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

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First “Inbox Zero” In A Long Time

For as much as I read about productivity and “tactics,” I’m not all that organized, in my opinion.  I am forced to keep track of a lot of threads in my projects by necessity of having too much on my plate, so I make use of notebooks and applications to sort, categorize, and remind myself of things.  This includes my email inboxes – if something is unread, it means I haven’t tended to it yet and need to circle back.

From time to time I hack away at my unread messages, but items will sit there for long stretches during peak deadline times.

Last week, however, I hit inbox zero for my main account for the first time in a loooooong time.

inbox zero
Let’s ignore any messages currently in Boomerang limbo…

I honestly don’t remember the last time I hit zero messages in my inbox.  It’s been a long slow process of setting up filters on messages to get rid of promotions cluttering my inbox (which I started setting up in January).  I was tired of having to constantly decide whether I wanted to open promotional messages or auto-delete.  I didn’t want to block or unsubscribe from them all since I still used the promotions on occasion, but the constant, daily deluge of 30+ messages was draining.

I don’t really subscribe to the inbox zero system per se, but when I finally cleared the last message kicking around, I stared at my empty inbox in confusion.  It was weird to see.  And I feel a slight motivation to keep on top of clearing emails.  When a number pops up in the tab, an itching anxiety kicks in to get rid of it as soon as possible.

1 message

0 message
Demon be gone!

I feel odd celebrating something like this.  I know rationally that clearing emails isn’t really a marker of productivity.  Nevertheless, I think it’s important to celebrate those times when you feel a modicum of control over your life and work (even if it’s an illusion set up by my capitalist overlords… /s).

Knowledge workers, unite!

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

Beware the Salesman

Podcast ads.

Hacks and routines.

Blogs that promote and sponsored content.

Look to the incentives and see if they align with your own.

What’s in their interest might not be in mine.

This might change over time.  Sources that don’t sell might eventually sell.  There is a future where I might try to sell you something or join my mailing list.

Beware the one who sells you solutions for problems they don’t have.

Beware the sponsored content coming from authorities you like.

Beware the salesman who makes universal the particular.  The one who puts everyone into a clearly defined box.  The one who makes money on your problems.  The one who charges to join their community.

I’m not saying these are all inherently bad things; merely that they merit many second thoughts.

Secret shortcuts don’t exist.  If they were valuable, they wouldn’t be secret and they wouldn’t be a shortcut – they would be the norm.

Everyone has to make a living.  Everyone has something to sell.  But not everyone has your best interest in mind.

Caveat emptor.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Knowing When To Quit

A recent article talking about knowing when to quit/retire from teaching had me reflecting on my own experiences with quitting.  Truthfully, I can’t recall many instances where I quit something.  Often, I will drag out experiences long after they have been useful, and instead of quitting as an active decision, I’m more likely to let things fall away through neglect.  Perhaps there isn’t a strong difference between the two since my history is littered with things that I eventually stopped doing.  I suppose in my mind, the difference comes down to whether I made a decision to stop – whether I took ownership over the act.

The strongest instance where I actively made a decision was when I stopped hosting at the local karaoke bar.  I was three or four years into my tenure as a host, and for the most part I enjoyed the experience.  I had a regular crew of friends who would come in and make the night interesting.  However, towards the end, I grew to resent patrons coming in who weren’t my friends.  I worked the slowest night, so if things were quiet, we’d shut down early.  But if patrons filtered in and kept purchasing stuff, we’d stay open.  Catering to the average customer felt like a chore, rather than chumming with friends with our own song preferences and inside jokes.

I started to dislike going into work, and even to this day I don’t sing much like I did while I was a host.  I’ll grab the mic from time to time, but I don’t go out to enjoy karaoke anymore.  I still work security at the bar, but I stopped hosting all together.

I made the decision to stop hosting because a small part of me knew it was time to move on.  I learned what I could from the experience, cherished the memories it gave me, but I recognized that I no longer wanted to spend time doing it.  I think that’s the critical part in the art of quitting.  It’s not about actually quitting or the how.  Instead, it’s about recognizing when the time has come and why.

Sometimes we have to slog it out in things we hate.  We don’t quit those things because we assign value to the activity (or someone else has assigned value and we are dragged along for the ride).  But quitting is more than stopping a thing you don’t like.  It’s about recognizing when the thing is no longer of value to you; that it won’t take you where you need it to go.  It is the recognition that your time is better suited elsewhere.  The art of quitting ultimately comes down to taking an active role in how you choose to spend your time.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Making “Good” Choices and Aging

I’ve noticed something about myself: as time goes on, it’s getting easier for me to make “good” choices.  I’m not sure if everyone shares this and it’s a common thing as we get older, but I’m finding it easier to do things that I struggled with when I was younger.  Through some combination of experience, changes in my living conditions, and physiology, my ability to adopt certain habits and mindsets has improved.  Here are a few examples I’ve noted.

First, sometime around turning 30, I found it easier to start going to the gym and exercise.  Maybe it was the tail-end of the quarter-life crisis, but going to the gym (and paying for it!) seemed like a more important thing and it was easier to embrace.  The trick is to make the habit stick.

Also around the time I turned 30, I found it important to stop pirating media content.  Instead, I sought out legitimate sources for content, such as the library, paying the $1 for song and app purchases, paying for Spotify, renting movies on my gaming system, etc.  I’m not perfect – I still pirate foreign shows from fan sites that subtitle the content and I make liberal use of an adblocker, but overall I have shifted away from feeling entitled to content to valuing paying for it.

Recently, I found it super easy to start flossing.  This might also be an existential issue, where my teeth aren’t going to get any better, so it’s important for me to take care of my gums.

Even turning down junk food is getting easier.  I appreciate that my body is changing, and it no longer has the resiliency to allow me to eat whatever I want.  In my 20’s, I could eat anything I wanted at any time and I never felt sick because of it.  Now, I find that those same poor choices lead me to feeling off or ill in the hours that follow.  The food was never good for me, but in my 20’s I didn’t experience the short-term negative feedback that told me it was bad to consume junk (instead, it was just hurting me long-term through slowly accumulating body fat and other bad stuff).

This is not to say that I’m now perfectly virtuous.  I can’t get the gym habit to stick quite yet, I binge on Nibs and Netflix when the opportunity presents itself, I enjoy my craft beers, and I never go to bed on time.  I’ve been experimenting with systems to help stem my poor self-control (such as intermittent fasting or connecting my router to a timer) in order to give my rational brain a leg up on my monkey brain.  It’s a slow, steady, incremental slog towards progress, but I keep at it.

I suppose a common thread that runs through all of this is that the short-term downsides that come with bad decisions are finally manifesting themselves, which provides near-immediate feedback.  Rather than putting off the negative outcomes to some indeterminate point in the future, my body and attitude are giving me early signals that bad choices have consequences – consequences that can be mitigated if you address it now (exercise, good nutrition, and flossing are all forms of preventative maintenance, which Jim and I talked about on our podcast a few years ago).

This reminds of an exchange between Socrates and Cephalus from Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, when Cephalus is talking about what it’s like to be old and free from the passions of youth.  Being in my 30’s is a far cry from “being old,” but I think we can derive wisdom from the speech:

“I will tell you, Socrates, (Cephauls) said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says; and at our meetings the tale of my acquaintance commonly is –I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away: there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life. Some complain of the slights which are put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly of how many evils their old age is the cause. But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really in fault. For if old age were the cause, I too being old, and every other old man, would have felt as they do. But this is not my own experience, nor that of others whom I have known. How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, How does love suit with age, Sophocles, –are you still the man you were? Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master. His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.”

Source

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Looking at Shadows – An Indirect Input for Decision Making

omer-rana-rZ7aO1lorLU-unsplash
Photo by Omer Rana on Unsplash

I have a trick for finding parking at work in the morning.  The trick I use doesn’t guarantee that I’ll find a good spot every day, but it does prevent me from wasting time driving up and down lanes when there are no spots available.  The entrance to the parking lot at work is at the far end of the lot, with the building on the opposite side.  This means that when you start your search, you begin at the furthest point away from the building and your search pattern will take you towards the building.

In terms of strategy, this means that the spots with the highest probability of being empty are both the furthest from the building and the closest to you when you begin your search.  This obviously makes sense from a safety perspective – if the cars were entering the parking lot closest to the doors, then pedestrians would be in greater danger of getting hit and traffic would always be impeded.  However, this means that it’s hard to determine when you enter lot where empty spots are among the banks of cars.  Due to poor lines of sight and the number of large trucks used by students, you often won’t see an empty spot until you are a few feet away.

If you rely on this strategy for finding the closest parking spot to the door, you’ll waste a lot of time driving around except in cases where you stumble across a spot (which I estimate would be a low probability event).  I’ve started using a strategy to avoid searching for those spots and reduce wasted time in randomly driving around.

My strategy attempts to address a number of constraints:

  1. My parking utility is maximized when I find a spot close to the door.  This reduces the amount of time spent walking, which is good for inclement weather, icy conditions, and because I’m usually running late.
  2. My parking utility is diminished when I waste time circling the lot searching for ideal spots.  Instead, I’m seeking a satisficing outcome that balances maximizing utility and minimizing search time.
  3. I’m competing against other actors as they also drive around seeking empty spots.  These people are usually students, who are also usually running late or seeking to reduce their walking distance.

Keeping these considerations in mind, this is the strategy I employ in the morning.

First, I’ve limited my parking search to one of the three lots.  By reducing my options, I can make quick decisions on the fly.  Lot 1 is directly in front of the door, and since I arrive before the majority of the students, I find that it satisfies my needs most of the time.  If Lot 1 is full, I move to Lot 2, and finally Lot 3 being most sub-optimal.

Next, on my way to the entrance of Lot 1, I scan the first row of cars for empty spots there.  Since I drive passed it, it allows me to quickly eliminate it if there are no spots, or at least gauge where the spots will be relative to any additional spots in the second and third rows of the lot.

Then, I use a trick to quickly assess the likelihood of empty spots.  I look at the shadows of the cars and pay attention to noticeable gaps.  When I enter the lot, I can see down the second (middle) row.  If I see anything, I drive towards the gap and usually there is a free spot (except in cases where someone has driven a motorcycle and not parked it in the motorcycle-designated lot).  If I see no gaps in the shadows, I move on to the third row and repeat the pattern.

The majority of the time, this gives me enough information quickly to know whether I need to drive down a row.  There are two limitations to this strategy: first, it relies on there being no cloud cover, and it doesn’t allow for east-facing shadows to be examined.  This is not a perfect strategy, but my goal is to maximize my parking preferences while eliminating my wasted time driving around the lot examining each parking spot hoping to stumble onto an empty spot.  Using this strategy balances these two interests and generally gives me a satisfactory outcome quickly.

A final consideration I use is to notice cars leaving the lot when I enter, and noting where they are coming from.  That is the fastest indication of where a parking spot is on the busiest days when I’m competing against other cars looking to park.

All of this occurs within about 15 seconds of me driving up to the lot at work.

If you have reached this point in the post, you might be wondering why I spent so much time explaining how I find a parking spot (is this really the best use of a blog???).  I think this example of setting up a solution to a problem is a fun way of explaining how I ideally like to approach a problem.  I try to consider what outcomes I’m aiming to achieve and work backwards to consider options that would fit those criteria.  In doing so, I have to consider what input I need to let me quickly assess a situation and make a decision by eliminating extraneous options.

It’s important to know when you need to be right, and when you need something to work well enough most of the time.  For instance, if this were a higher-stakes situation (say, I was doing surgery), I would want a strategy that would be the equivalent of finding the closest spot to the door every time.  Instead, I know that my goal is achieved if I reduce the amount of walking time and reduce the amount of time and fuel spent hunting for an optimal spot.

When coming up with a strategy, I knew that hoping to stumble across an empty spot would be a net increase in my search time.  So, I found a way to quickly gain information that would eliminate many non-options.  Rather than looking at the cars themselves, I instead look for gaps in shadows – an indirect indicator of outcomes I want.  It’s a simple heuristic that eliminates the need to confirm that cars are occupying spaces all the way down the long row.

While the strategy will not save me time in 100% of cases, it does shift the outcomes to a net decrease in search time, which meets my goals and gets me to work on time (most of the time).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan