Monday, September 24, 2012

Streamlining Systems Follow-up

Ladies and gentlemen, I feel very official writing a follow-up to last week's post. Since then, I have had not one, not two, but three (3) lengthy conversations with pals* about list streamlining and system management, all of which boil down to the need to define what you want to get out of a system, and the truism that the best system is the one you use.

These binder clips are organized rather neatly
With those dictates in mind, I have modified my own systems in a few ways.

Mostly, I needed to understand how different list items, and therefore different kinds of lists, should work for me. There are checklists I need to consult regularly and to-do lists I need to interact with regularly. There are some lists that can be discarded when I am done with them and some that I should keep handy. There are longterm goals that I can accomplish (deliver a paper at the conference next month!) and longterm goals that are ongoing (collaborate generously with colleagues!). There are also things that I don't want to list - habits I'd like to form without needing to write them down. Different systems are appropriate for different goals and activities.

I also needed to acknowledge that there are some tools I like better than others. I like Post-it notes. The square ones that are about as big as the palm of your hand. Those are the best. Also, as I've mentioned, I like two-column steno pads. They are also the best. These are the two physical tools I want to use in listing. I also use Google Calendar really heavily, and while I did not mention it in last week's post, I also use the alarm function on my phone to set regular reminders for myself.

In the last week, I have streamlined my tracking and logging systems by limiting the tools I use to the ones I already know and like, and rethinking how I categorize list items so that accomplishable goals are separate from daily reminders, etc.

Here's what I've got now (and yes, I realize that this is a list of lists).

Checklists on Post-it notes displayed vertically. Checklists are for recurring tasks that do not need to be listed and crossed off every freakin' time they occur.

  • Prepare! A checklist for bedtime on work nights. 
  • Friday Sync! A new checklist for a variety of weekly tasks organized into one session - syncing devices and calendars, preparing the week's to-do lists, meal planning, watering the plants, etc.
Steno notepads for to-do lists, logs, planning and goals. 
  • The one that travels with me - this contains not only the two-column to-do lists for the week at the front, but also a monthly spending log at the back, and now also a page folded over to differentiate it from the others labeled EPHEMERA on which I can record thoughts and ideas as they occur to me. A friend calls this a thought-catcher. When I have an idea, I don't have to worry about where it goes, but can instead just jot it down and worry about it later. One of the items on my Friday Sync! checklist is "TRANSFER EPHEMERA." 
  • The one for long-term planning - this has a page devoted to each semester (this Fall through next Fall, for now) with the columns divided into major and minor goals for that block of months. I consider a minor goal to be one I can accomplish in one or two days (submit paper abstract to journal!) while major goals may take weeks to accomplish (write paper for conference next semester!). This is at the front of the notebook. On the back page I list things I'd like to be true about me all the time. Aspirational, unrealistic things like "take one full day off from work every week." Since these continue to be aspirations, I don't want to cross them off, which is why they live in a separate list. This notebook lives on my desk and gets consulted once a week or so. 
  • The one for meal-planning - I use one column to list what I have to use this week (farm share chard! Use up cheddar!) and the other column as a shopping list for things to supplement what I've got. I don't think I addressed this last week, but this system is unchanged. This notebook lives in the kitchen. 
Digital assistants. Until I have a robot valet
  • Google Calendar. I use this a lot. Now I also sync it once a week. 
  • iPhone alarms. I use these a lot, too, for habit forming and maintaining. For things I don't want to bother listing and logging, but that I want to do regularly.

Scrapped. These systems were not working for me and thus I no longer use them. 
  • Making lists of goals on full-sized binder paper. It's just intimidating for lists. It's so big! And there are not enough columns. There should be two (2). 
  • Making an annual list. The calendar year means very little to me. My life goes Fall, January, Spring and Summer.  
  • - checking in once a day to say whether I had or had not done a task was not motivating me to form or maintain habits. Having an alarm go off at an appropriate TIME to do them, however, is useful for me. I still think chains are a great system that works for many people! 

*Dudes,** you can comment here. There's a button for it.

** I am from California. "Dude" is a gender-neutral term.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lists referring to lists alluding to lists

I've been updating my record-keeping and listing methods - both to work with my new teaching schedule this semester and to try out some techniques and products new to me.

It's getting a little unwieldy, honestly.
Some notebooks that need to be dealt with. Severely. 
I have more than ten tracking/listing systems that I consult multiple times per week and a few more that I consult less frequently or that fall into multiple lists but use the same system (that is, I have a course outline, a series of lesson plans, an attendance chart and a grade log for each course I teach, but I use the same system for each class).

Every couple of days I pull up my Google calendar on screen and pull out my course outlines and my food lists and I use the information on those to update my two-column to-do list for the next few days. This has been my system for years and it is working for me.

Lately, however, I've also been keeping track of some daily goals using Chains (anyone here tried that?) and I've also been tracking my spending in an attempt to budget. And I also have a "Long(ish)-Term planning" list for upcoming big semester projects. And a display list of goals for the year. And a draft of what my goals might be for next year. And a "Prep" checklist for getting ready for work the next day.

Scenario: On Wednesday night I see the entry in my to-do list that says "Prep Thurs." This reminds me to consult my Prep checklist. One of the things on that list is "update chains" and when I go to that website to log my progress, one of the chains is "track spending" so if I haven't done that yet I pull out my budgeting log for the month and write down the day's purchases. And then I go back to the Chain to update it, and then go back to my Prep checklist for the night, confirm I have Done the Things and then go back to my daily to-do list and cross off "Prep Thurs." It's a lot of steps.

I am attempting to keep track of things I have DONE in a meaningful way as well as keep track of things TO DO. These are different mindsets, but there must be a good way to streamline them!

Any suggestions? I have some ideas that I'll put in the comments, but I am eager for your ideas, too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On Giving

This Friday is my birthday! Because of that, I've been thinking a lot lately about giving. How do you, personally, decide when and where to give? What organizations get your time and stuff and money and why?
Alice and the White Rabbit at the 50th Street subway stop. Wikipedia tells me this is part of
"Liliana Porter's Alice, The Way Out, a series of mosaics installed during renovations in 1994." 

Here's what and how and when I give. The regular caveats apply - this is all about me. I am not advocating or condemning any choices, just talking about the ones I've made.

Regular Donations of Clothes and Housewares: 
West Side Campaign Against Hunger.  This is a local organization that provides a food pantry, a soup kitchen, and a room full of dedicated counselors offering social services. Their food pantry has become a model for others because it allows its patrons to choose their own food - they call it the supermarket system. It's respectful and it allows people to make the choices that are right for their current situation. I donate stuff for their "shopping" table where anyone using their services can select five items to take home with their groceries. The things I donate are often unpacked onto the table, selected, and gone by the time I have filled out the donation form. Men's clothing is always especially welcome here.

Regular Donations of Time: 
Learning Ally, formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Between semesters, I sign up for regular volunteer sessions at my local studio. At each session I am assigned a book and then go into a booth and record myself reading it aloud for two hours. Later, it gets turned into an audiobook for use by Learning Ally members. I have read little bits of an Ethics textbook, a Firefighting manual, the AKC Breed book, Dune continuation novels, and more varied things than I can even think of right now. I have also read various literature and writing textbooks useful to my actual career and a bunch of fiction that I later purchased. An acquaintance once called this the reverse of Wikipedia: instead of a general overview of a subject I look up, I get a two-hour intense read of a subject I have not chosen. It is the opposite of skimming; it is plunging. It's awesome. Also, I've gotten better at reading aloud.

Annual donations of money:
New York Public Library. I am a Friend of the Library, and dudes let me tell you, the library is a friend to me. It loans me books. It introduces me to nice people with similar interests. It invites me to events that I enjoy. It lets me use its bathroom and hang out in its air conditioning. It sets clear boundaries about how I can treat it and its belongings. It is the best.

Planned Parenthood. They need my money, and they shouldn't. I long wistfully for a year when I do not feel it necessary to donate to them.

Annual Donation of Books:
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. As I mentioned in a previous post, after our annual bookswap, we donate all the leftovers to Housing Works, a New York City organization that offers support and advocacy for people who are homeless and living with AIDS.

Irregular donations: 
I often give donations in people's names for holidays and special occasions. I have donated to the ASPCA, Doctors Without Borders, City Harvest, The American Indian College Fund, the Carl Brandon Society, and many others in honor of friends and loved ones.

Oxfam America is, I think, my favorite for this because they have a robust "symbolic gift" system that allows me to target various recipients' interests. Pay for student lunches in honor of my mom? Why, yes. Package kids' books in honor of a literacy advocate colleague? Absolutely. Etc.

Lately I've been stymied by a few issues:
1. I have a friend who has some monthly donations set up, which seems smart, but I don't actually have a good understanding of how that benefits an organization more than an annual gift might. I will read more about that and find out if it is right for me.

2. After doing some reading, I have decided that funding microlending is not the kind of giving I'd like to do. I'm not going to provide any links, since I think that's really just a personal choice.

3. The stymie-est: I browsed the City of New York Parks and Recreation website recently and couldn't find a way to just make a donation/become a member without sponsoring a bench. I am not at that level, folks. Am I just not seeing the correct link? It is a mystery.

EDIT: Mystery solved! Hannah has, in the comments, revealed the correct link, which is this. She also has good points about donating time vs. money and about how organizations plan, so you should really just read her comment below.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dropping the balls I juggle.

I had planned to use this blog post to talk about my everyday carry, but then I had one of those days where I just kept doing things wrong. It was slapstick-y. I was expecting to slip on a banana peel and hear a kazoo any minute. So I'm going to write about that instead.

Perhaps my body was in a tiny revolt about coming back from the extra-long weekend after Labor Day? Perhaps an oddly specific poltergeist was moving my belongings and/or neurons when I wasn't looking? Perhaps I am just not as organized and on top of things as I'd like to believe? In any event, the many minor things that went wrong today stayed minor, which is the important thing. In every case I had a contingency plan in place, so nothing got blown out of proportion, and today certainly reinforced my belief that I need those contingency plans.

Here are some of the things I did wrong today:
1. I pressed the coffee grind button when the receiving canister was not in place to catch the grounds. Grounds went everywhere. Also, coffee was already brewing and there was no need to make more. I just pressed it an unnecessary extra time. To be fancy.

2. I realized on the train that I left my textbook at home. You know, the one I assigned.

3. My bus was late. This was not technically my fault.

4. When I was about to eat lunch during my office hours, I discovered that it had gone bad. Roasted beets with feta and walnuts keep for a long time, but apparently not THAT long.

I would like to point out that I am NOT NEW to (1) making coffee, (2) teaching, or (3) packing lunch for myself.

BUT! I did the following and nothing turned out to be a very big deal:

1. I wiped off the counter (exciting) and this evening, I brewed the extra grounds from this morning. Not the freshest ever, but I'll store the extra coffee in the fridge and drink it cold on a warm morning.

2. I leave a reserve copy of the textbook at our school library. I borrowed it, scanned the essay for today using the Camscanner app on my phone and then printed it out for reference during class.

3. I allow for extra travel time. I still made it to my office door by the scheduled beginning of my office hours.

4. I had also packed myself a bag of fresh vegetables, so even though my main course went bad, I still had some stuff. And I keep a supply of nonperishable foods in one of my desk drawers. I ate fresh green beans and red bell pepper and a packet of peanuts for lunch. Not my finest meal, but it worked.

So, in one way, my day was marred by extreme forgetfulness and foolishness, and in another way, my day was improved by extremely judicious forethought. Like those That's Good! That's Bad! picture books.

Do you guys have contingency plans in place for when you forget things/do things wrong in a hilarious manner? I think I am in the market for some more contingency plans, here. Or do you, in fact, never do things wrong in a hilarious manner or otherwise?