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

 

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

Book Ideas – Types of Feedback

I’ve been reading Scott Young’s recently released book, Ultralearning, and I think it’s a pretty good summary of how one can take on an intense learning project for personal and professional development.  It functions like an autodidact’s road map with plenty of good tips, insights, and stories to round things out.  Elements of the animated bibliography are present, but I don’t find it contrived in its execution.  The stories help frame the chapter and serve as an introduction to the core material.

It’s funny how last week I was talking about mnemonic devices, because after drafting that post I ended up reading about the concept in Chapter 10 of the book as it dealt with ways of supporting retention of material you learn.

In chapter 9 of the book, Young talks about ways of providing feedback in the learning process, whether the feedback is provided from others or feedback you can use in your own learning process.  He parses out three kinds of feedback that I found interesting, not only for my own personal use in learning, but also as something I should keep in mind as a teacher.

The three kinds of feedback he outlines are outcome feedback, informational feedback, and corrective feedback.  Each type of feedback serves a specific purpose, and you should be mindful of the context the feedback is given, as the wrong type of feedback can set you back in your learning.

Outcome feedback – provides information on whether you are getting answers right or if you are meeting a pre-identified set of learning objectives.  It tells you that you are right but doesn’t give any indication of why (or why you are wrong).

Informational feedback – provides further information to explain the underlying reason why something is right or wrong.  It can be informative to re-affirm what you have learned, and can identify key areas of strength or weakness, however it does not create a concrete process forward.

Corrective feedback – provides, as the name indicates, a path forward for the learner in terms of how to overcome deficiencies.  It details not only how one is right/wrong, why they are right/wrong, but how to address or avoid being wrong.  This type of feedback not only requires a level of comprehension of the material, but requires sufficient understanding to teach the underlying processes to the learner through explanation, demonstration, suggestion, etc.

As a teacher, it’s important to know what kind of feedback is warranted and under what circumstances.  Most of us tend to focus just on outcomes, but students often don’t learn from pure outcome assessment.  Rather, you need to take the further steps to go beyond an evaluation and ensure you are addressing the underlying deficiency present in the student’s performance.  Outcome assessment is awesome because it’s quick and definitive, but it’s also lazy if your goal is to improve your students.  On the other hand, corrective feedback is desirable but it’s labour-intensive and must be done carefully so as not to remove critical thinking from your student – you don’t want them to merely follow your instructions but instead you want to promote their thinking and reasoning through problems without your guidance.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Lessons from JMS

At writing, I’m about 5-hours away from finishing J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood.  His many professional credits include writing episodes for The Real Ghostbusters and He-Man, writing the screenplay for Marvel’s Thor, a hugely successful run in comics, and creating Babylon 5.  It’s an incredible story of crime, poverty, all forms of abuse, as well as triumph and perseverance.  The narrative is gripping and it’s difficult to put down.  I’ve only been listening for a few days now and I’ve ripped through 11-hours.  Even if he did embellish on the details to make his story more sympathetic (which I sincerely doubt he did), it’s a masterclass in storytelling.

I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies because it gives me a chance to glean insights from their stories.  It may be a bit premature to write this since I haven’t finished the book, but there is so much to get from his story that I felt compelled to dash this off.

In no particular order:

On antecedents

JMS came from a broken home, where abuse, neglect, and punishment was the norm.  He recognized early that he had two options – become like his abusers, or break the cycle by becoming the opposite of what his abusers embodied.  In that way, he gravitated towards positive role models both fantastical, like Superman, and real life, like his surrogate father-figure Vincent.  JMS refused to allow his past to dictate his future, and he believed he should own his circumstances, rather than use it as an excuse.

On writing

Once he realized he was meant to be a writer, JMS devoted himself to his craft.  He found every excuse and opportunity to write.  He learned to fill voids at the newspaper, where other journalists let deadlines slip them by.  No area was beneath him to write, and no domain was too foreign for him to jump in and attempt.  He cobbled together an eclectic background that spanned multiple genres and styles, all in an attempt to hone his craft.  The best advice he attributes is when a famous author told him on a cold call to “stop writing shit.  If it wasn’t shit, people would buy it.”  JMS saw writing through college as his way of purging the shit writing from his system so that he could let his stories flow from him, and he wouldn’t let anyone stop him from telling his stories.

On principles

JMS quit a lot of shows based on principles.  When network executives and censors wanted to change the essence of his stories, he walked away.  When friends and mentors, whom took chances on him early in his career, were fired from projects, he quit in solidarity.  When he stumbled into work that he initially dismissed as beneath him, he swallowed his pride and took jobs he knew he could learn from.  He often sacrificed his career and work to stand up for what he believed in, and didn’t complain about the consequences.

On children’s taste

While JMS fought against problematic characterizations on The Real Ghostbusters (he said”motherizing” Janine was regressive and sexist, and making Winston the driver was racist) one interesting insight he provided was how children viewed the show.  A change recommended by consultants and the network was to create a group of junior Ghostbusters for child viewers to identify with.  JMS pushed back, saying that no child wants to be Robin, but instead wanted to grow up to be Batman.  The Ghostbusters provided children with something to aspire towards; a sense of direction.  To see children on the screen acting like Ghostbusters, child viewers wouldn’t identify with them because they represented something they wanted but were not and couldn’t be.  In this, he’s making a connection that representation and aspiration are important to viewers.  He similarly walked away from She-Ra for the network refusing to allow She-Ra to be a warrior.  To him, it was important to give children something they could see themselves becoming one day.

On backdoors

There are many things JMS wrote on that he did that was unethical and illegal.  When he couldn’t afford to buy books as a child, he stole them, carefully read them without damaging the spine, then would sneak the books back to return them.  When he wanted to take classes that weren’t open to him but he desperately wanted to further his abilities as a writer, he broke into the faculty office, stole permission slips and altered the roster to put him into the courses.  When he needed to move on from grad school, he knew another year would sacrifice a lot of ground in his career, but he needed to appease his abusive father, so he broke into the Registrar’s office to make it appear he was graduating.  (As of reading in the book, he has yet to try and leverage the fake degree in his career, but merely needed to exit from the program without provoking his father or endangering his siblings).  Because of his upbringing, he learned how to see opportunities to open doors.  This, combined with his work ethic, means that he worked hard to leverage past experiences to create future value.  While this is hardly good career advice, it’s worth staying mindful of – that not all career advances come by entering through the front door.

Throughout the book, JMS is careful to note that he’s been more lucky than good.  He recognizes that while hard work is vital to his story, there are many times where he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  His ability to leverage his experience allowed him to go from writing one-act plays, to short stories, to journalism, to television screen-writing, to eventually movies and comics.  He notes many times in his story that he was mere steps away from making bad decisions, or letting his faults get the best of him.  In many precarious places, he could have gone down the wrong path, any he nearly died several times.  Rather than letting luck go to his head, he refused to become complacent and always did the work.  Above all else, his work ethic is probably the most important lesson I drew from his story.

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

Short Term Content Bias

I admit that the kinds of videos I watch on YouTube and the kinds of books I read tend to gravitate towards a certain kind of self-help genre, where some productivity or business person is giving me a set of systems and protocols to follow to help me “hack” my way to a more fulfilling work and life.  These kinds of content are usually well-made but suffer from a shallowness of insight.  It’s not that the authors are deliberately trying to dupe me (at least I hope not!) but the unfortunate reality is that the incentive structures that lead to engagement online and sale of products means that in order to publish, you need to publish fast and loose.

Books that get published are usually a small essay that gets padded out with animated bibliography research or a year-long experiment where the author tests out the ideas in the short-term and reports back on what they experienced and learned about themselves.  There might be small kernels of originality and insight in there, but the rest of the book is a repackaging and restatement of the research and writing of others.  It is without irony that I wager that the same 20% of landmark examples appear at least once in 80% of the books out there.

YouTube videos run into some similar issues.  Often, I find that the videos are short think pieces and experiments that people run as a blog series or retrospective.  The editing is fast and smooth, and the experiments are reported on based on impressions from the first week, month, and sometimes quarter.

In both of these mediums, we see a presentation of the short-term result with little follow-up on the long term impacts.  On small occasions, a writer might follow-up on some of the ideas in a second book that is a direct result of the first, but by and large we don’t have insight into the impact the changes had over the long-term.

This bias towards short term content make sense.  Authors and content developers need to create products quickly in order to ensure a viable revenue stream, and once you write about your niche and experience, life moves too slowly for you to be able to keep up with that pace.  As a result, they would start to publish on things that are more nebulous and propped up by the work of others (hence, animated bibliography).

The best books with the deepest wisdom are often, as Taleb notes, ones that have been around for more than 50 years.  I’d add to that that books published as the culmination of one’s life work also fall into that category.

This is not to say that content coming out of the short-term process is worthless.  In my opinion, my life and satisfaction has improved in quality over the last 3 years of intentionally reading these books.  The problem is that after a while, very little surprises you and you start to see the same examples getting recycled.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan