Interview with Stacey Vulakh

December 6, 2013

Stacey VulakhWhat projects are you involved in?

Professionally, I’m about to undertake a rebrand of my website and public profile. Business is always shifting and my goal is to ensure my web and social presence accurately reflects who I help and what I do.

I’m also involved in a few business community projects that are ongoing. One of which, a silent auction for a women’s professional organization called Women In Consulting.

Personally, I’m gearing up for autumnal projects including planning my children’s 4th birthday party and Halloween, an upcoming trip to Disneyland, Thanksgiving, and of course, Christmas.

The details of the holiday season combined with entertaining are numerous but I love project managing.

How did you get interested in productivity?

My interest in productivity is 75% innate and 25% environmental. I do believe we’re born with certain proclivities and organization and productivity just happen to be two of my innate skills.

That being said, about 4 years ago I noticed a big need in the marketplace for time management amenities for professional women. With all the opportunities available and the “have it all” mentality, women are determined and won’t settle for anything less than what they want. Contemporary women want more and the only way to have more of anything is with solid time management and pristine productivity skills.

How many meetings do you normally have each week?

With clients, networking events, social meet-ups, and community involvement I limit my meetings to between 12-15 per week. Any more and I’m unable to adequately tend to daily business and personal needs.

What are some of your favorite productivity tips/apps?

Oh, there are so many…

- Wunderlist for keeping simple, basic lists.
- Evernote for keeping historical lists, blog musings, recipes, and volumes of data. I like to clip and save photos in a “gift idea” folder.
- Getheadspace.com is my new favorite for all things meditation.
- Doodle.com for scheduling. Really, it’s such an easy and effective scheduling tool. I use it personally for girls’ gatherings and professionally for meetings.
- Pocket is great for saving web pages to read later. It syncs across all devices so when you have a moment to read, all your clippings are in one place.

What’s the most recent adjustment that you’ve made to your personal productivity routine?

By far, the most impactful recent adjustment I’ve made is to begin meditating on a regular basis. Immediately following the first ten-minute session, I felt more clear and alert and my surroundings appeared to be in vivid color. I love the feeling of being refreshed and calm.

Do you measure your productivity? If so, how do you do it, and what is your metric?

This may sound silly but the most significant barometer is how I’m feeling. I know when my work has been productive vs. “busy” or ineffective. There’s a spring to my step and a momentum that carries me forward when I’m in flow and highly productive.

From a more technical standpoint, I’m part of a mastermind group that meets monthly. Knowing I need to provide an update and be held accountable is often the impetus for getting me to move on a specific project.

Additionally, seeing a crossed off to-do list can be effective, too, provided the tasks were significant and meaningful.

What do you think the next productivity trend will be?

That’s a good question…imagine how much more productive we’d be if we knew what the future is bringing…

You can learn more about Stacey Vulakh through her website, and be sure to follow her on Twitter, too.

 


Interview with Tara Rodden Robinson

December 4, 2013

Tara Rodden RobinsonWhat projects are you involved in?

Currently, I’m hard at work writing a book. The Sexy + Soul-full Woman’s Guide to Productivity is aimed at helping women to do more of what they love. For this, they need certain skills in managing all the other demands they face to make time, space, and other resources available for being creative, passionate, artistic, spontaneous, generous, and whatever it is that their hearts are calling for them to be. At midlife, women naturally begin to ask themselves: “What do I want?” and place much greater importance on realizing, or at least pursuing, their own deepest inclinations. The Sexy + Soul-full Woman’s Guide to Productivity is intended to help them do just that.

In addition, I just launched a new podcast–a talk show style program called The Tara Show. The show is a unique blend of conversation, stories, and sound. I, along with my regular contributors and guests, explore topics ranging from leadership, sports, personal productivity, spiritual growth, and much more. You can hear it by visiting https://soundcloud.com/thetarashow.

How did you get interested in productivity?

Through my own desperation! I was overwhelmed with all the demands on my time and needed help. I discovered David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, and after a couple of false starts, learned how to practice his methods. It saved my life!

How many meetings do you normally have each week?

It varies. I try to keep some days completely meeting free so I can have big chunks of interrupted time. I also attempt to clump meetings together on one or two days. On average, I’ve got three to seven meetings a week.

What are some of your favorite productivity tips/apps?

I use Remember the Milk to manage my tasks and I depend on Evernote for practically everything else. I’m a Mac user so I use iCal and the other native Apple apps for contacts, email, and the like.

What’s the most recent adjustment that you’ve made to your personal productivity routine?

How I start my day is incredibly important to me. There are a number of actions that if I don’t get them done early, they often don’t get done at all–like walking the dog and practicing yoga. And I hate feeling rushed! So if I’m going to get all my “chores” done before I start work, I have to be very well organized. I sat down and thought through what I wanted to do, what order made the most sense to do things in, and when I wanted to get to work–from there, I worked backwards to determine what time to get up. By taking the time to think things through, I move at a pace that feels relaxed, yet gets me out the door at the right time.

Do you measure your productivity? If so, how do you do it, and what is your metric?

Yes and no. I pay attention to completion. For example, I recently completed a significant work of art: a mosaic that was given as a gift to my church. From the inception of the project to its completion was a rather long journey and when making art, it’s not about checking off tasks so much as reaching milestones in the creation of the work. By staying focused on completing milestones, I was much more attentive to the process and less on product. And that worked very well for me.

Now, in writing my book, I’m using a similar approach. When a project is large and rather amorphous, a product mentality just doesn’t work. What would I put on my task list: “Write book?” No, it’s more about being involved, meeting milestones, and putting together small actions of completion that add up to a larger completion later.

Frankly, I’m wary of productivity metrics. In my view, personal productivity is really about two things–neither of which are measurable and both of which are of inestimable value: reliability and freedom. I practice task and time management so I can follow through on commitments and promises to myself and others–that’s reliability. And I practice productivity so I can have the freedom to do more of what I love with the people I love. Both of these are about relationships–which is all we have, in the end. When we’re old and gray, it’s our family and friends that will matter most, not how many times we got to inbox zero.

What do you think the next productivity trend will be?

Two things. First, social technologies are going to change the way teams work together and how people manage tasks. For example, with new “Twitter-like” communications tools, email will be less and less important as a way of delegating actions and making requests. These new tools require the sender to break action items out from each other, meaning that the sender does a lot more thinking about what’s really needed and does some of the processing that used to be done by the recipient. I predict that this will change the way people work together dramatically by clarifying requests and making follow through more transparent.

Second, there is a significant move toward more “compassionate management.” This more humane and human way of treating employees is long overdue. Younger employees value meaning and purpose, along with autonomy, far more highly than workers of the past. I believe when managers treat people with compassion, workers will experience being valued and appreciated which will motivate them to be organizational citizens: caring, engaged, helpful, collaborative–people who bring their heads, hearts, and hands to work. And that, in my view, is highly productive.

Tara Rodden Robinson is an executive productivity coach, author, and artist. You can learn more about her by visiting her website: http://tararobinson.com/


Interview with Shirley Fine Lee

December 2, 2013

Shirley Fine LeeWhat projects are you involved in?

My personal “big” projects have been my three management books. Now I have started my fourth. This new one will be an introduction to team-building, which should go with OPIE Project Planning and Implementation for Teams. Other projects I am working on are for my customers.

How did you get interested in productivity?

Even as a kid, I was a bit of an organization nut. Expanding that into time, meeting, and project management once in the corporate world came pretty naturally to me. I read everything I could get a hold of on the subjects to personally improve. Then I began teaching others through both leadership roles and as an instructor in training classrooms.

How many meetings do you normally have each week?

When I was in the corporate world, I had two regular team meetings per week and several “as needed” business meetings. Because of my training background, I was often asked to facilitate those meetings and asked to teach other teams how to improve their meetings. Most of what I taught those teams is in my book R.A!R.A! a Meeting Wizard’s Approach and in the many meeting management articles I have written.

Now, I do not have regular meetings as I only plan meetings with or facilitation for customers when they want. More and more the business meetings I am involved in are becoming technology based rather than face-to-face, so they are often shorter and do not require as much travel. My book covers planning any type of meeting and I wrote several articles specifically on virtual meetings last year.

What are some of your favorite productivity tips/apps?

I think the best time management tip is to “write it down.” Whether you do that on a sheet of paper or in some device is up to you. The important thing is to capture actions and ideas so they do not get forgotten. There are many more tips in my book T.A.P.P. Steps in Time Management related to tasks, appointments, priorities, and working with other people.

As far as apps go, I think that is a personal choice. I primarily use my phone and Outlook. I believe people need tools they can and will use. If you find a good app, then please share it as a possible improvement but do not push it on others as they may have a different preference for managing their time and projects that works equally well for them. I like to test new tools so I get application suggestions often. If they offer a free trial, I try them out and if I think it is something people might find useful, I might put a post about it on my blog, To Be Productive.

What’s the most recent adjustment that you’ve made to your personal productivity routine?

I still use the same tools I have used to manage my time for years. Fortunately the tools keep improving, so I just have to learn the new functions that I might want to add to what I already do. However, much of my time requires interfacing with others. So the most recent adjustment was to set appointment reminders for further out and more frequently to insure nothing is missed.

Do you measure your productivity? If so, how do you do it, and what is your metric?

When I talk or write about time management, I stress goals and priorities as the best way to decide what is important. Set your highest priorities to meet your most important goals. Then use your priorities to determine what tasks you must do each day. If you are working on the highest priorities each day then you are being most productive. If you are doing low priority items, then you may never reach your goals. If you have a big goal, then use project management to break it into little tasks you can do at a set time each day and determine your milestones you want to move towards each week or month. To keep momentum and motivation going, plan little rewards for milestone completion and a celebration for project completion.

What do you think the next productivity trend will be?

I try to keep up with what is happening in both productivity and project management trends. There are so many tools and techniques out there that it requires people sharing what they learn about in order for all of us to continue to gain new knowledge. I personally think the use of mobile productivity apps will continue to grow and that we will find new ways to incorporate them into professional teamwork.

Shirley Fine Lee is the author of three business books related to productivity management. She has been teaching time management since 1989. She also began teaching meeting management, team building, and project management in the early 90’s. Shirley feels her purpose is to help organizations increase communication, employee, and system capacity to produce results. Find out more about her on her website: shirleyfinelee.com.


Interview with Sheila Hawkins

November 29, 2013

Sheila HawkinsWhat projects are you involved in?

Currently I have an ongoing project with a communications company in Florida for which I provide project management services; ongoing project management services for a social justice group based in New York and a local non-profit that I’ve created a standard operating procedure manual for and am currently revamping their filing system. I also have productivity programs and events that I’m working for the final quarter of this year and the first quarter of next year. They’re focused on planning and turning dreams or resolutions into goals and bringing them to fruition.

How did you get interested in productivity?

Productivity is something that has always been a part of who I am personality wise and for a long time I didn’t understand that not everyone was wired like I am. I came to that realization as a young adult in the corporate arena. Being wired that way was always an asset in every position that I held during my work life. There came a point when the company I was working for closed its doors and I wanted to start another entrepreneurial endeavor. A friend suggested that I do what I had always done and I had no clue what she meant by that. From her point of view I had always organized things and people, keeping them together and moving forward. I did some research and discovered my industry. Knowing that I had the capability to do many things under that umbrella, I chose a few areas and offered my services and through the process discovered that my true passion lies in helping people set themselves up for optimal productivity. For me that translated into identifying tools, creating systems and organizing spaces that are set up to increase productivity, and helping people understand and rid themselves of clutter and procrastination.

How many meetings do you normally have each week?

On average I have 3-4 meetings per week.

What are some of your favorite productivity tips/apps?

I love Evernote and Dropbox. Wunderlist is something I recommend to clients who are looking for a to-do list outside of what they might have on their electronic device. I like Basecamp for project management team communication and of course Doodle for scheduling group meetings!

What’s the most recent adjustment that you’ve made to your personal productivity routine?

The most recent adjustment that I’ve made to my personal productivity routine is adding even more “me time”. This has always been a challenge for me and something I make sure to keep in my schedule. Understanding that you have to have down time on a regular basis and that it actually fuels you forward is one thing; actually adding that time into your calendar is another. About 6 years ago I flipped the way that I plan my year by adding my personal time, days off, long weekends and vacations to my calendar first, (holidays don’t count) and then adding work plans to the mix after those dates are set. It makes a big difference and the down time really does give me the boosts that I need on a regular basis to keep forging forward.

Do you measure your productivity? If so, how do you do it, and what is your metric?

Yes, I do measure my productivity. I think that when one measures productivity you have to look at efficiency as well as effectiveness because they both play into overall productivity. You really can’t measure productivity without looking at both. On a weekly basis I look at the number of objectives I actually accomplish in that time period and weigh them against the number of objectives I set out to accomplish in the given week. That tells me how efficient I’ve been. So, for instance if I have four objectives to complete over the course of a week and I complete three, then that would put my level of efficiency at 75% for that week. I also measure over longer periods of time as well so that I get a good view of the big picture. Doing so tells me whether or not I may need to add or replace particular tools or revamp processes or an entire system.

Realizing that effectiveness is more goal specific and tells you how you’re doing in relation to accomplishing a goal or your overall growth and success, I measure effectiveness on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis. At those particular times I look at the results that my efforts have produced and the overall impact and measure those results against the actual goal to determine how effective I’ve been over that particular period of time. The results tell me if I need to extend the time frame for a particular goal, whether I need additional resources or if perhaps I missed something in my process and gives me the opportunity to tighten things up if necessary.

What do you think the next productivity trend will be?

Given that everyone seems to be swamped these days I think the new trends in productivity will be geared toward providing some relief. Since people are inundated, works days and the time they spend getting things done have been extended. I think we’ll see more apps that cover all devices (desktops, laptops, smart phones, tablets) and companies seeking to have more of a mobile presence to address their need to be accessible to their target market whenever their market needs to have access. I think that some coming tools will be cloud based to give “productivity on demand” and that they will also have better design since users tend to equate design with the ability of the software. I also believe that advances in technology will bring us more goodies like Google Glass that will allow people to get things done much faster, supporting taking less time to do particular tasks.

You can learn more about Sheila Hawkins through her website, and be sure to follow her on Twitter, too.

 


10 ways to manage your email instead of it managing you

November 27, 2013

Ahhhh emails. We love to send them. We don’t always like to receive them. Email is a great form of communication and can save you time when used wisely. It can also drive you insane. I hear over and over again from clients how their inbox drives their day because they’re constantly reacting to the latest “ding” announcing the arrival of a new email. They’re fearful of missing something important and allow their inbox to dictate what they will work on today.

If you find yourself in the same boat, here are 10 tips from my book Take Back Your Time: 101 Simple Tips To Shrink Your Work-Week and Conquer the Chaos in Your Life on how you can manage your email instead of it managing you:

1. People need to be told specifically what action to take with your emails or else you may not get the response you’re seeking. I recommend you create an email subject line code and include the definition in your email so people know how best to respond to your email. For example, I use “RR” for response requested, “RO” for read only, “AR” to indicate I need you to take an action before responding and “FYI” as informational only. Include those definitions in a key within your email signature.

2. Schedule a block or two of time during the day to review and answer email, your volume of email will dictate frequency and how long to read email. I schedule a 45-minute session to review email in the morning and an hour session mid-day. Communicate that to your audience in your email signature to set expectations with them. Here is the exact verbiage from my email signature: “Note: I set aside 7:15 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. CT and 1:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. CT every day to read and respond to emails. As time permits I also glance through my emails throughout the day. If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until 7:15 a.m. CT or 1 p.m. CT, please contact me via phone at xxx-xxx-xxxx. Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency and effectiveness. It helps me accomplish more to serve you better.”

3. Write meaningful subject lines (for example, don’t reply to a random email with a completely unrelated topic) and change the subject line if the email has become a chain of emails and the topic has now shifted.

4. When replying “thank you” or writing a very brief email (one sentence), put the thank you or brief sentence in the subject with EOM (End Of Message) at the end. People will know that is the end of the message and there is no need to open your email. I would suggest adding EOM to your key in your email signature mentioned in tip 1 above.

5. If you’re like me, you love to get sales and other announcements from businesses that can quickly clutter your Inbox (if you work for a corporation, I recommend receiving these emails in your personal Inbox). For those emails, create a folder called “retailers” (or whatever makes sense to you). Then, for all of the senders of this category of emails, create a rule to place emails from the sender in your retailers folder. When you’re ready to shop at a particular retailer, check the retailers folder to see if they have a current sale promotion.

6. Even better, for email boxes you have control over, sign up for a service that suppresses everything but the emails that are most important to you. I really like and use SaneBox.com

7. Think of key people whose emails you would like to have standout from the crowd in your Inbox. Create rules to color code emails that come in from those individuals. For example, blue from your boss and green from key customers. Then you can quickly scan through your emails to find those that are most critical to respond to quickly.

8. If you are having difficultly composing an email, it usually suggests that a higher order of communication such as a telephone call or face-to-face meeting is necessary. Abandon your email and either call the recipient or set up a meeting with him.

9. If you need someone to answer a question right away, don’t send an email hoping she’ll see it instantly and promptly respond to you. Just call her.

10. Move emails directly from your Inbox to your calendar and schedule a block of time to complete the request in the email. This saves you time as you won’t need to add it to a task list and you’ll remember at an appropriate time in the future to complete the request.

What is your favorite way to manage your email?
A guest blog by Shari McGuire, founder of ShrinkYourWorkWeek.com and author of Take Back Your Time: 101 Simple Tips To Shrink Your Work-Week and Conquer the Chaos in Your Life.


Interview with Shari McGuire

November 25, 2013

Shari McGuireWhat projects are you involved in?

I am focused on a project right now to grow my joint venture partnerships.

How did you get interested in productivity?

I was a student of time management for many years taking classes, following the ideas for a while and then going back to my old bad habits. Several years ago I found myself working 70 hours per week as a project manager at a corporate job, burned out and frustrated that I wasn’t getting to spend quality time with my son. I walked away from my corporate job to start a different business and while I had the freedom to take my son to preschool when I wanted, I was still working 60-70 hours per week on a business that ultimately failed.

In going back to corporate in a contract role (instead of being an employee I was hired for a 6 month contract) I discovered the secret to shrink your work-week and went on to lead my biggest project ever working just 40 hours per week instead of 70 hours per week.

Through my discovery I was inspired to help other overworked entrepreneurs and busy professionals put 3 or more hours back in their day as well so I launched ShrinkYourWorkWeek.com and wrote my book Take Back Your Time: 101 Simple Tips to Shrink your Work-Week and Conquer the Chaos in Your Life.

How many meetings do you normally have each week?

That can vary greatly depending on my focus.

What are some of your favorite productivity tips/apps?

My favorite productivity tip is to stop multi-tasking. You get less done

For productivity apps, I like to use Wunderlist as a holding tank for ideas that pop into my head or books to read. I also like CardMunch because all I have to do is take a photo of a person’s business card and their information is added to my contact list. I can then easily export those contacts to my address book.

What’s the most recent adjustment that you’ve made to your personal productivity routine?

I used to use tablets when writing notes during seminars, trainings, and coaching sessions. After the aforementioned event or meeting I would tear the sheets off, staple them together, make a folder and then file the notes accordingly. I often got behind on the stapling and filing part. I have switched to using a journal and now all of those great ideas are captured in one easy to access place and I no longer have to do my least favorite thing – filing.

Do you measure your productivity? If so, how do you do it, and what is your metric?

Yes. I measure my productivity in terms of progress toward my sales goals and know how many people on average I need to reach in a day to meet or exceed my sales goals.

What do you think the next productivity trend will be?

While I don’t know what the next productivity trend will be, I would like the next productivity trend to be that moms and dads worldwide place a higher value on their commitments to their children, honor those commitments, and adjust their productivity accordingly. For example, let’s say your son has a ballgame tonight and it’s really important to him that you attend. You’ve promised that you will be there. Five minutes before you’re going to leave for the day, your biggest client calls you and says, I really need you to help me out today and proceeds to go on about the lengthy help they will need from you. You now have a choice – stay late and miss your son’s ballgame or negotiate to help your client at another time. Most people for fear of losing that client will choose to disrespect their commitment to their son and be a no show for the ballgame. The trend I would like to see is that instead, you say to your client, “I would love to help you out with that problem. I was about to walk out the door for a prior commitment; are you free tomorrow at 8 a.m.?” Here’s why. In one day, one month and one year, it won’t matter to your client that you stayed late. It will matter to your son.

You can learn more about Shari McGuire through her website, and be sure to follow her on Twitter, too.


Interview with Neen James

November 22, 2013

Neen JamesWhat projects are you involved in?

At Neen James Communications we are involved in a variety of local and global projects.

Our local projects include researching our latest book on Women in leadership from productivity content, mentoring women in our community and a number of community initiatives.

On a global level I am a global partner of Thought Leaders, an education company focusing on leveraging people’s expertise for more commercial success. We are also becoming more involved with Operation Smile, a non-profit that provides free surgeries to children with cleft palates and other facial deformities around the globe. You can see our page here.

How did you get interested in productivity?

In my corporate career I ran very large teams and very high profile projects and was always known as the person who could ‘get things done’ – I was always looking for a faster, leveraged way to do things and so created systems, communications and processes to achieve more with less. I became obsessed with productivity, read all I could, studied great leaders, watched videos, and published in this area. I believe if people are more productive they have stronger relationships, healthier lifestyles and companies are more profitable.

We don’t have time to do everything; we only have time to do what matters.

How many meetings do you normally have each week?

This varies from one week to the next, some days I might have 8 – 10 mentoring 1:1 sessions and other days I might have one keynote speech to a thousand people – every day is different. I try to do as many meetings as I can virtually (phone or Skype) and rarely do in person meetings due to travel and my schedule. As you may know I travel enormously for my work to speak in convention centers and corporate client sites so I don’t have the luxury of being able to meet with people face to face often.

What are some of your favorite productivity tips/apps?

Apps
- Noteshelf for my iPad for note taking
- Pzzizz (energizer) for power naps
- Cozi for shopping lists and shared calendar with family
- Things for to-do lists
- Hootsuite for managing social media platforms

Tips
Every morning spend 15 minutes identifying your top 3 priorities for the day. Now write them on a post it note – they are your priorities for the day – don’t let your head hit the pillow tonight until those 3 things are done.

Think of time in 15 minute increments – you can conquer the world in 15 minutes i.e. exercise, make a healthy meal, create a to-do list, have a conversation, clear emails, have a standing meeting, make a phone call. No one has an hour anymore – do things in 15 minutes.

Turn off every bell, whistle, chime, and reminder that you have for emails or meetings. It is clutter and noise. Choose to clear your email 3-4 times per day at only 15 minutes each time. Don’t be on email all day.

Halve meetings. Where possible do standing 15-minute meetings. Stop hosting 60 and 30-minute meetings, have 20 or 40-minute meetings… or better still… 15 minutes!

Get an accountability partner – someone you can check in with weekly to share goals and achievements regularly.

For more tips check out our blog.

What’s the most recent adjustment that you’ve made to your personal productivity routine?

I call it ‘telling the truth in advance’ – I share with my accountability partner what I am going to achieve in the coming week and then I report on it on a Friday in an email to her. This might include number of workouts, sales in my practice, books I am going to read, blogs I am going to write etc.

Do you measure your productivity? If so, how do you do it, and what is your metric?

Yes – I measure it based on a few items:

Personally
- Personal energy is high all day
- Physical health i.e. weight, food choices, workouts per week and stamina
- Sleep – I need 7 hours per night when possible
- Relationally – catching up with girlfriends regularly, date with my husband weekly

Professionally
- The numbers for my practice i.e. what I bank, sell and deliver weekly (i.e. number of presentations I do for clients, number of new clients in my practice, proposals submitted and dollars in my bank account)
- The number of blogs/articles/e-zines I publish weekly
- The number of contacts I make weekly (we use Contactually to track this)

What do you think the next productivity trend will be?

Time is the most important idea right now! If self-actualization was the idea for the last decade then being productive is the idea for the next!

We have to all be able to do more with less in the future.

Creative professionals who cannot produce to deadline will see their competitive advantage eroded by flattened globalized market place. Overnight while you sleep an alternative creative is working through the night to deliver the brief.

The principles of waste impact not only on time but also on resources. We need to be more resourceful to survive as a race into the future and beyond.

This is an extract of my book Folding Time.

We need to be able to achieve twice as much in half the time.

Neen James, MBA CSP, is an Aussie productivity thought leader, best known for her engaging keynotes that have educated and entertained audiences with real-world strategies that apply in all roles at work and in life.

With a background in learning and development and managing large teams at various corporations, Neen is a natural fit for organizations looking for presenters that focus on productivity strategies, tools and resources. Neen also provides one-on-one consulting and mentoring to women on a variety of business issues and topics.

You can learn more about Neen James through her website, and be sure to follow her on Twitter, too.


Everything but the coffee: The evolution of the automated secretary

November 20, 2013

By Nathan Zeldes

It seemed to make sense at the time…

I remember the early optimism. It was the mid-90’s: we had just made the move to IBM PC’s (replacing our trusty VT220 VAX terminals), and had deployed Microsoft’s Office suite across our organization. Everyone could now type and print their own memos; everyone could process their own mail… and it didn’t take long before it dawned on the powers that be, that we could dispense with the age-old role of the secretary. The new software allowed managers to do everything a secretary was supposed to do for them… we were all to become free, self-sufficient, able to do it all by ourselves. Hallelujah!

Of course, we should have known this was not the whole story. The PC’s of the day had an 80386 microprocessor with some 300,000 transistors. The secretaries they presumed to replace had wetware processors with 100 billion neurons. Surely something might get lost in the transition?

Admittedly, the new technology did take over many office functions. With a word processor on every desk, it no longer made sense to have a secretary take dictation and type memos (with 3 actual carbon-paper copies). And email, whatever our love/hate relationship to it, did replace interoffice paper memos. But there is one software tool that was particularly hailed back then as a secretary-buster, and that was the email-integrated calendar. This, we were told, allows everyone to organize meetings and invite attendees directly. How cool is that?

Not very cool, of course, as people soon found. Finding a good time slot for half a dozen busy managers to meet – even once, much less recurrently – was a true Mission Impossible, requiring superhuman powers – and we had such superhumans in our midst until the mid-nineties: they were called secretaries. With them heading for extinction, we had a problem.

What was the problem? Two issues: first, the simplistic view that all you needed to do was share free/busy calendar information ignored the fact that the seemingly free slot on someone’s calendar may mean he’s on a business trip on the other side of the earth (hence, “free” – but asleep), or she may be driving back from a customer’s facility, or he may indeed be free but his wife alerted him he may need to take the kid to the doctor if that cough doesn’t clear up by then… or she just needs a few more days to have the required analysis ready, so she’d rather not meet this week at all. And in any case, they may show two free slots, but may have a strong preference to use one and not the other. Availability is a black and white parameter in Outlook, but it has countless shades of gray in real life. A human secretary knew how to navigate those shades of gray.

The second issue was that the key to getting those attendees to agree on a time is negotiation. You need to discuss their constraints and preferences, and get them to change their willingness, as in “Look, Jane, I realize you’ve blocked Monday afternoon to write those reviews, but that’s the only time everyone else can attend… can you perhaps do the reviews in the morning? Oh, you promised Joe to do the QA data analysis that morning? How about if I call Joe and ask him to change that?” Outlook can’t do that for you – but a network of secretaries, each in control of one calendar and talking to the others on the phone, can make miracles happen.

That is why the first generation of calendaring tools had failed. People, being ingenious, found ways to work around the problem. Optimists would gamble: just set a meeting and hope people will accept. Pragmatists like myself would try to do the secretary’s job and negotiate, which in my case I did by applying the only method that would work. I’d email attendees a list of a few time slots, and ask them to mark next to each one BEST, OK, or NO WAY. Then I’d tabulate the responses, choose the best time for most people, and inform all attendees of the winner. This is far from failsafe, notably because many of my coworkers would totally ignore he instructions and just mark their one favorite slot… but on the whole it worked much better than just relying on Outlook, because it put the people in the loop and gave them 3 rather than 2 levels of preference. And I’m pretty sure that’s what those secretaries of old used to do over the phone.

And that’s where things stood for a while, until the second generation of calendaring tools arrived, and lo and behold, they duplicated my system to a tee! Take Doodle: it creates an online table of time slots and asks attendees to mark them with their level of preference, then it tabulates the responses and informs… exactly the same method I’d devised. Of course Doodle has the advantage that people can’t ignore the instructions to mark every slot, and its integration into Outlook allows it to automate the rest of the process flow. It pulls in the people for just the part that a computer still can’t do: expressing their true wishes. We humans command, the computer does the grunt work. Right!

What I find encouraging is that there is a general trend towards advanced productivity software that is designed to “replace the secretary” more effectively than those first generation tools. For example, in my area of focus, dealing with information overload, we see a growing lineup of new email clients, apps and add-ons that are designed to handle email in the context of an overloaded work reality: tools that prioritize the flood of incoming messages, that analyze the content to figure the work required on each message and facilitate doing it, and so on. There are even tools out there that intercept incoming phone calls and decide based on what you are doing whether to pass the call through or move it to voice mail… the famous secretarial role of protecting the manager’s need for thinking time.

If this trend continues, maybe this time we’ll really be able to harness the computer to give us optimal administrative assistance.

Except for the coffee… that we’ll have to procure for ourselves.

Nathan Zeldes helps people and organizations reduce Information Overload and improve Knowledge Worker Productivity, a subject he blogs about at http://www.nathanzeldes.com.


Doodle’s technology landscape

November 18, 2013

We get questions from time to time about the technologies we use at Doodle. Since the last post on this topic happened some time ago, it deserves an update.

Most of the front-end logic is implemented in JavaScript, with the help of the usual frameworks such as jQuery, Backbone.js, and Bootstrap. The code is heavily modularized and modules can be dynamically loaded thanks to magic provided by Require.js. Dynamic page elements are generated using Mustache templates, which allow for re-rendering parts of a page if the data changes. This combination of technologies enables us to do virtually anything the browser allows, without the constraints of a GUI framework such as JSF. Server-side front-end technologies (JSF in particular) are only used for templating on fairly static pages or to generate initial pages (usually without content, only boiler-plate code), which serve as starting points for JavaScript execution.

The front-end communicates with the web application over a semi-public REST-like API using Ajax calls (and some form-POST hacks for file uploads and the like). One of the reasons why it’s only REST-*like* is that PUT and DELETE operations are often blocked at company proxies and firewalls, thus we only use GET and POST. The web application itself is written in Java 7, runs in a Tomcat container and uses countless third-party libraries. One example is Jersey, which we use for all of our internal and external REST APIs.

Data is stored with MongoDB. We have migrated away from MySQL for several reasons: First, schema changes were a huge pain with multi-GB databases, and the schema had to change with practically every release. Second, the document-style approach is a better fit to our data: No more huge tables with absurdly large indexes just to link two entities. Just to illustrate the point: With MySQL, we even adopted a document-based approach for some use cases by storing zlib-compressed JSON data in BLOBs… and that’s kind of what MongoDB does, and MongoDB does it better. And last but not least, replica sets are much easier to use and maintain than MySQL’s replication mechanism. The mapping between MongoDB documents and Java classes is done using Morphia, which is not as sophisticated as JPA/Hibernate (all write operations have to be implemented manually), but is easy enough to use and works well.

On the server side, we use Debian Linux running on standard server hardware. The servers are located in Switzerland and hosted by a local service provider (thanks, AtrilA).

The server setup consists of three tiers: The static content is handled by Apache servers (we have experimented with content delivery networks, but the performance gain was not big enough to warrant the cost and increased complexity). Load balancing and failover is done using round-robin DNS pointing to multiple virtual IP addresses, which automatically move between the Apache servers if necessary (e.g., if a server is shut down). All requests to dynamic content are forwarded to our application servers running Tomcat, again using load balancing and failover to cope with the failure of an application server. A Postfix installation on each application server is responsible for delivering all application-generated email (and that’s a lot). Finally, the application accesses the MongoDB replica set, where MongoDB automatically replicates all data between the set members and ensures the availability of the set.

Of course, there’s also the usual bunch of internal servers for build automation (Jenkins), repositories, testing, backup and the like. The server configuration is managed by Puppet, which is a declarative language to describe all aspects of a computer’s configuration, and, as a side effect, also serves as documentation. Those manifests require are a lot of work to write, but being able to go from nil to a production-ready server in 10 minutes, including getting every tiny configuration option exactly right, is just awesome!

By David Gubler, Senior Operations and Software Engineer


Interview with Natalie M. Houston

November 18, 2013

Natalie M. Houston

What projects are you involved in?

As a university professor, some of my current projects include: directing a digital humanities software development project; presenting my work at scholarly conferences and writing research papers for publication; developing a new graduate course for the spring; and supervising the English department’s professional internship program for undergraduate students. I’m also currently developing an online course I’ll be offering in 2014 in my work as a personal productivity coach. I’m a regular contributor to the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/), where I write about productivity, pedagogy, and technology.

How did you get interested in productivity?

It’s an amazing thing, to move from an idea to creating something in the world — whether that’s a painting, a book, a cake, a business, a garden, or a family. Productivity for me is about uncovering your core values and strengths so that you can channel your energy into the projects that matter most to you, whether that’s in the workplace or at home. It’s not about doing more things — it’s about doing the things that matter to you, and doing them to in a way that is satisfying.

How many meetings do you normally have each week?

About 15-20 — a mix of coaching client appointments, meetings with research collaborators and students, and university committee meetings. Approximately half or two-thirds are Skype/phone meetings and the others are in-person.

What are some of your favorite productivity tips/apps?

My favorite productivity tool is a timer. I use it for quick five-minute sprints to clear off my desk, for fifteen-minute breaks (http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/why-15-minutes/40196) or to get started on a project, and for sustained writing in blocks of 40 minutes. A timer keeps me focused during work and lets me fully relax during a break. If, like me, you have a tendency to get deeply absorbed in certain kinds of tasks, a timer can help remind you when it’s time to change gears and do something else.

Although I use digital tools for my calendar and to-do list, I also use pen and paper quite a bit at different points in my workflow, especially for brainstorming, planning, and creative work. I think differently when I’m writing with pen and paper (and research shows that writing by hand uses different parts of your brain than working at the keyboard). I love index cards for focusing my attention on the priorities for each day — something about the constrained size and the act of writing a few key priorities down each morning helps me be more productive.

What’s the most recent adjustment that you’ve made to your personal productivity routine?

About eighteen months ago I started using a standing desk for much of my computer time and have found that it not only helps my spine feel happier, but that it helps me organize my activities according to the physical space where I do them: standing desk for the computer, work table for mindmapping and planning, armchair for reading.

Do you measure your productivity? If so, how do you do it, and what is your metric?

At the start of the day I take a few moments to write in a journal about my intentions for the day, my priorities, and the mindset I want to maintain throughout my various activities. At the end of the day I journal some reflections on how the day went. I’m interested in qualitative reflections rather than quantitative measurements, as that helps me make sure that my chosen activities are connected to my core values and purpose.

What do you think the next productivity trend will be?

I expect that productivity tools will begin to become integrated with health trackers and other devices that are part of the quantified self movement. I recently started using a Basis tracker because it can give me much more detailed data than my previous device — it’s interesting to see, for instance, how your pulse rate or skin temperature change in response to your mental activity as well as physical.

You can learn more about Natalie M. Houston through her website, and be sure to follow her on Twitter, too.


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