I’m not one of those people who waltzes out of bed looking sharp and organized. It’s an effort, and I have to build a set of systems to keep myself organized. Each year, I try to pick a few painful areas to try to improve a workflow, and sometimes things that just make your life easier fall into your lap.
Here’s a few I found in 2013 – a mix of People, Process & Technology!
Did you ever have that pile of 100 small receipts that you never managed to expense? Yeah, me too. Expensify collects, collates and categorizes your business expenses. You can take photos of receipts (you pay $0.10 per scan and it adds this to your expense report), and it will reconcile it with your credit card statement automatically.
Then, you print an expense report and send it in. I still then have to manually enter my expenses into SAP (hint to SAP, buy Expensify and give the integration away for free), but I can throw receipts in the bin once they are scanned. Even better, it automatically generates IRS-friendly receipts for payments of less than $25 so you don’t have to track small payments at all.
I did get tripped up once I hadn’t done my expenses in a while and Expensify hides expenses older than 30 days by default. This meant I forgot to expense a bunch of things and got in a muddle.
If you travel frequently, you’ll be familiar with the pain of collating travel plans. A single trip can have planes, trains, taxis, hotels and car rentals; this can get extremely frustrating to monitor. TripIt makes things easy – you just email your plans to [email protected] and it builds a trip for you, so you can lookup reservation numbers and keep track.
TripIt has a bunch of other nice functionality: it will keep you informed if the type of seat that you would like becomes available, it will inform you of flight delays, and ensure you get refunds available to you if you don’t fly.
I’d love to see TripIt add trip expense management that integrates with Expensify – this would be the cherry on the cake for me.
Amtrak Guest Rewards
In a world where airlines are either charging ($450 for access to US Airways?!) for access to clubs, Amtrak is not the place you would expect to lead in customer service!
Amtrak Guest Rewards is possibly the best rewards program. You collect points immediately at 2 for each dollar spent, or 500 for an Acela roundtrip, and 5000 points gets you a free one-way ticket. They often do special offers, double points, or right now they’re doing buy 3 get one free.
Then once you’ve racked up enough points in a year (10k gets you Select Plus, which is where you want to be), they start to treat you really well. You get free access to their Lounges (plus United Lounges) and they send free stuff in the mail like companion vouchers or upgrades.
And one of the nicest things is the lounges are often connected to the railway track by lift, so you can sit in the warm lounge sipping coffee, and then take a lift to the freezing track as the train rolls into the station.
Whilst we’re on the subject of web tools, I found Mint.com to be pretty cool. You connect it to your bank accounts and credit cards and it provides consolidated analytics on spend. You can create rules so it categorizes your spend.
It’s neat for looking for exceptions like making sure you got refunds, plus seeing where you are spending. Some people may not like the privacy implications, but I like it a lot. You may be surprised by where your money goes!
If you’re going to use things like Mint.com (or in fact any other online banking service) then you should consider Lastpass. It generates up to 100 character passwords which are individual for each website you use. I wrote about it here, because I like it so much.
I’ve also just added a Yubikey, which ensures that the websites that I only want to access from my laptop can only be accessed from my laptop. In this day of internet fraud, you can’t be too careful, especially when careful doesn’t cost you any inconvenience.
I have been a huge fan of Amazon Prime. It looks like Amazon have put the price up to $80 per year, have started to use USPS (which isn’t the best courier), and many Prime products are now expensive – so I’m not sure if I’ll be renewing, but it was great in 2013.
Knowing that you can get anything in 2 days, for free: you could reliably order goods on December 22nd and get them on December 24th – is awesome, when you live in the US. I used Amazon for pretty much everything I ordered online in 2013 as a result.
The free lending library and videos sounded good at the time, but I’ve rarely used them, despite there being a pretty good video app.
Sandisk Extreme Flash Drive
This is the first flash drive I have really loved – in the past, you had to choose between performance and price. For $45, you can get the 32GB Sandisk Extreme, which can write files as fast as your laptop can read them. In my job I often copy huge files to pass around the room, and this is a time saver.
Previously, you would have to pay $2-300 for a flash drive this fast, which is crazy money, but at $45, it is very affordable. Well done, Sandisk!
Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor
Anyone that knows me know that I’m a fitness nut and a Big Data geek. I’ve had a few HRMs in the past, and I’ve hated them. In particular, the Garmin Forerunner 400 Series watch, which I bought to incentivize me to run the London Marathon, was a giant paste of money.
Usability is key to actually using technology, and Polar got this spot on with the Polar H7 Heart Rate Monitor. It connects to my iPhone with and comes with the Polar Beat app, which uses the iPhone’s GPS to plot your location when you’re running. It’s easy to use and it just works and it’s a fraction of the price of a watch.
I also added the Polar Smart Stride sensor, which is handy when you’re running on a treadmill because it calculates how fast you are running but isn’t really worth the money unless you only run on a treadmill.
You know, I’ve had a lot of earphones over the years. Noise Cancelling, in the ear, over the ear, through the ear (maybe not). In the end, the new Apple EarPods are my favorite. They’re inexpensive (which is handy when you break them often like I do), the microphone quality is great, and the sound quality is good. Plus they actually stay in my ears.
I wish they would last a little longer, but this is a me problem, not an Apple problem.
I’m going to add WordPress to this list – in a world of horrible platforms like Jive Software, WordPress is a wonderful breath of fresh air. I use a self-hosted blog from Bluehost, who I thoroughly recommend, and I can setup a new domain at low cost in a few minutes, configure it with WordPress, and get started.
It’s easy to add themes, make it look good, and extensions like spam protection are really easy. Blogging and content management is a breeze and I always love writing a blog on this site.
Each one of these things actually made my life a little easier in 2013. In a world where we have to do more with a fixed amount of time, anything that makes life easier brings a real smile to my face. Anything which is free, or low cost (and all of the things on the list are inexpensive) is even better.
So thank you to all the companies above that made awesome products, and have a great 2014!
What are your favorites? What should I look at for 2014?