To-do lists, calendars, emails to self, etc.

I was reading the article “Why Calendars are More Effective than To Do Lists” by Srinivas Rao
and that reminded me of what I just wrote about how I was able to improve my productivity by using a few tools, including to-do lists. So I decided to think a little bit more about it and give my perspective on it.

Let me take this on abstract approach first and then I’ll try to map to tools:

  1. Write things down on a place that is easy to write and read
  2. Establish a routine of doing work based on what is written on the aforementioned place with daily/weekly/whatever-frequency objectives
  3. Build artificial scarcity to help prioritize long term goals
  4. Be as rigid as you can be, but make sure that your tool easily support flexibility where you can be flexible (e.g. you want to water the plants once a week, it doesn’t have to be stuck to every Monday just because that’s what you can schedule on your tool)
  5. Use recurring tasks as much as possible. They prevent you from having to think about the task twice every time you are going to do it: the first time to write it down and the send time to do it.

So now let’s think about common tools people use for doing this:

  1. Calendars
  2. To-Do lists
  3. Email inbox
  4. Paper notepad
  5. Sticky notes

So let’s go one at a time:

Calendar (the digital type)

It’s a great contender. You usually have it close to you at all times, and it’s where you track the things that have specific time to happen (like meetings), so it would make sense to be the place to look at things to do when you don’t have scheduled things. Also calendars have been great at doing recurring events (every day, every Tuesday, etc.).

However, calendars are not good at “fuzzy” scheduling. They don’t provide prioritization for things that need to happen. They also don’t allow for vague deadlines, like within the next couple of days. Finally, calendars are very day or week oriented, while things to do are actually oriented towards the now and the near future. So having a good view of what your availability is in one place is not that easy.

To-Do Lists

Those are great for providing you a view of specific tasks that need to be done, allow you to quickly prioritize, mark done, postpone. They give you a clear list of what needs to be done now and in the future and doesn’t really “sweat” about the past. Also, some to-do lists support recurring tasks.

On the other hand, they are not very good at supporting the “rigid” part of a person’s day. Meetings are still on a calendar forcing you to look at two different places in order to make a decision what to do next. To-Do lists also don’t necessarily integrate very well with other tools (like email to link you directly to the email you need to reply to, or document you want to finish). Forcing you to do a lot of extra work to do work.

Email inbox

For people where their lives are around emails, having an email to represent a task and using something like Google’s Inbox that allows you to “snooze” emails for a day, can allow you to postpone tasks and not lose track of them. Also email provides you with good integration and plenty of space to add as much information as you’d want (including images).

On the other hand, email clients are not very good at allowing you to easily prioritize things on your inbox. They tend to be time-sorted and that’s it. Also, like to-do lists, they don’t capture the rigid part of your day (calendar). Emails don’t support recurring “emails”. Finally, there is a lot of distractions that come to your email, adding cleaning your inbox to the job of planning your things to do, which is out of your control. You can have an independent inbox just for it, but that can be harder to manage.

Paper notepad

Paper notepads are very fast for entering new ideas. They can be textual or diagram-based. They also work when your phone has no battery.

On the other hand, you need to take them around with a pen, while, in general, it can be taken for granted that you will have your phone around. Re-prioritizing things is difficult. There is no support to recurring events. Moving events to the next day means scratching the event from one page and moving to the next (or something like that). They don’t integrate with anything else so you will find yourself doing a lot of moving around between environments. Searchability is an issue, so you have to keep your list short and focused only on the things to be done in the next couple of days.

Sticky notes

Provides the same advantages of notepads with also the ability to quickly reprioritize things. It allows you to color-code tasks giving some idea of context/priority. It is a very powerful visual solution to keeping track of things (that’s why it’s used by a lot of project planning approaches)

On the other hand, it works best with a board, which makes it less mobile. Also it has the searchability issue. It has some level of recurring approach, but you need to just move the sticky note somewhere else when done.

Conclusion

Overall, I actually don’t think there is a best solution. I think it depends a lot of how rigid your calendar is. If your day is 80% scheduled meetings, keeping things all on the calendar might be very advantageous. However, if your day is only 10% meetings and your tasks are less scheduled with pressing deadlines, then maybe a to-do list might work best for you.

None of them exactly handles artificial scarcity. Maybe there is some scarcity around how many hours you have in a day (real scarcity) or how much you can see on a page, but that’s very limiting and doesn’t give you a two-directional approach (you cannot do task Y until you do X). For that I actually use a database, but I wished I could solve it all with a single tool.

Maybe one day I’ll take on this project (again) and see what I can develop. And attitudes like this is what makes me agree with the theory that everybody needs to learn to write software. Everybody can have ideas like what works best for them that would never really be translated exactly to software that is available out-of-the-box. This is because a software that can adapt to all possible user’s needs would just be too complicated to use. That is, until we figure out how to use AI tools to simplify software use. Yes… there goes another project idea…

Maybe back here again?

I’ve been going through a phase of challenging myself to do things that I haven’t been doing often and, oddly enough, it has been working pretty well. I’ve been going to the gym twice a week (well, it’s been a week now that I haven’t gone, but it’s because I decided to hurt myself doing something yet unknown, probably gym-related), work on core strength, improve the health of my back, read more books and scientific articles, and work on projects at home.

I think the main trick that I’ve bee using is based on the following logic:

  1. Keep things simple and consistent
  2. Set recurring goals with some level of adjustment
  3. Track them (I’m using both a to-do list with fairly powerful capabilities for setting recurring to-dos, Todoist; and a web-based database, Airtable)
  4. Compensate for work done – basically I get to watch 2 hours of some TV show/movie for every hour that I go to the gym for

Unfortunately I still have more things that I want to change! Things are right now very inward-focused (either just me, or my immediate family, or my work). The next step is to expand my horizons, make sure that I don’t forget important friendships. I just need to figure out how to keep to the same logic and accomplish those things. Challenges are exciting!

Anyway, what does that have to do with blogging? We’ll see… I’m actually working now on a company that is not very strict about what I can write about and what I can’t, like Amazon was, so that’s one of my outward-focused things that I’ll try to cultivate. First thing probably will be a blog post about being away from Amazon for 6 months and how that feels. Soon!

The amazing power of Comcast

A week ago or so I received a robo call from Comcast/Xfinity saying that my current cable modem as too old and it will not support the speed improvements that they were doing with their network. But I was eligible for a free upgrade and I had to reply to some mail that I was going to receive or go to some website for more information.

When you receive a message implying that my internet could be faster, of course I complied and requested a new cable modem. And that cable modem arrived yesterday.

Before I installed it, I decided to do a speed check and then compare with the speed of the new modem. Surprise: nothing changed! I still have 30Mbps down and 6Mbps up after installing the new modem (which, by the way, is about double the size of the old one). So, besides the size, what is new? A couple of “Trojan Horse” things:

  1. Support for their phone service: if I decide to use the Xfinity phone service, I don’t need a new box, they just need to activate it and I connect a phone to the back of it and I’m good to go.
  2. Expansion of their “free” WiFi system: basically everybody that has their router receive the ability to have an “xfinitywifi” network. I actually don’t care too much about it. I do believe that they could have gotten the technology right and create an isolated network that does not use the same IP that I have and will not affect my bandwidth much. My concern with it is:
    1. It adds even more WiFi networks around me – see the list below
    2. It’s not trivial to turn it off. I can’t even turn off the WiFi that comes with it to use internally. I already have WiFi at home and I spent a lot of time having to expand my network to put the WiFi in a place that the whole house is able to work, and that’s not anywhere close to where the cable modem is.

Thanks, Comcast…

Thinking of the new Squarespace 7

It’s actually interesting what is going on with user interfaces… Basically little by little, everything migrates to WYSIWYG-style. Squarespace 6 was a step in that direction but created a very strange environment in which you could edit the site “inline” or on a different UI. And some things would be editable in one place, others in another (e.g. sidebars would be configured in one place (show/hide/left-right), and populated in another). It was very strange, but, at the same time, it would make it cleaner to see the preview without a lot of menus appearing when you mouse over things, etc.

Now Squarespace moved to their version 7 and pretty much got rid of the non-inline editing mode. Now all my edits happen directly on the preview. It’s pretty cool as a technology, but it does bring an interesting set of challenges. For example, on the SJC website if I hover on the menu on top in edit mode, there is an overlay of “Navigation | Edit” that actually covers part of my menu! Also sometimes my mouse is hovering on something and I don’t notice and suddenly there is “extra content” on my page that I didn’t expect.

But it does streamline editing. I haven’t played with it that much, but I think it’s a step on the right direction. The most important thing that they did right this time, that they couldn’t do with the Squarepace 5 to 6 transition is that it’s a feature that I can turn on for my website and not a matter of redoing the whole website as they required for the previous transition. Great job, Squarespace!

New year!

It’s now 5775, huh? That’s amazing how an year can go by that quickly. 5776 was an amazing year. A lot of stress, a lot of learning, a lot of changes. 5775 is likely to be completely different from any other year. Work will still be there and still be busy. Outside that, nothing will stay the same. But that’s a good thing! Looking forward to it.

Besides that, I don’t really have anything new to report. A lot of ideas going through my head right now, but no way to actually act on any of them. It’s probably the sleep deprivation causing my brain to go into an overdrive of sorts. Probably they are all really bad ideas, which is something that also happens when you are sleep-deprived. Anyway, Shanah Tovah everybody! And ready for a week of reflecting about my past year. I think this one is going to be easier than the last couple.

Funny blog comment spam

Apparently I still have old blogs laying around out there that allow people to spam the comments. Most of the time those spam messages are boring. I get things like “I really like your post. You should check my blog”. But this one, while in the same class, was funny because of a number of things. Before I enumerate them, though, let me paste the comment (links removed to not drive people to and from their site, as I don’t know what it is):

 

Thai recipes commented on Challenged by real-world ontologies – recipes

One of my apparently never-ending projects that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about lately is how to build a system to …

Have you ever thought about creating an ebook or guest authoring on other blogs?
I have a blog based on the same topics yoou discuss and would love tto have you share some stories/information. I know
my readers would apprecioate yiur work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to shoott me an e mail.

So, what makes it funny in my opinion:

  1. Spelling: if you want to try to get somebody to guest author in your blog, or something like that, make sure you are a good writer so that people want to be “seen” with your posts.
  2. Topic: my blog post is about ontologies about recipes and not recipes themselves. The “person” that commented comes from a blog called “Thai recipes”, which doesn’t seem to be very related.
  3. Lack of specificity: if you are trying to convince somebody to join you, you should be a little bit more specific what you think can be the help on both directions.
  4. ebook? I didn’t get the reference to writing one. Why would I be flattered if somebody asks me if I want to create an ebook?

Anyway, I don’t even know my password to access that blog anymore (probably I could recover it if I really wanted to), so I don’t plan on doing anything else about it.

I should get back to thinking about recipe ontologies, thought. It was a great source of entertainment. I just need to first get to having time. Today I did have time, but was spent dealing with my backlog at work from my 3-week paternity leave/vacation.