What Systems Keep You Effective?, (Sat, Jun 9th)

What Systems Keep You Effective?, (Sat, Jun 9th):

Previously I discussed What’s On Your Not To Do List as a means to remain focused on priorities. I never fear running out of work in cybersecurity. Instead, I worry that our focus does not always stay on the most critical issues. Today I want to highlight several techniques I use to help remain effective.

Saying no

    Over and over again

    No can be a complete sentence

    Opportunity cost associated with time spent on other items

Calendar Margin

    Create space for unexpected tasks

    Make appointments for what matters most    

Goal tracking system

    As an achiever, I enjoy checking items off my “to do” list

    Evernote as a repository to hold ideas for future research

    Keep from cluttering up my brain

A physical planner

    Found tremendous value in weekly reviews

    Focus on what I accomplished

    And what needs even more focus

Each of these tactics serves to help keep me focused on what matters most. What hacks do you use to stay effective throughout your busy day? Let us know in the comments section!


Russell Eubanks

ISC Handler

SANS Instructor


(c) SANS Internet Storm Center. https://isc.sans.edu Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

(Via SANS Internet Storm Center, InfoCON: green)

Other than the use of Evernote (I of course use Emacs & Org mode), I do or intend to do all of this listed here. I like the “Calendar Margin” as something I am accidentally doing and could probably improve. 

Tech tidy

I purged “stuff” (technical term) at home over the December holiday break: clothes; books; kitchen gear; papers; kids (well, one went back to college).

I avoided my trouble spot until there was a critical mass of positive momentum … my tech.

When I finally tackled it, most went easy. Nine mini USB cables when I need two? Sorted. 40gb ATA hard drives? Destroyed. Several sub 1A wall warts? Purged.

Gizmos, be they five-year old laptops or unused-for-years old phones or tablets collecting a real layer of dust, they posed more angst. “But I could do x with it,” I would tell myself.

Starting a new tech job means I will get new tech. So I’m purging my old kit. I’m down to my Google nexus 5 phone and my kindle and an external battery pack. Flying from Detroit to San José without my usual tools proved more of a challenge than I wanted to acknowledge.

I WANT a real keyboard. I WANT a decent screen size. I WANT ample storage. I WANT good battery life.

By ‘want’ I, of course, mean NEED.

If I had my pick now I would probably go with a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (dual-boot with ubuntu) and a Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

UPDATE: My new work laptop is a ThinkPad T430. My cell phone will only be useful for phone calls and light email duty.

Also on:

Scheduling Time for work, me

Note: this is the first blog post I’m doing on my iPad with the onscreen keyboard only. I’ll let you know how I like it at the end.

We use SameTime instant messaging from IBM/Lotus in my organization. It’s tied into our corporate calendars, so it dynamically marks one as away during scheduled meetings. I make use of this and don’t think much about it.

I noticed that two of my peers are almost always in meetings according to their status, yet they have no more meetings and conference calls than I do. It’s an annoyance that they’re not always available in IM, but that usually means I’ll send them an email if it’s not urgent or call them on their cell phone if it is.

I was in a meeting with one of these two colleagues the other day. I can’t remember what topic we were on about but it came around to finding time for some testing. I think I said something like “I know you’ve got about as much free time for this as I do”. He said, “That’s okay. I’ll book it in my calendar”.

Scheduling certain work related things in one’s calendar is nothing new. But what my peer does is block out recurring blocks of time for certain activities. He’s in application development so finding time to test and squash bugs is really important. You need uninterrupted time, so this method is effective for him. He recommends to his team that they do the same.

My reaction was “my schedule is too hectic, too unpredictable. There’s no way I could do that”. The more I’ve thought about it the more I think that the dynamic nature of my schedule is exactly why I need to do this, too.

Back to the SameTime instant messenger, that is where this gets interesting. That tool sends the message that I don’t want interruptions but I’m around if needed when “in a meeting”. It delays low grade issues or general questions instead of me breaking focus on what does demand my attention and focus. Now all I have to do is find the blocks of time in my schedule and set them. I think I’ll start modestly, booking meetings with myself for two or three slices for email processing a day and a few more for project work a week.

I am thinking about doing something similar for my personal time, too.

This isn’t earth shattering stuff. Sometimes the effective things aren’t. They’re just new ways of using the tools you already have in a new way.

How do you manage your unstructured time? What tools to you use?

Update on posting this from my iPad: The typing experience wasn’t horrible but the corrections and edits were hard. The cursor doesn’t always go where you want it to. I also learned that the POP email integration with my WordPress doesn’t work.

Launching Org-Capture in Windows with AutoHotKey

I finally figured out how to launch org-capture from anywhere in Windows. I’m using AutoHotKey.

; org-capture
If WinExist("ahk_class Emacs")
Send ^{c}
Send {c}
Run "C:\emacs-24.0.90\bin\runemacs.exe"
WinWaitActive, emacs
Send ^{c}
Send {c}

I have Ctrl-c c set up as the org-capture shortcut. I know there’s another option through something called org-protocol that might work better.

I just got it puzzled out, so I don’t know what my mileage will be. But I’m pretty jazzed at the prospects. Comments to the code might be forthcoming.

Is this working for you? Do you have a better way to do this?

Refactoring Emacs’ Org-mode, GTD, Information Capture, Good Data, 6 W’s, & the Kitchen Sink

This post can use a serious refactoring all by itself. I won’t. This is more of a thought experiment, internal discussion open to all, and a mild rambling brain dump. If anyone gets any value out of it (including me), excelsior!

I use EmacsOrg-mode for my GTD workflow. Emacs is ubiquitous for me on my computers. Org-mode is an add-on that I place a lot of stock in for information management and GTD. Mobileorg, the method/app that gets the Org-mode data to and from smartphones and tablets, is installed on my mobile devices.

Right now I use Org-mode mostly for work. Everything is in three basic files: inbox.org for capture, notes.org for note handling, and todo.org for task handling. These are more theoretical than practical. For example, I configured the org-capture function in org-mode to completely miss the inbox and place captured notes and tasks into their respective files. They should go instead into the inbox where I daily and weekly review and refile.

I also need my personal life captured in here. The line between personal and business time is beyond blurry. It’s more of a wind blown wave in the sand. Because of that and the highly similar nature of my day – it’s usual if not common for me to step out of the office for an hour or so to run an errand while I can be up the wee hours in my home office or hotel room working on budgets – I need to reflect my whole life in there and obliterate the microscopic distinction between the two. Plus my work life is generally more interesting of the two these days. Correcting that is a task in the new system.

This leaves me with a few open questions I’ve been pondering for a spell:

  1. Is org-mode the right choice?
  2. Is a one large file approach, several files approach, or a file per topic/project approach going to work out the best for me based on my current understanding and assumptions?
  3. How will I share this information with others as needed?
  4. How important are contexts in this new mix? For instance, will I care if I’m in the office or at home when doing most tasks? Do I care about a phone context since I always have at least one phone nearby? Same with a computer (though a keyboard context for writing might be good).
  5. How much of the rest of my time is spent in Emacs?
  6. How to keep safe, secure, and available?

The last shall be the first, the first shall be the second, and the rest shall fall where they may.

6 – I will keep my org files in Wuala. My mobileorg publishing will be done with Dropbox. Both are cross platform and cross OS options. Wuala is encrypted for data in transit and data at rest with me holding the keys. Dropbox isn’t as secure, but it is the only method I can make work of disseminating the data between my device platforms. Mobileorg allows for simple encryption for the data in transit. I hope the developers continue to improve it and maybe offer different cloud storage options. I don’t like using external services for such things. There is no similar solution in-house, and no explicit prohibition of a public option for tangentially relevant data. Until there is a viable internal option I am using the tools that are available. Having two separate solutions will allow provider diversity, though I could integrate an internal SharePoint option later. I continue to take appropriate actions, such as checks for data integrity and

1- I think Org-mode and Emacs will stay my tools of choice, at least for now. I need to affix GTD as a habit more than I have. The tool used is largely irrelevant. When I bust out org-mode I not only feel like I have a better grasp on what I am doing, I actually accomplish things in a more strategic fashion. This is especially true in comparison to my Inbox. I always get burned when I use my Inbox as my todo list.

5 – Quite a lot of my time is spent in Emacs, actually, considering that my technical role is wafer thin. It is almost always running. Probably my best use is again with org-mode, but for doing presentations. I like drafting it in org-mode before subjecting it to MS PowerPoint or Keynote. It’s my external editor for Lotus Notes and my default for many file types in Windows. I used to use it for my Twitter client. I should dust that off. Emacs’ w3 is a great distraction-free web browser.

4 – I will ditch contexts in my GTD except for two – detached and keyboard. “Detached” (or maybe untethered) is for those times when I don’t need a network connection to work. These contexts should have all of the information needed stored locally. The other, keyboard, I need as mentioned above. Other tasks I can complete using an iPhone, iPad, Android device, or whatever. These contexts will be managed as tags on existing entries prefixed with the ‘at’ sign (@).

3 – Sharing information outside of org-mode is both incredibly easy and insanely difficult. org-mode uses flat text files. Internal logic presents the data in an efficient manner. While any old program can open text files, they can’t necessarily understand them. I think I can get around this by setting up agenda views published to HTML on the corporate SharePoint portal, for example. My group uses Lotus Notes for email and calendar, so I need to come up with a workable way to share at least the calendar stuff. Email I’m less concerned about at the moment, though if I can convince the powers that be to turn on secure IMAP …

2 – How to structure the file(s)? This is really where things go wonky for me and why I kept it for last. I love the idea of "one file to rule them all". A monolithic file will eventually get too big, too unwieldy, and too vertical for me to get Emacs and org-mode to handle it all. Too many small files takes the vertical problem and makes it horizontal. Having a separate file for each project, for example, is a great idea until one note or one task needs to be shared between two or more projects. My current sparse files option might be the best, but not how they’re currently setup. Notes and tasks need to be together.

I think my inbox.org concept is sound if I just use it.

I will kick things off with three main files: inbox.org, world.org, and archive.org. All of my daily capture will go into the inbox. All of my current stuff will reside in world. Nothing should go into world directly. Older items will go into archive. Daily I will empty my inbox. Weekly, monthly, and annually I will review the world. I will quarterly and annually review the archive. I will also have a “Someday/Maybe”-type file and a “reading room”-type file. I was going to have some miscellaneous files, but I don’t want to go too far afield on what I can see. Miscellaneous files may end up being out of normal view. I will reconsider this as things go.

I will keep my work calendar in Notes for the time being. If I can figure out a way to automate sharing the calendar between that and org-mode/Emacs calendar I will do so.

I will make projects contexts, tags prefixed with a ‘@’. A note or a task can be tagged with as many as needed.

Another thing I can do, and this is something of an aside but an important one, is I will be able to open notes and tasks associated with my team (and others). So, when I’m with them on the phone or standing at their desk I should be able to pull everything up about them as a tag filter across projects and everything. That kills off the far too frequent "What was that other thing I wanted to talk with you about?" query.

This reflection and rambling course of action brings up another issue, one that is not specific to any tool or method. I need to capture better information. I had a conversation with one of my bosses not too long ago. It was a long chat. There were many concrete tasks I needed to deliver. One item should have been concrete and easy to do but I wrote it down incorrectly. By the time I got back to it in a late review I couldn’t remember the "what" and "why" of the conversation though I had a time frame.

I may have mentioned somewhere that I was a Journalism and Broadcasting major in college. I trained for capturing accurate information. I did this by asking six simple questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

Why I don’t do this at certain times is fodder for yet another post yet another time.

Some of you may ask, "But I don’t need all of those when capturing data, do I"?

No. A good rule of thumb is no fewer than three. In my vague example above what, when, and why would probably have been sufficient. Who was a given value of "me". Where and how wasn’t part of the equation.

My management style rarely has a "How" or "Where" component to tasks I assign, though from time to time one of those can be introduced. Since I travel constantly for work, the "Where" bit can play a role.

Before sharing your data with others, especially higher ups and customers, you need all W’s answered. You should have references where possible.

I think the most frustrating thing around this process is that it’s not as simple as it should be. A colleague of mine constantly rails against managing to the exception (pot-kettle-black; another post), and he’s right, but how do you define what constitutes an exception. That takes us off into yet another post for another day.

Am I addressing my personal life, such as it is, in this? Is this actually going to help or hurt or make no difference? I won’t know until I take the plunge. One thing that I might alter will be the Someday/Maybe stuff. Items for my employer I will want to separate from my personal stuff. There will be an occasional overlap. I’ll deal with those as they come.

Another issue that is still out there is the data. If I leave my employer, who owns the data? If I mix the personal with the professional with the employer-specific stuff, how do I divorce it if need be?

I need to make a task to roll in my aborted OneNote experiment. I tried using OneNote. It’s a surprisingly great tool. The lack of an easy-to-use internal reference system, the inability to dock it at login, difficulty in reorganizing or refiling data, no overarching view of tasks, and its GUI-only nature limits its usefulness. Maybe if I was on Outlook & Exchange and never left a Windows/iOS environment it would work better. It does have a lot of things I quite like: templates (though not as easy to use as they should be), audio capture as part of note taking, tabs & pages & notebooks as its metaphor, OS-integrated capture, some third party tools to fill some gaps, and integration with SharePoint and MSN/MS Live with strong encryption for the data in transit (not sure about data-at-rest). I can see using it as a replacement for org-mode, but it will take a lot of work and decisions by people senior to me to make it a true replacement for work.

Two other things play a role in org-mode: Emacs calendar/diary and BBDB. The calendar is as described. The Big Brother DataBase (BBDB) is another animal. BBDB is a contact list. More value comes from using it in an integrated Emacs environment. My contacts are all over the place and in serious need of review. BBDB will be my main contact repository. I can move things in and out somewhat easily.

This post exceeded any reasonable expectation for length, breadth, and buckshot content.

It brings up another important point. I should be able to edit posts in Emacs, too! Someday/Maybe, perhaps. There must be a WordPress option for Emacs.

I have some concrete deliverables from this, some things to work on, and some “nice-to-haves” down the road.

Here endeth the … whatever this is.

Kicking the tires on OneNote 2010

I’ve been a user of org-mode in Emacs for a number of years. I really like it. I’ve been hamstrung by the tools I have to use at work. They are not open systems or they are not configured to be open. So I cannot use the power of Emacs and org-mode as I would like. If I could integrate my work email, calendar, contacts, and so on I could RULE THE WORLD!

Hmmm. Perhaps not that, but I would be more potent with my information.

The amount of time I spend doing technical things dwindles regularly. I keep my hand in to keep from getting too rusty. I also need to make sure I’m keeping up with the state of things. The bulk of my time is spent in meetings, in email, in spreadsheets, in presentations, in documents, and researching.

I was surfing around the other day and stumbled on a review of Microsoft OneNote 2010. I lost the link, but the article intrigued me. Maybe I can use OneNote to replace org-mode for me in my work life?

There are a lot of similarities between the two. It makes me wonder if the developers are or were org-mode users. While surfing I can make notes that are automatically linked, I can store notebooks on the web or in SharePoint. I can arbitrarily capture data and associate it later. I can link from one item to another.

I’m just getting started, but so far I’m liking what I see. More to come!