My own life has been impacted too many times by suicide. It’s an awful, ugly, scary thing to have to deal with. It inevitably brings about what my dad would call “what-ifs”. You replay recent conversations. You look for clues in correspondence. You think back to what the person was wearing or their body language the last time you saw them. You think about what you could have done to save them. It doesn’t matter though because they are gone and there’s nothing you can do, say or think that can bring them back. Unless you have been on the brink and come out on the other side, I think it’s perhaps impossible to understand what drives someone to make such a permanent decision to exit this world as opposed to staying and fighting. Sometimes the pain is too much. Sometimes the other options seem absolutely impossible. Occasionally there are truly no other options such as when terminal illness strikes.

When I was fourteen years old my dad gathered me, my brother and sister together and sat us down on the living room sofa. He was pale, out of breath and it was so clear that something was terribly wrong. That’s the way I remember it. He proceeded to tell us that Adam had killed himself. In a panic, some member of Adam’s family called my dad. We didn’t live far away. My dad sprinted to their house. Adam had hung himself and was already dead by the time my dad arrived.

I don’t remember how the actual conversation went, but I know it hit us all really hard. It was the first time any of us knew someone that took their own life. And to make matters worse, we teased Adam so we all felt partially to blame. We were kids and kids tease other kids. There was nothing out of the ordinary about how much we teased Adam, but it was an intense and difficult lesson to learn. Be kind to one another. Be sensitive to other people’s pain and suffering.

When I was a little older one of my cousins who wasn’t much older than me took his own life. When I was in my 20s, one of my childhood best friends hung himself in a park. Just over 4 years ago another of my childhood best friends killed himself. There have been others that I wasn’t as close to or weren’t close personal friends, but they’ve had a tremendous impact on me. I hate that I am so familiar with suicide.

Aaron Swartz took his own life yesterday, which you may have seen in the news today. I didn’t know Aaron personally, but I enjoyed his writing, followed him online and supported his quest for freedom and intense desire to make the world a better place through technology, disruption and open access to information. Aaron’s death makes me particularly sad because, well, that’s just how you feel when the world loses someone like Aaron. 26 is far too young for someone to die, particularly by their own hand. He was undoubtedly a change agent in the world. He was prodigious, strong-headed, laser-focused and exceptionally passionate about the causes for which he fought. He inspired me to be more active and outspoken, particularly when it comes to digital freedoms. 

The sadness is somewhat outweighed by the anger I feel about Aaron’s death. The fact that MIT and the United States Department of Justice had a hand in Aaron’s death is very troubling. After reading his family and partner’s statement there is no doubt in my mind that the combination of DOJ’s bullying and his battle with depression had quite a bit to do with Aaron feeling like suicide was his only real escape. They were scared of Aaron and were going to make sure he was put away for the rest of his life. And for what? For downloading too many journals. Demand Progress’ David Segar likened it to “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.” It’s no wonder that the United States, and frankly the entire world, sees a rising tide of people-powered, radical movements like Occupy and Anonymous. As people gain a better understanding of the lengths that governments will go to remain in power, the more they will pull away from the mainstream.

My heart goes out to Aaron’s family and partner. I hope they take comfort in the outpouring of support from the Internet community and from everyone who was inspired by him. We will ensure that his passing is not his legacy. I feel grateful for having been moved by Aaron.

I don’t know many people that haven’t dealt with depression in some form or another. If you are feeling low, perhaps so low that you think you might take your own life, please talk to someone. If not a friend, then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and get help. If you know someone who you suspect is suicidal, get them help and don’t leave them alone for any period of time.

Take the time to read a few things that have been written about Aaron:

Lawrence Lessig’s words

Cory Doctrow’s words

Jeff Jarvis’ words

Glenn Greenwald’s words

Declan McCullagh’s words

Tonight the Internet goes dark for Aaron.

Topspin Tumblr: Topspin + Beats: Creating artist opportunities inside new music service project “Daisy”

Topspin Tumblr: Topspin + Beats: Creating artist opportunities inside new music service project “Daisy”

How I Get Things Done

I have spent many hours trying to figure out the best tools for getting things done. It all started with Getting Things Done by David Allen for me, as I’m sure is the case for so many people. The book changed my life, eventually, for the better. I’ve always tended to be an eternal optimizer. Even before I had heard the term GTD, I was constantly evaluating how I did things, looking for ways to be more efficient. Figuring out a system that works best takes a lot of time in and of itself, or at least it has for me. The benefits of having spent as much time as I have thinking, tinkering and optmizing is that I really know what works and what doesn’t work for me. While some stuff is going to be different for people, there’s an underlying foundation that’s common for anyone that needs to get things done on a daily basis. I’m not going to go into how one gets things done here. I want to talk about the tools.

When I initially started using Evernote I used it for everything – notes, PDFs, JPGs, etc. I really liked the fact that everything was in one place and the OCR and search capabilities were awesome. Over time, I stopped taking notes Evernote and started using either paper and pen or Text Edit. I just wanted to take notes without worrying about anything else. I didn’t want options of any kind. That’s where iA Writer comes in. I am prone to distraction and iA Writer is meant to be simple and distraction-free, especially in full-screen mode. I even learned basic markdown syntax and now use it when I take notes. I use iA Writer on my Mac and iOS devices, all of which sync quickly and easily via iCloud or Dropbox.

I keep pretty much everything in Evernote. In addition to syncing with Evernote’s server, I also keep all of the scans in Dropbox for redundant backup just in case. The ability to have separate notebooks for various projects or silos of my life, the ability to share notebooks with other people like my wife is awesome. The other person needs to be using Evernote, but since it’s free there’s no reason to not use it. There isn’t anything better and I’ve looked. It’s worth paying for Evernote (the do have a free version) for the PDF search and OCR capabilities alone. Combine it with the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M and you will be in productivity heaven.

You can buy a crappy scanner/copier/fax/printer or you can get a really great scanner and spend around $100 on a decent monochrome laser printer. You just don’t need anything else at this point. There are less expensive scanners out there, but there is nothing better or faster than this scanner. You can scan documents, bills, receipts, photos, ticket stubs or whatever. I could write a love poem about it. I like it that much. I can even connect it to my Airport Extreme and make it available to any computer on my home network.

When Mountain Lion came out, I started using Reminders on my iPhone and Mac. I had been using Omnifocus on my Mac and iPhone for years. It has served me well, but I had this urge to simplify, so I started using Reminders and I haven’t gone back. The location-aware reminders work well and I loved the simplicity. I do miss looking at my tasks with context as well as by project, but for now I’m embracing the constraints.

When it comes to paper, I had been using Moleskine notebooks for many years, but I always wanted something smaller with fewer pages and a little less rigid. By the time I filled up a Moleskine, there was inevitably tape on the spine because the cover would just tear away. Field Notes are small, hold up really well, come in all kinds of colors and you can get a subscription to receive these amazing notebooks on a regular basis. I recommend using the graph paper instead regular lined pages. It comes in handy when you need to draw things and you can fit more text on a page if you write small like I do.

Anyone who knows me knows that I abhor pencils. They’re for people that are afraid to commit. They smudge, break easily and the noise of pencil on paper is just under nails on a chalkboard. Black pens are the only way to write. Period. I don’t change pens often and there are three that I love. Japanese people understand what makes an excellent, extra-fine-tipped pen. My favorite pens are made for the Japanese market and thus these aren’t going to be found at your local office supply store. You’re going to pay a little extra, but these are the best pens known to humankind. There’s the Uni-ball Signo (DX) UM-151 Gel Ink Pen (0.28 mm). My handwriting is small and there is no finer-tipped pen worth using. If you’re not writing on good paper, it can tear the paper because it’s so fine. That is why I find myself using a Uni-ball Signo (DX) UM-151 Gel Ink Pen (0.38 mm) more often. I also really like the Zebra Sarasa Push Clip Gel Ink Pen (0.3 mm)

There are a couple of other tools I use at Topspin that are exclusively work-related tools. I can’t count how many times I’ve tried to implement Basecamp unsuccessfully at a company. Thankfully, at Topspin, it finally stuck after a false start or two. Managing projects across a company is hard, even when you’re in a big open office like we are. Toss in outside companies and it’s even more difficult. People tend to either love or hate 37 Signals products and I most definitely love them. I love that they’re somewhat constrained and function beautifully. I just really enjoy using their software, which is incredibly important if you’re going to be using an application all day, every day. Topspin primarily uses Basecamp between the operations team, which includes customer support, and the creative services team, which is essentially our internal creative agency. Our communication and collaboration wouldn’t be the same without it.

Parker and I converse passionately about task applications for teams and Flow is what we ended up settled on. Actually, Parker settled on it and I kicked and screamed a little bit about. We had been using Basecamp almost exclusively, but the task/to-do functionality wasn’t robust enough for us so we needed to add another layer. I’ve really grown to love Flow and if you work on a team, you should give it it a try. The ability to delegate tasks, have multiple lists and even conversations around a task are all features that have mattered the most. To be clear, Flow is an app I use at Topspin only. It’s overkill for individuals and the only reason I would consider using it for my individual tasks and to-dos is because I already use it for work. For now, I don’t mind using Reminders for my own stuff.

Systems are personal and the tools aren’t as important as you desire to get things done. None of these tools will get anything done for you. You still have to do the work, but these tools can make the work easier.