Oct 04

Ok here’s a plea for any developer who knows how to write browser extensions to write one that lets me do basic spreadsheet operations right in the web page. I would pay $20 for this add-on in its most basic buggy incarnation and up to $50-75 for a pro edition depending on how well it worked. Here’s the issue:

It’s too cumbersome to ask simple questions and do basic data wrangling of tabular numbered data in web pages.

I play with data probably five times a day via various web sites (sometimes our own, sometimes ones in the wild). Here’s a practical example from right now- we’re running some email campaigns for and I get this report:

Which is just a set of numbers and has no meaning until you can see relative %’s and how campaigns compare across iterations. I would like to be able to quickly calculate the open rate, CTR and bounce rates of each of these five campaigns. And then get average totaled across all mailings.

Now sometimes you luck out and can copy/paste the table into Excel or Numbers and do basic summing / averaging / math ops there. But it’s a crapshoot – half the time it pastes the entire table into a single column which makes it useless. You wind up w/ this:

(sorry if you haven’t seen this Spinal Tap scene that bread reference will make no sense at all).

Pasting to a desktop app makes you leave the browser and adds just enough friction to the process to where you might not ask a question of the data that you would have otherwise. Google Docs is getting us closer and their copy/paste tends to work better, but that too is still an extra step and cumbersome & flakey. The other alternative on small datasets like this is to Command-Space to open Spotlight and manually run some calculations there typing in the numbers. But alas that sucks as well.

What would be truly spectacular is a FF or Chrome extension that gave me this right in the context of the web page:

aaaand… boom:

Select. Click. Done. Two motions to get immediate insight into tabular data on web pages. Like I said, I’d pay $20 no question for the basic version and if you start adding spiffy extra spreadsheet functionality, that number goes up to $50 and beyond very quickly. This is a valuable/painful enough situation where it would be pretty easy to make me happy even with a crappy extension.

So my question is “would you pay for such an extension?” Heck, I’ll setup a Pledgebank and hire a programmer to create this if enough people want it. I think it could do miracles for startup founders in terms of wiping out the friction associated with casually asking questions of data in web pages. My hunch is some developer could give away the very most basic version and charge a grip for the professional edition similar to how iMacros has done it. Leave a comment or a tweetback if this is something you’d use.

Nov 12

Anyone who responds to a bunch of customer emails will be repeatedly typing the same blocks of text. You get to a point where you wish phrases and entire paragraphs of text could be treated as a single word. Well I discovered an app for Mac that lets you do just that and it’s wonderful.

Previously I had a page in our Trac instance with a bunch of boilerplate text blocks as responses to common questions. I would cut/paste those into email and adapt them as necessary based on the situation. This was a shortcut over typing the entire message from scratch. But I’ve been using an app called Typinator for the past few weeks and this allows me alias sequences of keystrokes that auto-expand into blocks of text. So for instance, rather than end each email by typing “Let me know if you have any other questions” I can just type “lmk” and it turns into that sentence. This works for any amount of text and can even do rich text and embedded images.

While it may only shave seconds off the old method, the culmination of many reputations adds up. But more than anything this is just one of those small tools that helps you conquer tediousness and feel more efficient. And you can’t underestimate the gratification of that. These guys are a small Austrian company and they make other productivity products. Check ’em out.

Mar 14

I wrote a little while ago about this concept of “if you’ve highlighted everything…” and why it’s good to keep your main list of current assaults lean. I wanted to explain the concept of urgency vs. importance that I mentioned in that post and then propose a simple addition to the 4 mechanisms for managing scattered todo’s that I use.

Urgency and importance are completely independent of one another. Once you understand that, doing triage on a todo list becomes way easier. The best way to understand this concept is through a simple graph of tasks:

UrgencyVImportance.gif

I’ve found once you are able to visualize your todo list in this 2-d fashion it helps in a couple respects:

  1. You’re able to tease apart those items which truly have the ability to advance your cause from the ones that are just stressing you out because they’re yelling for your immediate attention. It’s an important distinction and critical to being effective.
  2. If you keep your items stored visually in this fashion it lets you quickly handle items in the right quadrant depending on the situation. You should obviously try to work on the right-most items as much as possible while giving attention to the upper right quadrant first. During the day, forget that the left quadrants even exist. When you’re decompressing, go to the lower-left. When you’re catching up on errands, upper-left. The point is you always know what you should be doing.
  3. This leads to what David Allen calls the “mind like water” feeling of being at peace even in the face of massive amounts of todo items. Even when there’s a kajillion things going on, there’s something about having an accurate picture of the field and knowing that your items are stored in a trusted system and you’re knocking out the priorities first.

Where I disagree with the orthodox GTD cultish philosophy that Allen espouses is in the idea that you should try to cram everything into a single trusted system. I wrote about the 4 mechanisms I used to do what I call “Scattered Todo Management” and having tried orthodox GTD, I found this to be more suited to the way I work. Anytime you find yourself uncomfortable contorting your processes to match the latest and greatest productivity religion, I think that’s bad. Ultimately you should learn the fundamentals of various different productivity religions and pick and choose the elements that work for you and make your own.

So this is the 5th System for Scattered Todo Management that I’ve been using and want to share. It’s a simple way of easily deferring and categorizing tasks while still making immediate steps toward the solution and preventing build-up of crap in your inbox:

  1. Mentally superimpose the above graph on your desktop (or if you really want, draw it as your background).
  2. Drag the resources (URL locations, documents, graphics, audio files, forms, whatever you’re working with) to the appropriate quadrants on your desktop. URLs are the exact pages on a site with which you need to do whatever task it is. You can chunk a bunch of related items for a discreet task in a folder.
  3. Now rename the filenames to “verb-noun” (ie. “handle tax returns” URL item links to the online filing page on the IRS.gov site)

That’s the essence of it and simple as it seems, it’s a way to have a big picture view of the tasks on your plate and to defer the low-priority items while still “teeing them up” so you don’t have to weed through a daunting inbox of emails to figure out what each task involves. This is my desktop right now:

visualDesktopTriage.gif


As you can see items are roughly thrown into the spots that correlate with the position on the urgency vs. priority graph above. I’ve found this technique helpful along with the other 4 systems to manage the things I’m doing every day. If you have a homegrown productivity technique that works well for you, I would love to hear about it.

Feb 13
GmailLabelsOpen.png

BAD

Given the interest around applications you use to hide distractions from yourself and reward yourself for spending time productively, here is simple technique you can use that’s already available in gmail:

Create labels and apply filters to non-urgent emails from discussion lists and automated alerts and newsletters. Use the “skip inbox” option to route these communications away from your inbox keeping it reserved for unanticipated communications. Nothing new here – if you use Gmail this is probably how you do it already. The secret: collapse the labels tab so you don’t see these messages pile up while you work.

GmailLabelsOpen.png

GOOD

We are insatiably-curious creatures. We pick at scabs and buy scratch ‘n win lotto tickets because we have to see what’s underneath. But the reverse is also true – out of sight, out of mind.

I was looking for a greasemonkey script for firefox that would cover up the labels section in gmail so I could reduce distraction throughout the day and I discovered that the labels tab is collapsible. Use this technique to put non-urgent communications in their place and handle them on your terms instead of reactively answering non-priority email and getting pulled off course.

Feb 04

Thank you Spanning Sync!

spanningSync.gif

You’ve finally done what no other app has been able to do until now: keep a Treo, Mac and Google calendar in sync. I’ve had the left half of this equation now for a few months using an app called Missing Sync. Spanning sync just re-opened their public beta this morning and makes the right half of the equation now possible. You need to check out their screencast to understand why this is so huge.

This gives us the capability to overlay our calendars in the office and book events for each other. There has always been the webdav server option which we considered for viewing each other’s calendars but that solution only gives you a one-way export to broadcast iCal to a server. Spanning sync means I can add a meeting via Google, iCal or Treo and it will appear in the other locations. And then I can selectively expose and consume other calendars. They’re bridged silently through the Google Calendar interface but I never have to use the Google interface – I can continue to interact via iCal or my Treo.
SpanningSyncspike.png

This should be good as well for working with external vendors as it lets you expose your calendar at varying degrees with anyone else who has a gmail account. For instance, I can consume a calendar shared with an agent booking engagements on my behalf and have those dates propagate all the way into my Treo. 10min is the shortest interval to sync so unless you’re booking at an insane frequency, there should be little danger of conflicts. This is major as evidenced by the traffic spike that temporarily closed the spanning sync beta this past week. Kudos SpanningSync on wonderful piece of software.

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Jan 29

highlighter.jpg“then you’ve highlighted nothing,” as my friend Kobe used to say.

This is going to be a visually-painful way of making this point but hopefully it makes the lesson memorable. In college when I would study in a group I would notice that other students highlighted stuff from the chapters that they had read. Nothing wrong with marking up a text book – it generally facilitates greater recall – but the problem was that they would highlight 80% of the text on a page so that when finished, the majority of the book’s verbiage was bright yellow.

The obvious problem with this practice is that it doesn’t get you anything. The more detrimental side effect though is that not only does it not enhance your ability to process and extract meaningful associations from the text while reading, it detracts from your ability to review the text later. Like the fable of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, your brain eventually habituates the highlighting and stops assigning any meaningful significance- it becomes merely a distracting nuisance.

takeaway So how does this possibly relate to situations beyond highlighted textbooks? It translates directly across to how we manage our todo’s and assign priority to tasks. The main takeaway here is this:

However you express priority in your todo list, make sure that only a few items at any given time are prioritized.

I recommend the “dot-size” priority trick if you use a whiteboard or notebook. Anytime you have more than 20% of your items flagged as priority, I guarantee that your effectiveness on tackling any one item will be diluted. The mindset when assigning priority should be “what three things this week will have the greatest impact on advancing our cause?” Notice this is different than “what are the three most pressing items on my plate this week?” The latter is a reactive vs. proactive approach – you can get into reactive mode where you let your todo list drive you. Urgency is completely independent of Importance – but that’s a topic for another post…

Hopefully if you’ve ben able to tolerate the highlighting and have read this far, the message will have hit home and resonate with you. And the next time you find yourself escalating a bunch of todo items, you’ll remember the words of my friend Kobe and know that “when you’ve highlighted everything, you’ve highlighted nothing.

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