Daily routines

The last two months have been something of a blur. Client work has taken up most of my day now and even into the night as well when I shouldn’t really be working. A pattern, or lack of pattern has emerged.

It started a couple of months when I decided to scale back on my daily writing. I thought that not writing as much would let me focus on getting other chores and such done. Truth is, it was the start of a slow decline in what I had carefully built up over the best part of a year. The daily routine.

My work day pretty much had the same format for the most of last year and it worked for me. I had the same routine in the morning for preparing for the day ahead and the same routine at night for reviewing the day. It worked for me.

Once I stopped writing on a daily basis though the routines started to be skipped, and then the calendar was running empty, the task list built up and before you know it, my daily routine consisted of nothing more than simply putting out fires. I’ve been in that place before and it wasn’t a good place to be.

I ended up reacting to problems rather than anticipating problems and setting time aside for them. I was context switching multiple times a day and losing focus. My inboxes and lists were stradily climbing with not view of the bottom of them.

No more. The routines are back in place, the daily writing will be started again and a plan of attack has been formalised. Let’s see where this goes.

Breaking Habits for the Best

Even the best kept habits require a break. Regardless of how well you think it’s working for you as a habit, it’s only when you step back from it, breaking the habit, that you can see the true impact and value of it.

If you’re like me, you’ll have tried to introduce hundreds of habits in an effort to improve your health, your career, your finances or even your relationships with people. For me some of them have truly stuck over the years. Keeping a journal is one of them and something I do on an almost daily basis. Whether it’s a family event, work or even a thought, it gets written down and saved for a future review or reflection. It took me a number of months to get this habit down on a daily basis and while I can see the benefit of it, I’ve never taken a break from it.

Last week though I decided to drop the journal tools for a few days and just enjoy the time off I had with the family. It was a real eye opener. In that time I realized that although keeping a journal is a good thing for posterity and also for remembering where I was with some work, I was missing something.

Looking back at my journal entries over the years and months, there has been a subtle trend in my journal entries. In the past I would journal once a day with a review of the day, now though I’m logging journal entries multiple times a day. Whenever I complete a bit of work, whenever I have the inkling of an idea, or even when a link catches my eye but I want don’t want to just read it later, I want to read it from a particular angle. Every day I’m working I’m writing multiple journal entries as I’m working. When the weekend rolls around, the context of my journal switches and I focus on one entry for the weekend if I did something with the family that was fun.

Before I didn’t recognize the pattern of my journal activities and how I was switching between work and family journals. Having stepped back from the habit of keeping multiple journals, I can see that the shift in change is better for me. When I read the last month’s worth of entries I found it so much easier to read the frequent updates per day rather than the single monolithic update done on a daily basis.

I also realized something else. I put too much emphasis on writing a journal entry every day when it wasn’t necessary. Having not kept a journal for the best part of a week, I can see that it’s okay to miss a few days here and there. It’s taken a break in my habits to see the true value I’m getting from keeping a journal.

Sometimes we end up switching to automatic-pilot when we habituate processes that we think will make us better people. Truth is though, we need time away, a holiday from these habits so that we can properly evaluate and review their value. Only when we can do this can we see how that habit is truly working for us.

Software Isn't for Life

Software is a form of product that will deteriorate and expire with time. With this in mind, how easy would it be for you to switch software from your preferred tools set to a new one?

I try and not be too dependent on the software that I use on a daily basis. I do have a favourite set of tools that I use but I’m always conscious of the fact that whatever I’m using might not be around tomorrow.

Take for instance my to do list. I’ve been using Todoist for some time now. What would happen if Todoist stopped trading next month? Or even next week? Barring a natural disaster, I’m pretty confident that most services, including Todoist, will allow a small window of time for you to transfer your data across to another application of your choice before that company closes down.

The good thing about software as a product is that there’s plenty of it. We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to software and with the now common place app stores from various technology companies, there’s an app store for most major hardware platforms.

What happens though when software becomes a dependency?

I’ve heard many people say that their preferred software product for a particular task is ‘X’ and that they just couldn’t do their job without it. Perhaps that’s true if you’re in a specialist job working on the next wave of new technology and innovation, but for most of us this just shouldn’t be the case. We should not be dependent on just one particular brand of software to get the job done. If you’re so dependent on one particular software product then I’d say that you’re narrowing your choices down too much.

The text editor is my daily tool for writing and cutting code. My preferred text editor is Sublime Text, but for any reason that Sublime Text was to stop being supported or even cease to exist, then what’s my options?

We’ll I’ve played with Vim enough over the years to make the jump to that, and there’s a number of other text editors that I could pick up like Chocolat that would do the job just fine. Yes, I may have invested a considerable amount of time getting to know the shortcuts keys of Sublime Text but if I had to then I would comfortable picking up something else. We should always have options to fall back on for the selected tools that we use on a daily basis. In most cases this second set of software might be products we’ve tried in the past or something that we previously have experience with.

Investing time and effort into a particular software product is fine if it’s something that you will use on a daily basis for about 8 hours a day, but anything else is simply a product or tool that could be replaced with alternatives already on the market or a custom made option if needed. Software isn’t for life, it’s simply a temporary means to an end until we find something better that works for us. With this in mind, are you to dependent on the software you use?

The Limits of Automation

The other day I experienced the limits of what automation can deliver and realized that not all tasks are best done in an automated fashion. Some tasks need that manual touch to get done properly.

At the start of the I got back on the writing bandwagon and published another of my muddled thoughts a couple of days ago. Being a lazy guy, I have App.net’s Broadcast setup that takes my daily posts from the RSS feed and publishes them to App.net and to my email subscribers. One of the reasons I done this is that I would ordinarily forget to do it.

This morning I had the realization that I might just be missing an opportunity here. Automating this sharing process from blog to you the reader is all well and good, but what if at an earlier point I could let you decide whether you want to read this post or not?

A couple of weeks ago I started adding a summary to the beginning of each post. In it I try and condense the gist of the post into a couple of lines. If it’s not for you, you can move on, if you’re interested then you keep on reading.

There was another couple of places though where I could be doing this, and that’s in the original broadcast message and the post to my timeline on App.net. I turned off the automatic posting and sharing of my blog and instead opted to use the intro to the blog post as a brief description on the broadcast. The post which was originally sent to my timeline, doesn’t include the intro and it uses a shortened URL which I don’t want. So as well as using the intro on the new broadcast, I’ll rewrite the intro as a condensed version for posting to my timeline on App.net. I’ll do both of these tasks myself rather than relying on the automation tools to do it for me.

Automation is great for when it’s mundane tasks that can be repeated over and over without interruption, but when we want to tailor that task each time it happens, we need to step in and do the work ourselves. It’s not a bad thing either. Now I get the chance to tweak the broadcast and post in the hopes that I can encourage you to keep reading as well as reaching out to more people.

To Kill a Project

Stopping a project isn’t easy to do, especially when that project is based on an idea that seemed to be within your grasp. Sometimes though it’s the best thing to do, but to ensure it’s dead we need to kill the project.

I had an idea a few months ago for a service for users of App.net. It was a service that curated the most interesting or popular posts from your timeline when you weren’t there to check it. For the most part this could be when you’re in bed or at work. So if you wanted to see the best posts from your timeline in terms of highest replies or stars, it would filter out the best posts for you and email them to you in a summary on a daily basis.

I’ve spoke to a couple of people on App.net about the idea and they were favourable of the idea. After months of incubating the idea though I want to abandon the idea. I never wrote any code for it, registered any domains or even tested the idea. The idea might be a success, but given that the number of users on App.net isn’t as much as Twitter, I’m making an educated guess that it won’t be profitable as a service. I want it off my radar for good. It’s too distracting having it sitting in my master list thinking I might do it one day.

I’m killing the project then. I’m not abandoning it, deleting it or putting it off. I’m killing it. Permanently.

With this action comes a sense of relief. No longer will it sit on my radar demanding another few minutes of contemplation. I can get rid of it permanently.

I’ve only done this a few times in the past and each time it was necessary to simply kill the project. For as long as it remains in a list or in your head, you’ll always spend a bit of time thinking that you’ll get round to it.

The first time I did this was when I killed my mind mapping blog, MindMapSwitch. I had gave up writing about mind mapping but I left the blog itself up in the hopes that one day I might go back and write about it. I didn’t. In fact for about two years it just sat there as another dead blog on the internet. A couple of years ago I decided that the blog had to go. No longer would I need to the account to keep it running. I wouldn’t be writing on that blog ever again. So I took it down. Gone was all the work that I put into it, but despite that, I felt great about the decision. Another little project that has been sitting on my radar is now gone forever. I don’t need to worry about it, spend time on it or even get it started. It’s gone for good.

That’s why it necessary to kill a project. There’s no sense in having a project or an idea sitting there on the shelf gathering dust. Yes, one day you might get round to it, but chances are you won’t. Better to kill the project and move on then have it pecking away at your conscience. Once you’ve killed that project you’ll feel a weight off your shoulders and you’ll have rid yourself of a commitment.

Balance

Balance isn’t something that comes up a lot when people are writing about productivity. Once you are aware of it though, it’s a fundamental lesson to learn if you want keep focused and make progress.

I’m like a kid in a candy shop when I have a new idea. I tend to drop just about everything I’m working on new idea for a night or two and then get back to what I was doing before. Not a good practice to follow. When you stop working on something else and spend some time with an idea, it can take over. The idea snowballs and then before you know it, you’ve grand plans for it and it overtakes everything else you are doing. Inevitably my workload becomes so much that I need to try and prioritise and sort my work into a schedule that can’t feasibly accommodate this new idea. What to do?

Well the answer is simple. From now on for every project I take on I need to drop something else. Realistically I can only manage one side project at a time on top of freelancing and family life. When I take on too much everything else suffers. It’s a balancing act.

The monthly themes I am doing just now are good for balancing work as it means that in one month I can focus on a single idea or product for that time. Since the start of the year I’ve used broad themes to cover everything but this month I’ll be focusing on a specific project. It’s the first of four projects that I’ll be working on this year. The goal is to clear the backlog of tasks for that project so that it can be left alone for another few months while I bring another few projects along.

This also means that I can schedule these ideas into the year so that I know what work lies ahead in my schedule. Not only is this good for scheduling purposes but the idea also gets a chance to incubate for a few weeks or months before I start on it. By then I might have discounted the idea will then pick something else to work on.

Writing Takes Time

When I first started blogging I thought I could simply keep on writing and the ideas would come. For a while they did and I would keep future ideas on a backlog so that I could return to them another day. Now though it seems that those ideas are not coming as fast as they did in the past. It took me a while to realise what the problem was.

My problem was that I set myself the goal of publishing more often than I could write. Yes I could publish small posts that required little effort but is that what I want to do? Minimum effort? I won’t learn anything from just simply firing out a barrage of poorly written blog posts.

What I want to do is improve my writing. That means spending more time writing, editing and proof reading. I want to review my writing a few times to ensure that I am completely happy with it. This takes time, not a lot of time but definitely more than the time it takes me to write a small blog post.

Writing takes time. Good writing I mean. The kind of writing where you write a draft more than once. You sweat over the little things like word choice and grammar. You spend time on each paragraph, sentence or even word.

Writing does take time, but the rewards of better writing far out weigh that of those hasty blog posts that I used to write. It’s taken me a while to learn this but it’s came at a good time. I’m hoping that this is a time where I can improve on my writing over the next few months.

We’ll just need to wait and see.

Five Dollar Value

Three pounds got me a tea and hot roll this morning from my local cafe. A pot of tea which should give me three decent cups of tea and a toasted flatbread with sausage. A little bit upmarket when you consider this is a cafe in the West of Scotland but also good value when you consider that it’s not your usual greasy spoon morning roll with a slice of cheap meat thrown in. Good value I think you would agree. I get enough fuel to see me through to lunchtime and enough tea to keep me working for at least two hours.

What about value on the Internet though? What determines value in the products and services that we buy but are nothing more than bytes that exist in the Internet?

Five dollars is a common price point for many products and services. Evernote offers extra bandwidth for synchronising data for this amount, Github offers a private repository for the same amount and you can follow more people on App.net for, yes you guessed it, five dollars. It’s a common price for many services but the variety of value differs from product to product.

There is a trend on the Internet when it comes to services and value. The older the service, the more value you get. It’s not true in every case, but it’s certainly applicable to many.

Take Evernote for example. Back when I first took an Evernote subscription the added value I got from it was mainly their offline notebooks and extra bandwidth for synchronising my data contained in Evernote. Now though, Evernote offers collaboration, extra security, presentation and even other premium features from their other apps. Good value if you use these on a monthly basis.

Let’s look at App.net now. Out of the box a free account gives you great value including the ability to use their Passport application and follow up to 40 people. On top of that you get 500MB of storage on their platform. For an extra five dollars a month you can follow as many people as you like and also get an extra 500MB of storage taking you to 1GB. Right okay, not the range of extra value that Evernote offers but it is value. App.net is young though and in time they may offer more to its paying customers to encourage free customers to upgrade.

The trouble with comparing these services and more is that there’s usually only a handful of great services in each market. Comparing services from different markets isn’t going to work. It’s not fair to say that Evernote offers more value than App.net but in terms of a basic feature count, yes it offers more, but it depends on person to person what features they use.

For many of us that use the Internet on a daily basis though, we live in a time where five dollars is nothing. It’s a fancy coffee or even breakfast. I don’t think five dollars to me is a lot of money to pay for a serivce online for a month. Even the most basic service is worth paying for.

If it provides value to you as a consumer then why not?

What’s the minimum you would pay for extra features and value from a service?

Also does that price change depending on the important of the service you are using. Would a service critical to your business warrant a larger minimum price so that it continues to support your business?

Project Retrospectives

I’m coming to the end of a project with a client. In the past I would have made sure the client was happy, closed the project off and collected the rest of my fee for the work. So would many freelancers. The work is done, you’re done. Right? Maybe not.

Over the last few months a number of projects have been started and finished with the same client. This has led to a familiarity that is great for day to day communication, but as a working team we have become complacent in the work we are doing and there is clearly room for improvement in how we work together to finish each project.

In an agile team, frequent retrospectives are used to find out what’s working for the team, what isn’t and areas where the team can improve. It’s a time of reflection. As part of a my pledge to deliver a professional service, I’m am now going to give a retrospective for each project that I finish with a client.

Essentially it’s a report of three areas. Developers will recognize the questions as they are the same questions asked when an agile team gets together for their own retrospective. So why not apply the same idea to client work as well?

1. Where did we go wrong?

Admitting where a project went wrong can be difficult for all concerned. It’s not a finger-pointing exercise though. If you think I’m picking at your faults, then you’re probably not the type of client I want to work with. We’re simply trying to isolate the problems areas so that we can change them for the better.

2. Where did we do well?

Highlighting where a project went well is important for any future work I do with a client. This is often over looked and we should never just think the work that is done on time and within budget is okay. If work is carried out within these constraints, then recognising that success is a great area to start for future projects. I want to build on a set of good practices that we both recognise so that future projects become easier to do.

3. Where could we improve?

We found out where we went wrong from the first question, but is there something we can do to fix this for future projects? If we are to continue working together, then it would benefit everyone if we could gradually improve on projects in the past. Less bumps on the road means projects can be finished to a higher quality, on schedule and with-in our agreed budget. Who doesn’t want to work like that?

I have a first retrospective coming up in the next couple of weeks, and I’ve already collected a number of different observations from the project where both myself and the client could improve. Not all clients will be happy to read the retrospective or even take any advice from it. That’s okay, it’s their choice. For those clients that want to improve on future projects when working with me, I’ll be more than happy to help them resolve problems from the retrospective and suggest recommendations for future projects with them.

The project doesn’t end with the last commit or deploy, it ends when I’ve exceeded the expectations of the client and helped them get the most from our time together working on a project.

Plain Text Data Please

Being a fan of plain text files means that I am particularly picky about the services and tools that I sign up for. A service could have all the killer features that I need but if it can be made simpler by some scripting and text file, then I’ll opt for that instead.

It all about data access. If I can access my data that your service stores and export it to something else, without too much fuss might I add, then I’m already going to like your service.

Todoist are an example of a good service in my eyes. I have their app on my iPhone and MacBook and I use it daily. It’s a great service for managing your to do lists. The export facility though is a winner for me though. It does backups of all your to do lists on a regular basis for you. These backups can be downloaded (or exported if you want) to your computer. When you open them, the backup consists of a text file for each list with all your to dos listed in simple plain text.

At the other side, there are two types of services you need to watch for if access to plain text data is your key concern.

1. Services that don’t allow access to your data.

These services are thankfully becoming less frequent now thanks to the fact that of those services that don’t allow access to your data, there are some where you can at least access it through an API. Although this is only of benefit to developers, it does mean that with a little scripting you can grab your data and save it to a format that makes it easier for you to use.

The last time I checked, Path still doesn’t allow access to your data in any kind of format and their API isn’t published either which makes getting your data out and onto another network or journaling app much more of a manual process.

2. Services that allow access to your data but in a format other than plain text.

When I say a service uses something other than plain text, what I mean is that the format that they export to might be readable by any text editor but could be in a less friendly format like XML.

This is definitely down to personal choice and experience, but I am more comfortable working with JSON files than I am with a format like XML.

I use Evernote a lot now. Mostly for my freelancing work. When I exported some notes I created as part of my evaluation of it, I found that the notes were exported to a format of XML. Not user friendly at all if you don’t have any experience with programming and you want to take these notes to another package.

Thankfully though Evernote does export to HTML which is far easier to read and while the HTML can’t be imported back into Evernote should you need to, HTML is easier for reading your notes into another service.

This is the best of example I have of a service that exported to an unfriendly format. The reason why I still stuck with Evernote was that I can export the notes to HTML which is easier for me to script than XML.

Plain Text Please

If a service exported to anything more complicated than flat file with XML based markup then I wouldn’t use that service. It’s just a matter of having my data accessible in a format that doesn’t inconvenience me.

Data access is a key criteria for me when assessing services that I want to use. My data should be accessible and ideally in a format that doesn’t need a programmer to make sense of. Plain text formats win in this aspect due to their instant readability. Everything else is just a hindrance in my eyes.