Tech Support: Five Programs That Helped Me Git 'Er Done

My sister-in-law is writing her dissertation and Facebooked the other day, "Do you suppose I could thank 'lattes' in the acknowledgements?" I told her that I almost listed Evernote in the acknowledgements of my book, but decided against it. In lieu of that, here are the software programs and technological marvels that helped me get the book written. Consider this the "tech acknowledgements" for Sabbath in the Suburbs:


The pomodoro technique: OK, this is more of a concept than a program, although it does require a timer. The idea is simple: work for a specific amount of time (e.g. 25 minutes), then take a break for a (shorter) period of time (e.g. 5 minutes). That's it. If you're prone to goofing off or procrastination, it's great because a break is never more than 25 minutes away. If you're a raging perfectionist who has a hard time getting started because it can all be immaculate in your head, pomodoro helps you hack your brain: I'm not writing a book, I'm just working for 25 minutes. No big deal.

Of course you can download the book to learn more, or buy the cute tomato-shaped timer, but really, what more do you need?

I wrote major sections of the book using a modified pomodoro. Consider it a very practical way of living out Anne Lamott's "bird by bird" idea, which you can read about here. Or E.L. Doctorow's bit about how writing a book is like driving at night: you can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way.

Wondering how you could write an entire book? Do it in 25 minute chunks.


Self Control: Self Control allows you to block websites (and apparently e-mail servers) for whatever amount of time you specify. I use this program every weekend during tech sabbath but also on days when I'm feeling like that dog from Pixar's Up. SQUIRREL!!


Social media: yes, the big two can be major black holes of time, but they are also great places to test ideas, take informal polls, and even get grammatical reality checks (is it "any of us is" or "any of us are"?). Blogging is also great for these things, of course.


Things: Things is the to-do list I use for everything, not just for the book. It's intuitive, it's elegant, and it jibes with Getting Things Done methodology, though you don't need to be a GTD disciple to use it. There's an iPhone app as well, and as of this month, the new version includes Cloud Sync so you no longer have to sync your devices manually. So far, so good.

I used the to-do list to break down the book project into manageable chunks. I do this with every writing project and it helps me maintain forward momentum. Sometimes the tasks are tiny (brainstorm for 15 minutes, print out scripture passages for exegetical article) but those are perfect for an otherwise busy day.


Evernote: Even if I hadn't said it in my first paragraph, c'mon, you knew that was coming. I wrote the book entirely in Evernote. First I collected my information (research, anecdotes, quotable quotes) into a series of notebooks. Then I started writing short vignettes and sketches of scenes. Those evernotes became whole chapters as I realized how effortless it was to write in that program.

Writing in Evernote has many advantages:

  1. It's in the cloud, which offers an additional layer of security and peace of mind.
  2. There's a note history, which means you can look at past versions of notes without saving versions using crazy names like "chapter 3 REALLY NEW version 2."
  3. It's very fast and autosaves constantly, unlike that behemoth Microsoft Word.
  4. It has all the basic formatting you need (italics, etc.).

All that said, there are two pretty big drawbacks:

  1. Evernote for Mac does NOT have word count, which I've bugged them about repeatedly. So every so often I'd dump a chapter into Word and see how I was doing. It's not a big deal, and my publisher required the manuscript in Word anyway, but I wanted to mention it. (I understand that Evernote for PC has this feature. Where is the justice? How long, O Lord?)
  2. While there is basic formatting, it does not do smart quotes. Yeah, that's big. But once I put the doc in Word, I did a global replace and the quotes came through fine. Besides, once you've gotten the thing written you should be editing your work with a fine-tooth comb anyway, right? Dumb quotes help keep you on your toes.


So thank you to all the product managers, programmers, engineers, QA people, etc. who put these programs together. You made my job easier.

Incidentally, just today I saw this list of alternatives to Microsoft Word. Can't vouch for them but I'll be taking a look.

What technological marvels help you do what you do?