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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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?

An odd jobs list for staff and volunteer engagement

SwansWithin any given business or organization, the ideal is (probably) that everyone working or volunteering there will not only take on all of the tasks and projects that are clearly a part of their recognized role, but that they'll also work on things not necessarily assigned to them but that are still useful to the overall goals of that organization.

If everyone shares the same vision and goals, and everyone participating is sufficiently empowered and inspired to work toward those goals, this ideal can be easy to realize.  There is almost certainly always something else that can be done to support or further the mission of the places we work and volunteer; if there's someone who regularly ends up having some "down time" with "nothing to do" then there's probably something else wrong - with the person's mindset, the structure they are working within, or the organizational culture overall.

In practice, I've found that people have different personalities and personal/work backgrounds that lead them to respond differently to this idea of "working on things that weren't necessarily assigned to me."  For some, it's a no-brainer and they can jump right into that mentality.  For others, it represents a threshold of riskiness and potential for failure that they may not be willing to cross: "If it wasn't assigned to me and I do it wrong, I don't want to be responsible for the outcome."  For still others, it can just be the challenge of imagining tasks or projects outside their job description or previously assigned duties; the inertia of working within familiar problem spaces is hard to overcome.

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Use the cloud, keep control of your data

Balloons in the Rose GardenAfter ranting recently about the choices we make to give "big data" companies access to our private information in ways that might be abused or exploited by government eavesdroppers, I thought it would be worth sharing some of the options I've found for using "the cloud" while also retaining a reasonable level of control over access to the data stored there.

This post has information about tools and software you can deploy yourself to approximate some of the functionality that third party services might provide, but that might also make you vulnerable to privacy and security vulnerabilities.  It's based on my experiences designing and implementing solutions for my own company, so it's mostly applicable to the interests of businesses and organizations, but may also be useful for personal projects.

A few important disclaimers: any time you make your personal or corporate data available on Internet-connected devices, you're creating a potential privacy and security vulnerability; if you need to keep something truly protected from unauthorized access, think hard first about whether it belongs online at all.  Also, the tools and services I'm listing here are harder to setup and configure than just signing up for one of the more well-known third party services, and may require ongoing maintenance and updates that take time and specialized knowledge.  In some cases, it requires advanced technical skills to deploy these tools at all, which is the reason most people don't or can't go this route.  Hosting and maintaining your own tools can often have a higher initial and/or ongoing cost, depending on what financial value you assign to data privacy.  Sometimes the privacy and security tradeoffs that come with using a third-party service are well worth it.

Still interested in options for using the cloud without giving up control over your data?  Read on.

Email and Calendar Sharing

Need a powerful, free email account?  Need robust calendar management and sharing capabilities? Everybody uses Gmail and Google Calendar, so just sign up for an account there, right?  Unless you don't want Google having access to all of your email communications and usage patterns, and potentially sharing that information with advertisers, government agencies or other entities.

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Queries for good email management strategies

Inbox ZeroThe new calendar year is a great time to think about how you manage your personal and work/organizational email accounts.  I know that I benefit from the opportunity to purge or rotate out some old folders, delete large attachments just sitting around taking up space, and think about how well my setup is working for me in my daily workflow.

There are a lot of different strategies out there and each person has to find what works best for them.  Here are a few queries that might help you think about how well your strategy is working for you:

  1. Are you able to work through your e-mail inbox in a reasonable amount of time every day, respond to or delegate time-sensitive questions/comments, convert messages into to-do items, or otherwise file them away on the first pass through?
  2. Do you make good use of e-mail filters available in your mail reading program to highlight/tag/sort messages in ways that make you more productive? Continue reading "Queries for good email management strategies"