Productivity trio

There was a time when I was a complete honk for Getting Things Done, aka GTD. I first read the book back around 1999 or so, when I was working in Org Dev for a megacorp. I’ve been implementing, tweaking, and falling off the wagon ever since. I still think GTD is the seminal work in the field of personal productivity, but there are other shining lights. Two of my favorite are Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow and Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy.

Anyway, these days I’ve kind of got my productivity schtick figured out. Not to say that it doesn’t need tuning from time to time, but I’ve basically settled on my toolset. Because of that I don’t really poke around the old personal productivity blogs or pay much attention to that space at all. Even so, the last week brought three interesting productivity-related items to my attention. Without much comment, here they are:

1. A drink company wrote a very thorough screed on using GTD with Evernote, called The Secret Weapon. Lots of people have taken a crack at this setup, but this is the nicest tutorial I’ve seen. Evernote really can be a universal capture tool for many people.

2. Mark Forster came out with a new time management system called Final Version. You can get the details by subscribing to his newsletter on his web site. I’ve looked at it, and it’s pretty straightforward. No special tools needed, and it can be easily implemented with pencil and paper. Might be worth looking at if GTD gives you fits.

3. Finally, speaking of GTD, David Allen has an article in the current NYT about the relevancy of GTD to today’s workers. Good reading.

An Internet Literacy

I think this post on better Internet literacy is just right on. Especially the question about ‘what are the 10 things we wish everyone on the Internet knew.’ I’m not sure I can come up with a full ten things, but here’s a shot at it, and I’m poaching some of the things the original author mentioned…

  1. The value of using multiple browsers
  2. How to sync bookmarks across browsers (and good use of bookmark toolbars)
  3. How to read URLs (in order to thwart spoofing)
  4. The importance of strong passwords, and how to construct unique, easy to remember passwords
  5. How to use an online bookmarking service (and why)
  6. Basic security when using public WiFi
  7. The basics of online presence and reputation

Relatedly, this post about eight critical skills for the future is also right on the money. The skills listed are sort of higher level thinking, but important nonetheless:

  1. Communication management
  2. Reputation management
  3. Privacy management
  4. Information management
  5. Opportunity management
  6. Technology management
  7. Relationship management
  8. Legacy management

Others have also mentioned the lasting importance of two ‘old school’ skills: time management, and money management. That sounds right to me…as long as time and money are in short supply for individuals, these skills will be critical.

How to be a graceful receiver

How many times have you been out to dinner/coffee/whatever with someone and tussled over the bill? Sometimes a perfectly nice get together can be spoiled at the end by two people insisting upon bestowing their generosity upon their friend, and neither stopping for a moment to gracefully accept the gift. Such a bummer. And notice I’m talking about simply being graceful rather than grateful. Being graceful is an outward expression; being grateful is an internal posture (though can often be gracefully expressed).

It happened again to me today. Went out for lunch with relatives for one person’s birthday, and the birthday person insisted on at least paying for some of the lunches. I told them, there are 364 other days during the year where you’re welcome to buy me lunch; please let me give you this gift. To no avail. Sometimes you just have to shrug and let the steamroller do it’s thing.

It got me thinking about when I’m on the receiving end of that kind of proposition. I like giving gifts as much as the next person, but sometimes it is good to be a receiver. It’s not as natural, though. Givers are in control, receivers not so much. I think resistance to a gift is probably the receiver’s attempt at wresting back a little bit of control from the giver. Anyway, I’ve got some rules that I try real hard to follow:

1. If someone insists on treating me, and I’m not expecting it, I’ll politely decline. If they insist, I’ll ask whether they’re sure (the answer is always yes by this time), then I will thank them and accept.
2. If it’s a larger ticket item, like lunch or dinner, I’ll accept with the caveat that they allow me to get the tip. This almost always works, and we both leave feeling good.
3. If the deal is scheduled in advance, ie, someone says, “I’d like to take you out for coffee” then there’s no demurring and only an honest “thank you.”

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I really do think there’s a difference between being grateful and graceful. We can be graceful through practice, without a grateful heart it’s a hollow discipline. Learning to be grateful makes it easier to be graceful.

Neckties are for heathens

I don’t wear neckties. Haven’t for years. The last time I wore a tie was probably 8 years ago. One of my previous bosses died, and I had a ton of respect for her, so I suited up and went to the funeral. Haven’t worn one since.

Fortunately I work in an office where nobody really blinks if I come to work in a hoody. Even for me, though, a hoody is a bit lowbrow for work. And I’m careful to look at least marginally reputable if I’ve got visitors scheduled. But no neckties.

Heres’t the deal. I loved neckties back in the day. A nice tie made me feel like I was going to work, man. Reputable and responsible, and all grown up. A man to be reckoned with, even if I did drive a VW bus. Jiminy, I was such a tool. Anyway, neckties. After a while I started having a hard time spending $50 on new ties (I know…). And close on the heels of that revelation came comfort. I could not believe that the IT guys didn’t have to wear a tie to work! Even the marketing guys were squeaking by without ties, on Friday at least. So I took a bite of that forbidden fruit and I liked it. It had everything to do with comfort and nothing to do with theology. Who said anything about theology, you ask? Hold onto your hat, we’re getting there…

There is a whole Quaker theology about “plain dress.” I think it’s weird, and I’m a Quaker. What I find most odd is that there are some people who are so serious about this that it becomes their “idol.” Which kinda seems to defeat the purpose. My guess is that those folks are in the minority, though, which is why they stand out. Anyway, I think there’s something worthwhile about dressing plainly as a statement of faith and solidarity with those who are unable to dress any other way. Scott Holmes wrote a great essay about his own experience as a lawyer and Quaker and refusing to wear a tie in court. He makes many good points, but I resonate most deeply with his comments about the ways a necktie can become a class barrier between people. Guys with ties can easily be perceived as being in a different (read: better) class of people than those without.

For me, what started out as a comfort rebellion many years ago, has since aged into a pretty clear sense that by wearing a necktie I’m erecting a barrier between myself and others. Christ calls us to live among people, not apart from them, and it’s my sense that for me alone, neckties as daily work apparel get in the way of my ability to serve those to whom I’m called. There is a balance, though. People expect me to have some degree of expertise in my field and, like it or not, what I wear can help ease anxiety. If I look and act like a “professional,” I’ll have an easier time working with those who seek my assistance. If I look like I just got back from the skatepark it’ll be more difficult to quickly gain trust.

Image credit: Touzeen Hussain

When to tweak the system

Nice short, pointed post over at A. King in Society about being being productive and tweaking productivity systems. I sometimes get sucked into the trap of tweaking systems and it’s definitely a game of diminishing returns. And, after all this time of trying stuff out, being on the GTD bandwagon, and falling off, and getting back on, I still can’t really put my finger on when it’s really necessary to tweak the system.

For my own part, I’ve been very happy for quite a long time with Taskpaper on my Mac and iPhone. It’s simple, fast, and synchronized. I saw that Notational Velocity allows a basic strikeout using an @done tag, and I checked it out to see if it could do strikeouts with something like @done(2011-03-30) which it can’t. I could’ve spent more time hacking up a workaround just to get my task list into NV, but I didn’t. That’s where I’m different today than I was even just a couple of years ago.

I don’t really have any groundbreaking information that hasn’t been shared by others. I guess I’ll just leave you (myself, really) with the encouragement to be mindful about the work at hand. Keep an eye on the 80/20 and aim for the 80% to be actually getting stuff done, and not just moving deck chairs on the Titanic. That is all.

Maeda’s First Law of Simplicity: Reduce

I’ve been following John Maeda’s work for years. He’s slowed down on the blogging since he became the Prez of Rhode Island School of Design, but his thinking on the laws of simplicity remain solid. His first law of simplicity is Reduce, for which he says, “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.”

I’ve got a bluetooth device that has just three buttons. But depending on how long you press them, and in what context, I can pair up the device, turn it on, turn it off, raise the volume, lower the volume, stop an audio track, pause audio, skip ahead one audio track, skip back one audio track, redial a number, answer a call, and end a call. Twelve functions with three buttons. Not bad. Someone clearly spent some time on thoughtful reduction.

At my job we put on an annual conference. For years we’ve bent over backwards to provide attendees the most granular options for registration, which has made creating online registration forms a bit of a nightmare. This year we’re cleaning it up a bit. For one track in particular, we’ve eliminated basically every option, and simply narrowed it down to a single price. Register and get everything you need, or don’t come. That’s going to polarize some attendees, for sure. What remains to be seen is whether the quality of attendees, and by extension the quality of the conference, will change due to the simplification of pricing.

Reduce is a killer concept for me. Super easy to forget, and way too easy to ignore. Scope creep in particular is a monster that I feel like I’m always fighting. But if I can remember to attend to the “thoughtful reduction,” and remain willing to spend the time working through the tradeoffs, Reduce often pays dividends.

Decision Tools: Pair Ranked and Weighted

We all make a lot of decisions, big and small. Most of the time we don’t need to over-think the process, right? I mean, if the printer is out of paper, just get more paper. No need to construct a T-chart with pros and cons. Sometimes, though, the effort it takes to build out a structured decision process totally pays off.

Here’s a method I’ve used a bunch of times, in a bunch of situations. Though I’ve used it in many contexts, I find it to be particularly helpful during a hiring process, especially with a group. It takes time to set up, and it takes even more time when you’re working toward consensus with a group (a whole different blog post), but if the decision is important, it’s time well spent.

Step One
Brainstorm criteria: whatever your decision is about, brainstorm a list of no more than a dozen criteria by which to judge your alternatives. So, if you’re looking at painting your living room, you might have a list like this: low VOC, high coverage, low carbon footprint, low cost, easy to source.

Step Two
Pair rank your criteria. Take your list of criteria, and compare each one to all others. Decide, one at a time, which is more important to you. So, between low VOC, or high coverage…which is more important? Now compare low VOC against low carbon footprint: if you could only choose one, which would it be? As you run through the list, put a hash mark next to the criteria that “wins” each comparison. By the end of the exercise, you’ll have a clear view of which criteria is most important to you.

Step Three
Weight your criteria. If you initially brainstormed a list of 12 criteria, you’ll see that some criteria didn’t get any “votes.” You can eliminate these from consideration. You might only want to consider criteria which gathered 3 or more hashmarks, or “votes.” So of the original 12 brainstormed criteria, maybe you’ve got 5 remaining criteria with at least 3 hashmarks. Add up all the hashmarks for all remaining criteria. Let’s say there are 18 hashmarks. If “low VOC” has 5 of 18 hashmarks, then it’s weight will be 5/18, or 27% (5 divided by 18, multiplied by 100). Do this calculation for each remaining criteria, rounding as needed so that your final percentages add up to 100%.

Step Four
Evaluate alternatives against criteria. Now this gets a little technical. A spreadsheet is probably best for this step, since you’ll be arranging stuff vertically and horizontally. Since you’re usually more limited along the horizontal view, use whatever you’ve got the least amount of, criteria or alternatives, along the top row. Whatever there’s more of should be arranged vertically along the left side. Now you want to compare each alternative against each criteria. So, looking at Paint A and Paint B against the “low VOC” criteria, which would you choose: Paint A or Paint B? Now compare both against the next criteria, and so on. When done, move to Paint B against Paint C for low VOC: which would you choose? As before, as you make your choices, place a hashmark in the intersection of alternative and criteria to indicate your “vote.”

Step Five
Calculate results. Now that you’ve brainstormed your criteria, pair ranked them, then pair ranked your alternatives against your criteria, you should start to see a decision emerging. At this stage you’ll need to multiply each alternative’s total hashmark count by the weight of each criteria. When finished, add up all the numbers accumulated for each alternative. You should see a clear “winner.”

Step Six
Gut check. Once you’ve done all the math and you see where it leads you, how do you feel about it? As much work as this entails, it is an imprecise method. There are plenty of opportunities to make pair ranked selections based on emotion, rather than fact, and that can lead the entire process astray. Take a look at your results. Does it feel about right to you? If you or your team have any unresolvable reservations about the outcome, scratch it and start over. It’s a pain, but if the outcome is important, it’s worth the investment of time.

I know this looks like a lot of stuff. And for run of the mill decisions, it’s too much overhead. But if a decision matters, and you want to be able to justify your process down the line, this kind of process is pure gold.

New blog

So I’m at it again. After a few previous false starts, I’m going to get back into blogging. In part because I like writing, and it’s a good discipline for me. And in part as my own little rebellion against my tendency to take the easy way out with Twitter or Facebook.

It’s not going to be all long form posts here. In fact it’ll probably be mostly shorter bits that I find elsewhere on the web. I’ve noticed my tendency to read and resonate with a few specific topics, so this will be the place where I can write and respond.

At the moment this theme is straight up default. I figure if anyone finds this, they’ll use the RSS feed anyway. Regardless, I’ll pick away at theme customization over time.



Man, I have been neglectful (is that a word?) over here. Slacker Manager has been sucking in all my attention lately. Speaking of which, it’s going pretty well. Thanks for asking. I’m getting about 300 visitors per day and nearly double that in page views. And, as of a moment ago, 75 people were subscribed to the RSS feed. I don’t know 75 people. That’s kinda freaky. Makes me wonder what the second month will be like.

Serve day

I did a different kind of work today. Today was ‘Serve Day’ at the university. That means that everyone, and I mean everyone, goes out into the local community and does manual labor. All kinds of stuff–painting, yard work, ditch digging, roofing, building stuff, etc… It’s a really big deal, since the school shuts down for a day to do this. The planning is a big deal too. This year there were close to 100 groups going out into the community. Each group numbers between a dozen to upwards of 50 people. My group was one of the bigger ones. We went up to our church (I put in a special request to get assigned there) and did all the stuff I mentioned before. I mainly did exterior painting, though I also did some weedeater work, some sweeping, and some asphalt repair. I’m pretty tired now, and I guess all the students I worked with are too. I’ll try to get some pictures up another day.

Other groups were assigned to retirement homes, daycare places, individual homes, other churches, various parks around town, etc.

On another, unrelated note, I think I’ll be ditching the Link Harvest pretty soon. I’ll still collect links and I’ll still post them on the sidebar, but I just won’t host the Harvest on anymore. I’ll be moving my posting over to and the sidebar will stay populated from that RSS feed. I’ve subscribed to the ‘most popular’ RSS feed for a while now, and I really like the interconnectedness of the site (especially this hack). I also like that when/if goes down again, I’ll still have the Link Harvest. ‘Course, if goes down, I’m outta luck. I’ll risk it.