Strategy

One of those years

Ever have one of those days where every time you turn around, thinking you have things finally under control, the universe’s twisted sense of humor shows up and throws everything sideways? Ever have one of those weeks? Those months? Yea, I’m with you.

No matter how much we plan and prepare the world will do what it wants to. Motivational speakers will claim that life is what you make of it, but yet we all know there’s times where life seems to have it in for us. How we deal with this is critical to how we make our way in this world and I’m by no means egotistical enough to suggest I have any magic solution to the challenge of life for anyone. What I can do is make a couple of suggestions I have learned through this year so far.

Put the small stuff on autopilot

Looking back at the year so far, the things that have been in my control have been the little things I’ve let get away from me. Send an email here, file a document there, make a follow up phone call and so on. They’re little things but when they fall by the wayside and later rear their ugly heads they can be huge.

Any time I can put something on autopilot now I try to. Bill pay, reminders, scheduled activities, even down to the lights turning on and off in my living room at the right times, if I can get something else to handle it reliably I do so. The reliably part is critical, but if I can trust the tool doing the work, it’s one less open loop to deal with.

Simplify

I’ve been through this one in the past but it’s becoming truer every day. We’re always looking for the better tool, the better process, the better strategy for making things work in life. Usually what winds up happening is either disappointment or worse yet dysfunction.

Evaluate change carefully

A concerted effort I’ve been putting myself through this year is evaluating the benefit of change. As an expert on Microsoft Office 365, my job is to help people put change into motion using the tools whether it’s personally or professionally. It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the short term benefits of a change without thinking about long term impacts or if those benefits scale over time.

For example, I’ve been going back and forth in an active comparison of two note taking tools this year: OneNote and Notion. While I’m not going to go into the details here, let me just say there’s no clear winner in this fight and that’s what makes things difficult. If one were clearly superior to the other the decision would be easy, but since one isn’t the cost of the change takes a higher precedence.

How much time will it take to change? How long will it take to learn? Will it provide short term and long term gains as well? Do the gains blind me to a potential liability brought about by the change? What’s the cost?

The questions go on and on, but they all come back to one key question now: is the change worth the effort?

Four more months

The year still has a fair amount left and the pace only picks up as the clock ticks by. I’ll try to keep posting as frequently as possible to share my successes and failures in the hopes they’ll help you or others with your challenges.

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.

Podcast

Episode 34 – Five Minutes on Digital Assistants

This episode we take a quick look at all the buzz around digital assistants such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. Are you using them? How? The bigger question, are you using them in a way that helps you the most? Listen now and then share your thoughts in the comments or by leaving me a voice message by clicking on the link in the show notes.

Episode 34 – Five Minutes on Digital Assistants – Being Productive

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.

Techniques

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.