Google Conundrum

Posted on January 20, 2010. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

Computers and technology seem inherently disappointing. Isn’t it amazing all of the things we can do today that nobody even imagined 10 years ago… Facebook, Twitter, phone apps, mobility, cloud computing, blogging, etc.

The problem is, when I find an application that does something I want — like Outlook does a nice job organizing a calendar and has a super powerful task function — there are trade-offs, Outlook is confined to a single PC. As computer hardware becomes more ubiquitous, being confined to a single work station, even if it is a laptop or a smart phone, seems silly and limiting.

From Outlook to Google

So, I moved on to Google. The Gmail email interface is more flexible than Outlook and replacing folders with tags was ingenious… and liberating. With tags and Google’s famous search capabilities, filing and retrieving messages is no longer a chore. Plus, I no longer I have to limit myself to a single piece of hardware. I can access messages anywhere I have an internet connection. Plus, the calendar function has evolved to be even better than Outlook (it didn’t start there!) Google is working on an improved “task” functionality, but it too is painfully so slow in coming.

Next Comes Mobility

Once freed from a single work station, my mind begins to worry about accessing information when I’m not connected to a network. Sure, I could pay my Verizon cancellation fee, spend an exorbitant sum on an iPhone and throw the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on PC-compatibility out the window so I could switch to Apple’s dark side, which also brings other complications. Too bad money doesn’t grow on trees. Plus, AT&T cellular coverage sucks in the small community where I live. And, all cellular coverage has holes. So, expecting to always have a network connection is such 2025 thinking.

Enter an iPod Touch. The benefits are great — in addition to getting a portable, flexible organizer that works even when the network is unavailable or inconvenient to use, iTunes allows synchronization with Outlook; Outlook will sync with Google and the whole system “hangs together.” The Touch does not require an expensive phone plan and it can sync with this time management universe through a small USB cable.

Onto Convenience

With computer memory so cheap and so many useful applications available, 64-bit technology is the next logical step. With old style 32-bit processors, computers are limited to 4GB of memory. That worked when there wasn’t much to run on your PC, but things have changed. The 64-bit processor allows virtually unlimited memory but also requires more modern operating systems and sophisticated software programs. Windows 7 promises many improvements over Windows XP (I never did make the step into Vista) and I dutifully updated all of my equipment to run Microsoft’s latest and greatest operating system this month.

Now the Google Conundrum

Even though 64-bit technology has been around for years, Google hasn’t discovered it yet. While their Calendar Sync application does a wonderful job of keeping my iPod synchronized with Google calendar via Outlook and iTunes, it doesn’t work in a 64-bit environment. Windows 7 offers this cool gimmick called “compatibility mode” which allows a user to run applications as if they were in a previous operating environment. I say “gimmick” because it doesn’t work. Much like the play ground toys at my local grade school, there are lots of knobs to tweak and levers to pull, but nothing happens outside of your imagination.

And, I’m on my own. Nobody seems to have this same problem and Google has no plans to support 64-bit operating systems. Microsoft has no incentive to put its client-based application online in a meaningful way for an individual user. Apple is stuck in their arrogance of wanting to control all elements of their tiny virtual ecosystem. All those mobile app builders are busying themselves with more important functionality for the masses like Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars or iMario Lite.

Once again, my fantasies drift back to simpler days of paper-based Franklin Day Planners…

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11 Rules of Social Media

Posted on December 11, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , |

One of my brothers lives on the other side of the county, in Vermont. I recently coaxed my brother onto Facebook (FB) so it would be easier for us to keep with each other’s lives. When I signed him up, I also suggested people he might know — mostly family. Within a day, he sent an email with a question about FB etiquette. My response is below and makes a pretty good guide if I say so myself… and I do! By the way, this came to an even 10 rules by coincidence, not because I was looking for a round number.

Your Facebook Goals

After signing up at a social media site, you will soon receive friend requests from old school buddies, former work mates, etc. FB has some tools to enable building your network and people will start finding you. It is a good idea to have a general idea of why you are in FB. That is, what are your goals?

  1. Start small and slowly. Social media has a tendency to snow ball. Slow at first and then it picks up speed. The tendency is to build big at first because it seems nothing is happening… then all of a sudden an avalanche comes rolling down the hill as the exponential growth curve kicks in.
  2. Separate work and pleasure. If you get into using social networking as a tool for work, keep that account separate from the one you use for sharing family photos and stories about your children’s health. I have a LinkedIn account I use purely for work and job search activities. I use FB for personal and fun stuff. A Rule of Thumb… once you put it on the web, it will always be there and anyone can find it. We’ve all heard the stories of drunken and nude photos…
  3. Be suspicious of everyone you add. You’ll also get spammers trying to use your address book to spread their evil. Your only line of defense is to “not add” them to your friends list. Especially with Twitter and to a lesser degree with FB, I get solicitations of a questionable nature. (My “status” is single. Not only does that mean I automatically get ads targeted for dating, I also get spammers who want to sell sex.
  4. It’s okay to ask, “How do I know you.” I didn’t know the request from Tuna was really a highschool buddy named Bill until I asked him how I knew him. If he’s legitimate, he’ll understand and respond back with his identity. If not, generally they don’t respond and you can “ignore” the request.
  5. Personal and professional protocols are different. If I get a “request to add” on LinkedIn I am very likely to accept even if I don’t know the person extremely well — it’s the modern version of exchanging business cards. On FB, it’s different… if I don’t know them I “ignore” them. For example, I would treat a friend request from an ex-wife differently in FB than in LinkedIn.
  6. Learn about the privacy features early. This past week FB enhanced security on their network. So you can decide which parts of your profile are visible. I keep most things protected except to my network. I have some information available to “friends of friends” and nothing available to anyone other than the mandatory profile photo and name.
  7. Put a photo on your profile. I get annoyed when a friend has no photo on their profile. Digital photos are so easy to come by these days and they say a lot about someone. What goes through my mind when I see a profile without a photo is, “Are they lazy or embarrassed about how they look?”
  8. Don’t let things get stale. Nobody likes when your retain an old profile picture, or fail to update your status periodically or share news and photos. This is another reason to start slow. After a while if you are enjoying the activity and want to put more energy into it, expand. Otherwise, resist the urge to sign up for everything that comes your way.
  9. Avoid FB applications like the plague! Apps are things like Farmville, Mafia Wars, and various holiday specials. They want access to your address book and they are very difficult to remove once you add them to your profile.
  10. Start simple and explore. There are many, many features to FB and it can be overwhelming. Start by updating your status periodically and responding to friend’s status updates. Eventually, you’ll post pictures or links, you might start sending person-to-person or wall-to-wall messages, using IM, etc. If you add features slowly, you’ll be a power user in no time and will be amazed at how easy it all is.
  11. Budget your time. Social media can be a time sponge and you can spend hours each day. Set limits and watch the clock. The cool thing about FB is you can drift in when you have time and drift out when things are busy. There is little expectation that you will “always be on.”
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Time Mapping Through Transition

Posted on July 4, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

Since reading (okay, listening on audio-book) Julie Morgenstern’s Organizing From the Inside Out, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of time as an arithmetic equation. That is, there are 24 hours in a day and try as we might, we cannot put 25 hours of activities into it. We can steal from other activities, but ultimately, if you want to do 25 hours worth of stuff (technical term) in a 24-hour period, it doesn’t add up. This is an important first concept.

Next, consider life maintenance activities, I call them LMAs for short. Within the course of any day or week, there are things we have to do to support our existence — things like sleeping, eating, hygiene, housework, paying bills, maintenance work, etc. These are things for which we can get great joy if we have the right attitude. I’m familiar with the zen-like state that comes while so focused on a mundane chore like cleaning the oven that I lose track of time and location. Even if you can’t seem to use the activity as a trance producing state of ease, the LMA must still be done.

Finally, over the past few years I’ve developed a belief that work and job are two different things. A job is something I do for money to support my lifestyle while work is something that feeds my soul, it can be either job or non-job related. For instance, when I’m doing “men’s work” or “volunteer work” I’m not getting paid, but these things feed my soul. Even when I am on-the-job though, I may still do things that feed my soul. Helping a colleague solve a problem or create a plan for example. But there are some job-related activities that do not provide intrinsic reward, I treat these activities like paying taxes — I gotta do ’em even if I don’t wanna do ’em. (more…)

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The Weekly Review

Posted on May 4, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

I initially thought this article would be about clearing-the-decks. A term I learned from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done. Clearing-the-decks is something that helps us get back on track when we’ve fallen off the GTD bandwagon. But circumstances in my personal life have conspired to remind me of the importance of not allowing things to get this far! Seems only fair to write first about how to do things and then, later, I’ll write about how to pick yourself up after life gets the better of your attempts to remain organized.

This article is a companion to the previous Levels of Perspective article. It is my intention to focus on what I’ve done and am doing now rather than on the GTD theory behind it. Weekly reviews are extremely pragmatic activity – essentially, this is where the rubber meets the road. In my four distinct iterations of applying GTD, I have discovered that effective use of the Weekly Review directly determines my success and sanity. I cannot over-emphasize this activity!

Review Happens Every Week!

Figure 1 is a screen shot of the appointment in my Outlook calendar for a Weekly Review on 11 MAY 2009. I’ve scheduled a recurring Weekly Review appointment for every Monday morning from 0800 to 1000 hours. The time of day tends to move around periodically. As mentioned earlier I’m in my fourth iteration of using GTD since first being introduced in 2004 — I had two different jobs at one employer then was notified of a workforce reduction and began looking full-time for another job (Thanksgiving 2008); finally I’m back to work (as of 27 APR 2009). Each of these change of circumstances has dictated a different application of the weekly review. What you’re looking at now has evolved even more than the four job changes. In fact, it will likely change again when I begin teaching at the university. That’s the nice thing about GTD, it’s incredibly flexible.

Weekly Review

Figure 1. Weekly Review Appointment

Cleanup

There are three distinct steps to the Weekly Review — cleanup, review, preparation. Cleanup is kind of like clearing-the-decks. The idea is to gather everything together, start at the top of each in-box (I have an in-box on my PCs desktop and an in-box tray on my desk) and triage each item one-at-a-time. By triage I mean, to pick up a single item and spend up to 2-minutes reviewing what to do. If the item can be deleted, filed or completed in 2-minutes or less, I’ll do it on the spot. If it looks like it will take longer, I disposition it in my system. (See Mastering Workflow for a more detailed discussion of this process.)

Note the final two bullets of the first step refer to gathering tasks from my calendar and notes. I use Microsoft OneNote because it has a powerful search engine built in to identify action items for the past week. However, in the next month I will go from having a single PC where all of my data resides in one place to having my information scattered across four locations — home, two different employers and a laptop. To make this task easier and to ensure I capture things as they are happening, I’ve “moved into the cloud.” (The cloud is a reference to cloud computing where a desktop, laptop or palm top device allows access to data stored on the Internet.) I am experimenting with a private blog to capture a daily summary of work, an on-line Google Calendar for synchronizing several calendars into a single place and a pair of Google Docs spreadsheets for consolidating and archiving projects/tasks. This system is a bit cumbersome presently but it allows all of the same functionality without having to remember where I stored a file!

Review

Now that I’ve got everything that happened over the past week in one place, I’m ready to pull out some lists of things I’ve been tracking  — and consolidate them into an updated project/tasks list. I tend to be a pack rat when it comes to getting things done. Although I keep only active and future items on this list, I don’t want to forget anything either. Imagine having to prepare a report of what you did six months ago without notes! But I don’t want to keep all of this stuff in my head either. That’s where the archive spreadsheet comes in… in MS Excel, I was able to use one spreadsheet with two tabs, but Google Docs is not that sophisticated yet. Still, because I have have two browser tabs open next to each other, this seems to be working OK for now. See Figure 2.

Note the key in the top two rows of the spreadsheet. I’m a nut about keeping things consistent without having to memorize. The first row refers to the Levels of Perspective. The second line reminds me how I’ve kept track of my notes, there are examples of each within the figure. Also, note on the far left of the diagram where the row numbers have skipped from 4 to 14 to 29 and so on, the spreadsheet allows me to collapse rows so I can have a more compact view of the projects. Those hidden rows are simply tasks that support the projects listed in Column A. By the way, the Weekly Review and this spreadsheet are an excellent place to conduct Natural Planning.

Project-Task List

Figure 2. Project-Task List

 

Preparation

Now that I have gathered everything together from the past week and reviewed it so I know what needs to happen in the coming weeks or months, I’m ready to set my intentions for next week. Referring back to Figure 1, the third section shows I have 7 tasks. From Figure 2, you can see I have already completed 3 tasks (as indicated by the cells with stricken text) and one has been “added to my system” (as indicated by the green highlighting.) The other four tasks still need to get done, but not this week. This is what I mean when I refer to getting things out-of-my-head. I must have a place where I trust they’ll stick around until I have either the time, energy or motivation (like a deadline!) to work on them. By having them in this spreadsheet I don’t worry about losing them and I know I’ll revisit them in no more than one week.

A note on writing tasks… in a previous blog article I mentioned a movie called Memento  in which the protagonist, Leonard, forgets everything when he falls asleep. He is trying to find a murderer but someone is trying to kill him. So, each day before he falls asleep from exhaustion he leaves himself a warning note. Unfortunately, he writes these notes so ambiguously he can’t figure out the warning until yet another death attempt. Don’t be like Leonard, write your tasks as if they will be read by someone who is unfamiliar with their content — avoid all but the most common acronyms, leave breadcrumbs (links) to important reference materials, write complete sentences as appropriate, etcetera.

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A Template for an Oral Monthly Review

Posted on March 26, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , |

In my consulting work I’ve found one size rarely fits all… even when the sample size is two, there are usually some variations for each. True, there is a certain formulaic component to time management. For instance, there are only 24 hours in a day and if you fill that day with 25 hours worth of activities something will be left undone. However, given the same list of 25 hours worth of tasks, two people will complete different things because their values and priorities are different. When I approach my work, therefore, I plan for flexibility and adaptability.

One client recently expressed frustration with the weekly and monthly reviews of GTD. She understands and values the purpose of the reviews… she just doesn’t seem to be able to implement the reviews and keep on track. In her case, she needs to have someone listen while she reviews. So, we came up with an “oral review.” I’ve summarized the components of our five step process in the diagram below. But first, there are some ground rules, or as we call them “rules of engagement.”

  • It is the role of the listener to actively listen in Steps 1,2,3 and 5 and ask questions or make observations in Step 4. The listener is to judge or analyze only to the extent of comparing what was intended (Step 1) with what was done (Step 2) and what is planned (Step 3). If the listener wants to question or react, s/he should make a written note and save it for discussion (Step 4).
  • During the discussion reviewer will speak openly and without reservation during all steps. It is not the reviewer’s task to please or protect the listener, but to use the listener as a mirror to fully express her hopes, desires, fears and reservations.
  • Times are approximate and generally reflect the depth of the conversation within each step.

Oral ReviewOf course, there are drawbacks to an oral review. It requires the reviewer have someone they can trust and rely upon to sit through an hour long review each month. In this client’s case, she plans to incorporate her review with significant others in her life who share some of her same values and goals. By reciprocating with those individuals, she can have a pool of confidants to routinely call upon.

Let me know what you think… would this process work for you? What parts about this process “scare you?”

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Mastering Workflow

Posted on March 24, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , |

Once again, for this article I am leveraging heavily from David Allen’s GTD methodology and translating into my own words based upon my experiences. I encourage you to visit the DavidCo.com website for tips and tricks on productivity and to buy his books. In addition to the classic Getting Things Done he just published Making It All Work.

Workflow

I’ve “dressed up” the GTD model here a little and made a few minor modifcations based upon my preferences. This is the roadmap for processing your daily flow of work. Starting at the top center where “stuff” comes into your inbox (whether email, voicemail, notes, postal mail or otherwise), it must be understood and sorted – what I like to call, triaged. The trick is to gather everything together, start at the top of the pile and only handle items once. As you grab each item ask yourself, “can I take action on this?” If the answer is, “no” or, “I don’t know,” it will either be thrown out (preferred), incubated (for a time when you have more information or context to make a good decision) or filed (for later reference – be brutal here to avoid a glut of clutter.) My personal rule, if someone else generated it I only keep it if I will use it frequently or won’t be able to get it later and I know I will need it.

If you answered, “yes” to the action question, you are now allowing that item into your daily workflow. Next, ask yourself, “what is my next action with this item?” If it can be done within 2 minutes, do it now. (This is the GTD rule, sometimes I allow a 2-5 minute margin. Try to stick to 2 minutes and avoid anything longer than 5 as you will be derailed and not get through your processing!)

If the item will take more than 2-5 minutes to complete, you’re either going to delegate it to someone else (and track in a file called “waiting for”) or defer it for later. I use my calendar when something has an urgency or specific time element to it and a task item if it is not time sensitive. If the item looks confusing, complicated or just too big, it’s a project.

Projects are activities that will require two or more actions to complete. For example, your boss asked you to reserve a nice place to eat for the department celebration. Before you can place a phone call, you’ll want to know what’s the budget, who’s paying, how much time will be needed, who’s invited, preferences for venues, menu options and so on. Avoid putting this on your task list as a single item. Or, if you do, be sure to write out the specific steps that will be needed to complete the project. Why write them out? When the project is fresh and you’re clear about what needs to be done for completion, why redo your work later? If you use the note section of the calendar or task item, you’ll save valuable time later by simply reading and executing. See my article on Natural Planning for pointers on how to tackle more complicated projects. (These notes on the task or appointment is actually a project plan!)

Now that the item is captured in your system, work your system. If you are thorough about capture, process and organize, everything will be in your work process and you’ll be ready to get things done! As Henry Ford said, “Before anything else, getting ready is the key to success.”

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Linking Strategy and Tactics

Posted on March 11, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , , , |

Linking Strategy to Tactics

Linking Strategy to Tactics

Working with an organizational client helped me see just how difficult the interplay between tactics and strategy can be for some. To keep these straight, it is important to understand both relative to “purpose”. In the diagram, I’ve shown a chevron diagram that leads from many tasks to a few goals and a single vision all of which point toward a target or “purpose”. When we work from a plan, this is is happening naturally, we don’t have to “think about” what we are trying to achieve… the plan takes care of that for us.

Plans are worthless but planning is priceless.

It is a long distance between purpose and our daily task list – or that work which is staring at us from our computer monitor or in basket. So, how does one bridge that distance between a “next action” and his or her “life purpose”?

Planning works in the opposite direction from daily action. In planning we start at our purpose, or “why am I here,” “what do I want to achieve,” or “how do I add value?” (By the way, individual planning is no different than group planning. If planning for a group, replace the word “I” in the questions above with the word “we.”) Sometimes, this first step can take a long time, even months, to fully understand. Often, just starting is as good as starting with the perfect purpose. In planning, nothing is ever finished until you re-write the plan! So, if you get stuck while writing your purpose statement, don’t dwell on it, just go with whatever you have after an hour or so and revisit it later.

If done correctly, a purpose cannot be achieved in a single lifetime! It is a spot on the horizon. If you can quickly achieve your purpose, you aren’t planning big enough.

Where purpose may be rather vague even esoteric, such as, “Be the best I can be” or “Build the perfect mousetrap”, a vision should be very concrete, for example, “The best salesman in the United States” or “The top selling mousetrap in North America.” This specificity will help in the next step.

SMART Goals

To identify your goals, ask yourself what things need to happen in order for this vision to be achieved. Bear in mind the vision may take many years, but goals should be “SMART.” This is an initialism used for Specific — Measurable — Aligned — Realistic — Time-bound goals. Specific refers to focus of the goal, vague goals will not be completed. Measurable is an objective way of determining when the goal is met. Aligned refers to the place each goal fills relative to other priorities. Realistic references the ability to accomplish the goal within the time period, usually one year. Time-bound means the time in which the goal will be accomplished must be stated. I like the rule of “seven plus or minus two” when writing goals. That means, don’t write more than 9 or fewer than 5 goals. although there is debate over the validity of scientific studies, it remains useful to focus your awareness on 7 +/- 2 items. The surest way to inaction is to have too many goals, but you’ll underachieve if you write too few.

Nesting Goals

In some cases, you may find that nesting your goals is necessary. If you can’t achieve your vision without 12 goals, look for linkages such that the overall number reduces to that magic 7 +/- 2. Nest them and work on them in sequential order if necessary. See the discussion in the next two paragraphs on seequential and parallel tasks to get a better understanding of how this nesting strategy works.

Linear or Parallel Relationship?

When identifying your tasks, consider the goals and plan out what steps are required for each to be accomplished. Here, I highly recommend you work on just one goal at a time. You will identify these steps either need to be done in sequence or in parallel. Sequential tasks can have a “linear” relationship where one must be accomplished before another can be started. An example is baking bread, the ingredients must be acquired before the mixing can start and the dough must rise before the baking can start.

In parallel tasks, the relationship is different. Most often, these type of tasks involve waiting time and therefore several tasks may be happening at the same time. For instance, when putting together the meal, you may get the bread dough mixed, but it needs to sit for an hour before it can be baked, so you start on the meat marinade while you are waiting. Ideally, all parallel tasks are completed around the same time and by the conclusion of the goal deadline.

Next Step?

The final and most frequently addressed activity in planning is identifying the “next step.” Review your goals regularly and your active tasks daily and constantly ask yourself about the next action. In other words, when you finish a meeting, conclude a phone call or before you send an email, ask yourself this questions, “What’s the very next thing to do?” Don’t be afraid to say this question out loud with whomever is present. They will be appreciative and it will cause everyone to stop for a moment and think about the next step. This is a very useful summary question.

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