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Thoughts on The Last Lion, the Biography of Winston Churchill by William Manchester

The Last Lion

Yesterday, I finished reading William Manchester’s massive 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. It is, officially, the longest biography I have ever read, far taking the 3-volume Theodore Roosevelt biography by Edmund Morris. The three books total more than 2,000 pages. The audio books are more than 130 hours in length, the equivalent of listening non-stop for 5-1/2 days. For folks who binge-watch TV shows, that is the equivalent of  watching about 195  40-minute episodes back-to-back.

Not a moment of it was boring, and while I’d say the book doesn’t dethrone David McCullough’s John Adams as my favorite biography, it does join it there, in equal splendor, although for different reasons.

3 volumes make up this biography:

  1. Visions of Glory: 1874-1932 (1984)
  2. Alone: 1932-1940 (1989)
  3. Defender of the Realm: 1940-1965 (2012)

Manchester did not survive to finish the third volume, and enlisted the help of journalist Paul Reid to complete the task.

I started reading the biography back on July 13 and finished yesterday, on September 17, so I spent a good portion of the summer immersed in British and European history, and I found it fascinating. Here are some initial thoughts.

1. The rich details of the book really did immerse me in the time period. While I probably should not have been surprised, I found that when I finished the books yesterday, I was overcome by sadness. Churchill was dead, and for two months, I had followed the course of his life in great detail from his birth, through three wars, through the Korean conflict and the beginning of the Cold War, and through his death and funeral. The book is a very hard act to follow. I wanted more, much more. Fortunately, there is plenty that Churchill himself wrote available to read, but I decided to give myself a little break. Before I jump into more Churchill, I’m distracting myself with Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel.

2. Two events in the book brought tears to my eyes. The first was the death of Marigold Churchill, Winston and Clementine’s daughter, who died in childhood before Mary Churchill was born. The second was not Churchill’s death, nor his moving state funeral at St. Paul’s. It was something that took place eight months later, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Britain:

The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey, at the request of the Queen and Parliament, placed a sixty-by-seventy-six-inch polished green-marble slab in the floor of that thousand-year-old monument to English history. All who enter cannot help but see it there, in the nave, just a few feet inside the great west doors. Engraved upon it are the words:


3. Churchill lived a long life (90 years) that happened to span a period of time when the world took gigantic leaps forward in technology. He was born in the Victorian era, and indeed, first began serving in Parliament under Queen Victoria. He first crossed the Atlantic to the United States on a ship that carried a sail, just in case the engines quit, and took 10 days to make the crossing. On his final return from the United States to England at the end of his life, he flew on a Boeing 707, flying 7 miles above the ocean and taking only 6 hours or so. That seems remarkable to me.

4. Reading the biography was a stark illustration of just how little I’d known about either World War, but especially the Great War. What we learn about World War I in school is more or less how it started and how it ended. I’m not blaming the education system for the lapses. There is so much history and so little time. But to see, in continuous flow, the events leading up to the first World War, and how the settlement after the war, and the Treaty of Versailles set up conditions that would naturally lead to World War II was an education in and of itself.

5. I learned more about British politics, and the political process in England than I had ever known before. The biography is a lesson in parliamentary politics through example. In college, as a political science major, I took a couple of classes in European politics, and always enjoyed them. But I learned more practical politics from the biography than I did from all of those classes combined. Every form of democracy has its pluses and minuses, but throughout my reading, I came to appreciate the parliamentary form more than I ever had before. There is something about the odd combination of decorum and candor in the House of Commons debates that I wish took place in the House and Senate, but which I don’t imagine would ever really be possible.

6. People occasionally ask me how I manage to fit into a day everything that I manage to do. I take this as external validation that I am a fairly productive person and make good use of my time. But set beside Winston Churchill, I look like a sluggard. Churchull is probably known for staying in bed most of the mornings, smoking cigars and constantly having a drink at his side. But he worked in bed, and the hours he kept throughout his life, often working through the night until close to dawn, were staggering. Churchill managed to pack in two full days of work into every day he lived. It is an incredible to witness.

7. Along those lines, the Churchill biography is ripe with productivity tips. I could write an entire post on the tips I’ve gleaned from Churchill. Stay-tuned on this one.

8. This biography, like other books I’ve mentioned in the past, is an object lesson in large-scale project management. As someone who is involved in project management on a daily basis, I am often stunned at how complex we make things, and how, more often than not, the tools we use to manage project actually get in our way. Whether it’s a Gaant chart, budgeting software, a resource management tool, the complexity of the tools have diminishing returns and ultimately make projects more difficult to manage. I’ve felt this intuitively, but the evidence in favor of it exists in books like the Churchill biography.

Consider that Winston Churchill ran a government without Microsoft Office, Visio, Project, Lotus Note, Outlook, Gmail. Indeed, the entire government ran on paper, mostly in the form of memos that contained Churchill’s signature. His rules were simple: if he asked for something to be done, he expected it to be done at once, but only if he put it in writing and signed the paper.

Consider further that Churchill led England through World War II in the same manner, planning operations, organizing the military, preparing the defense of the homeland, all without any fancy project management tool. Indeed, I suspect such tools would have slowed him down. It makes me realize that not all productivity tools useful, or even productive. Sometimes, they slow things down.

9. You can’t go through 2,000 pages or 130 hours with Winston Churchill without feeling like you know him, that he’s become a friend, and that, were he alive, you could sit with him in his study or at his dinner table and talk. More surprising, however, were just how many of the people that surrounded Churchill also seemed to come to life in this biography. Whether other statesmen like Lloyd George, or close friends like William (“Max”) Beaverbrook, and Jock Colville, I felt like I came to know many of them almost as well I came to know Winston Churchill.

10. The biography did not attempt to hide Churchill’s mistakes. It was clear that sometimes, he was wrong, though he always sounded confidence in his speeches and writing. Manchester called out Churchill on numerous occasions where he thought Churchill made unfair, or even mean-spirited comments or assessments. He highlighted times when Churchill was being underhanded (mostly politically). In short, he showed Churchill’s worts as well as his medals. This brought Winston Churchill down to earth somewhat, but also made me appreciate the fact that he was just as fallible as the rest of us.

11. Churchill was a writer, and a good one. Would that someone today would write emails the way that Churchill wrote memos. But he also wrote articles, and books. Reading about his process for writing, research, and reading about the subject which he wrote, and excerpts thereof, made me want to read more. Of all of the books Churchill wrote in his life, the books that most whet my appetite, based on the description of them in the biography, are his books that make up The History of the English Speaking Peoples. I will be reading these sometime in the not-too-distant future.

I have a lot more thoughts about the biography, but that is enough for now. I still need distance, and time to ruminate on a long life very well spent. Perhaps what I find most remarkable of all about Winston Churchill is that, were he a fictional character invented in the mind of some author, he would be almost unbelieveable, a kind of superhero, whose super powers were words and his ability to use them, both on the page, and in front of an audience. This is a biography that will stay with me for a long time to come.

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My Friend, Winston Churchill

I should finish the Winston Churchill biography today, and once I do, I’ll have some thoughts about it, which I will post in due course. However, I wanted to mention a strange dream that I had last night, and yes, the dream involved Winston Churchill. My dreams rarely seem to have any relation to what goes on during my days, but in this case, it was very closely related. As I approach the end of the book, I am also approaching Churchill’s death. That thought must have stuck with me.

In the dream, I was wandering through the underbelly of London with my friend, Winston Churchill. He was old, and somewhat frail, but was focused on his task. That task, it seemed, was evaluating the superstructure of London from beneath. We walked through broad tunnels, down into which sunlight filtered from the sides somehow, and every now and then, Churchill would stop, tap some object with his case, and say something like, “Struts for the bridge. Needs a new coat of paint, I think.”

This went on for quite some time, until we arrived at a place where stairs led up to the street level to the left and right. From one direction, a phone was ringing, and I picked it up. On the other end of the line was King George VI. “I’m very sorry to report,” he said, “that His Majesty’s Government bears the news that Winston Churchill has passed.”

I started to tell the King (uncertain how to address him) that he was mistaken, that Churchill was here with me, checking out the superstructure of the city. I turned, but Churchill was gone, and I was down there all alone. All at once, I was overcome by a feeling of despair and sadness, certain that HMG was right, that Churchill had died, and here I was all alone.

I began calling friends and family to tell them the news, and they were duly sympathetic. I remember thinking, “My friend, Winston Churchill, is gone.”

After that, the dream faded away and I woke up. The Little Man was calling me from his room, and I got out of bed to see what it was he wanted. But the dream stayed with me, and I still feel some of that sadness lingering this morning.

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Going Paperless: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Going Paperless Blog

A few weeks ago, I asked if there were any topics that folks would like me to cover as part of the Going Paperless series. I ask this a couple of times a year, and almost always get good suggestions. One of the suggestions that came in this time around was a post on how I manage the Going Paperless blog. That one intrigued me, so today, I thought I’d take up that topic today.

1. Keeping track of ideas

It will surprise no one that I keep track of  ideas for my Going Paperless posts in Evernote. Typically, I’ll create a note that is nothing more than a title and then give it a tag of “blog-topic.” Sometimes, I’ll add additional details to the note about specifics I want to cover, but for the most part, the notes are just a title, with the topic. Here, for example, is the note I created for this post.

Evernote Blog Idea

Each week, I filter through the list of ideas and pick the one I am most interested in writing about that week. On occasion, I’ll come up with a last-minute idea and write about that instead, but generally, I work from the pool of existing ideas.

2. Outlining the posts

I try to write my posts on Sunday, but I’d say I’m successful about only 50% of the time. If I don’t write the post on Sunday, then I tend to write it Monday night (25% of the time) and if I don’t write it Monday day, I write it first thing Tuesday morning (25% of the time). As it happens, I am writing this post first thing Tuesday morning because by the time I finished everything else yesterday, I was too exhausted to write any more.

Over the years, I’ve developed the habit of doing a rough outline of my Going Paperless posts. I generally don’t outline blog posts, but I find that for clarity, the posts come out better when I outline them. I do this directly in WordPress, using the level 2 headings as the “topics” of my outline. These topics find their way into the post as the major “sections” of the post. The outline and the structure of the final post don’t always look identical, but they are usually pretty close. Here is what the outline looked like for this post when I started this morning. You can see for yourself the slight differences between what I outlined and what made it into the final post.

Post Outline

Outlining the post helps me identify gaps or leaps that I might make that could make the post confusing. The sections that evolve from the outline also serve another useful purpose when it comes to promoting the post, which I’ll get to in #9 below.

I sometimes get asked how I go about organizing the posts that I write. Rather than the tools that I used, I think what I’m being asked is how do I come up with (conceive) the actual logical organization. To this I can’t provide a good answer, I’m afraid. I’ve always had a knack for being able to “see” the organization in my head. Isaac Asimov once likened this to the way a musician can see the patterns in the music or a chess player can see the patterns in the game. I see the patterns in the organization, and it falls into place. Not always perfectly. Usually, I make some adjustments. But the general structure is there, it is not difficult for me, and, alas, I can’t describe what it is that happens inside my head to make it so.

3. Grabbing screen captures

My Going Paperless posts generally almost always contain screen captures to help illustrate the process I am describing. I use Skitch for all of my screen captures. It is by far my favorite tool for capturing screen shots, and annotating them, and I use it on my iMac (where I am writing this post), my MacBook Air, my Windows laptop, and my iPhone and iPad.

Skitch makes it easy to capture screenshots with simple keyboard shortcuts. There are some additional features that I use frequently within Skitch that I really like. Two of these are:

  1. Timed screen captures. Ever want to grab a screenshot of a pulldown menu, but when you do, the menu disappears. Skitch eliminates that problem thanks to its timed-screen capture feature. This works much the same way as a timed photograph. You select the part of the screen you want to capture. A timer starts and you can arrange the screen (including menus) however you like. When the timer reaches zero, it captures the screen as it looks at that moment. I wrote an earlier post on this awesome feature.
  2. Image blurring. Especially for something like the Going Paperless blog, where I am using my own Evernote repository to demonstrate the ways in which I go paperless, being able to occasionally blur out parts of the image (like addresses or account numbers) is useful. Skitch comes with a built-in “pixelater” tool that allows you to blur out text and other parts of the image.

Using Skitch to capture screen shots is also very fast. And since Skitch syncs with Evernote, I can capture screenshots on my iMac at home, and still have access to them if I am working on my Macbook later on in the day. No extra steps involved.

4. Sketching out diagrams

Occasionally, you’ll see some hand-drawn diagrams on the Going Paperless blog. Like this one, for instance:

Evernote Search

I sketch out these diagrams myself, using the Paper app (by FiftyThree) on my iPad. While I could use Photoshop to class up the quality of these images, there are three things I like about doing the diagrams this way:

  1. I like the informal feel of them. It’s just a preference, but I think it adds a unique character element to the post.
  2. I can do them much more quickly sketching them by hand than I could using a tool like Visio or Photoshop, where I’d end up getting bogged down in menus and features.
  3. It’s fun to sketch things out with your hand every now and then.

I use a Bamboo stylus, the same one I’ve been using for probably close to 2 years now. It works just fine for me and I’ve seen no reason to try another one.

When I am done sketching out my diagram, I use the sharing feature in Paper to email the drawing to my Evernote account, where I have access to it for use in my posts.

5. Writing the posts

Once I have my outline, screen captures, and diagrams, I sit down to write the post. I write the posts directly in WordPress1. I open a browser window, find the “outline” post I created above, and then start filling in the details.

To be sure, I have done a little automation here. I use a Templates plug-in that speeds up the process of creating the base “template” for my Going Paperless posts. When I first create the post in WordPress, I select the template I want to use. In the case of the Going Paperless posts, I select my Going Paperless template, which looks like this:

GoingPaperless Template

The template helps ensure I have the basic framework of the post in place. It is to this template that I add first the outline, and then begin filling in the details as I write the post, inserting images where they belong as I write.

6. Scheduling the posts

I typically try to schedule the posts for between 8 and 9 am Eastern time on Tuesday mornings. I use WordPress’s scheduling feature to schedule the post and simply set the schedule time for the time that I want to the post to appear. If all goes well, this post, for instance, should appear at about 9 am Eastern time.

I don’t use an editorial calendar for the Going Paperless posts, or for other posts on my blog for that matter. I have been running the blog long enough (nearly nine years now) where I have a feel for the schedule of things. The Going Paperless posts have been running for 2-1/2 years now and after more than 120 posts, I’ve gotten a feel for their schedule as well. Occasionally, I skip a week, or end up posting a day later than usual. Life sometimes gets in the way. But I do try to keep to the weekly schedule as best as I can manage.

7. The automated stuff

WordPress (and some additional plug-ins I’ve installed) help to automate some of the more routine elements of the post. Scheduling the post is one example. Making the initial announcements on social media is another. Upon the initial post being published, automated announcements are also posted to my personal Facebook wall, to my Facebook Writer page, to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Tumblr as well.

For this, I use the premium version of the NextScript social network auto-poster.

Thanks to some workflow with IFTTT and Pocket, the posts are automatically sent to my shared Going Paperless notebook in Evernote. People who subscribe to that notebook can see the posts in the notebook, usually a few minutes after they appear on the web.

And of course, the posts are available via the RSS feed once they are posted.

8. The manual stuff

That said, there is still some stuff I do that is somewhat manual. I usually send an email message to the folks at Evernote who manage the Evernote Ambassador program, making them aware of the new post. Occasionally, they will signal boost the post through the Evernote account, which is why, sometimes, you might learn about the post through that channel. For this email, I usually write it immediately after finishing the post, and it follows a standard template. I use Boomerang to schedule the email to be sent a few minutes after the post goes live, so that I don’t have to stop what I am doing and send the email.

I manually post the link to the post in Google Plus. The NextScript plug-in can do this, however, it doesn’t work if you use 2-factor authentication with your Google accounts, which I do. So this is a manual step, as is posting an announcement in a couple of Facebook groups.

I also post to the Going Paperless Pinterest board that I maintain, and the Going Paperless subreddit.

Two more manual steps I take after each post goes live:

  1. Adding the post to the master index of Going Paperless posts.
  2. Updating the current “Going Paperless” article link in the sidebar of the blog.

9. Promoting the post

Promoting is one of those things that you really have to get a feel for in order not to be overly annoying, and I am constantly worrying whether I am going too far overboard with my promoting, or not far enough. I will say that so far, no one has said to me, hey, how come you are tweeting about this post four or five times this week? I imagine it will happen at some point, but I do try to find a good balance of getting the word out, and not annoying people.

After the initial post has gone out, I use Buffer for all future promotion. I have Buffer setup to post to Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook and Facebook Page, and LinkedIn. I have a pre-defined schedule for when the things I send to Buffer get posted each day. So I’ll spend some time scheduling announcements of the new post through out the week, always walking that fine line of getting the word out without being annoying.

One thing I do–a tip I learned from the Buffer blog–is make use of the outline I created at the start to help promote the post. Instead of posting the same tweet 5 times a week, I will occasionally make use of the subsections of a post. Also, I’ll change the Tweet from time to time. Later today, for instance, you’ll see a tweet go out that says something like:

10 steps for how I manage the Going Paperless blog

Or something like that. Again, I try to remain sensitive to that balance between too much and not enough.

10. Dialog and discussion

I’m not finished once the post is out. One of the great things that has evolved over the years in the Going Paperless blog are the great discussions that emerge from the posts. Some posts only get a few comments, but others get many. In addition, I get questions in various social media (Twitter, Facebook) and even direct emails that ask questions about the topics covered in the post.

I try to respond to all of these as quickly as I can. I have two reasons for this. First, I want to encourage discussion. And second, I know that people are looking at the post from all over the world, and so I want to get the responses out quickly, so that the discussions can continue, even if I am away from the blog for a while.

Those are the ten steps for how I manage the Going Paperless blog. I hope the behind-the-scenes tour has been helpful, especially for folks considering managing their own blog. I was going to spend some time talking about some of the stats surrounding the blog, from the number of posts and comments, to how the audience has grown over the years, but as this post is already nearly 2,400 words long (tl;dr), I’ll save that topic for another time.

In the meantime, as always, thanks for stopping by, and if you have any questions about how the blog is managed behind-the-scenes, please drop them in the comments.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. Send it to me at feedback [at] As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: Confessions of a Paperless Writer.

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  1. I use a self-installed and managed version of WordPress 4.0, using the Twentythirteen theme in conjunction with a customized sub-theme.
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I’m on the SF Signal Podcast This Morning: “Authors We Can’t Get Enough of (and Why)”

Last week, I was part of the Hugo Award-winning SF Signal Podcast hosted by Patrick Hester. Among the other guests wereJosh VogtJeff Patterson, Andrea Johnson, Paul Weimer, and Larry Ketcherseid, with John DeNardo lurking in the background as always. The topic this week was “Author We Can’t Get Enough of, and Why.” There are some great authors mentioned. I had to make a list while participating.

If you want to find out which author I can’t get enough of (and why I’ve accidentally stood that author up twice), have a listen.

It was a fun podcast, with lots of stuff going on in the background. For instance, while Patrick tried to bait John into jumping into the fray, Larry and I discussed the Churchill biography I’m about to finish up. None of that is in the podcast itself, however. That was all happening in the background as we all tried not to laugh. As always, it was a lot of fun.

The SF Signal Podcast (Episode 257): Authors We Can’t Get Enough Of and Why

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How ThinkUp Convinced Me to Get Started on the Second Draft of My Novel Today

When I woke up this morning, I found the following insight from ThinkUp in my daily email summary of social media activity:


It reminded me that it has been exactly one year since I finished the first draft of my first novel, sitting in a quiet corner of the Arlington Central Library. In the year since finishing the novel, I’ve written quite a bit, including fits and starts on the second draft. But those fits and starts haven’t really led anywhere, and the second draft has lingered in limbo ever since.

A few weeks ago, sitting at a local pub with Michael J. Sullivan1, Michael, as is his wont, pestered me about the second draft. I explained to him the trouble I was having with it. One good thing about having friends who are also professional writers of high caliber is that you can explain these things to them, and they understand. Michael offered some good suggestions on how I might get things started again. But I put it off.

Instead, I came up with a plan for the next several month. That plan was intended to help me juggle the fiction and nonfiction work I have underway. But a second motive, I think, was to convince myself that I could stall on the novel draft for a while longer. And then, this morning, I saw ThinkUp’s insight, and it triggered another insight: I’m stalling for no good reason. Michael’s advice will help me out where I was stuck. Now I just need to get started and get the job done.

So, thanks to the ThinkUp insight, I’m changing my plans. The nonfiction will continue as planned, but as far as fiction goes, everything is on the back-burner until I’ve completed the second draft of a the novel. The next obvious question is: when will it be completed?

Stephen King, in his book On Writing2, argues that a novel draft should not take longer than a season (3 months). I can see the value in this, but as someone who writes only part time, 3 months is probably unrealistic, especially when you consider it took me 6-1/2 months to write the first draft. Still, I have a lot of data from my writing, and I can use that data to make a good guess at an answer.

Over the last 564 days for which I have data, I have written, on average 867 words per day. In the last 3 months or so, I have also been writing nonfiction, but it has, so far, had only a negligible affect on my fiction output3 So I think it is safe to use 800 words/day as an initial level of effort.

The first draft of the novel came to about 95,000 words. On the second draft, I’m aiming for 90,000. At 800 words/day, it would take me 113 day, which is slightly longer than a season. If I started today, that would mean I’d finish the second draft on about January 5, 2015. But there is some nonfiction that I have to write during this time, and it is good to have a little buffer for technical problems I might run into. So let’s call it January 31, 2015. I plan to have the first draft of the novel finished by January 31, 2015. It may be done sooner, but I’m going to work hard to make sure it’s not finished any later.

For those interested in following along as I work through the second draft, the realtime stats of my writing are always available. I’ll see if there is some way that I can automate the charting of the specific stats for the novel draft separately.

Once again, I own some thanks to ThinkUp, which convinced me to stop putting over to tomorrow what I can do today. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a novel draft to get started on.


  1. Who is doing a charity bike ride this weekend.
  2. I reference On Writing frequently because it is the only writing book I’ve ever read containing advice that has made me a better writer and improved my writing career.
  3. Note that I say output and not quality.
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Winston Churchill’s Bacon Number is… 3!

Yesterday on Twitter, I was ruminating about how many notable people are mentioned in Churchill’s biography. Churchill was born toward the end of the Victorian era, and lived 90 years. So Churchill had conversations with the likes of Mark Twain, as well as actors like Charlie Chaplin. Indeed, Churchill lived long enough that, despite being a Victorian, he lived into the Beatles era.

But for some reason, the notion that Churchill spent time with Charlie Chaplin struck me, and I decided to do a little Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with Churchill. I bent the rules a little. Instead of acting with someone, I considered a significant interaction good enough for my purposes. Indeed, Churchill spent time with Charlie Chaplin on several occasions. Going from there, I checked to see what Charlie Chaplin’s Bacon number was.  I used the Oracle of Bacon website to find this out. Turns out, Chaplin’s Bacon number is 2:

Chaplin Bacon Number

So, by virtue of the fact that Churchill spent significant time with Chaplin (as oppose to acting in a movie with him–my own variation of the rules) his Bacon number would be 3. I find that fascinating for some reason.

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For #TBT, A View From the Top of the World

This photo has been staring at me most of the day today, and I was hesitant to post it, given that today also happens to be the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But I realized that while I still have trouble looking at photos from the day of the attack, photos like this one, which I took in 1995 or 1996, remind me of just how awed I was at the view from the top of the World Trade Center, and how I remembered thinking that it took an enormous amount of varied talents and skills to design and build a structure that reached for the sky in such a blatant way. When I think of the World Trade Center, this is the picture I try to keep in mind.

#TBT World Trade Center 1995-96

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Going Paperless: Confessions of a Paperless Writer

School has started up, and with the Little Man now in kindergarten, the volume of paper we received has increased, out of all proportion, to what I’d grown used to. His school is very good about making a lot of stuff available online. But there is a good more stuff that comes to us in paper, which means that I am back to scanning every day, in order to keep the backlog down to a reasonable level.

But, confession time: the backlog is well beyond a reasonable level.

Being known as the paperless guy means that any time I am seen within the proximity of a piece of paper, I am looked on with suspicion, and even comic derision: “Oh look,” my coworkers say, “it’s the paperless guy, coming back from the printer. Hey, what’s that you’ve got in your hand, paperless guy?” There’s no way to hide the paper so I hang my head in mock shame.

In truth, I am far from perfect when it comes to being paperless, and I thought I’d share a few of the ways that I struggle in order to demonstrate that, like anything else, this is a habit and it has its ebbs and flows. Or put another way: don’t stress about the paper you do use.

Confession #1: My paperless Inbox is overflowing.

Earlier in the week, I wrote a post on how I manage to stay at Inbox Zero with my email. The same is not true when it comes to my Evernote Inbox notebook.

I use my Inbox notebook much the same way you’d use an inbox on your desk. Everything not automatically filed goes into the inbox by default. This includes stuff that I scan, emails that I send to Evernote, notes I jot down on the fly. These notes may not add up to much on any given day, but over time, if the inbox is ignored, they build up quickly. Case in point: as of this morning, there are more than 1,000 unfiled notes in my inbox:

Paperless Inbox

Several times a week, I look guiltily at my inbox and think, I really need to do something about that. I do this much the same way I might look at the junk in the attic. But the junk stays in the attic, and the inbox stays unchanged.

Of course, the difference between my attic and my inbox is that, despite the volume of notes in the inbox, they are still easy to search using Evernote. Imagine if it was as easy to search your attic?

Confession #2: I sometime forget what I’ve scanned and overscan.

Although I have a process in place for scanning paper each day, I must confess that I don’t always follow it. Life intervenes, time is short, the kids need me for something, and I get distracted. While I usually get the paper scanned it, I don’t always shred the paper immediately afterward. Sometimes it sits on my desk for days, and later, when I tackle the pile, I can’t remember what I’ve scanned and what I haven’t.

This is laziness on my part. It would be easy to do a quick search in Evernote to find out if I’ve already scanned the thing sitting the pile… but I don’t. For the purpose of speeding things along, I assume that I haven’t scanned it, and scan everything in again. This leads to extra stuff in the inbox, but it also leads to embarrassing searches, where I find, on occasion, that I’ve scanned the same document three times.

When I find these extra scans, I’ll delete them, but it’s not like I’m out there hunting for them on a regular basis. I have enough trouble just keeping my inbox below 1,000 notes.

Confession #3: Although I share stuff in Evernote with the family, I tend to be the one to go find things when they are needed

I’ve made sure that my wife has full access to all of our notebooks in Evernote. She has a premium account, and I’ve showed her how to access the notebooks. I’ve created saved searches for her for common things, and showed her how to use them. The idea, of course, is to make the data available to her whenever she needs it.

The reality, as it turns out, is that the need is never so critical that she can’t wait for me to find the document or note for her. Typically, the conversation goes something like this:

“Hey, did you scan the t-ball schedule?”

“Of course,” I say, “it’s available in Evernote.”

“Can you print it out for me?”

At which point, a little part of me shudders.

“Um, can I email to you?”


So I go into Evernote, find the note in question, and use Evernote’s share functions to send the note to Kelly via email.

Ten minutes later, this happens:

“Hey, Jamie?”


“Is my laptop set up to print?”

“Yeah, you just have to pick the HP printer from the list.”

“Okay, thanks.”

A few moments later, I hear the printer spit something out.

“What was it you needed to print?” I ask.

“The t-ball schedule you emailed me,” Kelly says. After that, I can’t really say what happens. Usually, everything goes gray and I wake some time later on the office floor.

Well, those are my confessions. Most of them, anyway. I’ll save the really embarrassing ones for when I am desperate for a topic to write.

If you have a suggestion for a future Going Paperless post, let me know. Send it to me at feedback [at] As always, this post and all of my Going Paperless posts is also available on Pinterest.

Last week’s post: 6 Steps for Life Continuity Planning in Evernote.

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Red Sky This Morning

I didn’t post here all weekend, and indeed, barely posted to Twitter, Facebook, or other social media. On Saturday, the heat just drained me, and I tried doing as little as possible. Yesterday, the weather was much nicer, but there was lots of small stuff going on.

I awoke this morning to a red sky out of my home office windows.

Red Sky

It it is a sign of cooler weather, I’m all for it. Saturday was blisteringly hot, and Sunday, finally cooled off. In fact yesterday evening was delightful, and we spent it barbecuing with friends.

I’m approaching the halfway mark on the final volume of William Manchester’s The Last Lion, and the truth is, I’m neglecting other things (like the blog) in order to squeeze in more time to read. Once the book is over, I expect things to return to normal around here.

I’m making some progress on the new story, although I restarted it yesterday because I realized that I’d been telling it from the wrong point of view. That said, I think it will go much more smoothly now. And I have a small backlog of nonfiction articles to work on. I’m nothing if not busy.

And as of yesterday, I’ve written every day for the last 413 days.

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6 Tips and Tricks for How I Stay at Inbox Zero

Recently, I’ve gotten pretty good about keeping my inbox down to zero. I found that, for me, it takes a pinch of discipline and a couple of good tools. I figured I’d share my tips in case anyone else found them handy.

2 minute rule with Boomerang/Mailbox

For almost 2 years now, I’ve used the Boomerang plugin for Gmail and that plugin has been a game-changer. Boomerang does 3 things that I find really useful:

  • It allows you to “boomerang” a message until later. That it, it moves the message out of your inbox and returns it there at a designated time, tomorrow morning, two days from now, on the weekend, next week, or whenever you specific.
  • It allows you to send a message, and then boomerangs your message back into your inbox if you haven’t gotten a response after a certain time interval. So I don’t have remember to follow up with someone.
  • It allows me to schedule email messages.

I use Boomerang in conjunction with the “2-minute” rule. When an email comes in, if I can answer it in less than 2 minutes, I do it right away. If it will take longer, I’ll boomerang the message to a later time, either later in the evening, the next day, or the weekend, depending on the urgency.

To aid in this, Boomerang has an intelligent feature that looks for dates in the message. So if the message says, “RSVP by 10/15/2014″ Boomerang will automatically suggest that (or a week before that date) to return the message to my inbox, which saves me a step.

When I’m working on my iPhone, I manage my email using an app called Mailbox, which has much of the same functionality as Boomerang, but is conveniently available on the phone, so I can manage my inbox the same way there.

Gmail canned responses

I’ve been able to reply to a lot more message in under 2 minutes by taking advantage of Gmail’s “Canned Response” feature. This feature allows you to write canned responses that you can quickly insert into email messages. I’d say that about 10% of the email I send are canned responses. By far the two most common are inquiries for people wanting to do guest posts on my blog, or advertise on my blog.

For these, all I have to do is select the appropriate canned response template in Gmail and click send.

Canned Responses

TextExpander expansions

I am a big fan of TextExpander and I use it all over the place. (On Windows, I use a similar tool called Phrase Express.) TextExpander allows you to create shortcuts to text snippets and other things. This can be formatted text, and can include some cool functionality like inserting dates, and other things.

For email, I tend to you TextExpander to speed up replies, and to prevent myself from having to lookup information. For instance, if I am referring someone to a common link on my website (say, my Going Paperless posts), rather than having to remember the link and type it in (and worry about making a typo) all I do is type


which automatically turns into

I can never remember my home phone number, so if I’m sending that via email I have a shortcut for that. I have shortcuts for all kinds of common information like my address, or website, or bibliography page. I usually create a shortcut that links to the most recent article I’ve published.

All of these speed up the process of replying to email, and help make it possible to respond in under 2 minutes.

Turn off social media notifications

One thing I did that helped a lot was to turn off all social media email notifications. Rather than have that information pushed to me via email, I pull it when I need it by checking Twitter or Facebook periodically. This eliminated a ton of email from my inbox, and for each message, eliminated the step of having to delete the email.

Filter receipts and confirmations

I make heavy use to Gmail’s filtering to deal with a lot of email. Regular bill notification and automatic payment notifications are automatically filtered without ever going into my inbox.

Receipts and confirmation emails are also filtered without ever seeing my inbox. For these, I go one step further and have them sent to my Evernote email account so that I have the receipt and confirmations in Evernote. This is automated, so not only do these messages not clutter my email inbox, but they also get into Evernote automatically.


I’ve become a big unsubscriber lately, and while it took a while for me to see the overall result, I can see now that it prevents a lot of email that would go unread or get deleted from ever coming into my inbox.

Do you tips for how you stay at inbox zero? Leave them in the comments.