Whistle while you work

Sunday, 20 April, 2008

People say I do a lot. I don't know what the rest of the world does with their time, but the number of comments I get on the topic seems to indicate some sort of disparity. In part, I suppose, it could be attributed to my structuredness. That's one of the things I like about myself: I'm organised (mostly), systematic and efficient, and I find it easy to sort and slot things into categories to help me deal with things. Combine that with lots of self-motivation and an ability to grasp new things fairly quickly and—well, you've seen the results.

I realise there are down sides to all of this. I'm not heaps relational (but can pass for being so), I'm not good at being spontaneous and sometimes I can be incredibly inflexible, and certainly these days I'm finding it harder. But nevertheless I thought perhaps it might be beneficial to share some of my working habits so that you out there in cyberspace can benefit from them. The pace of life is getting faster and the trickle of information that comes our way every day has turned into a torrent. Here are some of the things I do to stay on top of everything:

(Oh, and please note: I'm not saying that this is the only way or even the best way; it's just my way—what's worked for me so far. This might not be the case in 12 months ...)

Got time?

I'm not one of those people who can hold their diary in their head. Mine's too complicated. I used to keep a paper diary (external mnemonic) but then Ben complained he never knew what was going on. I think it would be just brilliant if someone invented a mobile phone application for couples and families whereby you could put your calendar on it and it would sync with the other person's calendar so you would always know if they had to get up early to go to a meeting or whether you're having dinner with the Joneses on Thursday. Until that day, however, we have Google Calendar.

I was quite reluctant about switching to an electronic calendar. You can't carry it around with you, and if anyone tells you important dates or asks you if you're free on Saturday 3rd May (which is, by the way, Free Comic Book Day), you can't tell them immediately. But there are lots of wonderful things about using Google Calendar.

Firstly, I love how you can create multiple calendars. I went a little overboard: we've got one for just me, one for just Ben, one for both of us (for the things we do together), one for my work at MM, one for birthdays and anniversaries (and it's great because instead of me having to painstakingly copy the dates from year to year every time I started a new diary, Google Calendar will just repeat them yearly for me), one for Word by Word and then (to help me work out Word by Word dates) ones for Moore College, the University of New South Wales, University of Wollongong, University of Western Sydney and Katoomba Christian Convention. Other people create calendars which are publicly available to share so we also have the school term dates and Australian public holidays, etc.

Secondly, you can share calendars with other people and invite them to events if you want to. This is useful for the writing days that Guan, Bec and I have.

Thirdly, Google Calendar can send you notifications of upcoming events to particular calendars via email (to your Gmail account) and, in the US, to your mobile phone. Though I don't find these reminders/notifications of my daily agenda hugely helpful, it still registers in my brain what's going on on any given day. It can also generate RSS feeds but they aren't that useful because they give you all the events at once, not when they're about to happen.

Fourthly, you can plan stuff years in advance (like my 2010 party which only exists in my head and may never happen ... *sigh*). If my in-laws tell me their travel dats for 2009, I can put them straight in instead of having to retain that information for when I buy next year's paper diary.

Fifthly, it ties in well with Google maps so if I'm going somewhere I've never been before, it's easy to look it up and, perhaps, get directions (bearing in mind that Google directions aren't always the best).

And sixthly, because it's centralised, I don't need to be at home to access it; I can access it anywhere with an internet connection. It will also sync with iCal (but you can't edit events in iCal).

The unfortunate thing is that, at the moment, Google Calendar isn't playing nice with Firefox for Mac, and occasionally will crash the browser when I try to edit an event.

What am I doing?!

I first learned about Remember the Milk from Rachel and it's proved remarkably invaluable. It's a site where you can make To Do lists but I have ended up using it for more than that because electronic To Do lists aren't always better than paper ones. I like that you can set it to send you email reminders (e.g. I've set it to send me a reminder email to write to our sponsor child once a monch. The reminder function is so useful, I've set up a separate account which emails me at work to remind me to do various work-related tasks). But I also like that it's a central repository/database for things like recording Word by Word attendance (when people RSVP to each meeting), making packing lists for when we go away, making lists of fun things to do when we're on holidays, etc.

But, as I said earlier, sometimes paper To Do lists are the way to go. I use 7.5 cm x 7.5 cm PostIt notes for these at home (easy to tear off and take with you), and then my scribble pad at work. It just helps focus my brain—especially when I'm stressed, there's a lot going on and I'm not sure what to do first. If I sit down and write myself a To Do list for the day (and it has to be a reasonable one) first thing after I enter my office, I'm more likely to be productive on that day. Sometimes I do it at home just as I'm turning on my computer because I'm more likely to be distracted by the internet instead of doing what I wanted to do (e.g. pay this bill) when I turned on the computer in the first place.

If it's a larger task I'm faced with (e.g. do the advertising for The Faithful Writer), I'll break it into smaller tasks—e.g.

I'm not sure why crossing off things is so satisfying, but there you go.

I also sometimes acrry around an A6 black spiral notebook which acts like a back-up journal to my A5 one. (The A5 one is getting too heavy to carry around. I really must finish it—I started it in January 2007 and unfortunately I'm not using it that much.) The A6 journal has a dedicated To Do list page where I scribble down things I need to remember when I'm on the go. When the page gets too messy, I cross out the entire page and copy the outstanding items to a new one.

You've got mail!

I read some article a while ago (can't find it) which talked about how people these days are so overwhelmed with email, they find it hard to get anything done. I'm not quite an Inbox Zero sort of person but I come close. My email client of choise is, of course, Thunderbird. If only there was decent support for conversion from Entourage, I would use it at work too (Entourage is awful). Thunderbird has your standard features: you can store all your contact information in the address book, including addresses, phone numbers and notes; you can create lists with multiple addresses (other people do know how to do that, right? So if I want to email the rest of the MM staff, I create a list called “MM staff” with all their addresses in it, and then when I compose the email, I just type “MM staff” in the “To” field and it will send it to everyone on the list ...); it's easy to search for one particular person (and it will find someone much faster than Entourage will); it's got a junk filter you can train to spot stuff so that some messages will automatically go to junk without you having to sort through them; you can create multiple folders and sub-folders; you can get it to check multiple email addresses (and these addresses can have their own inboxes or you can tell them to go to a global inbox); you can set up custom filters for your mail, etc. etc. It's just really easy and fast to use.

I started using email back 1996 and I've pretty much kept them all—not spam or company newsletters (which get deleted) but personal mail. I don't understand people who keep all their email in the inbox and just delete stuff when they don't want to read it anymore; no wonder they get overwhelmed! I file everything into folders. All my folders are organised into one of two sections: organisations and personal mail. The organisations are split into Christian and secular, and the personal mail is organised alphabetically into subfolders by surname. Whenever I receive e-mail, it gets filed into those folders. Whenever I send email, it also gets filed into those folders. Anything that stays in my inbox is stuff I need to deal with. (Unfortunately some stuff sits there for a while.)

I used to do all the filing manually but then I discovered filters. So over time I gradually set up filters for the people who email me the most often so that their messages land straight in their folder. There's a setting to enable you to view just the folders with your unread mail, and if there's something I need to reply to, I hit the reply button and save it to my drafts folder, then go back later and write the email (I learned that trick from Tony). The nice thing about filters is that you can give them multiple conditions so that email from Bec doesn't just land in there but also the comments I post on her blog (which get sent from Blogspot) and the comments that other people post on her blog (if I've subscribed to a particular post).

I keep all my email so I have a history to refer to. I can go back and check what was the last thing I wrote or what I said to so-and-so back in July 2003. Thunderbird makes it easy to search messages (unlike Entourage!) so if I know I included a quote from some book in an email I wrote to Guan five years ago, it's easy for me to find it again.

And while we're on the subject of email, I find it interesting that so many couples have one email address for both of them (I mean, it's not like we're going to run out of email addresses; there's always room for 20 more!). I understand that it may be because one of them wouldn't get much email and so wouldn't check her account (and it's usually a her) that often, so the husband can let her know about anything important, but why so many people think the rest of the world operates like that is baffling. For example, it took a little while to train our relatives on both sides of the family to email both of us instead of just one of us, even though we've always had our own separate addresses. Sure, we could just talk to each other to let the other one know what's going on, but if you're talking to both of us (and most of the time they are), why not just put the two addresses in?

Go surfing

Firefox is my browser of choice and not just because I'm anti-Internet Explorer. Tabbed browsing, plugins and extensions are all great, but one of the best things about Firefox is keywords. When you save a bookmark, you can also assign it a keyword in the “Properties” field (you'll have to go into Bookmarks > Organise Bookmarks to do this). Whenever you type the keyword in the address bar (e.g. “mm” for the Matthias Media homepage), it will load that URL for you automatically without you having to type in the full address. I use keywords for all the sites I use the most.

In addition, Firefox also has smart keywords. They cut down the time I spend looking up stuff quite significantly. I use them for Google, the Internet Movie Database, Wikipedia, the Dictionary, the ESV and the Matthias Media online store. If, for example, I want to look up John 3:16 in the ESV, I type “esv John 3:16” in the address bar and it takes me straight there. They're fairly easy to set up; this page teaches you how. I only wish the Macquarie Online Dictionary had more search-friendly URLs so I could use them for that site too.

Take a shortcut on the word processor

Shortcut keys: without them, I'd have seriously bad RSI. I only wish my work computer had an operating system modern enough to install Quicksilver; it might break my prejudice against Macs. I like that Windows has them all built in—ALT + TAB to switch between windows, CTRL + w to close tabs, ALT + F4 to close programs, etc. I also like that Microsoft Word (which I'm stuck with because I don't own a Mac and can't install Scrivener) has standard shortcut keys for cutting, pasting, navigating with your cursor and, most importantly, applying styles from your stylesheet and running macros.

I get the feeling that most people don't know how to use Word styles and templates. (Well, I'm going off Briefing submissions and letters to the editor—many of whom are still using US Letterhead for their paper size. You do know how to change that, don't you? You need to find the Normal template which, in Windows, usually lives in C:\Documents and Settings\[your username]\Application Data\Microsoft\Templates, and on a Mac lives in Applications > Micosoft Office > Templates. Open it and change the paper size in File > Page setup and re-save the document template, making sure that the file actually saves as a document template, not just as a document—i.e. .dot, not .doc.) Templates are one of the great things about Microsoft Word. In them, you can specify what a Heading 1 should look like, what a Heading 2 should look like, what's your default paragraph font and font size, etc. Every piece of text you designate Heading 2 will look the same, and if you decide you would rather the font was Verdana 16 pt and bold with 6 pts of margin above and below rather than Times New Roman 14 pt and in italics, once you update the stylesheet, all your Heading 2s will change automatically. Furthermore, you can assign shortcut keys to your styles (e.g. ALT + CTRL + 2 for Heading 2) which makes formatting a document (e.g. raw text for a Daily Reading Bible) a lot quicker.

You can create as many document templates as you like with different styles and paper sizes in them. At work, I've got the standard MM one, one for Daily Reading Bibles, one for letters I need to write, one for “with compliments” slips (which aren't A4—210 mm x 100 mm), etc.

Macros are only something I discovered last year thanks to Dave. They're like a collection of processes that you want to run again and again, activated with a few keystrokes. For example, if I want to replace all the double spaces in a document with just a single space, I could go to Edit > Replace and type in “  ” in the “Find what” field and “ ” in the “Replace with” field, or I could just hit ALT + CTRL + spacebar and it will do it all for me. At work, I've got macros that will replace the current document's stylesheet with the MM stylesheet, re-size the window to the full height and width of the screen (which my Mac never remembers), change the view to “Normal” at 200% zoom, etc.


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Other comments

Wow, I must say I’m impressed. 

A few things you might find worth looking at.

RE: Email addresses.
Larissa and I have kept our individual email addresses, but we also set up a shared gmail account.  This account can be configured with filters to forward a copy of all emails to our standard addresses.  This means that we can give that address to people who are unlikely to want to email just one of us, and there will be no confusion.  Gmail can also be configured to let you send from that account (possibly even through you mail client…)

I’ve actually been so impressed with gmail that I use it as my primary email storage now days, and I can usually find what I want by just searching, so much so I haven’t needed or missed folders there.

Also, with vista you can actually have google desktop search index off line all your gmail emails, which is helpful.

RE: calenders,

Google calender I believe can be accessed via cellphone, if you have a net-enabled cell.  This should allow you to create events directly on the calender on the fly, and would automatically update your partners calender, if they were also accessing it via a cell phone or computer.  But I haven’t tried this

Yes, I find that internet on my mobile is not worth it: too slow, screen too small, etc. And I hate my mobile: it can’t keep up with me! ;P

Do you really think it’s worth setting up a shared email account for both Ben and I for people who can’t work out how to email us both? To me, it seems unnecessary, whereas for you two, it’s happening at the beginning of the marriage so you’re training people up to treat you guys that way electronically.

The thing about the shared email account is that its about 5 minutes work and you never need to think about it again.  At least that was the theory.  In practice it has been a little annoying, as I need to remember to change the from email address when I want people to reply to us both, and bcc Larissa, so she knows what I sent.  However I work on the principle that as the tech savvy one, i should be doing what I can to make things easier for the less technically inclined accquantiences that I have.  I guess the queston really comes down to, will it be more hassel to get them to change the email address they send to for you (keeping in mind that they will reply to your emails too) than it would be to just deal with them sending to only one of you.  I would guess that it might not be worht the hassle….

Internet on mobiles is improving in leaps and bounds, particularly with devices like the iPhone coming out.  Wait another year and you may have what you need…


Kinds of Blue: Cover art



A way of funding writing in the future: pitch and idea and get people to support it.

Place where you can hire play equipment for parties, etc.

How to recalibrate the home button on your iPhone.

Unsolicited manuscripts accepted by Pan Macmillan with certain conditions.

Thought Balloon is a group blog in which the writers tackle a new theme every week? month? with one-page scripts. This URL is for their Phonogram ones.


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