Category Archives: Uncategorized

My Personal Process

Over the years I’ve blogged about personal productivity–it’s one of the dimensions I enjoy optimizing to get more done at work, and people think I’m good at. This post is what I wish I had at my disposal when I starting my journey down productivity.

A real challenge with reading advice from literature can be how to put things into practice in the real world. I always appreciate it when experts describe or show examples, especially of tools and techniques. This my attempt at doing just that.

In addition to following tried and true advice, like inbox zero, saying no, unsubscribing from worthless email lists, the two-minute rule, trash whatever you can, and the like, here are the tools and techniques I use today:

Individual Tasks

First, I must point out that these are for tracking my own items–not items that should be visible to a broader group. I put those in formal systems like Asana, Clubhouse, etc. That disclaimer aside, here is how I track my personal tasks:

  • Urgent tasks I schedule on Google Calendar as a time-bound event. Stephen Covey would be proud.
  • Future-urgent or top-of-list important items I put in my Google Calendar Tasks because I can place them on specific dates I suspect I will complete them on. Yes, when I’m busy there’s some drag-and-drop from day to day or week to week.
  • I manage private text files for “_Me”, other people (e.g. “Jim”), or departments (e.g. “QA”) to track open action items, whether committed to or future, possible work. I use indentation or bullets to nest subtasks. I find the relative lack of structure much easier to manage than something like Asana or other task managers. Depending on my connectivity needs, these have been text files on my computer, Google Docs, or Evernote notes. I only ever use one tool during a season of life. I never try to use multiple text editing platforms for tasks.

Email

  • I BCC followupthen.com whenever sending an email I need a timely response to and yet don’t trust the recipients to reply by a specific date.
  • I immediately star sent emails that require a reply but that are not time-sensitive. If someone responds later and the thread is effectively closed, I un-star it before archiving. I sift through these starred messages periodically to unstar items that are no longer relevant, were in-fact resolved. If it is still unresolved, I re-email people nudging them to respond.
  • If I receive an email I don’t want to deal with at the moment, but may be interested in reading several weeks or months later, I will forward it to followupthen.com and archive it immediately.
  • I set up GMail filters to label and skip the inbox for any system-generated messages from apps like GitHub, Clubhouse, or Slack. I then view them at particular points in the day in batch. I additionally have GMail automatically archive and mark as read emails that do not necessitate an action but may be a helpful reference in the future, like receipts from vendors.
  • I schedule a 60-minutes recurring calendar event to get to inbox and Slack zero at a time that makes sense for my schedule (9-10 am). Others can’t schedule meetings during this time. This recurring event ensures I have space to get to inbox zero or as close as I can.

Slack/Group Chat

  • I keep up with it as much as I can, and I ensure others are following Slack etiquette so that we’re not suffocating our own company. Sometimes it’s more appropriate to send an email or hop on a voice or video call.
  • Because I keep up with Slack, I can disable most of its notification settings to focus on the work at hand.
  • I ensure my channel list only shows ones with unread messages for easier catch-up and use my keyboard to jump between channels.
  • I leave any channels I am not deriving value from or contributing value to. I trust someone will @ mention me if I need to rejoin. I left and rejoined some channels a few times in a single day this year. The mute feature is too aggressive; it doesn’t notify me if someone mentions me again in the channel.
  • When I need to get deep work done, I ignore or quit the app. (I can ignore it since I turned off notifications.)

I hope this is helpful for others! Please comment if you need clarification on any of these tactics or have your own to share.

How Well Do You Treat Your Sysadmin/DevOps/Ops Engineer?

Let’s be honest, systems administration, whether working with bare metal or in the cloud, is often worse than a thankless job. If the site is up and running, you’ll get no thanks. If it goes down, you better get it back up quickly…and then explain what just broke. If you need to schedule downtime, well, you have to schedule that for 4 AM on a Saturday and still show up chipper on Monday.

I’ve seen too many ops engineers work themselves to the bone fire-fighting, scaling, and migrating the foundation on which entire businesses stand as if in a full-on marathon…sprinting. They get no chance to breath, normalcy, or arrive at the autonomy or purpose we all seek to earn our work.

Not on my watch. Here are the practices we employ at LearnZillion to make sure our environment is a livable, enjoyable, and rewarding place to be an ops engineer.

We maintain a sane software engineer to ops engineer ratio. I recently talked with an ops engineer who was responsible for the systems behind the company’s 60-person software engineering team. I wish this was an extreme situation or at the least sustainable, but it’s not. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard it either. Whether the software engineers are great or sucky, you’re in for a rough ride when the ratio is stacked against you. Don’t let this happen. Systems take serious work to build and maintain. Don’t ever let an employee drown in work.

We deploy during working hours whenever possible. Our engineering team practices no-downtime, continuous delivery within a time window that allows for issues to shake out before staff go home for the day or weekend. We typically ship Monday through Thursday 8 AM to 3 PM. If a completely shippable deliverable misses that window, we often wait until the next reasonable workday to deploy. We don’t want anyone, in software or in ops, paged while out of the office. It’s a terrible way to live. Strive to keep work at work.

We have reasonable maintenance windows. It took a bit of Google Analytics investigation and some convincing inside the company, but our maintenance window starts at 8 PM EST when we need one. Will this affect users? Yes. Is this the ideal time for users? No. Do we want to save our ops engineers from burnout, sleep deprivation, and insanity, and allow them to live life? Yes! Since we practice continuous delivery, maintenance that requires our site to be offline is rare, so it’s a reasonable trade-off.

We assume it’s a software issue until ops is proven guilty. Too many people outside an engineering department or even insufficiently experienced software engineers assume the computers are to blame when things go down (guilty!). Operations issues happen, but software change or software engineering flubs are usually at fault. We make sure our issue escalation process assumes this reality. Our ops engineer is our last line of defense, not our first.

We make space for proactive ops engineering. Imagine you’re in a sinking ship and you’re told to keep bailing water, even though there’s a plug and hammer at your feet that will stop a source of the leaking. That’s what it’s like to be deprived of space to make your work life better. Nowadays, software engineers are given space to pay-off tech debt. Not only does this make it easier for them to ship features in the long run, it also makes their working environment less toxic. Help your ops engineers make time for proactive work. Tell your software engineers to endure that less important but painful pain they’re complaining about just a little longer so that ops gets the space it needs to address the top issues on its list too.

We check-in regularly. Ops engineers are a part of our standard kick-off meetings and stand-ups. They have an equal voice at the table. They serve the needs of the business like the rest of us, but they are not subservient. We connect out-of-band to see how things are going too.

We pay them competitively. We send them to meetups, conferences, and training just like software engineers. We let them go to the dentist when they need to. We praise them for their work. We treat them well. Do you?

Exporting “My Sounds” From my EnV

I spent time this morning trying to copy recorded audio files off my LG EnV via BitPim. However, the files were in some format called QCP. I had previously converted files like these to WAV format, but couldn’t remember how I had done it. After a bit of head-scratching, I remembered: if you go into My Sounds, select the file you want to convert, and Send it to your email address, Verizon Wireless is kind enough to convert the file from QCP to WAV before attaching it to the email.

I love Verizon Wireless.

“The RPC server is unavailable” and “Access is denied” in Windows Printer Sharing

I really don’t like system administration.

I ran into an odd issue today with Windows Printer Sharing. My parents have a desktop with a USB-connected printer, as well as a laptop. I could connect the laptop to the shared printer just fine and print to it. However, whenever I would restart the laptop, I would get “The RPC server is unavailable” or “Access is denied” when trying to print again. After a lot of searching and checking the typical firewall and services settings, I discovered that the computers were simply in different workgroups. Once I changed the workgroup on the laptop to match the desktop, things worked perfectly.

Thought I’d post this in case anyone else on the Interweb has the same issue.

Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst

A few years ago my dad, Bo Lotinsky, got me hooked on David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I’ve enjoyed a lot of conversations over the years with him about implementing GTD and even got to go with him to one of David’s seminars in Washington, DC. It was one of those memorable father-son bonding times.

I’ve been following Mark Hurst’s blog for awhile now and bought my dad his popular book Bit Literacy. (People send my dad way too many emails.) After weeks of listening to my dad rave about it, I finally got a chance to scan and read it myself. Everyone must read this book. Although a lot of the ideas and techniques can be picked up elsewhere, there are a few that will have a huge impact on how I handle the bits in my life:

Chapter 4: Managing Incoming E-mail and Chapter 5: Managing Todos

  • We have a natural inclination to spend time managing todos rather than actually accomplishing them.
  • Get your inbox count to 0 (yes, zero) email messages per day. (Also known as Inbox Zero.)
  • Todos must be tracked in an external program or service. (I personally like Backpack.)
  • Track follow-ups to emails sent to others externally. (This is why Mark built Gootodo.)

Chapter 6: The Media Diet

  • Regularly prune RSS feeds.
  • If it’s not helpful for what you do in life or provide a high level of satisfaction or enjoyment, don’t read, subscribe, or pay attention to it. Distance yourself from it.

Chapter 12: Other Essentials

  • Learn to use the Dvorak keyboard layout instead of QWERTY. You don’t need new hardwar–all major OSes supposedly have it baked-in.
  • Utilize a bit lever to save time typing common phrases and sentences. Bit levers are much like Microsoft Word’s AutoComplete, but work anywhere you can enter text.

The book is filled with lots of bit management goodness, so check it out.