Getting More Done With Information

My recent conversation with Fabricio Teixeira (Ep 3, The Informed Life podcast) focused on how Fabricio and his partner Caio Braga manage UX Collective, one of the most popular UX design publications in the world. Fabricio and Caio leveraging a chain of tools that allows just the two of them to produce work that would’ve required a larger team in the past.

Much has been written about how social media and other information environments impair our cognitive abilities. (I touched on this myself in Living in Information.) But information environments can also augment our abilities. There are ​myriad easy-to-use information systems that allow us to get stuff done more efficiently.

As a small business owner, there’s much I can do online that would’ve required outsourcing or hiring other people in the past. There are online systems available to automate everything from bookkeeping to marketing. It’s not that they do it all for you; automation isn’t quite that advanced yet. That said, these systems allow you to better leverage your time.

Take Buffer, one of the systems that came up in the conversation with Fabricio. Buffer allows you to pre-schedule social media posts; you can determine when you’d like specific messages to be published through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. In essence, it allows you to create a personal marketing system. This means you can allocate your time more wisely: rather than having to post messages in real-time (with the potential distractions that entails), you can set time aside to plan out your messages in a batch.

APIs make the system work. Buffer wouldn’t be of much use if it couldn’t leverage social networks. It’s not a free-standing tool, but rather a way to bring together several other systems that provide particular functionality. Centralizing posting to several social networks creates great efficiencies. I’ve been using Buffer for years, and have found it useful. It allows my messages to have greater reach than they would’ve if I had to post individually to each social platform in real-time.

Buffer is one of many such systems. I’m sure there are many others I’m not aware of that could automate or augment my other workflows, or help me do things that I simply wouldn’t have been able to before. One of the reasons why I started The Informed Life is that I want to learn about such systems — and share what I learn with you. What’s working for folks? What isn’t? How might we configure our personal information ecosystems so we can thrive?

Getting Unstuck By Switching Environments

Sometimes I get stuck when working on something. I’ll sit at my desk, staring at the computer’s display. Nothing! It’s not that I don’t know what I need to do next. Instead, something in me resists moving forward. Perhaps I’m feeling overwhelmed, or maybe I’m distracted by some other issue I must deal with.

When I’m feeling stuck, I’ll usually pack up my laptop and move to a nearby coffee shop or public library. Switching to a different environment usually does the trick. The combination of a 10-15 minute walk and entirely different surroundings are enough to allow me to regain my focus. I treat the excursion as an appointment with myself, one that will focus on getting a particular thing done. When I get to my destination, I’m usually ready to get back to work.

While this trick invariably works when I switch to a different physical environment, I find that switching information environments often makes a difference as well. For example, perhaps I don’t leave my desk but instead switch to working on my iPad in a different app. Often, changing contexts from the laptop to a mobile device is enough of a jog to help me regain my attention.

In especially busy days, I’ll often switch several times: I’ll move to work on my iPad in a coffee shop, and then walk a bit more to work on my paper notebook at the library, then come back to my office to work on the larger display there. This helps me draw boundaries around tasks: whereas I spent the last hour focused on project A, now I’ll spend the next couple of hours on project B. The change of place creates a clean break between activities and helps introduce some variety in my day.

I’m lucky to live in a time when we have powerful portable computing devices and the flexibility to work when and where I want. I try to make the most of it; doing so contributes to my productivity.

Discovering the Shortest Route

I’m currently working on a new project, something I’ve never done before. I don’t know how to operate the software required. I’m not even sure how to judge whether the outcome of what I’m making is good. I’m a complete novice at this activity.

Still, I can envision a time when I’ll be proficient at it; someday in the (hopefully not too distant) future, doing it will feel second-nature. Getting there will require lots of work. I’ll need to discover shortcuts, find more natural ways of doing ordinary things. I’ve already found a few in my short time doing this, and I’m sure to discover a few more.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius offers the following advice:

Always run by the shortest route; and the shortest is that which follows nature, and leads us to say and do everything in the soundest fashion.

When you’re working on something entirely new, the shortest route is unknown to you. You must find it, usually in small incremental steps. This requires lots of false starts, lots of wasted effort. It requires being comfortable with mistakes; being open to starting over. There can be joy in this process — if you know to look for it and adopt the proper attitude.

Tackling New Challenges

When starting something new, you either know what steps are required to bring the undertaking to life, or you don’t. The former is the case when you’ve done something similar before. Let’s say you’re a designer who’s just started working on the design of a feature for a financial services system. If you’ve worked on a similar system in the past, you’ll have expectations about what you (and others) should do and in what sequence. You’ll mainly be looking for where your new project diverges from the patterns you’ve picked up from prior experience.

Other undertakings may be new to you but have been well-documented by others. Perhaps you’ve never worked on the design of the specific type of challenge this financial services system requires, but other people have. You can ask them, or read about it. It’ll take you a bit more time to get up to speed with such a project than if you have previous experience with something like it, but at least you have a framework to build on. Your challenge will be not just spotting instances where the project at hand varies from the pattern but also understanding what it is.

Still another class of undertaking is entirely new to you and to others. This is obviously a greater challenge than either of the two previous classes: You’ll be grappling with the content and context of the challenge and the frameworks that inform them. You may even have to invent frameworks and implement mechanisms to update them. This requires that you understand what goals they’re serving. But perhaps even the goals are unclear, and all you have is a hunch to go on. Scary stuff, especially if you’re committing resources to the project.

While this last class of challenges is rare, it can lead to breakthroughs. When facing such a challenge, I try to look for frameworks I can leverage from other fields. (Early in my career, I was using what I learned in architecture school in order to design websites.) The work will diverge fairly quickly as the specific character of the new challenge becomes evident, but starting with a dummy framework offers a point of departure and makes the undertaking less scary.

Intentional Computing

Thanks to the generosity of my friend Alex Baumgardt—who gifted me a functioning logic board—yesterday I brought my old Mac SE/30 back to life. My kids spent an hour or so exploring old games on its 9-inch monochrome screen while I reminisced about the days when that Mac was my primary computing experience. (My daughter Julia is smitten with Zork; I’m giddy.)

The kids had lots of questions.

“Does it have color?” No, it only has black and white.

“Does it have sound?” It used to. Gotta look into that.

“Does it play [current game]?” No, alas.

“Was it expensive?” In its day, it was very expensive.

“Does it ‘do’ the internet?” No, this one doesn’t.

An artifact from a different world.

I put my iPhone 8 Plus next to the SE/30. The phone’s screen lit up instantly, as it always does. It’s always on, and always on me. I’ve stopped thinking about using the iPhone as something I do. Instead, it’s become a natural extension of my day-to-day being. I simply take it out of my pocket, sometimes mindlessly.

Using the old Mac, on the other hand, is an intentional act. It’s off most of the time. To turn it on, you must flip a large mechanical switch on its back. It makes a loud, satisfying “thunk!” Various noises follow: a fan spinning up, the faint chirping of the disk drive. Then the “happy Mac” icon on the screen. A little world coming to life. Eventually, a folder appears showing the software available on the system. There’s not much there; a few games, a paint program, perhaps a text editor. No web browser, of course. (Although this particular Mac once had Netscape installed on it; I’d use it to browse the early web through a dial-up modem.)

“What do I want to do now?” isn’t a question I ever asked of this system. If I’d gone through the trouble of turning it on, it was because there was something I needed to do: work on a history paper, sequence some music, create an architectural model. (Yes, on the 9-inch screen! Good times.) A more intentional—a more mindful—way of computing. Closer to using a fine tool than a television.

I’m writing this in Ulysses’s “distraction-free” mode. Many text editors today have a similar feature: a way of forcing our always-on, always-connected, always-beckoning devices into something that works more like an SE/30. But what I’m talking about here is more than cutting out distractions; it’s about a different conception of the work and the tools used to do the work. It’s about computing as a discreet activity: something with a beginning, an end, a goal, with no possibility of meandering onto random destinations. As wonderful as the iPhone is (and it is a technological wonder), revisiting this 30-year-old computer made me think George R.R. Martin may be onto something.

Folder-centric to App-centric Workflows

Yesterday I had a busy day, that had me shuttling between Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. In days like these, I prefer to work from my iPad (as opposed to a traditional laptop computer.) The iPad takes up less space, which makes it easier to use in cramped public transport. It also has an LTE modem, so I can remain connected to the internet when I’m out and about. Its smaller screen also encourages focus, which helps in distracting environments. I love it, and on days like these, I wonder when the day will come when I can do most of my work from an iPad.

That said, working from the iPad requires that I shift how I think about the structure of my work. I’ve written before about how I keep all my project materials organized using folders in the file system of my Mac. While iOS includes a Files app that allows interacting with such file structures, the system encourages app-centric (rather than project-centric) way of working. Rather than thinking “I’m now working on project x, and all the stuff for project x is in this folder,” context switching calls for remembering what app I was working in: “I was editing the document for project x in Google Docs; hence I must open Google Docs.”

Many of the productivity apps in iOS allow for arbitrary document groupings. Hence, I find myself replicating my file structure in the various apps. I end up with a project x folder in Google Drive, another in Pages, another in Keynotes, another in OneNote, etc. This adds to my workload and requires that I keep track of which app I used for what. I find it a less natural way of working than keeping everything grouped in a single folder. It’s one of the challenges of working in iOS that I’m continually looking to overcome.

Tracking Commitments

You’re making commitments all the time. Let’s say you and I agree to meet on Tuesday at 9 am. That’s a commitment. If I show up at our agreed meeting place on Tuesday at 9 am and you’re not there, you will have broken your commitment. I’ll be disappointed, and perhaps somewhat upset at having wasted my time. You may apologize, and we can agree on a new time to meet. When the time for the meeting comes, I’ll be wary. You now have a track record of having broken a commitment to me.

So keeping commitments to others is important. But so is keeping commitments to yourself. While breaking a commitment you’ve made to yourself may not carry the same social stigma than breaking a commitment to someone else does, the effects can be just as bad. You start letting things slip by. Eventually, you think of your commitments as fluid—you abide by some, and not others. You allow the more difficult ones to slip by, even though they may be important.

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Start With a Structure

Often, one of the biggest obstacles to getting started with something is your canvas’s initial blank state. It may be a white sheet of paper or a blinking cursor in the word processor. You stare at it, not knowing where to begin. When facing these conditions, I often find that adding a bit of structure does the trick. Having a framework frees you from having to pick a place to start. With a skeleton in place, your next step becomes clearer: all you must do is flesh it out.

Here’s an example. Many times in my life I tried to start a journal. Invariably, I’d sit down at the beginning of the day intent on writing a journal entry. Facing the blank document, I wouldn’t know where to start. What should I write about? The first few days (while still in the rush of having started a journal) I’d slog through the indecision. But eventually, something would happen—I’d wake up late, or go on a business trip—that would disrupt my routine. Under time pressure, the blank document became too hard an obstacle to overcome. I’d give up on journaling that one day, and it became a precedent. Soon I’d give up altogether.

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Managing Screen Time

One of the best features of the most recent version of iOS is called Screen Time. It allows you to monitor and control what you do with your mobile devices and when. For example, you can find out how much time you’re spending on social media apps and whether your usage is increasing or decreasing. You can also set limits for yourself on the device overall or on a per-app basis. And if you use multiple iOS devices (such as an iPad and an iPhone) you can configure Screen Time to show you your behavior across all of them.

To access Screen Time, you must open the device’s Settings app. (This feels a bit incongruous. Although I understand this is an OS-level feature, it feels like something that should be independent of Settings. Anyways, I digress.) In the Settings app you’ll see an option for Screen Time:

If you tap on this menu item, you’ll be shown a screen that looks like this:

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