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Automatic software updates can seriously damage your health

Yellow nosed cotton rat

In this post, I’ll tell you the tale of how a software update nearly caused me serious damage, and why. I’ll also show you why you probably shouldn’t be one of Pavlov’s creatures and accept updates to mobile apps automatically.

Evernote is a great product

Since I first found it some years ago (I first registered back in 2008), Evernote has been an integral part of my daily workflow. I use it for just about everything related to the capture, generation and distribution of text.

I use Evernote to capture multi-media notes on multiple devices and and keep them in sync. I maintain a complex hierarchy of notebooks for all sorts of purposes. I have separate notebooks for each client and each project I’m working on.

I also have more notebooks for specific workflows such as writing blog posts. This one started as a collection of notes, before morphing into a Markdown document that can be uploaded to my WordPress blog.

I also maintain a complex hierarchy of Tags and make extensive use of smart searches. All in all, Evernote is one of my core productivity tools. All told, I’ve got thousands of notes in dozens of notebooks.

Evernote’s update policy

Being one of the new generation of Internet software companies, Evernote updates its products on a frequent but irregular basis. This never used to worry me. It does now.

The Problem

Evernote recently made a major change to the Mac client

As far as I was aware, there was no warning that this was going to happen. There was a “A new version of Evernote is available” alert, and yes it did give details of the changes, but I get loads of them, and anyway, who has time to read that stuff?

Again, as far as I am aware, there was no opportunity to evaluate the new release before installing it. No beta. So, my Pavlovian reflexes kicked in and I installed the update. I instantly regretted it.

The new UI was radically different in a number of areas and my carefully constructed workflows were totally disrupted. It pulverised my productivity.

Unfortunately, this happened at a moment when I was particularly busy and just didn’t have the time, or the inclination, to learn a new UI.

Luckily, I was able to revert to the earlier version. The Mac is very easy in that respect. Rename the newly installed Application and drag the old one out of the Trash Can. Peasy.

Changes also made to iPad version

Now came another shock. At some point, the iPad version had been updated as well. I hadn’t used this for a while, so I’m not sure when it happened.
Unfortunately, there is (effectively) no potential to revert to a previous version on the iPad. You could do a device restore, but that’s OTT.

Luckily, the changes were not quite so dramatic and I was able to live with them.

Then the Penny dropped

The mobile “Apps” world is different

All this opened my eyes to a previously hidden consequence of using mobile apps: the user has lost control of the software upgrade process. Yes, I know you have to explicitly update apps from iTunes, but there are so many updates each week that it’s impossible to vet them all before applying them. You just have to trust the developer.

Software update and release processes have changed fundamentally. I’ll cover this in more detail in another blog but essentially, the old mantra of alpha releases, beta releases, community evaluation and then explicit upgrade; has changed.

Be more circumspect

I’ve been taught a lesson, and in this case it was not too painful. The learning points are:

  • Don’t upgrade Apps automatically
  • Watch for user community feedback before committing
    • i.e. don’t be an early adopter if your business depends on it

It’s a restatement of a previous mantra “never install release the .0 of a newly updated software product: wait for .0.1 or a service pack” The problem is that you are now no longer always able to predict when the next .0 is coming out.

Summary

  • Treat updates to mobile apps with caution
  • If the app is critical, don’t upgrade automatically

Next Step

Like I said, this change to software release processes could expose a business to additional risk.

So, take a close look at your mobile app inventory and consider whether you should be blindly hitting the “Update” button.

Oh, and why not let me know if you’ve had a bad experience in this area. I promise I’ll be sympathetic.

Update September 2013

Since writing this post last December, I’ve now successfully migrated to the latest version of Evernote. I had a couple of days downtime and took the plunge. Now that I’ve got used to the changed UI, I like it. However, that doesn’t diminish the need to evaluate changes before committing to them.

Picture by By Roger W. Barbour [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Zen and the art of email management

Get in control of your email, before it gets control of you using Folders, Rules and the Getting Things Done methodology

CD sticking out from computer

Last year, I gave a workshop to the Business Club Cambridge  on the subject of “Control your email, before it controls you”. The session was well attended and I thought it was a good opportunity to put down my thoughts on this subject.

Hopefully, by reading how I deal with email, you will get some ideas for how you can get back in control.

Why is email a problem?

Sometimes, it seems that the World runs on email. Even with the advent of Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and all the other social networks, the volume of email pouring into Inboxes all over the world seems to rise inexorably. With this rise comes the inevitable need to deal with the increasing volume of mail: it needs to be managed.

An extra problem these days is that many of us use mobile devices to manage their email. Due to the restricted functionality and screen size of mobile devices, personal productivity can suffer badly if steps aren’t taken to reduce the amount of mail and manage what there is.

Managing your email

Over the years, I have developed a process that helps me keep on top of my email. It comprises the following measures:

  • Stop receiving messages that never get read
  • Use automation to handle low priority messages
  • Handle what is left in a structured fashion

Reducing the volume of email

How much email do you receive on a daily basis that rarely, if ever, gets read properly? If you’re like most people, you probably subscribe to newsletters, blogs and forums. If you are on LinkedIn, you probably get daily digests from groups. Plus, you get unsolicited mail.

Take a good, long look at what you receive and really ask yourself: do I really need to still get this?

If the answer is no, then unsubscribe from the list, group, forum or whatever.

Using automation

Most business class email clients have some way to auto-process incoming email messages. If you are a Microsoft Outlook user, then you have rules at your disposal (though they only give real value if you are connected to a Microsoft Exchange server). If you use GMail or Google Apps for Business, then you can use Gmail filters to achieve the same end.

The objective is to deal with as much low priority email as possible before it reaches your Inbox. This is based on the observation that little email really needs your immediate attention: most of it can be deferred to a time that you choose.

I have a number of folders that exist to contain unread, low priority messages: newsletters, forum posts, blog feeds. I do much of my email management using my iPhone, so I want only the important messages that require my immediate attention to stay in the Inbox. That way, when I do check my email, I see stuff that is relevant at that moment in time. I don’t see messages that might otherwise distract me and can be dealt with at another time.

Create rules/filters that intercept messages when they arrive in your Inbox and file them away in one of these folders. For example, I have a folder called “_Newsletters”. I then have a number of filters (I use Google Apps for Business) that move messages to that folder if they come from a known newsletter source, e.g. LinkedIn group messages. (These special folders start with an underscore so that they sort at the top of the folder list)

Process your mail the GTD way

I am a great fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology and I follow the process for my email.

Each time I check my email (note, check my email, not be interrupted by my email) I go through each message in the Inbox and do the following:

  1. Is this email intended for me? If not, delete it or forward it on.
  2. Is this email informational: e.g. it’s just something to read? If so, file it in “_Read Later”.
  3. Do I need to do something as a result of receiving this email? If not, file it away for future reference.
  4. Can I do whatever it is right now and in less than two minutes? If so, do it and then delete/file the message.
  5. File the message in the “_Action” folder to be dealt with later.

At the end of this process, I have an empty Inbox. Sure, I have some reading to do and I have some actions. They can be scheduled into my daily task list. I also need to allocate time to go through the “_Newsletter” folder. The point is that I spend less time reacting to incoming email messages and more time being productive.

Zen is an empty Inbox

I often see people who have Inboxes with thousands of emails in them. When I ask them about this, they admit that some of them have been there for months, if not years, and that they will probably never get around to dealing with them. My answer is simple: delete them all. If you can’t bring yourself to do this, move them all to a folder called “old stuff” and ignore them. Admit to yourself that you will never do something with them and move on with my approach to managing your email.

The advantage of my process

The real advantage of my process comes when I am on the road and using only my iPhone or my iPad. Screen real estate is limited and so is time. By following the steps I have given above, I can keep on top of what is really important and spend less time distracted by stuff. It has meant that even when I am on holiday, I can still keep on top of my email and deal with important and urgent messages without spending too much time “at work”

Share the good news

Try it yourself and let me know how you get on. If this process works for you, tell others about this post. Feel free to link to it, or share it on your social networks.

If you need further information, please use the comments section.