Personal Productivity – Wiki for Information Storage

There’s a lot of personal data tracking systems out there, but the best I’ve found is a wiki. I’ve tried Microsoft One Note and just keeping individual documents in Word/Excel and Google Docs, but I always come back to a wiki. It’s so easy to just edit a page in order to jot down a quick note. I use my wiki to store bookmarks, lists of books I want to read, and to store my TODO list. I also store information about my web sites, the types of things I only need to reference about once a year and always forget. The wiki is easily searchable and has full edit history so that you can see what you’ve changed over time. I also like how it’s accessible where ever I’m at: work, school or through Safari on my iPhone.

The only downside is that you really need to have a hosted web site, which I happen to have through Frenchville and this site. You need to be able to install the PHP pages and have access to set up a MySQL database. If you are tech savvy enough to do that, then setting up the wiki is easy. Just go over to MediaWiki.org and download the free software. It does require PHP 5.1+, which not all sites support. I used to host my web sites on Yahoo and moved them to my current host, A2 Hosting, because they didn’t support the most up to date PHP. Just follow the instructions on their Download page on how to install and setup the database. It’s pretty straightforward.

You will probably want to protect your wiki from prying eyes. There is a way to make a wiki private. You can change the settings of the wiki so only registered users who are “sysops” can edit the page and only allow certain pages to be visible to unregistered users. This was accomplished by editing the LocalSettings.php page. The following settings were added:

# Prevent new user registrations except by sysops
$wgGroupPermissions['*']['createaccount'] = false;

# Restrict editing by all non-sysop users
$wgGroupPermissions['*']['edit'] = false;
$wgGroupPermissions['user']['edit'] = false;
$wgGroupPermissions['sysop']['edit'] = true;

# Disable reading by anonymous users
$wgGroupPermissions['*']['read'] = false;

# But allow them to read e.g., these pages:
$wgWhitelistRead =  array ( "Main Page", "Special:Userlogin", "Wikipedia:Help");

Hopefully you have the time to try this out. I really enjoy using a wiki for the storage of personal data. It’s the most versatile and malleable to the types of things I like to do. Have any suggestions? Drop me an e-mail.

Personal Productivity – The TODO List

As you’ve been addressing all the things in your inbox, you’ve been either doing the action item if it took less then two minutes or you are writing it down on a TODO list in order to address it later. I like to divide up my TODO list into four sections:

  • Important – Overdue
  • Important – Due Soon
  • Important – Not Due Soon
  • Not Important – Due Soon
  • Not Important – Not Due Soon

This technique I learned from Randy Pausch’s lecture on time management. The key is that you are working on the things that are important first, not the things in “due date” order. It can sometimes be tricky determining if something is “Important or Not Important”. I just use my gut. Sometimes it can be hard because you don’t want to make everything “important” because that defeats the purpose. My definition of “due soon” is 1 week. Also, I use the amount of items on my “Important – Overdue” section and “Important – Due Soon” to determine if I need to work late.

That’s about it. I keep my TODO list on a personal wiki page that I maintain so that I can reference it when I’m at work and when I’m at home. That works for me, but the key is: have a TODO list. If you don’t and you are winging it, you will start to forget things.

Personal Productivity – Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero BadgeAs mentioned in the previous post, you have to know where your “inboxes” are. E-mail, at least at every company I’ve worked for, is a constant source of input: inquires about action items, notification on the status of certain issues, etc. I’m always amazed that most people 1) don’t at least address every e-mail that comes in and 2) use their inbox as the location for all their e-mail. The philosophy of Inbox Zero is that you address every e-mail in your Inbox every day. As you go through, touch every e-mail only 1 time. Once you’ve read it, you either trash it or archive the e-mail. If there’s an action to take from the e-mail, either do it now if under 2 minutes or add it as an action item to your TODO list. At the end of the day (or several times throughout the day) you will keep your Inbox clean and blank of all incoming e-mails. There’s definitely some satisfaction that comes from getting that e-mail box completely clean.

So, you might be thinking, there’s no way I can go through all the e-mail I get. I get hundreds of e-mails per day. Well, so do I and you are right, you can’t possibly read every single e-mail. So, I use Outlook Rules in order to filter e-mail. I have two folders off my Inbox: “Archive” and “Low”. I use Outlook rules in order to filter all e-mail from particular e-mail lists into the “Low” folder. For example, all the e-mail that goes to everyone in the company or everyone in the studio. The likelihood of important action items coming from those lists is very low. If you use Gmail, there is also methods for filtering incoming mail into a particular label or you could probably train the new “Priority Inbox” feature as those types of e-mails come in. Just because e-mail is going to the “Low” folder doesn’t mean I still don’t address them. However, the way I address them is different. I read who is responding to the thread and what the subject is, if I think I should read it, then I read the thread. Otherwise, I just delete it. I don’t bother actually putting much time into an e-mail that’s in the “Low” folder, but the import thing to understand is, something was done with that e-mail: it was deleted. I threat the “Low” folder as another Inbox and it also gets down to zero by the end of the day.

As mentioned, I only have two folders off of my Inbox when I’m using Outlook at work: “Archive” and “Low”. I put any e-mail that I think I might need to reference later into the “Archive” folder and then use Google Desktop to search that e-mail when I’m looking for something. Google Desktop works in the background to index all of your e-mail and quickly sifts through all of it in order to find what you are looking for. At EA, we are only allowed to keep a certain amount of e-mail up on the server, so we have to create a local Outlook E-mail Archive once an e-mail is a couple of months old. Google Desktop indexes across mail on the server and in your archive, which is very handy. At home I use Gmail and I use the “Archive” button for the same thing. This strips the “Inbox” label, but the e-mail is still available through the “All Mail” link on the side of the screen. Gmail has built in search, which is very powerful and has the same keywords as Google Desktop.

The faster you can get through e-mail the sooner you can get to things on your TODO list. One way I help speed myself up is I don’t remove my fingers from the keyboard, I’ve memorized some of the keyboard shortcuts for Outlook. The main ones I use are:

  • <Ctrl>+<Enter> – Send e-mail – I keep the dialog that pops up just in case there’s something I forgot.
  • <Ctrl>+<Q> – Mark as Read
  • <Ctrl>+<Shift>+<V> – Move to folder – Helps in quickly moving a message to the Archive folder.

I haven’t quite memorized the Gmail shortcuts, but they are available.

If you use Gmail as your primary source of e-mail, you might have fun with 0boxer.com. It’s basically a game around getting your e-mail inbox down to zero. You have scoring, badges, and leaderboards all around getting your inbox down to zero. I haven’t personally used it, because I just don’t get that much e-mail through Gmail, but I’ve heard it can be quite fun.

That’s it. Hopefully you have found this useful while you are trying to wade through your e-mail. As before, if you have any more efficient method or a process improvement, leave a comment.

Personal Productivity – Processing Information

One of the keys to making sure you are well organized is knowing where your “inboxes” are. These are the sources for all your action items. For me I have six: my notebook, my work e-mail, my home e-mail, our bug database at work, my physical home inbox, and it’s equivalent at work. The idea is that you process your inboxes throughout the day before moving on to “action items” from your TODO list. Identifying these sources and making sure you are reviewing them throughout the day gives people you interact with a sense of responsiveness.

My notebook is action items that I collect when I’m in meetings or when I’m walking around and think of something I need to do. I idea is, if it’s in your head, get it out of there and onto a piece of paper. Your mind always wants to process things. If you get it off your mind and onto a piece of paper, then your mind is free to think about more important things. I always process my notebook first. When I return to my office. I have found usually the most important action items will get placed in there and it usually best to take action on them immediately.

Another tip on giving people that sense of responsiveness is going ahead and doing an action item if it isn’t going to take that long while you are processing your inboxes. For example, a quick response to an e-mail. The general rule is that if it can be done in under two minutes, then do it now. Otherwise, it needs to either be added to a TODO list in order to get worked on later or archived somewhere so that it can be referenced later.

In future entries I will go into more detail on processing e-mail and how to store information so that it can be searchable later when you are looking for it.

Do you have a more efficient method or a process improvement? Add a comment below!

Personal Productivity

Besides games, one of my favorite subjects is personal productivity. I guess it’s probably just an extension of my need to make sure everything is organized. At work I’m constantly improving process in order to make sure we are working at peak efficiency. It’s my feeling that this should also extend to how you organize your personal information. David Allen author of Getting Things Done says, “There is usually an inverse proportion between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.” If you have all your “open loops” in order so that you can readily access them, then your mind is free to think about longer term actions. I know, for me, I sleep better at night knowing that everything I have to do is written down and in order.

So, over the next few weeks, I’m going to break up a series of posts into the following topics: Processing Information, The “Inbox Zero” Philosophy, Keeping a TODO list, Setting Up a Personal Wiki, and Effective Meetings. Hopefully you can find something in them that helps you in your job or the project you are working on. I’m always available for questions.

I will wrap up this post with some reference books that I’ve read over the years in order to refine my process. They are great reads (or views in case of the Randy Pausch video) and highly recommended. I will be referencing them in the future posts.