The value of the persistant reminder

They say a visual reminder of a goal will help you acheive it. My experience is that placards with my desired weight taped here and there in my house have done nothing to reduce my weight, but perhaps the visual reminder needs to be more actionable.

We all have things we want to get done but resist our efforts. These are usually (hopefully) things that we should do but can live without doing. They sit there, wanting to be done, but undone. Sometimes it’s that the item isn’t really actionable – like a number taped to my mirror – but often times it’s all too actionable, there’s just some barrier. The strongest barrier is that the price to be paid for not doing it is simply not very high.

As I adopted David Allen’s Getting Things Done system for my personal life, I’ve found the value of the persistent reminder in dealing with these items. Even the most intractable item will eventually be conquered, if I just have a persistent reminder of it. Rather than if, it becomes a matter of when.

For example, I need to fix the oil cooler on my wife’s minivan. The van is famous for leaking oil at the oil cooler, and while it’s not a serious leak it’s enough to spot the driveway and it needs to be fixed but it’s the kind of thing one can live with fairly easily. It’s been on my todo list for ages.

Today it finally succumbed as I was going through my projects, got to that one, and asked myself “Am I really going to write this one on another next action list? Or, should I just get off my ass and do it?”

So a few dollars later and I have my new oil cooler seal.

This isn’t the first such item I’ve been able to deal with this way, and it took me a while to realize that it is really just a matter of there being a persistent reminder. David’s system certainly provides it, but it could be done in other ways. Regardless, if I see that item every day it will become an imperative to do it.

Getting Things Done – My Approach

There are so many ways people have implemented David Allen’s Getting Things Done I avoided blogging about mine for ages. Then I realized, after three years of using it, that it’s pretty effective. It’s also pretty simple and that’s part of the appeal. Last but not least, it’s paper and pen based, which makes it portable and immune to the peculiarities of IT departments.

The system is simple and has the following elements:

  1. A list of all projects started. A project is, as written in GTD, anything that takes more than one step. I keep a handwritten list, each project in a numbered list.
  2. A stack of active projects, in a folder marked Projects. One sheet of paper for each project. Number in the upper right hand corner, title in the upper left hand corner. The sheet is a simple log of next actions, and sometimes a few additional thoughts. The lowest item is always what needs to be done next in simple, visible terms.
  3. A next action list. This also holds everything else that I need to do that is not a project. Date in the upper right hand corner, and a list of items. Sometimes I fold the sheet in half, and use the four pages for contexts (i.e. Home, Work, etc.) often I don’t. This list may get folded up and carried in a pocket, or it might sit in the Projects folder. This sheet also serves as a sort of inbox – a good place to jot new things to be processed. Because any new next action list involves copying items from the old one, the new items will be processed.
  4. Another folder labeled ‘Inactive’. This is where old next action lists, and full or finished, project sheets go. This can probably stay in the desk.
  5. Another folder is labeled ‘Someday/Maybe’
  6. A stack of blank paper for making new projects, or new project sheets for older ones.

The workflow is also pretty simple:

  1. Add projects to the project list.
  2. For each project, write a project sheet. At the top it sometimes helps to write a clear statement of the expected outcome. Write the next thing you need to do for that project.
  3. Add that next action to the next action list.
  4. When you’re done, start working on the next action list and all the other stuff life brings to our doors.
  5. At least once a week, or when the next action list has accumulated a fair number of check marks, review the project sheets.
  6. For each sheet update the status – what’s happened or been accomplished. Change the next action if necessary. If nothing was done, simply go to the next project.
  7. Record each next action on the next action list as you look at each project.
  8. If nothing has been done on a project in a long time, I ask myself if if this is really an active project or not. Many ideas get turned into projects, that then turn out to be either not as useful as thought or they simple become irrelevant. If it happens that a month or so goes by with no action I will usually make an entry that says something like “Hibernating until I have more ideas.” Sometimes a project will go directly to Someday/Maybe.

I’ve tried a variety of software on my desktop computer, my laptop, my iPhone, and web based. All had some neat features and some of those feature could have been addicting but for one thing. While I would rather do this stuff in software, in every one of these systems I found myself updating them after the fact instead of using them in the process of planning work. They were good record keeping systems, but they didn’t add anything to the process except work. This pretty much destroys the value of the Getting Things Done system, which is derived from the planning that comes out of the project review process.
I also tried a number of different combinations of paper, but in the end simple blank sheets and file folders work the best.

Planning to write a book? Attend our workshop!

Last December Kira Henschel invited me to present on blogging at her publishing workshop. Kira runs HenschelHAUS Publishing, and offers workshops to help people get moving on their book ideas. She asked me to speak on blogging and social media from a how-to perspective.

It was a lot of fun, and quite successful too — one of the attendees has already finished her book and begun the process of marketing it. Jill Baake’s got an I Love Me Mom blog, and I Love Me Mom available at Amazon.

Writing a book is surely a difficult thing to do, but marketing seems to be the hidden valley of challenges for many authors. I know I always thought that being author went something like:

  1. Write really great book.
  2. Sign deal with grateful publisher.
  3. Wait for phone calls announcing each successive step up the best seller list.
  4. Enjoy being rich.

Seriously, I think most folks believe that the writing is the hard part. Actually, it’s editing the book into its most productive form and then marketing it effectively.

What’s also interesting is that while it used to be there weren’t too many publishers that was the only way to get a book in print aside from paying to have the book printed directly. Between changes in printing technologies, publishing technologies, and all the rest of the technologies there are now a lot of new options and many hybrids.

Kira’s invited me again for her next workshop on July 23rd. If you’ve got a book in you that needs to get out, this is a great way to develop a plan to make it happen. From Brainchild to Bestseller: An Insider’s Guide to Birthing and Publishing Your Book will untangle the mess for you, and leave you with a clear path to follow to your book.

I’m not your spam filter, LLBean

I’m running into this more and more, and I’ve decided to start walking away. I’m talking about captchas, those little boxes of nearly impossible to read text that they want you to enter to make sure you’re not a robot.

I will put up with it on registration pages for free online services, but if it’s a corporation asking me to enter a contest via an email invitation, forget it. Don’t ask me to be you’re spam filter.

I’m looking at you LLBean.

Can the Kindle be family friendly?

So now we have two Kindles – the K3 I bought, and the K2 my father passed down to my daughters when he just upgraded. Junie B. Jones and The Magic Tree House are available, so my older daughter is happy, but my 4 year old is also enjoying playing (if not exactly reading yet) and my wife seems like she’d like one too.

While the thrill will probably wear off for my daughters, I know where this is going long term, and there’s going to be problems.

Eventually my daughters will want their own accounts, even if my wife and I can share one. Right now everything is on one account, but when and how do we switch? When the switch happens, the girls will lose a lot of content, no? It seems silly, not to mention complicated, to get separate accounts for the girls but it might be easier now than later.

Has anyone else gone through this already?

Why did my bounce rate go down?

I’m not really that much of a stats junkie, but I do try to keep an eye on what my sites are doing. I noticed this little item in my Analytics, along with a coincident 100% increase in page views:

Screen shot 2011-04-22 at 7.08.53 AM.png

As you can see, my bounce rate has plummeted. I’m not sure if it’s because my traffic is now all some kind of new spider or what, but it’s pretty dramatic, no?

Anyone else see this kind of trend?

Air Boss or Sky Train?

This last weekend we went to visit some family for a long weekend. I took the Air Boss, after a bit of deliberation.

The Air Boss is best suited for trips where you can use the bundle packing method. Folding works only so so, and living out of the bag quickly has it bulging in the middle because when it’s standing up and you’re pulling things out and stuffing them back in things gravitate toward the center. Usually if I’m visiting family it’s a living out of the bag situation, and the Air Boss isn’t the best choice.

But since I’m visiting my father, who has a lot of space and I know I’ll be able to unpack, I decided to take the Air Boss and it worked out fine.

Still love the bag for business travel – It once again proved itself during a speaking gig a few weeks ago. But a recent trip to Las Vegas where I took a different bag (it was two nights, and I had to wear a specific shirt for both days so there was little clothing) and that got me thinking about luggage again. I ended up looking at Tom Bihn’s stuff, and oogled a Western Flyer for a bit, and then I ended up back on Doug’s site and reading about bundle packing again. I’d used one of those packing folders to Vegas, and it was a pain.

Re-reading Doug’s site, I noticed he seemed to be talking about making a bundle tightly around a core, outside the bag, and then putting it inside the bag. When I was packing the Boss I noticed that the compartments are all pretty flat relative to the other dimensions. The bag is 21″ long by 13″, and the outside compartments that I use to hold clothes are only 2″ thick. That makes for a floppy bundle. I’ve never tried to bundle the clothes outside the bag and then fit the bundle inside, but I don’t think it would work very well. I’ve never been able to make a bundle very tight. When I try to pull clothes tightly around it tends to crumple the inner layers. There isn’t much space for a thick core. Regardless it works better than my old rolling bag, but when you’re a bag junkie, well, the pursuit of perfection and this kind of bagsturbation is it’s own reward.

That got me thinking about the Sky Train, which has two compartments instead of three and a different aspect ratio. One of them is 6.5″ thick, and the other 2.5″. The bag is an inch shorter, which doesn’t seem like much on paper but on a travel bag an inch is a lot. This makes the main compartment an obvious choice for a bundle, but now a bundle that could be thicker and more stable. I might not need the whole 6.5″, but things like sweaters or jackets, which are often needed while traveling, could be folded and put on top of the bundle. The other compartment could be used for either a smaller bundle or maybe the briefcase stuff. The thicker compartment might work better for live-out-of-the-bag situations as well.

There are a couple things that make me hesitate though. First, the bag is an inch shorter and the Air Boss is already on the edge of being too small for some shirts – with a 17.5″ neck, the body of the shirt is a bit over 21″ wide and the Sky Train is 20″. Second, the center compartment of the Air Boss is such a perfect place for lots of things that don’t really have another place, like shoes, computer, etc. They’re in the center of the bag so they don’t rub against me while walking. They’re protected. And, if I really need to thin the bag to fit it into an overhead (this happened only once, BTW) I can quickly yank out the computer and voila! The bag is thinner. I have this thing about symmetry as well.

I have a few more trips coming up, and I think I might try putting clothes in the center Air Boss compartment and the computer on the outside, and see how that goes.

Will Citizen’s United lead to public campaign finance?

One of the side-show issues on the union-busting efforts here in Wisconsin is the effect of Koch Industries’ money on local politics, and how Citizen’s United ties into the a greater effort defund the democratic party and allow republicans to get the upper hand.

The theory is that allowing corporations unlimited investment in political campaigns, while handicapping unions (the main contributors on the democratic side) will leave the republican party and corporations standing on top and ruling the nation. It’s a scary picture, and I’m not a fan of Citizen’s United, but I’m not sure it’s the slam dunk people think it is.

The first thing is the assumption that all corporations are on the same side. They’re not. Here are some issues where there is big money on both sides:

Infrastructure investment. On one side you have half the population, construction companies, equipment manufacturers, folks who want increased efficiency and don’t like collapsing bridges. On the other side you have “No spending ever!” republicans, folks who are sick of government waste and want lower taxes, and those who don’t use much infrastructure.

E15 – that is, raising the limit on ethanol blending to 15% (or higher) from 10%. One one side you have consumers, car makers, oil companies and on the other you have corn growers, some equipment manufacturers, ethanol distillers, and people who want to reduce dependency on foreign oil.

Internet sales tax. On one side you have Amazon, Buy.com, Ebay and other large etailers, along with “all taxes are all bad” republicans, and consumers who like the 5-8% discount on their internet purchases. On the other side you have the rest of the republicans, democrats, the rest of the retail industry, and consumers who want their state budgets fed a little more cash.

So you can see that the decision where to send corporate money might be complex, and we haven’t even touched on local issues. Some companies already donate to both parties, but even so, I expect that competition will increase political contributions. The reason for this is that as the more active corporate contributors (like Koch Industries) increase their investment they will pull in corporations that didn’t get involved earlier because threat wasn’t great enough before.

Competition between corporations will lead to increased investment. Heck, just the specter of being able to buy politicians legally will lead to greater investment across the board, and so far some of our new republican governors are showing this to be simpler than one might have thought.

Increased investment will lead to media saturation – there’s only so many eyeballs – and media will become less effective. How many complaints about political ads do you hear? And it’s going to get worse.

Increased saturation will lead to increased prices, as supply remains fixed but demand climbs. Regular advertisers will want to advertise too, and I expect media to take advantage.

This will be (and already is being) exascerbated by poorly mandated legislation spilling over into smaller races, recall efforts, referendums, and other mid-term activities. We’re getting ads here on the recall efforts, on both sides. Political advertising will become more of a 24/7 thing that will make it even less effective.

Increased prices along with lower effectiveness means lower a lower return on investment. Now, we can’t always count on corporations to do the right thing, but we can count on them to manage ROI and dump initiatives when their numbers get bad enough.

This is all very expensive for corporations, and the main purpose of most corporations isn’t lobbying. The decision to invest in politics likely starts at the top, and leaders don’t like to be embarassed or “jump the shark”, as they say. As the ROI decreases, and leaders are burned by these bad investments and shareholders start grumbling I believe there will be backlash.

How will that backlash come? Well, they’re not going to want to give up any advantage, but they’re going to want everyone to spend less. They might decide to manage it themselves, but I’m betting they’ll be going to congress and asking them to make a law. We’ll see ads about how political spending is draining America and keeping us from competing in the global market, and we need to fix this now.

Contacting your legislator – do it now!

Recent events here in Wisconsin have me more motivated than ever to look more closely at our government, and what’s going on legislatively. From what’s going on at the capitol, I don’t think I’m the only one.

So I started looking for guidance on the best way to contact & communicate legislators. Demonstration is effective in its own way, but change comes from laws and laws come from legislation. What I found was almost exclusively on the sites of special interests, and aimed at guiding their members to write on specific issues. However I did find a really interesting, if somewhat outdated, report at the Congressional Management FoundationWrite a postal letter, on paper, by hand.

As you can see, postal message volume is declining while email is exploding, yet postal letters have greater influence.

Only write those who represent you. Writing from outside a lawmaker’s constituency is a waste of time – they are concerned about what their constituents think, no someone else’s. With the Internet it’s very easy to find your legislators – start by looking at your state legislature’s home page.

Include your contact information – more than 90% of lawmakers say they respond to personal letters. It’s also helpful to let them know if you expect a response. This means mailing address, phone number and email address. This information is also used to validate that you are a constituent, which is important.

It’s better to write regarding a specific piece of legislation and identify it, than generalities. This makes sense, but I’ finding it’s hard to know what legislation is out there and under consideration. I’ve signed up at congress.org, but I’d love to hear from anyone who’s got a better source.

Personal stories are more persuasive, specifically regarding the impact the legislation will have on you and your family. It also makes sense to arm your legislator with salient facts and figures that support your position and enable them to persuade others.

Do not threaten, be antagonistic, or rude. This seems obvious, but it actually brings to light another issue – how do you write a legislator that you know is 180 degrees from your point of view?

I recently wrote a letter to our governor, Scott Walker. It was hard enough to address the envelope to “The Honorable Scott Walker”, but that is the proper form of address no matter how insane or misguided his views seem to be and that’s important if I want it to be read. Harder was determining what to say. After all, I know I’m not going to change his views. Venting rage or disappointment has no value either except to further convince him that ‘the other side’ has no merit. The best I felt I could ask was that he be the leader that brings both sides to find sustainable solutions that didn’t divide the state.

In addition to the above, there’s also an excellent TED talk on the topic:

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Dear Amazon: Fix your recommendation engine

Dear Amazon,

Still loving the new Kindle. I’ve even bought a few new books, and then I got an email from you with recommendations for more.

The first book mentioned, Business Model Generation looks very interesting. One problem though; it’s not available on the Kindle. Because there’s no “other editions”, or “tell the publisher you want to read this on the Kindle” button in the mobile version of Amazon, in order to figure this out I had to exit the web page, start up the kindle app and do a search. Not very convenient.

While you’re fixing that, how about you also change the way samples work so that when I buy the book the sample is automatically deleted after the location is saved on the purchased copy. Having to find where the sample left off in the new copy is a pain. Having to delete the sample is also a pain.