Digital or analog? Yes.

In the past month, it’s happened that two colleagues of mine misplaced their respective day planners1. One of them was fortunate enough to retrieve it in short order, but even that was traumatic enough – as she said at the time, “I have my life in it”.

For someone like me who goes heavily into digital tools, these two incidents highlight the main disadvantage of analog – namely, it’s a single location of information with no automatic sync or backup2. Other downsides include difficulty with updating or changing existing entries, no easy way to get the information into a digital format for use in other contexts, and of course the risk of illegibility (especially if you have handwriting like mine!).

So in recognizing these limitations, why are paper notebooks and planners part of my own tool belt? A big consideration for me is the lack of distractions on paper – sure I could doodle, but I can’t check email in a notebook and when was the last time that your day planner bugged you with a text or a Twitter notification? There are also fewer constraints with a blank piece of paper compared to an app3, making it easier to just start writing or drawing without having to fit one’s ideas into an app’s preferred format. And of course, paper won’t run low on power at an inopportune moment.

Those are all of the logical reasons to keep analog in the mix, but there’s one more thing that I’ve noticed in myself and in talking with others. Namely, there’s something about physically taking pen to paper that somehow makes things more tangible. In particular, in sketching out plans for the week and highlighting the “big rock” goals I want to accomplish, taking those few minutes to transcribe them into a notebook feels like I’m physically committing to those intentions – even though those actions may not be all that different, practically speaking, from reviewing an online calendar or task management app.

All this to say that, for me at least, it’s not an either-or between digital and analog. The trick is to figure out how to best mesh them together in order to benefit from the best of both worlds and avoid their respective limitations. I’m not sure if I’ve got the two in balance just yet, but I’m thinking to delve into my current system for a future post both to demonstrate what’s working and identify what could be improved.

  1. Just to be clear on terms, my read of what they mean by “day planner” is a large notebook-like thing that includes calendar pages, space for notes, and even pockets and such to keep business cards or other small items.
  2. I suppose you could periodically scan the pages using a phone app, but that would not qualify as an automatic process.
  3. Digital is coming close though, thanks to tools like the iPad and Apple Pencil.

The Lazy Evaluator

A few weeks ago, I presented an Ignite presentation at the Canadian Evaluation Society’s annual conference in Calgary. When I wrote the proposal for this session back in December 2017, I already had the idea for this blog in mind but hadn’t decided on a title. “Lazy Evaluator” was definitely on the short list, but I’m glad to have gone with Eval en Place instead. In any case, I think the talk I gave pretty well encapsulates the ethos of Eval en Place and what I hope to accomplish through this site.

Since the conference presentations are generally not recorded, I ended up re-recording this Ignite talk as a screencast from the comfort of my office. For those not familiar with the Ignite format, the idea is that you have a presentation deck with 20 slides, with the slides switching automatically every 15 seconds for a total presentation length of 5 minutes. It’s a fun and challenging format, in that your timing has to be spot-on and your presentation focused on the key message you want to convey.

Hope you enjoy it!

Axes and Solar Panels

Two weeks ago at the Canadian Evaluation Society’s conference1 I presented an Ignite talk extolling the virtues of being a Lazy Evaluator. I’m planning to record a screencast of that five-minute talk to share here, but in the meantime a new software release got me thinking about one of the presentation slides, namely:

The point I was making here is that there’s a balance between periodically reviewing your ways of working2 with an eye to optimization, and spending lots of time tinkering around the edges to eke out modest (if any) gains. I know the second case can often be a form of procrastination or just generally avoidance – maybe spending some extra time sharpening the axe or picking out the best tree to fell is worthwhile, but at some point you just need to put steel to timber.

I have certainly been guilty in the past of playing with tools to the exclusion of getting work done, so I was a bit wary when the Omni Group released a new version of their OmniFocus task manager, the program I have been using for years to track to-do’s for both work and personal projects. For some reason it’s only been released on iOS thus far, with a Mac version coming sometime later in the summer: since I use OmniFocus on both platforms, that means realistically that I can’t move over full-bore until everything is up and running on the new version3. On the other hand, that does mean I could download the trial for the new version on my iPad just to take a peek, knowing that I wouldn’t be tempted to shake thing up too much at this point.

However. Even this brief opening of Pandora’s box (Pandora’s task manager?) made me realize that I haven’t been using the old OmniFocus that much recently, which for me is a sure sign that something in the current setup isn’t working. Building on that, some of the new features address various sore spots where the OmniFocus system rubs against my way of doing things. For example, it used to be that a task could only be assigned two dates, namely when it became available4 and when it was due. Now, you can set multiple notifications for a task, so I can be reminded about paying a bill a few days in advance of its due date and then again on the actual day in case I haven’t marked it off as done yet.

Another new feature, without getting too much in the weeds here 5, allows for multiple ways of categorizing and organizing tasks in a way that’s much less confining than the system used previously. Unfortunately for me, this second new feature calls into question how I organize everything in my OmniFocus system and whether I should just tear my structure of projects and task categories down and start fresh. It’s as if, when reaching for the axe, I see a glimmer of sunlight reflecting off of it and start debating whether I should replace the wood stove with a solar panel, battery, and electric heater. Of course, once I open that can of worms, I start thinking that I should look into other to-do managers6 or perhaps transition to a paper-based system or …

Well, you can see how this could lead to all sorts of tinkering. Don’t get me wrong, this exploration could very well lead to a better way of doing things: at the same time, I have a report due next week and emails to respond to and other things to do that are not directly dependent on me figuring out my task management system. I’m lucky in this particular instance in that I can draw a line in the sand and say that I won’t change anything until the Mac version comes out: hopefully I won’t have anything major on my to-do list when that day comes! In the meantime, though, I’ll probably start jotting down some ideas of what this new system might look like and perhaps share some ideas here on the blog as they become fleshed out.

  1. Welcome to new readers and subscribers from the evaluation world!
  2. Your mise en place, to use the culinary world’s term
  3. To be fair, the Omni Group has promised compatibility between the two versions in terms of syncing, though obviously the old Mac version will be missing the new features for the time being 
  4. Useful for repeating tasks, where once I book a haircut I won’t need to book another one for a couple of weeks at least 
  5. For those interested in getting into the productivity weeds, previous versions of OmniFocus aligned pretty strongly with David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system and thus allowed a task to belong to only one Project and one Context. In the new version, Contexts have been replaced by Tags, of which there can be any number assigned to a task. For example, where in the previous version you would have had to decide whether to assign a Context of “office” or “coworker” to identify a task you had to work on with a coworker while physically at the office, you can now use both.
  6. One notable competitor to OmniFocus is Things, which has been on a roll lately when it comes to improving their program

Catching Up

Stop me if this sounds familiar. You’re been busy for a couple of days or a week, perhaps head down on an important project or away at a conference. During that time, you check in on email when you can, mostly to make sure that nothing crucial came in, but it’s definitely not a priority. Once the dust settles and things are back to what passes for normal around here, you open the mailbox and … the avalanche breaks over your head1.

I had that experience recently after attending a three-day professional development workshop. While I had kept up with critical items, there was a lot left to deal with, ranging from trivial to annoying to fairly important. From that experience, I’ve identified a couple of tips to help you clean out the Augean stables your inbox:

Schedule Time To Tackle the Backlog

Maybe you have a system or at least a routine for dealing with email on a regular basis. If it works under normal circumstances, awesome: however, coming back from a time away would likely tax even the most disciplined approaches. I’ve found it useful to schedule some time after an absence to clear the decks, which includes sorting email as well as reviewing my calendar and priorities, filing anything from the conference, and so on. Even just an hour can help me feel more grounded and alleviate any fears that I’m missing something important.

Sort and Save Content

There are many different systems and frameworks out there for how to approach email. I’ll leave a full description of my email workflow2 for another time, but in a nutshell my approach is to get information out of email into apps and services where it’s more useful. To put it another way, email makes for a poor task manager, calendar, read-it later service, and so on: use the right tools for the job!

As a short list for now, here’s some apps that I use when cleaning out the inbox:

  • Instapaper: a read-it later service that allows me to save the content of web links. If an email newsletter doesn’t have a “read it in browser” option or it’s a post from a listserv, I can forward the email to my Instapaper account and it will automatically add it to my reading list.
  • OmniFocus: my current task management app of choice. If the email represents a task that will take more than a minute to do right then and there, it should3 go in here.
  • DEVONthink / Evernote: storage and filing of rich content, including links, articles, PDFs and so on that may be useful in the future. Right now I’m awkwardly in-between the two, having used Evernote for a long time but starting to explore DEVONthink for work purposes over this past year.

Get Smart with your Mailboxes

Automation is an unsung hero when it comes to dealing with information, and one of the easiest places to start is your mailbox. The simplest form is one that comes with pretty much every email account these days: spam filtering. Going a step or two further, services like Gmail have mailboxes or tabs for specific types of messages, such as notifications from social media networks or promotional emails and newsletters from companies.

Many desktop and mobile email clients allow you to set up rules or “smart” mailboxes, where messages that come from a certain sender or that contain specific words in the subject line can be automatically sent out of your inbox and into a specific folder. At some point you’ll want to deal with those messages, but shunting them into their own folders can make the initial sort easier and highlight those messages that actually require your time and attention.

Don’t Be Afraid to Hit “Unsubscribe”

The above tips focus on how to deal with email once it hits your inbox, but it’s also important to think about how much is coming in. As you’re clearing out the backlog, think about what’s arriving and whether it’s actually useful. A daily email may not seem like a big deal when you’re checking email regularly, but when you see five of them in the course of clearing your inbox after an absence, you might come to realize that the value it provides isn’t as great as you thought. Hitting unsubscribe now will pay dividends when you’re next away as well as on a daily basis, as that’s one less email to process.

(As a side note, when I’m away and don’t log into Facebook at all, it starts sending emails to try and entice me to log in, like “See what so and so posted!” Social media use is another post all together, but these kind of emails demonstrate how needy that network in particular really is!)

Try Alternative Contact Methods

How your coworkers and clients reach you is a big topic to tackle, and there will likely always be that one person who refuses to use anything except email. That being said, there are alternate methods out there that can help divert traffic from the inbox.

As an example, last summer I was out of town for three consecutive weeks to attend a conference and visit some friends. Because of work commitments, I couldn’t take those weeks completely off, plus I had a placement student working with me at that time. Rather than clog up our inboxes, we set up a Slack group (basically a private online forum) for my business. Each project we were working on had its own “channel”: that way, we could post comments, questions, and resources in the appropriate group. We committed to checking into Slack every 72 hours at minimum: in case a more urgent response was needed, there’s a notification feature that would ping me on my phone. Combined with some Skype calls, the system worked like a charm: we could keep abreast of developments and ideas by checking in when it made sense and thus avoided being buried by notifications or missing important updates.

How do you shovel out from a deluge of email after being away? Share in the comments below!

  1. Consider yourself lucky in one sense, at least it’s not a literal pile of envelopes and messages!
  2. Though calling it such makes it sound much more systematic than it really is!
  3. Well, that’s the ideal I’m working towards, but I don’t always succeed … which suggests that I need to revisit this aspect of my workflow. 

Setting the Place

Welcome to Eval en Place! A quick introduction about how this site came about, who I’m writing for, and what’s in this odd name.

Let’s go back to the beginning – well, perhaps not that far back. My name is Brian, and for the last six years my day job1 has been as the founder and principal consultant of a one-person firm focused on program evaluation and strategic planning with non-profit organizations. Off the clock, I enjoy nerding out on things tech – among many, many other things to nerd out about, but that’s a whole other blog or three. My focus since 2003 or so has been primarily in the Apple ecosystem, though I try to keep a toe in the Windows/PC world as well.

Over the years, I found that nerdery colliding with my work on the clock, primarily by way of productivity: as a solo entrepreneur, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s important to use one’s time and energy effectively! At the same time, I found myself sharing these little tips, resources, ideas, and insights with those I interact with regularly, including fellow consultants, clients, and family members. After sharing the same tidbit more than once, I had to ask myself “Why don’t I create a blog that shares some of these resources?”

This site is certainly not the first to share tech-related productivity tools, approaches, and the like. If there’s anything unique about Eval en Place (besides the name), I think it would be my perspective I bring as an evaluator. You can define the field a half-dozen different ways, but at its root, evaluation is all about looking at something (be it a social program or a personal workflow), determining what it’s accomplishing, and making recommendations for improvement. It’s an occupational hazard to always have the evaluator hat on, but I’m hoping to use that critical eye here on my own work and tools to improve how I get things done.

If you want the tl;dr version of what this site is about, I’d say it’s a roundup of tools and techniques (in the style of Mac Power Users – one of my favourite podcasts!) by an evaluator who focuses on tools for evaluation practice and the non-profit knowledge-based world generally. On the tech side of things, the primary focus will be on Mac and iOS since that’s where I spend most of my productive time, but I’ll try to include cross-platform options when possible.

What’s in the Name?

Once this idea began coalescing in my head, I knew I needed to come up with a good name. Given the root of my work in evaluation, I started with ideas like “Eval Nerd” or “Eval Geek”, but I ran into some immediate problems. First, a number of those names had already been taken online. Second, they imply that I’m a nerd, geek, or both2 for evaluation, which I totally am but that isn’t the point of this site.

“Lazy Evaluator” was my strongest pick initially: in fact, I have a conference presentation at CES3 2018 with that name where I’ll share a few hints and tricks from this site. Despite using that name there, I was a bit concerned with the negative connotations of the term “lazy”: plus, it just didn’t feel right.

Enter “Eval en Place”. It’s an adaptation of the French term “Mise en place” that is used predominantly in the world of chefs to describe the physical layout, systems, and philosophy/state of mind that they use to succeed in the kitchen. I learned about this concept through Dan Charnas’ book, Work Clean, where he identifies the main components of this system and provides a framework for how us non-culinarians can apply it in our own lives. So, while acknowledging that Eval en Place is not proper French (je m’excuse), I think it covers both the idea of applying mise en place to evaluation and related work, but also how to evaluate and develop one’s place.

What’s Next?

My initial aim is to post here every two to four times a month, with a focus on sharing some of the tools, techniques, systems, and the like that I have found useful in my evaluation practice. I’ll give this a shot for a few months, evaluating as I go (naturally), and then we’ll see from there!

  1. Ok, it’s more of a day/evening/weekend/other-times-as-required job
  2. I’m still not sure exactly what the difference is between these terms, if any: as a result, I’m getting ready for hate mail from both camps :p
  3. Canadian Evaluation Society, not the other CES.