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Working from Home? Hardly Working.

So now there’s this.

Carleton has moved online-only for the rest of the year. All academics and most staff activities are taking place over the internet, which means most of the Carleton population is now, in one way or another, working from home.

Luckily, one of my long-term projects this year has been organization and time management. In the interest of digital ethics, I’m putting together a little compilation guide of What You Need To Know. There are three main steps: figure out what kind of problem you have, figure out what tools you have, and figure out how you want to tackle something.

Two quick disclaimers: don’t try everything on this list at once. Seriously, just… just try one or two at first, okay? Also, if none of this works for you, you’re not allowed to blame me.

What’s the problem?

Start simple: you either have a tech problem, or you have a people problem. This is an important distinction! Tech can be used to aid people problems. It’s not a magic bullet. It can’t fix them altogether.

A tech problem is exactly what it sounds like: any problem with the tech you are using to do your job. Some quick examples: Zoom isn’t working! You can’t log into your Google account! Your hard drive crashed!

I can’t solve tech problems for you. ITS is working remotely these days. Try calling them!

People problems are everything else – anything that results from you or anyone else being a human person, with human needs. If you keep getting distracted, that’s a people problem. If you’re overwhelmed and can’t get organized, that’s a people problem. If you’re feeling lonely, that’s a people problem. If you’ve been on Zoom for 37 hours straight and you hate everyone, that’s a people problem.

The good news is, once you’ve identified a people problem, you can figure out the tools you need to solve them.

What tools do you have?

Let’s tackle a couple different areas: focus, organization, and socialization.

Focus

What helps you focus is different for every person. Some people need total quiet. Some people need background noise. Some people need to cut out visual clutter. Some people can go for hours. Some people work better in sprints.

So, in keeping with that, here’s a list of random tools and tips that might work for you, in no particular order.

  • Noisli: A customizable background noise generator that lets you pick from various non-intrusive sounds, mix them together, and save custom playlists. You need an account for the free version, which gets you 1.5 hours per day, 16 sounds, and 3 basic mixes. Also has a built-in Pomodoro timer (limited functionality while free).
    • Alternatives: A Soft Murmur (fewer sounds, no time limit), MyNoise (pick from a variety of options, no cross-mixing)
    • Alternately, if you hate noise, try earplugs or headphones. It won’t fix everything, but maybe it’ll help.
  • Do you have a to-do list? If so, keep it to a maximum of five items. Yes, I know, you have so many things to do– write them down somewhere else to remember later. When you’ve done the five things on your list, you can migrate some new ones. Five things at a time. That’s all you need to do right now.
  • Put stuff where you need it. If you don’t need it, put it somewhere else. Put it in a box. I don’t care where it goes. On my desk, there is a coaster, some photos, old pens, my drumsticks– wait, no, let’s not use me as an example. The point is: if you know what you’ll need, keep it where it’s needed, and if you can’t find it under the stuff you never use, put that stuff somewhere else.
  • Color-code. Things in bright colors stand out. If you can’t see it, you might miss it.
  • Take breaks, and use your breaks for something that could not possibly become work. Moving around is really good. Literally everyone says this. It sounds stupid. I don’t care. Set an alarm or something, get up, and windmill your arms in circles. Touch your toes. Shadowbox and swear at your imaginary opponent. Walk around the room. Blast a song that makes you want to dance.
  • Figure out when works for you. I would love to work in the morning. I cannot do it. I work in the afternoons and evenings, when my brain has gotten with the program. Don’t force yourself to do things that don’t work for you. But! And this is important. Get enough sleep, and keep track of how long you’ve been working. Don’t force yourself. A non-standard schedule doesn’t mean you have to work longer or be guilty about what you’re doing.

There are going to be more time management tips at the bottom. These ones are, hopefully, specifically geared to help you focus. Everything else comes later.

Organization

Over the past term, I’ve compiled and annotated a short list of organizational tools – to-do lists, project management, etc. Check these out and see what sounds good to you.

Small note: everything here except the bullet journals requires an account. All of them are, to one degree or another, free.

  • Bullet Journals
    • PROS:
      • You’re not connected to the cloud, which means you know your data is safe.
      • Super customizable (Youtube has a ton of tutorials to make them fancy, but I didn’t use them; just figure out what you need to write down, and do it however works).
      • You’re not beholden to any company about what a system “should” look like.
    • CONS:
      • You’re not connected to the cloud, which means there’s no team sync, no automatic reminders, and no backups.
      • If you lose stuff easily, you might have trouble with this one.
      • Because it’s customized to you, if you’re not feeling it or you don’t know what you want, you might have a rough time keeping up the habit.
  • Google Keep
    • PROS:
      • It has a widget in Google Calendar, so you can keep it right next to your schedule for easy time planning.
      • Comes with a phone app, and you can color-code every note, pin the important things, set alerts, and more.
      • Technically meant as a note-taking app, but I find it makes better to-do lists than Google Tasks!
    • CONS:
      • One day Google will swallow the sun and we will thank it for the sweet relief of darkness.
      • Also, it’s very hard to manage indentations (very important for sub-tasks on a to-do list), and full customization functionality requires either a browser plug-in or going to the dedicated Keep page, meaning you can’t do it from your Calendar.
      • On a personal note, I hate the way it resolves completed tasks (they’re completed, I don’t want to see them anymore!
  • Trello
    • PROS:
      • Really, really good for team work and project management – we use it for the Digital Scholarship and Digital Humanities teams all the time.
      • Lots of integrated functions. You can comment, make checklists, separate tasks, separate lists of tasks, attach documents, schedule alerts… the list goes on.
    • CONS:
      • It’s best for teams, honestly. You can use it solo, but a lot of the functionality is aimed at keeping a group in communication and working toegether.
      • Recently got bought by Atlassian. I have no idea what that means for future development or privacy concerns.
      • There are extensions that help with readability and color-coding, but the ones that work best seem to be only available on Chrome.
  • Wunderlist
    • PROS:
      • Really good at readability and organization. Set my standards for how to-do checklists ought to behave.
      • Very easy to make subtasks, add notes, schedule things, etc. A lot of good functionality.
      • Very easy to organize — you can put your checklists into folders, and your folders into folders, and your folders into folders into folders…
    • CONS:
      • I hesitated to include Wunderlist because, here’s the kicker: it got bought by Microsoft, and they’re ending support for it in May. The team will be working on Microsoft’s To-Do application, and hopefully they’ll bring some good features to it, but right now… ehhhhh?
      • You can’t visually customize it at all. If you’re big into color-coding and visual organization, pick literally anything else on this list.

Socialization

I’m not really going to use this section to rate and review different softwares for staying in touch. Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype and Discord all have varying levels of video function and voice calling; Discord, Slack and Skype can host your messaging and keep it (somewhat) organized. Zoom, Google Hangouts, and Slack are professional. Skype is kind of professional. Discord is for hanging with your friends.

There’s a bunch of stuff out there about making sure you’re still talking to people. That’s fine. That’s good. I encourage talking to people. I also encourage checking in with yourself. If you’re spending five hours a day in meetings or talking to people, and at the end of the day your friends want to chat for another two hours? That’s a lot of time.

On the other hand, don’t be afraid to be the first person to message, or call, or whatever. People can be shy, or not know how to ask for support. Communicate. If you’re having problems at work, or you need some extra support, tell your colleagues. Tell your friends. They can’t see you. They don’t get any signals beyond what you give them.

So, socialize, but not too much. Take care of yourself, but make sure to reach out to people. I don’t know what to tell you. Being human is a messy contradiction.

How are you going to tackle this problem?

So. You know what problem you’re having. You know what tools are at your disposal. You have, hopefully, a vague idea of what needs doing.

BUT HOW THOUGH.

There are only so many hours in a day, and yet there are so many hours in a day. You need a way to manage your time.

Time Management Systems

  • Use your phone. I have every activity of mine plugged into my Google Calendar, which is plugged into an alert system on my phone. This one is less about getting things done and more about not forgetting what you have to do, though…
  • The Pomodoro Method. Twenty-five minutes on, five minutes off. Repeat four times. After four “Pomodoros”, you get a fifteen minute break. There are tons of timers for this stuff online. Just make sure whatever you’re using is noisy enough to get your attention.
  • Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Make a box with four sections: urgent/not urgent, important/not important. Write down all your stuff wherever it needs to go. Urgent & important = right away. Everything else, you can work on, delegate*, or ditch.
    • *President Eisenhower could delegate. I have no idea whether you can.
  • Kanban. Three sections: to-do, doing, done. Put your tasks on sticky notes, or use push pins, or get an app. Put whatever needs doing wherever it goes, and revel in the ability to move things across the board.
  • Ivy Lee. At the end of the day, write down the six things you absolutely must do tomorrow, in order of importance. When you start tomorrow, do those things in order. Then you can do whatever else is left. If there’s anything on the list that hasn’t been finished by the end of the day, that’s okay – it’s the end of the day, and it’s time to make a new list.

But most importantly…

Be kind to yourself. Seriously. There’s a lot going on right now, and everything’s stressful, and even at the best of times it’s really hard to be perfect. This is not the best of times. You don’t have to be perfect.

I’m serious. I’ve missed the same meeting two weeks in a row for two different reasons, and I have spent the last year getting organized enough to write this blog post. I’ve forgotten so many different things this week. It happens.

If you’re tired, there’s a reason for that. If you’re frustrated, there’s a reason for that. If you’re sad, or angry, or jittery, there’s a reason for that.

This stuff can (maybe) give you a jumping off point. But here’s the deal – be generous to yourself, just like you would be to your friends and family. And don’t beat yourself up, okay?

Sources & Resources

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