Use Microsoft Office for free on iPad – kinda

It's a trick, but it might be useful if you don't want to pay a subscription just to make one twiddle in a one Word document. As of today – 28 March 2014 – Microsoft Office for iPhone is completely free. Not just free as in you can read a document but must pay to edit or create ones, it's completely free.

But you can run iPhone apps on your iPad. They don't look great. This one doesn't look as good as the proper iPad version of Office released yesterday. But it is Office and it will open Word and Excel documents. Possibly also PowerPoint but, seriously.

You do still have to sign up for a Microsoft account and there are myriad better ways to write and edit documents than on the scaled-up iPhone Office but it works.

Get Microsoft Office for iPhone (it's one app with Word, Excel and the other one together) here.

How to pick the right To Do app for you

Let me do the joke first: if you have a Mac, iPhone or iPad, buy OmniFocus. That’s it, we’re done, thank you for coming, I’m here through Friday, two-drink minimum, see your waitress for details, try the veal.

OmniFocus is so good that I’ve been asked whether the makers pay me to say that. And I really would offer it up as the one-stop, suits-all solution except that you can’t just stop once and it doesn’t suit all. It’s pretty close. Two things held me back from recommending it universally and one is that the Mac version has been hard to use. I’m sure I can’t say anything in detail about the beta release of OmniFocus 2 for Mac but I will certainly tell you that it is really good and much easier to use than it was. I’m saying easier, I’m not saying easy. But OmniFocus 1 was always worth the effort it took to learn it, OmniFocus 2 gets you its powerful features much more readily and clearly.

The other thing that has held me back from universal recommendation, though, hasn’t changed. And it won’t change. OmniFocus only runs on Macs, iPhones and iPads. There’s no Android, Linux or Windows versions and seemingly there never will be. I’m fine with that. Better the company stays great on one platform than it becomes okay on a few.

But it does mean I have difficulty recommending To Do apps. Actually, I won’t blindly recommend specific ones – not even OmniFocus when it comes down to it – because everyone is different and the best I can do is point you to some great and good To Do apps. In my latest The Blank Screen workshop, I discussed specific To Do software and hit a snag. To Do apps for iPhone: legion. To Do apps for Android: myriad. To Do apps for Windows Phones: hello?

Try this yourself. Do a google search on “best to do apps for Windows Phone”. You will get many results and several will be articles that state they include such things as To Do apps – but they don’t. I’ve read many top tens, top twenties, top something else and found not one single To Do app in there.

At the other end of the scale, if you have an iPhone, you’ve already got a good To Do app. It’s called Reminders and it’s very basic but what it does, it does very well. Reminders invented the Location Reminder idea – the way that when I leave a certain client’s office, my iPhone will tell me to send them an invoice – which I think should be mandatory now for all To Do apps.

Mandatory is a hard word. To Do apps are also a great example of when the word specifications is bollocks. I do recommend that you try many different apps but if, in so doing, you decided to write up a spec sheet of what they all did, it wouldn’t help you. Remember the Milk would score high for being on the web as well as Macs and iOS; OmniFocus would score low for being limited to Apple’s gear. Yet Remember the Milk isn’t right for me and OmniFocus is. Though I love the name Remember the Milk.

You can’t quantify experiences like using the right To Do app. But you can try.

Picking the right To Do app for you means testing out a lot. But you can limit how many you have to try or buy with this one simple thing: don’t look at a To Do app for mobile phones and tablets or for desktop Macs and PCs or for using online, if it doesn’t have Start Dates. These may be called something else like Defer Until (that’s what OmniFocus calls them and I don’t like that). But when you enter or edit a task, you must have the ability to prevent yourself seeing it until you need it.

Follow. I’m doing The Blank Screen at the Stratford Literary Festival in May. I do not need and I do not want to see that on my To Do list until it’s time to prepare for it in about mid-April. So I don’t. “Prepare presentation for Stratford” is in my To Do list but it has a Start Date of 15 April and until that day, I won’t see it. I can look for it, I can see it when I review all my tasks, but each day as I look to see what I’ve got to do, Stratford will not be one of them – until it’s supposed to be.

Start Dates are as vital as Due Dates and if you use them, they are gold. But even if you don’t and never will, the fact that an app has them is a good indication that the app is powerful. Maybe you don’t need powerful features, probably you do, but it’s better to have them available, isn’t it?


Pick yourself up and have another go

Productivity is supposed to just be a handy single word to cover all the things we want to do. But it becomes a label and then it becomes an ideal and you can see people for whom the word itself has become a cult. If you spend more time thinking about productivity than actually doing anything, you need help.

Hello. My name is William.

(Hello, William!)

The ease with which we can get caught up in shaving a few seconds off those tedious emails, in making sure our work is everywhere we are so we can get right down to it and finish that vital paragraph on the train, in writing sentences so long that you’ve forgotten the start… um… The ease with which we get caught up like that is one reason I think it feels so bad when we stop. When you fall off the productivity line, it’s rarely because you’ve made a conscious choice to get a life. It is usually that you didn’t keep up the effort. That feels bad enough but then these things snowball and you just see all the jobs you’ve got to do mounting up and mounting up. Perhaps because you have been on top of it all, you can see how big that mountain really is and that makes it even harder to get back going again.

Bollocks to mountains.

Do you know the phrase ‘sunk cost’? It’s the money you’ve already put into something. If you’ve invested £50,000 in something that isn’t working, it’s ferociously hard to forget that £50,000 and move on. Of course it is. It’s bleedin’ £50,000. Yet sometimes you should weep now and move on, sometimes it is a sunk cost. Because we are so wired to feel the loss of that £50,000 that if someone says you just need to do this simple thing – oh, and it only costs £20,000 more – we think about it. So we should: I’m not saying investors should bail out early, though you know how every website gives financial advice like that and then says, by the way, nobody here knows anything so you can’t sue us? Seriously, I know nothing about investing. I’m making an analogy. You knew that but I had to say it. Anyway. This £20,000 more lark: we don’t see the £20,000 because we’re still blinded by the enormity of the £50,000 we’ve lost. There’s a very good chance that we will spend that extra £20,000 because of it.

And then we’re out by £70,000.

Sometimes you must, you must accept that the money and the time and the sweat you put in to something is gone, it is this sunk cost and nothing you do will bring it back, maybe everything you can do will make it worse. Except moving on.

If you’ve fallen off the productivity line, forget everything that’s behind you. Yes, you failed to complete this important thing, yep you should’ve done that other vital thing. But you did fail and you didn’t do what you should.

Let it go because it is already gone.

Bollocks to all of it, there is literally nothing you can do to fix it so move on and put all that energy into doing the next thing instead. Some problems will cause you damage forever but not actually that many and most things you didn’t do today will be forgotten by everyone else by tomorrow, so join them. Forget it. Move on.

If you really are in a bad place and it really does seem like a mountain that is resting on your chest, do take a look at Bad Days in my book The Blank Screen (UK edition, US edition).

But also just take a breath. Look at what’s in front of you right now and see what tiny bit of it you can actually do, right now.

Don’t look down, don’t look up, just chip away in small moves and I promise they add up to mountains. And if that’s too Hallmark Card-like for you, think of it this way: maybe small moves don’t add up very quickly or to very much, but they add up to a hell of a lot more than your sitting there doing nothing but regretting mistakes.

On balance

Here’s a secret. I just checked all my various bank accounts – business, personal, tax, savings, all that stuff – and I needn’t have bothered because it’s Saturday.

My bank’s computer system doesn’t bother to register most changes over the weekend. It does some, but not most. Couldn’t tell you why. Not a clue. I think it’s feeble and I think it’s amateur, most especially when it does register a payment made on Saturday but then afterwards changes its date to the Monday.

But I know it does this and I know it’s pointless checking anything on Saturdays or Sundays and yet I continue to check because that’s what I do. I check all my accounts every day.

You may call this excessive. But it is a direct response to a problem of mine. I write for a living but it is the writing that I want: writing for a living is being able to live while writing. Money isn’t the focus, money isn’t the objective. It’s working out nicely, thank you for asking, but my head is always over here in the writing instead of on the bank accounts and the invoices. And there have been times that has caused me problems.

Now that I talk about writers being productive, I have learnt a recurring truth: all this felgercarb about accounts and pitches and calls and the sheer volume of things writers have to do that is not writing may be a burden but it is also easier than writing. And if you get it done, it is done. Done and gone. It isn’t weighing on your mind and affecting your work.

So I tell people to get this stuff done now and what I’m telling you is how I do that. I check the balances every day. It means I know the moment a client has paid, it means I know the moment I’d paid off my iMac. (When I bought a 27in iMac, Apple was offering interest-free repayments and I knew – I knew – exactly what difference that would make to my balances and my cash flow. It was the right way to buy at that moment and I did it without hesitation, yet I was also glad when the last payment was done.)

All of which means there is a specific and positive reason to stay on top of these things. But because I know it is an issue with me, I also check the balances every day in order to check the balances every day. In order to make sure that I don’t slip back into any problems.

And I’d like to tell you this is a nice round number but actually, today was the 918th day in a row.

Doing anything 918 times is going to take you a while. So over that time, I have learnt various ways of checking extremely quickly and I keep looking for faster ones too. So I can tell you, for instance, that if you’re the UK you shouldn’t with systems that display all your accounts in one dashboard-like screen: every time I’ve tried every one, they’ve proved impossibly slower than doing it all one at a time through my bank’s own website. If you’re the States, it’s completely different: take a long, hard look at I wish that were available here. And I can also tell you that 1Password is a godsend for this: one click on my Mac or one tap on my iOS devices and it has gone to the bank sites, entered a lot of the security details (but not all, I’m not that stupid) and I can be entering those last details, seeing the accounts and getting out again in seconds.

Today was the 918th time in a row that I checked my balances and yesterday was the 211th day working day I’d got up to write at 5am. I am a writer, I do not like constraints and I do not function at my best in 9-5 office hours, yet I apply these daily responsibilities to myself and they work for me.

They work one day at a time. We can all do one day of something. I just advocate doing one day tomorrow too.

Actually, this has just popped into my head. I’m very much a Suzanne Vega fan, I think she is an astonishing writer, but her first album and its first side and its first song begins with a first line that goes: “It’s a one-time thing. It just happens a lot.”

I can’t believe that got into my DNA. But I just check the balances once. I just get up at 5am once. And then it just happens a lot.

Very, very snap review: OmniDiskSweeper for Mac

I tells you, right, I’ve got a 3Tb hard drive in this ‘ere iMac and it got down to just 15Gb free. Without my noticing. How dare it.

If you go below around ten percent free space on your hard drive, you pay for it in a dramatic slowness and that’s what I’ve had lately. This is the fastest machine I’ve ever owned, it is so much faster than my last Mac – a Mac Pro that officially ran for six years but actually I’m still using sometimes – that I could design books using the Adobe CC suite. But suddenly it was a molass at opening a folder.

OmniDiskSweeper saves the day. It’s a tool from the Omni Group and it chunders away across your drive, totting up the figures and tutting a bit, then showing you the lay of the land. You’re spending how much space on movies? Everything’s detailed and shown in such a way that you can quickly zero in on the – in this case – more than a terabyte of files to do with one old job. I am at this very moment copying that lot off to an external drive and intend to luxuriate in an iMac that is restored to life and which has enough room to paddle about in.

OmniDiskSweeper is free. Get it where many fine applications are sold, over at The Omni Group. It interests me, mind, that I would not have heard of or found or considered OmniDiskSweeper if I didn’t happen to be an ardent user of one of the firm’s other products and a pretty ardent user of a second. The Omni Group makes the To Do manager OmniFocus and the outlining software OmniOutliner. I am actually waiting for the chance to give them more money for the next versions of OmniFocus, I like it that much.

Review everything so you don’t have to see it all

Yesterday's post about reviewing one's Evernote notes each day got me a message about how OmniFocus rocks reviews. It does. I even said so. In fact, I said it was because I'd felt the huge benefit of reviews in OmniFocus that I was going to give this similar Evernote one a go. But I didn't say what OmniFocus's review is.

I'm not sure I've even said what OmniFocus is. That's rare. Usually you can't shut me up about this software. It even comes up in my otherwise application- and platform-agnostic book about productivity for creative writers, The Blank Screen (UK edition, US edition)

Songs will be sung of the day I finally shut up about it. OmniFocus is a To Do manager but as I'm sure I've said before, that's like saying War and Peace is a stack of paper with some ink on it.

So, you may guess, I'm a fan. Rather than fan on at you about it now, though, I want to make sure we're clear on what a review is in this context. If you have OmniFocus, great. If you can get it – it only runs on Macs and iOS so Windows and Android users are out of luck – well, that's great too. But if you don't have it, you can still do this part.

Maybe not so well.

Actually, no, there's not a maybe about it. OmniFocus does reviews really well, most especially in the iPad version.

But you can and even more than I would go on at you about OmniFocus, I would go on at you about reviews.

Here's the thing.

Right now I have several hundred tasks in my To Do manager, arranged in probably a couple of dozen different projects. Everything I ever have to do, everything I ever think of gets chucked into OmniFocus. Now, many of them never get done. If it occurs to me, I'll add it to OmniFocus and think about it later. When that time comes, often I've done the thing already. Very often I'll find it occurred to twice so it's in there twice. And fairly often I'll look at it and decide no, I'm not going to do that.

But otherwise, it's all in here and it's all live.


I have a busy day today and OmniFocus is showing me 24 things. Just 24. Actually, hang on… I see I've done four of them this morning. Okay, that's 20 left. But as much as 20 is, it's nowhere near as much as several hundred. I can completely forget all the rest of them, I can pretend they don't even exist and because I do that, I am doing these twenty – wait, just remembered another one I've done, it's now 19 left – I am doing these 19 at a clip.

That's nice for me.

But the reason I can do it all is that OmniFocus is hiding the rest until I need them. And the reason OmniFocus can do that is because I review regularly.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I open up OmniFocus and check every task in every project. If you think ticking one thing off as done is good, imagine how great it was just now ticking off five or doing a review and seeing you've already done thirty tasks. I look at every task and if it isn't done yet, I have a ponder about why. Do I need to do something else before I can get that done? Fine, add another task. I rattle through these remarkably quickly and at the end I still have the hundreds of tasks but I know what they all are.

And most importantly, I know they're being dealt with. Those things I have to wait for Bert to call me back, they'll wait there until he rings me or I chase him. Those things I know I have to do on Tuesday, I'll see the list on Tuesday and not before.

You end up trusting your system, whether it's OmniFocus or anything that works to David Allen's Getting Things Done ideas (UK edition, US edition). And that trust is amazingly liberating. Knowing that you list is only showing you what you need to know now, it means that the list is doable.

And that means you do it.

This is one of the key things that makes a To Do list something I use rather than hide away from. And it's just this simple idea of a review.

Seriously, you don't need OmniFocus to do this. But, seriously, OmniFocus could just be the finest piece of software I've ever used and it is certainly the one thing that has made me productive. You'd think they were paying me.

A quick fix for days you’re below par

A quick fix when your problem is you and how you're feeling. This works especially if you're feeling slow and lethargic, it's good if you're feeling in any way too below par to get any work done.

Go see somebody.

I don't mean a doctor. I mean arrange to get a lunch or a coffee with someone now.

It may well be that what you ought to be doing is staying right where you are and getting this bastard piece of work done, but the odds are good that you would just continue pushing the pieces around without getting anywhere. And the odds are high that whatever you do accomplish will be about as below par as you.

So if the hour or the day is not going to work out, spend that time or a key part of it going to have a coffee with someone.

Because it does three things.

The obvious first one is that coffee will perk you up, you use a percolator to perk you up now.

But there is also the business of who you go to see. There's the issue of whether they can see you, but before you pick up that phone you need to have thought of someone to call and you need to have an idea of what to call them about. Maybe you can just phone them with the idea of getting a coffee; I tend to need something more to offer them, like it's a coffee about doing this or it's a tea about doing that. Whatever it is, you have to pick the person and you have to think of what you'll say and you have to phone them.

And you'll then have to do that with the next person if your first choice can't make it.

Then when you do meet them, though, that's when the third and by far the biggest boost comes. This works with anyone you meet, anyone at all. But it's greater if it's someone you like. Greater still if it's someone you in any way admire. It is beyond measure greater if you also fancy them.

Whoever they are and whatever you think of the way they flick their hair, you will be performing for them.

There is just no possibility that you will present yourself as this half-dead sloth who could barely type a word. You will bounce. You will lie.

And the lying and the performance will pick you up.

Then get back to work as quickly as you can before it all fades.

Stop visiting websites. Make them come to you.

It genuinely astonishes me how many people haven't even heard of RSS. If you have and you're even now looking at this through an RSS newsreader, hello. I've got nothing for you: skip along to the next story from your next favourite website. But if you haven't heard of it before, you have now and I want to evangelise you into trying it yourself.

This is what happens when you try it, this is what I do every day. Sometimes many dozens of times a day. Waiting for the kettle. Standing in a queue. Taking a break from work. I'll just read the news on my iPhone or my iPad or my Mac, whichever is in front of me at that moment. And whatever news has broken since I last looked. There are websites I read every single article on yet rarely go to. There are others whose headlines I read every day and often then go to in order to read the full article.

It definitely means I read more websites than many people, but I don't take any longer doing it.

To do this, you need an RSS newsreader. There are eleventy-billion newsreaders in the world and there are ones for PCs, Macs, iOS and I presume also Linux and Android. Windows, OS X, anything. Everything. There are free ones aplenty but I bought one called Reeder for iPhone/iPad which cost me a whole £2.99. I would be surprised if I haven't read a million words in that app.

But just Google “RSS” and your computer or phone of choice and take your pick.

Then go to a website you like and look for the RSS button. It's that orange one with white stripes like radiating waves and it's often the orange one that says RSS next to it. Click on that and you'll either wallop off automatically to your RSS newsreader with the site just waiting for you to say yes, add this one forever – or you'll get a new webpage. Copy the link, open that in your RSS reader, say yes, add this one forever, and you're done.

RSS isn't the friendliest concept: you understand it but some sites make it hard to find and then offer you options you're not interested in. If you're given a choice of RSS links, one will be called Atom and one will be called RSS. I truly have not one single clue what Atom is: I've never tried it.

And I have tried a lot of sites. Something like 300 at the moment.

Two quick things. You'll notice I've now said RSS umpteen times and not told you what it stands for. I think it's like DVD; you know what it is and you watch a billion DVDs but you may not know that it stands for Digital Versatile Disc (or was going to stand for Digital Video Disc originally). RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. Exciting.

The other thing is just that I can't recommend Reeder without warning you that the Mac version isn't on sale at the moment. Various changes to the world meant it stopped working and the update isn't here yet. It's taking quite a time but I like Reeder so much I'm waiting for it.

That's it, carry on. And see you in my RSS feed. I've got two. Oh, yes. Two. Get me. Actually, yes, get me: my personal Self Distract blog has an RSS feed at and The Blank Screen is on

Now you shouldn’t focus on your goals

Not that we’re winging it here, no. You may have heard that it’s good to focus on how productive/happy/fit/slim/sexy you will be after you do whatever masochistic work you’re putting yourself through. But the site 99U says nah.

By all means visualize your goals to help get yourself started in the first place, but once you’re underway, try to let your long-term mission fade a little into the background. Revel in the process and you’re more likely to make it to the finishing line.

I don’t really have a problem with that: the journey is the reward (as Lifehacker, which pointed me at this article, mentioned too) and that’s fine. That’s drama, really. Plus the rest of that 99U piece has some rather interesting points about how subtly people can be affected by the smallest things.

Pattern Weeks part 3: ready for you to see

Well, there are limits. I want you to see an illustrated plan of my typical or pattern week because I want you to see if it’d be any use to you too. Plus, I hope that showing it you here means I’ll stick to it and find out whether it’s really any use to me.

Previously on Pattern Weeks… really the only thing to check out if you want to know more about this is the first post I wrote back on 31 December. Now read on.

Or rather, look on. Here’s the final thing: a pattern for my week that I’ve made my desktop wallpaper on my iMac and, here, my MacBook. The MacBook and its screen are artistically blurred; the tea mug in the foreground is mistakenly blurred.


And below it is the actual pattern, albeit without any incriminating text.


I won’t get any points for artistry. And without the incriminating text, I think there is only a little you can take away from the idea. But it’s a good little. And it’s this: I have put these many tentpoles into the week where at certain times I will do these certain things. That means on the one hand that I’m trying to guarantee that these get done but also on the other that there’s all that whitespace. That’s when the real work of the week will be done. If I planned it out too much, I’d be so often breaking the plan that I’d come to ignore it.

I think what I’m trying to create here is analogous to an ordinary office job’s schedule. Whatever you do, you have certain times in which to do it and there are points when you have to attend meetings or deliver reports. And as I say in The Blank Screen (US edition, UK edition) I believe that when you have a commitment like those, it takes away a lot of the churning stress. It adds other issues, but for that hour or whatever, you know you are doing what you have to do and you therefore don’t spend a lot of energy questioning it. You just get on with the gig.

The one other thing to say is that I’ve got to underline the word pattern. This is what my week should look like, it is the pattern for the future. And I know it won’t be like this. For one thing, I’ve planned out here 05:00-15:00 which I’m finding is a good amount of time to work both in when I’m at my best and in how much I can get done. But this coming Thursday, for instance, I’m definitely working until 21:00 so I might start either that day or Friday a bit later than usual.

But we’re halfway through January already and while I’m getting a lot done, I need to do more and the visual reminder right here on my screen, constantly, permanently, I am hoping that it will help. That it will keep me on track through the week and that it will also appeal to the visual side of me as I go.

We’ll see. But this is something new and just sometimes I suspect I need a new toy to help me work.