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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 January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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