Time Management 101: The Calendar

Time management is one of those areas in life where there are as many different answers as there are people asking the questions. Instead of telling you exactly how to manage your time, I’ll tell you how I manage my time. With any luck, you might find some hints useful to you. Following on from my introductory post, I want to demonstrate how I manage my time.

A sample day in my calendar.
A sample day in my calendar.

The most important tool I use is Google Calendar, although I could substitute most cloud-based calendars without issue (I used Exchange for years). The key feature is that it synchronises to my phone. It’s also important that I only have one calendar. If I had a separate calendar for work and home, things would get lost in the cracks. I also have a very important rule – as soon as I have an appointment, it goes in my phone and into the master calendar. Not even an hour must pass before I put it in. This reduces the chances of me being double booked. I never trust my mind.

I’ve divided my work-week into periods, like high school. Unlike high school, not all “classes” are the same length, because not all work takes the same time to do. I might spend two hours programming, then take a break and spend ninety minutes doing administration work and responding to emails. I also specialise my days: Tuesdays and Fridays are for meetings. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday are for sitting down and cracking on with things. Splitting my week up like this allows me to concentrate on something for an entire day if I need to, and also reduces my need for ironed shirts.

I also have a second calendar which does not hold any of my own events (they always go on the master calendar) but instead holds events that I hear about my friends doing – it contains notes like “Matt playing RPGs” or “Dad in Melbourne”. This ensures that I never forget about important events in my friends’ lives, and comes especially in handy for remembering where my house mate is, so I don’t have to worry when he’s not home in the morning.

Finally, I’m a big fan of weekly planning. At some point on the weekend (generally on Sunday afternoon) I’ll sit down for half an hour and plan out all my activities for the week – errands that need to be run, tasks that need specific times devoted to them (a big one for me is scheduling server upgrades and restarts), that sort of thing. I also schedule time to relax: every evening sometime between 5 and 6 I take the dog for a half-hour walk. This doesn’t mean I can’t change my plans on a whim (such as getting invited out to party on short notice) – just that I have some structure to fall back on.

There’s still a lot to discuss – my routines, task management, project management, automation, and more. But that’s for another day.

I’m Jack Scott, IT Consultant, And This Is How I Work

Lifehacker regularly features a segment where they interview famous people and ask them how they work (such as this). Since I’ll never be famous enough to be asked by Lifehacker directly (though you never know, they might get are desperate for content one day). So here are my answers. Hope you enjoy.

Location: Hobart, AU
Current gig: Software Engineer at Workzerk
Current mobile device: Samsung Galaxy SIII Mini. I hate it so much and would love to get rid of my mobile phone and never get another one.
Current computer: Cool people don’t have brand names on their computer. They also have more than one computer.
One word that best describes how you work: Hungrily.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

I can’t live without Outlook. I use it to manage my entire life, business and personal. I know Google Apps cover a lot of the same use scenarios, but Outlook is so much friendlier and more efficient – it really has been a killer app for the last fifteen years and will continue to be for as long as people want to actually get work done on computers instead of watching YouTube videos of kittens. Because the world really needs more work and less youtubeing kittens. As much as we all love them.

I happily pay for my own Active Directory installation and Exchange server. For one person. It just benefits me that much. Plus it sounds cool.

What’s your workplace like?

My completed home desk, with racks, as I'm putting everything back on it.
My completed home desk, with racks, as I’m putting everything back on it.

I have two. The first one, “at work”, is grey and white and very clean. I have two monitors and an Aeron chair. I recently bought two pot plants.

The second one, my home office, is a lot more fun. I have a desk I built myself (with a lot of help from my great Dad) which has 6RU of 19″ rack space built in (every desk should have this). The rack forms a monitor stand for three mismatched monitors (one for chat and social media and Outlook, one for Firefox, and one for everything else (which includes everything from Visual Studio to OpenTTD).

What’s your best time-saving trick/life hack?

Only watch television that’s been recommended to you by more than five people. If you do watch something, download it to your computer, use VLC to play it, and have the speed set to 1.2x. The speech is still understandable and doesn’t sound at all chipmunky (if it does occasionally I set the speed to 1.1x) and I save minutes an episode.

What’s your favourite to-do list manager?

For general to-do lists, Asana. It’s awesome. It manages to-do lists with gusto.

For software development I’d pick JIRA or Redmine because of their integration with source control systems.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without?

My collection of vegetable peelers. I joked to my Mum once that I didn’t have a good vegetable peeler and ever since I’ve been receiving them as gifts. This might sound like a curse, but it’s really not. It’s awesome. You know how everybody always recommends you peel and cut away from you to avoid injury, but nobody ever does it? You just need sharper instruments, then you can. All but one of my peelers can cut through pumpkins. Most people’s knives can’t do that. If I’m just cutting up vegetables for dinner, I don’t use a knife sometimes, just for a challenge. I just use a peeler.

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else? What’s your secret?

I’ve been thinking of answering these questions for a long time. Up until recently my answer would have been shelling boiled eggs. I didn’t know my secret, I was just better at it than anybody else I know. Recently though it dawned on me that there is one every day thing I am very good at that most people aren’t: I know how to know anything.

You see, most people never learned how to use Google. For a skill that is possibly the most important business skill of the early 21st century, we have spent very little time teaching it to people. Even when I was in school nobody taught me (since, I guess, the teachers didn’t know how). So I taught myself. + to combine words, – to leave them out. “quotation marks” will search for something literally. And so on! But nobody knows this. So I have an edge.

A lot of people assume I know everything there is to know about a computer. That’s not true. I actually know very little. I can just find out the answer to a computer related problem quicker than anybody else.

What do you listen to while you work?

1970’s rock music, Triple J hottest 100s from 2003-2010, and classical music for the organ.

What are you currently reading?

Right now I’m reading this blog post, looking for the spelling and grammatical errors which will undoubtedly sneak in. Normally though, if I’m reading, it’s Wikipedia. I love reading Wikipedia because it can take you anywhere. Though for some reason, leave me long enough and I will always end up reading about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert?

Introvert.

What’s your sleep routine like?

I go to bed around 10 to 10:30 and talk to my partner (she’s awesome!) for an hour before sleep. I wake up (I hate that bit) around 8.

Fill in the blank. I’d love to see _____ answer these same questions.

Chris Neugebauer.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Not advice as such, but it can be taken that way: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” It’s a quote from either Mark Twain or Grant Allen, depending who you believe.

Is there anything else you want to add for readers?

apt-get has been deprecated by aptitude. Please use the latter in tutorials and IRC jokes from now on.

Review: The Googlization of Everything

The Googlization of Everything Front Cover
Front Cover

As you might be aware, I’m not a huge fan of Google, or indeed, cloud-based apps in general. When I saw The Googlization of Everything (and why we should worry) in my local campus bookstore, I decided that it would be a good read on the spot. It was a good read, and here’s why.

I will admit upfront that I’m probably not the most unbiased person in the world when it comes to what is really a review of a review of Google. If you dislike bias, go watch the Pakistani cricket team instead.

I’d always been a bit hesistant to use Google products (or any cloud product) because of lax privacy. How do I know that Google won’t be using my information against me? This book (partially) confirmed my suspicions. They are using my information, both for and against me. Every time somebody performs a Google search, Google stores the query and information about me (my IP, my location, browser, etc) and uses that to tune search results for me. This appears on the surface to be fine. I like it when I search “cat” on Google and Google knows that what I really want is the first result to be whatismyip.com (I use the “cat” Google search as a quick method to test Internet browser connectivity, I don’t know why). But Vaidhyanatham (the author) raises other points about this. Firstly, how long is our data kept? And who else is it being shared with? But perhaps most disturbingly, Google might prevent me from seeing new information because it’s too busy telling me about what I think I want. For instance, if a new species of cat was discovered in the jungles of Peru, I might miss it because Google is too busy customising my results with Internet connectivity tests. While that not matter much, on other (more important) subjects the splitting up of information based on what we think we want to see is disturbing.

Vaidhyanatham raises many other points in his book too. The Google Books project is designed to give everybody in the world access to out-of-print books, instead of having them sit on¬†dusty shelves in university libraries. It’s a nice goal. However, the program is structured in such a way that nobody else could possibly compete with it, due to arcane copyright law and out-of-court settlements. Do we want Google to be the sole provider of this service? Shouldn’t this be done by a public or community organisation instead? They’re difficult questions, and the fact that we haven’t even started considering them should warn us.

Another similar situation exists for Google Scholar. Google has obtained agreements with universities to provide academic articles for inclusion in Google’s archives. The idea, similarly to Google Books, is to allow more people to see things they wouldn’t have otherwise seen. A noble goal. Again, however, there are several problems with the project’s implementation. Again, arcane agreements and laws prevent universities from easily collaborating with an alternative archive agent. Even more worrying is the fact that to most users (those without access to the paywalled sites that the articles actually reside on) only the abstract of an article is available. This results in a broadening but a shallowing of the information available to most people. This is another of those projects that might be better taken on by the people, for the people. I know of one user on an IRC channel I frequent who is collecting datasheets and manuals from PC components from the 1980s, before these datasheets become extinct. While not legal, and while he hasn’t made this public, it’s the right direction to go in.

Then there’s the shallowing of our knowledge due to Google. This is a huge topic, and so many authors have covered it in so many various degrees of rigour that I won’t even begin to scratch the surface. However, here’s the gist of the idea: Because we have access to the largest library in human history (the web) at our fingertips at any point we’re in front of a computer (which for those of us with a smartphone, is constantly), we don’t remember information like previous generations did. I’m still not confident that this is a bad thing; I am a lot more knowledgeable than I would be if the only learning resource I had was a paper encyclop√¶dia. I don’t know a lot of facts, but I know where to find them. In today’s world, that’s what counts. Still, it’s something we should look into further.

A good portion of the arguments put forward in this book are more general than Google and apply to the Internet at large (such as the shallowing of our knowledge). Most of the other arguments could be taken directly to Google’s legal department in a court showdown (which would almost certainly be the court case of the century). Whichever way you stand on the issues, more information is never a bad thing.

Saying goodbye to the cloud

My friend Michael Wheeler has written an excellent article on the whys and hows of removing your data from the cloud. This post is basically just to point you all towards it.

Over the last few years I’ve been in a similar process, getting rid of my Google account and hosting my own email. I’ve attempted to get rid of Facebook, and learned a lot about myself, my friends, and Facebook in the process. I now no longer have twitter (again) and I’m just generally being a lot more careful with my data.

I think everybody will benefit from thinking just a little more about where their information goes, so I highly recommend you read this article.

Going without Google

This article on Zen Habits caught my eye today. Basically it’s about going without Google. Having done basically the same thing about a week ago, I thought I’d share how I went through the process.

The reason I decided to close my Google account was for the same reason as Leo (from Zen Habits). I don’t like the idea of a single corporation having access to all our personal data, no matter how “Don’t Be Evil” they are.

Gmail: I hadn’t been using Gmail for a few months anyway. I use the mail server on my web host, and download it via POP to Outlook on my desktop. I don’t care much about IMAP; if I’m on the move I don’t care about my email.

Calendar/Reader: For these I also use Outlook. For calendar, Outlook is second to none (basically, it was designed for corporate scheduling). For RSS, it’s less than ideal, but it’s decent. It’s nice to have it all in one program. If you don’t have Outlook, Thunderbird will do the same thing for free (and has better support for GPG to boot).

Search: Unfortunately I’m still a sucker for Google search. Along with all the sites Leo tried, I also used Dogpile. None of them even come close. Without an account however, Google only really can store my IP. Since I have a dynamic IP address and I’m behind a NAT router, that isn’t very useful.

Maps: Another hard one. There isn’t really an alternative (Microsoft’s solution within Bing is awful). I just use it without an account. Same functionality, less data stored by Google.

Other Google services: I never used them. I use Firefox, not Chrome. I use Word and Excel, not Google Docs. I use Facebook to share my photos.

You’ll notice in that last sentence there I mentioned Facebook. You may have read my essay Why I no longer use Facebook…, and in which case are wondering why I went back. The answer is simple. Within my circle of contacts, no Facebook equals no social life. Let’s hope the same doesn’t happen with Google.