The August Dance

For many years, the first day of August brought a sound into my head.  It was like having song stuck, but wasn’t a song – just a clip of a sound.  It was the sound of Homer Simpson shrieking.  Over and Over.  And Over.

August is a crazy time for a twelve-month employee in a school.  The ten- and eleven- month-ers come back rested and full of ideas.  Forms start to come in (or worse – not come in).  Class enrollment is finalized.  The phone starts ringing and the emails start flying.  Then students and parents arrive, tablets get distributed, printers need installing, and classes begin.  August for me, no matter how prepared I seem to feel, always ends up with late nights, a panic as I realize that I’ve failed (again) to secure a birthday gift for my husband, and sending notes to friends and family that I’ll see them in September.

My last post, nearly three weeks ago, saw me at inbox zero.  But I quickly lost ground and ended up at inbox 168.  Last Saturday, I got that down to 63 only to be back at 120 by the next Tuesday.  I haven’t made it back to inbox zero, but as of now, I’m at inbox 14, which is, as my husband says, good enough for rock and roll.

Like any August, this one has been a roller coaster of activity.  My absence from this blog is just one symptom of the busy time that August brings.  But, in the last three weeks, we’ve launched the new website (which is lovely), brought two out of three migrated databases online, oriented over 80 new students to our one-to-one tablet program, started classes and so on.  I’m choosing to focus on what has been done, rather than what hasn’t.  Just don’t look for dust bunnies in the corners of my house.

While it is all still fresh, I am considering what can I do to keep August from being so crazy next year. Here are some thoughts that may work well for anyone fighting to gain Tech Life Balance (Note: This post is part of a previous blog entitled “Tech Life Balance.”)

  • Ask for help:  I suffer from the idea that I can always do it better/quicker myself and that it is better to take a burden on myself than to place one on someone else.   While I am getting better about delegation and asking for help, I still have a long way I can go.
  • Plan ahead:  It seems that for the last three weeks, each evening is about what must be done to get through the next day.  It is hard to jump off the hamster wheel and think ahead.  I have been on duty this weekend, which means that I am at work.  While a majority of others are taking a little time off, I’ve been hard at work to catch up so that I can start thinking about things that are further up my calendar, like that presentation for Friday or the faculty development session on Thursday.
  • Admit defeat if needed:  I had items on my to do list for August that are now on my to do list for October.  The didn’t have to happen and it was more important to get some sleep or check on my Mom or do a load of laundry.   When admitting defeat, be kind to yourself.  It’s not that you couldn’t do it; it’s that you chose other priorities.

So, we’ve arrived at Labor Day.  The time to put away your seersucker and white shoes and to silence the shrieking Homer in your head.  I did the best I could with this August. The craziness is over for another year.  Now, it’s time to get back to the routine days and to get back on the track in the ongoing quest for keeping it all in balance.  Starting with going for out for brunch and playing a couple of rounds of Tiger Woods Golf on the Wii.

Inbox Zero

It has taken a few hours, but as of this moment, I am at Inbox Zero!

I am a strong advocate of keeping my Inbox small, but this week, in the insanity of the pre-back-to-school frenzy, things had gotten a little out of hand.  This morning, I have answered about 60 messages and added about 25 to-do items to my Tasks in Outlook.   Needless to say, I have a busy few days ahead of me, but at least now I have a consolidated list of what needs to happen.

If you are interested in some of how I make GTD work electronically, please read my previous post on that topic.

What does reaching Inbox Zero mean for me?  Basically, it means that I have mostly climbed out of a hole in which about 80 different things were crowding my mind.  I need to buy a birthday gift for my husband.  My boss needs a document prepped.  The agenda for the meeting needs to be online.  Can we do dinner on Thursday?  Each of these individual items is small, but the overall effect is a maelstrom of mental energy being sucked into an endless loop of gotta’s.  Gotta send that message.  Gotta return that call.  Gotta order that book.  This kind of thing can really knock your tech life balance out of whack (Note: This post is part of a previous blog entitled “Tech Life Balance.”).  Inbox Zero mean that I’ve started the approach back to centered.

The next week is full of excitement and constant motion.  We launch the new web page.  We train the faculty on the new system.  We discuss books, policies, and teaching ideas.  I’ll have a lot to do and even with GTD, a mind like water, and a great support network, I’ll feel like I need to bend the laws of physics to get it done.  I’ll be challenged to keep the tech life balance this week.  Soon I’ll dive in to tackling those to do’s.  But right now, I gotta stop for lunch.

Systems and Choices

This has been a long and tricky week.  The week included gathering and manipulating upload data from 3 sources for a web upload, three full days of software training, three 4:45 p.m. conference calls with our web project manager, the “soft launch” or our website, and all of the usual business of a technology department with a one-to-one tablet program when school starts in three weeks.  I’m glad to have arrived at Saturday morning and to be sitting with my laptop and coffee to write a post.

In three days of training on our new databases and beginning to see how our new website will work, I’m realizing that I will have to make many choices in the coming week.  As the “Director of Technology and Information Systems,” I will need to determine how data is stored, used, and shared within our new database, new website, and existing systems.  With three systems for calendaring and resource reservation, which is best to use?  With two ways to display homework assignments for students and parents, which is best to use? How is it best to tie class wikis to our web systems?

I generally like this kind of challenge.  I enjoy figuring out the logistic of a project and designing systems to manage processes and data.  But, I must confess that this many choices needing to be made in a single week is enough to make one feel overwhelmed.   What to do?  Where to start?  GTD.

If I am to accomplish these tasks, as well as prepare for the training I will teach in 10 days, registration of students in 15 days, and the classes I will begin teaching in 21 days, I must remember to stay calm and return to GTD.  Today, I will probably not make any progress that appears to be directly related to these projects.  As you remember, the title of this blog is “tech life balance” and today is a “life” day (Note: This post is from a previous blog entitled “Tech Life Balance.”).  Instead of spending the day with my computer, I will buy groceries, get a haircut, have lunch with my parents to plan their remodeling project, do laundry, watch a movie with my husband, and outline these projects.  Tomorrow, I dive in, but I’ll have a plan.

David Allen suggests a weekly review and I must confess that I haven’t done one for several weeks.  I have over due items on my to do list and several lists scribbled here and there.  Today, I will consolidate, give myself new due dates, figure out what others on my team can do, and add to my list those items that will help me end next week with a plan for how my school will most efficiently utilize the tools they now have.

I hope that next Saturday morning, I’ll have had another busy, but productive week and that I’ll be enjoying a cup of coffee while I plan the weekend and the week of faculty orientation.  Enjoy your Saturday – I’m off to get a haircut!

Don’t Panic

“Don’t Panic” appears on the front of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the book of the same name, a balm to soothe the hysterical intergalactic traveler.  Once, trapped in a walk-in freezer at work, I read Don’t Panic” in big red letters – right beside incomprehensible instructions on how to escape the icy prison.  I think that it is key to note at this point that the words “Don’t Panic” have no meaning when you are locked in a walk in freezer at 4:45 on a Friday afternoon.  You become very certain that you are going to die, cold and alone, surrounded by many frozen lab samples.  Finally, in Disney’s Toy Story (an excellent film), at one point, Buzz tells Woody that this is no time to panic. Woody replies that “this is the perfect time to panic.”

Today, right now seems like the perfect time to panic.  My team must process 75 computers in 4 days.  Two new databases launch on Thursday.  A new website launch depends on a successful database launch.  On Sunday, we change mail servers and domain names and must embark on a process of migrating over 100 users.  Then, teachers must be trained on new systems.  Tablets must be distributed.  Over 1000 people must be given log-ins.  I must prepare to teach a new subject.

But, strangely, there is no panic.  I have GTD – I know exactly what needs to be done and by when (learn more about my GTD systems).  There is a plan and when the unexpected happens, we alter the plan and keep going.  David Allen uses the phrase “mind like water” to describe a state in which an event affects you like a stone affects a glassy-smooth pond.  There are a few ripples and then the system returns to equilibrium. At present, my mind is like water; still, calm, and ready to absorb any change that comes my way.

Now, I just have to stay this way until Labor Day.

GTD – electronic

After getting my iPhone almost a year ago, I decided to give electronic management a new chance.  Another key factor was attending Jason Ramsden‘s great session at the NCAIS tech conference in early 2008 about using Outlook to implement GTD.  Jason recommended a great program that plugs in to Outlook called ClearContext, which has been an amazing tool for me for the last year and a half.

The first key has been to stop using my email Inbox as a to-do list.  David Allen talks about getting all of your to-do’s in one place.  By mixing new email and old email that needs action, you simply have to touch every email multiple times and make a decision about what to do with it each time.  The beauty of ClearContext can click a single button to convert any email to an Outlook Task or an Outlook Calendar item.  This makes it incredibly easy to keep the Inbox clear of items that are actually To-Do’s or are needed for a specific time.  Even if you don’t get ClearContext, you can accomplish a similar result by copying the text of an email into a newly created task or event.  Or, you can use the “Attach Item” feature to attach the message to a task or event and then safely delete it from the Inbox.  That said, ClearContext has other fabulous features, but these two buttons alone make it worth the purchase.

Another time-saving habit has been to attach all the documents for a meeting to the calendar event.  Interviewing a candidate?  Attach the resume to the calendar event.  Meeting a vendor?  Insert the contact information on the event in case you need to reschedule.  Visiting another school?  Insert the directions to the school.  Things become easy to find and with the search feature, you can easily pull up the resume even if the interview was months ago.

Outlook categories aren’t something that I use extensively, but I do find them helpful in one key area.  To any Task that I cannot complete until someone else gives me information, I assign the “Red” category.  This places a small red square next to the task which signals me to “Stop” until I get what I need from the other person.  Another useful feature of ClearContext, is that you can have it signal you with a “Follow Up” if you do not get a response to an email in an amount of time that you specify.  This really takes the pressure off of you, as you don’t have to hold that “how many days ago did I ask Joe for that report” in your head.

What does one do with all those little pieces of information that are needed quickly, but don’t fall into the Tasks/Email/Events categories?  Outlook Notes has been my answer.  When I need the account number for our corporate AT&T account, it’s in the Notes.  Need my library card number to log in and renew my books?  That’s a Note.  These Post-It like snippets work perfectly in the Notes and save lots of digging for the last AT&T bill or my frequent flier account number.

A last tool has been Jott.  With Jott, I call an 800 number, specify an individual (or myself), and leave a voice message. Jott translates the speech to text and sends it to the email associated with the person specified.  This is incredibly useful in situations where a 15 second phone call is easier than trying to type in a to-do item.  Once the message hits my email, I convert it to a task via ClearContext and it is in my tracking system in under 30 seconds total.

Those have been the key areas where I have implemented GTD via Outlook.  One last note is that all of this is made easier and better by the ActiveSync connection to our Exchange server that I have through my iPhone.  My mail, calendar, and contacts are synced constantly.  My notes are synced through iTunes’ Outlook Sync.  Tasks (and this is my main complaint with iPhone/Exchange integration) don’t move through ActiveSync.  Instead, I use Toodle-Do to move them from Outlook to my online Toodle-Do account and from there to my iPhone via the Toodle-Do App.  Not ideal, but it works well enough.  This combination enables me to keep my email, tasks, schedule, and key information with me at basically all times.

This is the end of my GTD series for now.  Again, if you haven’t gotten a copy of Getting Things Done by David Allen, it is well worth your time and money.  Go get it now.  Right now.  Stop reading and go!