Workrave, or why frequent breaks help you go full speed ahead

If you don’t want wrist pain or eye strain to force you off the computer later in life, use a break reminder program to help you remember not to push your limits.

Every three minutes, a little dialog pops up on my laptop and reminds me to stretch and refocus my eyes for ten seconds. Every hour, the same program reminds me to take a two and a half minute break—and even helpfully suggests some exercises I can do. I usually ignore those suggestions in favor of quick chores (a sink of dishes, a stack of clothes) that get me out of my chair and doing something just as productive.

I came across Workrave (workrave.org) while looking for a time-out software for my work laptop. I had tried a break reminder tool on Mac OS X before, and I remembered liking it even though it always managed to catch me mid-keystroke. Workrave was highly recommended and ran on Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, and BSDs (probably including Mac OS X), so I tried it out.

I found that the frequent breaks help me stay focused and active throughout the day. The breaks not only give me a chance to stretch and rest my eyes, but also helped me remember to stay on task by helping me catch myself when I found myself getting distracted. The breaks help me remember to check posture, too. It’s easy to slip into a slouch while working. If you look around an office, I’m sure you’ll see lots of people hunched over their computers. When I don’t take the time to stretch and sit up straight, I find myself tired and sore in the evenings. When I do, I feel more upbeat. Simple decision, eh?

I also use the breaks as an opportunity to remember to drink more water. This is something I tend to forget during particularly intense programming or writing sprints. A few years ago, I collapsed due to dehydration, and I was taken to the emergency room. I had simply forgotten to drink water in addition to what I took in at meals. Since then, I’ve been a lot more careful about water intake. I find that I do better when I have at least a glass and preferably a pitcher of water close at hand. When Workrave reminds me to take a break, I sip some water too. When it’s time to take a longer break, I get some more water and take care of other matters along the way.

It’s strange, but slowing down helps you get further. Break reminding software is Good Stuff, and I strongly recommend that you try out something like Workrave. Time Out for Mac OS X looks pretty good, too. Whatever it is, try it and see if it works for you. Tell me what you think of these breaks, and share your tips!

(Want more ideas for slowing down and working smarter? Grab this book at your library: Cool Down: Getting Further by Going Slower)

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Trying out MindManager 2012 – Almost but not quite the right fit for me

Mindjet MindManager 2012 - Sacha Chua

(Click on the image for  larger version.)

I love the way that mindmaps let me get lots of information down quickly without worrying about organization. It’s easy to organize things after as the structure emerges. I often make mindmaps on paper, but I prefer to do my mindmaps on the computer. Working on the computer lets me reorganize items, expand and collapse branches, and read everything instead of rotating the map so that I can read text written at odd angles. (Besides, my scrawls tend to be hard to read the day after.)

I’ve been a big fan of mindmapping software ever since I came across FreeMind, a fast and free mindmapping tool. XMind became my new favourite when I found out about it. I wanted to give the premium mindmapping programs a try, though, so I gave iMindMap and MindManager a spin.

iMindMap was colourful, but didn’t quite fit the way I wanted to work. It’s definitely skewed towards maps with just one word on the branches, and I tend to write whatever I want to.

MindManager fit me better. I was delighted to find that MindManager had a good pen mode, allowing me to create, edit, and organize my map with my computer in tablet mode (look, Ma, no keyboard!). I could scribble things down, then convert ink to text and have fully-searchable and more legible notes afterwards.

I tried using MindManager in pen mode to capture a panel discussion. This was a bit of a challenge as I was actually on the panel in question, but I wanted to take notes anyway. I probably wouldn’t have tried this with other (non-tablet) mindmapping programs because the keyboard clicking sounds would have been distracting even if I had my screen tilted down (removing a barrier between me and others). The smooth gliding of a pen across a tablet screen is unobtrusive, and not all that different from writing on (somewhat glowy) paper.

As it turned out, the necessity of writing in the input box caused a bit more mental friction than drawing on a blank canvas in Autodesk Sketchbook Pro. (The input box size is configurable, but there are tradeoffs as you have to make your gestures outside the box.) I also ended up redoing the whole summary in Sketchbook because I wanted it to have more personality and a more compact layout. So no time savings for real-time visual notetaking, at least for me, although it was good to be able to reorganize points as needed.

I’ve also been using MindManager for keyboard-based brainstorming. It has a number of nifty features for project management and map navigation, but I haven’t made them part of the way I work.

MindManager’s handwriting recognition and pen controls are high on coolness factor and they’re pleasant to use, but considering that I can get the other features I care about for free with XMind, I’m not particularly keen on the $399 price for MindManager. Might be a good fit for other people, but I’ll hold off getting it for now.

Still, good to know what’s out there!

Related links:

How I set up Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for sketchnoting

UPDATE 2014-02-10: Check out my free/PWYW downloadable resources for Autodesk Sketchbook Pro: the grid I use, the brushes, and a PSD that has the grid and a blank layer.

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Matt just got a tablet, so he wanted to know how I set up Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for my sketchnoting. See the sketchnote below for my layout and brush sizes, and a few other tips. =) I sometimes tweak brush sizes depending on the size of the project, but they’re roughly around that proportion (1.1-1.3, 2.3-2.5, 4.6 or so).

How I Set Up Autodesk Sketchbook Pro for Sketchnoting

The dot grid I use works out to roughly 40 pixels square with dots that are 5 pixels or so in diameter. If I draw small letters at 1 grid unit (~40px) high, this is mostly readable when printed on 8.5”x11” and requires a little scrolling and zooming when viewing on the computer. I usually draw titles at 2-3 grid units high (80 or 120 pixels). Sometimes I use the dot grid just as a guide for keeping letters mostly level, and I pick a size in between.