Tag Archives: efficiency

Tech Confession and the Purpose of a Teaspoon

Confession: I manage my volunteer mailing list on a Word document.

Glue Henge by sappymoosetree on Flickr

Glue Henge by sappymoosetree on Flickr

It’s true.  Even though I enjoy Excel formulas and mail merges, have harsh words for presenters who don’t know the ins and outs of PowerPoint, have actually built more than one relational database, and love to find the optimal information tool for a given task.  I am that person, and I copy and paste my mailing list from a Word document.

It didn’t used to be this way.  In my old job at the main office, my Outlook contacts list was a well-organized-frequently-mail-merged thing of beauty.  But when I got to my new job at the learning center a little over a year ago, I only had Outlook Webmail.  Managing contacts solely with webmail is pretty much impossible.  Word was there, I used it, and it worked.  Months later, my nonprofit helped me install real, actual Outlook Anywhere on the learning center’s laptop (I’m unable to install anything on the main computer, which is library property).  And months after that, I have yet to rework my emailing system.

Three thoughts on this:

Spoon theory by scribbletaylor on Flickr

Spoon theory by scribbletaylor on Flickr

And now to the teaspoon:

This type of situation leads me to think broadly about the fact that people need more than initial training and ongoing Q and A to work effectively with digital technology; we need support in the form of quality tools. Even the people who “get” digital technology are severely hampered by slow, outdated, and/or limiting applications and hardware. When we have to figure out how to make our antiquated or locked-down equipment be good enough “in our spare time,” it either just doesn’t happen or it happens at the expense of the rest of our jobs.

I wish that the demands put on educators, especially in this age of obsession with computer-based and distance learning, could be accompanied by thoughts like, “Do they have the tools to accomplish this well?” or even better, “We should ask them what tools they need to facilitate these desired outcomes and then follow through.”

If all I have is a teaspoon and you’re surprised I’m not hammering nails with it, there’s a problem and it’s not with me.

One-Page Strategic Plan!

My organization has a one-page strategic plan, and it’s pretty much the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

Go us!

Seriously, I’ve been a skeptic of the net value of a strategic plan given the amount of time put into writing it and the likelihood of it being used. With this one, though? Consider me on board!

My Latest Lists

At work, I’ll periodically get this sinking feeling that I’m forgetting to do something.

Juggling Now, Soon, and In Two Months is hard for me – they don’t feel like they should be on the same list. Also, a list with 25 things on it, some huge and some small, can be kind of scary.

Pen and Paper by LucasTheExperience on Flickr

Pen and Paper by LucasTheExperience on Flickr

I’ve tried Checkvist and liked it, and I’ve tried Google Calendar Tasks, but the main problem with both is two-fold:  it doesn’t feel concrete to me when it’s electronic, and I can avoid the list by just not opening the list’s webpage.  Lifehacker has an interesting poll on the five best To-Do List Managers, and for them as for me, pen and paper won.

My latest strategy:

  1. Write down every task or project I can think of. I work on this for a day or so to ensure it’s as complete as possible.
  2. Estimate time per task. In the left margin, I write in the estimated minutes it will take.  This step eliminates a lot of “this list is scary!” for me.  “60 minutes of stats” is easier for me to tackle than “annoyingly time-consuming volunteer stats.”
  3. Rewrite the list in two columns: Longer Term and Shorter Term.  I fill in some details like due dates and collaborators in Longer Term.  I just make a plain bulleted list of the shorter-term projects (which are usually 60 minutes or less).  The process of rewriting it helps me internalize it.
  4. Circle my first four tasks. This way I can evaluate what my next priority is in a quick and ongoing way.
  5. Check them off when they’re done. It feels gooood.  :)
  6. Keep my list in plain sight. The list lives just to the left of my computer.  It does not get put away, it does not travel, it does not get buried.  And it gets more and more crossed off until it’s done.

It’s not perfect.  I think they keys that make it work for me are that I sit down and really think about it in terms of minutes and that it’s always on my desk and in my face.

What makes a To-Do system work for you?

Is it cheating to make things easier?

Juggle Strobe by Sam UL on Flickr

Juggle Strobe by Sam UL on Flickr

Wednesdays are new student registration day at my learning center.  I’d never get anything done if I took new students whenever they walked in or called, so I have everyone come to fill out their application and take their placement test on one evening out of the week.

Yesterday I had 8 students signed up for registration, and I usually get additional people who haven’t contacted me.  That would have been pretty chaotic, even for me.  So I did the unthinkable.  I asked for help.

It was great.  My volunteer told people about the schedule and helped with the application.  Then I could focus on finding the right test for each student and monitoring their progress. We ended up only having five new students (it was about 3 degrees outside, so I wasn’t surprised) but it was still a much calmer, more controlled process than other nights with five or so intakes.

So I want to know why it took me so long to ask for help, and why it still feels a little like cheating to change the system so that I’m not needing to juggle five (or eight) people at once.

Investing Time in the Process

Sometimes we still think like the small program we were just a few years ago.

Our program has seen exponential growth in the past few years.  We have accomplished amazing things.  Our trajectory is to double again in two years, which is both daunting and exciting.  One way to smooth this is to focus on processes: you need them, you need to be able to share / replicate them easily, and they need to be as streamlined as possible.  In other words, you should take the time to write them down.

I think we could have been much more efficient even just in these past couple of months by simply writing down everything we taught a temp how to do, or even having our temps keep up the lists.  It would have taken slightly longer to do the first time, but would have left us with an easy-to-replicate process.  Simple time-investment.  Instead, with every new temp and new employee, we’ve had to reinvent the wheel, racking our brains to figure out what to teach them when and how.  It’s a waste of time.  It happens because we go into it in a one-time mentality when it’s really a piece of a pattern that will repeat.

I’m really not a person who’s all about standardizing and formalizing, but when you have a big program, it’s the only effective way to do it.

How do you go about transitioning your thinking from small-scale to large-scale?  What are best practices for understanding what should be a process and creating and using said process?

Librarian Tip for Nonprofits: 90-Second YouTube

I was reading the May 2008 issue of American Libraries and the Internet Librarian column by Joseph Janes jumped out at me with the potential to be immediately useful to me at work (which is not in a library).

I help run a program at a literacy nonprofit, and a lot of people contact me and my colleagues all the time with a large volume of questions.  Now don’t get me wrong – I’m one of those people who actually gets a kick out of answering questions.  It’s just that as I mentioned in my last post, when we’re bombarded with questions, especially redundant ones, it’s extremely difficult to do the rest of of our jobs done.

This article, “Spring Awakening,” describes how the Cornell University Library ended up making 90-second YouTube clips for their incoming first-years about basic research concepts.

As Janes points out, this isn’t earth-shattering, but as he also points out, it doesn’t need to be earth-shattering in order to be dead useful; it just needs to 1) address the need and 2) actually happen.

It brings to mind a huge site I used a few times in college called Atomic Learning.  Schools can subscribe to it to give their students access to tons of tiny (“atomic”) learning modules.  My college subscribed to it, but I don’t have access to it now that I’m out of school, and I think the focus was watching, not creating your own.  The brilliance of using YouTube instead is that it’s free, allows participation on both sides, is easy to embed, and simple to access.

How powerful would it be to have even a couple of 90-second videos addressing super-common questions!  I’m so excited to bring this to the team and see what we can make of it.  I’m thinking that even if we can’t do video, a cute (and very brief) Slideshare really should be doable.  Or hey, even a Voki if we’re feeling cartoony.

Have you done something like this?  How has it gone?  Can you use this kind of resource in your organization?  What can help bring this from the “idea” stage to the “actually happening” stage?

Solution: Posterous

Thanks so much to Amy Sample Ward for blogging about Posterous!  Just email them content and they post it for you.  Woah.

This is exactly the kind of tool I should have used back when I started a blog without home internet.  There’s no process for signing up, you don’t have to do any account managing or appearance adjusting if you don’t want to, and they embed your media for you.  Yes, this helps people who aren’t familiar with much web technology beyond email.  It also reduces time commitment for anybody, no matter how tech-savvy.

It was a piece of excellent timing, because we were just brainstorming at work about some low-cost, low-time-investment ways to improve (specifically Web 2.0-ize) our website as we bide our time till a major overhaul.  Posterous would be a great way to post our informational emails as a blog; this would make them accessible to people who don’t want more email and also put them in a format that welcomes comments and discussion.  The best thing about this is we can just add post@posterous.com to our mailing list and it will post automatically.  Very exciting for a bunch of efficient nonprofiters!

I tested out my own just now.  The chief lessons I learned are that it is instant, the default style is clean white with orange links, you can BCC them, and that you should send photos as attachments rather than as links.   Things to explore: getting a better URL, changing the title, adjusting the look.

What do you think?  Who is this useful for?

Transparency and “Good” Applicants

Many thanks to Lifehacker.com for starting a discussion on the apparently heated debate of résumé length.  I was surprised at how many different (and vehement!) opinions were out there.  Great points were brought up about the number of applicants and experience level.

My initial thought: employers should state what they’re looking for.  They post jobs and qualifications, why not post expectations?  It doesn’t seem difficult.  And why limit this to résumé length?  Wouldn’t HR’s job be easier if every company had a page of their website called, “How to be a good applicant” or some such?  Kind of like a twitter landing-page that Beth Kanter blogged about a couple of weeks ago, or email etiquette pages like ThanksNo.com (thanks again, Lifehacker!) you can refer people to.  

What would we call it – an applicant splash page?  Why be so secretive about the basics of our organizational cultures?  Do the benefits of such passive-aggression outweigh the potential benefits of increased transparency?  Would it help or hurt efficiency?  Would applicants like this or be irked by it?  Do some organizations already use one, and if so how is it working?

Taking Back My Environment

This was an amazing weekend.  I had four glorious days to myself!  I got a lot done in my apartment that I’d been putting off, and the result is that I have room in my closets, a desk, and a much smaller population of dust-bunnies.  I’ve effectively expanded my living space now that my desk is a place where I can spend time, and all those pesky tasks of day-to-day living will be easier now that I can find things and put them away.

Even though I’m not quite prepared to start thinking about work again just yet, I definitely noticed myself thinking that it would be nice to spend some time getting a handle on my office environment again.  I think it would make a huge difference in how I feel at work and in how fast I can find things.  I don’t think I’ll be able to work in cleaning/organization/de-cluttering time this week, but I’m thinking that it needs to become a priority for a day sometime before mid-July.  Because wow.

There are a million tips for getting and staying organized all over the Internet.  I didn’t look at any of them.  Three mindsets that worked for me this weekend:

  1. Go for high-impact bulk stuff first.  In other words, don’t start by dusting your DVD collection; start by washing and putting away the 11 loads of laundry floating around the apartment.
  2. Get rid of things.  Ask yourself, “Am I really going to take this item with me if I move in a year?”
  3. Take a moment to decorate your space.  For instance, my desk is now clear of piles of junk, and that’s great.  I also took 5 minutes to decorate the area with miscellaneous pictures that were floating around – a fun reward for present-Emily and future-Emily.
I’d love to hear what works for everyone else out there!

Analyze Smart

I looked back at last week’s posts on investing time.  I still think the points that I made are valid, which is a good sign I guess.  

Something that framework overlooks is analyzing why the present feels the way it does.  Why do I feel overwhelmed today?  What is weighing on me?  What can I do about it?

For me it came down to a large, long-term database project I had taken on.  I was having a lot of trouble finding time to work on it; even though it was a huge investment in the program’s future, it kept getting trumped by the mini-crisis of the day.  

Time was very seriously running out.  Whenever I flee the office to work off-site I feel like it’s a bit of a cop-out, but I put any of those reservations aside.  The database was too important to worry about that.  I badgered around the office until I found a PC laptop to borrow.  I looked at my calendar, saw some blocks of time with nothing scheduled, and then I scheduled them as busy.  I told my supervisor I would be working on the database off-site at those times.  

Then I did it.  And we now have a database.

Why did it take me so long to do what I knew would work?  Is working at the local Bean Factory actually a cop-out?  What could I have done if I’d had no choice but to work on-site?