Andy Thornton

Becoming a Productivity Ninja

I have always been a proud technology geek. As a young man, the largest part of my wages was spent on the latest “shiny” technology - all in the pursuit of increasing my productivity. Looking back on those years, it wasn’t only expensive, it was exhausting!

I started off with Psion organisers before moving on to my beloved Palm pilot. I’m now using an Android. These new tools were part of my endless pursuit of “Getting Things Done.” As I was exposed to new ideas and technologies, I would constantly refine and adapt my process. This was all part of my quest for “Productivity Nirvana.”

In the last few years, through advances in technology, I have finally found the perfect piece of technology for my needs. This amazing piece of technology has the following features:

  1. Never needs recharging
  2. Never crashes
  3. Works offline - no need for an Internet connection
  4. Supports “Cut” and “Paste”
  5. Highly recommended by respected Thought leaders from multiple disciplines.
  6. Did I also mention it doesn’t crash? - worth mentioning twice :-)

And the name of this amazing technology?

My Moleskine notebook!

Writing in a notepad strips everything down to its simplest components. I don’t spend my valuable time working out how best to use my time. I can concentrate on getting the work done. It’s easy to spend too much time tweaking a productivity system; putting it on paper keeps it simple.

Planning projects on paper has also helped me see things from a new perspective. As a result, when I commit the ideas to an electronic medium, they have already gone through at least one pass-through on paper. Writing also slows me down, providing clarity of thought while I write up my notes, ideas and projects.

I’m in great company as a user of a notepad. Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre and Benjamin Franklin all carried notebooks around with them and it’s hard to argue the success they achieved. :-)

If you’re interested in joining the paper revolution, here are some tips and links to great resources:

  1. Number your pages and leave a couple of pages blank at the front of your notebook. Use them to build a “Table of Contents.” I maintain a spreadsheet in Google Docs of all my notebooks and indexes. I find it helpful to print it out and paste it inside the front cover when the book is full.
  2. Buy some sticky tabs and leave a couple in the back pocket or inside back cover. They are useful as bookmarks to your notes.
  3. Flip it upside down and from the back cover write your “To Do” items. When your task list catches up with your notes section, it is time to buy a new notebook.
  4. Don’t be afraid to “Cut and Paste.” My notebook is full of function references and cheat sheets. If you use a Moleskine notebook, you can download and print templates from their website to stick in to your notebook.

Below are a few great Starting places to join the Back to Paper Revolution:

  1. PigPog PDA - Using Moleskines for “Getting Things Done”.
  2. Freelance Switch - Monster List of Moleskine tips
  3. 43 Folders - Moleskine Productivity Tips.


About the Author: 

Andy is a Drupal Consultant at MediaCurrent and has over 25+ years in the software development industry. He specializes in Drupal, database and information architecture with a dash of security and usability thrown in the mix. Born in the UK and now living in Atlanta. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter @BohemianPixel.

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Master of the Arcane

Technology moves at a rapid pace and I work in an industry where tech trends can change overnight. Keeping up with this whirlwind of change can be daunting as well as time-consuming. So how can we keep our skills up to date while the world changes around us?  

A random encounter at a coffee shop

I met a guy in a coffee shop one time who was a fellow Linux enthusiast and we fell into a conversation about my shiny new Linux desktop running on my net-book. As a fellow geek he was drawn to the screen like a moth to an electronic flame, and we soon fell into a caffeine-fueled conversation about operating systems and programming languages.  He was very passionate about his favourite programming language. He painted a magical picture of a language with immense flexibility and elegance and how none of the current languages were on par with his first and ONLY love:  COBOL.

That's right ... COBOL .... Did I also mention that he had been out of work for over a year?

He was a true master in the arcane art of COBOL.  It was like meeting someone who spoke Klingon: impressive though it may be, it’s not a very practical (or marketable) skill.  

Our “Comfort” zone

I understand as developers we all have a “comfort zone,” a set of tools or languages we all use daily to do get things done. But there’s something to be said for expanding the tools we rely on and embracing new technologies, or even keeping up to date on enhancements to our existing skills.

As languages and technology evolves, no matter the topic, they all have the same goal: to improve on how we do things, so we can accomplish more in less time and effort and expand the scope of what we can achieve.

In the early days when Windows was an emerging operating system, the term k-locs was very popular (short for thousand Lines Of Code).  As sleep-deprived programmers we used to pride ourselves on how much code we pumped out. Today I am amazed at what I can achieve with just a few lines of code. The Web applications that I wrote many years ago could be recreated today in a fraction of the time using current languages and tools.

Technology moves on ... it’s inevitable.

I have always found this continual evolution of my industry one of the fun aspects of my chosen field. Nothing stands still; something new is always on the horizon. There’s a constant buzz around new technology which fuels new ideas that I can apply to my projects. I firmly believe that we need to keep our skills current and maintain pace with advances in our field.

Albert Einstein summarized it perfectly when he stated: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."  

Finding the time

We are all busy and if you’re buried deep in a project with a looming deadline, you don’t always have the time or energy to spend time catching up with what’s happening in your industry. To quote another great thinker of the 20th Century: “Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” (Ferris Bueller)  Wise words Ferris, (hope you’re feeling better by the way). Several tools have been instrumental in keeping my skills current and staying on top of an ever-changing industry:  

RSS Feeds: These are a lifesaver when it comes to filtering information and staying on top of what is new in your industry. One drawback of using RSS feeds is the high risk of information overload. Watching too many feeds can consume your attention to the point where good information drowns in a sea of noise.

Lifehacker published a great article with useful tips on managing feeds in order to reduce the flood of information and promote the review of quality, relevant information. Instead of breaking feeds out into granular categories, I learned to organize the list by the quality of the feed. I created an A-List, B-List and C-List (which is used for new feeds). If the quality of the feed is good, I move it up the list. If a feed stays in my C-List for too long, I eventually remove it. This approach has enabled me to reduce my list of feeds from nearly 100 down to just 15 – a huge reduction and I am confident that those 15 remaining feeds present information that is highly relevant and valuable to me.

Meetup Groups:  I recently started getting out and about and starting to meet my fellow geeks at a number of special interest groups here in Atlanta. No matter how much you know on a subject, you will always walk away from these meetings with some new knowledge. The enthusiasm and passion for the subjects discussed is infectious and you can learn a lot from others who work on similar projects to your own. These groups provide a valuable forum for sharing ideas and best-practices regarding how others use tools to fix the same problems you may encounter on a project. New advances in a field are often discussed and dissected at these group meetings by lengthy, in-depth and often passionate discussions that start with asking “How can I make this work for me?”

Social Networks:  Twitter has been a great tool for putting me in touch with other developers and thought-leaders in my industry whom I admire. I can often learn something from Twitter before it’s available on the Web. Additionally, the ability to talk to the author of an article puts you more in touch with innovation all around you. Social networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, IRC (Freenode) and Google Groups put knowledge experts directly within reach.

So where does this leave us?

Taking the time out to track my feeds and interact with others has become part of my daily routine. Building online relationships with others who are equally as passionate about your industry will keep you informed of new innovations and emerging trends. I love advances in technology and look at each step forward as a way to manage my workload more efficiently, get more done and meet like-minded people along the way.

About the Author: 

Andy is a Drupal Consultant at MediaCurrent and has over 25+ years in the software development industry. He specializes in Drupal, database and information architecture with a dash of security and usability thrown in the mix. Born in the UK and now living in Atlanta. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter @BohemianPixel.

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