Building momentum for your distributed work day

Imagine that you are about to go on stage to perform some amazing thing that you know how to do. You're waiting in the wings for your moment to shine, and you want to bring your very best to the experience.

But then also imagine that you spent the last several hours or even days in isolation. You haven't really talked to anyone or had much human interaction at all. No one has given you encouraging words or expressed excitement about what you're going to perform.

And then you find out that the time of your performance has not really been set or advertised. There will be an audience but they will be coming and going from the auditorium where you're performing, and they may or may not be paying attention to you. When you do the thing you're best at, someone may or may not notice. Oh and the stage is actually going to be a small, dark closet.

Now go out there and be awesome? Umm....

It's a silly scenario, but for some people who work in a distributed environment, especially one where a lot of collaboration happens asynchronously across individual schedules and time zones, this is what the beginning of our work day can feel like: quiet, slow, isolated.

In a traditional office setting where workers tend to arrive, collaborate and leave on roughly the same schedule, the energy and pace of work can come from the environment itself. But for distributed workers, even when there is actually a lot going on in the organization we're working with, it can be a challenge to build momentum at the start of our days. Sometimes the work itself is enough to generate that energy, but sometimes we need help getting into the right mental space for high productivity.

So how can you build that momentum if it's not coming from your physical work environment? Here are a couple of things that I've seen work well:

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Using Todoist to organize all the things

For just over two years now I've been using Todoist as my primary to-do list manager and personal organizer software. I pay for the upgraded Premium version at US$28.99/year. I really like it and it's helped me stay on top of all the things I want to get done in my professional life, personal life, local community and beyond.

(Before Todoist, I'd been using Taskpaper and loved the simplicity of its interface and file storage. The software hit a period of being unmaintained and I really needed something up to date, so I switched. Taskpaper has since seen new life as a project, it's worth checking it out again too.)

The Todoist website linked above already showcases many of its features so I won't bother repeating those, but here are a few of the things I especially appreciate:

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Perl script and Alfred workflow for quick call notes

As a part of trying to live a more paperless life, I'm determined to take notes electronically when I'm sitting at my computer, instead of jotting them down on scraps of paper and then putting them into a document later.

When a phone call comes in, I want to be able to start typing my notes about the call right away so that I'm not distracted as I'm switching over to my text editor, opening a new document, saving the document someplace to make sure I don't lose what I'm typing, and THEN being ready to actually take notes.

I've been using the OS X productivity app Alfred more and more lately, and so I decided to create a simple Alfred workflow that would let me get a phone call notes file up in front of me, ready to edit, with minimal typing.

I wanted to make sure that the resulting notes file was named in some reasonable way that I could find again later, and so part of creating the workflow was figuring out how to take a free-form description of the call that I'd be typing in as it started, and turn that into a filesystem-friendly name (sometimes known as a slug). I ended up using a simple Perl script to do that for me.

The Alfred workflow, then, is just a keyword and a script run:

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 2.06.56 PM

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Paperless

Updesk SetupI'm trying to live a paperless lifestyle as much as possible. A few things I'm doing to that end:

  • I try to avoid printing anything that I can view on a mobile device or computer instead.
  • I ask vendors and financial institutions to avoid sending me paper documents when they can send me electronic versions instead. When they don't offer that option, I search for comparable alternative vendors/institutions I can use.
  • When I'm at conferences, festivals or other events, I try to avoid taking little bits of paper that I'll just have to deal with later - flyers, stickers, postcards, business cards, etc. If I really want to remember something I'll get a hi-res photo of it with my mobile phone and then extract the useful information later.
  • I cleared all sticky note pads and scrap paper off of my work spaces so I could force myself to use digital tools.
  • When I do receive paper documents I want to maintain access to but don't need physical versions of, I scan them with the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M document scanner. It does really fast double-sided scanning of lots of documents at once, directly into PDF files on my computer, and comes with some great software tools for organizing and searching the scans. Its output is also recognized by the IRS and similar entities as valid for purposes of legal document retention requirements. A newer version of the scanner offers even more options.
  • When a document requires my signature, I try to have it emailed to me instead of postal mailed or printed. I use Adobe's electronic signature tools to place a verifiable and legally binding (in most places) digital signature on the document and then send it back to the other party.
  • I use a tablet and Dropbox to bring relevant electronic documents to meetings with me instead of printing them off or asking for a copy when I get there. If I need to annotate a document or take notes, I either type those in during the meeting or use a small notebook I carry to write them out, and then immediately type them in after the meeting.
  • I have a system of paper folders in my home office for filing documents immediately as the mail comes in or as I clean out my pockets for the day - "to scan," "to file," "to shred" and so on. I find organizing paper documents as soon as they get to me shortens the time they stay in my life.
  • I regularly organize and purge the paper files I do keep, and I try to reuse paper a few times before finally putting it in the recycle bin or my diamond cross-cut shredder.
  • I make sure I name my digital documents consistently so that I'll be able to find them later with simple searching (usually "YYYMMDD-name-tags.pdf").
  • If a printed thing is sentimental in nature but I can't imagine myself pulling it out in a few years to caress it, smell it, re-read it, etc. I'll just take a picture of it instead and revisit it visually as needed.
  • I make sure my digital documents are backed up to multiple places in multiple ways.

Some aspects of going paperless that I'd like to see improve:

  • I still get receipts for gas pump activity and various credit card and cash retail transactions (unless they're using Square or something similar that will email me my receipt). I don't want to not have these at all because I'd like a way to verify the amount I was charged is correct (I've seen errors before), but I don't necessarily want to scan each one in or have to deal with filing or trashing them later. It would be nice if there were a global standard for having receipts transmitted electronically - not just emailed to me, but stored in some place of my choosing like a private Dropbox folder.
  • I wish important paper documents like vehicle titles, real estate transaction documents, passports, etc. had some easily accessible and widely accepted digital alternative so that we didn't have to place so much emphasis on storing and protecting these things carefully.
  • When I go to performances, lectures or religious services, some way to give people a program or bulletin they can view without disruptive mobile device screen activity. Surely with e-paper technology and related tools we could create this - and just think, no need to print separate LARGE PRINT VERSIONS when you could just scale up the font size!
  • The one place I would like to see paper used more? Electronic voting.

Have you gone or are you going paperless? What tools and techniques do you use?