Cyber Minimalist: How to Work (Almost) Completely Online

A couple of days ago, I did a little post that mentioned how I don’t use my hard drive to store my files, and that all my files are online. Well, that drew so much interest that I’ve decided to provide more detailed information on the topic.

In the past year, I’ve decided to simplify my computing life and my work needs by trying to work, as much as possible, with online apps and online storage.

I was tired of emailing myself files between home and work computers, or uploading files to web storage and syncing them between computers, or loading them onto flash drives. I’d forget where a file was, I’d spend a lot of time transferring files and organizing things, my two computers were never completely in sync, and it was just too complicated for a minimalist like myself.

Enter online apps, and my newfound simplicity.

Now, my computing life is much simpler than ever before. I use online apps as much as possible — admittedly, my needs are much simpler than most people’s needs, but that’s intentionally so, as I’ve learned that most of the stuff I did was not essential. I’ve slowly reduced my needs, so that online apps can take care of the majority of what I do.

When Online Computing Would Work For You
I must stress that this online solution I’ve been using is not for everyone. It may not meet your needs. If not, move on — I’m not saying everybody should follow what I’m doing.

But there might be some who would benefit from online solution. Here are some reasons you’d store your files online and use online apps:

My Online Solution – How I Work
Let me stress, again, that this is my solution. Your needs will be different. You will want to alter your solution to fit your needs. But I offer the following as an example of how you could work online with a minimalist approach to computing:

  1. Word processing and spreadsheets. It wasn’t long ago when I did a little analysis of my work and realized that the majority of it was done with word processors such as MS Word and AbiWord, and spreadsheets such as Excel or Calc. I decided to try using Google Docs for these needs, and though it was a little off-putting at first, I’ve since learned to embrace the minimalism of Google Docs and Spreadsheets. They don’t have half the features of their Microsoft counterparts, but you know what? I don’t need those missing features. Formatting not as pretty? I’ve become all about the info, not the formatting. Printing not as pretty? I rarely print now. And sharing docs with others is so much easier now.
  2. Blogging. Of course, almost every blogger uses an online app for publishing his blog. I use WordPress, and it’s simple to use and powerful enough for my needs. I save a post, add a photo, and those things don’t need to be saved on my hard drive.
  3. Photos. I’ve embraced Google’s Picasa, and uploaded all my photos onto my free Picasa account. Yes, I’m a Google freak, and others have problems trusting a company like Google, but I don’t.
  4. Email. This is one of my most heavily used apps. While in my last job we were required to use Outlook, I’ve since been freed to use Gmail, and I’ll never go back. Boy is it so much nicer. And as I tend to clean out my Gmai every now and then, I doubt if I’ll ever come close to the storage limit. The nice thing is that as soon as I email a file to someone, I can delete it from my hard drive, as it’s now stored in Gmail.
  5. Archive and search. This is one of the most beautiful reasons to use online apps: the simplicity of organization. While I used to have a structure of directories and subdirectories for the files on my hard drive (as nearly everyone does, I think), now I don’t worry about folders or even tagging. I archive, and then search when I need a file. That’s it. It works just as well in Gmail as Google Docs as Picasa as WordPress. No need for filing. It took me awhile to get used to this method, but now I love it. Need to find a document I saved a few months ago? No need to root through folders to find it. Just search. It’s beautiful.
  6. Desktop apps. I do use desktop apps, for some work. For example, AbiWord or DarkRoom for minimal word processing, Photoshop or Gimp for photo editing, AutoHotKey for keyboard shortcuts, some graphics programs, and some specialty apps for my day job. However, I usually use them for a single task, save the file, upload it or email it immediately, and then delete the file from my hard drive.
  7. No hard drive organization. Again, as soon as I save a file my hard drive, I transfer it online (to Google Docs, Gmail, Picasa, WordPress, etc.) and then delete it from the hard drive. This means that I no longer need to organize files on my hard drive. I still have my old files — I’ve been afraid to delete them, although I will probably do so within a couple of months. But no new files are kept on my hard drive.
  8. Firefox. Of course, the desktop app I use the most is my browser. And for my money, that’s Firefox. (Opera, Safari, Camino and other browser fans will disagree, and that’s OK — this isn’t a debate about the best browser.) Since I do almost all of my work online, Firefox is just about always open, and one thing I love is the shortcuts that give me fast computing all day long. I have keyword bookmarks for every app and site I use often, so opening up a site or app is as simple as typing a couple of letters and pressing enter. Same thing for my common searches on Wikipedia, Flickr, Amazon, IMDB, and much more — they all have very fast keywords, so searches are easy. And Firefox’s extensions have helped me tremendously, including Greasemonkey, Google Toolbar, and more.
  9. Offline work. There are times when I shut down Firefox and open a desktop app such as DarkRoom or AbiWord, just so I can work without the temptation of being connected. I find it peaceful to disconnect, and not have to worry about distractions. But when I’m done with that task, such as writing an article, I’ll save it into Google Docs and delete the original.
  10. Calendar and to-dos. I use (surprise) GCal for my online calendar needs, and my to-dos have found a number of good online tools. (I’ve migrated between Backpack, Tracks, Vitalist, and others, depending on my mood. Right now, I’m using my Moleskine pocket notebook.) There are other online apps I use, most notable among them Google Reader.

Update: Frequently Asked Questions
There were a bunch of excellent questions in the comments that I thought I should address in the article itself, as many readers don’t read all the comments, and I didn’t want to have to deal with  the same questions over and over.

  1. What about backups? I don’t actually do backups for the most part. All the companies I use to store my information online backup the information themselves. However, even if there were a problem, I wouldn’t miss any of the information, really, except my blog. And I do backup my blog. However, if you wanted to backup your information, it wouldn’t be hard to do it yourself — you could use your hard drive or web storage in a different location, and just save new or modified files every day or once a week.
  2. What about privacy? This is a real issue for some people, and I won’t deny it. However, I don’t really think Google employees (or whatever company I’m using) have time to read through everyone’s files, and even if they read mine, I don’t have anything secret in my documents. If that’s an issue for you, for whatever reason, online work would be more difficult. You could encrypt files — maybe only those that you really want to protect.
  3. Capture and calendaring when I’m not at my computer. I use my Moleskine pocket notebook. I don’t keep that many appointments — again, it’s the minimalist in me. I might have one per day, and often less. I don’t like to keep a full schedule, and I avoid meetings like the plague. I’ve developed a sort of judo technique to meetings. I do take meetings, but rarely. Anyway, you could use your cell phone or other mobile device to do calendaring on the go if you like.
  4. Being hostage to your Internet Provider. This can also be a very real issue for some people. It hasn’t seemed to be an issue for me. However, things are looking better on this front. With Google Gears, many web apps are soon going to have an off-line mode, so even if you get disconnected, you can continue to do your work. Zoho Office apps just got that capability, I believe.
  5. What’s the objection to using the space on your hard drive? None really, except for what I said near the beginning of the article: I use multiple computers, and I need to access the information from anywhere. Using online apps allows me to do that. Also, having my info online makes organization much easier (see discussion above about archive and search). There’s no need for a central organizational structure anymore, whether you’re using Google or Mac OSX.
  6. But what if not everything I do can be done online? It’s true that many apps are not offered online, and also that most online apps do not have all the features of desktop apps. First, this is why I simplified my needs — I’ve learned that I don’t need all the features of desktop apps. Sure, MS Word has 27 million more features than Google Docs, and so does Excel, but I don’t use them, and for me, they just add to bloat and slowness. For others who need them, the online solution wouldn’t be ideal. Second, I do use desktop apps for certain things, like photo editing, as I mentioned above. But then I upload the file online, delete the copy on my hard drive, and don’t worry about it after that. Again, this might not work for everyone, but it works for me.

Final note: I should have had this in the original article, but here’s the key issue: if working online would be more complicated for you, don’t do it. For me, it has mean a simplification and minimalization of my computing life, and I really enjoy that minimalism. Others have more complicated needs, or have issues with privacy, backups, security or the quality of their connections. Those people shouldn’t use an online solution, as I do, because it would be more complicated for them. And that’s the final test — what is simpler and makes more sense for your situation?