01 September 2014

This is How I Work

Many people are aware of +Lifehacker, the "how to get things done and do everything better" expert guide. Like most, I've grown accustomed to tips, reviews, advice and stories I frequently add to my personal and professional practice. 

For years, one of my favourites of theirs is an ongoing series entitled "How I Work." These stories are personal testimonies of notable involved in tech, business, art, design, or any other walk of life requiring creativity, organisation, productivity and success. 

Figure 1: A very big thank you to the people behind Lifehacker. I owe a lot of what I do to your expertise. 
Inspired by these stories, I've spent years consciously fine tuning my repertoires regarding how I store files, organise deadlines and appointments, track progress on ongoing tasks as well as prioritise everything involved in my particular job (high school teacher). The result, is what I believe is a clean and efficient set of work routines centred around simplicity, convenience and comfort. So, as if I was someone noteworthy, this is how I work. 

Like anyone born after 1980, computers drive me. Many criticise the modern lifer's reliance on technology by questioning the strength and development of the brain. This makes complete sense. I'm sure most people can recall numerous cases where someone (perhaps themselves) is unable to perform a task without technology they should be completely capable of doing themselves. Every so often there are reports that younger people are losing basic developmental skills because of this - literacy, numeracy and simple motor skills are typical examples. I don't think it's an exaggeration to suggest that spelling, arithmetic calculations and penmanship are deteriorating for the average person as time goes on. That being said, technology is here and our world is built upon it - rolling back the clock to retain the skills students of the 1970s had is not the topic of this reflection. 
Whether or not technology is weakening my intellect aside, one thing I'll defend whle heartedly is that it definitely reduces a lot of its work load. If you've have read consultant and executive coach David Allan's "How to Get Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity" you will understand much of the framework how I work is based on.

Figure 2: Everyone has a few things they've learned that stay with them forever. One of mine is "Mind like water".
As said above, my mantra is increasingly becoming based on simplicity, convenience and comfort. This means that whenever I'm taking on new tasks or preparing for big jobs, figuring out how to ensure it gets done effectively with the least disruption, highest success rate and minimal effort is paramount. Mind like water is loosely, the ability to remove all menial, simple thoughts from the brain by setting up a robust, stable and easy system of reminders. The goal is to allow your mind to focus on the more important work problems (i.e., how to engage the under-achieving students or master that new piece of complicated, high-end equipment) because it's no longer preoccupied with the more frivolous (i.e., remembering to photocopy those documents or what time that meeting next week was). 

What this culminates in are three areas of organisation and productivity -- organising my digital content, organising my physical content, and a comfortable work space to create and manage everything in.

Google is by far the most useful resource on the internet for me. Where many associate it purely for search, I have integrated almost all of my organisational and communication workings around its services. Gmail, Calendar, Keep, and Drive are mainstays with me. The synchronisation across these services as well as with the rest of Google makes so many things I need to do on a day-to-day basis incredibly easy and reliable.The key to my system is both accessibility and ubiquity.  Almost every job, appointment or deadline is recorded, sorted and searchable, usually with appropriate reminder notifications on my phone or email. I absolutely love that I can be out and about and need to jot down a quick note or record an appointment and whether it's via my Nexus 4 Phone, Asus Zenbook Windows Laptop, or a friend's iMac, if I have an internet connection, that thought is getting filed away in an organised and easily accessible space I am sure to see when I need to. Getting Things Done is to establish a system of these reminders in a way that enables me to trust this system and free up my thoughts and focus for more heuristic challenges. It took a bit of deliberate dedication, but now when I get reminded a month in advanced that my local council rates and electricity bills are coming up, I'm grateful because I know I have time to prepare. I'm also aware of how frustrated I would be if  $2000 worth of bills showed up in my mail box and I didn't see it coming ahead of time.

Figure 3: The majority of items in my calendar I remember, but there's still many I forget. Most of them are important, a lot of them aren't. The important thing is that none of this matters. Everything gets listed and I see everything coming. 
Despite my affinity for technology, a lot of the information worth keeping is (at least originally) printed on paper. Receipts, contracts, invoices, bills, tax statements, academic records, reference letters, product warranties, legal and financial documents and the countless other types of forms and records all need to be kept somewhere with the emphasis on the word kept. Late Carnegie Mellon Lecturer and Disney Imagineer Randy Pausch spoke of the importance of having some filing system -- even if it's just based on alphabetical order, in his famous Last Lecture. Thankfully it hasn't happened to me personally yet, but I do know people that went through a time where they needed to produce some document that was several years old and couldn't, and as a result, paid a very high cost.
Figure 4: In short, Randy Pausch died of pancreatic cancer in 2008, but before he did, he gave one final lesson on how to truly make the most of life. The book documenting preparations for the lecture (above) and lecture itself entitled, "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" (below) have changed my life about as much as any book or lecture possibly could. 
It's not the most thorough filing system, but it fits my criteria of simplicity, convenience and comfort. My first experiment was with hanging drawers and cabinets, but these were too bulky and seemed to attract more clutter than anything else. I also didn't like how immobile they were so back to the op-shop they went. Accordion folder's were the next attempt, I thought organising everything by time (month and year) was the best way to do it, they were mobile, had any compartments and easily storable. However, the problem with them was that sorting though and recovering documents took too much time and required me to remember which month they were received in. The system continued to progress to where it is now. I have large (8 cm or 400 sheet) binders loaded with plastic sleeves. The binders each represent a financial year and the plastic sleeves each hold a series of documents (i.e., one sleeve for all energy bills that year, one for all work receipts, etc). This seems to cover everything I want out of a filing system. It's mobile (if I'm meeting the accountant I have everything in one fixed portable package), it's flexible (I can move last year's insurance statements to this year's folder purely if I decide I want them all in one place), and it's easy to manage (flipping through everything is much easier than pulling individual files out of folders or compartments). I have yet to organise where to keep everything as the financial years tick over, but a shelf seems like a logical next step and for now, this works perfectly.
Figure 5: Smart adulthood 101: Commit to a filing system that easy to manage
The last arena of how I work may be both the least and most important of the three simultaneously. Having a fixed workspace in this day and age seems to be becoming less applicable to modern work-life thanks to mobile computers. Whether it's as a student, or a professional, there's isn't much literal reason a desk is any more valuable than a kitchen table, coffee shop, bed or couch regarding most non-tradesman work these days. Emails can be sent, spreadsheets filled out, documents read and reports written, all just about anywhere thanks to today's technology. This, coupled with the ever-increasing erosion of the typical 9-to-5 work day, leads me to very easily imagine a world where a large desk like mine has more to do with aesthetics than productivity.
Figure 6: "Off-Mode"
This desk, like everything else I've rambled on about in this piece is the product of years of adjustments as my preferences, organisational needs, and standards of work have evolved. Test, evaluate, modify, repeat, forever. This is an important theme I try to apply to just about everything I do. As far as my workspace is concerned, this has lead me to develop three clear priorities. The first is space. A big space paramount. I often find myself using multiple documents, texts, or resources at the same time. It's much easier to do if I have the space to sprawl them out and still have the ability to write, draw, read or type comfortably. It should be clear from the photos how highly I value a large workspace, whether it be physical desk space or a large monitor. As you can see from Figure 6 there is abundance of space. It's not a massive executive's desk, but it's definitely not the typical dorm-room piece either. The binder files I noted earlier, 32 inch TV I use as a monitor, a keyboard, mouse, pen cup, pin board, lamp, oh-so-important plastic sleeves, fan, a jar of fake flowers, a notebook, 6 point individually switched power bar and laptop all fit neatly in their spaces and still leave a very generous amount of desk real estate available.
Figure 7: "On-Mode"
I'm no programmer, web developer, designer or artist of any kind, but a dual monitor set up  make things so much easier. I don't have the means to set one up at work, but for my home workspace, this is compulsory.
Figure 8: Have a seat. 
With comfort, you also need a quality chair. Ours may not be the prettiest, but it's definitely comfrotable. Plus, the aesthetics improved a fair bit by me reupholstering the armrests. That's right, butterflies. I chose that fabric. It matches a cushion and ottoman we have in the same room. 

Figure 9: Particle board, vinyl and plastic -- $50 well spent at a local op-shop.
I'm not entirely a fan of all of those cords on the right hand side, but between my wife and I sharing the desk (and swapping laptops from time to time) there's a pretty consistent pattern of plugging and unplugging going on. Also, in efforts to reduce our electricity usage, we like being able to switch whatever isn't being used completely off, hence the white labels on most of the cords.
Figure 10: I care an awful lot about space management
Simplicity, convenience and comfort have become the three criteria I apply to almost everything. With all of these comes space management. One of my two most recent "a-ha! moments" (as Oprah calls them) is the pinboard. This used to be a white/dry-erase board which was always filled with lists, reminders and motivational quotes. For a long time I loved the convenient way of jotting notes down on a highly visible platform, however, I eventually realised it was mostly filled with jargon that wasn't really all that important - plus it was dirty and required regular cleaning. An old pinboard being thrown out at work, some varnish and white paint and I have something that I feel improves upon my workspace needs. As mentioned before, technology allows me to easily write notes down, so a whiteboard isn't exactly necessary. Writing on paper ensures that only things that truly need to be in front of my face get pinned up. Also, pins have a subtle yet crucial second function. You can hang things off them. I've tried cups, bowls, and hooks in various places around my house, but pins on this pinboard on my desk is the first place I've actually been able to consistently keep my keys. I haven't had to look for my keys in weeks!

The second "a-ha" came when wanting to keep those binders on my desk, but refusing to get rid of the fan. For a while, the fan sat on the desk while the binders lived on a shelf on the other corner of the room. It's only a few steps, but it really would be better if I they were right there within an arm's reach. I then decided to try using one of those cheap straw storage boxes that are everywhere these days to put it on it's side. It worked perfectly. The binders are stable without the need for bookends and the fan fits perfectly on the makeshift shelf. We're planning renovations to our home, so building a shelf, or buying any new furniture is not something we're ready for at this stage. This sideways box-shelf  changed everything and is one of the best ideas I've ever had but isn't exactly the other "a-ha! moment" I was referring to. It was the laptop. The box-shelf gave me a fantastic home for my laptop when it's not in use .

You may have already noticed it, but if not, look again, you'll spot it.

P.S. For the record, I spent almost an hour trying to figure out why the formatting of this (fonts, sizes, alignments, colours) are all messed up and gave up. I know it may be ironic, but as I said, I'm no programmer.