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The King of Home Offices 2: The Effective (Barefoot) Executive

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While my last post consisted primarily of hardware - the way to physically set up your own, personal home office, entertainment and general comfort area in a small space, it's worth knowing that you should take these paragons of organization and apply them to the wider concept of your files themselves, and then further on - to your life. In a brutally busy city like New York, you need all the time you can get, and that requires one thing - efficiency.

Preparation, Synchronization, Pontification
Before you read further: if your information is of business-critical or life-threatening importance, I'd suggest something like Iron Mountain. While my solutions are good, they are not bullet, fire, or drop-proof.

One of the largest frustrations of the movement between the office, the home and in this case the home-office is that you'll forget something. That document that you worked on 15 hours straight. That one Barry Manilow song that is your official "agenda-writing" music. The video of your boss talking that you need to transcribe.

While I could literally sit here and give you every rationale under the sun, I'll summarize in one word: centralize.

Your notes, for one, should be done via Evernote - which is best conceptualized as a notebook that you can put images, words and documents in that will sync between all of your computers and smartphones. The premium version, at $5 a month (or $45 a year) is essential. I use it every day, multiple times, and I'd wager it saves me 3 hours a week of pointless busywork. Got ideas? Put them in Evernote. Want to write a hate-note to your ex but don't want to send it, but do want to use those excellent ideas for later? Put it in Evernote. Alternatively, there's Snaptic - a snappier client with unlimited storage, but without Evernote's brand power.

For your files, in all their complexity, there are two options. For any kind of user, I'd recommend a $99-a-year Dropbox account. This program runs in the background, giving you a 50GB internet-based folder (cloud-based, as they say) that will happily house your music, documents, and folders. When you edit one, it updates naturally on the server, and any time you load up the file on another computer, it'll receive the most updated version. It also, via the public folder, allows quick and easy (IE: you right click, and you have a link) linking of files to other people. The one drawback comes when you want to use it sparingly - IE: on another computer - as Dropbox syncs everything at once to wherever you are. This can be problematic if attempting to access things from a computer other than your own - but quite good if you have one computer at home and a laptop that you regularly use (and don't mind having all your files on at once).

The more complex solution is to have your own home server. This sounds scarier than it is - and is actually rather amazing once you have it sorted out. You can build your own, of course - which Norman Chan already described in beautiful detail - but there're easier, pre-built ones that are fantastical, automated mecha-geniuses that will casually stream your entire digital life to you wherever you are. While there are many options, I personally swear by the HP MediaSmart EX490, which is barely bigger than a toaster but holds a terabyte of data, and can be expanded with up to three more hard-drives. At $430, you're essentially getting a partially self-automated computer that will happily stream your entire music collection, documents and photos to just about anywhere.

By connecting it to your router - which most ISPs will give you with your package - you can connect the EX490, or any home server using Windows Home Server, to the internet and get at any of your files from a distance. It also performs auto-backups, even integrating with Apple's Time Machine backups, wirelessly.

What does this mean in laymen's terms? Via a website (that, on installation, you choose), you can imminently access anything kept on the device, without having to worry about the power or speed of your current machine. This is advantageous if you have a ton of files - especially music - that would take up a ton of space on a laptop, or would be impossible to keep on a work machine. Power users can use the EX490 to automate torrent and newsgroup downloads - obviously through perfectly legal sources - and directly access the desktop of the machine to have it perform background tasks, like Folding@Home, or encoding videos to watch on their Xbox 360 or PS3 - which, coincidentally, the box also automates the streaming of information to.

These solutions also save money on power (as these boxes pull at most 7 watts of power) and can also save the relative confusion of trying to work on disparate documents across multiple systems. A clever user could even run Dropbox on the home server - dragging a file directly to the Dropbox folder to make sure they're always working on the same version.

The important conclusion of all of this is that, theoretically, you want to be able to do everything you want to do on any computer. If your laptop - which, in this case, I'd recommend the Asus 1015PED, the king of Netbooks, or your phone, or your home computer explodes, you're back in the hotseat in minutes. Where everyone else will freak out and flail like an idiot, you'll look like a pro.

Bringing It All Together
The crux of everything I've written so far is centralizing and organizing yourself. Even the most scatterbrained maroon could look like a pro - but there're some little tweaks you can find here, technologically, that can help you look far more professional. The goal, ultimately, is to expend as little effort as possible to do a great job - and this is all useful. For more on that strategy, I recommend reading Jason Fried's Rework, which is one of the most efficiently written and readable business books ever written. If you really want to get deeper into time-management and effectiveness, you can read Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive, which leads you down a deep rabbit hole of what it means to manage yourself.

Pure efficiency is why I dropped the iPhone. Android's synchronization with both my Google work calendar and personal calendars, and support from LauncherPro's calendar widget, I can see at a glance (without worrying about it just not syncing) what the hell I'm meant to be doing at any time.

Further down the organizational rabbit hole, you'll want to keep your music organized - use iTunes, and then use TuneUp, a seemingly impossible program that corrects your entire music collection (for $29.95) with artwork, correct track names and numbers, and all kinds of metadata that make your collection seem like an adult's.

You'll also want to get a good, solid Google Reader account populated with RSS feeds - most sites and blogs have them (including this blog!) usually involving a little orange box with a dot and two curves. It automates much of your reading by creating one long stream of articles without having to bounce between disparate websites.

For the more pragmatic of you, a site like Fitango can help you (via downloadable 'life plans') break down goals into day-to-day exercises, ranging from actual working out, to quitting smoking, to learning guitar - which, by the way, actually works better than beating yourself up over things and having unrealistically large goals.

The wrap-up of these seemingly disparate hardware, software and physical elements is not that you should have a billion doodads to seem like a cool nerd. In fact, the best thing of all would be for most people not to know about you using of any of this.

The goal is, simply put, to kill all those 5-minute losses dead. While it's easy to point at and eradicate losses of half an hour or more, the most pervasive losses of time are clerical - the movement of files, the searching for that document, there "where am I meant to be?", the flicking between websites, or even just getting settled to do something in the right mood, with the right music, in the right place - all of these sap your time.

Guess what? Technology affords the ability compartmentalize and then eradicate these little bubbles of time. For work, for play, you should know where your time goes. I'd love to write out a diatribe as to why I'm not a robot, but I'm too busy spending all my extra time doing what I want.