Blog2020-11-15T15:03:54+05:30

Dos and Don’ts of Digital Calendar App

Digital calendar Apps are now ubiquitous and are critical for managing our schedules. Calendar Apps are easy to learn and use, but only if you use them with proper discipline, you could derive multifold benefits from them.

It’s an irony but most people end up underusing and overusing the calendar App at the same time, albeit in different scenarios, that we will talk about in this post. But before we get there, you should be able to distinguish between the two types of tasks:

A. Tasks that must be done on a specific day or time, say, attending a meeting. These are the tasks that you could do only at that specific schedule and if you miss them, you miss them for good. let’s call them time-sensitive tasks. Calendar App should be used to manage only these time-sensitive tasks
B. Tasks that must be done ASAP but not on a specific day or time, say preparing for a presentation for a meeting with an important client. These are important tasks but you have some room to negotiate the schedule with yourself. A calendar is not the right place for managing these time-insensitive tasks.

Overuse scenario:

There is a common practice to secure important tasks to the calendar, irrespective of if they are time-sensitive or not. Although a task is important if it has nothing to do with a specific time slot and it can be done flexibly at some other time, as well, the Calendar is not the right place for it. This is what I call an overuse of a calendar App. As you see, you are using Calendar App as your to-do list, in this case.

If you put such time-insensitive tasks into the calendar App, you would likely end up snoozing them, multiple times, for various reasons, say you were drawn into some unplanned but important activity during that schedule.

It’s not just that. Once you accumulate several snoozed events, you start losing time-sensitive tasks in that clutter, which is quite risky. Thus, we need to maintain the sanctity of the calendar events, such that, a notification about an event should signal you to drop everything and attend that event.

The pertinent question then is where do the time-insensitive tasks go and the answer is, your to-do list, which you will look at for every time slot that you get to pick up an item as your next action.

Underuse scenario:

Several tasks are time sensitive but you do not enter them into your calendar either because you think you would remember them anyway or you think that they are not that important. This is what I call underuse of the calendar App.

Let’s say you need to take some medication, every alternate Sunday. It makes sense to create a recurring event. If this is not placed in the calendar, you would likely forget to do it, at least some time, if not all the time.
There would be several events that are day-specific but may not have a specific time to do them. They should also go in the calendar and as the day arrives, and you get the notification, you would either do it right away or add it to your to-do list to wait for the right time slot.

The bottom line is that the criteria to add a task to the calendar is NOT whether the task is important or not, but it is, whether the task is time sensitive or not.

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(Originally published in Times of India on August 14, 2022)

How to complete online courses along with the juggle of your Life

Learning! It’s at the core of the 7th habit of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Effective People – Sharpen the Saw! You need to continually enhance your greatest asset, which is You.

The advent of MOOCs has revolutionized the learning space and has made it easy to learn. You don’t have to struggle to find good courses in the area of your interest nor do you have to depend on your employer to arrange training. You get to register for sophisticated courses from top universities in the world in just a few clicks and no money at Coursera. You will find many other MOOC providers if Coursera doesn’t offer a topic, albeit at some fee. Yes, we are indeed spoilt for choice. But this has created a new problem.

As easy as it is to register for a course, it’s hard to complete it with the ongoing juggle in our lives. We don’t have the luxury of time. In fact, we don’t even remember when we had it last! So, it’s not surprising if you have several incomplete online courses in your name. But it doesn’t have to be so. If you deliberately organize yourself, you could indeed complete the courses and enjoy their benefits.

So, here is a 7-step plan to complete online courses along with the juggle of your Life

  1. Make the content omnipresent – The first action must be to organize the course content so as to make it handy. This would mean a few things. Add a Bookmark to the course web page in your computer browser – preferably in the bookmarks bar. Also, let your browser “Remember me”, so that you don’t waste time typing your credentials to get in. If you have set your browser to share bookmarks across all your devices, you will have to do nothing to get the bookmarks in your Smartphone/Tab browser, but otherwise do it explicitly.
  2. Eat the elephant – The only way to eat an elephant is by taking one bite at a time! Do not wait for a shiny day, that you will spare to do this only one thing! The day will never come! It’s like trying to swallow the entire elephant. Be content with what you can achieve in smaller pockets of time. Thankfully these courses are already divided into small units.
  3. Grab those little unused pockets of time– Now that we have decided to consume the content in smaller, bits, the next question is, when? If the course doesn’t use a lot of presentation material, you could do it along with other physical rituals. Here are my top favorites – evening walks, chopping vegetables, and exercise sessions. Connect your headphone, start the unit and get on with the physical activity that requires no specific mental focus. The course starts moving inch by inch, each day! In short, connect the coursework to one or more of your existing rituals.
  4. Track the course completion – Most courses are expected to follow a certain order. In either case, prepare a tracking table where you could keep marking the completed units. This mode of tracking helps in a way to even pat your own back, on your progress and get motivated to push forward the work. Create a dedicated folder for this course on your computer to keep this table and everything you produce.
  5. Keep an eye on takeaways – After each section, you will have to ponder on the key takeaways. It would be best if you kept collecting those points while you are undergoing the course. Put them together section-wise in a document
  6. Get The Big Picture – Once you complete all the sections of the course, you will need to get a big picture of all the lessons together. It can come in many forms, but the one that I like is Mind Map. You could create a couple of mind maps that slice and dice the whole information and help to form your mind with respect to this knowledge!
  7. Let the Rubber meet the road – It’s one thing to gain knowledge and it is quite another to apply it. You should find avenues to apply the knowledge.  You should set some relevant goals and plan for them. Now, a train of elephants is walking toward your dining table! But you know now how to eat an elephant, so get all those goals and the steps required to attain them in your work management system and track them towards their completion.

Happy Learning

(Originally published in Times of India on July 31, 2022)

How To Manage Your Passwords Reliably And Securely

You must have lived this moment in your school days. You prepare for your written test leaving one tough chapter. You get the question paper in your hand, you run an anxious look at the paper and your heart stops for a moment. The question from the tough chapter is lurking there.

We relive this moment when we visit a website after many months and the website asks that dreaded question – what is the password? After a couple of futile attempts at guessing the password, you frantically look for that life-saving link that says- forgot password? But now you are on to the arduous process of setting a new password.

Why does this happen to us? It goes back to the issue of our limited working memory! Unless you memorize your passwords like mathematical tables, there is hardly any chance of remembering them, especially if we don’t recall them regularly. Our digital world today demands passwords on every website we visit. It’s not practical to memorize those many random passwords. What is the way out?

One major technical solution that is available now is to use password manager applications. When you use a password manager application, you have to remember just one password, and the rest of them will be created and provided to you by the application. But, most of them are available as freemiums, so for more serious use, you would require to pay. Also, you may not feel secure handing over all your passwords to just one agency. 

If you are looking for some simpler and cheaper solution, here it is:

Our approach here will be to minimize what must be memorized and then write down everything else in a cryptic way in a secure place. Let’s get into the details. 

The easiest thing to take care of is to minimize the user IDs that we use. With the ubiquity of emails, your email addresses have become the best choice for user IDs. Try to limit the user IDs that you use, if not just one, to control the chaos.

The next thing would be to minimize the number of passwords that you require. As you know, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and a few others provide a mechanism to authenticate and identify through their service. You should use them to the maximum. You would get to manage several websites with just one password.

You should maintain a pecking order of services for yourself, instead of going by a random choice. It’s like using, let’s say, Google first, and if that is not available, using FB, and if that is also not available, Twitter, and so on. However, you will need a mechanism to recall the passwords of these service providers well, whenever needed.

There would still be several highly secure websites that do not use these service providers. Typically, they would also ask you to change passwords quite frequently. In this scenario, you may want to prepare a logical (to you) series of passwords. A complex keyboard pattern is my best suggestion here as you could move that pattern around the keyboard to get a series of passwords. The only thing you now have to remember is which one in that series is the active password. 

For all other websites where you don’t have to change the passwords frequently, you need to get creative and make hard-to-guess passwords. Do not use passwords such as your pet’s name, or child’s name, which others know about. There are several movies and TV shows that are hinged on how a villain could guess the password and could get into someone’s account.  Although that is all fanciful, the risk exists. You could use derivatives of those familiar names and words but only in a way that no one else could guess that derivative.

Now that you have a bunch of passwords in use, the next question that arises is how to secure them. Writing them on paper is very inefficient and not a fool-proof solution. The best idea here is to use a cloud service, such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive, etc. This is what you should do:

  1. Create a document on the cloud that is NOT named after “password”. Call it whatever else that would give you a clue that it contains passwords. This is where you would store your passwords but in a cryptic way so that neither a person nor a machine could make sense out of it even if it falls into their hands. 
  2. Each entry in this document will contain the name of a website, the respective user ID, and the password against it. You should use a cryptic name for the website and the user ID that only you could decipher. The only caution here is that, do not make it so cryptic that even you couldn’t guess it on your next visit. Once this document grows, you would end up using the file search mechanism, so you need to know what you should search for. For passwords, you would write the password hint and not the actual password. Again, the hint should help only you to decipher the password and no one else.
  3. The last thing you need to do is to create a shortcut to this document on the browser bookmarks bar, where you could see and use it easily.
  4. The next time you do not remember the password of a website, click on the shortcut to open the document, search for the cryptic word for the website and check the password hint. Whenever you change the password, you should first update the password hint in the document and then go to the site to change it, so that you do not forget to enter the new information in the document. 

That’s all to it. You might struggle with this method initially like anything new that we do, but with practice, this will make a fool-proof, secure, and reliable support system. Not being able to get the website credentials in time is a big productivity dampener, in today’s security-conscious world. Sprucing up your password system will take you a long way in staying productive. 

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(Originally published in Times of India on July 17, 2022)

How can you miss opportunities to build your PKM using your emails?

A few years back and many years after the floppy disks became obsolete, I coined a phrase at my work – “preparing a boot floppy”! The team around me knew what I meant.

Some of you, especially those who do not have a bunch of grey hair, may not have experienced a boot floppy. So, let me help you. In their early days, personal computers did not have hard disks for data or even for the operating system. Users carried the floppy disks with the operating system and the data files, around. As soon as you load a floppy disk, the computer woke up with the operating system available on the floppy disk.

I used this metaphor for making regular notes about whatever knowledge we were gaining during a project. Such notes are very handy to me, especially whenever we have to resume a project after a break or start a similar project. I call those notes boot floppy as they allowed me to get into that state of mind when I had worked on that activity in past. These notes save time and are useful to either extend the project or give an informed opinion on similar ongoing projects. In short, they form your PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) system.

A PKM is a must for all the knowledge workers. As we switch from one work to another we tend to forget several vital details of the earlier work done. And when you must go back to the old project, you end up scratching your head and hunting for key information. A PKM would help you to do the required time travel and get productive in no time.  Additionally it allows you to even contribute to Organization’s Knowledge Management (Organization Knowledge Management) system with the least effort, whenever needed.

I know what you are saying! “But, I hate writing documentation!”. Let me share the secret to overcome it. We hate documenting things primarily because we must stretch our memory to recollect every aspect of a project from the past. This is indeed hard because of our fragile working memory. So, the solution lies in doing this activity when it is fresh in your mind. You still need a trigger for writing the documentation on the go and your sent emails could do that trick.

I have seen this interesting phenomenon! People take extra care when they communicate over emails, especially when their clients, peers, and superiors are the recipients. The content is embellished with illustrations, examples, essential conditions, etc. People know that an email often turns into evidence in the future and so no one wants to be proven “wrong” later. I never see similar diligence when people write for the sake of documenting. But nothing is lost! We should leverage what we do best.

Such well-written emails are your voice. This valuable content should be not wasted for just one instance. One could often make a concept document, an analysis document, a design document, a checklist, a user guide, etc. out of such sent emails. Essentially, you will curate content from your own sent emails. But if you want to be successful with this idea you would need a ritual around it, in essence, as per the following:

1. Every day (mind it, every day) at the beginning of your day, scan through your previous day’s sent items and identify reusable content and copy and paste them into more durable documents.
2. On a particular day if you are hard-pressed for time or you have lots of emails to process, simply flag or label the items that you think are valuable for curating the content.
3. At the end of the week, scan through these flagged items and get the content out to the appropriate running documents. Once you copy the content, don’t forget to remove the flags.
4. You will need only an occasional review of each of these PKM documents to harmonize the content so that you have a proper narrative.
5. Your organization may ask you to make the very document. In such a case this document will move from your PKM to your organization’s OKM. You shouldn’t have two versions of the truth (Remember the DRY principle?)
6. Next time you need the reference material regarding a project, open the right PKM document instead of getting into the time-consuming and error-prone process of digging through your emails.

As you see, you are ticking so many right boxes with a simple ritual! You improve your productivity and the quality of your deliverables. You contribute to the Organization’s knowledge management with the least effort.

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(Originally published in Times of India on July 03, 2022)

How can you live with a messy Gmail account?

I hear this quite often and heard this again just last week –

“My Gmail account has become a mess and I think I should abandon this one and create a new one”.

It’s a common sight! You get too many useless emails every day adding to the already accumulated several unread emails. You start losing important emails in that daily tsunami. Also, the thus far benevolent Google must already be coaxing you to buy a plan as you are inching (if not “footing”) towards the free account storage limit (15 GB).

Creating a new Google account may appear a quick fix but is not a good idea over the long term. If you have multiple email addresses for a single purpose, you will create an overhead of tracking all of them. It’s also a great inconvenience to your audience when you have too many email addresses. Also, if you keep one of your accounts inactive, Google will eventually try to free the resource by scrapping your account.

But at the same time cleaning up your Gmail account would look like a Herculean effort. And if you are looking for that Alpheus River to clean your Augean stables, read on.

Let’s do this in two parts. In the first part, I will offer you simple steps to clean your Gmail account. In the second part, I will recommend a method that will ensure that you won’t clutter your account, in the first place.

Part A: How to clean your Gmail account

Making your account spotlessly clean may not be required. Instead, we will try to get maximum returns on your investment of time.

1. Google account comes with multiple Apps, such as Gmail, Google Drive, Photos, etc., and respective storage. All those storage are added up to check the upper cap of the disk space offered in the free Google account. The first step will be to take the stock of the situation and understand how much space each app is using. Use this link and scroll down and look at your usage. You might be even surprised by the results. You may like to prioritize based on what app needs the most attention. We will focus on cleaning your Gmail account in this post and reserve the rest of the Apps for the later ones.

2. Turning to Gmail, we should first take care of those few items that are using disproportionately large space. Use the search bar of Gmail and enter the following: larger:20M.

3. The search result will show you all the items that are larger than 20 MB. You will have several easy targets to delete – A catalog from a seller or an ebook sent to your Kindle account etc. Delete all of them. But, if you didn’t find any item, don’t worry and proceed with the next step

4. Go progressively to the next-level search with criteria, say, larger:10M and so on to delete more and more. Continue this process and stop at a stage where the list is too long to process and salvage worthwhile space.

Let’s use the other criterion now.

5. Look for a sender from who you are getting or had got several emails and you are sure that you don’t need those emails anymore. Grab the email address of the sender and enter it in the search bar along with the from: keyword, for example, from:newsletter@blahblahtech.com. The filtered results will have all the emails from that sender. In a typical situation, results may run into several pages and Gmail would show “1 to 50 of many”, in despair! How to select all the emails across these pages to delete, is a question. There is a way. You will need to do it in 2 steps.

    1. Select the check box in the menu above inbox. That will select all the emails on the page. As soon as they are selected, you will see a hyperlink – “Select all conversations that match this search” – just below the checkbox.
    2. Go ahead and click on the hyperlink. Once Gmail confirms that it has selected all of them, you should start smelling the victory and should click on the delete button on the Gmail menu bar. Give confirmation to Gmail for deleting.

Phew! A big burden is off!

6. Go back to your emails to look for the next senders and continue deleting them in bulk.

Part B: How to manage your emails to not accumulate too many of them

Our strategy here is to keep count of your unread emails to zero. Yes, you are hearing it right – Zero!

You should first ensure that your Gmail is configured to have three tabs – Primary, Social, and Promotions. This will keep most of the clutter away and you will be able to focus on the right things that are in the Primary tab.

You should process your emails as regularly as possible. Of course, I am not advising you to watch for every notification, but the idea is to not let the number of emails grow to such a size that you need a big-time slot to clear them, which you will never get anyway. Please note, that what I am advising here is to “process” the emails and not “do” related work:

1. Make a quick first pass for deleting those emails that you don’t even want to open. You need to take a clear and hard decision here. Gmail offers a delete icon right on each mail item when you hover on it. Click on the delete button to delete a particular item.

2. If you are regularly deleting items from certain senders consider unsubscribing to them, and that will reduce the burden of deleting them. Unsubscribing to the mailers is automated and quick, of late.

3. If you like to read the contents of a newsletter at leisure, instead of leaving it unread, check for the availability of that content on a website. Most newsletters offer a web link too. Go to that link and push those pages to a Read later App, like, Instapaper. Of course, you need to develop a habit of frequently clearing stuff from the Read later App as well. One good idea is to install the Read later App on your phone also and keep the shortcut on the home screen.

4. Keeping the emails unread to mark your pending actions is not a good practice. Consider writing the identified actions in your to-do list, instead.

5. You should also copy and save the useful email attachments, in a separate well-organized reference system. This will ensure that you would not run to your Gmail, whenever you need that thing.

All that you delete will go to the Trash folder. You don’t have to delete them from Trash as they get cleared anyway later. Moreover, you have an opportunity to restore it if you want something back.

Once you implement these ideas, you would have tamed this giant. You will find yourself organized and productive too.

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(Originally published in Times of India on June 19, 2022)

Build a Digital Reference Filing System in 5 steps for better productivity

Let’s check how well your digital files are organized! Can you quickly produce the following in NO TIME, if you were asked?

  • Photos from your vacation 3 summers back.
  • A humorous video you received a few months back from your friend.
  • Your latest digital passport size photograph.
  • Link to an interesting article that you had read once.
  • The presentation that you presented at a conference a few years back.
  • Dissertation report of your post-graduation degree.
  • Contract document of the project that you worked on last year.

If you felt discomfort after reading the above list, it’s not uncommon. Most of us are reasonably diligent about keeping physical things organized, such as wardrobe, shoes, important documents, or accessories in the kitchen. But our digital world is not that organized. Probably, as our generation hasn’t been coaxed about it by our parents or we haven’t had a chance to have many role models around.

The basic goal of any organized reference system, be it physical or digital, is to get the ability to retrieve whatever we want at any moment, in a moment. At best we lose precious time in searching for what we want and at worst the work couldn’t be done on time because we could not locate the required files. We miss those bouts of our creative energy, for the same reason.

Well, it’s not that we do not have a digital reference filing system at all, but many times it’s fragmented, dated, and incomplete — something is on a mobile phone, something on a home PC or laptop, something on the cloud and lots in emails — and thus not productive. Clouds are useful and should be exploited to keep a copy of some files but not all.

Here is how one can build a workable digital reference filing system:

  1. Create a root folder on a PC/laptop that is fully under your control. Create a tree structure of the file/folder system and organize all files in them. Typically there will be two filing systems, one for professional life and the other for personal life. It could be any structure, but we need to keep following two guidelines in mind. It should be the one that naturally occurs to you when you want to retrieve something. Try to not mix files that we want to copy on the cloud with the ones that we do not want to.
    Refer feature image of a sample (partial)structure of a Sample Digital Reference Filing System Structure.
  2. Keep this filing system up to date. This is achieved by developing a habit of storing files at their designated locations within the filing system when we deal with them for the first time. For example, You return from a vacation. You collect all photos and videos from all devices and put them in your reference system at the right location.  You receive an email with the certificate of the online course you just completed. You download the copy and keep it in the reference filing system. (A comment on Emails: Email Apps should be looked at as tools to communicate than the ones to store the documents. This perspective can make a big difference).
  3. You create a mind map while analyzing an interesting problem. You save it in the right location in your filing system.
    This is not all. You could pin frequently accessed folders to Quick Access of File Explorer on Windows and also pin frequently accessed files in respective Applications.
  4. Maintain a schedule to frequently back up your files onto a backup drive. Typical backup drives come with software that keeps track of files modified and new files that got created and give regular alerts on pending backups.
  5. Make a list of folders that you wish to keep a copy of, on clouds such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. Make a schedule of copying them at a frequency that works for you. It’s very productive to be able to retrieve some material on the cloud on our mobile device just from anywhere.
  6. Bookmark web resources actively. Some of your reference material may be available on Internet, in the form of interesting articles, web pages, or web apps. We should maintain bookmarks for them, to reduce our time of retrieval. All browsers allow organizing bookmarks in a tree structure. Choose a structure that works well for you keeping retrieval in mind. Export bookmarks in a file regularly and keep them in the reference filing system. Additionally, you could also use the bookmarks bar to have all that you frequently access.

That’s pretty much all. Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages the habit of building a reference filing system as one of its tenets. Implementing the entire GTD system will multiply your productivity and will keep you stress-free.

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(Originally published on Medium on March 29, 2020)

 

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