It Looks Just Like a Window

I am continuing to dive into my penchant for creative destruction to find more ways to use it to my advantage. I originally got on the subject as I was deleting my rarely used Twitter account and tweaking my website design to get rid of a blogroll populated with rarely updated websites. I’m good at tearing stuff down, but I often don’t replace that stuff with something better.

A lot of my complaints about the tools I use and the websites I visit have nothing to do with those products themselves, but my own vague dissatisfaction with how I am interacting with them. I end up either moving on from potentially useful services too quickly or returning to things I ditched earlier when I realize they’re better than I initially thought or at least better than nothing. That’s because my frustration with technology is a manifestation of broader frustrations that I rarely address.

I think that means I’m having my mid-life crisis right now. Maybe I’ll buy a Porsche.

Or, to be realistic and responsible, maybe I’ll re-evaluate my broader goals and try small changes now that will help me make better decisions later. (That sounds vague, but I am also trying very hard to avoid turning this post into a therapy session.)

The most obvious immediate adjustment is changing my publication schedule from Friday afternoons to Monday afternoons. While I am able to write stuff during the week, I tend to do the bulk of it towards the weekend, so I want to lean into that tendency.

As for all that other stuff I’m working on, I’m sure I’ll post updates on how it’s going. Just not on Twitter.

Searching the Earth Like a Lost Worker Bee

My bureau started to telework full-time back in March. We are formulating and adjusting our plans to go back into the office. We have been receiving updates and guidelines on how our buildings will be set up to help us practice social distancing and to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

This has gotten me to think about what’s going to change about work as we open back up. I want to look beyond the obvious immediate stuff like wiping down my workstation, wearing a mask when I walk the halls, and maybe even extended enclosures on cubicles. That’s going to be commonplace for the foreseeable future, even if I still can’t foresee the day when I return to the office.

I am thinking more about how we reconnect with each other after spending months only seeing each other through webcams and chatting through Slack. How do we regain camaraderie and support each other as we transition back? How will my place of work bridge all of the digital gaps exposed by the extended building closures? How will the metrics we use to measure success be adjusted now that our traditional model of doing business has been disrupted?

Will we have less meetings? Because I would like to have less meetings.

Those are the type of questions I want to explore on this site in the coming weeks. I plan to write about the tools we’re using and the ones we need, the data we collect and data we should, and all of the issues we face. I want to document how I work now and see how that changes as our situation evolves. We all believe that work will be permanently altered by our response to COVID-19. How will that belief bear out?

Just Plug In and Go, Go, Go

I adore Google Tasks. I’ve been using it for a long time, although the way I use it now has evolved since the last time I wrote a love letter to it. Before, I had grouped my items by broad topic. Now I have them structured around urgency.

The Master list is where I put new tasks as they arise. Each Monday, I review it and select which tasks I want to add to Weekly. Then I review Weekly each day and move items over to Daily. Obviously, time-sensitive tasks will go directly onto Daily.

Perpetual contains tasks that pop-up on a regular basis. At home these tasks related to items on my wellness plan: reminders related to writing and things like that. Lastly, Follow-Up features anything delegated to or dependent on others.

Google Tasks has been integrated into Google Mail for a while, and recently they made that integration more obvious by making the Tasks button more prominent in the email toolbar.

I used to keep emails in my inbox until I had either followed up on them or got a response. Now I add them to my task list, and I can keep my inbox clean.

Gmail also has three right side bars you can scroll through: Calendar, Keep, and Tasks. I use all three pretty extensively, but I usually have the daily tasks open to stay on top of what I plan to do each day.

There are some quirky limitations. For example, Google Calendar doesn’t display tasks that have a reminder date. Calendar has an option to set reminders, but this similar function is separate from Tasks. And those Calendar reminders don’t appear in the Tasks interface.

And a lot of the functionality I described only works in the desktop versions of these Google apps. You can’t add emails to Tasks, Keep, or Calendar from the iOS app version of Gmail. I’ve been submitting feedback to Google about this, but I have no idea if submitting feedback is actually effective. Someday, I hope these apps will work together as seamlessly as their desktop versions.

I have the same set up for my work version of Tasks, with one additional list to help me stay on top of our virtual intern’s assignments. The main issue I have there is that my place of work is very much a Microsoft-based organization. The bulk of my email comes to my Outlook inbox, not my Gmail inbox.

Because we are teleworking full-time during the quarantine, I almost exclusively use the browser version of Outlook instead of the software version. I tried to recreate my labels using the browser version of Outlook and Tasks by using the Categories feature and email flags. But Microsoft’s Tasks doesn’t have the option to sort by Categories, which makes it difficult for me to figure out which items are daily priority versus weekly and so forth. So I have Outlook folders titled with my labels, and I file emails with actions in them in the appropriate folder.

All of that notwithstanding, I’ve been pretty happy with how this system has been working. And writing about it here has also helped me pick up on things I can improve. For example, in my personal Tasks set up, I had a tendency to put my writing assignments for my Eurovision blog in the Weekly list. Putting together this post reminded me that all of those assignments should go into the Master list until I am ready to write them.

The important thing for me to do is review the tasks in each list on a regular basis. This way nothing falls through the cracks. The Master list also helps me embrace the fact that everything I have on my plate doesn’t need to be resolved right away. Once I got over the idea that EVERYTHING ON MY LIST needed to be completed ASAP, the easier it became to manage my task list this way.

I Can Make a Change and Go

At the start of the year, I put together a plan to help me improve my productivity and my mental wellbeing. Last year, I had read “Why You Should Start Your New Year’s Resolutions on March 4th” in Fast Company, and this year I finally took that essay to heart.

Using a bunch of articles I had stashed in Pocket, a selection of Google tools, a notepad and a pen, I compiled a list of goals I wanted to achieve and good habits I wanted to pick up. I grouped my goals based on the Six Dimensions of Wellness Model. To wit:

  • Occupational – Learn coding
  • Physical – Improve diet based on doctor’s recommendations
  • Intellectual – Improve blog writing by planning out series and recurring topics
  • Social – Make plans with people I haven’t seen in a while
  • Emotional – Find time to process dark emotions regularly instead of letting them build up
  • Spiritual – Focus on positive energy instead of defaulting to cynicism

Not all of these goals have obvious completion points (and one of them can’t be accomplished right now in the way I originally intended it), so within those goals are tasks that help me measure my progress. I can adjust those tasks as needed, drop what isn’t working, and reframe as I hit targets.

One of the ways I am tracking it all is through Google Keep. Each day I jot down different beats as I hit them each day. Did I exercise? Noted. Did I work on my next post for the blog? Noted. What is my mood like right now? Noted.

On Sundays, I review my notes from the week. I have a template in Google Docs that shows all of the goals I had written down, and I can note my progress on them all. I pull from the Google Keep notes, health tracking apps, what page I am on the book I have on my nightstand (still page 25!), or anything else that can inform my review. I also note the highlights and the lowlights of the week as well so that I acknowledge how the outside world affects my mood and my progress.

So far, it all has been going well. But I also recognize that whatever I work do during an abnormal situation still needs to work once things like a commute to the office are reincorporated into my routine. A return to normalcy is actually going to be a disruption, and I don’t want to unravel whatever good I am weaving together now. My hope is that if I can manage my mental health in a time like this, then I should be able to take care of myself in less stressful times. Fingers crossed!

A Post About Slack That Isn’t Really About Slack

This is a post I wrote a few years ago for the old blog. I’m reprinting it this week because, as my colleagues and I continue to telework full time, Slack has become our primary communication tool. We also do meetings on Zoom, but I have to comb my hair for those.

There used to be a website called Meebo. It was a web-based instant messaging system that could be integrated with AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, and other IM systems. Users had the option to create their own rooms, which allowed groups of folks to chat in one place at the same time.

Meebo was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2012, Google bought it. Google integrated the Meebo team with its Google+ team, then quietly closed Meebo up.

There also used to be a website called FriendFeed. You could hook it up to all of your various social media accounts and blogs and so forth and all those accounts would feed into your FriendFeed account. You and your friends would be able to see and comment on everything you were populating the web with.

Over time, the function of collecting posts from your sundries became less important than just posting stuff directly into FriendFeed and talking with your friends and followers about it.

FriendFeed was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2009, Facebook bought it. Facebook took whatever code it needed for its Newsfeed feature and… well, let FriendFeed continue to exist. Gradually, FriendFeed began to deteriorate: features would stop working and the site would sometimes go down for awhile. For six years, FriendFeed users felt like it was not long for the world, but it only closed up shop in 2015.

Which brings me to Slack. The bureau I work for licensed Slack a couple of years ago with an eye towards improving telework. The idea our Bureau’s leadership had was that we would use Slack to get quick responses to short questions and to converse with coworkers about projects rather than bogging down inboxes with emailed conversations or interrupting a telework day with unnecessary phone calls.

At first, I didn’t really get it. I have been teleworking regularly for years, so I already had a routine down. (In other words, I’m a bit stubborn.)

And then light dawned on Marblehead: Slack is like a combination of Meebo and FriendFeed, except for work. It takes a lot of what I liked about Meebo (channels here instead of rooms) and a lot of what I liked about FriendFeed (integration with other resources, private group discussions and archived direct messaging) and packages it up for a work environment.

Granted, it lacks things I liked about Meebo and especially FriendFeed: for example, the threaded conversations in FriendFeed were unique in a way that even Slack’s threads don’t quite capture. But once I made the connections between resources I had used before to this resource, I could start to think about ways I could work it into my job.

The lesson here is that everything you have learned informs everything that you are going to learn. Just making some simple parallels can be the cognitive breakthrough you need to understand how something works and how it can work for you.

Welcome to the House of Fun

Years ago, I wrote a brief article about telecommuting for the 2014-15 edition of LexisNexis Best Practices for Government Libraries. Rereading it got me to thinking about how the telework landscape has changed a lot since then.

While my office has always been very supportive of telework agreements, it seemed that this wasn’t broadly the case in other parts of the bureau. So when recent events made it a requirement for me and my colleagues to do work from home, I was fascinated to see how this was going to work out.

And so far, it’s been fine. We had been hampered a bit by the limitations of our teleworking tools. Not surprisingly, they were originally designed to work for the average number of telecommuters, not the maximum number. So it’s been nice to see how much work has gone into improving the resources and streamlining the set-up process in the past couple of weeks. It’s a difficult job to implement rolling upgrades while also communicating with a large number of people whose work lives have been totally disrupted and are learning how to get set up and use everything all at once. I have a huge amount of respect for everyone working on this, because as much as we all like to complain about things not working perfectly, the fact that they work as well as they do under extraordinary circumstances is pretty great.

A bright spot in what is broadly a miserable time for everyone is that this whole experience will probably permanently alter how telework is done here. And not just from the technical and logistical end of things. I think a lot of people who were resistant to telework before will discover that it’s not so bad, and even has a lot of advantages. Not to say we all won’t be itching to get back to the office as soon as it is safe enough to do so. Even me, who teleworks more often than I work onsite.

One of the things that I noticed for myself is how loud my commute into DC has been. It takes me one hour and 15 minutes each way to get into the office. A significant portion of that commute is spent on a Metro train, and a significant portion of that Metro ride is spent underground. It is noisy down there, to the point where I bought noise-cancelling headphones so I could hear the podcasts I like to listen to en route. I have tinnitus, so I thought I was protecting my hearing this way.

But I realized that despite the use of those headphones, my ears were still buzzing at the end of the day. The reason? I was still turning up the volume on my podcasts so I could hear them. Even with the noise cancellation on, the din from the Metro tunnels was still too loud to hear properly. I’m only listening to people talking, but I’m listening to them at a stupidly high volume.

So when things back to whatever normal is going to look like, one of my personal tasks will be to figure out how to rectify this situation. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, because I have a backlog of podcasts to get through now that I’m not listening to them while commuting.

The Morning Fog

My bureau is using Gallup‘s CliftonStrengths right now, a personality-based team building tool. The idea is that each participant will uncover and build on their core set of talents. By focusing on strengths instead of trying to improve weaknesses, individuals can become better team players by working with others who compliment their skills.

How much you buy into that depends on how much you buy into any sort of corporate team building exercise, obviously. I tend to be skeptical, although that doesn’t usually stop me from playing along. I kinda love the mechanics of the whole process. I took a big old personality test, and got back a 25-page report that ranked 34 copyrighted buzzwords purporting to reveal my top 10 talents and the 24 other skills that I need to work around so I don’t trip myself up.

I’d like to scoff, but when my report tells me that I comprehend what I read better when I read in short bursts, that I prefer books with short chapters, and I tend to seek out publications and websites offering useful tips for organizing things… well, I’m a little more inclined to buy in.

Of course, a lot of this confirms what I already know about myself. What I found most useful both in the report and the accompanying workshop was the list of pitfalls to each of the personality traits. Maybe it’s a little obvious that someone who is overly empathetic will feel worn down by taking other people’s energy levels. But for someone who deals with confidence issues and imposter syndrome and the like, it’s nice to have a little guide to myself that I can use to navigate though those negative moments.

And I Won’t Screw It Up This Time

I have written more than a couple of posts about organization and productivity. They have become snapshots in time versus the solid basis for a fully organized work life, but on the other hand, they could still be the latter. If only…

As I allude to a couple of times, I struggle to make time to set routines into habits. I can do something consistently for a period of time, but as soon as something happens to disrupt the routine, I can’t get back into it. And then I beat myself up over it here!

But because I’ve written about all of that, I have the documentation to get back on track. Field Notes’ motto is “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” That is true, but beyond that, because I wrote it down earlier, I can jog my memory now.

As mentioned in my previous post, I have been reading Messy by Tim Harford, which makes the case that disorder can help spark creativity, and probably leads to more creativity than a perfectly ordered life.

I feel like that last sentence is also the main plot to any movie about how awful the suburbs are.

Anyway, after describing how Twyla Tharp manages her work, Harford discusses how he keeps track of all his projects and plans and stray ideas.:

I have a related solution myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and three-by-five-inch cards. Each card has a single project on it-something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete … I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top. They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner … They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.

pp.53-54 of the Libby ebook version of Messy on an iPhone with the font size increased because my eyesight is poor

There is room for some sort of organization so long as you make room for the disorganization that could lead you to new discoveries. One of my challenges, then, is not letting the organizational part get in the way of the discovery part.

For example, I use Pocket to save articles that I love or that I want to read later. If a bunch of articles pile up, I will get overwhelmed and then skim each article and archive or delete them to clean up my list. It took a long time for me to realize that all this is doing is forcing me to organize without understanding why I saved articles in the first place. There’s no point in archiving files or getting to inbox zero if you are only cleaning up for the sake of cleaning up. Thinking about why you left something where you did helps you understand its potential.

Which gets me back to my original idea for this post. I have all these tools I created to help me get organized, but maybe the reason why they didn’t stick is because I didn’t think about why I thought they were important. That’s my next step.

First Train Into the Big World

I spend a lot of time doing small little tasks to make myself feel productive. But I rarely stop to think if those tasks are helping me accomplish bigger goals or consider whether or not they are necessary. I do them because I’ve always done them.

As my work and home duties are evolving in considerable ways, I’ve become more conscious of how much stuff I do just for the sake of doing it. Keeping the work journal should help me sort everything out, but I would need to sit down and look at past journals to do analysis and my goodness, do I have time for that, look how busy I am, my journal clearly says so!

You can see how I walk around in circles. Thinking I don’t have time to plan my day or my week and so forth because I am too busy with all my day-to-day duties only distracts me from prioritizing what actually needs to get done.

Productivity gurus commonly recommend scheduling time in your calendar time to do something that is detail-oriented or requires high levels of concentration. It has the external effect of letting co-workers know not to bother you and the internal effect of giving you the space to complete important tasks.

Of course, it does require you to adhere to your calendar. Whenever I’ve done this in the past, I’ve gotten my notifications, dismissed them, then keep chugging away on the minutiae I was engrossed in.

I’d like to think publishing a post about this would motivate me to do it, but I also know I’ve written about it before, then not followed up because I had fallen off the wagon and was embarrassed to admit it. There’s no shame in having trouble breaking bad habits, so long as I own up to my mistakes and try again. That’s how I learn.

By the way, I am using a lyric from a snarky song as a headline for something sincere. I’ve got layers.

The Feeling at the End of the Page

When I first started teleworking back in 2011, the staffing agency I worked for and my supervisor at the time asked me to keep track of the work I was doing from home. I would send them an email at the end of each work day. When the bureau I work for set up G Suite back in 2014, I began writing my reports in Google Docs.

On February 29, 2016, I began to write up a report every work day, rather than just on my telework days. (I had to look up the date!) It had become useful for me to keep track of all of the projects I was working on. It became part of my daily routine.

I didn’t really think of it as a work diary per se until I read Amanda Leftwich’s article in The Librarian Parlor, “Reflecting Journaling: A Daily Practice.” I wouldn’t describe what I do as reflective and more as reactive. I’m just keeping track of what I’ve done in a day. That said, having all of those details written down has helped me when updating my duties in my contract, tweaking my LinkedIn profile, and (very occasionally) coming up with ideas for posts.

What I really took away from “Reflecting Journaling” was that I could get more out of my daily routine. I don’t really use the diary to work through problems I am trying to solve or projects I am trying to wrap my head around, but instead as a way to catalog my routine. This has a lot to do with the fact that the original diary entries were shared as reports with my original onsite and agency supervisors. I haven’t had to file telework reports for years, but the report format has stuck.

Despite my proclivity to play around with productivity tools and tips, I never used journaling as a way to help me manage my workload. Given that I tend to pick up and drop hacks, it makes sense to work within something that I already do on a regular basis. Maybe it will be easier to adapt habits I already have to new purposes.