Five* Digital Tools I Use

Last week I shouted from the rooftops about reaching zero unread messages in my inbox.  This feels like a good opportunity to geek out a bit on some cool digital tools I use for my process flow.  Below are a handful of applications and services I use to keep on top of things, which supplement any physical systems I use to stay organized (like my notebook, for example).  None of the referenced products below are sponsors and I have no business ties with them.

Boomerang (Paid)

I was introduced to Boomerang for Gmail a few years back and made use of their free tier for quite some time.  However, last year I made the jump to unlock some additional functionality and allow me to boomerang more messages per month.

Seamlessly integrated into Gmail, Boomerang allows me to kick messages out of my inbox and set to return at a predetermined time.  You may have noted in a caption that I mentioned “boomeranged messages;” this is what I was referencing.  If I have messages that I want to come back to, but I don’t want them to clutter my inbox, I use Boomerang to remove them temporarily without me forgetting about it.  Boomerang has other features, such as being able to append notes to myself or asking a message to return if no one responds within a certain time frame.  All in all, a great little service that doesn’t cost much for the year.

Evernote/OneNote

I use both Evernote (free) and OneNote (Enterprise).  I don’t really have a preference one way or the other at the moment, but I tend to use Evernote for personal items (saving notes, planning blog posts, etc.) where I use OneNote for Board work and my main job.  I was urged to go paperless by my boss, so I slowly adopted the services and moved away from extra notebooks and loose papers on my desk.  Especially within OneNote, I can use the attach document feature to put “print outs” of documents within a notebook page, then use my tablet’s stylus to annotate the document with handwritten notes.

Scanbot

Speaking of embedding print outs, I started using Scanbot for Android to capture paper documents and port them into my digital notes.  I like Scanbot over the regular camera because the AI recognizes the page and will use algorithms to digitally morph distortions of the page.  Instead of requiring perfect lighting and standing perfectly over the page, I can capture documents on camera and Scanbot flattens out and crops the image for me.  I’ve also found it handy for taking pictures of overhead presentation slides, and whiteboard writing.

Pushbullet

Pushbullet has a lot of features for pushing documents across devices, but I mostly use it as a way of preventing myself from always looking at my phone.  Instead, I can avoid temptation and quickly reply to text messages from my wife before jumping back into my task.  I know myself well enough that picking up my phone is inviting a trip down the rabbit hole of distraction, so Pushbullet really helps keep my monkey brain in check.  (Note: if you’re wondering about how I avoid distractions on my computer, I use the StayFocusd extension to block website during certain hours of the day)

Trello

Month over month, I will have lots of To Do items that are left incomplete.  I used to copy them over manually to the next notebook, but over time the list grew.  Out of laziness, I started porting those tasks over to Trello for longer term storage.  Yes, I should either discard those items I’m not doing or clearing my plate by completing the tasks.  However, there are items that are not urgent and not important enough to do at the time.  Instead, I’ve set up a kanban board that allows me to move tasks from a pool to an active list, then to a complete, abandon, or hold list, depending on the status of the task.  It’s a handy way of keeping on top of tasks that are not immediately pressing and allows me to use my notebook for day-to-day pressing concerns.

There are a few other tools I’m trying out, such as Toggl, RescueTime, Microsoft Teams, and Notion, but I’ll save those for a future post.

The five-ish tools above are a few things that makes it easy for me to keep on top of several process flows for work, my personal projects, and my volunteer work.  Without them, I would be drowning in trying to keep everything fresh in my mind.  Let me know what kind of tools you use (digital or analogue) in the comments below.  I’m always interested in learning what different people have set up for themselves.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Value of Probing Assumptions

I was on a consultation call a few weeks ago about an ethics application.  The project was seeking feedback from participants about access to specific mental health information, and in my feedback to their application, I noted that their demographic question concerning the gender of the participant was probably too narrow.  The applicant asked for some advice how to address the comment.

On the one hand, they considered dropping the question as it a.) didn’t obviously connect to their research question, and b.) the literature supporting this branch of mental health was pretty well-studied in terms of incidence rates for the condition along the sex dimension, so they might not learn anything new by asking for the participant’s gender or sex.  On the other hand, if they left it in, they had to contend with whether they should use sex or gender as the focus of the question.  Since the mental health topic they were researching was a medical condition, it seemed like (biological) sex was the more salient feature, whereas my feedback suggested that if they chose gender, they would need to ensure it was inclusive.

While discussing the implications on the phone, I tried to tease out what the purpose of the study was.  Their study was collecting qualitative information about how people access information.  In the context of the demographic information, they weren’t seeking to know how a person’s sex/gender relates to the condition itself.  But, I wonder aloud, it seemed the purpose of the study was to understand how people seek information, which could arguably be influenced by one’s culture, behaviour, socialization, and experience of how the world treats them.  In that way, you would want to focus less on a person’s physiology and instead you might discover interesting differences in how a person seeks information based on their life-experiences.

The applicant noted that they started the phone call intending to drop the question from the survey, and through my line of questions and probes, was convinced to keep the question and modify it to be more inclusive.

I am not telling this story as a normative push on how we should conduct inquiry (though by reading through the lines, you should get a sense of how I feel about the topic).  Instead, I share this story as an example of why posing good questions is important to remove ambiguity and clarify thought.  One of the goals of our ethics board when we review applications is to make implied premises explicit so that we can be sure of what we take as a given when we set out to study a research question.  We often default to accepted practice and proceed with common tools, but sometimes we don’t think carefully through the implications of what using those tools means.  By leveraging my outsider status, I have an opportunity to get the applicants to explain concepts and lines of reason without assuming I share the same understanding of the material that they do.  This helps to spot those areas where the project is weakened by unsupported claims and assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

How I Set Up My Notebook

I have carried some form of notebook for the last seven years or so.  It started back at the tail end of grad school where I felt I needed a way to help me remember important appointments, meetings, and to capture to-do items.  I started off by purchasing a Moleskine weekly calendar, which was great, but my cheap student mind didn’t like the added cost of the specialty book, whereas I could make the same book from a regular, ruled Moleskine.  For the next two years, I would measure out the spacing and draw in the lines for the year.  I appreciated the simplicity of the task and found it almost meditative, however I grew tired of having to do this at the start of each year.

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Later, I switched from larger Moleskine notebooks to smaller, pocket books.  Over time, I adopted the Field Notes brand of pocket notebooks as my go-to medium to capture thoughts, though I do keep an assortment of notebooks on hand (or on my shelf) for specialty purposes.  The early days of Field Notes had me using a notebook until it was full, whether this was notes from a single month or from multiple months.

Eventually I settled on using one book per month, and started a fresh book every month, regardless of whether I fill the book or not.  In this post, I’ll show you how I set up a notebook for the month of January, and provide some commentary on my choices.

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The first step is to get a fresh notebook.  You don’t have to use Field Notes, but I like the brand and the quality of the product.  My only criteria when selecting a book is I prefer at least 48-pages that uses good paper and a grid pattern (either solid lines or dots).  The paper is important because I use a specific kind of pen (I’ve settled on the Uniball Deluxe Micro as my preferred pen) that can easily bleed or smudge on poor quality paper as I write leftie.

The next step is to go through and number all of my pages.  This is important because after I’m done with a book, I use an index (see below) to capture important pages that I want to reference in the future.  The index does not capture any of the standard pages I set up at the start of the month, nor does it capture my individual days.  Instead, it captures main to-do lists, important notes, or other things that I’ll need to find later.  For instance, I use these physical books to remember passwords I rarely need to type.  If I update a password, I note the date in my online calendar with a book reference (month, year, and page), so that I can go back and see what I set the password to.  This doesn’t work when I’m out of the house, but I find this helps with keeping my rarely used passwords secure (instead of constantly answering security questions to reset the password).

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After the index, I titled the second page my dream scratch pad.  This is where I can do pie-in-the-sky thinking about things I want to do, accomplish, strive towards, covet, etc.  To be honest, I rarely use this page, but I like to keep it on hand in the same place.

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Next, any major to-do items get carried over.  A lot of these have been on my carried-over to-do’s for some time, but I don’t want to forget about them (things like rolling over my passwords regularly, or little things I want to do around the house.  If to-do items can be grouped under a specific theme (say, specific home repairs), they get their own lists later in the book.  This page carries over everything else.

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Tracked items, left to right – (Gr – German lessons on Duolingo), (L – when I’m late for something), (D – when I’m having a down or depressed day), (H – when I have a headache; at the bottom of the page I have a scoring system for how bad they are), (Ex – days I intentionally exercise), (Fr – time intentionally spent with friends or family), (7 – nights I track seven or more hours of sleep on my Fitbit).

Next is my tracker page.  This is where I track habits and other regularly occurring items so I can see them at glance.  I list the dates along the left side (weekends get doubled-up so I can fit the entire month in), and each category of things to be tracked gets its own column.  Some metrics are good things to track, while some of them I want to use to monitor my general health and well-being.

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Since the entries per day are pretty short (not a lot of space), I keep this facing-page blank for additional notes on the month, if I need it.

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On page 6, I capture my intentions and goals.  I track goals and intentions a few ways.  First, I have a “soul,” “mind,” “body” theme which allows me to focus on specific areas of my life (soul – social, philosophical, spiritual, etc.), (mind – learning, planning, etc.), and (body – physical health and wellness).  I realize you can’t try and change too many habits at once and be successful, so these are just ways of helping me to prioritize things into themes, short-term and longer-term goals, and things I want to change.  If page 6 is my capture page, page 7 would be where I would focus myself to a limited number of things.  I would pick something from the previous page and devote more time or attention to it with specific plans and actions.

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On page 8, I track some specific health indicators – my weight on the scale (left side), and my waist measurements (on the right axis) over time (the x-axis).  Static views of single health metrics aren’t very helpful, so I’ve chosen to track weight and my waist as a better indicator of my overall progress in fitness.  I’ve also started tracking blood pressure, which I input results for the day the data is collected as the systolic/diastolic reading.

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Then, on page 9, I borrow a system I found on Reddit to track excuses.  This is where I can measure intentions against action.  For instance, if I set an intention to exercise and I skip it, I can capture what my excuse is for skipping it, assess whether it is legitimate (yes/no), and make notes on any ways I can mitigate the reality or implement solutions to keep my intentions.

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Finally, on page 10, I start my first entry.  Every day that I record in my notebook will receive a new page.  I put the date across the top, then fill in tasks for the day, ideas, interesting quotes, or things to remember.  Sometimes I’ll migrate thematic lists into this section, such as tasks I need to complete as Board Chair or for things around the house to repair.

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This is the system I currently use.  It borrows from a couple different sources, such as the original Moleskine planner I began with, elements from the Bullet Journal method, and good ideas I’ve found rambling through sites like Reddit.  The notebook set-up iterates over time.  I add and remove things depending on how useful I find them.  Some of the items discussed above might get removed soon since I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with them, and therefore are no longer useful to me.

It is a little tedious to set up a new notebook every 30 or so days, but on the whole I like the systems I’ve developed and have found it immensely useful in my day-to-day life.

Share with me down below what kind of systems you use to help keep yourself on top of things.  I’m always looking to borrow good ideas!  I hope you found something here that was useful.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Public Speaking Bomb

Happy Labour Day!  Things have been busy here at work while we gear up for the new academic year.  Students are around, schedules are messed up, and people are scrambling to get back into the right mindset to kick off the new term.  Things are bustling and busy.

I don’t intent to keep a post trend going, but I wanted to ride some of the wave from last week’s psych-out post and talk about another recent failure I experienced at work.

Last week, I had to give a short presentation to college faculty about the research ethics board I’m on.  The purpose of the presentation was to remind faculty that the board exists, and to have them consider whether an ethics review is needed for their or their student’s projects.  I had a 15-minute block of time and a slide-deck provided by our board coordinator.

After the presentation, I sat down and wrote out all the ways the presentation sucked.  In fairness, two of my colleagues went out of their way to complement my presentation,  and that they took away the two main deliverables (that student research projects should be run by the board, and that I’m available on campus to answer questions).  I checked in with my boss and she, too, agreed that the presentation was not a failure as I saw it.  I know that my perception of how things went will be dramatically different than how others perceive me.  Nevertheless, I know that I am capable of doing much better and the main culprit of my failure was because I didn’t practice out loud before the talk.

Here is the list I generated:

Everything that went wrong (and why):

  • Didn’t practice the slides
  • Didn’t build the deck (it was pre-made and sent to me; building the deck would have made me more familiar with the content by necessity)
  • Too rushed
  • Unstable speaking patterns (rambling ticks)
  • Poor intro
  • Poor conclusion
  • Didn’t plan my transitions
  • Didn’t know how the transitions were set in the slide (i.e. need to click to reveal text)
  • Missed content from the page.
  • Had to look at screen to figure out where I was
  • Didn’t know I’d have to hold a microphone (I knew this from past All Faculty meetings, but I should have anticipated it)
  • I was holding the mic and the presentation remote – my hands were full
  • Didn’t pause to calm down or collect my thoughts
  • Bad presentation but saved with good will from prior relationships with faculty + my position (junior to the faculty)
  • finished in 8min or 15min.
  • Didn’t have a firm point in mind that I wanted them to take away from talk.
  • Didn’t edit slides to remove non-essential content

You can’t win them all, but it’s important to know where you go wrong so you don’t make the same mistakes again.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

It’s Not Easy Being Chair

I recently took over as Chair of the Board for the non-profit I sit on.  So far, I’ve chaired two meetings and I have to admit I feel out of my element.  I don’t mean that I’m not able to carry out the job – I seem to be doing alright by the feedback I’m receiving from the other board members.

It’s one thing to sit as a board member and evaluate how a meeting is being run, spotting pieces here and there that could be run more efficiently, or structured different, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually run the show.  I think the past Chair did a fantastic job, so when I say there were things that could be more efficient, I don’t mean it as a criticism.  What I mean is, when someone else is putting things into motion, it’s easy to see various areas where something could be done better.  But when you are the one putting things into motion and steering the ship, you spend so much time keeping things going that you don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to evaluate things in real time and adjust for efficiency.

Before, I would receive the agenda, figure out where I could contribute to the discussion, show up and sit in as part of the group (which sometimes amounted to sitting back and letting others run the discussion).  Now, I make the agenda and set the tone, then I have to be the one to get the discussion rolling.  It falls to me to manage the Board’s caseload, and lead any strategic directions we choose to go.  In time, it’ll also fall to me to work within my mandate from the Board and start the generative process of strengthening the organization and planning for the future.

Based on these last two meetings, it’s going to be a long time before I’m leading in any meaningful sense of the word.  The best way I can describe my performance is managing how much force is getting applied to the flywheel to ensure momentum isn’t lost.  When I reflect on my performance, it feels awkward and a little weak (wishy-washy, as opposed to done with a sense of conviction).

My default state is to excessively talk and look to the body language of others to see if they are receptive to what I’m saying.  If I sense they are not understanding me, I keep talking and hope that if I throw everything at them, they’ll understand what I’m saying.  A friend once likened it to a faucet.  Where I should be dialing things back, I instead open the valve and give them a fire hose of information.   Of course, this is the opposite of what I should be doing as a leader of a group like this.  I should spend less time talking and more time listening to the wisdom of the group.

The good thing is that it’s early in my tenure so there is plenty of time to get more comfortable in the role and learn how to settle into a groove.  Like I said, I’m not doing a bad job.  The rest of the group is fine with how the last two meetings went.  This is merely my critical self-reflection coupled with my desire to do better.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan