Sanity in the Age of Digital Overload

I often conduct a workshop called “Organize Your Digital Self” and the last section of the workshop is on staying sane in a world with so many ways to go into digital overload.  Here are a few of my favorites apps and programs for staying sane:

StayFocusd is a Chrome Extension that lets you choose websites (like Facebook or casual games sites) that you want to limit your time on.  You decide how much time is enough, and then StayFocusd will warn you when you’re getting close to your limit and cut you off for the day once you’ve surpassed it.  Sure, you can open another browser, but if the point is to be more cognizant of how you’re wasting time, it does a good job reminding you.

WorkRave is  designed to help prevent repetitive stress injuries (like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) but it also works very well to force you to take a break.  If you’re one of those people that can sit for hours working at the computer without even realizing that an hour has gone by, try a program like WorkRave.  You can decide how long you want to work in one sitting, how long you want to break, and how long you want your “snooze” to be before you really have to take that break.  Use your break times to talk to your family, spend time with your pets, go breath in some fresh air, get the mail, etc. The point is to force yourself to get up from your computer and do something else.  I’d experiment with the optimum continuous focused work time – for some it is 45 min, for others it is 90 minutes.

RescueTime is a bit like having your very own “big brother.”  Once you install it, it can track how much time you spend where on your computer (not just the Internet, but also your desktop, Windows or Mac).  So if you think you’re spending 3 hours a day answering email, it can verify that or it might tell you that the 3 hours is actually spent in Farmville.  RescueTime can also block distracting sites, so you can kill two birds with one stone – track time and block sites that are wasting time.  If you’re into the Quantified Self movement or you want students to track some data of their own for a project, the time-tracking reports and graphs from RescueTime are great (see video RescueTime Reports).  To measure just your online activities, there is now a RescueTime Chrome Extension too.

Part of staying sane is not becoming distracted and following link after link “down the rabbit hole” of time suck.  Readability is a great little browser extension for Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.  Their mission? “With one click, turn any webpage into a clean comfortable reading view.” Not only does Readability strip out all the extra links and advertisements on an article you’re trying to read, but it allows you to set your preferences for margins, background, text color, font, font size, columns, and more.  Subscribers to Readability can save web articles for later reading, send articles to a mobile device, and sync with Kindle.  The video that follows is a 1-minute tour of Readability.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dropbox, which is one of those programs that has changed my workflow and contributed greatly to my ease of mind.  This is one that you will have to pay for if you want more than 2 GB of space (and trust me, you will).  Here’s the idea: if you’re working on multiple computer systems, dropbox makes a file folder on each computer and a mirror image of that folder “in the cloud.”   Whatever you drop into the folder on your computer, that file is mirrored in your Dropbox account in the cloud and then on the other computers synced to your account.  The beauty of this is that you can edit a file on your home computer, close it, drive to work, and after you boot up the computer there, the new version of the file will be sitting in the Dropbox on that computer.  You can also access any of the files in your Dropbox on any computer and on mobile devices by logging in to your Dropbox account.  This is invaluable when you suddenly have to present off someone else’s computer.  The ease of mind comes from knowing that if a disaster occurs and all your computers are lost, the Dropbox with all your important stuff will still be sitting there in the cloud waiting for you.  Dropbox has gotten some negative press lately over encryption practices, but the reality is that their encryption practices are better than most of our private security practices (if your work requires a security clearance, try another system).

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Digital Decluttering: Get Control of Your Unruly Data

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This week, I tackled a non-digital task that has been driving me nuts for years.  I had one spice rack and two spice drawers, but whenever I needed to find a spice, I ended up looking in all three places. Even worse, I had to pull out every single jar to read what was on the label.  During this process, I often discovered that I had  duplicate spice jars or that I was completely out of the spice I was looking for.  Over the winter break I purchased a 48  little glass jars with white tops, and yesterday I moved all the spices into these jars, labeling the side and the top of each with the name of the spice.  Sure enough – there were duplicates, there were empty jars, and in the end, I got this unruly collection down to one drawer of neatly organized spices.  Now that it has some uniform structure to it, I can find the spice I am looking for easily and quickly check for the spices I need when I am making a grocery list.

spicedrawer

What would be the equivalent of this organizational task in our digital world?  For me, the digital spices are all the miscellaneous and unruly pieces of information about professional trips I take during the year, including flights, presentation titles, speaking fees, lodging, who I’m meeting for dinner and on which nights, who is reimbursing me, etc.  This information is all over my computer and the Internet (in email, on websites, and in files).  Every time I got ready to go on a trip, I found myself in a panic, hoping that I’ve got all the right information and that I hadn’t forgotten something crucial (like booking a hotel room).  Like the spices, the details for each trip are fairly similar in structure, but they lack the proper “container” to hold all the information.

In the last year I’ve begun using TripIt (which is free) to hold all the travel and lodging information for trips (you can just forward your emailed confirmation bookings to TripIt and they are all imported into one place).  Using TripIt has definitely improved how I track trip information, but I’m also worried about losing information about whether I’ve registered (if I need to), when my presentations are, who my contact persons are on the trip, etc.  Maybe there’s a magic web tool to organize all of this (ConferenceIt?), but I haven’t seen it yet.

tripit

During the next year I will be traveling out-of-state on at least ten trips, giving different presentations at each.  Just like with the spice drawer, it was time to get control of this information too.   So I made something of a checklist/table document that lists everything that I would possibly want to know about every trip I take:

  • Event name
  • Location
  • Event date(s)
  • Travel date(s)
  • Funding for event (who’s providing the conference fee?)
  • Funding for travel & lodging (sometimes this is different)
  • Speaking fee (if applicable)
  • Contact info (who is your main contact at the event?)
  • Event website
  • Event Venue (it might not be where you’re lodging)
  • Presentations, times, and technology (Internet, projector, etc.)
  • Other events during this trip (dinners, breakfasts, meetings)
  • Registration (and date paid, if applicable)
  • Travel (flights, mileage, and/or car rental information)
  • Lodging
  • Meals (costs to be added after event)
  • Invoice (how and when did I submit for reimbursement / payment)
  • Payment / Reimbursement (when did I receive reimbursement / payment)

digital-spice-drawer

I’ve gone back through every trip I plan to take in the next six months, and filled out all the data that I currently know for each event.  These are all filed in the appropriate folder in my mega folder called “Conferences” (which also includes miscellaneous speaking engagements).

conference-folders

Now, when I get new information about an event (like a dinner invitation or a change to my presentation time), I don’t have to try to file it away in my personal memory somewhere, I can just open the data file and update the file with the new information.  This blank table is my digital equivalent of the empty glass spice jars with the uniform white tops.

In this case, it was important that I be able to access the data from any computer, so I have the files folders stored in my synced Dropbox (see Sort those Files!).  Another wise place to store these kinds of files would be in a web-based document application like Google Docs, since it would be accessible anywhere with Internet access.

For me, the “digital spice drawer” was my cluttered and hard-to-find trip information, but for you it might be something different.  As you’re going through your normal week, keep an eye out for some aspect of your digital life where you need to get control of some unruly data of your own.

Once you’ve found that “digital spice drawer” in your life,  take the time to bend it to your organizational will.  I would love it if you’d share the examples of your own “digital spice drawers” or other tips on ways to organize them.

You have a week to get this task done before we move on to the next Organize Your Digital Self (OYDS) task.  New assignments will post each Monday.  This is just the tip of the digital decluttering iceberg.

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Digital Decluttering: Sort those files!

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This is Part 2 of a series on how to Organize Your Digital Self.  To view all posts in this series, go here.

My guess is that you manage to accumulate piles of paper in your office, in your home, or maybe even in your car (I accumulate paper in all three places).  At least once a year I attempt to get to the bottom of these stacks and put everything away (this creates clean space to begin accumulating new stacks!).   The goal of file organization would be to create a system for organizing these “stacks” that is so natural to use, that it’s just as easy to put away the paper as it is to stack the papers.

Ironically, sometimes the best way to find that natural system of organization is to first accumulate a “stack.”   After looking through all the crap stuff you accumulate over a period of time, you can start to get a sense for what the natural categorization is.   Sort the “stack” into smaller stacks, and group those according to theme, and re-sort if necessary.

On a computer, we accumulate these “paper stacks” in a slightly different form … files.  If you’ve been accumulating random files on your desktop, or in a folder labeled “Junk”, then I would like to congratulate you on your forward thinking.  You were obviously just gathering these together to help you establish a natural computer file organization system.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Restructure all the really important files you regularly access, plus all those miscellaneous files you’ve been accumulating in computer piles, into (at most) ten file folders.  Bonus points for you if you install a sync / backup for these ten folders while you’re at it.

Why 10 and not more than 10?  You need to have a small enough group of folders that you can see all of them at once.  It needs to be a short enough list that you remember and regularly use all the folders in the list.  Why?  Because if you don’t regularly use a folder, you’ll forget you have it and end up creating a duplicate folder (or subfolder) to gather files.  This might not seem horribly problematic, but as you start to split the files into two locations, you’ll start to lose track of where you’ve put things.

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If your computer has been accumulating files for as long as mine has, you’ll need some ground rules to get started on the herculean task or organizing those unruly files.

  1. Create as many sorting folders as you want to at first. Every time you find at least five related items, put them in a folder together.  These folders may eventually turn out to be subfolders of some larger category, but for now, just sort.
  2. Don’t open the files. Create temporary storage folders called Unfiled.  and No Idea.  This initial sort is a little like that first sort on the show Clean Sweep.  It’s not the time to worry about perfectly sorting every file.  When you honestly have no idea what a file is, put it in No Idea.  If you know you should keep it, but you don’t know how to categorize it, put it in Unfiled.  You may also use Unfiled when you just get tired of sorting, and want to just throw everything left into a folder.  As files begin to accumulate in the Unfiled folder, you’ll find that they start to group together naturally into categories.

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There are some visual ways to make file-sorting easier. For example, you can change the way you view the files.  For some types of files (document files), it’s probably easier to see them in a list view.  For other types of files (images), icons are preferable for easy sorting.

file_organization6_list_view

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In the Detail View, you can click on the column headers to sort (ascending or descending) by that property.

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When you’re done with the primary sort, you should have a collection of miscellaneous folders.  Now you have to look for ways to organize those folders into larger, all-encompassing categories.

I found that I had a lot of folders with specific conference information (proposals, acceptance letters, travel requests, presentations, and notes), so I created a superfolder called Conferences to house all those smaller folders.  Each subfolder is then relabeled in a way that makes them easy to find.  In this case, it’s the name of the conference, year, and location.

file_organization8_folders

I’m not going to lie … this task is likely going to take you a while.  However, if you’re like me, it’s been on your list of  things to do (aka “things you’ll never get to”) for a while.  Well, there’s no time like the present.  And, you can say that I ordered you to do it!

Don’t get caught up into the black hole of opening files and cleaning up the files themselves.  For example, I had to resist the urge to create a database of all my test questions.  I also had to resist the urge to rename all the files in a similar format.  Just don’t go there! At least … not this week.  All you do this week is sort.

When you’re completely done with your 10-folder mission, consider making this the time in your life to sync your computer systems once and for all.   A good syncing program will also create an automatic backup system for your important files.  Let me see if I can explain (easily) how a sync works.

I have two computers: Home and Work.  I’d also want an Internet backup so that (a) I have copies of files if anything happens to the computers and (b) I can access the files from someone else’s computer if necessary.  I pay for a program called Dropbox.  On each computer, there is a “My Dropbox” folder with the exact same set of files.  This “My Dropbox” folder is also on the Internet (accessed with a username & password).  When I make a change to a file on my home computer, it syncs this change to the Internet, and the next time my work computer is on, it picks up the change and saves it on that computer too.  It’s not the entire computer that’s synced, it’s just this particular folder.  There are some kinds of files that you may not want to sync (i.e. personal financial information, student grades, etc.).  Just leave these files in a folder outside of the dropbox.

file_organization2

What’s the real advantage of a sync between computers?  No more duplicate files.  You will never again open a file, only to discover that it’s the version from several weeks ago instead of yesterday’s version.  That’s just awesome.

One word of caution.  Once you have a sync established, tackle the file sorting at a reasonable pace (go for 15 minutes at a time, instead of a massive 4-hour sorting session).  If you sort and rename too many files too fast, your sync (on multiple machines) may not be able to keep up with you (or, ignore my advice and learn this the hard way).

So, find those orphaned files, and give yourself 15 minutes every day to do nothing but sort those files.   If you have additional tips about ways you’ve found to sort piles o’ files, please comment them in!

You have a week to get this task done before we move on to the next Organize Your Digital Self (OYDS) task.  New assignments will post each Monday.  This is just the tip of the digital decluttering iceberg.

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Computer Lockdown is a Good Thing

Whenever I give a presentation at a college or conference, someone always asks the question.  You know.  THAT question.

“Just how much time do you spend at the computer every day?”

I’m not sure if I really don’t want to know, or I know, but I don’t want to acknowledge it.  It’s a lot.  In the last year I’ve gained a few pounds and that’s got to be reversed, so I’ve once again instituted the “Computer Lockdown” program (which my husband absolutely hates).

workpace

What is the “Computer Lockdown” program, you ask?  (well, thanks for asking)  It’s actually a software program called WorkPace designed to prevent RSI (repetitive strain injury).  After intensive periods of typing it locks the keyboard for a few seconds to force you to rest your fingers.  But that’s not the primary reason I use it.  The reason I use WorkPace is that I can force myself to take computer breaks.  My computer will actually lock me out and no amount of cajoling or rebooting will let me back in for 10 minutes.

This forces me to get up and walk around, maybe get a little exercise, give my dogs a good scratch, go out on the deck and get some sun … in other words, re-engage with the world.  This is a good thing.

Now, if that sounds scary to you (and if it does, you’ve probably got the same work-obsessed problem as me), you can decide just how forceful you want WorkPace to be.  Do you just want it to be annoying, but not lock you out?  Do you want mandatory lockout once an hour?  Or maybe you only want lockout after 10 hours in one day.  All these things can be adjusted.

If you don’t want to pay anything to have your comptuer lock you out, there’s another (similar) program called WorkRave, which is not as adjustible but does have a cuter logo.

workrave

I’ve tried both in the past, but liked WorkPace a little better (but I can’t exactly remember why).

There is one other aspect to this “mandatory break” thing that I really like.  Every hour I am forced to account (at least mentally) for what I actually accomplished in the last hour.  Did I wander aimlessly about the Internet?  Did I really focus on replying to student emails?  Do I need to regroup for my next hour of work?

Uh oh.  That’s my warning.  About to be …

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