Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category.

Managing my life with MyLifeOrganized

I’m a huge fan of a software product called MyLifeOrganized (mylifeorganized.net).  MLO is an advanced task and workflow manager that supports various methodologies (GTD, Pomodoro, etc). It is fairly easy to use the basics, but has many advanced options for setting up your system.  If you haven’t heard of it, you probably should skip the rest of this post, and instead consider installing the trial version.  Play around with it a bit, then come back here and this will make more sense.

I use MLO both on Windows (Windows Vista in my case; it also works using Wine on Linux, but I’ve never tried that), and on Android (other mobile platforms are supported but I have no familiarity with them). I’ll use the term “Desktop” to mean the full product on Windows, and “Android” to mean the MLO Android app, which does not have all of the features of the Desktop version.

I get a lot of questions about how I set up my MLO system. I’m happy to share, but with a few caveats:

(1) I’m currently an at-home, homeschooling mom with health issues and managing health issues for my family as well. My task system is designed to be very interrupt driven and flexible. I worked as a software engineer for HP for 10 years. I only *thought* my job was interrupt driven then.

(2) I don’t use a particular methodology. I gravitate toward GTD (Getting Things Done by David Allen), but never have taken the time to make it work for me. I find it tricky enough to actually have the brainpower to look at my task list. My “Start Weekly Review” task is about three years old. I’ve done informal reviews, but never enough to follow the process I tried to set up for myself, long ago when I read the book.  I’ve played around with layering Pomodoro technique onto my system and that was pretty effective when I was organized enough to use it.

(3) I change my system regularly. Part of this is to make it more efficient, but honestly another part is just to keep it interesting and “new,” — shiny. So my system when you read this may be much different than when I wrote it.

(4) I have not solved the perpetual “there are too many tasks in my system and I’ll never be able to do them all” problem.  My system seems to evolve to pushing more and tasks below the current priority line. The answer to the universe is 42. Other than that, I’ve got nothin’.

My Life Organized 5-Minute Primer

MLO allows you to structure your tasks differently than how you view them (slice/dice depending on what you want to see).  The tree structure, sometimes called the Outline, is static (stays the same unless you change it). Imagine this as similar to where your files are stored on your file system — the tasks “live” in the outline.

Each task has many properties that can be set or are calculated based on other properties. (E.g., “Active” is a property that depends on start date, whether it has children, and a number of other criteria that determine that this task is something you could work on right now). Views are basically saved searches for combinations of properties, and they update when a task’s properties change. An example of a view might be, “All active tasks marked as a Goal, grouped into Week/Month/Year Goals, and sorted by due date.”  Views are just searches and formatting of the data for display — they don’t change where the task “lives” relative to it’s parent tasks.

The Android app has a fixed set of views that are only partially customizable. The Desktop allows elaborate custom views to be created. For example, you could create a view that says, “Show me all of the active tasks which are due in the next week, except those that I’ve marked with a context (e.g., tag) of “@Home”.

I’m not going to explain all of my terms here in any detail, but you can look them up in the help or the user’s guide (http://mylifeorganized.net/support/index.htm, click on user’s guide for pdf).

Setup

Ok, that all said, here’s my current system.

My philosophy is to organize my outline tree based on where my brain feels tasks should live, similarly to how I organize my files or my kitchen (complete with a Junk Drawer, called Life Maintenance).  In general, my tree is organized by areas of focus (Life Maintenance, Home, Family, Work, Health…)

More specifically, my tree (outline) structure is flat at the top with the following folders:

  • <Inbox> – currently this has Goal=Week set, to force these tasks to show up in my daily lists (more on that later). Since Goal is inherited, as soon as I move new tasks to their proper homes, they will no longer be Week goals unless I manually set it.
  • 0 – My Routines & GTD – this is where I keep all of my daily/weekly/etc routines, so they don’t clutter other areas. One area of note, I have a subfolder called “Reuse” that contains common tasks, such as “return library books”. I just uncomplete and edit the existing task with a new due date instead of creating a new task. I put () in the title of each of these to indicate it’s recurring/reuse, to remind me not to delete it.
  • 1 – Life Maintenance – stuff that is not directly related to any of the other categories.
  • 2 through 9 Major life areas (3-Health, 4-Self, Community, Family, etc) numbered for quick access on the Desktop by typing that number
  • Templates–task trees that I want to use again. MLO has a setting called “Hide-in-todo” which “grays out” a branch and makes those tasks inactive.  They are visible in the outline structure, but not part of my working task lists. Because the Templates folder is marked with the “Hide-in-todo” setting, these don’t show up on any todo views, but if I duplicate a branch and move the duplicate to a new parent, it does show up in my todo views.

I use David Allen’s Getting Things Done concept of Someday/Maybe lists to keep my tasks manageable. For tasks that I don’t want to see in my task list but want to capture, I have a “Someday/Maybe” subfolder (branch) under each Life Area that has “Hide-in-todo” set on it. For me those are different than the tasks I actively intend to get to. I like to keep these in their general area, so that I can review them all at once, and move them in and out of the hidden branch depending on whether I want them active or not.

That’s pretty much it for my current tree structure. I’ve played around with marking tasks as Projects but haven’t found any use that I can maintain easily enough to make them worthwhile.

Contexts

Contexts (basically, categories or labels) are something I’ve played around with for a long time but have a hard time making work for my system.  I recently partially gave up on standard GTD style contexts (where the context is the environment you do the task in, e.g., Phone Calls, At Computer, At Home, Outside, etc).  I have a phone and usually a computer nearby all of the time, so 90% of these tasks were “in Context” all the time. Not helpful.

I still have a few location contexts — Errands, ErrandsDowntown, for example. I kept Phone Calls because it is easier to bunch them up than to not. I use Home to group all the house related tasks. Then I created a bunch of contexts that contain tasks I would usually bunch together for some reason — same amount of energy required, etc. Examples are MaintainHealth, ResearchHealth, MaintainComputer, Housework, HouseMaintenance. If you look at these last two, you can get an idea why. Applying stain to the deck has a completely different level of energy, focus, urgency, and even importance than vacuuming before guests come.  @Home just doesn’t cover that difference.

One way I’ve found contexts to be helpful is combined loosely with the Pomodoro technique, where I focus on one task or area for a limited amount of time. Then I limit my view to a particular context, and work on those for the given time. For example, looking only at “Selfcare” reminds me to eat breakfast and shower, not check email or facebook. Focusing only on “HealthMaintenance” forces me to order more supplements rather than clean the kitchen counter (cleaning the counter is *so* much easier).

Since you can’t specify a context sort order, I order my contexts using prefixes. I’ve found that the following order sorts the same on both Windows and Android:

  • *!
  • *#
  • **
  • *
  • *z
  • @
  • Alpha

I use this to put my Pomodoro contexts above my location contexts. Some examples are:

  • *!DailyPlanning
  • *!Quick
  • *!Selfcare
  • *#Life (as in Life managment tasks…or as in “that’s Life” 🙂
  • *#PlanningActivities&Travel

I put those at the top because I tried to run through the categories each day, which was helpful when I was doing it.

Following that I have a bunch of other categories which all start with asterisks (*MaintainHealth), but are alphabetical, followed by my location based contexts (@Errands) and a few random ones I have.

My system for prioritization

I use the Goal property to narrow my field of view, and the Star property for even narrower. Every day I try to look through a “Weekly/Monthly” goal list to decide if there is something I should Star for the day. Theoretically I review all my Weekly goals daily and all my Monthly goals each week (changing some to Weekly), but when time is tight and tasks are piling up like a train wreck, I often find Monthly goals that I add a Star to directly from Monthly.

I use Star and Goals for my “importance/urgency”.  (I don’t use the built-in settings for this, nor do I use the built-in “computed-score”. I find that doesn’t work in my interrupt-driven world where what is important right now depends on so many different factors).

In MLO, it’s not specified how goals need to be used. You can use them however you want to since it’s just a property with four values. I’ve seen people define them as either “A weekly goal should be done this particular week” or a running “Weekly goal should be in the next week after today” .  I use the latter, the running list, myself.  Week goals are for tasks around one week out (always revolving, rather than ‘by Friday’), and I try to review my list of Week goals most mornings and see what should be bumped up with Starred. (If they have exact deadlines I use due dates as well, and multiple reminders for really hard deadlines).

Starred is currently the only way to define daily goals that I’ve found (at least, that ports to Android). Starred in my system equates roughly to today. I mark tasks with a Star to indicate I would like them in my daily view (which never does get completed daily, I’m afraid — it’s a running view as well).

Upon further reflection, though I originally intended to actually “complete” my tasks within their assigned timeframe (weekly, etc), in reality it mostly controls how often I review those tasks.

Views

Because Android views are more limited, I started by figuring out how to use them to their best advantage for me, and then adapted my desktop system to be an expansion of this model.

On Android, I primarily use four views: Active Actions (sorted by Star, Goal, then Caption) for adding a Star to my daily tasks, Active Starred for daily work (manually sorted, based on my day), Active Goals (sorted by Star and then Caption, i.e., title) for moving tasks between Goals if my desktop is not readily available, and Active by Context, usually to focus on a specific context or to systematically work from my most important Contexts.

I keep a set of similar views on the desktop, though with more properties shown, so that I can do the same daily routines from either platform.

The main way you can customize an Android view is through sorting it using multiple criteria.  For example,  the Active Actions view shows all of your tasks in one big unmanageable list. But if you sort that list so that what you have to see is on top, followed by what you want to see later, followed by the tasks you might want to review at some point, it becomes very useful and you can ignore the 80% percent of the tasks you don’t want to see today at all.

So, I have the following sort in most of my active views (except for Active Starred View, which is only manually sorted on Android) on both platforms:

1) Starred 2) Goal 3) Caption (ie, title). This puts Starred first, Weekly unstarred next , etc.

Why Caption? Because recently I decided I want all of my recurring “routine” tasks together in my sort order, so I simply put (d) (w) (x) (y) in front of their titles. (x) is for month because it sorts alphabetically between the others 🙂  That way, my daily Starred tasks are at the top above the weekly Starred tasks, etc.

Additionally, I have a number of custom views on my desktop for more refined planning and processing of my tasks. For example, I have a view that shows only the Weekly and Monthly Goals that are NOT marked with a Star. That way, when I add a Star to one of these tasks, it disappears from the list.  When I’m reviewing all of my tasks (not just active), I use a desktop “All Unhidden Tasks grouped by Goal” view to drag tasks between Goals (on the Desktop, dragging a task to a new Goal heading will change the Goal for that task).

Planning

I do ad-hoc reviews weekly, monthly, and a couple times a year, when I start feeling like I’m forgetting things. Generally I review things one horizon out — daily I review the weekly tasks, weekly I review the monthly (though in practice I often combine these into my daily review).  I try to review the yearly goals monthly, all of the tasks without a goal set every few months, and the Someday/Maybes, yearly.

Another option for the weekly review that I used for a while was to review each Life Area once a week. For example, I had a task “Review Health Tasks” under the Health subtree which recurred weekly.  This broke up my review so it was not as overwhelming, but I found I couldn’t sustain it. It might be something to play around with again, though.

From a practical standpoint, I do most of my longer-term planning on the Desktop as it is fully featured and I have a set of custom views I’ve built over time.

Here’s a neat trick.  My inbox (which contains all my unprocessed tasks, those tasks I haven’t assigned properties to yet nor have moved into their proper tree branch) has Goal=Week set. This makes all of my unprocessed tasks show up in any view that includes Weekly Goals, so I’m forced to process those tasks to get them out of my face.

I set reminders for any tasks that I can’t afford to forget (especially those I don’t want to see in my daily views).  I set a Start time in the future if I want to ignore them until that date. In general, I set the start date at the time I want it to show up in my views, the Goal according to how urgent it will be, the due date for when it should be completed by, and the reminder about halfway between the start date and the due date.  That way, I have time to do the task before the reminder, which reduces greatly the number of reminders that actually pop up and bother me. (Reminders are basically my consequence for not doing the task earlier). For example, suppose that Friday I get a notice that I have one week (due date = next Friday) to pick up a library book that I’ve put on hold. I’ll put the start date based on the first day I might want to do the task –which is about three days before it’s due, if I’m waiting to see if other books come in soon after. So I set the start date for Tuesday. Then I set a reminder for Friday morning. If I pick up the book Thursday evening, and complete the task, I’ll never see the reminder.

Tip: Since I do this same process often, I reuse my “pick up library books” task, stored under my “Reuse” folder. I find it, mark it uncompleted, click “Lock period”, and change the due date. Because of “lock period” my start date and reminders are automatically set based on the interval they previously had.

Daily Maintenance

Working from a list of my Weekly Goals and sometimes my monthly goals, I add a Star to tasks I want to focus on. These are tasks that I should work on today, so they all show up in my Active Starred view on either Android or the desktop. I also use my Active by Goal list to look at my upcoming work.  On the desktop, I have a view “Daily Review” which I use in the mornings. It shows only Active Weekly and Monthly Goals that are not already Starred. When I click the Star column in this view the task magically moves to my Active Starred view. (MLO 4 will let me see these views in different tabs).

Because most of my routine tasks are not urgent, I don’t always Star them in the morning. I go back and forth and don’t have a consistent strategy here. On days where my health is crashed, sometimes getting through my daily routine *is* the main goal, and I add Stars to all of them.

When I process my inbox, I try to assign each task a Context (more later), a Goal status if needed, a start/due/reminder date if needed, and then I move it to it’s area of focus after those are assigned. On the desktop, I use Ctrl-M, <#> and MLO jumps to the task prefaced by this #.

Executing

Since I always have my phone nearby, I do a lot of my task completion and “let me see what’s next” on Android (though as described above, I have matching Desktop views for consistency as much as possible).

Since the Active Starred, my primary view for going through my daily tasks,  is a manually sorted list on Android, I take advantage of this and move tasks around in the morning to where I want them. (Unfortunately the order of Active Starred doesn’t propagate between Desktop/Android — it would be great if it did).

I’ve also taken to using three tasks as placeholders in my Active Starred view:

—– big rocks for today —-
—– daily maintenance —–
—– maybe today ——

I drag my Starred tasks around between these three placeholder tasks to further organize my day.

So in summary, I have some views that automatically sort based on my definitions, and a working view (Active Starred) that I move things around manually. Since the manual sort order doesn’t sync, I do this either on the desktop for the day, or on Android for the day, depending on my day.

Hotel Searching

I wrote this for a group that we’re meeting in OH, and thought I would share it here.  Please let me know any thoughts on how to improve this 🙂

I thought I would share my process to find a good hotel, which for the most part I’ve had good luck with.

Once I find an area that people recommended or that I had researched, I look it up in google maps, and then type “hotels” in the “search” or “search nearby…” boxes.  Then I look at the reviews in the popup for each of entries on the first 1-2 pages (by clicking on the name in the list).     You have to take the review ratings with a bit of a grain of salt.  People are rating the hotel based on what *they* paid – so often more expensive places will get worse reviews than they would merit for the price you might find, or vice versa.   Plus one negative score can pull the average way down for a silly complaint, or there can be out of date reviews.  (E.g., reviews from 2005 complaining about renovation noise or dirty/old furnishings when the hotel has been renovated since and later reviews are great).    So I actually read the reviews of each place.  Despite all this, the reviews mainly are very helpful and spot-on.

Finally once I have narrowed it down to a few, I pop the names of places I am considering into TripAdvisor and have it check all the online reservation systems (Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity, etc) for the best rates, which vary greatly by service.   Don’t just look at the nightly rate – look at the final rate.  The trick is that each service adds in it’s own search fee into the “Taxes and Fees” category (they don’t break it out, but you can see the difference when you compare two that have the same “nightly rate” but different total cost listings).

Note that sometimes (esp midrange hotels, I found) the best rate will be from the hotel’s direct website if they have one, because they don’t usually add internet booking fees.  I believe it used to be that the internet services were cheaper, but I’m guessing that now the hotels themselves want to be competitive so they have online booking as well.  Also, it’s well worth looking at the hotel’s site for package deals.  For $10 more/night, I got the full breakfast buffet for our family.

Lastly, be sure to look at whether it is non-refundable.  It is usually a huge difference in price between non-refundable and standard (e.g., $79/night vs. $119 or $129/night), because you pay the entire cost up front and can’t change it.  Given the possibility of weather issues in the winter, when I found two hotels that were similar in what I was looking for, but the first was non-refundable and only $5 cheaper, I chose the latter.  I considered the $5 to be insurance.

Twitter to Facebook and vice versa

In my ongoing saga of constantly feeling a tad bit behind with technology and yet wanting it to be super efficient, I didn’t want to have to check my Facebook page all the time.  I wanted it to *tell* me about my friend’s status updates.  So here is what I did.

First, I have a twitter account, and I installed twhirl so that my friend’s twitter updates pop up on my screen – discreetly – and then go away.  I can easily take a look at what happened while I was gone by opening a window.

But then everyone moved to Facebook and I felt boring because I was never updating my status or whatever it is called.   So, first, I made it so my twitter updates would show up on Facebook by adding a simple Facebook application: http://apps.facebook.com/twitter

Next I wanted to see my friend’s updates….so I followed these instructions, which unfortunately had a few glitches.  First, they reference the “minifeed” in facebook which no longer exists.    So instead, you’ll want to follow Facebook’s new instructions for generating your feeds.    Second, they say to use your main twitter ID to post your own Facebook updates to your twitter feed.  Apparently with the new Facebook feeds, there is a lot more data there, and everything on your wall, or at least way too much (e.g., “SoandSo has accepted your friend request”) was getting posted to my twitter stream which was annoying.   So, I routed all of that through my “dummy” twitter account which means that my twitter friends won’t see it all, just me.

Then, to post any status updates I type into Facebook as twitter updates, I used http://fb2twitter.com/ .

So now that you are all lost – here is the end result:

– I can post from twitter, twhirl, Facebook, and even Jott (now that is a complete ‘nother story) and it updates both twitter and Facebook; plus, I don’t have to go to Facebook to see all my friend’s updates – they show up on my desktop.  (I’m too cheap and too old I suppose, to have them show up as text messages on my cell 🙂

Newsgator and Email

As I alluded to in another post, I chose Newsgator because it seemed to be the only free RSS reader that will allow me to read blogs from my email as well as from the web.

There are two ways to do this in Newsgator, depending on how you access email. First, for both you will need a Newsgator Online account (free). www.newsgator.com has a tour and instructions.

If you use Outlook as your email reader, there is a custom (free) application available on the newsgator site under “Products for Individuals” called Newsgator Inbox for Outlook. You download and install this on the same computer that runs your Outlook and it will add itself into Outlook.  I tried it on Vista with Outlook 2003 and it works well.  The main advantage of using the Outlook add-in is that it provides a new menu which allows you to manage your Newsgator subscription from Outlook.

For all other email programs (Eudora, gmail, etc), or if you do not wish to install any new software, you will download emails using POP3 directly from the newsgator server and then if you don’t want them in your inbox directly, you can filter them using your email program’s filters or rules. To do this, first go to your newsgator account and click on the “settings” tab. Then click on “edit locations”, and scroll down to Newsgator Email Edition. Click on “configure”, enter the information you want, and then follow the instructions in your email program (each one will be different).

Subscribe to RSS feeds

I’m trying to learn about RSS feeds. (It seems I’m always behind the times). Perhaps many of you already know all about them, and use them regularly. But just in case you feel as stupid about them as I do, I’ve collected some resources here for you.

There are lots of sites that will tell you what RSS, feeds, readers, etc are – but let’s break it down for a moment. Here’s why you care…Suppose someone sends you a link to a blog – a website where someone writes posts about whatever they feel like, such as this one. You love it…and you would like to hear more from that blog. How do you know when there are new posts? Do you have to go check it every time you want to read it?

The answer is that you can put all of the blogs you are interested in, as well as news sites, etc that you may want to keep up to date, in a “feed reader” – basically a place to keep track of all of them – so you can see them all in one place, know what you’ve already read, etc. With most, you still have to go check; with some, you can get updates via email.

Here are sites that talks about what feeds and feed readers (or aggregators) are in more detail:

http://www.google.com/support/feedburner/bin/answer.py?answer=79408

http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,116018-page,1/article.html

http://www.informationweek.com/story/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=166403685

Now the question becomes, how do I pick one? There are tons out there, and every “top 10” list seems to be different. Do you want to read on the web, or download software? Do you want to access them on your mobile phone? (I’m not even going to go there – I have enough to learn about!) Do you, like me, live in your email program and rarely remember to venture out of it?

I found this site that gives some favorites:

http://email.about.com/od/rssreaderswin/tp/top_rss_windows.htm

This one has a nice summary of why you might pick one type over another:

http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/columns/executive_tech/article.php/3521206

I decided to try out both Google Reader and Newsgator Online, and finally decided on Newsgator because it has a way to download to my email. Now I get all of the blogs I’m interested in put into an email folder of their own.