Getting Control of My Out of Control Life

New Year’s Resolutions are a joke typically. Even so I am resolving to do something very different this year — no I’m not joining a gym, losing weight (I’ve done that to the tune of more than 30 pounds in the last year already), quitting drinking (right), or anything like that. I am going to take a huge step towards finally doing something I’ve needed to do for years — get my organization of information in real working order. Since becoming senior director two years ago I have been swimming upstream just to stay afloat. That’s not to say I haven’t made real progress in lots of ways, it just means that I am on the verge of drowning in content that comes at me in so many direction and at a pace that I am still unable to manage with my own brain. I need help and admitting that is the first step to moving forward.

I read a piece at The Verge by and about how their Features Editor, Thomas Houston uses Evernote to manage everything — total outboard brain style. It got me really intrigued so I’ve spent several hours over the course of the last few days thinking critically about the workflow I think could really make a difference for me and I thought I’d share it here to get reactions and provide an opening framework for others to consider. At the heart of the whole thing is Evernote Premium and while I know the free version should be sufficient at $40.00 it gave me two things I needed; the ability to have more monthly upload space (premium gives you a GB to use up each month) and read/write access to notebooks for my administrative assistant (and presumably others as I evolve this strategy). I’ve been an Evernote user since 2008 and have bounced around various applications to manage note taking since. Now that I spend more time on my iPad Mini than my laptop I need something available across all platforms and I am not interested in storing tons of content locally so I had already returned to Evernote for general note taking. Now I am getting serious.

A common issue for me is this — I go to a ton of meetings and am a member of tons of working groups, project teams, committees, councils, and task forces. The ones I lead are sufficiently digital, storing agendas, notes, and the like on websites like the eEducation Council site powered by WordPress or the Student Technology Advisory Committee supported mostly by Yammer and WordPress. The problem is that I am not in charge of the vast majority of the groups and they are still doing things with lots and lots of paper. The paper comes in the form of attachments that get sent to all members and their assistants days before the meeting that we are (I presume) to print and put into folders to take the meetings. I don’t do that … I rarely even have time to look at the agenda for more than a scan to make sure I am not actually being asked to lead any part of the meeting. I can’t abide the idea of having manila folders stuffed with agendas and handouts anymore, so I need something different. I then end up taking disconnected notes in various forms that end up scattered and highly disorganized. This is a big part of my job and I am failing at being prepared and organized around any of it. This is a perfect use case for Evernote. Here’s how I envision it working.

I have several folders in Evernote that are made up of more context specific single notebooks. The screenshot below indicates what I mean … in each of those stacks are notebooks for each group I am member of, the projects I need to track, and other various things going on around me at any given moment. Easy enough. The new idea here is to have a shared notebook with my assistant where things can be pre and post processed to make things much more organized.


With the above scenario in mind, let me share how I envision this working. A an example, I attend a monthly committee meeting named, The Penn State Online Steering Committee where we spend time addressing the forward strategy driving the growth of our World Campus, setting policy recommendations, and discussing anything that has to do with online delivery. It is a meeting filled with deans, vice presidents, and vice provosts so things get done. It is an important meeting and one that generates a lot of paper. What I envision is as agenda items and associated documents begin to flow in for the meeting that my administrative assistant would construct a single note in our shared folder with all attachments uploaded and included on that note. I would then move it to the appropriate notebook where I could act upon it during the meeting — taking notes, snapping photos of presentation slides, or even recording audio of portions of the meeting. All of it in one place and not taking up space on my desk in the form of disconnected pieces of content. Below is an example of how it might look with a combination of notes and attachments — in this case the pre-planning notes and the slides used in a recent meeting with Blackboard.

Screen Shot 2012-12-30 at 4.19.17 PM

The other subtle parts to this experience include a few other tweaks to my digital life. The first is using Pocket across all devices to grab stuff to read in the moments I have walking to meetings or the evenings. I used to use Instapaper, but stopped when it didn’t work well with my reader of choice on iOS. I am now back into picking things off to read later with Pocket. I am also managing a switch to Chrome with a few very handy extensions to drive it all — obviously both the Evernote Clipping extension and the Pocket extension are there. But I’ve also added another Evernote property in Evernote Clearly. It is like the Reader button in Safari, but it adds the ability to highlight articles and automatically drop them into a specific notebook in Evernote with the highlights in place. It works very well.

All in all, there is nothing earth shattering here. I need to do a better job curating the content that impacts my day to day life and I am openly admitting I need help in getting that done. I can no longer rely on the scatter shot methods I’ve been living with, so I need to resolve to pay closer attention to making it all work better. I’d be interested in hearing what approaches have worked for others and if my described framework seems reasonable.

Short and Sweet

Over the last couple of years most of us have become ultra familiar with link shortening services like tinyurl and to save extra characters when using Twitter or for sending out really long URLs in emails. I’ve heard lots of thoughts on how to make them better and have had more than one conversation about why they could lead to the end of the web — I think that is probably greatly exaggerated. The argument goes something like, if everyone uses [insert service name here] to share their links and that service goes away, we have no real record of where we were linking to. I have seen instances where tinyurl has been down or eaten links so I’ve moved away from it.

I have been using bit.y a little more often and this morning took the time to explore what I think is really powerful — the dashboard style view into what is going on with those links as soon as you send them out. Essentially provides you with some nice anayltics into how many clicks you get from sending them out. What I don’t know (but would love to experiment with) is if the person who clicks on shortend link is also signed into the service, do I get to see that person’s username? That would be incredible as part of an open edu focused approach … I could essentially replace the same kind of click through tracking an LMS offers by simply passing URLs through an authenticated service.

Click to See Detail

Click to See Detail

What is interesting to me is that this is yet another very simple piece to a very open and flowing LMS concept — I’ve written about the New York Times TimesPeople toolbar before as a simple way to push resources to a cohort … now in cooperation with something like URL tracking I am getting a solid way to see what is going on with those resources. Nothing to earth shattering here, but a little something interesting to think about over the weekend. Anyone have a account and want to experiment a bit?

Community Question: Lifestreaming

With the closing of several Google services I’ve been thinking about some of the content I (and a bunch of other people) publish across the social web. So much that I want to get some ideas about what many of you think about it all. If you step back and think about how many new people are joining and actively participating in social networks, one has to consider where we go from here. What do we do to protect the emergence of our meta identities — each crafted in small pieces across many networks. As a simple example, take a look at the emergence of Facebook with adults … according to a new report issued by the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s December 2008 tracking survey:

The share of adult internet users who have a profile on an online social network site has more than quadrupled in the past four years — from 8% in 2005 to 35% now.

That is a whole lot of people creating lots of real data about themselves and their relationships. Even if you don’t worry about closures or server meltdowns, consider the following from a post on Read Write Web:

The most obvious example of this loss of access to lifestream data? The inability to access anything beyond beyond page 162 on Twitter. No matter how many times you’ve posted, you cannot go back any further than 3240 tweets. So, every new public message you send removes one from your history. (To see this in action, simply add “?page=162” to the end of any Twitter user’s default URL.) Those who had seen Twitter as a journal of sorts for recording fleeting moments for posterity, suddenly found those moments just as fleeting online.

I’ve talked to lots of people who think that their Twitter streams belong to them. The reality is that we are trapping our thoughts, relationships, and content in someone else’s microblog. It has bothered me since we used Twitter in my CI 597C course — much of the course dialogue happened in the backchannel there and much of it is lost. Clearly this only one small example, but I am guessing you get the idea.

So I am curious about what kinds of strategies we should be considering as we continue down this path? I doubt the answer is to stop participating — the ship has left the port and it isn’t coming back in. What do we think?

My Must Haves

Since my last post focused on the potential rise of light weight portable computing systems — Netbooks, iPhone, and cloud services — I thought I’d try to follow it up with a list of my must have tools that have enabled me to live more that way. This is just a simple list from my point of view and I doubt it is the same as what somebody else might find necessary to do their jobs. I’d love to hear from you what you think are the next generation of tools that someone living on a light weight portable device might require.

With all of this it is important to note that I also have two other machines I use regularly. I have an iMac on my desk at home connected to a series of hard drives that store pictures, documents, media, and most of my important stuff. It gets backed up a handful of times a day with a combination of TimeMachine and Apple Backup … I even move a hard drive off site for pictures every so often. At work I have a machine on my desk that I use while there … the only real reason I use it is because it is connected to a 30″ display that lets me get so much more done in short bursts. I don’t think I could do without that as my MacBook Air will not drive the display or I would give up that machine altogether.

My job has transitioned mostly into the world of administrative tasks — lots of meetings, budgets, proposals, notes, and the like. I no longer spend much time writing any sort of code, editing large images, or editing audio and video. I’m not saying I don’t do those things from time to time, but my daily grind is built around the production and consumption of information in a mobile environment … I read a lot, I write a lot, and I spend all sorts of time fighting with my calendar. So with that, here are my new top five “must haves” for living in the new mobile computing Universe (ignoring email and calendar software completely):

  • Evernote has become one of my most valued tools. I haven’t ponied up for a paid account, so I am using it for free … I’m not sure I will pay, but the new features of the premiere account have my wondering. I love that I can take, find, and share notes from any platform in an application that is client based but syncs beautifully via the web. The image search is amazing and I just bought a new iPhone case from Griffin with a macro lens adaptor so I can take pictures of business cards and store them there as well. Having things where I need them — no matter what machine/device I am on is critical. I couldn’t imagine going back to a world where I don’t have Evernote.
  • My blog is still a very important part of how I keep things together. I’m not talking about the WordPress platform at all … as a matter of fact I use my WordPress blog for personal reasons, while my PSU blog is powered by MovableType. Both serve similar functions, but I have worked out (in my mind at least) a rationale for when I use what. Without the blog space, things get crazy fast. I need a place to write and reflect … it is just part of how I work through things.
  • At work I use a couple of wiki services to keep lots of information up to date. At ETS we have a MediaWiki installation in place for project updates and content creation. At PSU we have a pilot implementation of Confluence that is becoming the defacto place for our larger organizational work. I don’t think I’d be able to really function without some sort of wiki service. Just too critical to easily create and share content in an environment like that.
  • This may seem like a cop-out, but I am going to lump five online services into one must have … Flickr, YouTube, La La, Facebook, and BaseCamp are all part of my day to day workflow in huge ways. My Flickr Pro account is a critical piece to my online archiving approach … I use Aperture at home and tag my favorite pictures with five stars on import. Usually a couple times a month I move those pictures, at full resolution, to Flickr for a social off-site back up solution. I’ve been using YouTube as a backend storage location for all my video (I no longer keep it on my laptop after import/editing) … I love that people are there and that I can generate online conversations without any real overhead. La La is a killer online tool that has allowed me to stop carting around gigs of music on multiple computers. They have a nifty uploader that searches your music library and unlocks those songs for online listening. FaceBook has completely replaced email with distant friends. I now keep in contact with a specific network of folks via the FB platform … I can chat, share pictures, links, updates, and all sorts of stuff without opening any other apps or services. I can see how down the line I could move more of my life to FB. BaseCamp has become the go to place for project management tasks at ETS and I love that I can get to it anytime anyplace. I could never go back to MS Project … even without the gantt charts, BC rules for me.
  • Clearly I still need to edit and create documents, so I do use the Google Doc tools to do word processing, spreadsheet work, and more and more, presentations. I do have iWork on my machine and I do my high end finishing work there, but on a day to day basis I spend most of my office-like productivity time in Google Docs. I do use the collaborative features, but I mainly use it to open and create new Word-compatible documents.

I am guessing there are other tools I use, but this list pretty much sums up what works for me. One that I am still working with and am starting to really like is Dropbox. It creates a local, synchornized folder on each of your machines that lets you move files back and forth. I also have a Mobile Me account that should do the same, but I find the iDisk piece of that to be really too slow. Before I’d pay for Dropbox, I’ll give Mobile Me another shot. At any rate, that is my list … I am curious what tools people find are must haves for managing a mobile existence. Any thoughts?

Our Year in the Cloud?

I have been thinking about the trend towards really small and really cheap laptops — Netbooks, as they are referred to — and their use of web-based applications for productivity. I had our IT group order a Netbook (from Dell) before the Holiday break so we can start to better understand the overall affordances of underpowered, cheap, portable machines that manage to do the things most students really need to do relatively easily.

Students tell us that they spend a majority of their computing time checking email, updating Facebook profiles, and logging into ANGEL for course related stuff. We also know that most (upwards of 90%) of our students come to campus with laptops only to leave them behind in their dorms or apartments. They claim they are too big and heavy to carry, the batteries sort of suck, that our classroom desks don’t support them appropriately, and that we don’t put power where they need it. This could all be set to change this year with the introductions of not just hardware that fits their lifestyles, but cloud-based services that are ready to compete with desktop applications.

If you walk into a Target store (or go online) you’ll see sub $500.00 Netbooks mixed in with the iPods and digital cameras. This is a shift from the notion that computers are something special, not just another piece of consumer electronics. I told several people before the Holiday that I thought we’d see a decent percentage of our students return from the break with newly purchased Netbooks just waiting to see how they run in our (and their) enterprise. As long as they can install the PSU Cisco VPN they’ll be able to connect to the wireless network in most places, so I am guessing they will want to find ways to take advantage of the new machine sitting in front of them.

Asus EEE

Asus EEE Next to Tissue Package

They already indicate they spend a lot of time on Facebook (23% of the students who use FB at PSU report spending more than 5 hours a week on it), so I am guessing they are really familiar and comfortable with the idea of storing things in the cloud … even if they don’t fully understand what is going on. This is an indication that if a service emerges that makes their lives more meaningful they will adopt it quickly. This is constitutes an opportunity for us to market some of our emerging services to a new set of eyes and ears (I am thinking of Blogs at PSU and Adobe Connect in particular).

I am betting the use of Google Docs is rising, but is still relatively small compared to Microsoft Office — with an ultra-portable that will change. Right now I am guessing most students still write in traditional analog notebooks — with an ultra-portable that may change. The adoption of collaborative tools by faculty has been slowly increasing, but with more students able to actively participate online while in a classroom we’ll see a sharp increase there as well. Will the Netbook prove to be the tipping point towards greater utilization of the online services many of us spend quite a bit of time taking advantage of? I am betting on yes.

Aside from Netbooks, the notion of the really powerful hand held device is set to explode as well. The iPhone and now the iPod Touch have emerged as real computing platforms. There are limitations for doing much of the work a student needs to do in a classroom — namely typing — but that is merely a hack or a dock away from being taken care of. I almost wonder if the Netbook is a little late to the party … will iPhones and iPod Touches get the market share first? Perhaps, but no matter how you slice it up the landscape on our campuses is starting to change in a radical way and it is a real opportunity for us to promote technology for teaching and learning in new ways.

air_smallI spent at least half of this past year living mostly on a MacBook Air and I have been very happy with my transition to a mostly cloud based portable experience. I don’t have Office, Adobe PhotoShop, or many other large apps running on it — and I don’t miss them one bit. I have adopted Google Docs, learned how to use Apple’s built in Preview App and iPhoto to do image editing, taken lots of notes in Evernote, listened to my music online at La La, and have used this space and my PSU blog as an outboard brain with much success. I’ve found relying on local storage as being a limiting factor — and I am betting that more and more students will move in this direction this year. We are finally seeing the alignment of hardware, interest, and online services come into focus … I think this could be the year we all start to really get it. Anyone have any thoughts?