Handling a Crisis

No matter how hard we plan there are times when adversity strikes and throws all our efforts off the rails. We’ve likely all experienced this at one time or another. In my own case it was quite recent, quite traumatic, and continues as an ongoing challenge.

Recently a member of my immediate family was struck by a sudden, severe illness resulting in the loss of movement and self-care. There was no warning, no early signs, no time to prepare. Within a matter of hours, the damage was done, catapulting my world into a level of chaos I was unprepared for but from which I did not have the opportunity to take time to recover. It was this situation that put my systems and tools to a level of test I had never expected nor designed them for.

The first test came in the need to manage the flow of communications to a large group of people unexpectedly. Normally our processes help us manage a controlled distribution of information, sending emails and texts, making calls, all with an even-handed approach. When crisis strikes, smooth control is exchanged with a firehose of demands and information. To my luck this is where the first part of my system came to my rescue.

I maintain all the contact information I need for family and friends in my smartphone. Now in any given month I may make a dozen calls. Most of my communications are electronic rather than voice. Within the first hours of the event I had made a dozen calls and that was only the beginning. I needed an immediate way to organize the contact information for instant access without wasting time searching.

Using the launcher on my smartphone, Evie launcher if you’re an Android user, I created a launcher page and added direct shortcuts to the most direct method to reach each key contact. For some that was a voice call, for others a text message. The important part was I didn’t need to remember what worked best for each person once the decision had been made. From that point on I could reach out to whomever I needed with just a tap.

I have thought about if it would have been more efficient, for those who use text messaging at least, to create a group text message and broadcast the updates. I decided against that due to the CC effect we all know can happen. Control of information flow was the paramount need more than convenience.

The next challenge was handling the massive influx of information I had to parse, understand, react to, and share. This is where the long-practiced habit of capture everything came into play. Unfortunately, this also revealed the largest weakness in my capture tools.

My capture tools are set up to handle a certain volume of incoming information at any time. The format could vary, but the amount never exceeded a reasonable level, such as action items during a staff meeting. This wasn’t the case any longer. Now I had information coming at me as fast as Eminem lyrics and there was no time to organize as I went. I had to capture as I went, starting and stopping at a moment’s notice, then circle back to make sense when a moment of quiet was found.

My saving grace was the ability to take handwritten notes on my smartphone. I know the argument will be made that typing could be faster (it isn’t) or that voice notes could be captured (they can’t when you’re trying to listen to a doctor or nurse on the phone) but what it came down to is I needed to write down and move on rather than worrying about auto-correct. Yes, you could accomplish the same thing with analog notebooks for the most part but for me the digital tools offered more advantages than disadvantages. Regardless of the tool, the process of immediate capture was critical, especially when you are operating on four hours of sleep out of 48 hours.

As the immediate crisis evolved into an ongoing support and care effort again, I fell back on my systems to provide the support I needed so I could provide the support needed from me. When a family member was worried and wanted to know what was going on, being able to look up the name of doctor, diagnosis, testing protocol, or treatment option not only provided information but also peace of mind. Nothing is more disconcerting than the phrase “I don’t know” when a loved one is in crisis.

If you’ve ever had a loved one in the hospital you know there are great stretches of waiting broken up with periods of stress, uncertainty, and doubt. I forced myself to follow my own advice and use those periods of waiting to process the information and formulate plans of actions and questions to ask. It sounds cold and clinical, but it truly kept me from breaking down and curling up into an overwhelmed ball of worry.

The idle time could be used looking up information, researching terms and courses of treatment to be followed, learning about tests and approaches for diagnosis. My normal tool of choice would have been OneNote but due to the need for rapid capture of text, handwriting, and images, and the subsequent sharing of that information I dove headfirst into Google Keep. I was willing to sacrifice the more structured parts of my system in deference to speed and flexibility.

Finally came the issue of continuing information access. Living wills, power of attorney documents, insurance documents all started to accumulate. Some were here, some were there, some were in “secure locations”, but all were needed at a moment’s notice when questions arose. Google Drive became my repository, not only for capacious storage but because of image scanning and folder sharing as well. I needed a way to have a file cabinet in my pocket and share that file cabinet with my sibling so we both had the information we needed at any time.

I’ll admit that if I looked at my productivity systems with a critical eye, I would cringe and likely chastise myself for allowing things to become so “imperfect”. But after the past few weeks I have yet again needed to remind myself the “perfect” system is a fool’s errand, and the single tool for all needs a unicorn in the forest. Holding to the core tenets of my system (capture, process, report) is what made the difference for me, not the tool I was using.

It is in the crucible of real life that we and our systems are tested. Only there do we know whether our hours of preparation and design have been worth the effort. Only there can we discover if we truly have a system we can trust. I don’t wish this kind of test on my worst enemy, but it has reminded me of a saying we should all follow when trying to be productive, “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

I’ve often said that productivity is, “doing the right things at the right times in the right ways.” Now I know that is a narrow and almost arrogant definition. True productivity is about systems handling the small things so we can focus on the most important project of all…life.


Deletion and better ways of managing OneNote notebooks

OneNote has an inherent issue when it comes to keeping organized…notebooks. It’s not that I’m saying notebooks are a bad way to keep things together. Quite the contrary. The problem comes in with what do you with the crabgrass-like growth of the number of notebooks you have as your time with OneNote grows. Here are the five steps I recommend when you’re ready to get rid of a notebook. (Please note these steps require OneNote 2016 to execute completely.)

Step 1 – Transfer old content

Before you delete an old notebook make sure you’ve gone through and transferred any content you need to retain to a new notebook. You could go through and move things item by item but to save time I recommend creating a section for all the pages you plan to move in the notebook, moving the pages to that section, copying the section to the new notebook, then deleting the section. That extra copy may seem counter-intuitive, but it gives you an extra bit of security in the move in case something goes wrong.

Step 2 – Export to PDF

You can export an entire notebook to a PDF file for easy storage. I recommend this over creating a OneNote package since at this time you’ve already decided to delete the notebook so you won’t need to have the content in an editable format. Exporting it as a PDF file gives you the reassurance of having access to the information in the smallest and most portable format possible.

Step 3 – Create an Archive Notebook

Sometimes we need to keep the content in OneNote format but we don’t need the content in separate notebooks. In these cases I’ll use an Archive notebook. I create a section in the Archive Notebook for the content I am archiving from the old notebook and then move that content over. Once I’m done I have an organized Archive notebook, access to the content I need, and one less extraneous notebook file to keep track of.

Step 4 – Create a link index

One of the tricks with OneNote is you can create links to notebooks, sections, pages, and even content on a page. By creating a master index notebook you can create links to all the content you may need access in a rarely used notebook, clicking on the links to access the information, while reducing your sync load and storage needs. I recommend this highly for content you may need access to while on mobile but can live without if you’re offline.

Step 5 – Leave it alone

If you’re using a system such as OneDrive to store your OneNote files, it might be best to not delete notebooks unless you absolutely need to. You can move them to other out-of-the-way folders, but by keeping the files you can leverage the OneDrive search capability without having to open the notebooks every time.

What you need is a plan

Notebooks are one of those things in OneNote that can be extremely powerful…with some planning. Without a plan as to how best to put them to use, be prepared to become your own librarian.

What do you think?  Talk about it over in the TIP Community.

Strategy, Techniques

How should I organize my notebooks in OneNote?

One of the most common complaints I hear with OneNote is the challenge people have in getting it organized.  Now, I know that seems counter-intuitive for an application designed around organizing information, but this is a case of flexibility being a foil rather than a feature.

When setting up OneNote one of the earliest things you need to grasp is the differences between notebooks, sections, and pages.  (Yes there are section groups as well but let’s leave those out for now.) Feedback number one I hear is, “How do I organize my notebooks?” If there were only an easy answer.

The notebook metaphor is a good one in OneNote because it’s connected to a physical construct making understanding its purpose fairly easy. Unfortunately understanding what a notebook is doesn’t address how best to use it. When creating notebooks in OneNote it’s easy to wind up with a bookshelf full of notebooks and no clear way to keep things straight.

This is a good time to address the one notebook / multiple notebook kerfuffle. For some, the management of all their information in one notebook makes clear, simplified sense. For others, why would you be able to create multiple notebooks if you weren’t supposed to use them?

Strategically I ask people answer a few questions before deciding how they want to proceed:

  • Do you want to share the notebook with other people who would have no interest in some of the content of the notebook

  • Is your notebook likely to become extremely large with file attachments or other content

  • Will you be accessing your notebook on a mobile device

If you want to share specific content it’s often better to create a dedicated notebook rather than giving someone access to a generalized notebook and then telling them where to find what they’re looking for. If you’re going to create big notebooks, you could be impacted by sync speed and reliability issues as well as place your content at risk if something bad happens to the notebook. Finally, if you’re going to be accessing the notebooks from mobile devices, smaller targeted notebooks can help compensate for small storage and slower connections.

Moving day

If you’re capturing content into a Quick Notes section frequently (something that happens a great deal if you’re capturing from a mobile device) you’ll want to get comfortable with the move command.  I don’t recommend trying to reorganize your notes from a mobile device (the usability is a bit suspect right now) but rather use a desktop or UWP version of OneNote for page and section moves.

TIP – If you’re doing bulk cleanup, close the notebook on any other devices you may have it open. This will prevent any sync issues as much as possible as you do your house cleaning.

Keeping Organized

Cross-linking is one of my favorite ways to deal with notebook organization.  Let’s take a simple example.  I have a photo of a receipt from my spouse’s visit to the dentist.  The question is, does it go in my Medical notebook, my Taxes notebook, or my Spouse Information notebook (no it’s not actually called that but you get the drift.) I decide on the destination based on the place I am most frequently going to need that item.  In this case it goes into the Medical notebook.  Now in the Taxes notebook I have a page for Medical Expenses and I add a link to the corresponding link page in the Medical notebook.  I do the same thing in my Spouse’s Notebook.  This way I only have one copy of the original but I can get to it from three locations depending on need.

TIP – In many versions of OneNote you can highlight a paragraph on a page, right click, and copy a link to the paragraph.  That link will take you to the page AND highlight the paragraph to make it easier to find.


With content spread across pages, sections, and notebooks, it can be a pain to keep track of all of it for specific purposes.  Let’s take a professional example.  You have a staff meeting at 10:00 a.m.  You need to be prepared with the information from the last meeting, reference notes you gathered between the sessions, emails, PowerPoint presentations, and a checklist of things to do.

Now you could move all that content in to one notebook for the meeting, but why go to all the effort of moving things around.  When I assemble a meeting agenda I create an outline of what needs to be covered and then in each section I create links to existing content. My links always go to pages because that’s where the information is rather than linking to sections and notebooks where I still have to drill down to get to what I want.

Using the outlining features also mean I can reorganize the content, change sequences, and assign to-do tags all without altering the original items.  Remembering that OneNote is a working productivity tool and not just for storage can make planning out your notebooks much more effective.

#Tags suck in OneNote

I know that sounds harsh, but they do IF you’re coming from a world where you can do text based tags such as #doctor or #email. OneNote can’t search for those specific types of delimited tags yet so it makes it difficult if you’re used to organizing that way. What options do we have as alternatives to hashtags and other text based markers?

OneNote can do a search for specific strings as long as they are alphanumeric characters. (Really Microsoft? No #? Really?). What I do is use a combination of “xTagx” to identify tagged items.  So if I need to flag something for the Dentist it’s “xDentistx” and can search for that specific phrase.  Yes it’s a bit cumbersome but it does play well with search and means I can leverage the core concepts of OneNote search with textual tags.

TIP – The same trick works with any alphanumeric character so if you’d rather use “xxTag” or “oTago” feel free.  Just try to be sure you use a combination that doesn’t result in being part of a common word.

I love it when a plan comes together

OneNote is a highly flexible and forgiving application when it comes to organizing your information.  Regardless, you will be best served by putting together a plan of how you want to organize your information and then adapt that plan as you grow and use OneNote more.

Like these ideas? Have suggestions or your own? Come share them in the TIP Community here on The Idea Pump!

Techniques, Tools

OneNote Use Case – Successful Meeting Management

A member of the OneNote for Professionals community on Facebook, Shannon D., asked:

“Does anyone have any good ideas regarding how they use OneNote for meetings, including creating and managing agendas and notes? I’d love to hear how everyone uses OneNote to better manage meetings!”

This is a great question and one of the most frequent ways I show people the benefits of using OneNote. Rather than doing the normal examples this time I thought we’d do the life of a meeting through OneNote.

Before the meeting

Getting meeting agendas together and organized can be a difficult task with juggling emails, schedules, and last minute changes. I use a OneNote notebook for recurring meetings and a page in the notebook for each meeting. On that page goes the meeting agenda, attendee list, action items from previous meetings, and reference files and links.

If you’re an Outlook user there is an option to connect a OneNote 2016 notebook to a meeting for taking meeting minutes and an option to send emails to OneNote for eassier follow up, but for now I’m sticking with the basic uses for my meeting.

By creating the agenda in a shared notebook parked on SharePoint (same can be done with OneDrive) everyone attending the meeting can see the agenda in advance and add their own items as needed. Because synchronization is automatic everyone involved knows when changes are made without having to add to our daily pile of emails.

During the meeting

While the meeting is going on everyone has a copy of the OneNote notebook open on their laptops (for those reaping the benefits that is) and can see as we work our way through the agenda. Meeting minutes are captured on the page as well as future action items and follow up reminders. Anyone can add notes to the page as needed greatly reducing the chances of things getting missed. If someone makes changes the History view shows who made the changes, when, and allows the changes to be rolled back if necessary.

I’ve used OneNote to create and deliver presentations during meetings with the added benefit of changing those presentations in real time. After the session there’s nothing to send out because everyone already has the presentation notebook in hand.

After the meeting

The shared OneNote notebook makes short order of keeping follow up items together and actionable. Since the’re all captured in one place prepping for the next meeting is no more complicated than a few copy and pastes into the next meeting agenda. Links to tracking system items are added as well as connections to project notebooks for review as needed. The cycle begins again with the prep for the next meeting being much more efficient because of the easy access to the previous meeting information.

Collaboration at it’s simplest

Organizing meetings and discussions through OneNote is one of the simplest and most effective ways to keep things on track and demonstrate the core benefits of using OneNote to improve your productivity.


The Death of a Productivity Tool

This week we’ve seen a number of articles where a long time stalwart of the productivity community, Evernote, may be in dire straits and possibly on it’s way out. I’m not looking to debate the future of this particular tool but it does raise an excellent question. Do you worry about the basis of your productivity system going away?

Many of us in the community spend an extraordinary amount of time configuring and tweaking our favorite tools, be they Evernote, OneNote, Notion, Todoist, Workflowy, Trello, and on and on. Much of our success is based on how well those tools operate and the functionality provided by their developers. I think it’s about time we change our perspective on things.

September is national disaster preparedness month and while it doesn’t compare to the scale and impact of a natural disaster, the loss of a trusted platform can be nearly as traumatic. To this day I still look back with longing at tools such as Springpad and wonder what could have been. So for the next month I’m going to be taking a look not at tools but at the techniques that can be used regardless of the platform to help organize and keep your daily work going.
First up…outlining.

Come join in the conversation as part of the Productive Professionals community. 

Membership is free!


5 Steps to Managing Workload Overload

In today’s world we’re often not in control of our own workload.  The expectations made of us both professionally and personally mount up and we hit that point of wondering what’s next. We also wonder why, if everyone else is so productive as the Internet would have us believe, are we stuck in this quagmire? Let me tell you a dirty little secret of the productivity community.

It happens to all of us at one time or another.

We look at our workload, our task list, our calendar and wonder how are we going to get it all done.  You check off one item and three more get added. It’s enough to drive someone to chocolate. Take heart intrepid adventurer, there are some steps you can take to get your workload under control and feel better about the tasks ahead.

Step 1 – Get the lay of the land: Know what’s coming from where

We can feel overwhelmed when we don’t have a good grasp of the amount of work ahead of us and the new work that is coming. Taking time to identify all the work you are facing is the first step to getting overload under control. Think about it like being in a car speeding down a hill towards a curve. You don’t know what’s around the curve so you don’t hit the gas, you hit the brake.  You try to slow down and see what’s coming up next so you know how to react. The same thing applies to managing an out of control workload.  You shouldn’t just plow into it, hoping you can get enough done before more comes your way that you’ll be ok. Taking some time to understand what work is coming from where will help you get a better sense of what you are truly facing.

Step 2 – Create a go / no-go gate

Not everything added to our workload has to be done. Yes, a fair amount of work is out of our control and we have to “just do it.” But just as often we’ve added things to our workload through impromptu commitments and acceptances. To be fair to ourselves and others we have to put a go / no-go gate in place.

This gate gives us an opportunity to evaluate our current workload to determine if we have the time and energy (technology geeks refer to this as bandwidth) available to tackle the requested task. When you receive a request to add something to your workload make sure you understand:

  • what is being asked

  • when it is needed

  • what resources it will require

  • what dependencies it has on others, both people and tasks

If you can answer all of those questions you will be able to say whether or not something will fit into your workload and if you are likely to be able to complete it successfully.

Step 3 -Purge unnecessary work

Often our evaluation of our workload can become skewed by “stale work”. These are requests or tasks that while they seemed important at the time have either become irrelevant, unimportant, or have been superseded by other work. If we keep this stale work as part of our workload we can’t get a true measure of what space we have available in our schedules.  You wouldn’t keep gallons of expired milk in your fridge would you?

But how do you know?  Tasks don’t have “sell-by” dates. What can you do to determine if a task is not longer work keeping as part of your workload.  Well, if it came from someone, ask them. Normally this happens by someone giving you work and then committing to give you some information or deliverable so you can complete the work, but then never providing the information. Back tracking to the requestor and asking if they still are planning to provide you the information you need. Time and time again I’ve found people will cancel the work request rather than having to go back to their own workload and deliver you the needed information.

Step 4 – Work in sprints

When my wife and I purchased our home the previous owners had spread small white landscaping rocks over all the flowerbeds as a decorative touch.  Not being her style, I received the work request to move all those little rocks out the of the beds so she could plant her plants. First, there were a lot of rocks.  I mean, a lot. Way more than I could do all in one effort and believe me I tried to figure out a way.  When my planning when down the path of renting a front end loader I put the brakes on. The amount of work added to my workload, after evaluating the three what’s and when, was way more than I could accomplish as a singular effort.  I felt overwhelmed. It was then I started to work in sprints on the project.

I broke each flowerbed down into sections and each section into smaller sections.  By the time I was done a section could be loaded and moved within 5 minutes.  Now came the sprints.  I shoveled a section into the wheelbarrow and if I had enough energy I kept right on going into the next section.  I kept sprinting through until I hit one of two limits: I ran out of energy or the wheelbarrow was full. In either case I would stop loading and move the wheelbarrow back to the dumping spot, drop the rocks, and go back to the flowerbed to start again.

By working in sprints I knew in the back of my mind if I felt overwhelmed I could stop, change task for a brief period, and then resume.  It was that working safety valve that made all the difference in tacking a project feeling more like a mountain than a molehill.

Step 5 – Act then track

There’s a phrase that describes planning so much you never get started: “analysis paralysis.” It is possible to dedicate so many mental cycles to planning your work you create your own state of overwhelm. There’s a trick I use to reinforce I am getting things accomplished especially on larger projects.

When working on a larger project, for example creating a SharePoint site to manage work intake processes, often I’ll be deep into building a page and realize I need to add a column for data or change a graphic for a header.  These weren’t part of my original planning but I caught them, did them, and kept right on going. What is important is to acknowledge them as work that was done.

Every time I do something not on my lists, I make a note of it. After I’m done for the day I backtrack through my task list, add each unplanned item, and mark it as done.  Not only does this help me recognize the real work accomplished but it also gives me a much more accurate measure when I self-report on my workload.

Remember it happens to everyone

No matter how organized and proficient you are, at some point you’ll feel overwhelmed by what you face in your workload. The key is to pump the brakes, figure out what still has to be done, break it down, and keep track of what you do. No matter how overwhelming your workload feels, there are ways to get you through the stress, and if nothing else give you the information necessary if you are going to ask for help.  Which is a smart thing to do contrary to popular productivity bravado.