My event planning template

In 2009, I was recruited by The Ineluctable Cassidy  to be an event planner for the local ASIS&T group she was leading. We had a pretty punishing schedule of four events per academic year, and planning involved mailing lists, searching out event locales, creating a flyer, sending out emails, arranging refreshments, etc. These were a lot of separate tasks that needed to be planned, managed, and tracked.

I had read at some point a post on Mark Forster's forum that made a big impression on me. When talking of productivity, the writer said to think about what needed to be done in terms of tasks, routines, and habits. Tasks require a lot of attention and energy, routines less so, and habits are automatic. The trick to being more productive at the office (or anywhere) was to routinize as many tasks as possible, and if appropriate, make them habits that required little conscious attention at all.

Events Calendar

Example 1: Working out in the morning? Establish a routine for setting out the weight bench the night before and put your sneakers and shorts right on the floor so your feet hit them when you get up the next morning.

Example 2: I have a monthly report I produce that requires multiple steps across multiple files. After creating about 7 or 8 of these reports, I finally created a 3-page procedure that walks me through every step. Until I wrote out those steps, I didn't realize how many little decisions I had to make along the way and why I kept putting off this relatively straightforward chore. This task will never be habitual, but it is now more of a routine.

So I wondered about event planning, and how I could be more systematic about the planning and tracking so that I didn't have to remember anything.

I researched various event checklists on the web and developed my own events template, with separate sections for things like contact information (all the people I had to contact for an event), copies of all the emails I sent, a screenshot of the flyer we sent out, a lessons learned section, which I filled in as part of a debrief meeting after the event, and many other informational bits and pieces.

ASIS&T required its member groups to file an annual report of its activities. So, I included blanks in the form for the data they wanted to see. My goal with the event planning document was that it would be a package of every word we sent, every person we contacted, every  problem we faced. That way, we could review them if we chose to return to a particular venue or to see what attendance was like for a specific event. These documents also  encapsulated a lot of experience so that when new members of the board came in, they could look at our historical record and see how we planned and executed events.

When I took on the National Night Out planning responsibilities again this year, I pulled out the event template and used it to capture everything related to this year's event. I can now pull out the document when it's time to plan next year's event, and most of the hard thinkwork will have already been done. I'll just need to plug in new dates and new names.

Feel free to download the template document below. I've also included a generic event planning document that I compiled from various sources around the web; it provides a week by week countdown of everything that you may need to have in place for a successful event. These are in Microsoft Word 97/2003 compatible format. Feel free to edit at will and use for your own events!

eventtemplate (Word 97/2003 compatible doc file)

eventplanningchecklist (Word 97/2003 compatible doc file)

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On being an information packrat -- Part IV

One of the great things about a good productivity system is that it contains decision points where you can decide to keep or dismiss outdated tasks. If "buy Christmas cards" is on your list, and it's April, then you can probably safely delete that task and not miss it.

Abundance

Not so with information. Dismissing old or outdated information is not often a step in casual information management. We tend to keep stuffing it into our storage systems because there are no obvious temporal or physical limits. So we invoke the "just in case" clause and the information debris silts up on the hard drive.

So what are some good, simple ways for managing the information I've decided to keep in my life?

Seth Brown's post on information processing helpfully provides a three-part structure for thinking about information management, which I've adapted below:

  • Filtering incoming information
  • Consolidating information
  • Retrieving stored information

Here are some ideas I've run across that I've found the most useful, challenging, or memorable. Others are new to me as I've run across them in researching these posts. (Part 1 of this series contains my complete list of sources.)

I use (or will use or may use or sometimes use) a mix of these methods, depending on the context, the information, mood, energy, time, etc. Also, my workplace habits tend to be more rigorous than when I'm relaxing at home, for example.

Keep in mind, always:

  • Less is enough
  • You'll probably never refer to what you keep
  • You won't have more time in the future to organize this stuff. Deal with it now.

Filtering incoming information

There is, of course, my spaciousness question, which can be helpful but is not a cure-all, especially at the office.

 Keep it only if you need it now

If it's for a project you're currently working on, keep it. Otherwise, let it go.

If you're keeping it for a specific reason, create a bin for it: a folder, an envelope, a directory on your computer, etc.

Is it action or reference? How do you envision using it?

JD Meier has a great page from his online book Getting Results the Agile Way on managing information, from which I'm borrowing heavily. He recommends deciding whether this is information you need to take action on -- in which case, it goes into whatever productivity system you use -- or it's reference.

He also recommends creating a scenario (or in developer-speak, a use case) that helps you evaluate whether to keep the information or not.  If you cannot imagine using the information to satisfy the needs of the scenario, then let the info go. You can always find it again later.

Adam Kayce is also a devotee of practical information processing. He suggests asking a similar question: When I need this information in the future, what will I be doing? Asking your brain a more sophisticated question like this kicks off the imaginative machinery that generates possible scenarios you can use to evaluate the new piece of information. If you can't see yourself actually using this information in the future, then you can probably safely let it go.

Ask: would I search for this on my own?

Tom Stafford explains the endowment effect and suggests asking a counteracting question. For objects you're considering throwing out, like a book or clothes: If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?

And for information that is sent to him via email or other avenues, he asks: If I hadn't just been sent this link, how hard would I work to find out this information for myself?

Consolidating Information

OK, the information has gotten through your filters and you want to keep it. What next?

Create fewer, but bigger, bins

By and large, create as few folders as possible. But put more stuff in them. Don't spend too much time creating hierarchies of directories; keep the list flat, which makes them more scannable.

An IBM study on email use concluded it was better to use search across a few email folders than to create elaborate mail folders. (Well, maybe -- we use Lotus Notes at work, and its search facility stinks. Gmail's, however, is great.)

For paper items, I use a method described by Eddie Smith at Practically Efficient: a single pouch, labelled with the current year, and I put most loose bits of paper in it. The most recent items are tucked into the front of the pouch. (More about this in the Retrieving section.)

Bins should relate to projects, not general ideas

Think about the practical application of the information you're keeping; keep it action-oriented. Your hard drive is not a commonplace book.

Adam Kayce recommends creating specific, project-related folders for any files you want to keep. Don't think "entrepreneurship"; think "My Startup Business." If you don't know how you'll use the information, you can let it go.

Let it cool off

As time passes, bright shiny objects tend to go a bit dull.

To keep myself from buying whatever bright shiny object floats before me on Amazon, I park the object on an Amazon wishlist. I love wishlists since they give me a place to park non-urgent decisions that I can review later at my leisure. Time works its magic and weeks or months later, I can review the items on the list and more coolly judge whether I want to invest money or time in this or that object.

Likewise, if I see an article that passes the spaciousness question, I send it to my Kindle via Readability. Every morning, Readability sends a digest of the previous day's web pages to my Kindle so I can read them at my leisure sans ads. I have an embarrassingly large number of these digests. I am just now getting around to pages I sent to Readability in late May and am finding -- surprise, surprise -- that they're not as interesting today as they were three months ago. In a digest of 20 articles, I may read fewer than half of them.

This is the value of a parking lot, a deep-freeze, call it what you will. Out of sight, out of mind can be used to advantage here.

For digital files, create a folder on your desktop called "Inbox" or "Parking Lot" or whatever. Put the loose MP3s, PDFs, working files, etc. in there and then clean it up later at your leisure. Set a reminder in your calendar program to review the items or -- if'n you're brave -- set a program like Hazel to automatically delete the folder's contents every other month or so. If that's too radical, use the annual pouch idea: create a directory, name it "2012," and put the files in there.

Have lots of stuff already? Keep only 3 

Peter Walsh recommends in It's All Too Much that booklovers who want to make room on their shelves trim down their collections to the best 3 books of each genre they really want to keep: the best 3 Alan Moore graphic novels, the best 3 Chekhov collections, the best 3 books on meerschaum pipe collecting, and so on. If you have a collection of objects that you want to thin out -- salt and pepper shakers, cookbooks, spun-glass seashells -- but you can't emotionally let all of them go, then maybe you can let some of them go and keep the 3 that mean the most to you. Become a curator; define the criteria that are important to you.

As you can see, the key point of many of these methods is to rouse you out of your trance and really look at these objects and the emotional issues that are attached to them. Weigh them, consider them. Why are they there? How are these objects serving you now -- today? What's the worst thing to you, emotionally, about letting them go?

Sift

I remember one of my professors talking about this strategy. Oftentimes, just sifting through the sedimentary layers of files silted at the bottom of your hard drive is enough to scrape off something good or to see that this item isn't needed anymore. Creating new directories, grouping files, creating a new hierarchy of directories: manipulating the files in a sort of woolgathering way can help the quiet creative part of your mind to sift the information and perhaps see new patterns in it.

This can be useful in cleaning up old email collections or writing an article or essay. Sifting, making lists, resorting, reordering, refactoring -- these use the slower thinking processes of the brain and can yield benefits beyond the simply productive.

Retrieving Stored Information

Decide whether you want to optimize for speed of storage or speed of retrieval

For some items, such as receipts or health insurance forms, I have specific labelled folders so that I can access them quickly if I need them. When I am saving digital files from a project that I want to use again later, I put lots of information in the filename so I can figure out what is in the file a year from now. In these cases, I am spending time creating metadata that will let me retrieve items faster.

By contrast, with a yearly folder to hold stray paper, I've optimized for speed of storage. If the paper isn't something related to insurance or financial matters, I can quickly stuff it into the pouch and I don't worry about assigning any metadata. I can deal with a loose paper item quickly at the expense of having to spend more time looking for it later --  should I ever need it.

...Pause...

Information management is obviously one of my life's themes and I'm sure I'll come back to this topic later when I have something new to say. Lord knows I can't let a stray thought pass without the Internet knowing about it.

In the meantime, I think I will try to embrace the big-picture message: let it go. Seth Brown pointed me to an NPR article with the rather melancholy title, The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything. (It's a good article; read it.)

Exercise the power of choice. Choose what you want to enjoy, enjoy it, and then let it go. The tighter your hold, the less you keep.

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On being an information packrat - Part III

Clouds breaking up after a rainy morning in th...

The first post in this series looked at information hoarding, and the second looked at mindsets that could help me reframe the problem.

So, with those things in mind, what can I do in the heat of battle to help me stem the information flowing from my web browser and onto my computer?

Now, one thing to know about me is that I always go for the most complicated solution first. It's a part of my nature and something I have to plan around. So once I start planning a new intervention for myself, I keep in mind another Extreme Programming maxim: Do the simplest thing that could possibly work. Add complexity only when needed.

If I want to reduce the trivial information entering my life, then one way to do that may be to adopt a goal so large that it does not allow room for trivia to grow or collect. During the years when I was getting my master's and working full-time, I found that I almost naturally prioritized what was important and what was trivial. Can  I do something similar in this case?

Perhaps. During some goal-setting exercises last year, I read Mark Forster's book How To Make Your Dreams Come True (available free as a Microsoft Word download here) and one of his own goals was "spaciousness." For whatever reason, that word resonated with me. I also wanted to feel spaciousness in my schedule, in my physical surroundings, in my head. Clutter-free, room to move, breathing space -- all inadequate to describe the feeling of spaciousness that I desire, but they're a place to start.

So one way I could employ a goal of spaciousness to reduce my information hoarding would be to ask myself a question of every piece of information: Will this add more spaciousness to my life? 

This is not the question I tend to ask of most bits of information in my life. I usually ask, Is this interesting? Would this be fun to read? Would this make me look smart and knowledgeable? And usually, the answer is yes, of course, please, bring it on, more, MORE, MORE.

But keeping in mind that people rarely access their personal information stores -- and I will be no different from anyone else -- then the spaciousness question may serve a useful filtering function. Spaciousness is a deeper, wider, longer-term ideal I want to welcome into my life; I am hoping it will naturally crowd out the bright shiny objects that are of temporary interest only and that serve only to steal time from my future.

Also, asking this single question is simple and easy to remember. I will, of course, have to rouse myself out of my web-reading trance to ask the question until the question becomes more of a habit.

I tried it out a few times today already. I was scanning an email newsletter, clicked on a link that looked interesting, and almost sent the article to my Kindle to read later, when I thought to ask myself the question. The answer came back immediately: No.

I rather regretfully passed on the article, and forgot all about it till I wrote that paragraph. If I really want to read it later, it's available on the web. Until then -- let the bits go.

Ah, but Mike!, you cry (I hear you out there, crying): what about information you do want to keep? Howsomever will you handle such items, pray tell?

The next (and, I hope, last) post in this series will round up several methods for thinking about and managing your growing information piles. I fear it may turn into another corker of an omnibus blessay, but then I do this research so you don't have to.

And yes, I know it's amusingly ironic that I'm creating yet more information about managing information. But to quote my favorite tech writer, Andy Ihnatko, "I am but an imperfect vessel for the perfection of the universe."

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On being an information packrat - Part II

Stratego

Knowing that I have a tendency to hoard information, what can I do to help myself? This post will talk about some big-picture mindsets that may help me to reframe the problem so that, looked at from this new perspective, it isn't a problem any longer (or it's a smaller problem that causes less pain). The next post in this series will get down to translating these mindsets into specific behaviors and tactics.

(As with all of the posts in this series, I have culled these bits and pieces from many different sources. All of the sources I used for reference are collected at the end of the first post in this series.)

One of the statistics I remember from school is that only 2% of the books in a huge university reference library are ever checked out. Likewise, you will only ever reference 2% of all the files you keep. Now, that 2% will be different for everyone. So surely it’s safer to keep the other 98% too, just in case. Right?

Of all the sites I scoured, web developer Adam Kayce's post on information management was the most sensible, level-headed, and universal. The punchline: You don't need as much as you think. A lesson he learned on his path was that he could let go of things that no longer served him, knowing that he could replace them later because, as he says, we always have what we need when we need it.

What I like about this philosophy is that it's gentle: it's about letting go rather than acquiring, and it comes from a place of abundance. Holding on to information because you're afraid you won't have it later is a scarcity mentality, which keeps you playing small. A better, bigger stance to take is to acknowledge that you have all you need right now and, if you do need something, you can easily lay hands on it whenever you want.

A Slashdot thread on this topic yielded this gem of a comment:

You are young, and have not met the big disasters of life yet, like a divorce with children, the death of a loved one, the bad decisions with life-long consequences. At your age I liked keeping track and archives, even bank statements many years back. Not a good idea. Your past starts to grow on you, and can slow you down on your way to new pastures. So remember to build in mechanisms for forgetting all but the most essential stuff. Use Facebook and Linkedin to keep track of people, keep some nice pictures, but learn to delete and forget. You will thank me later.

Letting go of what you don't need is a key idea that is also echoed in Mark Hurst's Bit Literacy, a book I reviewed in a previous post. A key paragraph from my review:

Hurst’s big idea is Let the bits go. Similar to the basic instructions on organization–do, delegate, defer, or delete–Hurst’s advice is to act on what’s actionable, deliberately save only what you think you need, and let the rest go. This enables one to move swiftly through all the RSS feeds and downloaded files while still being able to find the one file you really need. “Just in case” is not really a good reason to save anything.

The just-in-case vs just-in-time mentality is too big of an issue to cover here, but suffice to say: lose the just-in-case thinking. Just-in-time will work for me 80 percent of the time, and in building a system, I want to solve the frequent, most annoying problems first. The exceptions and special cases that make up the remaining 20 percent can be dealt with as they arise. (Nothing stops a good-enough solution in its tracks faster than trying to solve all the exceptions at the outset.)

The just-in-time position is also expressed in the Extreme Programming precept of You Aren't Gonna Need It:

"Always implement things when you actually need them, never when you just foresee that you need them."

Even if you're totally, totally, totally sure that you'll need a feature later on, don't implement it now. Usually, it'll turn out either a) you don't need it after all, or b) what you actually need is quite different from what you foresaw needing earlier.

One of the phrases that pops up on the interwebs for this type of subject is the Bright Shiny Object syndrome. That page, that link, that YouTube video -- each is a siren's call to click, watch, read, listen, absorb, engage automatically, without even thinking. It's a common experience that someone begins a web session searching for a specific piece of information and then looks up an hour later blinking like they've just emerged into daylight from a dark movie theatre.

I want to draw a line (however crooked) between the fascination I have for the web's bright shiny objects and meditation. Meditation is defined as many things, but one of its purposes is to demonstrate to you – through experience – that you will always have bright shiny objects flashing through your consciousness: memories, ideas, conversations, voices, songs, desires, hunger, images, an itch on your knee, the dog barking next door, etc. One of meditation’s goals is to show you that you can detach yourself from that parade of imagery and noise -- that you are not that parade -- and that you will be OK if you let the parade pass by without comment, without attachment, without engagement.

It may well be a stretch to say that browsing the web is a meditation, but I certainly spend a lot of time doing it and I do fall into a trancelike state staring at the screen. Let's say, for the sake of experiment, that web-browsing is like meditating. Would that change the nature of how I surf the web? How I interact with links on web pages, how I spend my time and attention? It's something for me to think about some more.

In the next post, I'll review several different tactics and tips for managing information that I found in my informal researching. Stay tuned, infovores!

 

 

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On being an information packrat

Giuseppe Maria Crespi - Bookshelves - WGA05755

Lord Peter Wimsey remarked that "Books...are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with 'em, then we grow out of 'em and leave 'em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development." (The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club)

I see the truth of that whenever I scan my bookshelves, my stacks of CDs, my files of photocopied chapters or articles ripped from magazines -- and especially the piles of information tucked into folders on my hard drive. Past legal disputes, letters of complaint, all of my master's and PhD papers and projects, old checklists, old resumes, old PDFs etc. Except that I don't leave 'em behind -- I hang on to 'em.

I don't, like my father, collect tools, nails, screws, etc., nor clothes and knick-knacks like my mother. But information? I'm a sucker for it.

And when the digital age arrived, I used lots -- LOTS -- of software to help collect, corral, and bend to my will all of the loose, scattered, random information whizzing past my ears in the belief that by squirrelling all the squibs and squidlets and atomic particles of data into cozy, well-behaved compartments -- THEN -- I would be in control of everything that mattered to me. I used Lotus Agenda, AskSam, InfoSelect, Ecco Pro, Zoot, and others in my Windows-using years, sometimes Word's document map feature, and I did the same when I used a Mac. One of the first apps I bought when I started the PhD program was Devonthink Pro. (Nowadays, I rely on nvAlt, a fork of Notational Velocity -- but I digress.)

And it wasn't just software: I kept journals off and on for years and stacked them on my shelves also. I taught myself NoteScript so I could take notes even faster. All the drafts of every short story I ever wrote. And on and on.

Why? Well, isn't it obvious? I might need it one day! What more reason does any hoarder need?

Every now and then the system would get shaken up and I'd notice something: so much of that information I was hoarding really didn't age well. In one of my upgrades from one computer to another, I exported my InfoSelect database to a Word file and I kept that file nearby. I probably opened it only once or twice in the years after that; it vaporized into the informatic ether years ago. When I read my old journals, I was astonished at how useless they were to my present self -- I didn't need to relive all that high-dudgeoned emotional thrashing about in the pea soup of my soul. The stuff I culled were good bits of advice or quotes or other such things I'd copied out from my reading or what people had told me. And I'm talking probably less than 0.00001% of the whole.

So all of this information I had kept -- and let's be honest, that I'm keeping now -- has ultimately very little value to me.

What in the world drove such compulsion to document every fleeting idea or datum that passed my eyeballs? I skim-read a few Krishnamurti books many years ago, and the big idea I grokked from them was his opinion that most all the neurotic, self-defeating behavior we gut ourselves with comes from fear.

Let's start with that as our hypothesis: If fear is at the core of this behavior, then fear of what? Being left out (something I felt strongly in my adolescent years, but that does not apply to me now). A fear of missing out on something potentially wonderful, potentially useful, potentially life-changing. The fear, perhaps, that someone else knows something that I don't and that I need, even if I don't know it yet.

This might explain why I capture stuff and then read it once or, sometimes, don't read it at all. Simply knowing it's in my personal deep-freeze is enough to give me enough comfort. (Insert here analogy to dragons hoarding treasure and virgins -- two commodities for which dragons have no possible use.)

There is also, I think, a fear of looking foolish, of not having the answer if I were to be called on. Wedded to that was my self-image forged from my various jobs as the information-maven, the guy who could find anything online, the tech writer who could retrieve that email or half-forgotten file that earned me kudos and made me look like a hero and earned me the unofficial title of "team librarian." At my current job, it is certainly the case that we are often asked to pull 5-year-old files out of the air with no warning and could we send it later that afternoon, please? With part of my self-image at work hinging on my ability to lay my hands on a file or email, on providing an answer, it became even more important to be organized, to have the info at the ready.

I think, I hope, I have slowed this compulsion somewhat. I hope I am more selective. There's a reason to keep some online information you really need; web sites and PDFs and other resources do go away; the Internet is not a library, after all.

And although i kind of cherish the image of being an information packrat, there are severe downsides. No, I don't have huge piles of data teetering over me and threatening to crush me. But there is a psychic cost. Judith Culpepper (a writer otherwise unknown to me) makes the excellent point that when everything is important, then nothing is important: "The extra, useless data cloaks the useful bits both physically and mentally. Physically, the sheer volume of clutter [that] too much information produces hides everything." Because every day brings fresh onslaughts of information, there is no possible way to absorb any of it. So, she concludes, "The only answer is to hoard more. Hoarding feeds on itself, pushing focus out of the way in the quest to appease the almighty 'might [need someday]'."

Oh my Lord, does that sound familiar! Well, then, the answer must be to catalog, organize, codify this mass of undigestible data, right? But even that is a fool's mission, as Culpepper explains: "Then you waste time cataloguing, sorting, and otherwise tending to too much useless data. Buying binders and other organizing tools often seems warranted. Great. Now it's sucking time and money." The data is managing you, instead of vice versa. I have a huge Devonthink pile of web pages, PDFs, and other stuff that I attempted to sort out into alphabetically organized topical groups earlier this year. Except I never finished organizing the pile. So it's like a room I've framed in and I'll get to the drywall someday. Maybe.

Culpepper makes another really sharp insight. Namely, that managing this mass of trivia ultimately steals focus from all parts of your life.

Each piece demands attention. Consequently, the day becomes divided into small sections spent pursuing wildly divergent paths. Admittedly, each is of interest. However, too much time spent poring over tidbits pushes out time for prolonged study. Suddenly, you aren't truly good at anything. Possessing few skills beyond hoarding, any skills mastered are likely to be trivial, picked up accidentally in the course of flitting amongst the clutter. The information controls now; it decides how to spend time. You have no goals. The lure of too much information pulls away from them, makes them impossible to achieve.

The goal, in fact, is now to manage the information rather than putting the information to use in a way that would benefit a specific objective. I am now the host organism through which the information parasite propagates itself.

And I detect also in Culpepper's description of flitting from one shiny object to the next the spectre of boredom, that dread modern disease.

I'm not saying "Don't obsess." Good golly, I am a Fred Astaire freak and love scarfing up any new bit of info on the man and his art. Another friend loves his Harley-Davidson, another studies how to improve his billiards game. Part of the fun of a hobby or pastime is learning more about it. But those are contained and specific interests, and they refresh rather than deplete. And, as I said, there are situations, such as at my workplace, where organizing and managing information is vital to my success.

So what can one do to find some sort of balance? How can I manage my information managing? I'll look at some ideas in the next post.

References

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Storing Nuggets of Information

The following are comments I left on the high-fun personal blog PigPog. Back in 2005, Michael wrote a post on storing and retrieving nuggets of information. This invited a couple of unedited brain-dumps from your Humble Correspondent. I'm posting them here because my original links to the post were broken after a site redesign and I would not want to lose them again. Also, since I'm in info-school, they seemed appropriate to post here. As these posts are from 2005, I've naturally moved on and made changes to my routines, but they're a good snapshot of my thought and habits from that time.


A few things come to mind:

Other writers: From his essays, I twigged that Martin Gardner kept drawers of index cards, meticulously cross-indexed, with relevant articles or snippets from his reading paper-clipped to them. He’d draw on these when writing his books/essays.

The New Yorker magazine also had a legendary cross-indexed 3×5 index card catalog of the magazine’s contents going back to the founding. Their insurance company identified the index cards as a risk, which led them to move to a database, and then to scan in the issues, and then to release the magazine’s contents on DVD (I’m getting them for Christmas). The 3×5 card system has now been abandoned. (Read this in a NY Times article and an interview on NPR.)

Journalist James Fallows (who worked with Msft on the development of OneNote, I think, esp from a journalist's perspective) is a computer buff from way back. He touted the use of old DOS programs like Grandview (outliner program to help him organize his stories) and Lotus Agenda (”a spreadsheet for words,” which had pretty amazing natural-language processing of text on the fly– Google on that and breathe in the nostalgia). He used Agenda to collect snippets of everything, create categories and views on the fly, and essentially keep track of his research and notes.

Nowadays, he uses Brainstorm and Mindmanager, and who knows what all.

The novelist Robertson Davis kept a writer’s notebook of ideas, characters, etc (near to my heart as a writer). He numbered each page, and each entry on a page got a letter. When it came time to write a novel, he noted that entries 9F, 10A, and 12B related to a single character, and he drew the threads together that way.

I’ve also had (and have) the info-packrat disease, which fueled my purchase of Agenda, Infoselect, Ecco Pro, and god knows how many others.

The computer columnist Jim Seymour wrote somewhere, and it made an impression on me, that there is information that likes to be structured — by chronology, by someone’s name, by the alphabet, by location, by function, by program name, whatever — and then there is loose info that you can’t define a container for YET, but that you can’t bear to lose. This has caused me sleepless nights and I debate its core usefulness to me, often.

The 43Folders post on living inside a single text file inspired me to try again at home with Notetab (Windows text editor). It has a simple structuring facility it calls an outline, but which is simply a flat list of topic headings on the left, and the text on the right. I’ve found I prefer the flat headings to hierarchical; they remind me of keeping notes in my Palm Memo (ie, “Books/Loaned to,” “Books/Library,” etc). it’s also like spreading everything out on a table so I can scan it quickly; nothing is hidden underneath another topic; everything is on the surface.

Lately, I’m trying to bookmark less often, save info less often, UNLESS I have a specific project in mind. In that case, I create the folders/structures to contain that info and the info naturally adheres to it.

At work, I use a dead-simple program called Electric Notebook (http://lincoln.midcoast.com/~ian/notebook.html), a very personal (ie, idiosyncratic) program with few of the amentities of OneNote, except that it can sit open all day, I type stuff in as it occurs to me, with (I hope) the right keywords, and then I search on it as I need to. Which is never as often as I think. It’s an electronic logbook, basically. It’s based on just keeping stuff chronologically, but in a rough-and-ready fashion. I find that it’s dumbed-down enough to suit my simple needs very nicely. I find, though, that I use it at home less than I use Notetab.

For structured info at work, I use an OpenOffice Writer document to simulate Word’s Document Map function (which is similar to Notetab’s outline function — is there a pattern??). This document is called “infoindex” and holds various Unix commands, checklists, timecard chargecodes, etc., that demand to be stored and used as reference, not stuff that’s part of the passing scene. Stuff I input into Notebook that’s worth remembering or referring back to more than once gets migrated to the infoindex.

I find this two-pronged approach works well for me. Electric Notebook for unstructured info, Infoindex for structured info. And it’s a simple enough process that I can use it when I’m distracted or under the weather.

I would also refer you to the c2.com wiki’s entires on LogBook (http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?LogBook) and ElectronicLogBook (http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?ElectronicLogBook).

Sorry for the long post! But this is a big interest of mine.

Mike


Oh, and another cs.com link to Programmers Notebook, which includes a list of best practices: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?ProgrammersNotebook


Hi Michael — ... I’ve always been a fan of commonplace books, don’t know why. I keep a Word file that I dump them into, and at end of year I print it out and put it in a “Commonplace” folder; the folder also holds hard copy I come across that I want to preserve.

See, information packrat :)

I bought Brainstorm and have tried it a couple of times, but it also doesn’t click with me. I’ll probably try it again; I like trying out idiosyncratic programs made by developers at home. Notebox Disorganizer is another oddity; the UI is basically a spreadsheet grid, but each cell is a cubbyhole in which you can dump your information. The Editorium newsletter had a neat description of how he uses it; scroll down to “Resources.”

Mindmaps are more fun to hand draw and noodle with, IMO, than the software-based ones. Too much cognitive overhead and time spent getting it just right on the 'puter, when a good-enough handdrawn one will help sort out your thinking.

There’s also Evernote, if you’ve not tried it. It’s been getting some good buzz.

Yes, Agenda was Kapor’s brainchild, and he’s now working on something called Chandler, supposedly another info mgmt tool. Agenda still has quite a loyal following.

So much software, so little value from so much of it. I wonder if, in a world of less software meant to save time and improve my life, I’d have read more books.

I think software is sometimes best used for a specific project or purpose, not as something to live in. That’s why I like the idea of the single text file approach — Google has taught us that categorization is not vital if you have full text search. And there’s little in my personal life that requires the full categorization that I need in my workplace.

Still, I’m one of those people who like to file and make categories, so it comes naturally to me. I remember something I read a long time ago, that humans (esp computer people) tend to leap for the complicated solution first, thinking of all the exceptions that have to be trapped, and so on. In reality, a good-enough system will probably work and you only should handle exceptions as they arise.

This is why I’ve drifted away from all-in-one software solutions, because I find I tend not to think of them as easy to use as a pencil or a text editor. (I daresay PigPog is an attempt to simplify GTD in the same way.) I also think that’s the value of the weekly review, to refresh those brain synapses about what’s out there. You can’t remember everything, but if you can remember where you put it, then that’s just as good. As the Extreme Programming guys say, do the simplest thing that could possibly work.

You probably read/heard about the researcher who used DevonThink as his commonplace book/dumping ground for bits of text. He had an assistant type in lots of stuff and then Devon searched around and made unusual connections the writer would not have thought of. But the time cost of doing something like that is prohibitive to me. And as you say, what if the software never progresses (like Agenda or Ecco)?

Sorry for another long post! I find this kind of discussion hits on things I’ve tried to figure out in my own life/work.

All best — mike

Mark Hurst's "Bit Literacy"

Mark Hurst’s book Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload attacks a problem that, of all people, my Alexander Technique therapist mentioned to me today. She said that evolution has granted our bodies numerous ways to deal with few or no calories, but no way -- except obesity -- to deal with too many calories. Likewise, our brains are adapted to recognize patterns and intuit deductions from minimal information, and it does this unconsciously and automatically. But our brains can’t naturally accommodate too much information and it can stun our brains into paralysis. "Information overload" is the conventional term for this condition.

Hurst’s book is an attempt in this Web 2.0 age of Lifehackery and GTD’ing to advise on his own methods of stemming the flow of information so as to decrease the sense of overwhelm.

Various reviews I found on the web marvel that this young guy -- and an MIT computer science grad, to boot -- has a seemingly curmudgeonly attitude to applications and computer habits: he uses older versions of Mac apps, he eschews Web 2.0 services, he trusts in text files and recommends copying emails you want to save into text files you store on your own hard drive.

This is the kind of book I would push on a relative or person older than me who’s not computer-literate and doesn’t quite know what to do with or how to handle the files they compile on their PC. It’s bad enough that most PC/Mac owners inevitably become their own sysadmins; it’s insult to injury that their computers don’t automatically read minds and track all the info they find interesting and keep their files and photos nice and orderly without significant manual intervention.

I was irked a bit by some of Hurst's assumptions that drive this book's messages. But even as an old computer hand, I learned -- re-learned, actually -- some good lessons and reminders regarding file-naming, directory organization, and being responsible for the bits I invite into my life.

What follows are various thoughts, criticisms, and observations about the book. For more information on Hurst, visit his web site, Good Experience, or subscribe to his sensibly formatted newsletter.

  • Hurst’s big idea is Let the bits go. Similar to the basic instructions on organization--do, delegate, defer, or delete--Hurst’s advice is to act on what’s actionable, deliberately save only what you think you need, and let the rest go. This enables one to move swiftly through all the RSS feeds and downloaded files while still being able to find the one file you really need. “Just in case” is not really a good reason to save anything.
  • Hurst prefers the bits (i.e., electronically captured and shared data) over paper. Paper requires energy to produce and transport, it doesn’t scale, and it can’t capture the instant arrival and transformation of bits. Paper is old-fashioned and simply can’t keep up with the flow.
  • I disagree with all of Hurst’s opinions about paper. In regards to the energy needed to produce paper--exactly how many nuclear-, hydro-, or coal-powered plants are needed to produce the electricity for you to read these words? If paper isn’t a good repository for to-dos or information, then maybe it’s because people didn’t learn good habits on how to use them? If the bits are so wonderful, our use of paper should have naturally declined. Instead, we need Hurst’s book to tell us how to use the bits--just as many people for many years taught knowledge workers how to use and file paper. So maybe it isn't the medium that's at fault here.
  • As for the inability of paper to transform bits on the fly--if the goal is to transform an email into a to-do, then I phrase the to-do in my head (which is the hardest part of the task, incidentally--I’m continually re-learning how to phrase a to-do so it’s actionable), write down the task in my paper diary for whatever day I need to do it, and then delete the email or file it for reference. The to-do is thus ready for me to tackle when I'm ready to do it, and since I use my paper diary daily, I don't have to worry that I'll forget to do it. A paper diary well-used -- I prefer Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow system -- is to me superior to all the electronic tools I’ve tried.
  • I think paper is not the disadvantage. Nor are excessive bits. The disadvantage is that people haven’t decided what information is really important to them and then been schooled in how to use either method effectively. Paper and electronic methods for handling info exist and either one will work fine. But if you think that everything is important or that you may need this information “someday,” then you do curse yourself into being a custodian of huge wodges of information for a long time and that is a thankless task.
  • Hurst’s contempt for paper is oddly reflected in his self-published book's contempt for the niceties of book design, thus impairing a good reading experience. The paragraphs are separated by a blank line (drafted in a text file, no doubt) instead of more visually attractive line spacings. And--this is what really annoyed me--there’s no friggin’ index! How am I expected to find the reference to the reformatted New York Times article links? Or to the Macintosh apps he recommends? The table of contents is no help. Guess I’ll have to thumb through the book until I find the footnote on page 177 that lists them all -- but then, how will I remember them? Write them down? On PAPER??  A simple back-of-the-book index is an example of a sensible device to navigate paper-based information, exactly the kind of device that Hurst doesn’t acknowledge existing.
  • As for handling to-dos, I tried his Gootodo service and it just didn’t mesh with how I process my tasks using my paper diary and Forster’s DIT system. I agree with the school of thought that says writing things down by hand engages parts of the brain that typing doesn’t. Forster describes how the simple act of writing down an idea that occurs to you, rather than acting on it when you get it, automatically puts distance between you and the task, allowing you to think more clearly about what actually needs to be done. Deferring a task is also possible with Gootodo, of course, but I'd offer this as an example of, if you know what you want to accomplish, then either digital or paper methods should work fine.
  • It sounds like I’m anti-Hurst, but I’m not. I agree that users need to take responsibility for their “stuff,” and I’ve hit on my own file- and folder-naming strategies, similar to Hurst's, that enable me to store and scan efficiently, based on my own needs. My own flirtations with various proprietary applications like Lotus Agenda, Infoselect, and Evernote have taught me that I accumulate way more info than I ever need (”just in case”), that that info never survives intact when transformed, and that I hardly ever need that info anyway. As a result, I’m saving more stuff in txt or rtf files (usually procedures or projects I'm pursuing at the time), I’m stockpiling bookmarks in Delicious, and I'm squirreling stuff web pages or other information away using a Gmail REF label. I don't perceive that storing them causes a cognitive burden on me. Although the bits are not truly "gone," were I to lose them, I wouldn’t be sad.
  • I liked his description of how the best way to save photo files. Very good and sensible advice. I was doing something similar but tweaked my layout to match his rules. Although it's curious that his book doesn't address ways to save and access downloaded music or video files, which are surely as ubiquitous as digital photos. Perhaps, as a Mac Man, he uses iTunes, which handles a lot of that for him. For myself, I use Media Monkey on my PC to handle that chore, and I prefer a directory-based layout as the foundation layer for any music apps.
  • On maintaining a media diet, I agree with his statement that "an unbounded bitstream tends toward irrelevance." Alas, I still maintain too many RSS feeds, but hardly any hard-copy publications. For my RSS feeds, I have a single must-read folder, a second read-when-I-have-a-moment folder, and the rest are all optional. As with many of Hurst's other suggestions, the aim is to control the limited resource that is your time and attention; being profligate with your energy and focus on digital snack-food doesn't help your cause.
  • His chapters on file formats, naming, and storing files are what I wish I'd had when I started using PCs lo those many years ago.
  • I very much  agree with his advice to find a "bit lever," which is essentially a global AutoCorrect app that will expand abbreviations to full words, phrases, paragraphs, URLs, etc. I'd also suggest a good clipboard management program. For Windows, the best is ClipMate; I haven't found a great one for the Mac, but am evaluating CopyPaste Pro. I also like having a macro program around; for the PC, I've used Macro Express for years, but ActiveWords looks good, too. As for managing passwords, I've relied on Roboform on Windows, but haven't really investigated such apps for the Mac.
  • Hurst advocates the Dvorak keyboard layout, which I pick up and put down two or three times a year. When I'm in a crunch, I usually return to Qwerty and stay there.
  • For the index: page 151 lists the programs he recommends for specifying frequently used folders and directories. I have to tip my hat to him for recommending FileBox eXtender for Windows, which I've been pretty happy with so far.
  • For screenshots: SnagIt on the PC. For backups to the cloud: JungleDisk and the Amazon S3 service.
  • Disagree about not using Excel as a database. It works quite well as a flat-file database. If you want to keep a simple list of names and addresses, a text file or Excel is preferred over a database program.
  • Most of Hurst's recommendations, though, he would probably consider small potatoes compared to his bigger vision of re-tooling users for the future as he describes it: more bits, more proprietary file formats or protections (like DRM), more social software and the implication of every bit being tracked and stored somewhere for someone to process. I think there will always be a need for strong opinions on "here's how you should do it" because many of us simply don't have the time or take the time to think through all the implications of the tools we're directed to use. These bit-level tactics will always be needed and will always need re-tooling for the next wave of technology that washes over us.
  • I think, in addition to Hurst's prescriptions, the real key will be in people deciding what they want to do with the technology, with the bits, with their digital tools. If they haven't decided what's really important to them (which is the problem addressed by Hurst's "media diet" chapter), then they'll need all the help they can get to stay on top of it. If they've decided what's of interest to them and their lives and work, then--like Donald Knuth and Alan Lightman--they can choose to eschew email and other bit-processors totally, and get on with what they were put on Earth to do.

Update 08/06/2012

I have been using Hurst's Goodtodo web service for about a year now and have woven it into my daily/weekly task management. It works great as a future reminder system. I may blog later about how my always evolving system, which includes Goodtodo, works nowadays.