Posted in Analog, Techniques, Tools

Digital note-taking isn’t ready for prime time

There has been a long aspiration in the tech communities to replace paper and pen and go pure digital. “It’s easier to organize.” “It’s faster to access.” “It’s more intuitive.” When it comes down to it tech wants to replace something that has been around for thousands of years and proves time and time again to be a more reliable solution.

Typically you’ll come across posts such as “The top 5 digital note taking devices of 2020” or the like showcasing the latest in handwriting tech and identifying “transformational” new ways to capture your notes and thoughts with a stylus. I’ll admit I’ve been seduced by the talk in the same way going back to the days of Palm Pilots and Windows CE devices only to be let down time and time again.

I’m not saying you may not find the perfect tool for you, but what I am saying is the technology both hardware and software have been found lacking in my book. Whether it’s an uncomfortable stylus (I’m looking at you Samsung) or an exceptional expensive device (hey, Sony) the chance for digital handwriting to replace traditional pen and paper still has a huge way to go.

Now some may say I’m not being fair about this. “People have terrible handwriting,” or “There are so many styles to account for” that it’s too much to ask for perfection. You’re probably right, but that doesn’t change the fact that traditional pen and paper can handle those situations at a fraction of a fraction of the cost.

If you’re looking to move to digital note-taking and don’t want to be tied to a keyboard, just remember what you’re asking to happen. If you’re inclined to tell someone, “oh my handwriting is terrible” how do you expect a computer to make the interpretations of your chicken scratch. I’ve got a crazy idea. Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on tech to compensate why not spend some time working on your handwriting and note taking skills so it’s not an issue in the first place.

You can use scanning tools and smart pens such as LiveScribe or Rocketbooks, but neither will fix unintelligible handwriting. This is a skill that pays dividends for the rest of your life no matter what happens with technology. In this period of stay-at-home and social distancing, put some of that time to use to work on that penmanship so the digital translation isn’t the issue it has been.

I’ve included some links below to articles that may help you turn that chicken scratch into something you don’t mind reading and sharing.


How to Improve Penmanship – The Art of Manliness

How to Improve your Handwriting – Bullet Journal

Posted in Strategy, Techniques

Managing Physical Clutter

“Does it spark joy?” If you’ve done anything in the organization or productivity space you’ve heard this phrase from the popular organizer Marie Kondo. While I haven’t gone down the complete rabbit hole yet I have been making a concerted effort to get my physical clutter challenges under control. A few things have started to work well for me and I thought I’d share them. Your mileage may vary.

Label, label, everywhere

I used to chuckle at my father for years because there wasn’t a thing he had that wasn’t labeled in some way. The drawer, the box, the bag, it didn’t matter, there was always a label to tell you what it should contain. I’ve resisted using labels for years out of a foolish desire to find a way to make things work differently than my father. Since his passing, I’ve learned how foolish I truly was and that labels just make sense.

By breaking things down into categories, providing a container for each category, and then labeling each container, I’ve started to get not only a physical grasp on the clutter but a mental one as well. For example, I used to have a large freezer bag of pens (way too many to ever use them all) kept in a cabinet in my office. I thought that since they were all together in one place, I had them “organized.” To quote the late, great comedian John Pinette, “Oh, nay nay.”

Now what I do is break the pens down into the types of pens as I would need them. Those groupings fit into smaller containers (more about that later) and then I label the containers accordingly. The key is for the label to be relevant to the need. When I need a refill for my Parker pen I know there is a small container labeled “Parker refills”. When I need a cartridge for a fountain pen, it’s in the container labeled “fountain pen refills.” Again, the key is the labels identify the answer to the need rather than just being a description of the contents.

Little boxes

Over the past several months I have been on a quest to try and reuse as much packaging as I can from orders and purchases. If I buy something that comes in a small box, I keep the box. If something comes with a small cloth bag, I keep the bag. The idea is to use these free “little containers” to help subdivide my things into relevant groupings. If you go back to the labeling example, the “Parker Refills” container is actually a small, flat cardboard box from Harry’s shave club. I cleaned the packaging out and labeled it appropriately before putting it in my cabinet. Not only does this help the environment, but the smaller divisions make keeping a grasp on what I have and what I don’t have much easier.

Labeling things as well as containers

There are some things that don’t lend themselves to singular containers as well as others. For example, power supplies. Being a technology guy I have accumulated a large number of stray power supplies over the years. Now each power supply typically marries to only one device (thanks a lot old-school lock-in thinking) so it is important to know what goes to what. Hence the labeling for the power supplies. Rather than putting a label on the wall plug end of the supply (where there is usually a large wall wart to stick it to) I wrap the label around the plug end of the cord like a flag. This way I can easily tell what plugs into what before I damage anything.

USB cables are another excellent use case as to the importance of labeling. Look at this mess I have:

  • USB-A to USB-A
  • USB-C to USB-A
  • USB-A to MicroUSB
  • USB-A to mini USB
  • USB-C to USB-C

In most cases I have multiple of these cables of varying lengths and qualities. This is where I go back to the “little labeled containers” approach, but in this situation rather than hard containers I go with fabric pouches. These make it easy to bundle the cables by type and store them for easy access. It also means I can create “go bags” that are composite of the different cables into one bag so when I need to “go” I can grab one of the bags and know I’ll have all the standard cables I might need.

Only a beginning

There are many types of clutter that still elude me and my new ways. Notebooks for example are going to need some special thought to get them under control. In the end, each step closer to getting the clutter under control is freeing up mental cycles for me and making the quest of being productive move that much closer to success.

Posted in Techniques, Tools

A tool without a plan is worse than no tool at all

The plethora of productivity tools in the marketplace, from small single-user solutions up to enterprise wide platforms, creates an environment of confusion when it comes to implementation. Do these sound familiar:

  • What does this tool do?
  • How can I use it?
  • Does it have the features I need?
  • What features DO I need?
  • Who is going to use it?
  • How am I going to learn to use it?
  • Do I have time to learn?

Before you get started with putting a productivity tool to use, you need a plan. There’s three things that need to be part of any plan, regardless of the tools involved: what are your objectives, what are your measures, and how do you change direction?

What are your objectives?

Putting a new tool into use isn’t a productivity objective. It’s a justification for an expenditure. “We paid for it, now we’re going to use it.” Terrible reasoning no matter how high on the corporate ladder you are. Think about it this way: we paid for the bicycle so this is what we’re going to use to cross the English Channel. Doesn’t make a bit of sense does it. If you know from the beginning you’re going to want to cross the English Channel, then deciding on a tool that has the possibility of accomplishing that feat is much more shrewd than just using what’s on hand.

Think about where you want to get to and then go back and look at your tools to see if they can get you there. Yes, I know in many cases you won’t know until you try (hence the future discussion on iterative solutions) but you need to start with an understanding of your objectives. This dovetails with the second part: what are your measures? If you don’t know your objectives you won’t have a clue as what to measure and how to apply those measures.

What are your measures?

Metrics. The favorite plaything of almost every middle manager. “What are the metrics for such and such?” or even worse, “what metrics can you provide me?” Basing decisions on available metrics without determining if they truly influence the chances of success on reaching your objectives means you’re just undermining yourself. For example, let’s take articles on an intranet and the measures of views vs. unique viewers.

In today’s social media powered society views are king. “My Instagram post got 10,000 views!” is grounds for celebration in many circles. But does it really impact the objectives you’ve set. In an intranet, it’s not how many times something is seen but rather how many people see that thing.

Let’s say you wrote a post about an event that just happened within your company. In looking at the metrics, you see your company (of 1,000 people) viewed the post over 700 times. Normally you’d think that wouldn’t be bad until you did a little math. That 700 view count means that at the worst case 300 people never even saw the post. A more realistic estimate is that 50-60% of the people saw the post and unless your metrics tools are smart enough to filter out when someone views a post more than once, even fewer people read what you wrote. Why does this matter when it comes your productivity plan?

If you’re measuring success based on the number of things done, does it include that they’re right things to be done? If you’re measuring success based on the items accomplished, are you getting enough done to keep things flowing? Do your metrics give you enough time and information to react when you’re missing the mark and make adjustments? Knowing what you’re measuring, why you’re measuring it, and what you’re going to do with that information is where the value comes from metrics.

How do you change direction?

Change is the only constant in life.

Heraclitus

No matter how carefully you plan, you will at some point need to make adjustments. Whether it’s for good reasons (things are going more smoothly than anticipated) or for bad (things have gone off the rails again) the flexibility to change is what makes a successful plan. When evaluating a tool or a system, does it give you the ability to change when needed or are you locked into a rigid structure with no chance to adapt?

In discussing this with a colleague she raised the example, “A hammer is a hammer. You can’t change it. You can only change how you use it.” A valid point indeed and all the more reason to make sure you should be using a hammer in the first place. Taking time as part of your plan to determine what you need your tools to do, how you know if they’re doing those things well, and can those tools be used in other ways when your needs change is time well spent.

Planning ahead

I love it when a plan comes together.

John “Hannibal” Smith, the A-Team

Here’s five tips for putting a plan in place to be more productive:

  1. If you have a favorite tool, take time to know what it can and what it can’t do in advance.
  2. Write down your “success measures.” How will you know when you’re being successful and when you aren’t?
  3. If you understand your need, you may not need a special feature to meet it. If you’re keeping track of lists you may not need a fancy data part if a simple table will do.
  4. Don’t waste time jumping from tool to tool.
  5. If you want to try a new tool, try it with something that worked in the old tool rather than something that didn’t. This is the only way to know what will work without blaming the tool for something you can’t do anyway.

Posted in Notion, Techniques, Tools

Making my task list part of my notes in Notion

I’ve been focused on using Notion for the past couple of weeks and have found a specific feature has crept into my daily workflow without me even thinking about it. This feature has turned what was an organizational challenge into the proverbial “piece of cake.”

Linked Databases

Notion supports the idea of taking a database (or in their case, a list) and linking it (embedding) to another page in Notion. By doing this you can create custom views for each page while maintaining the integrity of the main database.

I’ve put this to use by creating a master task list (something you can find a number of excellent YouTube videos about) and then linking to that list on other related pages with filters that focus on the page topic. For example, I’m planning a trip in a couple of weeks and have added a tag to my Master Task list for the trip. As I think of things I need to do for the trip I add them to the task list, but at the same time I can add things that aren’t related to the trip such as household chores.

Everything on one page

Where the power comes in is on the page I created for the trip that includes destination maps, travel itinerary, and general notes for traveling. On that page I link to the Master Task database and then create a view that filters to only those tasks tagged with the travel tag. Now when I’m focused on my travel planning I know everything I need is in one place and I don’t have to do double work to keep lists up to date.

One of many features

This is just one of many, many features on this platform and combined with the smooth user experience and multiplatform support I’d have to say it’s something that will be part of my productivity arsenal for a long time coming.

Posted in Techniques, Tools

Do we need an app for everything?

Listening to This Week in Tech this morning on my way into work they were discussing how Apple is disconnecting the Apple Watch from needing a phone to be useful. Specifically they highlighted how this will be a benefit for the health care capabilities of the device. While I’m all for this type of usage (though there are roadblocks they’re not talking about) there was part of the description that didn’t sit right with me.

The conversation turned briefly to a new app coming out to help people remember to take medications. Again, all for the need of this type of solution, but does the solution need yet another app? Why can’t we accomplish this with the apps we have?

I don’t wear an Apple watch. I wear a Samsung smartwatch but the principle is the same. There are at least two different apps that come natively on the watch that can be used for this very purpose. Why this bothers me is simple. Rather than being productive with the tools we have we often waste time in search of a “quick fix” for a specific problem.

I’ll challenge you to do something today. Take any of the normal, general purpose apps you use each day and come up with three new ways you can use the app. Once you do that, share those new ways in the comments below. I’ll bet that once you do, you’ll find even more ways to put apps to use without adding clutter, security vulnerabilities, and privacy issues into your productivity ecosystem.

Posted in Chromebook, OneNote, Techniques, Tools

Living with OneNote on a Chromebook

I spend most of my non-client working time on a Chromebook. It’s turned out to be my go-to tool for creating content, managing information, and doing research. Since I also live out of OneNote, it’s important to be able to work around some of the limitations of a Chromebook when using a tool that is focused on the Microsoft suite.

Working Offline

Chromebooks thrive with an internet connection. It makes sense since it’s a browser based operating system. Unfortunately you don’t always have a connection available, so what’s there to do if you’re offline but still need to take notes or look something up? This is where I put the Android version of OneNote to use.

By running the Android app on my Chromebook, I can keep a synchronized copy of my notebooks handy and accessible. It doesn’t offer all the capabilities of the other versions, but when it comes to information access some is better than none.

The bonus of this arrangement is since I’m running on a Chromebook Pro, I can use the stylus to take handwritten notes and drawings to sync later on. It’s a great combination without pushing too far into unnecessary functionality.

Working Online

Once I get back online I can use the OneNote Online version as well as the Android application. The combination gives me a great deal of flexibility while also offering speed and interactivity. The Android application will sync it’s contents once the connection is established so any notes taken offline are safe and secure.

Once online I can also use the Chrome extensions Clip to OneNote and Send to OneNote to capture information to my notebooks for easy online, offline, and mobile access.

It’s not perfect

This setup is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and could be duplicated by a number of other tools. For my purposes though this has turned into a productivity success for me that requires no effort to keep using day in and day out.