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A Beginner’s Guide to E-Books

A Beginner’s Guide to E-Books

Beginner\'s Guide to E-Books

    In the last year, e-books have started taking off in a big way. E-books have been around for a long time, of course, but a few events in the last year suggest that they’re really starting to get traction as a viable alternative to paper-based reading. One is the success of e-books like Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done (read my review). Another is the emergence of e-book-only publishing concerns and widespread self-publishing made possible by the availability of cheap tools and widespread Internet access. The third is the release of viable e-book readers, especially the Kindle.

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    Another sign of the success of e-books, though, is not such a happy one: the huge glut of poorly written, scammy, second- and third-rate e-books that has suddenly started flooding the market. As with music and video, the Internet has made publishing and distributing books easy and next to free, and it can be hard to find anything worth reading.

    Still, there’s some gems out there if you know where to look. For those of you who are just discovering e-books, or are ready to take another look, I offer this basic guide to finding and reading e-books, with a few tips and tricks thrown in.

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    E-Book Formats

    There are dozens of different formats out there, all intended for different devices and platforms. Here’s a quick overview of the most popular ones:

    • PDF: Adobe’s Portable Document Format is the leading format for e-books, since it can perfectly simulate the appearance of the printed page.
    • LIT: Microsoft’s LIT format is used by Microsoft Reader, available for Windows-based PCs and mobile devices. LIT files look nice, but are often copy-protected and have limited functionality.
    • MOBI: A portable document format created by Mobipocket (which runs on Windows PCs and just about every kind of smartphone or PDA), MOBI picked up steam recently when it was adopted, albeit in a slightly modified form, by the Kindle.
    • Plain Text (txt) and HTML: Standard file types that can be used by just about every device known. TXT files lack any formatting.

    How to Find E-Books

    There are thousands, maybe millions, of sites offering e-books on the Internet, but here are a few good ones:

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    • Amazon: Of course Amazon has e-books, with just about any recent mainstream book for sale. Your favorite online retailer probably carries e-books, too.
    • Project Gutenberg: Millions of free, public domain books, generally available in text and HTML formats. Includes just about any classic book you can think of from before 1923, and a few more recent books.
    • Wowio: Beautifully formatted books, including some fairly recent mainstream books, all free.
    • The Internet Archive: The Internet Archive is scanning books in libraries around the world and making them available for free in a range of formats, including searchable PDFs of the original page images. They have about half-a-million texts so far, and counting.
    • Baen Free Library: A pioneer in the e-book field, Baen makes selected titles from it’s line of science fiction and fantasy books available for free download. Lots of good stuff for SF fans!
    • Free-eBooks.net: A huge directory of free e-books, most of which are self-published. You’ll have to do some digging to find quality stuff here, but there are plenty of good books to be found with some patience.
    • Web Warrior Tools: Founded by two of the stars of the personal productivity blogosphere, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and Glen Stansberry of LifeDev, Web Warrior Tools offers a collection of books devoted to topics like better email, podcasting, and other Lifehack-y subjects.
    • Memoware: Memoware includes tens of thousands of public domain books, formatted for a wide range of portable devices. They also have a premium bookstore where more current, mainstream books can be bought.
    • Fictionwise: A huge e-book bookstore, specializing in SF, with titles formatted for a range of devices. Check out their always-changing selection of free e-books drawn from their collection.

    How to Read E-Books

    Nobody has figured out a way to read that adequately replaces the way we read traditional paper books, but that isn’t always important — and some solutions come pretty close! There are a number of ways to read e-books:

    • On your computer screen: This is probably the least preferred way to read e-books. But it’s fine for short pieces — you read on the Internet at your computer, right? It’s also fine for quickly looking at reference material like an encyclopedia or computer manual.
    • PDA/smartphone/iPhone: I’ve read dozens of books on my old Palm IIIe, when I lived in New York and took the subway a lot. iPhones are supposed to be particularly nice to read on. Most PDAs and smartphones come with some kind of pre-installed e-book reader, or you can easily download Mobipocket, Microsoft Reader, or a range of other programs depending on your device’s operating system.
    • Dedicated devices: New devices with “electronic ink” technology come very close to reproducing the appearance of printed text on paper pages (although the background is closer to “pulp fiction gray” than “first edition white”). There are several devices on the market, but the leaders are:
      • The Kindle: With built-in wireless Internet to download books on the fly and the support of Amazon’s extensive inventory of e-books, the Kindle was a surprise hit — especially considering how ugly it is!
      • The Sony eReader: Better looking than the Kindle, but lacking the wireless Internet. Both devices use basically the same screen and cost about the same. Because the e-ink technology used in the screen only uses electricity to change the screen (e.g. to turn pages), battery life on both devices is quite high — unless you use the built-in mp3 player or the Kindle’s wireless Internet services.
    • Paper: I often print out longer works that I don’t want to read on a screen, especially if it’s likely I’ll be holding onto and re-reading it. Save paper by using your printer’s “multiple pages per sheet” function and printing on both sides; I also keep a ream of paper with pre-drilled holes handy so I can stick printed out books straight into a binder.

    E-books can be quite practical — there’s a universe of great literature, history, science, how-to, and reference material available at a moment’s notice, often for free. What could be wrong with that?

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    If you know of other sites where good e-books can be found, if you have a favorite way to read e-books that I haven’t listed here, or if there’s a program you especially like, let us know in the comments!

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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