Kids & Technology

Last weekend our son came home with the school quarterly bulletin. As always we familiarised ourselves with everything that was coming up in the next few months, asked him what events he would like to go to and made sure there was nothing else that needed our attention. One last thing caught me wife’s eye though as she read through the bulletin. The school are looking for volunteers to help re-vamp their school website.

The next day I phoned the school to let them know I would be willing to help out. I got a call back a few minutes later with a date and time to speak to the assistant head teacher at the school who will be handling the website. All good so far.

The school’s website is okay as an information portal but it definitely falls short in terms of how it looks. Well, when the site says that the school kids contribute to the look and content of the site, you’re not exactly going to be expecting something that wins web design awards. Looking at other web sites in the area, and it’s clear that the school web site isn’t a primary concern for some schools. There is more an emphasis on getting the school children involved and that’s not a bad thing.

Today’s school children though are far different in terms of technology exposure than school children have been in the past. In the last ten years, mobile technology has become so engrained in day to day life that homes often have two or more mobile devices with kids often having their own tablet or even smartphone.

It got me wondering about the approach to take in getting the school children involved in the new school website. Is it better for them to know how to edit and update web pages by hand or will the kids be more interested in maintaining the school website through something like Wordpress?

I might be jumping the gun here a bit, but I’ve been keeping a list of questions like this to ask at my meeting with the school this week.

The main good thing to come out of this though is the chance to do something for an organisation in my local community. Yes, I’ll be doing the work for the school for free but with our oldest already a pupil there and our youngest due to start there in a few years, the chance to contribute something to their school can’t be a bad thing.

Less Listening, More Learning

Podcasts and screencasts can eat up a lot of time. I’ve started to see a swing towards listening to podcasts and watching screencasts and less time spent putting what I get from them into practice.

For the last year I’ve been a healthy listener of a variety of podcasts. They are centered around software development, programming and freelancing. Every week I listen to about five or six different episodes on these topics. While they’re entertaining to listen to, I’m starting to see that I’m not getting as much value from them. Sure there’s sometimes a glimmer of programming language knowledge that you didn’t know about, but is it worth putting in a good half hour of your time for that one little morsel of knowledge?

Then there’s the screencasts. I had a few of these going last year, again on the topic of software development. Screencasts definitely need more of your time as you can’t watch them when you’re out on the bike or in the car, they need you to both listen and watch. In terms of getting time to watch these, I simply didn’t have the time available. And then every few weeks I would simply declare screencast redundancy and remove them from my list to watch.

Since removing these from my list of intakes I’m seeing more of a move towards reading online, books and RSS feeds. They can be more easily consumed on the go and using smaller blocks of time. This in turn has allowed me to spend a bit more time learning those things that I only listened to in podcasts or watched in screencasts.

Learning isn’t simply about consuming as much information about the topic that you’re interested in, you need time to apply what you have consumed and seeing if you can in fact you use it correctly. I hope to be doing that a lot more this year and re-address the balance of learning.

The De-cluttered Desk

I had been putting it off for weeks, probably months in fact. My desk was slowly becoming a paper-based version of Smaug’s hoard of gold . It was time for a de-clutter.

We don’t have a huge house but it’s big enough for us. My workspace is located in the back of sitting room where my sons tend to congregate in the evening and at the weekend. I’ve got a desk, bigger than probably most people have in their homes but with it being my workspace for the whole day it needs to have space to allow me to be comfortable.

Over the weekend I started organising the top of my desk and moving things about to give myself more room. It took a few iterations but I’m seeing a benefit of the change now as I write this. I have more space on my desk almost all cables are out of sight. Having got this sorted I turned towards the tower of books, magazines, papers and other dead-wood that was accumulating under my desk.

I was glad to see that I managed to get rid of a few programming books that were aimed at more of a novice level. I’ve kept some of these books for years, but having not read one of them in the last year, it was definitely time for them to go. Never a bad thing to throw away the books you have learned from and moved on. Old magazines for healthcare and programming were consigned to the recycle box with a vow to keep only the last month’s magazine.

Lastly it was the turn off the paper. With reams of paper cluttering under my desk, it was time to keep the stuff that needed to be processed and shred the rest.

The de-cluttered desk is now ready for some productive work. It’s amazing the difference that an exercise like this does for your motivation.

Smaller Goals, More Opportunities

Setting a goal for the year is made by many at the start of each year, but people frequently give up or just abandon their goal because it seems too far away. With a little change in tact though, there’s a better way of hitting your goals for the year.

Set Smaller Goals

Instead of focusing on big goals for the year, what about setting smaller goals for throughout the year? Smaller goals are within easier reach, easier to track and it means that if the goal isn’t hit you can try again the next month.

When goals are set for the year, people usually forget to set aside regular checks to ensure they are on the right track. After a few weeks many people simple give up. With smaller goals though, you can set yourself a more manageable and attainable goal that will give you the confidence to succeed on subsequent goals.

Continually Refresh

The start of the new year is traditionally seen as the only and best chance to start afresh but there’s more than one opportunity available in the year to do this. New year, new month, new week or even new day. There’s more opportunities to start afresh than you think.

If you set yourself goals for smaller periods of time then you give yourself more chances to achieve that goal. Right okay, you didn’t do that bike ride in the time you wanted for January. Could you do it in February though?

The chance to start afresh is there every day, every week and every month. You just need to decide what you can realistically achieve in those periods of time.

Measurable Goals

It’s that time of year where you should be thinking about goals and plans for next year. Here’s a little tip. Try measurable goals.

2015 is just around corner. Just over two weeks in fact. For many the setting of goals and plans for next year won’t begin until that period between Christmas and New Year. Right about that time where the over-indulgence of food will probably lead to a planned diet for the length of next year but will most likely only be until the second week of January. I learned a long time ago that setting such goals and plans on the eve of the New Year rarely last beyond January.

Such goals often fall apart simply due to them being set in such a short period of time with little thought to making actual plans to achieving those goals. They also rarely succeed due to the fact that there’s no clear end goal in mind. If your goals are financially related, why not think about the amount of savings you have just now. How much more would you like to have in savings by the end of next year? If your goals are health related, think in terms of improving the numbers you have now. What’s your time for a five minute mile now? How many seconds do you reckon you can take off by the end of next year?

At the end of last year I set myself a few goals. One of them was the total amount of income I wanted from my freelance work. I had a figure in mind that was more than the previous year. A good 25% more in fact. I managed to hit that goal this year with a steady stream of work coming in. Next year I’m increasing that figure again by a further 25%. With the projected work I have for next year, that figure can’t be gained by invoicing clients alone, it will require me to start thinking about income from products and services as well as perhaps re-negotiating my rates before the start of the new financial year in April.

A measurable goal is much more achievable when you define the figure you have now and the figure you want to achieve. It doesn’t need to be a goal for the whole of next year either, it could be a attainable in nine months, maybe even six. The point is that a measurable goal is an attainable goal.

Project or Context?

Ensuring that your productivity system is correct is important if you want keep the actions flowing through it. Like deciding if a project is in fact a context.

Many of you have been reading my post on using projects in Todoist. Up to now I’ve always used projects in Todoist as lists. They’re just placeholders for actions. What I’m starting to see now though is that some of my projects might in fact be better used as contexts.

This week I listened to Mike Vardy’s Productivityist podcast and caught up with two episodes focusing on context and their application in productivity systems. It made me look more closely at my own projects in Todoist. I singled out two projects that I think are better suited to being contexts, reading and writing.

My reading project is just a list of chapters from the books I’m reading on a daily basis. Breaking books into chapters means that I can schedule different books in for different days. Reading isn’t a project, it’s a label to describe a particular action. My writing project is essentially a list of ideas for the blog, but writing isn’t a project. Writing describes the action. Clearly something is amiss here.

A context can be defined as the circumstances that surround a particular event. In the case of David Allen’s GTD framework, a context is a label that you put on your actions so that you know two things:

  1. What you need to get that action done
  2. When that action can be done

When I look at my projects I see them differently now. In the case of reading and writing, they’re not projects, they are in fact contexts. They are used to describe the circumstances in which I can finish their associated actions. I read a chapter of a book first thing in the morning as it’s when I’m most receptive. Writing tends to happen in the morning as well. I’m just more swithched on during this time. So not only do these contexts describe the action but also when I schedule them in the day as well.

I can’t recommend enough that you continually review your productivity workflow. Finding that point where everything falls into place isn’t going to happen overnight or even come boxed up and ready to go in a system like GTD. It takes time to see what works for you and what doesn’t. After taking out the reading and writing projects from Todoist, I’m starting to see a change in how I view projects in Todoist. I’m still digesting Erlend Hamberg’s 15 minute guide to GTD and there’s a few more changes that I’m going to try with projects in Todoist, but that folks is for another day.

The Demise of Killer Apps?

Are killer apps a thing of the past?

I remember a few years back when Twitter was young and great, Facebook was viewed with more positive eyes than it is today and the mobile app stores were just starting out. Good times. It was also about this time that I heard the phrase killer app. For the uninitiated a killer app was often seen as an indispensible app that would help push the sales of the platform the app was run on. Simply put, people would buy the hardware needed to run the app in question. Back then, it seemed that every month there was a new app or service that would be tagged as the next killer app.

Fast forward to today and it’s not something I’ve heard often in the technology press. It’s still used to describe some apps but not as much. I still follow the same technology sites I did a few years ago, so what’s different?

The world has changed. There’s less of a technology barrier now than there’s ever been and that due to the small device that you’re probably reading this on. Over the last few years mobile apps and services have reduced, or in some cases removed, the complicated steps that would be required to carry out a specific task or action. Along with this simplification comes a growing market of companies and indie developers who all us to use their app. And the demand for apps shows no sign of slowing down. I was browsing through the productivity category of the App Store and there are hundreds of apps in this category. There are just so many choices.

Another factor in this is that the mobile market is not tied to one particular platform. In the past when mobile hardware platforms were getting past their first couple of release iterations, it was certainly clear that alot of people preferred the Apple platform and there were many apps that persuaded people to buy Apple’s hardware. Today though the market is more evenly divided. Apple and Google have their share along with others like Blackberry and Microsoft. I would be hard pressed to pick an app that certainly fits the name of killer app and that’s due to the fact that many apps are available on not just a single platform.

Which leads me to think that perhaps we’re past the stage of killer apps. With such a huge market for applications, there are dozens of apps that let you achieve the same result through different methods. Maybe now we’re not looking for killer apps, perhaps we’re looking for game changing apps. Not just new ways of doing things, but whole new markets of the mobile apps.

Wearable technology is still fairly new and with Apple’s new smartwatch due for release soon, there will be many tech pundits looking for the next killer app for wearable technology. Whether this becomes a market in mobile apps or a completely new market remains to be seen. Given the recent release of similar products by other technology firms though, I don’t think there will ever be a killer app for wearable tech.

Is the killer app dead? I would say yes for the foreseeable future but it certainly won’t stop business and developers using the title to promote their apps. I think it will take a whole new field of technology before we see true killer apps again. Apple Lense anyone?

Simplifying Again

In the pursuit of workflow zen, I’ve been simplifying things a bit. It’s been a positive change so far.

Data is everywhere. We create and consume vast quantities of data everyday without giving a second thought to how much. Emails, tweets, posts, pictures, videos, messages and audio are just a few examples of the data that we interact with on a daily basis. And there’s no shortage of software to manage your data either. For each type or format of data you have, there could be hundreds of different options available to you to manage that data. Apps, web applications, scripts, services, products.

Not only are there tools that mostly persist and manipulate your data, there’s a new type of service available that pushes your data to other services based on triggers. Services like Zapier and IFTTT have the means to collect and distribute your data to other places depending on the triggers and services you specify. It can become mind boggling and complicated.

It was last year when I realised that I was pushing more data around different services than I needed. I started making some changes:

  • I stopped using a dedicated bookmarking service and instead opted to routinely drop a list of formatted markdown links into my blog.
  • I stopped using Evernote and instead starting using text files to manage lists and collections. Evernote is a great tool for keeping all your data together but I found it difficult to keep my data organised. The idea of notebooks and groups is good but I just couldn’t make it work. This isn’t a complaint against Evernote, it’s a great tool, it’s just not for me.
  • I started using plain text files for a lot of things. Check-lists, ideas, outlines and anything else that I needed to keep a note of.

After doing this I noticed a change. The number of places I need to check to find something was greatly reduced. I had a collection of files in my Dropbox that I used on a daily basis. Then there was my task manager, my reading list and a few boards on Trello. I didn’t have to search anywhere else beyond that. Then the number of tools I needed started to fall as well. I started uninstalling apps from my MacBook and cancelling some subscriptions.

It’s been a refreshing change. Gone are all the connected services and triggers I used and instead I have a low maintenance set of tools that I can use easily. I can find the data I need for easily and most importantly I do less moving about of data.

The Compromise of Free Services

Free services are the most popular way to attract users, but what are you compromising on for this to happen?

The word ‘free’ is still a popular way for many online services to gain the users they need in order to start becoming more than just another blip on the Internet radar. With that enticing offer of being free, most people sign up, use the service and then decide if they want to keep using it or not. The pull of being free can be a powerful thing and like so many things people like it when they get something for free.

In the beginning users of the service are happy. They can’t believe their luck that this service is free and they can use it on a daily basis. They love the new service and sing its praises to their friends who in turn sign up as well. It is free after all. The trend continues and if the service is a hit it can eventually scale to becoming the next big thing.

After a few years, the service owners wants to start making some money, but they don’t want to charge their loyal users for the privilage of using their service. That would be a terrible idea. Instead the service owners decide to change some things about the way the service works. Maybe they limit the API, change a well liked feature to what the service owners think is better (for them anyway) or even just start throwing some ads in. That last one always works right?

Alas the loyal users of the service start to feel like they have been cheated and throw their arms up in the air in objection to the new changes the service are implementing. Just because they have been loyal to the service since its early days, it’s wrongly assumed that the service owners are going to listen to their users. Sadly they don’t. And then an amazing thing happens. Despite the drawbacks to using the service with the new changes they don’t approve of, the users decide to keep using the service. It’s not about free anymore though, it’s about the people your connected to using this service. How will you ever connect to these people without this service?

Clearly I’m taking a few examples from social networks like Twitter and Facebook, but the rules apply to any service that starts out being free and refuses to entertain the idea of a paid account or subscription. The rule is that in order to gain the user base you need to become a smash hit, you need to make your service free for everyone. You need to make it instantly attractive for people to use and that starts with giving it away for free.

It’s a plan that has been played out with many services now and while there have been successful exceptions to this (well done Trello), many free services stick to being free and then try to generate revenue by using brand advertising and promotion or selling data as a product to others.

It’s at this point where the idea of a free account is nothing more than a compromise. In exchange for using the service in question, you must be prepared to accept the changes to the service and continue using it as best as you can. You might not like the changes that the service are implementing but the decision to continue using it or leave the service is down to you. You’re the user after all.

This is the cost of many free services now. If they don’t require something back from you in return now, chances are they will in the future. It’s just a matter of deciding how much you’re willing to compromise on to continue using the service.

The Daily Reading Ritual

It’s taken me a long time to find a habitual way of reading books that works for me. I call it the daily reading ritual.

When I first started my career in programming there was one titbit of advice that I had seen repeated over and over again.

Read a programming book every month.

I don’t know how many of you have read a programming book, but for those that don’t know they can be difficult to read. The trouble with programming books is that they are better used as reference books. Lookup material for when you’re stuck.

I tried the one book a month goal and I failed miserably. For the next few years I kept on trying but no matter what book it was I would either give up on it or still be reading it at the end of the month.

So how do you digest a programming book without it becoming a monotonous chore?

What I’ve found that works really well for me is that I take five non-fiction books (programming or otherwise) that I want to read and I read a chapter of each book on a specific weekday. At the moment Monday is a freelance and marketing book, Tuesday is a sketch noting book an so on. What this gives you is variety. Every day is different. It’s breaks the monotony barrier.

What about fiction books though?

Fiction books are easy to read because you usually have no idea what’s going to happen and it’s the authors job to send you to a place that’s not your usual environment. It’s a form of escapism.

I don’t set a time limit for these as it takes the enjoyment away from the book. Instead I try and read these books as often as I can. It’s usually at night when the kids are sleeping.

Since starting this ritual I’ve found it much easier to make progress on the books I’ve wanted to read. Not only that but I’ve also managed to set aside a few minutes in the morning for the non-fiction books and then at night I can plough through whatever fiction book I’m reading.