Category: Productivity

Adjust your settings (part 2 of 5 to a more effective you)

This week we look at what happened one week after Nancy started using her Personal Kanban™ system (read part one here).

It’s not enough to be busy. We’re all good at that! What we want is to be effective, to do the stuff that matters most. The first step to becoming more effective is to understand the current situation. Think about what you did yesterday, or 3 days ago. Now what if you wanted to see patterns of activity across a whole week? Heck, just remembering what one had for breakfast can be challenging. That’s where a visual management system like Personal Kanban™ shines. It can provide a complete picture, both a real-time snapshot and tell the story of your week, in ways that matter most to you.

At the end of the first week, I helped Nancy reflect on her work. What we are looking for, after that first week, is mostly to increase her awareness, and to learn how to use the board to reveal valuable insights.

Nancy’s revelations

Most people, like Nancy aren’t used to thinking about their work. So there we stood in front of her board, and I gave her these four questions, which I find are an excellent starting point for reflecting on work:

Four powerful questions for reflection
Four powerful questions for reflection

The satisfying. Immediately, Nancy was delighted at all of the work that was sitting in her Done column. For the first time ever(!), she had a reasonably accurate picture of what she had accomplished, and now could celebrate that. She also liked having everything in one place, in a way she could review quickly. This also helped a lot when she spoke with the management team, they knew instantly her situation and could provide useful feedback.

The difficult. She also noticed there were several work items she had done that weren’t on the board. Building new habits takes time!

The avoided. Lots of important work wasn’t getting attention. Why? Lots of interruptions, through emails, phone calls and visits, many with issues others perceived as urgent. She’s fighting lots of fires, which get in the way of doing the more valuable stuff. The second, very obvious reason looking at her board is she just has wayyyy too much work to handle. She is doing the work of 2 or 3 roles, and as a doer she struggles to delegate work to others.

The surprising. Given all this was new, she was pleasantly surprised how easy and effective it was. The big a-ha, again was the work she wasn’t getting to, and the sheer volume of work she had.

Week 2 Goal: Address the overload

Each week, we decide what is most important to improve. For learning goals, we gather more data, for action goals we define a measurable outcome to achieve. The goals for week 2 were easy to decide on:

  1. Get *all* work on the board, so we have an accurate picture of what is going on. To support this, I will check in with her at the start of each day to review the previous day, and act as a trigger to get any missing work up there.
  2. Answer the question, “How much completed work is unplanned?” For this, we decided to mark each completed item with a red dot the moment it goes into the Done column. We also organized done by the days of the week, to see if that might uncover additional data.
  3. Answer the question, “How much work am I getting done in a week?” This is easy to do, we just count up the post-its in the Done column at the end of the week.
Work items in Done column organized by day
Work items in Done column organized by day

So, in just one week, Nancy learned a lot more about how she works, the work she has to manage, and gained valuable insights in how to make her work life better. Most of all, she has greater confidence she can change things for the better.

In the next excerpt we’ll see how Nancy does with those improvement goals.

5 steps to a happier, more effective you (Part 1)

Meet Nancy, a new client of mine. She wears many hats. She manages a support team, coordinates and defines work for the software development team, and works on many internal improvement projects. Oh, and she’s constantly interrupted by a barrage of emails, phone calls and in person visits, making it a challenge to get anything done.

Her days are long, and it’s common for her to sit at her computer on weekends, just to try and keep up. Stress is affecting her health. On top of it all, she rarely finds time for the work she really wants to do. Life is tiring.

We can all relate to Nancy in some way.

Guess what? That was Nancy a month ago. The Nancy of today is

  • going home from work on time
  • completing less urgent, more valuable stuff
  • feeling on top of things
  • smiling lots more
  • dropping fewer balls, and more relaxed
  • feeling more satisfied with her efforts

And here’s the thing. What she did is simple, straightforward, and does not demand a lot of time. What she did was follow 5 essential steps that emerged from my work with hundreds of individuals getting started with Personal Kanban™, the most effective tool I know to manage work and navigate life.

Today I’ll introduce you to the first step, through Nancy’s journey. Read how she learned to make better decisions about her work, and have fewer 3 am jump out of bed freak out moments. Learn how to apply it to your own situation right away.

Step 1: Set up your new workout routine

Tools like ToDo lists, email and calendars don’t help us see the full picture. When we don’t understand all of our options, we feel anxious and stressed that we’re forgetting something, and from not fully knowing just how much stuff there is to manage.

My first step with Nancy was to get all of her work visible. We set up a board like the one below. The work flows from left to right as follows:

  1. Options are all of the possible work items that may be chosen to be worked on. I prefer the word Options instead of To Do to emphasize that not everything here has to be done. Context changes all the time, we don’t have to feel obligated to do something just because we’ve added it to our list.
  2. Today holds all of the work items she plans to start today. Having a Today list provides her greater focus so we minimize the time looking for options. We can spend more time simply doing, which brings us to
  3. Doing are all of the work items she’s already invested time in. It doesn’t mean she’s working on it right now. If Nancy started on a report 3 days ago, that report is in the Doing column until it’s finished.
  4. Waiting On is a subset of Doing, holding any item that Nancy can’t work on until something else happens. Waiting for someone to provide feedback on a report is an example.
  5. Done contains all of Nancy’s accomplishments, everything completed, the place where she can celebrate what’s she done and learn more about the nature of her work.
Personal Kanban starter board design
This board design satisfies the majority of people – start with it.

Visualize what matters most. We then figured out what she needed to see most about her work. Since Nancy wears many hats, she opted to use a different coloured post-it for each hat. In her case, we had colours for Development Features, Development Issues, Customer Support,  and Investments. Investments are the items that have a lot of value in the long term.

Now, Nancy could write out all of her work. She looked through her emails, documents, calendar and mental notes to identify everything. The dump process took about 30 minutes.

Have a purpose for the board. We also made an explicit goal for the first week, and posted it beside her workflow. In the first week, it’s all about incorporating new daily habits, and building awareness, namely to visualize all work. This means not working on anything that isn’t already on the board. I recommend anyone getting started to have this as their first goal.

We also discussed what that means in daily life, to increase odds of success. She agreed to begin each day by updating her board before starting into work. We also placed the board directly behind her desk, so it’s in plain view and easy to access. It’s hard to ignore.

Sticking with it. Often I recommend adding a daily habits tracker to the board, to make those intentions more explicit, to measure progress and to learn how to be successful through experimentation. I’ll explain more on this in an upcoming post. With Nancy, we opted not to, partly because I work right beside Nancy so my presence creates accountability and we usually checked in at the start of the day. Since I can’t be with you at your office (sorry!), you might want to try the daily habit tracker trick.

Once everything was in place, Nancy was pretty excited, though a bit overwhelmed by the vast number of post-its on her wall! That’s normal, even expected when seeing for the first time everything that she was trying to manage. At least now she felt more confident that something important wasn’t going to slip through the cracks.

In summary, Nancy got started by:

  1. Creating a board using the recommended workflow.
  2. Deciding on what she wanted to visualize most, and used colours to support that.
  3. Wrote out all of her work items
  4. Added an explicit goal
  5. Decided on a routine to keep her board updated

Next time, we’ll see how Nancy’s first week went, what she learned about her work and where she went next. We’ll explore the power of retrospectives and goals to drive improvement.

Expense help for busy professionals like U

I discovered I have a gift. Over the years, I’ve assembled a series of tools and processes that greatly streamlines my business operations, something important for a solopreneur like myself. When I talk to other consultants and busy professionals, they are delighted to learn about these improvements for their own work.

When I can help others focus on what they love to do well, instead of spending time on necessary back-office work, then we all benefit. I am especially motivated to help people doing work to make the world a better place. Through them, I too can make a greater impact.

To that end, I produced my 1st online video on expense filing. I’m really excited about this! Managing expenses used to be such a dreadful task for me, taking up lots of time and filled with errors of omission. I’d forget to file some things or details related to expense items. Now I have a system that allows me to file both paper and digital expenses and real-time, reducing costly delays and the time it takes to submit expenses. It’s even fun at times (gasp).

If expense filing is a drag for you, I invite you to take a look. Initial reviews are enthusiastic. All it takes is 30 minutes of your time to watch and you’ll benefit immediately from what you learned.

Join now, and you can use coupon “PAINFREE” to get $5 off until Friday, December 9, limited to first 50 subscribers.

Spend less time on expenses, more on what you love. 🙂

Xpenser is the tool that I use for expense management. You will need an account to take this course. Sign up for a free trial. I explain in the 2nd lecture how to configure it and get started.

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How To: Save Money and Hassle on Travel


I don’t get out of the house much these days, but for those of you who travel to sprints, conferences (like the upcoming Plone conference in Italy – wish I was going!) or fun exotic locations, Web Worker Samuel Dean has some tips for using and to get the best deal on your travel options.

In a nutshell: use Kayak’s slider tool to quickly adjust departure and arrival times to find additional options and check Farecast’s price trend on your chosen fare to make sure today is a good day to buy.

Click-and-Drag to Save Travel Dollars and Avoid Hassle [Web Worker Daily]

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Bye bye spam

Google AppsI am helping the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie switch to Google Apps, primarily for better a email system. The current email server, a RedHat Enterprise 3 box is getting antiquated and the SpamAssassin software isn’t stemming much of the spam flow, based on the number of not-so-happy emails and calls we receive from parishes on the topic.

Setting up Google Apps is pretty straightforward. Just register, configure the DNS for email, and upload a CSV file of the accounts you need.

Now for the hard part.

The real challenge to this migration is getting all of the parishes set up properly. The last time we tried to get all parishes set up with accounts, we sent out letters, emails and faxes. How many set up the accounts on their own? Close to none, so we spent a lot of time on the phone, walking not so technical people through the myriad of clicks and inputs – not my idea of a fun afternoon. This time around, I was determined to make this a better experience for everyone involved by making the process as simple as possible.

Almost all of the parishes use Outlook Express, so I looked for ways to automate the setup of a new account. I experimented with:

  1. Using some kind of batch installer program, but couldn’t find anything that would just run on its own that didn’t require some kind of install of its own first (and thus not adhering to the simple protocol).
  2. Emailing a registry file containing all of the account information. Outlook Express stores all of its account info in the registry, so opening a .reg file would be a simple and accurate process. The catch? OE blocks .reg files by default, so they can’t be opened. A reasonable default, but a pain in the butt for me.
  3. Emailing a link to download a registry file. This time, I got bit by IE, which ignores the file type described in the download header. Argh! When I finally got a workaround for the file type issue, I discovered the default IE blocks registry files also. Gee, what’s an honest system admin to do?
  4. The chosen solution was #2 with specific steps on how to turn off the security feature so that the file could be opened.  The email and attached files were created using a simple python script, an email template and a csv file with the account-specific data. I was a little worried that non-techie parish secretaries might still be confused, but a few test parishes worked out fine, so at last, a working solution!

Chance of email lost or disrupted close to zero

The nice part is the chances of losing any email or having any disruption in email service is close to nil. The parishes will have their old and new accounts active at the same time, even after the switch is made, so any email that arrives in the old account just before the switch will still get downloaded. This happens because Google has its own mail server name different from the Diocese’s current one, and we’re keeping the DNS records for both mail servers. The actual switch will involve changing the MX record priority, so that the new server becomes the first choice for incoming mail.

The odds are only good, of course, if parishes actually install their account in time. The actual switch is happening at the end of this week, on Friday March 30. Fortunately the Google control panel shows me which accounts have been accessed (and hence activated) so I’ll know who to *remind* in the coming days.

Check back next week to see what proverbial bits hit the fan!

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Got Firefox 2.0 yet?

I just installed the latest Firefox browser, having heard that it is a lot faster than the older 1.5. I had pretty much abandoned 1.5 on my Mac because it ate up all my memory and chugged so much I saw the busy spinning wheel more often than not.
With 2.0, I have to say: wow. It’s faster than Safari and Flock (a browser based on Firefox), and the new inline spell checking is a fantastic feature. We get requests from some people using DeoWeb for a spell checker so I’ve recommended the Google toolbar up to now, but inline checking takes the cake. Now there’s no excuse for those embarrassing typos when posting online.
There is also phishing protection and a bunch of other goodies.

Haven’t tried Firefox? Get it now – it’s more secure than Internet Explorer and has tons of great extensions to plug in.

What are you doing to preserve your data?

Churches and other non-profits have important, critical data that should be backed up on a scheduled basis, stored at a reliable source off-site. I suspect, tho that most churches backup process is like this:

  1. Backups happen sporadically
  2. Not all important files are backed up
  3. Backup files are stored on the same computer as the original, or on a disk or something semi-reliable.
  4. Backup files are kept in the office.

Apple’s statistics show that only 4% of Mac users have an automatic backup strategy. I doubt churches are any better.
To be fair, my own backup strategy is full of holes. I’ve tried setting up an automated backup using rsync to copy changed files to an external hard drive, but that means turning on the external drive in time for the backup, and for some reason rsync seems to copy everything, not just the changed stuff so it takes forever.
If doing backups were as simple as typing out a Word document, more organizations would be doing it, including myself!
Amazon’s new Simple Storage Service (S3) offers a partial way there. S3 is an Internet “web service” that permits you to store unlimited data on their very robust, highly secure system. This is the system they use, as well as corporations like Microsoft. Rates, currently, are 15 cents per GB stored a month and 20 cents per GB transferred.
A church with 10GB of data that adds 0.5GB of new data per month would pay approximately less than $10 for the whole year of secure, off-site storage. That’s cheap. No other online storage service compares right now.
Still, that doesn’t solve the problem entirely of getting files backed up regularly. S3 provides the storage, not the tool to backup the data.
In another post I’ll list some tools that make it easy to backup with S3. I haven’t looked yet, so Google don’t let me down. 🙂

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SooToday classifieds the way it should be

SooToday is a very popular online community site where I live. They have a classifieds section that gets lots of traffic. I once posted looking for a cheap pre-paid cell phone, and got 8 emails within a day or so.
Trying to find deals on SooToday is an effort in aggravation. Think Myspace design (or lack thereof). Where to start?

  1. There is only one search field and it is at the bottom of a very long classifieds front page. Want to do another search? Click the back button a few times, or bookmark the page. Yuck.
  2. No searching by category. Type in ‘rug’ and you get everything from houses for sale, to stereo equipment, when all you want to buy is an area rug. The search will match any posting with the letters ‘rug’ in sequence, so ‘drug’ and ‘rugged’ match.
  3. Browsing is useless, because it’s possible that someone posted in a different category than the one you think you should find it in. For example, there are Miscellaneous and Freebie categories.
  4. Duplicate postings. Everyone wants their posting to be at the top of the list since no one browses more than a page, so the same ads keep showing up day after day.
  5. Time consuming. This is a general criticism of classifieds sites. Why make me come to the site every day / hour? Why can’t I sign up for notification when something I want gets posted? I don’t have time to be searching regularly.

First attempt: Google Alerts
I tried using Google Alerts for a while. It’s simple and easy to use. You type in something you are looking for, and when new items show up in the top 20 results, you get emailed. For example, to search for a cordless phone, use this as your google search:

“cordless phone”

The problem I soon discovered is I got the results too late. I would get a notification days after the ad went up, and by that time, the item was sold or not even listed on the site anymore! The problem is that the search depends on Google updating its search index, which can happen days later it seems.

Then I came across Dapper, an amazing tool that lets you build data maps from content on web sites. In short time, I created a ‘Dapp’ of SooToday classifieds, and built a search around it. Now I get results sent to me soon after they get posted. I use RSS feeds but email notification is also possible. This is my holy grail. It’s awesome.

We just bought a house recently and are expecting twins, so I’m searching for quite a few items. Using my Dapp I was able to spot some bamboo flooring, regularly priced around $6 sq ft for only $2. I’ve checked out a few dishwashers, called about a number of desks, and followed up on some moving sales.
Try out my SooToday classifieds search Dapp yourself. Here is the link to create an email notification (account required), and one to create an RSS feed of search results.
Perhaps I’ll create another post that provides an example of creating the alert or RSS feed, if people indicate interest. Let me know what you think of it.

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Let Google manage your email + other goodies

Google is now packaging together 4 of their services in a connected bundle for organizations:

  • Gmail for email
  • Gtalk for instant messaging
  • Google Calendar for managing schedules and events
  • Google Page creator for web pages

My first thoughts after reading this is that churches and dioceses can benefit well just by switching to Gmail, and ignoring the rest for now. Consider that:

  • You get an email account that has solid spam protection
  • Access email from anywhere
  • Power of Google’s search for your email
  • For those that want to still use a desktop email client, that is possible also. You still benefit from the spam protection as well.
  • Ditch your own mail server if you have one and save on time and $$$
  • Very easy to adminster email accounts
  • It’s free!

More info at

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