The seductive organizing system

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Sometimes just making a to-do list makes you feel so productive that you give yourself a break from doing anything on the list. I’m a big fan of to do lists and I encourage people to acknowledge their progress in order to stay on track.

But that’s not always fruitful.

Sometimes looking at the progress we’ve make seduces us into believing we’re done. We look at all the tasks crossed off the to-do list and feel good about ourselves. That’s not a problem usually, but in this case it is because we then let ourselves off the hook, even in pursuing a goal we’ve already identified that we want.

This kind of thinking shows up when people get excited about a new organizing system or a new app. Well, new anything, really. Something bright and shiny.

But there’s a difference when this new organizing system requires putting together and setting up. We get lost in the details of what part goes where and what the sequence is and how it all fits together.

Once it is put together, there’s the further seduction of tweaking. It’s sort of like poking the fire. There’s always more prodding and shifting you can do to a fire to get it perfect.

Then there’s more. And it’s so satisfying! Tweaking a fire is harmless though. The fire is just there for you to enjoy.

When you get stuck in tweaking mode for a productivity app, well, you can see the irony. You aren’t actually using the app. You’re not getting to the productivity part of it.

So, be wary when you get excited about a brand new thingamajig that’s going to streamline your work and skyrocket your efficiency. Read the reviews. Read the good and the bad ones!

Pay attention to what the people who like it are using it for. Maybe it’s great for Task A, but makes little difference for Task B, which is your task. In that case, who cares how great it is? It’s not going to help you enough to be worthwhile.

Be mindful of how much time you need to take away from other tasks to get this puppy up and running. What’s going to languish in the meantime? Is that worth it?

If you are looking at a substitute for something (or various things) you currently do, you need a transition plan. How will things not fall through the cracks? Sometimes people take on a new system just partially.

It’s great, but they still do one part of their work the old way, because it’s familiar and they can do it quickly and easily. Is that going to impair the system as a whole, having this one outlier being done the old way?

New and shiny isn’t necessarily better. Caveat emptor.

Workplace productivity

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Productivity, and increasing it, is a perennially popular topic and it won’t go away anytime soon. New technology changes the issues a bit, as do new work habits, such as telecommuting. But as an issue to be dealt with, it remains.

This fun infographic has some interesting statistics. Two thirds of office workers complain that chatty coworkers disrupt their work! That’s a lot. It’s probably not a new problem. I would bet that if Bob Cratchit had had coworkers, they would have distracted him from his abysmal work.

I’m intrigued that 75% of respondents have gotten more productive with age. To me, that indicates good work habits rather than usage of the latest and greatest productivity app. The don’t believe working longer will help and I’m happy to see that.

An article about this survey said that office workers view their millennial coworkers as the least productive. Ouch! Millennials do have a reputation for chattiness and group activities. Could that be it?

This infographic is from the Fellowes company and promotes using shredders freely. I am on board with that!

Organizing Computer Odds and Ends

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What do you do with all that stuff you acquire when you get a new computer? You're overrun with disks, manuals, cords, instruction sheets, warranties, adapters and packaging, all of which is different shapes and sizes. Years ago, I had a client who carefully slipped each disk into a plastic sleeve in a binder. A second binder with still more sleeves held the paper documentation.

Colored cords
The main problem with that kind of storage is that there's a good chance you'll never look at or need any of those things again. So it makes no sense to waste time organizing them. My advice is to use one of my favorite organizing tools: the versatile zip lock bag.

Just take all that stuff you want to keep (you may need it after all, so I don't advise pitching it) and throw it into a bag. Lots of stuff? Use the gallon size. Use two. I like the kind that uses a zipper pull to close it; for me they're much easier to open and close.

Besides being incredibly easy to do, this method lets you keep everything in one place. Otherwise, you'll either spend a lot of time labelling cords and adapters and other miscellaneous parts, or you won't have any idea what they are when you encounter them next year.

I keep my bags in my computer gear drawer upright, like file folders. If the manual has a title on its spine, position it in the bag so that it shows through the side or bottom, then file the bag so that the spine faces up, giving you an instant label. Even without a label, it will be easier to find a particular bag when you can thumb through them. If they're in a horizontal pile, you'll have to take them all out to find what you need.

Colored cords from Jim 5's photostream

Technology Made Easy

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I'm not a technology maven. I used to be, back when computers only did about five things. And I was the family genius who could fix the color balance on the TV set. But everything got more complicated and I didn't keep up. So I'm always happy when I can use technology without having to learn anything.

Jott is a fantastic service that allows me to send myself emails via my cellphone, and it doesn't involve texting, which I have not been able to master. I just call a number (I've set it to speed dial because I use it so much) and speak my message and it magically appears as typed text in my email.

There are other applications for the service, but this one is incredibly useful for me since I routinely think of a dozen things I need to do while I'm driving and can't write them down. If I don't have it down in writing, I'll forget it. Jott also has scads of links so you can use it to track expenses, post to Twitter, find products on Amazon and much more.

A recent New York Times article recommended Jott and three other great voice-activated services: GOOG 411, a free business phone directory; ChaCha, a web research service and Reqall, a task reminder service that sends reminders to your phone or email at the requested time. All these services do more than my short description indicates; check them out!

[Helpful reminder from ford's photostream]

Password Hints

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I have 170 passwords in my Palm. Some are written in directly, the ones I use for sites where I don’t care about security, like reading the New York Times online. Others I use so often I have them in my head. But there too are many secure passwords for me to remember and those are listed with hints only.

Mine your past to create easy-to-remember passwords with letters and numbers. It’s important not to use current information that you might possibly have recorded elsewhere, or that would just be easy for someone to guess. Also, current information that seems memorable now might not stand the test of time. For the letters part, I typically use:

  • Names of former teachers
  • Names of streets I used to live on
  • Names of neighborhoods I used to live in
  • Names of my childhood friends’ pets

For the numbers part, try:

  • Four digit birth dates of friends and relatives (provided these aren’t recorded with the person’s name in your datebook)
  • Previous street addresses, mine and friends’
  • Parts of old phone numbers, mine and friends’ (I actually remember the phone number of my best friend from first grade)

So the hints look like this: "Second grade teacher, Dan’s birthday" or "North Beach Street, Lynn’s phone (last 4 digits)." Easy to use for you, hard to crack for anyone else. Try it!

Nag Me, Please

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Nagging is just another form of reminding, isn’t it? How you feel about the subject dictates whether you think of a reminder as a nag or as a helpful productivity tool.

There are lots of ways to nag yourself; put books by the door that you have to kick out of the way if you’re not going to pick them up (and return them to the library), stick Post-Its on the mirror where they block your view, leave things out where they’ll visually bug you till you do something about them.

And now there’s HassleMe. This service lets you compose your own nagging emails and then sends them to you on an irregular schedule. Since you won’t be expecting them, you can’t tune them out quite as well as your own homegrown nags.

I could also see using this service for non-nagging purposes, such as sending myself encouraging notes. Or to remind myself  of things I actually want to do, but tend to forget about.

Thanks to this Mashable post for enlightening me about HassleMe and 99 other nifty productivity tools.

A Blackberry is Just a Tool

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Having information is not the same as knowing what to do with it. Sometimes more is just … more. Will a Blackberry make you better at your job? Are you sure about that?

In an interview with CIO Insight magazine, David Allen said, "If you are unproductive to begin with, technology will add something else you are unproductive about." Having great tools is wonderful, but they don’t automatically bestow the skills needed to use them. It’s easy to have the illusion of productivity when you are constantly pushing information around.

Go ahead and get the Blackberry if you want it. If you also want to be more productive, you’ll need to

  • be clear on what you’re trying to accomplish
  • make decisions
  • take action on those decisions
  • follow up on the actions of others
  • stay on track

Electronic devices such as Blackberrys are great for aiding you in those tasks (so is a pen and some paper). It’s you, however, who supplies the brain power.

Making Notes on the Go

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Well, my love affair with Jott is pretty much over. Jott is still a very clever and wonderful system for capturing to do's and other info via cell phone. And in true Web 2.0 fashion, its now offering links to Twitter and Facebook and a ton of other features.Microphone

But the free account does not send my Jotts to my email anymore and that's a drag. I don't blame them for making money from their service; it's very worthwhile. But it's not what I need anymore.

The other problem I've run into is the new California law prohibiting handheld cell phone use. It's too much of a production for me to put in the Bluetooth device every timeI get in the car so I don't do it. When I get an inspiration I don't want to forget, I can't just pick up the phone anymore and Jott it.

So, I'm back to my first love, the digital voice recorder. I had to get new batteries for it, but it works great and I'm relieving our initial romance all over again. These devices are still easy to find in many variations so it helps to know what you want before you shop.

Mine records memos of a few minutes apiece. I think there's room for about 20 minutes of recording (sorry, it's in the car now, where it lives, so I can't check). Some record much shorter messages; great for remembering phone numbers and mini shopping lists, and they fit on a keychain. Others are almost like dictation machines.

I like to be able to record ruminations and ideas, so I need a minute or so of time. I do carry it around sometimes, so it has to be small. And it's only got a few physical buttons so I can easily use it in the car without looking at it. My phone records memos, but there's more button pushing involved.

I don't need it to record video, be USB compatible or hold 68 hours of recording (yes, there's one that does that!). Simplicity is key for me. My basic need is not to forget ideas that come to me while I'm driving and can't write them down. I should probably get another one for the shower; the other inconvenient idea-getting spot. I'm sure someone makes a waterproof one…

Microphone from hiddedevries' photostream

Online Organizing Tools

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Vacuuming I've reviewed a few of these tools in the past, but today I came across a huge list of online resources, over a hundred, via Mashable. If you use your computer for to do lists and calendar, you may want to check some of them out. The list is a year and a half old now so some of these apps may not exist anymore.

One that caught my eye is Chore Wars. This is an online household chore board disguised as a monster-fighting video game. Each "player" selects an avatar (elf, dragon, horned demon, etc.). Mom, AKA the Dungeon Master, creates the chores and assigns them to her apprentices. Completed chores earn points toward prizes. Fighting monsters along the way is optional.

Another intriguing one is, a free service that lets you send emails to yourself in the future. I have often thought it would be helpful to send myself email reminders. Of course, I can put them in my datebook, but I find I look at email more often than my datebook; I use it as an organizing tool.

Turns out that many FM users write diary entries or time capsules. There are public ones you can view on the site. It's always fun to read someone else's diary, right?

Vacuuming from Sunrise Ottah's photostream.

Organizing Business Cards: Scan 'em

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Lots of folks want to go paperless but they feel frustrated because the scanners they already have don't make good enough scans. I've recommended the Fujitsu ScanSnap in the past as a good all-around scanner, but apparently it doesn't do that well with business cards.

It's annoying to have to buy a tool that only does one thing, but for business card scanning, the CardScan is the one to have. Networking maven Valerie Gonyea uses it for her oceans of cards and praises its accuracy. So, if business cards are piling up around you, give it a try.