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.

There are No True Emergencies

My wife shared this little gem with me last night as we were talking about the culture in higher education and our tendency to meet all the time. I was thinking it was specific to higher education as I haven’t been in industry for 12 or so years and at that time it was a small start up where we had lots to keep us continuously busy. I especially like the part about managers … how many of us (I’m a manager) perceive our needs for updates and information to more important than the people we manage. I think there is a huge lesson to take away from open conversations like the one Jason Fried (from engages in throughout the video. In so many ways it shows us that we may need to rethink the way we create emergencies and have to react to them nearly every single day within our organizations and instead think about the work that should be getting done as the goal.

“And the truth of the matter is, there are really no true emergencies in business.” I love it … now to remember it.