The importance of having Systems, in life

In this blog, I talk about professional development, but this concept really applies to all of life. In today’s day-and-age, there is a lot of technology available to us. Technology which we can take advantage of to make our lives easier. One thing I realized is that the best way to accomplish my goals is to have “systems” in place. Meaning that I spent some time focusing on that task, and tried to figure out the most efficient way to do it – and what will make it easier for me to do in the future. Below are some of my Systems.

A System for managing e-mail:
I became a convert to Inbox Zero several years ago when I first heard about it. This transformed the way I handle e-mail at work and at home. The goal is to keep your inbox empty. You do periodic sweeps throughout the day. Every single e-mail can fall into 3 categories:

  • Delete: I can delete this e-mail. I will never need it again.
  • Reference: I don’t need to do anything with this e-mail, but I want to hang onto it.
  • Action Required: I need to act on this e-mail (and potentially respond to it)

You “process” your inbox several times per day, and do work to empty your Action Required, as time-permits.

Now, since then, I have added exactly one more disposition – and that is In-Flight. I’ve found that many times when I’m working on one BIG project, the Action Required folder gets a little unwieldy. So, Action Required for me are things that I typically need to address in a few days to a few weeks – whereas In-Flight are things I’m working on today or in the next couple of days.

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A big part of this system is that it is a living system. When things go into Action Required, that becomes your TODO list. As you address things in Action Required, either move them onto Reference or delete them.

To put this all together, for work e-mail:

  • Turn off all e-mail notifications so that you aren’t distracted during the day.
  • A few times in the morning and few times in the afternoon, do a “sweep” of the Inbox and get it empty (move or delete files).
  • First thing in the morning, before lunch, and before the end of the day – go into Action Required and continue to try to get that folder empty.

I’ve been using this since perhaps 2008 and I can’t imagine a better way to manage e-mail.

A System for managing twitter:
Managing Twitter, you ask? Yes! It’s an input stream, and to use it effectively, it needs to be managed. This will be different for everyone, depending on the computing device you use most. For me, I’m on a Windows 8.1 device most of the day. I have found that if I don’t have a twitter app open, then I tend to not use it. Those are the times where you see my twitter usage lull significantly!

What I do nowadays, is I have the Win8 twitter app “snapped” to the right side of my main, middle monitor:

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So, I don’t so much go through my twitter feed – I just glance over it it periodically to see if anything catches my eye. In fact, the app refreshes itself every so often (5 minutes maybe?) – so that refresh catches my eye, I glance – if there is something good, I retweet it. It’s just that simple. You would think this wouldn’t be terribly effective, but this – for me – is all I really want to invest in twitter. It’s a good “stream” of information, but it is an ENDLESS stream. So, in my opinion, it does need to be managed – and this is good enough for me.

For some people, they use their phone during the day or their tablet at night before bed. Whatever it is, find a good system to get as much out of twitter as you’d like.

A System for keeping up with other people’s blog posts and podcasts (RSS):
This is something I struggled with ever since Google shutdown Google Reader. The Google Reader web application was just horrible, however, they had a public API that let developers write front-ends for it. So, this meant that Google Reader kind of became a centralized database, and you could use these various readers on your phone, computer, tablet – which all synchronized against the same backend.

After searching and searching, and trying a bunch of different products, it turns out that Feedly is a good, free, comparable replacement. More importantly, they have an open API so there are Feedly client apps for every platform. On Windows 8, there is a really great app called Modern Reader. This is what I’ve been using for probably a month, and I have no complaints.

“Wait, so what is this and why is this good?”, you ask.

This is one of those cases where you can really have technology work for you. Let’s say you want to keep up with blog posts of people. You sincerely do! However, you’d have to remember to go out to their website periodically and see what’s new, right? Plus, what happens over time when you now would like to see updates for several people. Are you just supposed to remember to go to their sites? No, there is a far, far better way! Every blog platform nowadays supports the concept of Really Simple Syndication (RSS). This is a mechanism where applications can talk to the blog and programmatically get all the content from it – and show it, formatted, in some reader. For example, here is the RSS feed for this blog: https://blog.robseder.com/feed/ – it’s just XML in very specific format.

The point is, once you “subscribe” to an RSS feed via Feedly, it will periodically check for new content. When you open up Modern Reader (or your favorite Feedly app), you will see all the blogs to which you subscribe and how many unread items there are – like e-mail:

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The clever part of this system is that as soon as something is marked as read, Feedly is updated. So, if I then go on my phone or tablet, and check for unread items – it’s synchronized, because Feedly keeps track of what’s already been read. So, this is the “system” I now use to keep up with blog posts.

If you are an IT professional, I’d highly recommend this to keep up with blog posts. If you are new to this idea, start with someone like www.hanselman.com or subscribe to http://blogs.msdn.com (which is an aggregate of ALL Microsoft blog posters, are start finding interesting people to follow. You can also subscribe to THIS blog with the feed link above, or there is a link on the main page.

A System for writing blog posts:
If writing blog posts are painful, you’re not going to do it. So, what makes writing them painful? Formatting text, adding/storing pictures, etc. So, if you are writing blog posts by using the website of your blog provider, I’m here to say there is a better way!

A free tool I’ve been using for years is Microsoft Live Writer. Nowadays, it handles formatting perfectly, it has a pretty good selection of Add-ins (like for adding formatted code to a blog post), and it handles pictures and screenshots automatically. In this post for example, the “Modern Reader” screenshot above. I took a screenshot (ALT+PRTSCR), and pasted it in here and cropped it. Now, when I publish, LiveWriter negotiates with WordPress (magically?) on where to host that image.

Here’s what it looks like in LiveWriter to wire it up to your blog:

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The point is, I can just open up Live Writer, start typing, publish and it just works. In fact, I haven’t had a problem with Live Writer in several years. The earliest releases were a little buggy though.

As an alternative, if you have a post-2005 version of Microsoft Word on Windows, Word also supports writing new blog posts. Just do File –> New and you’ll see there is a template for blog post:

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If you’re on a Mac with Office for Mac, I did not find this same option, I believe is only on Word for Windows.

Those are two really good options. The point is, find a good system that is easy for you – because if it’s easy to do, you’re more-likely to do it.

A System for writing code and handling source control:
I’ve lost many-a-hard drive in my life, so I’m justifiably paranoid about losing data. So, I’ve written about using BitBucket for source control. You can have unlimited private repositories, but it only supports Git and Mercurial. I know everyone is still on their honeymoon with Git, but back in reality, it’s pretty rough-around-the-edges, and the Mercurial plug-ins for Visual Studio are not ideal.

So, when Microsoft announced that they would launch Team Foundation Server as a service, and it also has unlimited, free, private repositories, that’s where I moved all my stuff. Let me explain…

Picture you start working on a programming project. Just like at work, imagine creating a source control project for it too. in this case, a TFS project – which supports a source code repository, bug tracking, task assignment, etc – all for free, and all private (and sharable up to 5 team members). The major upside is that your source code for any important project, is backed up in the cloud, and even versioned out there. Anytime I start a new programming initiative where I care about the code, I go and create a new TFS project and get it checked in.

Again, nothing against Git or Mercurial, but if you are using Visual Studio, TFS works very nicely with it. Go here to get started: http://tfs.visualstudio.com  Go put any code you care about into there, and make sure it’s backed up!

Summary:
What’s the message, here? Well, I’ve just found that if you take a little time to figure out a “system” for the things you want to do, then you are more-likely to do them. If one of these things is “painful” for you, stop and figure out what would make it easier – figure out a “system” which would make it easy for you to follow!

Posted in Organization will set you free, Professional Development, Uncategorized
One comment on “The importance of having Systems, in life
  1. […] your strengths, and what areas you need to work on? And, if you have a good team and have good “systems” in place, you might even win some […]

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