ToDo Lists … Again

Wunderlist iPad

Copyright Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta (Creative Commons)

I seem to have something of a problem.  I have, for years, been experimenting with different ToDo List applications.  I have tried:

  • Franklin-Covey.  It was a dedicated little binder and software application.  Every morning I would print out my ToDo list, check things off that were done, add things that needed to be done and then the next morning repeated the process.
  • Outlook. The Task section of Outlook was my friend for a while, but it felt limiting in how I could arrange my tasks and, like the Franklin-Covey method, most of the time it involved me printing things out.
  • Manual.  I followed one practitioner who recommended that everyday you write out your ToDo list on a piece of paper (or in a book) and check off everything you did.  When the next day came you rewrote your ToDo list. The idea was that you would be so sick of writing things out that you would just do the task.  I just stopped writing things out.
  • White Boarding.  I have a white board at my desk.  I have dry erase markers at my desk.  You would think that this would be a match made in heaven but the number of things on my ToDo list exceeded the space on my white board.
  • Tasks in iOS.  Wonderful.  Great.  Stuck on a single platform.  Ugh
  • ToodleDo.  An online system that felt … old?  It just didn’t seem to fit.
  • Remember the Milk.  Another online system that I stuck with for a while, but I soon just started ignoring it.
  • Wunderlist.  An online system with apps for every OS and mobile system.  Time to see if I can stick to option number 8?

The most difficult thing is not so much keeping track of the tasks, but figuring out which tasks actually need to be done.  I would put things on my list that, in all honesty, I shouldn’t have been doing.  I also did not put on the list things that I should have been doing.

For example, should I put on the ToDo list an item to follow up with someone on an email that I sent them?   What if they don’t respond?  What if I forget that I sent them the note?

Should I put on the ToDo list things that I want to get someone else to do?  Do I include a follow up to myself after I assign it?  (See above)  Do I just send them an email asking them to do it and then give myself a follow up task?

Consistency is one of the keys, as is just reading the damn thing.  Set aside some time, preferably early in the morning, to go through the ToDo list and see what needs to be done.  Prioritize your work into discrete tasks and, if possible, schedule them into your day.

And, if all else fails, book a meeting with yourself so that you can find the time to go through the list and check things off.

An Open Office Solution

Startup Edmonton Social Area

Startup Edmonton Social Area

So, yesterday I complained about the open office concept and how it caused too much noise and didn’t allow people to be creative.  Indeed, if studies are accurate, people are more prone to colds, high blood pressure and stress in an open office environment.  So, by cramming them in we are making them sick.  Yes, it saves money but “workplace design must go beyond cost-saving to cater for the multifaceted social and psychological needs of employees.

In my opinion, and that opinion seems to have been stolen from many researchers, the best open office environment in one in which there are options for the inhabitants.  If you need privacy, you can get privacy.  (How many people have had to make/take a private phone call in the hallway by the elevators?)  If you need a meeting room you can get a meeting room.  If you need to be working with others then you can find a collaborative work space.

The thing is, the open office concept doesn’t have to be expensive, it just needs to be well designed.  Unfortunately many office buildings are not well designed in the first place and places a lot of pressure on the offices within those buildings to conform to certain standards in order to even fit within the confines of the floor design.  But, that doesn’t mean that creative thinking cannot come up with a way of more effectively utilizing that space.

iQmetrix in Vancouver has made very effective use of space in a modern office building because that is their job:  customer experience.

Cubicles are probably the worst thing ever invented – halfway between an office and a truly open plan with none of the benefits of either.

When I was with Accenture we needed to price out some cubicles for the new office.  I was surprised at the cost of cubicles.  For less money we could have actually gotten real wood desks.  Indeed, by using some creative thinking we could have given everyone their own office, some much needed privacy and quiet and still have come out cheaper than the cubicle route.

If your job involves working with a team of people then it makes sense to lower the barriers for interaction.  If your job involves sitting and thinking than that lower barrier for interaction is a higher barrier for creativity.  Therefore you need a flexible arrangement where you can reverse the barriers:  lower it for creativity, raise it for interaction (interruptions).

Flexibility.

One thing that I have been looking at recently has been “coworking“.  Coworking is the idea of a shared office environment, but independent work.  The reason I was looking at it was for my writing.  I find that I am not as productive as I could be at home, but a coffee shop just seemed wrong for some reason.  A coworking site has some space for you in an environment in which there are multiple other people doing multiple things.  If you need to zone out, put on some headphones.  Need to talk to somebody?  Odds are that there is someone at the coffee machine that you can talk to.

Each coworking space is different.  Startup Edmonton has a location that is designed for startups and they provide additional services for those startup companies.  The cost for a monthly spot?  $175.  And, if you like their coffee, it’s free.  Alberta Venture magazine thinks coworking spaces are going to be growing rapidly in Edmonton. But it’s not just Edmonton where this trend is occurring.  Virtually every major city in the world, and many smaller ones, are jumping on the band wagon to provide “office space” for small companies.

In many respects, isn’t that what a larger company (public or private sector) needs to do internally?  Put a project team together, finish the project and then pull it apart.  A coworking space would be optimal for that.

The options for more productive environments are tremendous, but it requires an organization to want to change.  They need to understand that change is not their enemy and that change can actually be more productive.  It involves taking a risk, but a risk that can be well managed.

So, why aren’t more companies following this route?

Are Open Offices Poison?

According to Dr. Theo Compernolle, an adjunct professor at the CEDEP European Centre for Executive Development, the modern office is bad for us. Indeed, he has some harsh words for us in his pamphlet/book “The Office is Naked“.

Because modern ZOO-directors know more about the inborn needs of their animals, than company-directors about the innate needs of people… the cages in modern zoos are better for animals, than modern offices for people.

Dr. Compernolle even goes so far as to say that badly designed offices lower our productivity by 30% – 50%!  You have to read more of his pamphlet and do a little bit of reading between the lines, but there are some caveats to his 30% – 50% productively decrease.  He is primarily talking about “brainworkers”, those people whose job is creativity.  If your task is repetitive and does not involve creativity the productivity increase is much less.

Arthur Schopenhauer, 19th-century philosopher, stated in his essay “On Noise“:

But noise is the most impertinent of all interruptions, for it not only interrupts our own thoughts but disperses them. Where, however, there is nothing to interrupt, noise naturally will not be felt particularly.

It used to be that the concept of the “open office” was pushed because it was able to allow staff to communicate with each other.  While the really open office (no walls at all) concept is an extension of the original open office, what we have embraced and called “cubicle hell” was the original open office concept.  We all know the reality of the open office concept, however, in that it is cheaper to set up an open office than give everyone their own private space.  Well, used to be cheaper.  With the advent of the “cubicle”, the cost of creating those cubicles went up.  A lot.  Pressboard, fabric and aluminum cross beams apparently cost a lot of money.  Why not charge what people are willing to pay?

Let me ask you a simple question:  If the open office concept so good, why is it that “management” always get offices?

I know the story line:  they need privacy for confidential discussions.  And when might those discussion be happening?  Not in their offices, because they are never there as the majority of management is usually booked in meetings for more than half of their day.  Ah, then they need the space because when they get back from their meetings they need some peace and quite in order to be creative and think.  What about the “brainworkers” that Dr. Compernolle talked about?  Their job is to sit at their desk and be creative, but they don’t get the quiet office.  They get a noise environment where being creative is difficult.  Where thinking is sometimes difficult.

The idea that the open office is meant to be a productivity boon or a means for people to communicate better with each other, is fundamentally false.  The open office is cheaper to create than an office with walls.  It’s as simple as that.  The enclosed office is used as a carrot to the masses:  rise to this level in the organization and you can have walls to keep the rabble out.  (OK, I’m sick while I’m writing this so I may end up using words like “rabble” and other inflammatory words.  My sickness, my prerogative.)

A number of people have tried to indicate that the open office is not a bad thing, but every article I have come across seems to emphasize the same thing:  management needs to walk the talk.  If management is unwilling to go to an open office concept then they are just continuing to perpetuate the idea that walls are good … for some of us.

In a FastCompany article from 2013 “Offices for All!  Why Open-Office Layouts Are Bad For Employees, Bosses, and Productivity“, the writer lists a number of reasons why the loss of walls, the loss of privacy, makes the open office worse:

  1. We work slower and our work is worse
  2. Our time is not everyone’s time.  (Now you can have a meeting with your neighbour just be walking by.)
  3. We all know Serendipity is, at best, fleeting.  (Just because you overhear a conversation about shopping in Costco doesn’t mean that you are going to realize that a single lane queue is more effective than multiple lanes.  Trust me, it is more efficient.)
  4. Open-Office layouts distance us from our co-workers

The writer went on to end his article with this:  “Hold on, a colleague just knocked on my chair. I’ll finish that thought later.

Inc., however, ran an article on why the open office is good for you.  In their words:

  1. You’re tuned into the office vibe
  2. You’re more approachable
  3. It improves interoffice communication.

There is a caveat about the Inc. article, however, in that it stated that the open office concept needed to be adopted by everyone, senior management included.  Particularly by senior management.

The New York Times tried an article that sang the praises of the open office, but they actually called for the death of cubicles and the creation of space designed for creativity.  Cubes are not designed for creativity, they are designed for cramming people into as small a space as possible along with all the noise and other down sides associated with having people so close to each other.

So, if cubes don’t work, and by any sort of scientific study they don’t, what’s the alternative?  (Hint:  read tomorrow’s note)

Hard Drive Failure — Again

Inside a hard drive

Copyright Shields.Jared (Creative Commons)

Well, it happened again.  A hard drive failed on my machine at home.  Over the course of the past three years I have had:

  • One internal solid state drive.  Failed after six months.  One day I had files, then I went out for a walk and when I came back, no files.
  • Two external hard drives fail.  One full sized drive and one portable drive that failed a couple of weeks ago.
  • Four internal hard drives fail.  Three were part of an internal RAID so there was no data loss, but the last failure, the one that occurred on Sunday, was similar to the SSD failure back in November.  One moment files, the next moment the drive was completely inaccessible.

Seven drive failures in just over three years and this is just on machines at home.  (My machine at work has had one of its hard drive drop out of the RAID array twice in the past few months.)  That pretty much exceeds the number of drive failures in my household for the rest of the twenty first century combined. The drive that failed on the weekend, a Seagate 1TB drive, was the last of the original drives that I had purchased with my machine in October of 2011.

Over the course of this century (sounds better than “the last 15 years”) I have had literally every single part of a computer fail:

  • CPU (melted from the inside)
  • CPU Fan (allowed the CPU to fail – see above)
  • Power Supply (desktop and it fried the mother board and hard drives when it failed)
  • USB ports (multiple laptops and a desktop)
  • Video Card (on a desktop)
  • Built-in sound (on a laptop)
  • Memory chips (laptop)
  • DVD drive (desktop)
  • Motherboard (laptop)
  • Touchpad (laptop)

One of the most bizarre failures was actually the video card on the desktop that we got for my daughter.  She was planning on attending some post secondary institute to continue her education within the digital arts area so her mother and I decided that we would get her a computer that would help her out.  We came to this conclusion when her last USB port failed (see above) at almost the same time as her touchpad stopped working (see above).  With no way of attaching a mouse or moving the cursor it became necessary to replace the laptop.

After getting a machine custom built at Memory Express we took it home and started installing everything that she was going to need.  We were having some unique issues with her machine, however, in that every so often it would spontaneously reboot and there seemed to be a lingering smell of burning rubber or plastic.  Within the month I packed up the computer and took it back to Memory Express for them to examine and fix.

When I got there they put the machine on the service counter, put it on its side and took off the access panel so that they could take a quick look and see if they could identify the problem.  He hooked it up to their test monitor, plugged in a keyboard and turned on the computer.  Immediately the smell of something burning filled the air and, within a few seconds of turning it on, fire erupted from the video card surprising both the technician and me.  Swearing rather loudly and unplugging the computer the technician looked up at me and with a straight face said “Don’t worry, we’re going to make sure that this one is covered by the warranty.”

My latest computer part failure, while not as dramatic, is nonetheless a warning sign to me that I was hoping never came.  The failures of hardware components appears to be accelerating as the years go by.  Hardware manufactured seven or eight years ago is dying along with hardware created just a few years ago.  I would have assumed that the hardware would last the same amount of time, but it appears that the longevity of the hardware has been shrinking.  Is it deliberate (let’s make the hardware fail faster so that it can be replaced faster!) or just a byproduct of an ever increasingly complex environment such that even the smallest problems are exacerbated by the complexity.

I thought I had paid for quality material every single time.  Now I’m starting to wonder if that’s true.

Writing and More Writing

Writing

Copyright Jonathan Kim (Creative Commons)

People (yes, the generic people) keep saying that in order to learn how to write better you need to, quite simply, write.  The more you write the more you learn and the more you learn the better you will write.

I’m not sure that I believe those people and let me explain why.

I am actually in the process of writing a couple of different blogs:

A Writing Prompt A Day – This is where I am creating the first paragraph of a short story, flash fiction piece or even a novel, your choice.  I need to be creative enough to come up with a paragraph that gives the would be author enough information to create their own story based on the “clues” in the first paragraph.  Believe me, this is actually harder than it sounds.

Daughter of a Mad Man – This is a blog in support of a book that I am writing.  The book is about a young girl who has been trying to become one of the “popular” crowd and thinks she has succeeded only to have everything come crashing down.  The blog is her thoughts and additional background that occurs before, during and after the novel.

Random Madness – The blog that you are reading now.

Internal Note – As part of a work process I am creating daily notes (blog entries) that get sent out to a selected audience.  This audience usually receives the same note as I post in Random Madness, but sometimes I need to create a note specifically for the internal audience.  As a result I need to post additional material internally.

So, here I am writing 3.5 blogs and yet, I don’t think that my writing has changed / improved substantially and I feel that it is because all of the blogs have different styles.  Not only that, but the style is very different from the book that I am trying to write.  Okay, books, that I am trying to write.  I may be improving, but because I am constantly changing my style of writing the improvements are either really small or getting lost because I am changing style.  (Oh, I forgot to mention the thousand to two thousand words I day that I write in emails.)

Yes, by all means, write and write a lot.  Just remember, that in order to improve it is not just writing a lot, but writing the same style a lot.

Goal Setting

Sistine Chapel - Det sixtinske kapell

Copyright Lasse Christensen (Creative Commons)

The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.

Michaelangelo

Why would setting your goal too low be a danger?

Human beings love the idea of a challenge.  The whole “space race” was such a challenge – being the first country to land someone on the moon – and it was quite successful.  The competition, the challenge of doing something that was seemingly impossible, everything combined to create a sense of community amongst the various nations.  This community spirit allowed people to think and act differently, to expand the horizons that they thought were there and to peer into into areas that were previously protected by signs that warned “Beyond here there be dragons”.

The challenge and camaraderie that spawned as a result of the desire to aim high, literally, brought together people and nations.  Ideas and passion can do that.

NaNoWriMo is an example of setting a goal quite high.  An achievable goal to be sure, but still something that is a stretch to accomplish.  While it’s target of 50,000 words in a month is nothing that will bring a nation together, it is a goal that can ignite passion in a single individual and help motivate them to achieving the goal.  Setting a goal and working your way towards it in a very visible manner enforces accountability and helps to ensure that you “have some skin in the game”: your reputation and your self-esteem.

If you set a goal too low, however, if your goal is too simplistic and too easy to reach then you have a tendency of, not doing your best work.  You coast to the finish line, barely content with having achieved the goal.  There is no rush of adrenaline, no elation at having supposed your target, just a dull, roaring silence.  It is difficult to be motivated by doing something that comes easily.

John F. Kennedy emphasized this point at Rice University in 1962 when he said:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Igniting the human spirit is what a well-set target can do for you.

Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero - Nirvana

Copyright David Reber (Creative Commons)

There are over 244,000 pages on the internet with the exact phrase “Inbox Zero”, but what is Inbox Zero? I’ve talked about it before, but I wanted to give you some results as to my own experiences, so let’s start off at the beginning.

The idea behind Inbox Zero is attributed to Merlin Mann, a productivity expert and creator of “43 folders” a blog about “finding the time and attention to do your best creative work”.  Inbox Zero is the concept of reducing your inbox to zero using the following rules:

  • Delete – Delete what you will not need like that email that said job xx completed successfully.  Now that you know it did, delete the email.  OR archive the email if you can’t/won’t/are legally unable to delete it.
  • Delegate – If someone else can do it for you, send the email to them.
  • Respond – If you can send a response in less than two minutes then do so, otherwise …
  • Defer – Place the email in a “Response Required” folder and, later in the day, respond to all of the email in this folder.
  • Do – If it is something that can be done right now, do it.  If it is something that needs to be done later, put it in your calendar.

Here is Merlin’s definition for an Inbox:  a place for email that you haven’t read.  Seems kind of simple doesn’t it.

But simple and real life don’t co-exist.  Let me tell you what I have done and my successes and failures.  (Lots of failures.)

Delete – I have an email filter that takes messages sent to groups that I am part of and automatically archives those messages.  If you need to send me a message then you need to put my name specifically in the recipient list.  My team handles the email sent to the group, I handle email sent to me.  This reduces my daily inbox by about three quarters, but it still leaves over one hundred messages a day.  I also take anything that is three weeks old and archive it, read or unread.  I figure that if it is something important then someone has gotten hold of me since they sent the original note.

Delegate – OK, I still have a problem with this.  I need to delegate more.  I really, really do and I am working on it, but this is, for me, one of my failure points.

Respond – If the note is sent to me and I can respond in less than two minutes I quite often do.  Not always and therein lies my problem.  Some things require a little bit more information and it should go into the Response Required folder but …

Defer – I love deferring things.  Sometimes too much.  And, to be honest, I don’t really have a Response Required folder, I use my Inbox as the Response Required folder which kind of defeats the whole purpose.  As a result, stuff that I defer sometimes gets lost.  Not forever, just until I archive it three weeks later.

Do – I think I’m pretty good here.

So, personally, I need to do a couple of things:  create a response required folder and learn to delegate.  My inbox right now hovers around the 1000 mark for a few weeks of email with approximately 30% unread.  What I need to do is sit down in a room where people can’t find me and go through my entire inbox and get it down to zero.  The role I have in the organization says that I should be able to do this, after all, I’m a manager and I shouldn’t really be needed for operational duties.  That’s why I’m part of a team.

I’ve been at zero.  Twice.  The feeling was glorious and then we had a mild crisis and next thing I knew there was an avalanche in my inbox and I was swamped and couldn’t dig my way out.  Discipline.  It requires discipline and I need to make it happen.

Web services need planning

Project Management Plan

Project Management Plan

Copyright perhapstoopink (Creative Commons)

I get calls all the time at home from “investment planners” and “retirement planners” and all sorts of other people who believe that I need to plan for the future.  Well, their not wrong, but planning needs to occur in other areas of your life as well.

Taking on my mantle of IT Philosopher I’m here to talk to you about planning.  Future planning for your applications.

I understand that being able to write “Developed and implemented web services” looks good on a resume, but if your application does not need a web service don’t give it one.  Sorry for the emphasis, but it’s needed.  Quite often I see application architectures that don’t make a lot of sense, other than the fact that it will look good on a resume.

Let’s take a look at a fictitious travel agency “Jessop Fantasy Tours”  (hey, my story, my travel agency).  One thing that probably makes good sense to spin off into a web service is “RetrieveTravelItinerary”.  Based on the name you would assume that this web service would retrieve the Itinerary based on a key being passed in.  In order to determine if it meets the criteria for a web service see if it satisfies these points:

  1. There is a need for this information in multiple locations in one or more applications.

OK, there was originally going to be a list of five or six points, but, for the most part, it really comes down to the above question.  Even then I could spend another couple of thousand words just talking about the permutations and combinations of items that make up the little phrase “multiple locations”.

For instance, I don’t mean two different places on the same screen.  I don’t mean in two different functions, but in two different application functions.  (“List of Itineraries” and “Itinerary Details”).  If you plan on commercializing the usage of the function then that would qualify as multiple locations.  By commercializing the usage I don’t necessarily mean external to the organization.  You could have a function, used strictly internally, that you need to promote, maintain and elicit usage within the organization.  Let’s say that my travel agency provides clients with a list of restaurants near a location that they pick.  They can do this from within the pages where they book the travel or, because I am a nice guy and I want to drive traffic to my site, I also put this on the main page.  The email system also needs it because it will generate the itinerary and associated restaurants and send that information to an email address.

There are valid reasons for creating web services (same function, different places) and poor reasons for creating web services (resume padding, bored).  Know which one is which and make sure that the reasons are valid.

The Scroll Wheel

Click Click Scroll

Copyright yum9me (Creative Commons)

Do you use the scroll wheel on a mouse?  You know, the wheel thingy on the top of the mouse?

Mine died on me the other night.  I would scroll and scroll and all that I would get would be little tiny muscles on my finger.  (Seriously, can you imagine fingers with well defined muscles?)  Considering how much I use my scroll wheel I either needed to get it fixed, or I needed a new mouse.  Well, I couldn’t fix it.  Neither could my wife (smaller hands), so that left getting a new mouse.

My wife, however, was of a different opinion.  Why did I need to use the scroll wheel?  She never did.  Well, that just about knocked me out.  My wife suggested that I trade with my daughter, but she said that she used the scroll wheel too, so I would have to go buy a new mouse.

So I did.

But it got me to thinking that like the software that we have installed on our computers, we probably don’t make effective use of 99% of the things that we use/buy.    Toothpaste?  Good for temporarily filling in scratches on glasses.  Vinegar?  Well, other than being really good on french fries, it does an awesome job on water scale.  The scroll wheel on a mouse?

How many people never use the scroll wheel?  How many have no idea what I am talking about?  What else do you think that people don’t use effectively?

Learning from Writing

Day 29: Studies

Copyright Snugg LePup (Creative Commons)

There was an interesting article on Lifehacker the other day with regard to “Four Basic Writing Principles You Can Use in Everyday Life” that I wanted to bring to your attention.  The four principles mentioned were:

  1. Show, Don’t Tell
  2. Simplicity Is Better than Flowery
  3. Read a Lot, Learn from Everything
  4. Focus by Learning What Not to Do

I was immediately struck by how writing can be simplified down to a small set of rules.  Oh, sure, there are other rules like “Spell things correctly” that you need to follow, but creativity-wise these four are critical.  But they are so much more than just rules for writing as they apply to when you create a presentation or when you design an applications architecture.  They apply to almost anything that is creative in nature.

For example, I’m sure that you’ve seen PowerPoint slides where the font is a 10 point font and you are at the back of the room, or a complicated 3D diagram that combines 10 different elements into a single mass of colour and lines.  Oh, speaking of colour, adding lines on a graph that are so close in colour only a machine can tell the difference.  Instead of showing a graph of poverty levels to indicate that something has negative impact (telling people), show them a picture of a child waiting in line at a soup kitchen.  Instead of describing the beauty of a flower, show a picture of how that beauty is affecting people.

For application architectures the motto of K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) has been around for decades and yet we continue to ignore it.  We have an application on site that has so many different parts, so many different machines and so many different parts that need to be synchronized that I am constantly surprised that it is still working.  It does, however, take forever to make changes.  Changes to the application are planned months in advance and take half a year to test.

Throughout all of our application architectures, however, we fail to do one thing:  focus by learning what not to do.  We have plenty of examples of how not to build things and yet we continue to build it the same way.  We know that mobile applications, while perhaps not prevalent in our current environment, not only make sense for the future, but that their design patterns make our existing applications easier to build and implement.  We know this, so why haven’t we learned?

Four simple rules applicable in writing and other creative endeavours.