of these topics should take the form of a conventional book or perhaps a course of some kind.

UPDATES

The next question is about updates to existing Take Control books.

7. Which of the following existing Take Control titles, if any, would you like to see a (paid) update of? Check all that apply.

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I deliberately omitted from this list certain titles that are already in the process of being updated, or that will definitely be updated in the near future (for example, Take Control of 1Password and Take Control of Getting Started with DEVONthink 2). I also omitted titles that just haven’t sold well, and that are unlikely ever to be updated (such as Take Control of BBEdit and Take Control of Keynote).

Nevertheless, I was delighted to see that Photos: A Take Control Crash Course was solidly at the top of the list, because Jason Snell is working on a major revision to that book right now! I hope to update Take Control of Your Online Privacy, Take Control of the Mac Command Line with Terminal, and Take Control of Your Digital Legacy over the next half-year or so, and Kirk wants to update his iTunes book when the next major version of iTunes (iTunes 13, we presume) ships. No, we don’t have any idea when that will be. As for the Apple Watch book, we’re going to try to get an update together in the next few months.

FORMATS

People have different learning styles, needs, and preferences. The next three questions ask about various ways in which information might be packaged and used.

8. All things being equal, in what format(s) do you prefer to learn about technology-related topics? Check your top THREE only.

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(A lot of people checked more than 3. Grrrr.) Most Take Control books are “medium” books by this scale—between 100 and 300 pages. So yay for us, because that seems to be what you like best. A lot of you are also interested in shorter books, and we’re going to be doing some of those too.

But we realize that a book is not the only way to package information, and not necessarily the one that works best for every person or every topic. We’re having lots of discussions about using video, in various ways, to supplement the text and screenshots we’ve been using to deliver our content for the last 15 years. We also have some ideas about how articles might make their way into the Take Control world, but that’s a bit of a longer-term idea.

9. When you read a Take Control book, do you do so MOST often on:

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I was frankly stunned to see that more people read our books on iPads than Macs! And, although I didn’t ask what format you read on your iPad (e.g, PDF or EPUB, typically in the iBooks/Books app), this tells me that we should pay more attention to making high-quality EPUBs. That’s surprisingly tricky, but we’re going to work on it.

As for “Paper, after printing it yourself”…

10. Take Control is considering once again offering printed books, in addition to ebooks. Keeping in mind that a print book would likely cost $5–10 more than an ebook (plus shipping), how would you feel about printed books?

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Compared to printed books, ebooks are quicker and easier to create (and update), more portable, easier to search, and less expensive. Most of our customers prefer ebooks, but a significant number of people still prefer to read on paper—and many people print Take Control books themselves. We’d like to offer printed books once again as an option, but before we can do that, we have to come up with a new interior layout, a new cover design, and (most importantly) a new production process that addresses issues like internal cross-references, external links, and indexes—all of which have much different requirements in print than in ebooks. If 12% of our customers buy our books in print, it will be well worth the effort. But it does take time to put all that stuff together. We hope to offer printed books some time in 2019.

MONEY

The next four questions ask about pricing, sales, and payment methods for Take Control books.

11. Take Control books are priced between $5 and $20 (based on length and other factors), with most costing around $15. Do you feel the current prices are:

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We were pleased to see that the vast majority of survey respondents thought our books are priced correctly, and that a few even thought they’re a bargain. Book price correlates roughly with length, so that both authors and editors can be fairly compensated in proportion to the time they put into a book. We try to make our pricing (especially for upgrades) as generous as possible, but ultimately we need to feed our families, and given the size of our audience, we can’t accomplish that by selling a 200-page book (which took months to write) for less than $10. Long story short: expect our ebook prices to remain about the same for the near future. (However, we might have shorter books that are less expensive, and we might have other products besides ebooks that are more expensive.)

12. From time to time, Take Control has sales and promotions of various kinds, during which customers can purchase either specific titles or all books at reduced prices. How do you feel about sales?

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The responses to this question kind of vexed me, because they do not even remotely correspond to our actual sales figures over the last 15 years. What we’ve seen consistently is that a large majority of our customers wait for sales whenever possible. We sell huge quantities of books during sales—especially 50%-off sales—and at other times of the year, the volume of books purchased has been sharply and steadily decreasing. (I’ll note in passing, however, that the 70.9% of customers who said they’re willing to buy a book at full price closely matches the 68% who said, in question 11, that are books are priced “about right.”)

And look, that’s our fault. By making sales a fairly regular, consistent occurrence, we’ve inadvertently trained our customers to expect them. And that has resulted in, among other things, huge peaks and valleys in our income (which are not good for our cash flow!), frustrated authors whose great new titles don’t see much action, and a loss of interest in new titles by the time the next sale rolls around.

Although we like the brief boost we get from sales, we dislike the huge dips in between, and we’d love to get rid of sales altogether if we could do so in such a way that kept our customers happy. So that leads to the next question…

13. Imagine that Take Control offered a membership program such that you could pay an annual fee (let’s say $15 for the sake of discussion) that entitled you to save 50% on all ebook purchases for the entire year. How would you feel about that?

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The idea behind this proposal is basically, what if customers could have a permanent, year-round, 50% off sale? Would that induce them to buy more books, and to buy new titles as soon as they’re released? We suspect it would, but simply cutting all our prices in half wouldn’t have the same effect, because discounts have a more powerful psychological effect in motivating sales than intrinsically lower prices. (Go figure!) So we’re imagining offering that as an option. You can either pay full price for books, as usual, or buy an annual membership for a nominal fee that then lets you purchase any or all of our books over the following year for half off. Our calculations suggest that even though we’ll make less money per sale, we’ll make more overall due to higher volume—and the membership fee is both a bit of insurance in case we don’t, and a nudge to make more purchases (to get your money’s worth).

To spell out why we think the math will be compelling, suppose you buy two $15 books today. Total cost: $30. But imagine you’re about to check out, and we say, “Wait! How would you like to pay exactly the same amount but also get 50% off on all our books for the next year, starting with this order?” So, you’d pay $15 for the membership, and then $7.50 for each of the two books you’re ordering right now—the same $30 you were going to pay anyway. As long as you buy at least $30 in books per year, you’ll at least break even, and you could potentially save hundreds of dollars.

I think it’s likely we’ll try this, but we can’t implement it until our new website is up and running, so it will be well into 2019 before this happens.

14. Given the choice, how would you prefer to pay for most Take Control books?

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You can already pay for our books by credit or debit card, or PayPal. But clearly a huge portion of our customers would like to use Apple Pay instead! We’d like that too. Apple Pay makes it both easy and safe to make online purchases, and we’d offer it today if we could. Unfortunately, eSellerate (our current payment processor) doesn’t support Apple Pay, so we can’t offer it until we switch to a new payment processor, and that in turn (like so many things we want to do) requires a new website, because our current setup is hard-wired to use eSellerate. Don’t worry, it’ll happen as soon as we can manage!

COURSES

A number of years ago, we offered a four-part, interactive video course about iPad productivity called Take Control Live: Working with Your iPad. Since then, we’ve thought off and on about offering courses of other sorts, including ones on topics that wouldn’t work as well in book format. What we call a “course” might potentially include any or all of the following: live video presentations, prerecorded videos and screencasts, group discussions/Q&A, “homework” assignments, quizzes, and PDF support materials. The next three questions have to do with courses.

15. In general, would an in-depth course of this sort interest you, assuming the topic was relevant to you?

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A lot of people found this question confusing or frustrating, and I’m sorry about that. The chief complaint was that the description I offered was too broad and vague to enable people to form a solid opinion. I haven’t told you what topic this hypothetical course covers, what the exact nature of its format is, or how much it costs. How can you tell me whether you’d be interested?

I was merely trying to find out to what extent our customers are interested in the course model generally. Lots of companies offer online courses on technology topics, and they follow a variety of different presentation and pricing models (compare, for example, Lynda.com and Udemy). We may or may not offer courses, and if we do, I can’t yet say what our model would look like. But we had to start somewhere to begin gauging interest, and this is where we started.

16. If you answered "Yes" or "Maybe" to question 15, what topic(s) would you like to learn about in a course format?

Here are the top 10 responses:

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And, as you can see, there were a zillion “Other” choices. So, long story short, this question didn’t tell me much! But that’s OK. I just wanted to find out what sorts of topics people thought they might prefer to learn about in an interactive or multimedia format, as opposed to a book, and…let’s just say the jury’s still out on that one.

17. If you answered "Yes" or "Maybe" to question 15, how much would you be willing to pay for a course like this, assuming the equivalent of about four hours of live or prerecorded video content?

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The numbers above are in U.S. dollars. For people who specified a range, I took the top number in the range, so these represent the maximum amounts people would be willing to pay.

Once again, I know I didn’t give you much to go on here, and I get that it’s hard to say how much you’d pay for an abstract something on an undefined topic. What I was looking for was a general sense of how valuable course-like content seemed compared to our ebooks. The sense I was trying to convey is that a course would provide richer content than a book, and that it would likely have some interactive elements as well. Because a course would be more work to create, we imagine that it will cost substantially more than a book. Although these results are far from definitive, they suggest that most of our customers wouldn’t be interested in, say, a $100+ course (regardless of topic or contents).

MISCELLANEOUS

The final three questions didn’t fit into another neat category.

18. Did you know that Take Control offers the following? Check all that apply.

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Well, this question was a big FAIL. My intention was that respondents would check all the items they knew about. (That is, I intended a checkmark to mean “Yes, I did know.”) But some people interpreted this to mean they should check only the items they did not know about, and others didn’t understand what to do here at all. I’ll be more careful with how I word questions in the future.

In any case, it’s clear that many people did not know that many of these options exist! And that points to another big failure on our part to communicate clearly on our website. I will be paying careful attention to that stuff during our redesign. We want our customers to know about all the special deals they can take advantage of!

In the meantime, let me run down the details of these items for you right here:

  • Discounts for members of Apple user groups: If you’re a member of a MUG (Mac user group) or a similar organization, you can get a 30% discount on any Take Control ebook, at any time! We have a special MUG discount code that shows up in Apple’s official user group newsletter, and we also include it in our own mailings to user group leaders. (It’s the responsibility of each user group to pass along the details to their members.) If you’re in a user group and none of this rings any bells, talk to your group’s leaders and ask them to share this information with you. If you’re a user group leader and your group is not already on our mailing list, we can fix that in a jiffy! Just contact us with your group’s name and location and we’ll add you.
  • Discounted classroom copies of our ebooks: If you’re teaching a class based on one of our books—whether that’s in a school, a community group, a club, or even a consulting business—we can offer you significantly discounted class copies of our books (in sets of 10) for your students. To get complete details, fill out our Class Copies form. Note that the books we provide through this program are strictly for class use, and we provide you with a special PDF stamped with the name of your class that you can distribute to your students.
  • Bulk purchase discounts for businesses and large organizations: If your company wants to buy hundreds or thousands of copies of any of our books for your employees, you can take advantage of our generous bulk discounts, which start at 20% and go up to 50%, depending on the volume purchased. To take advantage of these prices, don’t go through our public catalog; instead, contact us for complete details.
  • Opportunities for businesses to sponsor custom books on their apps or other topics: If your business would like a custom, professionally written and edited Take Control book about an app or product you develop, or a specific topic or area of interest relevant to your customers or employees, we can probably make that happen—we’ve done it many times over the years! We’ve created books that the sponsoring company then resells to the public, or gives away as a promotional tool, or uses internally for employee training, among other applications. We’ll work with you to determine payment and distribution terms that meet your needs, preferences, and budget. Once again, contact us to get the conversation started.
  • In-person or live video presentations on Take Control topics for your organization: Most of our authors are happy to give presentations about their books—either in person or by remote video—to user groups and other organizations. If you’re interested in hearing an author talk about a book, your first step should be to contact that author directly; most of us include contact information in our books, in the About the Author topic near the end. (If you can’t find contact information for an author, use our contact form.) Depending on the circumstances, you may pay an author an agreed-upon speaker fee or reimburse them indirectly through book sales.

19. Take Control emails customers about new and updated titles, sales, and other promotions about three times per month on average. How do you feel about this volume of email?

image-18.png

I was relieved to see that two-thirds of our customers are content with our current (average) email volume. Right now, our website and email infrastructure has no way for us to offer more granular control—for example, allowing individual customers to choose their own frequency of email messages, or specifying which particular topics they want to hear about. In the future, after our website redesign, we will investigate ways of making email preferences more flexible.

20. Is there anything else you’d like to tell us or ask us?

There were hundreds and hundreds of responses to this question, ranging from “Thanks and good luck!” to thesis-length treatises. I’ve contacted some people to respond directly to their comments; unfortunately I haven’t had time to email everyone who deserved a response. Although I can’t provide all the free-form answers here, I can mention a few broad categories:

  • Good job, thanks, etc.: 327
  • I want the thing I said I wanted in one of the survey questions: 32
  • Your books are too short, cursory, or basic: 13
  • Your books are too long, detailed, or advanced: 18
  • You should offer subscriptions: 15
  • You should NOT offer subscriptions: 8
  • You should do video: 9
  • You should NOT do video: 3
  • I have complaints about your website: 28
  • I have complaints about your email messages: 6
  • I have complaints about this survey: 12
  • I have complaints about book formatting: 12
  • I have complaints about book contents: 11
  • Your books are too expensive: 6
  • I have thoughts about print books: 12
  • Where’s my update? 10
  • I have a book idea I didn’t mention elsewhere in the survey: 42
  • I want something you’re not going to give me: 28

And then there were the (optional) demographic questions…

What is your AGE range?                                                         What is your GENDER?

image-19.png

I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but it looks like our audience is mostly a bunch of old guys. I wasn’t surprised about the age, but I was surprised about the gender distribution. Huh.

What is your favorite ICE CREAM flavor?

The approximate top-10 ranking was:

  1. Chocolate
  2. Vanilla
  3. Chocolate Chip
  4. Coffee
  5. Mint Chocolate Chip
  6. Caramel
  7. Strawberry
  8. Cherry
  9. Pistachio
  10. Butter Pecan

I say the ranking above is approximate because many people included multiple flavors, or phrased flavors differently, or in some other way represented their answers in a fashion that made it difficult to count accurately.

I put this question on the survey solely for fun. (And remember, it was optional, like all the other questions.) There was no deeper meaning or ulterior motive. Most of the respondents appeared to take it in that spirit, and boy did we get some opinionated answers! (I found it particularly amusing how many people added “of course” to their favorite flavor.) One person was so offended by this question that they said they’d never fill out a survey for us again. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Posted by Joe Kissell (Permalink)

Alphabet Soup Replaced with Numbers

Oct. 3, 2018 — The Wi-Fi Alliance announced it’s shifting from labeling certified products with the technical specifications developed at the IEEE engineering group in favor of a simple generational numbering system. Thus, 802.11n becomes Wi-Fi 4, 802.11ac is now Wi-Fi 5, and the slowly emerging 802.11ax will be known as Wi-Fi 6. The changes aren’t fully retroactive: they’re not going back to earlier specifications than 802.11n, as those are no longer widely in use (although they’re supported through backwards compatibility). But it’s a shorter and easier way to market and explain technology, and to see an obvious numeric progression. A future edition of the book will adopt the new numbering scheme, which will take many months to roll out, as packaging and manuals are updated and redesigned. Older products still sold actively may not be updated at all, too.

Posted by Glenn Fleishman (Permalink)

Create a link to any email message in Apple Mail (Mac)

I just gave an interview on Brett Terpstra’s Systematic podcast, when this AppleScript I’ve written came up. It creates a link for any email you’ve selected in Mac Mail and puts it on the clipboard. You can then paste it into any notes field or document elsewhere—in most apps, it’ll automatically be treated as a link and clickable. Opening it takes you to the message. This is better than most systems of copying-and-pasting text, or forwarding email to other apps, because it’ll show you the message in its original context.

There are various tools to launch AppleScripts, but the easiest (which doesn’t require any additional software) is the Script Menu. Instructions here. Once it’s turned on, open the Script menu (right side of the menu bar) and choose Open Scripts Folder > Open User Scripts Folder. Create a folder there named “Applications”, then one inside it named “Mail”. Put this AppleScript in that folder—the script will only show up in the menu when Mail is the front application.

Select a message, choose the Get Message URL script, switch to any other app, and paste the clipboard into any text field. Done. Usually you’ll see something like this:

message://%3c32A1456C-B027-40C1-8147-AE462EB38BC4@jeffporten.com%3e

…but some apps (like Mac Calendar) interpret the link; Calendar shows “Show in Mail…” if you paste it into the URL field, which is really weird because you need a script like this one to get the link in the first place. You’d think Apple would have set that up as a Mail command by now. If the link isn’t clickable, almost always you can select it, right-click on it, and choose Open URL from the contextual menu.

Just now realizing I can’t post attachments here, so head over to my website to pick up the script. It’s free for anyone who’s bought the book.

Posted by Jeff Porten (Permalink)

MacVoices Interviews Jeff Porten About His New Productivity Book

Chuck Joiner of MacVoices interviewed Jeff Porten about Take Control of Your Productivity. Jeff and Chuck discuss his approach to productivity and what readers will learn in this book.

Posted by Joe Kissell (Permalink)

OmniFocus 3 for Mac shipping in September

Unfortunately this didn’t come to my attention in time to include in the book, but OmniFocus 3 for Mac is due in September. No official word yet on when it’ll be available in the limited web version for other devices.

https://www.omnigroup.com/blog/omnifocus-3-for-mac-to-ship-in-september

Posted by Jeff Porten (Permalink)

All the Links for Take Control of Your Productivity

(updated July 16, 2018)

Take Control of Your Productivity contains several links to web content that either didn’t fit in the book’s length, or didn’t apply to all readers (but was too useful for some to leave out entirely). I might also add new posts. For your convenience, they’re all indexed here.

July 16, 2018: Create a link to any email message in Apple Mail (Mac)

June 26, 2018: OmniFocus 3 for Mac shipping in September

June 20, 2018: Other Productivity Books Worth Reading

June 20, 2018: You Can’t Fix Your Mental Health with Tools—if you think you might have symptoms of depression or ADD, or know someone who does, please read this.

June 20, 2018: How Not to Take a Vacation

June 20, 2018: Tech Tips and Tricks for More Productivity

June 20, 2018: Additional Task Apps to Consider—coming soon, as new ones arrived just as I was finishing the book (and that was 12 hours ago at this moment). These will be added to Task Apps to Consider with the dates they’re added so you can tell what’s new.

June 20, 2018: Task Apps to Consider

June 20, 2018: All the Links to Take Control of Your Productivity Web Content, which being this post, probably doesn’t need to be indexed.

Posted by Jeff Porten (Permalink)

Other Productivity Books Worth Reading

(updated June 20, 2018)

As I write this, the book is getting published within hours and I’m still finalizing what’s going into the web materials. Unfortunately, this post is the one for which I have the least prepared right now, which I’ll fix as soon as I can.

In the meantime, here are the Big Three books about which I’ll have much to say later:

  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

  • Getting Things Done, by David Allen

  • The Now Habit, by Neil Fiore


Want more? All the Links to Take Control of Your Productivity Web Content

Posted by Jeff Porten (Permalink)

You Can’t Fix Your Mental Health with Tools

(updated June 22, 2018)

Try these two statements on for size, and how you would react to hearing them:

  • “I have diabetes, and every day I take insulin and watch my diet. If I get really sick, I might need to go to the hospital.”

  • “I have mental illness, and every day I take medication and watch my mood. If I get really sick, I might need to go to the hospital.”

Not quite the same, was it? Sure, you probably felt sympathy in both cases—but let’s say you heard that from two teenagers applying to be your babysitter. You’d treat them both the same? If your answer is yes, congratulations—you have better attitudes about mental illness than many of the mentally ill do.

Note: If you just thought to yourself, “Well, diabetes won’t affect my kid, but a crazy person might,” guess what? Diabetes can make you crazy. It’s true! So perhaps think twice about using that word next time?

Fact: Your Brain Lives in Your Body

It’s not a universal cultural thing, but it’s definitely American: we take physical illnesses seriously, but treat mental illnesses as if they’re personality quirks.

Just look at the words we use. “Physical” illness. “Mental” illness. “Mental” things live in your mind—by definition, a surgeon can’t get to them, so everyone thinks it’s more of a touchy-feely gray area. But turns out, your brain is made of meat, just like the rest of you, excepting the grisly and bony bits. We don’t have much of a clue how minds arise from the electrical activity in our brains, but the best current guess: it’s a naturally emergent effect, and it’s not accurate to think of our minds as non-physical.

When the average person thinks mental illnesses are less important or valid than “real” illnesses, that’s an annoying societal quirk, which makes the lives of the mentally ill more difficult in hundreds of major and minor ways. But the real damage is that the mentally ill live with those people, and unconsciously pick up the same attitudes.

Note: Humans are wonderful creatures capable of amazing things. We’re also astonishingly ignorant, and completely unaware that we are. This is true of most people’s understanding of mental illness. With few exceptions, if someone is not medically trained, diagnosed themselves, or has not personally cared for someone with mental illness, they are at worst dangerously wrong, and at best, not knowledgable at a level of detail that could be useful.

You’ve heard of that phenomenon where middle-aged men are too stubborn for their own good? When they experience chest pain they tough it out, instead of doing the sensible thing and going to a hospital? It’s ten times worse for mental illness. Here’s the horrible, horrible process most people go through:

  • First, you realize that awful feeling, or lack of capability, or inability to see things blindingly obvious to people around you, dovetails a bit with what you’ve heard about a particular mental illness.

  • You roll this idea around for a while, trying it on for size. Maybe you do some research on the internet. This takes months.

  • Eventually, things have gotten worse, but by now you’ve read a dozen internet articles, and heard from a dozen friends, telling you how to “manage” your self-diagnosis through diet, exercise, crystals, and—no kidding—wishing it away with a better mental attitude. Or you’ve found naturopathic and homeopathic “cures,” because drinking teas brewed from a dozen physiologically-significant herbs that may or may not match what it says on the bottle, and were made in Chinese factories with no oversight and no attention to dosage or adulterants, sounds safer than “Western for-profit medicine.”

Note: There is a scientific term for any alternative medicine that has been researched and proven to work. It’s called “medicine.” Anything that is still “alternative,” by definition, hasn’t been proven to a rigorous standard (which is usually a polite way of saying “to any standard”). Also note: some peddlers of alternative medicine refer to science as “allopathic medicine;” when you hear this, substitute “medicine that is proven to work.”

  • You try some of these things, especially the easy ones that don’t hurt or cause much inconvenience. When they fail, and they almost always do (dietary and behavioral changes certainly can help, but after diagnosis and in addition to proper care), you didn’t do it “right” or “hard enough.” There’s always a reason why a quack therapy is still perfect, and the problem is you.

  • Finally, after all of this—and sometimes, it’s several years later—something gives. You can’t tell yourself you’re not broken anymore. Maybe you’ve tasted, or gorged upon, some flavor of “hitting bottom.” If you hit bottom really spectacularly, you’re forced to seek help by a spouse ready to leave, or by a court.

  • You seek help.

Here’s the same process for physical illness:

  • Something hurts more than an Advil can handle, or your body just “feels weird” in an unfamiliar way.

  • You see a doctor, maybe two.

  • You get a diagnosis.

  • You get treatment.

Have I made my point about how fundamentally silly this is yet?

Words Matter

The two common disorders that I mention in the book—because they’re the ones I know best, for self-serving reasons—are depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are both poorly named, and these misnomers have radically dangerous effects for those who suffer from them.

The problem with “depression” is that we use the same word for all sorts of mental states. You’re depressed your favorite show was canceled. You’re depressed a friend can’t show up at your party. You’re depressed your dog died. You’re depressed for no obvious reason and you don’t get out of bed or shower for two months.

Note: On the topic of one word having two different meanings, with adverse effects, see also “theory:” the word for your opinions about the next season of Star Trek: Discovery; also the word for a scientific principle so well-established that we non-experts should treat it as a certainty, until a consensus of experts say otherwise for a few decades running. (When scientists have an informed opinion they’re still testing, it’s called a “hypothesis,” not a theory.)

This is called a “category error:” you think you’re talking about one thing, but you’re talking about something else entirely. Everyone’s an expert on their own “normal” depression, and fewer have experience with the clinical type; by definition, then, you’re going to hear much more often from people who think they’re experts on clinical depression, as opposed to people who have some idea what the hell you’re going through.

Meanwhile, the same thing happens for ADHD, thanks to both the word “attention” and the word “hyperactive.” Everyone has an attention span, and everyone loses focus from time to time, so they’re brimming with advice: “Go jogging, it’s wonderful!” My response to such people: “That’s great. Call me when you’re three hours late to your own wedding, you’ve repeatedly dropped out of college, or you’ve held 30 jobs in six years.”

Regarding hyperactivity, we have a different problem. At the risk of stating an unpopular opinion, ADHD in the early 21st century is likely extremely overdiagnosed in children, and extremely underdiagnosed in any adult old enough to have missed the grade school window we’ve established to look for it. (Of course that kid is full of energy and unfocused; he’s a child. Medicate him if he is suffering, not because his parents or teachers are.)

But hyperactivity is sometimes only a symptom in children; adults may grow out of the uncontrollable and inappropriate energy, while retaining the mental issues. As a result, they no longer identify with the most well-known symptoms, and this can lead to misunderstanding the problem. Or they simply think that ADHD is a kid thing and they’re immune.

Note: Some mental illnesses have a genetic component. If a family member is diagnosed with one of these, you’re more at risk for it. When it’s your parent who has it, it’s something you might get later. When it’s your child, it’s something you may have had for decades, and have gotten so good at masking you’re not even aware you’re compensating for anything.

For most mental illnesses, the afflicted are physiologically incapable of achieving a mental state that everyone else takes so completely for granted, they’re not aware it is a mental state.

The list of things that can ruin your life doesn’t stop there, of course. Agoraphobia, panic attacks, extreme shyness, some kinds of fatigue syndromes (for which the jury is out whether they’re physical or psychological—which for our purposes doesn’t matter); there are many wild and inventive ways a brain can break.

When to Seek Help

If you’re nodding your head while you’re reading this? Right now.

No, really. Around 20% of you are recognizing yourselves, or are being reminded of that time when you started the “trying it on” stage of considering whether you had a problem. 20% more of you are thinking about the family member or close friend who really needs to read this.

Seeing a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist for the first time is scary, no different than seeing an oncologist, because there’s only one thing you want to hear and it’s two words long. The thing is, here’s what happens in your first session if you don’t have anything wrong with you:

  • You talk for a while. A psychiatrist will likely walk you through a questionnaire. A psychotherapist may do that as well, or ask you a bunch of free-form questions.

  • The mental health expert you’re talking to comes to an initial hypothesis regarding your diagnosis, starting with whether you have one at all. At worst, this takes an additional session or two. (Mine took 30 minutes.)

  • If you don’t have a clinical problem, you get excellent advice about how to deal with the problems that brought you there, from someone with years of intensive education, and the experience of talking to 1,000 patients with problems similar to yours, perhaps much more severe or debilitating.

  • You go home and do those things. If you need more advice, you can go back. Most people kind of like it after they get comfortable.

“But wait,” you might say. “Sure, it’s easy if everything’s fine. But what if there’s something seriously wrong with me? That’s scary.”

Yes. Yes, it is. But please note: if that happens, there is something seriously wrong with you. Which other chronic, incurable, life-destroying illnesses do you apply this strategy to?

Please refer to the bullet point earlier, the one that said, “First, you realize you might have a mental illness.” That moment, the one that comes at the beginning of wasted years and needless pain? That’s when you seek help.

For my male readers: Meanwhile, if you have chest pains, go see a frickin’ doctor. And get your colon examined, schmuck.

Where to Get Help

I intend to add a few pages here shortly. In the meantime, start your research where I’ll start mine, at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


Want more? All the Links to Take Control of Your Productivity Web Content

Posted by Jeff Porten (Permalink)

How Not to Take a Vacation

(updated June 20, 2018)

A vacation is looming, but your work schedule deals with that poorly—there are things people need while you’re gone, most of them don’t have anyone else to do them. The obvious, and wrong, solution: work twice as long prior to the vacation in order to “get ahead,” and then check in regularly during vacation, putting in “just an hour or two” to keep things humming.

Put another way: if you work through four straight weekends in order to take a seven-day vacation, you know that’s nuts, right? The same thing applies if two 40-hour weeks become 60-hour weeks.

This isn’t about renegotiating commitments. This is honoring the negotiations already made. When you were given vacation time, and weekends, and a reasonable expectation that you’d be off the clock before bedtime most days, those were promises made to you. Requiring you to work an extra week’s worth of time to “pay back” for vacation is just as much a violation as you taking off a week without warning, for no reason, after you’ve used all your vacation.

The only people who should be volunteering such time are people with ownership stakes in their companies. Everyone else either gets compensated fairly for extra work, or has the right to turn down such demands. Getting neither is the definition of exploitation. It doesn’t make a difference that most of us are acculturated to this treatment.

You can consciously choose to make sacrifices, for whatever reasons you like. Just always do so deliberately, and make clear whenever possible that such a choice is not a guarantee it’ll happen next time.


Want more? All the Links to Take Control of Your Productivity Web Content

Posted by Jeff Porten (Permalink)

Tips and Tricks for More Productive Use of Your Tech Tools

(updated June 20, 2018)

One thing about life in the early 21st century is that technology is ubiquitous—a good thing if you’re a technophile, bad if you think that’s the reason we’re all on-call 24/7. We have computers in our pockets and the Internet is airborne. If you want to be disconnected, you really have to work at it.

The side effect is that we take it for granted, which means that even experts tend to overlook basic aspects of what their technology does for them. When you name a document, “Dec-10 meeting,” do you notice that it already had a creation date of December 10th? Are you constantly going to the fourth page of your iPhone to launch an app, but haven’t noticed you don’t use one of the apps in your Dock?

This chapter is a menu of ways you can make your technology work better for you, usually independent of what that technology actually is. Not all of them will work for you. (Naming a document “Dec-10 meeting” is a fine idea when you create it a few days early, and edit it a few days later; you might want to consider naming it 2018-12-10 meeting so it sorts better alphabetically, though.) It’s partially meant to give you specific implementations, but also hopefully will train you to take a closer look at how you’re using all of the tools in your system for improvements and tweaks.

There are two sections to this post:

  • Making the most of things that are built into your existing technology, which you’ve probably overlooked.

  • Approaches which can be universally applied to nearly every gadget or computer, from a more conceptual point of view.

Technology Tricks and Tips

This is a menu, not a checklist. I’ll be pointing out aspects of your computers and devices that you’ve likely noted in passing, but have never considered to be a productivity technique.

File Management

Most of the white-collar work we do is centered around files: on drives, on mobile devices (where files are usually pretty well hidden), in the cloud. But most of the techniques we use to manage them are dinosaurs from the dawn of the graphic user interface in the 1980s (which in turn were based on far older paper systems). Today, you can do better.

Storing Files in Apps: When to Do So, When to Avoid It

Most productivity software has the ability to attach files to tasks or projects. Usually there’s a paperclip icon or an Attach File command, which looks similar to attachments in email. But email attachments are always copies of your files. App file storage is different.

Some apps actually make a copy and put it somewhere—stored in a database, or hidden in a folder that it has access to. This makes your task app data bigger, sometimes really big if you do this often. It can also radically slow down how quickly your system backs up and syncs to the cloud. But like any copy, if you edit the file your changes won’t appear in the copy in the task copy. Double-click the one in your task app, and you’ll accidentally be in a different file than the one you see elsewhere.

Some apps create aliases or shortcuts to your files. They don’t increase size, and when you open them, you’re working with the original file. This is usually better, but now your file won’t cloud sync automatically, and if you delete it because “it’s in your task app,” it’s gone. There’s only one document, you never copied it.

Some apps let you do both, and choose on the fly. Very few people should do this, it maximizes the opportunities to get it wrong.

My recommendation: don’t use this feature except to provide a rapid-access way of double-clicking a file in your task app. Organize your files on your desktop (see below), and create a pointer to that instead.

Use Your Desktop

Computers have various special folders, mostly places where you shouldn’t muck about so everything keeps working. But there’s one special folder that’s set aside for you: your desktop. Most people either subscribe to a clean desk policy and keep nothing there, or keep everything there and make it into a horrible mess of hundreds of documents, cleaning up only when they run out of room in the grid.

Both are unproductive. Your desktop is the only place where you can visually get a heads-up of all of your work, at any time. You can temporarily group files together in virtual space. You can more permanently create arbitrary folders and give them specific names related not only to a project, but to the specific task they’re related to. And you can drag all sorts of things out of browsers and other applications to create files, a fast way of putting things in a desktop collection point (which gets a recurring pointer in your task app).

Note: Turn off “snap to grid” if you want to make messy piles of icons when organizing, but when you’re done, you should put each pile into a folder on your desktop. Computers aren’t very good about storing the locations of your icons, and they can get “cleaned up” for you when you’re not looking.

In other words, the only files that should live on your desktop are your current work. A glance tells you what to do when it’s an implicit task, and also creates a heads-up on how many open projects you’ve got going. When you’re done with a file, put it elsewhere (suggestions below). Set a recurring pointer to review your desktop and make sure that nothing lingers from completed tasks. As for the files that should be there, you can take two approaches:

  • If a file is an implicit task, set a pointer to the desktop to remind you to deal with everything there.

  • If a file needs a little more prep or explanation each time you start, or if you know you’re just not going to get to it for a while, document its task in your task app. You can still leave working files on your desktop (or organize them in a folder on your desktop), but put files for on-hold projects elsewhere. Cluttering your desktop cuts down on its value.

Note: If your desktop is starting out as an unmanageable mess, create a new folder named “Previous Desktop,” and drag all of your files there. Instant cleanup. That folder is probably a collection point now (that nothing new should be added to, but which needs to be cleaned out), so set up a recurring pointer or sprint to deal with what’s there.

This is how my desktop looks at the moment:

Mac Desktop organized by tags

This is a plain old Mac desktop, but most of the files here have been tagged so they sort by the colored dots. You can keep your desktop sorted by tags (changing tags or creating new files always re-sorts them immediately) like this by choosing View > Sort By > Tags, or you can do a one-time sort (new files go wherever you put them, and tags don’t stay sorted) with View > Clean Up By > Tags. Anything on my desktop that isn’t tagged is a new file I haven’t organized yet; this way, my desktop is a combination of organization and collection point. Here’s what my tags mean (I use a lot of tags):

The tags I use, such as marking files as complete, active or urgent.

Here are Apple’s instructions on using tags. Windows users don’t have it nearly so good—tags don’t change the display of files quite so prominently, but here’s how to do it.

Note: This is an extremely geeky tip, only for people comfortable using the Terminal. Homebrew has an excellent command you can install called, well, tag. This allows you to do all sorts of things at the commmand line far easier than in Finder—and with the AppleScript do shell script command, far easier in your AppleScripts.

Maybe Use Other Special Folders

Your home folder has other default folders that you might think you should use for organization. But it’s not always the best idea.

Many of these have special attributes. Put anything into a Dropbox or Google Drive folder, and it’s in the cloud. Your Music folder may have subfolders dedicated to iTunes and other music apps; mess with these accidentally, and watch your apps break. Plenty of apps feel free to stick new folders in there wherever they feel like. That’s an argument to leave special folders alone, and create new places to organize the stuff that looks it should go there. Best place: the Documents folder inside your home folder (although it also suffers from the “apps add new folders” problem).

On the other hand, having a Music folder and a Documents > Music folder is just messy. If you can figure out what you’re doing, and remember not to touch the special folders, go ahead.

Note: If you have two such folders, and find yourself going to the wrong folder often, make an alias or shortcut from one to the other so you can quickly get there.

Assign Better Filenames

Quick: that document on your desktop that’s named, “Joe letter.doc.” Which Joe, and which project? If you know, no problem. If you don’t, use better names.

Names can be temporary. Give your file one name on the desktop to remind you what to do with it. When you archive it, rename it to what you’ll remember to use when you search for it later. A file on my desktop might be called “Joe Kissell.doc,” then get filed away as “Pitch to Joe Kissell re Take Control productivity book.doc.” Alternatively, make the file the only item in a folder, and name the folder with a instruction; I might create a folder named “Finish the book outline and add a cover letter,” put the Joe Kissell.doc file into it, and suddenly my task is implicit. When I’m done working with it, I file the document and discard the folder.

Note: You can also use File > Get Info on Mac or file properties in Windows to set a comment for a file. These aren’t as useful as they might be, because the comment can’t be seen easily. This is a good place to put search keywords, though, if they don’t appear in the document.

Make Copies Without Making Copies

It’s frequently useful to put a document in multiple places. It’s also an excellent way to accidentally destroy your documents, or your project, if you’re not careful—multiple copies mean the chance to put multiple changes in very different places, and send what you think is a finish document that’s missing half of what it should have.

There are three ways to put a file in several places, and each one is different.

  • You can duplicate the file. But that creates a problem when you make edits, because they won’t be in the other copies.

  • You can create an alias (Mac) or a shortcut (Windows). An alias looks like a copy of the original, but it’s actually a pointer to it. Alias icons have a little arrow in the corner to remind you of this; their default filenames also say so, but you might change those. The downside: delete the original “because you have copies elsewhere,” and the pointer goes nowhere—the document is gone.

  • Mac users have an oddball third option, called a “hard link.” Hard linked files look like aliases, but so far as the hard drive is concerned, the files actually live in both places. Delete the “original” (in quotes, because your computer doesn’t care), and the file keeps living elsewhere. A file is only deleted when all of its hard links are gone—the original has the first one.

    The problem: this is a feature Macs inherited from Unix, and there’s no easy way to do it. And I’ve noticed that the Finder and Spotlight can get awfully confused by them, showing weird results. Again, only use these if you’re comfortable in the Terminal; here’s how.

Cloud Storage

Some people sync files to the cloud too infrequently, others too often.

If you’re in the habit of only syncing files to the cloud to share them with other people, consider sharing them with yourself. Cloud files can show up on your mobile devices, and are a handy way of always having them on a second screen, or on the go.

On the other hand, sharing too many files can cause ownership problems. Anything that lands on a work computer (in the US; varies in other countries) can be inspected at any time by your bosses and IT staff. Worse, they can claim sole ownership of those files, and take you to court to force you to delete all other copies. I’ve never heard of this happening with productivity app data, but it’s certainly happened when a vindictive former employer wanted to steal private intellectual property.

The other problem is that private files in the cloud are, well, in the cloud. Once they’re there, they’re out of your control. Cloud services are usually trustworthy about encryption, and making sure other people can’t get access—but if it’s not in the cloud, you’re 100% certain about it.

For this reason, I recommend against productivity tricks that put everything in the cloud. Some articles recommend buying unlimited (or very large) cloud storage, and making your cloud folders your main Documents folder. Macs allow you to sync your entire Desktop and Documents folders, and appallingly make this an easy-to-miss default during some macOS upgrades. Turn these off.

Note: Some online backup services, such as Backblaze, can be used as an ersatz cloud service for your entire drive. You can download individual files to your computers or mobile devices; the only issue is that you have to wait a bit for it to get there.

Revision Tracking

Stop naming copies of files “Big Report Final Final FINAL this time I mean it Final.doc.” Mac and Windows automatically keep a revision history in most apps. Save your changes in one place, and only make copies when you’re certain you want to freeze something in place for posterity. If you go back to one of these, hide the newer versions somewhere for reference only, and stop editing them.

Note: While it’s fine to rely on apps auto-saving your documents, and on your OS to maintain a version history, it still doesn’t hurt anything to hit Command-S or Control-S whenever you finish a bit of work you want to make sure is neatly stored somewhere, in case your dog chews through the power cable.


There is more to come here, but I haven’t had time to reformat the rest for the web. Check back shortly. —Jeff


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