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Getting Productive with the Webware 100

Getting Productive with the Webware 100

Getting Productive with the Webware 100

    CNet’s Webware 100 singles out 100 web-based applications for excellence in 10 categories. Unlike some other awards which recognize new services, the  Webware 100 are selected as “best-of-breed” from among all the applications currently available.

    The upshot is, there’s some pretty good apps on the list! Here, then, are my thoughts on the 10 selected in the “Productivity” category; in a future post I’ll look through some of the selections from the other 9 categories (Audio and Music, Browsing, Commerce, Communication, Infrastructure and Storage, Location-based Services, Photo and Video, Search and Reference, and Social and Publishing).

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    FreshBooks

    FreshBooks  is my new invoicing and bookkeeping app, as I’ve described recently at FreelanceSwitch. Like several other apps, FreshBooks offers the ability to create and send nicely-formatted invoices (including, for a small fee, by US mail), track payments, monitor expenses, and keep track of cash flow. Aimed at freelancers and small businesses, FreshBooks is affordable and simple to use. What sets it apart from similar web-based and desktop-based apps is its integration with other services, such as Outright (which helps determine your quarterly estimated tax payments).

    Google Calendar

    When I started using more than one computer on a regular basis, I discovered the difficulty in keeping an Outlook calendar accessible across several machines. That is, after all, what Outlook Exchange is for – but of course Exchange is incredible overkill for managing a single calendar. Enter Google Calendar. With it’s fairly good natural language parsing (which allows appointments to be entered by writing “Lunch with Bob Smith tomorrow at Joe’s Diner”) and integration with other services (like to-do lists Toodledo and Remember the Milk) as well as easy importation of iCal calendars from other sources, Google Calendar fits the bill very nicely. And with the new Google Sync software, I can easily and automatically sync my Blackberry’s calendar to Google, so I always have an up-to-date calendar with me. For simple task management, Google recently announced that the Tasks previously available in Gmail would now be accessible in Google Calendar, which is a nice touch if your to-do list needs are fairly basic.

    Google Docs

    Although I’m a big fan of Adobe’s Buzzword for online word processing, I tend to use Google Docs a lot more. Partially that’s because it was recently integrated into Gmail, which means I can save attachments directly from an email into my Google Docs storage, but I also appreciate the ability to use styles in Google Docs that convert into Word styles when I export my files to my own computer. I don’t use the spreadsheets or presentations nearly as much – only because I don’t use any spreadsheets or presentations that often. But I recommend them quite a bit – they’re pretty easy to use, and the spreadsheets allow you to integrate dynamic data from Google searches, which is pretty neat.

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    Intuit QuickBase

    Quickbase is a little out of my league, I admit. An enterprise-ready database, it can be applied to literally hundreds of tasks, from CRM, project management, payroll tracking, and just about anything else you’d build a database to handle. As an enterprise-level application, it’s priced way out of the reach of an academic/blogger like myself.

    LogMeIn

    For a nomad like me, who might find himself sitting in front of a half-dozen different computers over the course of the day, LogMeIn’s free service level is a lifesaver. No matter where I’m at, I can get secure access to my home PC, which means I can check my email, pay bills, and do other online asks without entrusting my passwords or credit card numbers to a machine I don’t have any control over. I can also work on documents and other projects from wherever – I just leave them open on the desktop at home and log in to work throughout the day. Finally, I’ve installed LogMeIn clients on both my parent’s computers, allowing me to work on their computers remotely whenever they run into trouble.

    Microsoft Office Live Small Business

    Imagine you could set up a free website on a free domain with free email and free hosting and free file storage. Believe it or not, that’s exactly what Microsoft Office Live Small Business offers! I used this to set up a website for a local non-profit that had no funding yet – it fit the bill perfectly. While the service includes an online site builder, I was able to upload my own HTML files, too. What’s missing is a blogging and/or content management system, which means that when they say “small business”, they mean small – the service is really intended as a way to set up a brochure-type web presence suitable for local businesses.

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    Microsoft Office Live Workspace

    Office Live Workspace is a strange duck in the world of web apps – the free account allows you to store and share up to 5 GB of documents, but there’s no online editing. Instead, files open in and save from your locally-installed Office software: Word, PowerPoint, Excel. Great for small-scale collaboration where you can be sure everyone has the same software. You have to assume that this is a backend for a future version of Office that will be accessible through a browser, but so far, Microsoft’s been pretty mum.

    Mint

    I haven’t used Mint, but I keep planning to. Mint is a personal finance system that promises to end your personal bookkeeping woes. Enter all your bank, credit card, and other financial account numbers, and let Mint do it’s thing. The service automatically categorizes your expenses and keeps a running tally of how much you’re spending on what so you can see at a glance where your budget is hurting and where it’s strong. When Mint first came out, there was a lot of worry about entrusting your financial information to a website, but so far, there haven’t been any problems, so they seem to be doing the security thing right.

    Remember the Milk

    Remember the Milk is not my task manager, but it’s a close contender. I use Toodledo (and more recently have been using Nozbe), but would use Remember the Milk in a second. It’s fast, easy to use, and integrates with a number of other services including Gmail and Google Calendar. Reminders are sent by email, SMS, or IM, and you can easily share your task list with others if you are so inclined.

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    Zoho

    Zoho’s online office suite is arguable much better than Google Docs. The word processor, spreadsheet, and other office productivity apps are nearly indistinguishable from their desktop counterparts and offer features Google Docs hasn’t even thought of yet. Plus, Zoho offers CRM, project management, and invoicing software, making it an effective set of tools for a freelancer or small business (where its collaboration abilities really come in handy, too). They also offer an incredible database application, which Google Docs has no response to.

    Are you using any of these services? What have your experiences been? Would you replace anything on the list?

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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