Category Archives: Getting Things Done – Personal growth and productivity

Posts related to the Getting Things Done and/or Take Back Your Life methodologies, other personal productivity tools and methodologies and other personal growth topics.

How to run a small non-profit core processes on virtually no budget? Part 2

Once the base storage and communication processes are in place (see part 1), the next step is, arguably, the most critical one: to optimize the communication with the organization’s supporters.

One key element that we quickly recognized is that people are different also in how they want their news. Some are more email centric (by articles, daily summaries or weekly newsletters), others are all about Facebook, other about Twitter or LinkedIn and some are still hard-core RSS fans. To ensure we would make it easy and effective for people to follow us we had to find a way to target all these in a way that would be effective.

4) Communication to major social sites (and newsletter)

To achieve this we are using a set of (still) free tools:

  • www.ifttt.com – which helps you build automated actions based on event
  • The RSS feature of wordpress.com
  • www.Mailchimp.com free tier of email campaigns

Here is how we set it up in a way that would allow us to post once and target all our digital presences:

  1. Post news on our wordpress.com blog
  2. In IFTTT, create 3 rules that will monitor new blog posts and post these to our Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn Profiles each time a new one is posted
  3. Use the capability of MailChimp to create an RSS-content based email blast. Once a week, MailChimp will automatically fetch all the new articles from the blog since last week and put them in a pre-formatted email (newsletter-looking) that will be then be sent to all the subscribers. Not only MailChimp will build and send the newsletter, it also manages subscriptions and unsubscriptions for us. A true zero-touch newsletter.

    We even used out ufeseattle.org domain to build a friendly URL (news.ufeseattle.org) for people to access the customized sign-up page we easily built on MailChimp.

The only manual process is that there is no (or at least we haven’t found one) automatic way to post in a LinkedIn Group so this has to be manually done.  Therefore, to publish news the steps are:

  1. Create you blogpost, I personally really like LiveWriter as it’s super straight forward and easy to use
  2. Publish it
  3. Use the “share on LinkedIn” button of the published post to share it on UFE Seattle’s LinkedIn Group
  4. All the rest is done automagically: Post on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn Profile (not group), RSS feed, email for subscribers by email to the blog itself, and once a week a newsletter with all the articles in it.

However, as Facebook filters page’s posts and both Twitter and LinkedIn create very large news flows, it’s easy for people to miss some news.

Therefore, we are encouraging people to subscribe to the newsletter, the only way to ensure they will get the info and won’t miss it (unless they never read their emails of course Smile).

<to be continued>

How to run a small non-profit core processes on virtually no budget?

A few years ago, a small group of us took the leap of faith and launched a not-for-profit organization to welcome, support, and foster the Puget Sound (Seattle’s region) French and French speaking community.

One of first thing we realized was that we had virtually no budget and very limited time to spend on it so I had to look for ways to achieve a few key goals we had set for ourselves:

  • Communicate broadly on the various media our community was using, whatever they were, in a way that was as cost and time effective as possible
  • Ensure communication was simple within the board and that this communication was archived as board members churn was expected over time
  • And finally, find a way to share content of all sort with our community.

After some tests and trials and errors we converged, thanks to the help of a few free or low cost tools, to a solution that is scalable, fairly simple to maintain, and efficient from a cost and effectiveness standpoint.

I will now list these various tools within the context of the scenarios they relate to. The name of the non profit is UFE Seattle…

  1. Branded URL for UFE Seattle website and emails, including personalized UFE emails for the board or specialized services we may offer
  2. Email and content storage for the organization itself
  3. Website and blog
  4. Communication to major social media sites
  5. Then the rest, as it was coming up.

1) Branded site and email addresses.

This is the only actual spend ($25 a year) that we needed. For this amount we opened a GoDaddy.com account that provided us with the ufeseattle.org domain (with free URL forwarding), and as many as 100 free @ufeseattle.org forwarding email addresses.

That was easy.

2) Email and content storage

For this one, as a Microsoftie, the solution was quite obvious too: Outlook.com and OneDrive.com (at that time Live.com and Skydrive Smile).

The former provided us with an UFE email, the latter, with lots of free storage, to put events photos, documents we share with the community, but also private folders shared with the board or specific volunteers for any documents we had, such as our list of French speaking babysitters.

Using the GoDaddy feature of forwarding specific emails to multiple ones, we were able to create a board-level @ufeseattle.org alias, by just having this email forwarded to all the board member’s own @ufeseattle.org alias. This also allowed us to use a simple contact (at) UFEseattle (dot) org email address instead of having to use the Outlook.com address itself.

Then, with a simple rule in Outlook.com, each email sent to this board alias is automatically moved to an “archive” folder in the organization’s outlook.com email. This allows each new board member, at any time, to go back and check every single email the board exchanged from the association launch to his or her arrival. An easy and effective way to get more context on previous discussions.

3) Website and blog

For that we went with the free WordPress.com sites. Not only it allowed us to create a blog (with its automatic sign-in for email alerts when new posts are published) but also a set of webpages with different type of relevant information for our followers.

What was trickier to manage was the lists (Addresses, etc.) that we wanted to build. As we started these were small and we needed an easy way to update them. Always updating a WordPress page was not the most effective path.

The solution to this was a small “hack”.

Indeed, a OneNote online can be private, shared or made totally public (read-only). So, from a user standpoint, pointing to a OneNote page online is just an (oddly looking) webpage. Check this out for instance: http://adresses.UFEseattle.org

<to be continued>

The secret of success in 3 min 30 seconds?

This great (and short!) 2005 TED talk from John St. John about what many successful people told him over 7 years of research and 500 interviews.

Nothing earth-shattering per-se but a great summary in less than 4 minutes.

In short here are his 8 points:

  1. Have passion for what you do: Do it for love of it not of money
  2. Work hard, but on something you like doing and have fun doing
  3. Good: become really good at things through practice, practice, practice.
  4. Focus on the one or few things that you can really move
  5. Push: push yourself. Physically and mentally.
  6. Serve something of value to others
  7. Ideas : be creative, listen, observe, be curious, ask questions, make connections…
  8. Persist: never give up, even through failure or naysayers.

Enjoy!

ps: Once you’re there, you might want to watch his 2009 follow-up TED talk on how to remain successful (tip: don’t fall asleep at the top!)

Should you empty your inbox?

With the advent of powerful search tools for emails, be them web ones (a-la Gmail or Outlook.com) or client based (MS Outlook), many people believe it’s OK to leave all incoming emails in their inbox and to stop filing them in folders. The thinking is that you always can search whatever you need to find it your 10,000 emails filled inbox.

There are “pilers” (people that pile-up and search) and there are filers (people that sort and file in structured ways). I get this. It’s more a question of personality than sheer right or wrong approach.

That being said…

I stumbled onto this WSJ 1’30” video from Ritz Carton’s Simon Cooper where he talks about email and how he uses it. There are a couple of nuggets that I believe make lots of sense from a personal productivity perspective:

  1. Don’t leave your office without emptying your inbox
  2. Being on top of your inbox is a key aspect of keeping in control of your business (or responsibilities)

Many time have I been waiting for people looking for an email they wanted to share with me or, worse, telling me they had not received my email or had forgotten about it because it’s somewhere within their 10,000 emails, including 1,500 unread ones.

With such a “system”, how can you know that:

  • Things you should be on top of, are being followed up as expected?
  • You are not letting people down by dropping the ball somewhere?
  • You are not wasting your and other people’s time by permanently looking for this email somewhere in your inbox? (“wait I’m sure it’s here – I recall seeing yesterday – of maybe if I sort by name, or by date- oh let me do a search….”)

By cleaning your inbox and leveraging a process a-la GTD (or a simplified version of it) you will be much more in control of your life and deliverables. By allowing your inbox to explode in size you won’t. At least not fully. This is a simple as that. At least for the vast majority of people.

The simplest and lowest hassle way is to have a “reference” folder where you would put ALL your emails (the ones you don’t want to delete from your inbox) and, in an “Action” folder all emails that require you to do something. This is not forcing a piler to become a filer. It’s about being sure that:

  • Nothing is left in your inbox that you have missed: The Inbox is always empty when you’re done.
  • You have one folder with all the emails that require action
  • You have one folder with your 10,000+ emails you did not want to delete for various reasons.

Convincing is not a one-size-fits-all thing

When it comes to influencing or convincing people, the baseline model has been laid down thousands of years ago by Aristotle. Nothing new here. the 3 key aspects he described are:

  • Ethos: Describes your credibility to deliver the argument. Why your experience, education, position, etc. makes you relevant for the audience when it comes to listening to you on the topic you are addressing?
  • Pathos: the emotional aspect of the argument. Why would a person actually care about hearing or discussing about this.
  • Logos: Logic, the actual argument(s) you use to convince.

More on these highly documented and studied concepts abound on the Internet so you can start there if you want to learn more: http://pathosethoslogos.com. Therefore, I’m not going to spend much time on the first 2.

Ethos is about ensuring you have and demonstrate your credentials before trying to convince. For instance I write this blog post because of the thousands of sales, product, business, or people-issues related arguments I had to make across multiple cultures and company sizes. This extensive experience, and various formal institutional and professional trainings, taught me a few thing about Logos.

Pathos is about building a rapport with the person you want to convince. If possible before you need to influence someone, you need to build a rapport with him. Then, you need to communicate your arguments in words that matter to the person (what’s in it for them?). In this case you’re reading this blog post so you already know me in person or through this blog.

However, and even if I know that both of those are simpler said than done, I am going to spend the remainder of this post on the third one: the argument itself (Logos)

As many of you know from having been through various personality tests during your college years and career, and regardless whether it was Myers-Briggs, Insights, or other similar models, people have different personality traits that can be mapped along various axis. However, especially in engineering heavy fields (high-tech, finance…) and thanks to the broad availability of data and tools (from Excel to advanced Business Intelligence tools), I have often seen a one-size-fits all to business presentations: the data driven one. My argument is that, although using hard data to make large scale decisions is extremely important, only using data is missed opportunity. Using only data for experiments is great, it helps you validate assumptions, build your own understand of what seems to be working or not, etc. I’m not talking about quick A/B testing when I say it’s misguided. I’m talking about the big work and life decision or arguments.

Let me start with the –sorry- easy way out for those starting to think I’m losing my mind talking data up here: Steve Jobs. He did not use Excel to make his decisions and he did pretty well. So now that this is out of the way let me get to the core of my argument. It was Steve Jobs. Most of us aren’t Steve Jobs caliber went it comes to vision, nor can we impose our views like he did.

I believe that every good (business) argument should always have 3 core elements. Whether it’s a business plan to get your start-up funded or a new corporate project, if you cover all these 3 bases you will be able to touch all types of personalities and make it much more likely to succeed.

1) Hard Data. Yes, the right data is always a good idea to have. It looks objective (but we know that in business and other aspects of life, data set and interpretations can very often be carefully selected to highlight what we are trying to achieve), and can be shared easily. It also takes emotions out of the equation. My favorite tongue-and-cheek data quote being that 83% of all statistics used in arguments are made up on the spot, like this 83% was.

2) Logic. This is the “Why”  behind the data. It’s important to explain why something happens, or will be possible, the way it is. How did you come to this conclusion. If you can take a rational, Cartesian approach to explain your point step-by-step people will be able to get to multiple “yes”  in the process and won’t feel odd by a somewhat un-intuitive numerical result or real-life example. I have found that using analogies are a powerful way to explain this logical process for issues that are new to a business or a situation.

3) Real life example. This is the one that can be often omitted in business but is so powerful when brought on the table. This is the customer discussion you had 2 weeks ago that goes in the same direction that your argument is going. It’s the personal anecdote that ads color and potentially generates the “get it” moment for people. The caveat is when the example is the only argument you have or when, out of 10 customer meetings, you only use the single one going in your direction. Similarly to data, real-life examples can be twisted to mean anything. Finally, if one example is an anecdote, 5 or 10 of them with the right logic and quantitative data are the nail on the coffin of a persuasive argument.

If you present an argument leveraging these 3 approaches, your chances of success will be much greater than if you only use 1 or 2 of them. In this case, the impact of the whole is indeed greater than sum of its parts.

Let me close by giving you a small example that will illustrate why I believe this is the right approach, and in particular that a data only approach is not the right one.

One of the key axis in personality trait tests is about being more fact/data vs. people oriented. Even in highly data focused cultures, like in high-tech, I have never seen more than 60 to 70% of the population being more “data” than “ people”  focused. If you only use data you will miss out on the (at minima) 30-40% of the people that are not naturally inclined to focus on data first. (data argument)

This makes sense, data has often been used the wrong way. For instance in his book, Straight From the Gut, Jack Welch wrote about how average on time deliveries were used to measure success only to end-up with a system with huge variability but still a close-to-perfect average delivery time. The average delivery time was maybe 15 days…. but plus or minus 4 days. Hardly great predictability for GE’s customers. (example argument)

No one is never purely a “data” person, or a “people” one.  Even the most rational people will still have emotions influencing them. You just have to look at the most rational, poised, data centric person you know when one argues with him or her on religion, politics, a sport (s)he is really into, etc. This will convince you that we all have a non-data, emotional and subjective sides and these sides need to be catered to as well when we need to be convinced. (logical argument).

Convinced yet?

How to think

I was reading an interesting article from Ed Boyden on "how to think" a while back (www.technologyreview.com/blog/boyden/21925) and I liked the concept this researcher highlighted. These really fit well as part of a healthy GTD-like process, trying to optimize a knowledge worker time.

Read the full article for more details, but here are his 10 points, and how they relate to each-other and to GTD.

In a nutshell his concepts can be summarized around:

  • Generating and acting on ideas
  • Planning
  • Documenting
  • .. and a few more that are good concepts but not new ones.

 

  • Synthesize new ideas constantly. Never read passively. Annotate, model…
    How often do we think of something and quickly forget it because we either think we’ll remember it or we don’t have an easy way to take note?

Linked with that point, the following 2 "rules" help those ideas to either die quickly or come to fruition sooner rather than later.

  • Keep it simple.
  • Make your mistakes quickly.

On learning, his first one (rapid prototyping) is complementary to the previous 3 rules, while the other is more GTD like: Learn how to learn (rapidly). Which Boyden boils down to 2 key things:

  • Be able to rapidly prototype ideas
  • Know how your brain works. This is very similar to GTD’s model of doing things that demand lots of brain power when your brain is in its best shape for this kind of work. In my case it’s more later in the afternoon than early morning but the key point is really that it’s unique to each of us.

If you take his planning advices to the letter, however, you’ll spend most of your day planning:

  • Always have a long-term plan. Even if you change it every day.
  • Make contingency maps. Draw all the things you need to do on a big piece of paper

But he does have a point that at least thinking about those at high-level really helps to get ready. The trick is to find the balance between too much planning (vs. doing) or not enough.

The next two are about knowledge and how to capture it:

  • As you develop skills, write up best-practices protocols.
  • Document everything obsessively. If you don’t record it, it may never have an impact on the world.

Both talk to a plague of the information economy: knowledge often leave a group or company when the worker leaves. And I don’t even mention things we used to do and forgot how to do or the best way of doing them. Once again, the key is balance between not enough and too much.

Finally his two last points are actually very similar to what was heavily detailed is the "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" book (whose author Stephen Covey unfortunately recently left us) so I won’t comment more.

  • Work backward from your goal. (i.e. set clear goals !)
  • Collaborate

Getting things done project overload

One of the things I’ve been struggling a lot with when I started using GTD, was the concept of projects and, more specifically the lack of structure around these.

Until a few months back I always had problem really feeling comfortable with the concept of a laundry list of projects that you review each week. It’s just not the way my brain works. It’s just not how human brain works.

The "ah-ah" moment was went I linked this issue with the "Pyramid Principle" I learned a while back when I was in grad school .

The pyramid principle (applied to presentations or other forms of communication) starts from 2 assumptions (based of scientific research):

  1. Most people only have 3-5, 7 is considered exceptional, short-term memory "blocks".
  2. The brain then structures the data in a logical fashion to move this is longer term memory.

Therefore, to improve the chances of people retaining the data you present, you should:

  1. Group concepts in logical groups and subgroup
  2. At each level of this hierarchy, you want -ideally- to have 3 subgroups, 2 to 4/5 being the lower and higher boundaries

So, how does this apply to GTD projects?

Simple: the reason I felt uncomfortable was that my brain could not really get around, during my weekly review, going through a list of 50-100 projects. That I needed more structure to feel more confident I was not missing anything.

So, here is how I solved this.

  1. I never have an action not associated with a project. Lost in some kind of GTD Limbo. I just created a project "_misc" for all projects that are purely serial (not needing several actions in parallel) and not directly linked to an existing project. In the same idea I have a "IT – Admin" task for various actions I need not to forget but that do not really belong to a project, example of these tasks are such as filling up an expense report, change Voicemail message while traveling…)
  2. I structure my projects into blocks I can more easily digest. The structure is something like:
    1. Work projects linked with the business will have a "regular" name.
      • I will then list them with a small word in front of each project name to bucket them one more time such as:
        • Marketing: Shows
        • Marketing: Partners
        • Marketing: PR
        • Special Projects: A
        • Special Projects: B
        • etc…
      • Sorting the projects per name will allow me to visualize the buckets easily
      • I create this list when my year begin, starting from a list on OneNote (being much more easy to work with when you want to organize your thoughts) that I can then easily send to Outlook through the "create an task in outlook" feature.
    2. Team Management related project, same concept, this time adding a "x_" in front (same reason: that they all appear together when sorted by name
    3. Personal projects, this time starting with "y_". In this case I can even sort them out using Outlook filters for views and have "work per project" and "perso per project" views.

This structure allows me to:

  • Avoid having something too complicated,
  • Stay within Outlook capabilities (with Netcentrics add-in to have the additional "project" field though)
  • Have the full list of projects in one view
  • Still be able to digest the information when going through it each week and spot more easily if I miss something