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Create Your Portable Office with a Flash Drive

Create Your Portable Office with a Flash Drive

USB Flash Drive

    Portability is one of the many joys of modern computing technology. If you look back not so long ago in the history of the personal computer, the thought of lugging a laptop to Starbucks was unthinkable. Not just because the cheap buggers didn’t have wifi in the 90s, but because a laptop back then was probably bigger than your desktop today.

    As a nerdy kid, I still remember my dad bringing home the Mac Portable. I marveled at its form then, but there have been a few minor advances in technology here and there and now the Mac Portable has earned its nickname as the Mac Luggable. Imagine taking that thing to tackle some work at Starbucks.

    So, now that we’ve taken a little trip down memory lane it’s pretty easy to appreciate the options we have when it comes to working on the move—let’s take a look at some of the software that allows us to truly work from anywhere, whether the “portable office” includes your laptop or just some computer we’ve accosted at say, a relative’s place while supposedly on holiday. To achieve this mythical feat, we’ll be using…

    Portable USB Apps

    If you haven’t bought a USB flash drive yet, go and get one. You don’t have to use it for storage at all—I use a trusty external hard drive for that, but portable apps are the one thing that makes having a USB drive truly handy. No matter where you are, no matter whose computer you’re hijacking, you can plug it in and use a bunch of the best applications around without having to download and install them.

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    Office Software

    OpenOffice is a fantastic free alternative to Microsoft Office, and I sure as hell haven’t come across a version of Microsoft Office that is sold for flash drives. There’s a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation designer and a database app—plus more. Everything you need to replace Office on the road, and it even opens Microsoft files. Get it for Windows and Mac.

    Communication

    Thunderbird is the not-quite-as-famous and somewhat-jealous sibling of Firefox, but despite its feelings of inadequacy it makes a great email app. It’s simple, yet has the power of any good desktop mail client. There’s a portable version for both Windows and Mac.

    Skype is a great communication tool, especially if you’ve put your phone bill on a diet. It does text communication well, though it is really renowned for its voice capabilities. I haven’t come across a way to get a portable OS X version, but with some tinkering you can make it portable for Windows—instructions here.

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    For instant messaging, Pidgin can take care of pretty much any popular network. It was, in a former life, known as Gaim, the open source instant messenger. You can grab it for Windows. For Mac OS X, the equally versatile Adium is available as a portable app.

    Internet Browsing

    Presumably there’s a browser on the computer you’ve accosted, but don’t take the chance of having to bear with Internet Explorer. Or perhaps you want your bookmarks and various other settings with you. Either way, Firefox is available for both Windows and Mac, and is probably one of the most frequently used of all the portable apps.

    If only they had a Flock portable app.

    Organization Tools

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    Sunbird, another sibling to Firefox, is a calendar program with task management capabilities. It’s even less famous than Thunderbird, but it’s good software as usual from Mozilla. Grab a copy for Windows or Mac. The organization arena of the portable apps world is one I find sorely lacking, and I wouldn’t mind playing with a GTD app for flash drives.

    Multimedia

    Audacity is a great, lightweight audio editor. I suppose most people don’t need an audio editor on the road, but as a recording musician this app has saved my butt a few times. If you do podcasting from strange places—a travel podcast, for instance—then it’s worth keeping this around. Get it for Windows or Mac.

    VLC is a video player that is a true lifesaver. I haven’t thrown a video at it that it couldn’t play, and chances are high that a randomly accosted computer isn’t packed to the brim with codecs. It’s also available on both Windows and Mac.

    Secure Your Flash Drive

    If you’re going to do any serious work with a flash drive setup, you’ll undoubtedly have information stored on there that you don’t want getting out. Whether it’s your address book, email, or files for a client project, you need to ensure that the drive is going to be secure. The easiest way to do this is with a password.

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    Here’s one method to do it with TrueCrypt. If you don’t want to download more software, here’s another method for Mac users using Disk Utility.

    Remember, good solid password creation techniques are essential. Never use your middle name, your kid’s names, birthdays or your favorite band. Passwords that are a combination of numbers and letters work best, especially if you can do it in a way that’s easy for you to remember but not for anybody else. For instance, you could use tyti8mcp08 and memorize it as the year that I ate microwaved chocolate pudding, 2008. I bet you nobody will ever guess that one.

    If you can’t manage to memorize a password, you might just want to plonk down for a flash drive that has a fingerprint reader, though I imagine you’ll spend more time showing off to your friends than working with one of these monsters.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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