A Post About Slack That Isn’t Really About Slack

This is a post I wrote a few years ago for the old blog. I’m reprinting it this week because, as my colleagues and I continue to telework full time, Slack has become our primary communication tool. We also do meetings on Zoom, but I have to comb my hair for those.

There used to be a website called Meebo. It was a web-based instant messaging system that could be integrated with AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, and other IM systems. Users had the option to create their own rooms, which allowed groups of folks to chat in one place at the same time.

Meebo was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2012, Google bought it. Google integrated the Meebo team with its Google+ team, then quietly closed Meebo up.

There also used to be a website called FriendFeed. You could hook it up to all of your various social media accounts and blogs and so forth and all those accounts would feed into your FriendFeed account. You and your friends would be able to see and comment on everything you were populating the web with.

Over time, the function of collecting posts from your sundries became less important than just posting stuff directly into FriendFeed and talking with your friends and followers about it.

FriendFeed was a terrific little website. Then one day in 2009, Facebook bought it. Facebook took whatever code it needed for its Newsfeed feature and… well, let FriendFeed continue to exist. Gradually, FriendFeed began to deteriorate: features would stop working and the site would sometimes go down for awhile. For six years, FriendFeed users felt like it was not long for the world, but it only closed up shop in 2015.

Which brings me to Slack. The bureau I work for licensed Slack a couple of years ago with an eye towards improving telework. The idea our Bureau’s leadership had was that we would use Slack to get quick responses to short questions and to converse with coworkers about projects rather than bogging down inboxes with emailed conversations or interrupting a telework day with unnecessary phone calls.

At first, I didn’t really get it. I have been teleworking regularly for years, so I already had a routine down. (In other words, I’m a bit stubborn.)

And then light dawned on Marblehead: Slack is like a combination of Meebo and FriendFeed, except for work. It takes a lot of what I liked about Meebo (channels here instead of rooms) and a lot of what I liked about FriendFeed (integration with other resources, private group discussions and archived direct messaging) and packages it up for a work environment.

Granted, it lacks things I liked about Meebo and especially FriendFeed: for example, the threaded conversations in FriendFeed were unique in a way that even Slack’s threads don’t quite capture. But once I made the connections between resources I had used before to this resource, I could start to think about ways I could work it into my job.

The lesson here is that everything you have learned informs everything that you are going to learn. Just making some simple parallels can be the cognitive breakthrough you need to understand how something works and how it can work for you.

Welcome to the House of Fun

Years ago, I wrote a brief article about telecommuting for the 2014-15 edition of LexisNexis Best Practices for Government Libraries. Rereading it got me to thinking about how the telework landscape has changed a lot since then.

While my office has always been very supportive of telework agreements, it seemed that this wasn’t broadly the case in other parts of the bureau. So when recent events made it a requirement for me and my colleagues to do work from home, I was fascinated to see how this was going to work out.

And so far, it’s been fine. We had been hampered a bit by the limitations of our teleworking tools. Not surprisingly, they were originally designed to work for the average number of telecommuters, not the maximum number. So it’s been nice to see how much work has gone into improving the resources and streamlining the set-up process in the past couple of weeks. It’s a difficult job to implement rolling upgrades while also communicating with a large number of people whose work lives have been totally disrupted and are learning how to get set up and use everything all at once. I have a huge amount of respect for everyone working on this, because as much as we all like to complain about things not working perfectly, the fact that they work as well as they do under extraordinary circumstances is pretty great.

A bright spot in what is broadly a miserable time for everyone is that this whole experience will probably permanently alter how telework is done here. And not just from the technical and logistical end of things. I think a lot of people who were resistent to telework before will discover that it’s not so bad, and even has a lot of advantages. Not to say we all won’t be itching to get back to the office as soon as it is safe enough to do so. Even me, who teleworks more often than I work onsite.

One of the things that I noticed for myself is how loud my commute into DC has been. It takes me one hour and 15 minutes each way to get into the office. A significant portion of that commute is spent on a Metro train, and a significant portion of that Metro ride is spent underground. It is noisy down there, to the point where I bought noise-cancelling headphones so I could hear the podcasts I like to listen to en route. I have tinnitus, so I thought I was protecting my hearing this way.

But I realized that despite the use of those headphones, my ears were still buzzing at the end of the day. The reason? I was still turning up the volume on my podcasts so I could hear them. Even with the noise cancellation on, the din from the Metro tunnels was still too loud to hear properly. I’m only listening to people talking, but I’m listening to them at a stupidly high volume.

So when things back to whatever normal is going to look like, one of my personal tasks will be to figure out how to rectify this situation. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, because I have a backlog of podcasts to get through now that I’m not listening to them while commuting.

The Morning Fog

My bureau is using Gallup‘s CliftonStrengths right now, a personality-based team building tool. The idea is that each participant will uncover and build on their core set of talents. By focusing on strengths instead of trying to improve weaknesses, individuals can become better team players by working with others who compliment their skills.

How much you buy into that depends on how much you buy into any sort of corporate team building exercise, obviously. I tend to be skeptical, although that doesn’t usually stop me from playing along. I kinda love the mechanics of the whole process. I took a big old personality test, and got back a 25-page report that ranked 34 copyrighted buzzwords purporting to reveal my top 10 talents and the 24 other skills that I need to work around so I don’t trip myself up.

I’d like to scoff, but when my report tells me that I comprehend what I read better when I read in short bursts, that I prefer books with short chapters, and I tend to seek out publications and websites offering useful tips for organizing things… well, I’m a little more inclined to buy in.

Of course, a lot of this confirms what I already know about myself. What I found most useful both in the report and the accompanying workshop was the list of pitfalls to each of the personality traits. Maybe it’s a little obvious that someone who is overly empathetic will feel worn down by taking other people’s energy levels. But for someone who deals with confidence issues and imposter syndrome and the like, it’s nice to have a little guide to myself that I can use to navigate though those negative moments.

And I Won’t Screw It Up This Time

I have written more than a couple of posts about organization and productivity. They have become snapshots in time versus the solid basis for a fully organized work life, but on the other hand, they could still be the latter. If only…

As I allude to a couple of times, I struggle to make time to set routines into habits. I can do something consistently for a period of time, but as soon as something happens to disrupt the routine, I can’t get back into it. And then I beat myself up over it here!

But because I’ve written about all of that, I have the documentation to get back on track. Field Notes’ motto is “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” That is true, but beyond that, because I wrote it down earlier, I can jog my memory now.

As mentioned in my previous post, I have been reading Messy by Tim Harford, which makes the case that disorder can help spark creativity, and probably leads to more creativity than a perfectly ordered life.

I feel like that last sentence is also the main plot to any movie about how awful the suburbs are.

Anyway, after describing how Twyla Tharp manages her work, Harford discusses how he keeps track of all his projects and plans and stray ideas.:

I have a related solution myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and three-by-five-inch cards. Each card has a single project on it-something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete … I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top. They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner … They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.

pp.53-54 of the Libby ebook version of Messy on an iPhone with the font size increased because my eyesight is poor

There is room for some sort of organization so long as you make room for the disorganization that could lead you to new discoveries. One of my challenges, then, is not letting the organizational part get in the way of the discovery part.

For example, I use Pocket to save articles that I love or that I want to read later. If a bunch of articles pile up, I will get overwhelmed and then skim each article and archive or delete them to clean up my list. It took a long time for me to realize that all this is doing is forcing me to organize without understanding why I saved articles in the first place. There’s no point in archiving files or getting to inbox zero if you are only cleaning up for the sake of cleaning up. Thinking about why you left something where you did helps you understand its potential.

Which gets me back to my original idea for this post. I have all these tools I created to help me get organized, but maybe the reason why they didn’t stick is because I didn’t think about why I thought they were important. That’s my next step.

First Train Into the Big World

I spend a lot of time doing small little tasks to make myself feel productive. But I rarely stop to think if those tasks are helping me accomplish bigger goals or consider whether or not they are necessary. I do them because I’ve always done them.

As my work and home duties are evolving in considerable ways, I’ve become more conscious of how much stuff I do just for the sake of doing it. Keeping the work journal should help me sort everything out, but I would need to sit down and look at past journals to do analysis and my goodness, do I have time for that, look how busy I am, my journal clearly says so!

You can see how I walk around in circles. Thinking I don’t have time to plan my day or my week and so forth because I am too busy with all my day-to-day duties only distracts me from prioritizing what actually needs to get done.

Productivity gurus commonly recommend scheduling time in your calendar time to do something that is detail-oriented or requires high levels of concentration. It has the external effect of letting co-workers know not to bother you and the internal effect of giving you the space to complete important tasks.

Of course, it does require you to adhere to your calendar. Whenever I’ve done this in the past, I’ve gotten my notifications, dismissed them, then keep chugging away on the minutiae I was engrossed in.

I’d like to think publishing a post about this would motivate me to do it, but I also know I’ve written about it before, then not followed up because I had fallen off the wagon and was embarrassed to admit it. There’s no shame in having trouble breaking bad habits, so long as I own up to my mistakes and try again. That’s how I learn.

By the way, I am using a lyric from a snarky song as a headline for something sincere. I’ve got layers.

The Feeling at the End of the Page

91b54-old-school-librarian.pngWhen I first started teleworking back in 2011, the staffing agency I worked for and my supervisor at the time asked me to keep track of the work I was doing from home. I would send them an email at the end of each work day. When the bureau I work for set up G Suite back in 2014, I began writing my reports in Google Docs.

On February 29, 2016, I began to write up a report every work day, rather than just on my telework days. (I had to look up the date!) It had become useful for me to keep track of all of the projects I was working on. It became part of my daily routine.

I didn’t really think of it as a work diary per se until I read Amanda Leftwich’s article in The Librarian Parlor, “Reflecting Journaling: A Daily Practice.” I wouldn’t describe what I do as reflective and more as reactive. I’m just keeping track of what I’ve done in a day. That said, having all of those details written down has helped me when updating my duties in my contract, tweaking my LinkedIn profile, and (very occasionally) coming up with ideas for posts.

What I really took away from “Reflecting Journaling” was that I could get more out of my daily routine. I don’t really use the diary to work through problems I am trying to solve or projects I am trying to wrap my head around, but instead as a way to catalog my routine. This has a lot to do with the fact that the original diary entries were shared as reports with my original onsite and agency supervisors. I haven’t had to file telework reports for years, but the report format has stuck.

Despite my proclivity to play around with productivity tools and tips, I never used journaling as a way to help me manage my workload. Given that I tend to pick up and drop hacks, it makes sense to work within something that I already do on a regular basis. Maybe it will be easier to adapt habits I already have to new purposes.

That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate

Is January 17 way too late to make my New Year’s resolutions? I read a brief article in Fast Company recently titled, “Why you should start your New Year’s resolutions on March 4” that got me to thinking about how I approach things like, say, writing a personal blog.

The author Art Markman writes that a reason why many people fail to accomplish their resolutions is that they don’t put a plan into place to achieve them. He recommends spending the first couple months of the year making a plan, observing your habits, figuring out what will block you from succeeding, and finding people who can help you along the way.

(Yes, that’s a tl;dr version of an article with a two minute reading time.)

I won’t bore you with all of the bad habits I am resolving to change, but in context of my blog, my goals are as follows:

  • Figure out the story I want to tell with this blog.
  • Expand my reading and viewing horizons that will help inspire new posts.
  • Set and adhere to a writing schedule that is reasonable.

I don’t think that’s too tricky, but obviously I’ve made those goals before without success. Did I hold me back?

Where’d You Get Your Information From, Huh?

Back in April, I published a post detailing how I was using Google Tasks as part of my experiment to manage my work and personal projects. I lamented at the time (April 12, 2018) that there wasn’t a Tasks app. Seventeen days later, Google launched a Tasks app. It’s very simple and very straightforward, and it’s been very helpful.

While I am updating posts, I will mention that after writing that my place of work hadn’t approved Google Calendars, it has since approved Google Calendars. Now I can start begging for Tasks app approval.

Let’s Push Things Forward

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how I set up editorial calendars to manage my projects at work. I hummed along for a couple of weeks, as efficient as a bird building a nest. Then I went on a work trip, which disrupted my nascent routine. Then I got home from my work trip and…

So now I have a bunch of old tasks in a calendar I’m not looking at and a bunch of new ones scattered around my notebook, which is what I was trying to put a stop to when I started the whole exercise.

Deep breath, step back, start again.

In the meantime, I’ve finally given up my work BlackBerry for a work iPhone. I had plans to download all of the Google apps as I restarted my calendar project. Unfortunately, Google Calendar is not approved for use on department-issued iPhones.

Great.

So I’m in the process of moving the whole project over to Apple’s apps. It’s a work in progress right now, but it has given me an opportunity to rethink the process. There were two things that irked me a bit about using Google Tasks and Google Calendar. One, Tasks gave you the option to set due dates for tasks, but didn’t offer any sort of notifications. So a deadline could pass without warning. Even though it is on me to be checking my calendar, it would have been nice to get a heads up as the due date approached.

Two, if you set up multiple lists in Tasks and then checked them on Google Calendar, the tasks for each list only display on calendar when the list is active. So I can see items on my to do list on my calendar, but I can’t see items on my outstanding issues list unless I switched to that task list. It was a bit awkward.

So I will revisit this in a few weeks to see how I am doing. We have a work conference coming up at the end of the month and I want to make sure that I’m still keeping up my practice that week.

Blaze Ahead and Go Home Happy

In my last blog post, I wrote about experimenting with editorial calendars to manage my task lists. I’m not sure if what I’ve set up resembles a traditional editorial calendar, but it has been useful so far.

I’ve always kept to do lists, either on paper or using apps. My problem has been that I never differentiated between tasks, projects, and goals. I would jot down very specific tasks, like “follow-up with my supervisor about our draft guidelines document,” then mixed in broad items, like “redesign website.” My lists were a mess. Here’s what I’ve done so far to tackle the problem.

My office uses G Suite, so I started in Google Calendars with creating calendars for my four main, broad areas of work: applied technology, data management, information resources, and general office tasks. These calendars work with  my default appointments calendar and the Google Tasks calendar to give me a comprehensive, color-coded picture of what I have on my plate.

I like Google Tasks because I can mark emails in my Gmail inbox as tasks, then get them out of my inbox. (I do something similar with Outlook, because I have two work emails.) But there are a couple of drawbacks. There isn’t a Tasks app and the Tasks calendar doesn’t appear in the Google Calendars app. It is very much a desktop application. The workaround on a mobile device is going to https://mail.google.com/tasks/canvas in a browser. Also, unlike in Outlook’s task bar, there is not an option in Google Tasks to set alarms for tasks. I can set a due date, but I have to pay closer attention to my calendar to make sure I don’t miss the deadline.

Anyway, within Google Tasks, I created six task lists: four for my areas of work, then one called To Do List and one called OUTSTANDING ISSUES.

To Do List does what it says on the tin. I try to keep the list concise by recording one-time action items that I need to address, no matter what area of work they fall under.

OUTSTANDING ISSUES shows tasks that are in someone else’s court. It dawned on me when putting this together that I have a habit of marking things off my to do list without determining whether or not I would need to follow up. I had technically completed the task, but I still had more work to do. It’s a bad feeling when I realize I asked someone a question three weeks prior and never got a reply. Now I can keep track of what I need to follow up on.

The task lists for each area of work don’t serve as to do lists, but instead show my duties within those areas. For example, my Applied Technology list shows the main projects that I work on, such as advising on ILS and membership systems, administering tech surveys, and managing our LISTSERVs and Facebook group. I use the notes box in each task to list sub-duties if applicable, such as making sure the folks at LibraryThing and TinyCat still like us.

The notes field is turning into a bit of a bonus for me because I am using it to mark down recurring tasks. I am generally good about keeping tabs on things like running reports on the first of the month, but I have never written them down before. After getting them out of my head and into the notes, I can then add them as recurring appointments within respective area of work calendars. The coloring coding helps me keep track of what’s on tap each day.

That’s fine for now but what comes after? Well, I am sure I will be making adjustments as I go along as I come up with new ideas or better ways of noting things. Also, I need to stay disciplined because I know my history of starting and abandoning productivity systems.

The key thing is I am having a lot of fun working on this (and doing something similar with my home projects). If it’s fun, it won’t feel like a chore, right?