In progress: my (Ever)note on getting things done

I’ve been trying to get better control over the projects I work on and the data related to those projects.  So this isn’t me avoiding work; this is me reprocessing by talking about the challenges I felt and then about how I’ve tried to address them.

What I had wanted to do was:

  • Reduce my paper clutter
  • Reduce my digital clutter, which felt nearly as heavy
  • Reclaim my workspace, both physical and virtual
  • Seize more of the potential of electronic notes than I had so far

That sounds like mainly organization and housekeeping, but if you rise above the roadway, it’s managing.  I wanted to do better at managing both work and non-work projects.  I figured if I could accomplish any of those things in the list, and especially more than one at once, I’d be far more likely to get a project done.   Or at least get it moving.

Not dwelling long enough on things can be my Waterloo.

What would matter?

At GE, we talked about CTQs: the critical-to-quality items that represent a customer’s view about what’s most important for a product or service.  My own CTQs for doing better included:

  • Retention–whatever’s in the system is ultimately in my own custody, not solely a wisp in someone else’s cloud bank.
  • Ubiquity–a system that I could use in my office, on a client site, or somewhere else.
  • Dwell time–an increased ability for me to stay with the task at hand.

Was that a wrong note?

For some time, I’ve used Evernote, which modestly says you can capture anything, access it anywhere, and find things fast.  (Optional side trip: Evernote’s 90-second intro: .)

Evernote lets you create individual notes, store them in virtual notebooks, and access them on your own computer, from any computer, or through a smartphone–hey, ubiquity!  The database with your notes is stored not only on their servers (which you don’t own) but also on your PC, with automatic synchronization. You can cloudify if you like, but having a local copy of the database helps satisfy my CTQ for retention.

I’ve used Evernote for more than two years, mainly in that unfocused, plunge-right-in, that’s-kind-of-cool way. (A particular favorite: because I sketch a lot of ideas on flipcharts, I love being able to snap a picture, transfer it to Evernote, and later search for text in the image.)

Seek and ye shall find

Most of the time, though, I was also making multiple notebooks and creating a myriad of tags.  When it comes to tagging, some people believe that enough is enough and too much is plenty, but for me there’s a real problem with diminishing returns.  (We’ll skip over the issue of typos, as well as the pluralization dilemma: Is the tag finance or finances?)

Organization and productivity are connected.I’d been cruising a predictable arc, from an initial everything-fits enthusiasm to a distressing suspicion that I’d reinvented the junk drawer.

To be is to be done?

On a separate track, I’d been reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  I approached this book with hesitation, or more accurately evangeloskepticism, because of the… well, let’s say, the ardor of some GTD adherents.  The people who always say “GTD.” If they were Apple users, they’d be the ones who care about the code name for the next operating system.

Messy and distractable I may be, but I appreciate the advantages of a system, even if I sometimes appreciate it from afar.  Allen’s approach is more about thinking systematically than about particular tools–though you can, if you desire, buy a set of 43 plastic file folders for only $39.95 (plus shipping).  So I’ve been applying elements of that system, and adjusting the way I work with my paper files and with Evernote, and I’m happy with how the results look so far.

Closeup of Notebooks in Evernote's sidebar

Different ways to see your project

Two useful, intertwined concepts: first, a task is something you can complete in a single chunk of time. “Peel the carrots” is a task.  If you’re like me, “do the grocery shopping” is also a task; I may have a big list of items, but I get them in one trip.

At my house, we have a cluster of grocery-related tasks: plan dinner  for the week, check the ingredients we need, build a grocery list, shop (ideally, with the list).  Getting Things Done calls such a cluster a project: “any desired result that requires more than one action step.”

Which leads to the second useful concept: you don’t do a project, you do the next step.  From a manage-your-work perspective, think of the project as the goal you want to achieve (groceries purchased, workshop delivered, kitchen remodeled).  You revisit the project to generate thoughts about what the next steps might be.  When you don’t have any more steps, the project’s done.

So I create what I call a project page, which is a highfalutin name for a note on which I put a short description of the goal of the project, along with a timeframe (however nebulous) and the tag I’ve chose for that project.  I’ll also use the project page to jot notes about ideas related to the project.  That means the project page becomes a kind of greenhouse where idea seedlings can germinate until they turn into action steps.

Action steps (things I can do) become separate notes, each tagged as part of the project.  So do reference items, like email that I forward to Evernote, making the contents of the email more readily searchable.  So do things like PDF documents, which can be dragged into their own note.

Now I have a Projects notebook.  I use Evernote’s filtering tools to control what I see when I click the Projects notebook, like this:

Search in just one notebook for a particular tag

Previously, I had more than a dozen project-specific notebooks in that sidebar. And if I create a new notebook for any multi-step effort I have (even small one with long duration, like “get a digital copy of the LP that Mom has no turntable for”), I could easy have three or four dozen.

This works better.  And I can do the same sort of selective display across multiple notebooks.

If it’s not a step, it might be a reference

David Allen suggests putting all your project-support material (things that don’t require an action but that you want to retain) into a reference file.  He leaves the form of that file up to you, though he’s quite the fan of a single, alphabetical-order, paper filing system.  I have those, but I prefer keeping digital (i.e., searchable) copies, which now go into a Reference notebook.

Search all notebooks for items with the _ABC tag

Allen might be less in favor of a separate location for the work-specific diaries that I call project logs, so if you see him, don’t tell him that’s what I have.  I tend to make the logs for large projects; for small ones, I’ll jot ongoing notes on the project page.  Not necessarily consistent, but, oh, well.

Not a close-up of my desktop

More than a third of my Evernote items are in the REFERENCE notebook.  To me, this makes sense.  For active projects, a lot of the relevant material isn’t a trigger for action; it’s project support.  It’s reference material.

If an item appears useful to more than one project, I apply multiple project tags.  That way it’ll show up in project-specific searches.

I also have a Project Archive notebook.  When I complete a project, I select all its items from the Projects notebook and move them to the archive.  Why?  Because that’s what I’ve always done.

In my corporate, cubicle-based days, the bottom of my four-drawer file was labeled Attic. It became a combination of historical record, reference room, and security blanket.  (I’m no hoarder, though;  every year or two, when it got full, I’d weed it back by a third or so.)

The Projects notebook and the Project Archive account for another 20% of my notes, which means that together with Reference, half of what I keep in Evernote is in just three notebooks.

Not that there’s a prize for Fewest Notebooks Used–though if there were, Ruud Hein would be a real contender.  He wrote an Evernote GTD How To that inspired me to experiment and adapt.  (I also like his tone and his pragmatism.)

Speaking of pragmatism, this post is long enough.  I have a follow-up underway with some more examples of what I’ve tried and what results I’ve gotten.

Evernote examples are my own.
CC-licensed images: dwell time by Owen Blacker.
Junk drawer by windsordi / Di Bédard.
Archive of papers by Ben McLeod.

Tools and translation, or, rocking with Bénabar

Universal SubtitlesYesterday, I saw a tweet about Universal Subtitles, an open-source site to “make the work of subtitling and translating video simpler, more appealing, and, most of all, more collaborative.”  The site lets you add captions, subtitles, or translations to videos online.  (They say they work with Ogg, WebM, FLV, Youtube, Vimeo, Blip or Dailymotion.)

I’d been wanting to find out how to add captions to videos, the way I’d seen song translations done on Youtube.  On La charrette pélagique, the blog I (infrequently) write in French, I’ve tried translating some French songs into English.  The hard part there is that you can’t easily fit two translations side-by-side, so you end up alternating languages one verse or chorus at a time.

In addition, if you’re trying to understand spoken (or sung) language, I think it helps at times to be able to see the words in sync with the audio stream.

So, for a good part of yesterday afternoon and this morning, I used Universal Subtitles to create both an English translation and a French transcription of La berceuse (“The Lullaby”) by the French singer Bénabar (Wikipedia bio in English, French; French-language website).

(If you’re the parent of little kids, or know people who are, I think you’ll enjoy Bénabar’s take on lullabies.)

I haven’t figured out how to embed the subtitled version here, so if you’re curious:

  • Click this link: La Berceuse
  • Below the video, choose the language for the subtitles (“original” [meaning French] or English)
  • Play.

You singing to ME?

Universal Subtitles is a collaborative effort, which means someone else can come along to edit my French-language transcript (I have my doubts about a word here and there), my English translation, or my synchronization.  For myself, I wish there were a way to save my own version–to keep it as I made it, for my own purposes–but that’s a minor point.

What’s more important is the immediate usefulness of this tool.


My parents’ blog, or, four years sitting in the virtual kitchen

About ten years ago, my parents got a computer. Dad was 87 and Mom was 81.  They weren’t really early adopters, except maybe among their age group.

The primary reason was my dad’s eyesight–he couldn’t drive safely at night to visit friends and play cards.  The computer allowed us to install card-game software.  The software created virtual partners for cribbage, pinochle, and euchre, as well as solitaire cards that never got sticky.

A few weeks later, my mother asked if they could get to the internet.  We got her an AOL account and bought two copies of a graphic-rich how-to book.  (That way, when she had a question, I’d use my copy and say, “Look on page 32.  I’ll walk you through the steps…”)

I printed the first email she sent, in May of 2000.  It read, in part:

I want to know what URL means.  I want to know if my address book has the e-mail addresses in it.  And how do I get it?

Those are great, goal-oriented questions.  And I had forgotten this from my dad, about a month later, until I found the copy this morning:

Hi David

Mom made me do it

This is the old fellow trying to compose a little note.

How am I doing?

Love Dad

For quite a while, they had fun with email (mostly receiving, since their typing skills weren’t the greatest). Over time, though, Mom and Dad had difficulties with the mechanics: they’d get attachments they couldn’t open, and their in-basket will fill up because they didn’t quite get the hang of filing.

Then I had an epiphany: I set up what I called the world’s smallest blog (audience: two).  Instead of writing letters or email, I started posting to the blog.  Instead of searching their in-basket, they’d click on the desktop shortcut I created.

With photos embedded in the posts, they didn’t have to open attachments.  The blog would automatically archive by month, and also by broad topic.  And my three children (who between them have more than half a dozen blogs) had author access, so they too could plop down at this digital kitchen table for a visit.

I mention this for a number of reasons.  First, Sunday was the blog’s fourth anniversary (official readership is down to just my mother).  Second, and not entirely by chance, Sunday also marked the blog’s one-thousandth post.

That’s right: for four years, my parents have had virtual guests about five posts a week.

By and large the posts on their blog are astonishingly mundane.  I write about a trip into Washington, or making chicken stew provençal, or (much less often) about a consulting project I’m working on.

Oh, and the weather.  My dad always wanted to know what our weather was like.

My kids tease me, but they know the real purpose: each post is a brief chat with my mother, often with pictures (she got a lot of pictures of last February’s snowpocalypse), letting her know what’s going on here.  They add their own comments, and a fair number of pictures of the great-grandchildren.

Another reason I mention this is that when I came up with the idea, I realized I’d broken through my own preconception of what a blog was.  Blogs are for the world at large?  Not necessarily.  They have your Big Thought of the Day?  Ehh, maybe not.  They’re all about ever-expanding readership?  It’s debatable.

What really happened is that I had a problem to solve–Mom and Dad’s challenges in working with email, and my own spotty record in sitting down to write them some email.  And by ignoring what I thought were conventions of the medium, I found a solution.

The only drawback?  My brother, who lives with my mother, urges me to post at least four times a week.  If I miss two days running, he says, my mother worries that there’s something wrong, either with her computer or with me.

I’m not sure which worries her more.

Screenshot from WordPress is mine; CC-licensed tea photo by adactio / Jeremy Keith.

Peggy Seeger: “She’s smart, for a woman.”

It’s Ada Lovelace Day, and the first thing to come to mind was this song from Peggy Seeger.

When I was a little girl I wished I was a boy.
I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroys
Everybody said I only did it to annoy,
But I was gonna be an engineer.


New smartphone, or, learning and change

As I was saying, I needed to replace my PDA.  Last Saturday, just ahead of 6 or 8 inches of “a light dusting of snow,” my wife and I each got the Verizon HTC Droid Eris.  (She meanwhile received a BlackBerry for work; we now have more smart phones in the house than we do smart people.)

The good news is we were able to make a call on the way home from the store, so the phone part was easy to master.  That was the prelude to four or five hours during which we both tinkered with our phones.

It was a good reminder that people who say “learning is fun” are usually talking about past learning, rather than future.

At a particularly high level of stress, I wrote down some comments we were making:

  • I know I came across it at one point…
  • How do you…?
  • How did I…?
  • Where was…?

…which helps explain my original delay in getting the phone in the first place.  Cost was one factor: Verizon’s data plan adds $30 to your monthly phone bill.  On a two-year contract, that’s $720 dollars (in addition to your voice plan, even though ours is relatively cheap).

In retrospect, I think the more important factor for me was transition cost (which a couple of friends might phrase as “resistance to change”).  I see three potential sources of trouble from a shift like the one I’ve made:

  • You’ve got to learn some new things.
  • You’ve got to learn how to do some things differently.
  • You’ve got to leave some things behind.

Of those, I think “differently” is the most troubling.  That’s the real change: to accomplish X, I used to do Y.  I knew how to do Y.  I was good at Y, so much so I didn’t have to think about it, because it had been incorporated into a larger set of behavior, the way I instinctively know when to use “the” and when not to (my sister’s in the hospital, my brother’s in college).

A certain amount of stress (or perhaps challenge) can help foster learning–we’ve got a goal, we’re looking for a way to accomplish it.  Too much, though, and we see the new practice or new technology as not just a change but a hindrance–a word whose roots suggest harm, injury, or impairment.

I’ve also noticed several instances of “intuitive cognitive strategies” (a term van Merriënboer and Kirschner use for “incorrect notions that newbies come up with”).  For example, there are seven home screens–a phrase that confused me, since I thought of the middle one as the home screen.    The other sixe were…I don’t know, helper screen.  Subscreens.  Peripheral screens.

(Why this matters: you only have so much space on the smartphone screen.  By flicking your finger across it, you can switch between the various home screens and have more real estate for applications.)

Part of that confusion might have come from the concept of scenes, which are alternative sets of home screens.  (You swap in a new scene and your home screens are different–like one for work and one for play, maybe.)

Got that?  Me, either, which is why I thought that you had to add a new icon to the “main” home screen (the middle one of the seven) and then drag it wherever you wanted it, like the offspring of the iPhone and a number puzzle.

Going back to transition cost, the highest risk for me was that I’d have to re-enter my contacts and my calendar items if the Eris couldn’t sync with Microsoft Outlook.  I didn’t want to have to switch to Google’s contacts and calendar (see above, “learn some new things” and “leave some things behind”).

Cooperative learning came into play.  I don’t recall what I was doing at the time (probably trying to create a clear path for app-dragging), but my wife made a very specific search and found a description of how to get the Eris to sync directly with Outlook on my desktop.

It was a little bumpy, but I got it done–and that payoff boosted my sense of competence on the new tool.  Now I’m having fun playing with applications, and I’m more prone to see difficulties as puzzles rather than setbacks.  I just hope that the next time I’m trying to breeze someone else through “change management,” I remember how frustrated I felt when my own change was getting managed.

Here’s a video from  Lisa Gade’s look at the Eris (at Mobile Tech Review). You can see a demonstration of those seven home screens at about the 3:00 mark in the video:

Biggest mystery about the phone so far?  It turns out that your purchase doesn’t include the 238 page user guide (PDF).  (To be fair, it’s 238 5 x 5 pages, but still…)  Perhaps Verizon has a goal to encourage discovery learning.

Peculiar mystery: if you visit Android Market (the Google source for Android applications) with a computer rather than a smartphone, there’s no search function.

[Here are] some of the more popular applications and games available in Android Market. For a comprehensive, up-to-date list of the thousands of titles that are available, you will need to view Android Market on a handset.

No search?  From Google?

Onetime English major mystery:  Eris was the goddess of strife.  At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, she lobbed a golden apple inscribed “to the fairest.”  Squabbling among goddesses led to the Trojan War, an event somewhat more frustrating than switching to a smart(er) phone.