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Living Well Through A Flare

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On this blog I’m always going on about living the best day I can, every day, not living like every day is my last – which seems to extreme – but consciously planning to live well; to avoid going through life on autopilot; to avoid accepting a gradual decline in my health; to feel grateful and to make a difference.

Flare’s present a particular challenge, when it’s too painful to move, my brain’s too fogged to read, my finger tips hurt to much to type and my throats so sore it makes eating a chore; what’s left to make up a day that I can look back on as a ‘day well lived’?  Over the years I’ve struggled with this, sometimes declining into depression, sometimes anger, all too often feeling sorry for myself.  For several years now and over a dozen flares, I think I have a pattern that works pretty well.

I keep to my morning routine, spending a few hours at Caffe Nero, I can’t read much but I can still process my emails, browse for books, scan my news feeds for things to read later and be around the regular customers that I know well.  It might require hobbling there on crutches or begging a lift from Debbie or Jennie, but I almost always make it.  Being in town means I get to shop each morning, I can’t say that I only shop for the very healthiest foods, but I try to strike a good balance between excellent nutrition and comfort.

When I get home I’m generally exhausted, and good for nothing, but this is where TV comes in.  I love to watch a single long running TV series during a flare, over the years these essential companions have been 24, Battlestar Galactica, Prison Break and so many others.  During this flare my treasured companion has been House of Cards and I’ve watched the first two series, over a period of 5 days, and it’s been a rollercoaster ride.

A compelling TV series, great food, a loving family and 3 cats makes a pretty good day out of a dismal one; but it’s not quite enough.  In between each episode I try and do something constructive, I will stretch, try and climb the stairs, wash the clothes, feed the cats, wash the pots, strip the beds; anything that gets me out of the chair, forces me to move and leaves me at the end of the day with a sense of accomplishment.

Of course that’s not the only component in managing a flare, the Prednisolone, the Diazepam, the Co-codamol and the Pregabalin play their part too, but they don’t keep me positive, they don’t keep me moving, they don’t make me feel loved and they don’t give me a sense of achievement; all things that I think speed my recovery just as much.

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, it’s a lovely sunny day and my flares is definitely on the wane, my throats much improved and apart from a few joints and some residual aches I’m feeling pretty good.  My brain fog has mostly cleared and I’m feeling positive.  Unfortunately yesterday I wasn’t well enough to enjoy the sunset with Debbie, part of our valentines day plans, so I’ve decorated this post with one instead.

More On Time Distortion

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Further to my post earlier in the week,  I’ve been reducing my Pregabalin dose gradually over the last few days.  I’m much sharper in the mornings and the evenings now.  I’ve been going through my normal Caffe Nero ‘work’ routine and I can’t believe how much time I have.  Only a few days ago I was struggling to get everything done in three hours and couldn’t believe how fast time was flowing; now I’m finished in less than two hours and trying to find things to do to fill the time I have.  Today I was amazed when I looked at my laptop clock and saw that it was 8:30am when I expected it to be closer to 10am. 

Unfortunately as expected whilst I get some time back, the quality of that time has changed,  I’m not as relaxed and my pain levels are gradually increasing.  I expected the pain to come back quicker than it has, but there’s no question that it’s returning.  I am being very careful to keep my stress levels low and my mobility high to minimise it’s return, but after weeks of being pain free, the constant pain in my arms and shoulders is quite upsetting. The sleep disruption caused by withdrawal is also making things harder, lack of sleep really does sap the joy from life, but there’s always a cost to making progress.

As usual, for this week, I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, in Nottingham.  This is my last day here, it’s been long enough, perhaps too long away from my family and my small town life.  The buzz of the city is nice for a while, but I’m missing the wide open spaces, the views, the sunsets and soon the wonderful sunrises.  Today’s photo celebrates those sunrises, not long now!

My Personal Work Style

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Companies like mine would like to think that there are only a handful of work styles that they need to support and that they can easily categorise the way people work.  Normally this is achieved using a classification that is focused on the type of work that a person does, for example: process, task, knowledge, management etc.  While I think this is better than nothing, I don’t think the type of work defines a persons work style, it just describes the work type.  A persons work style depends on more more factors being considered, as a minimum the mobility type and the work type.  Take for example a project manager who sits at a desk all day and one who is constantly mobile, their work styles would be very different, even though their work type would be the same.

Re-thinking work styles is a rich and rewarding area requiring a lot more discussion, it’s too much to cover in this post.  I’ve decided instead to try and deconstruct my personal work style, to try and figure out the key factors that influence me and their implications.  The type of work that I do would fall squarely into the category of ‘knowledge worker’ although in some classification schemes I would have some characteristics of an ‘innovator’.  So taking an industry generic definition of knowledge worker we find this:

A knowledge worker is anyone who works for a living at the tasks of developing or using knowledge. For example, a knowledge worker might be someone who works at any of the tasks of planning, acquiring, searching, analyzing, organizing, storing, programming, distributing, marketing, or otherwise contributing to the transformation and commerce of information and those (often the same people) who work at using the knowledge so produced. A term first used by Peter Drucker in his 1959 book, Landmarks of Tomorrow, the knowledge worker includes those in the information technology fields, such as programmers, systems analysts, technical writers, academic professionals, researchers, and so forth. The term is also frequently used to include people outside of information technology, such as lawyers, teachers, scientists of all kinds, and also students of all kinds

Useful though this description is it doesn’t really say much about such a persons real needs in terms of IT services.  If I take a look at what I do, it matches fairly well with the above description, but it’s a little more specific, I:

  1. Spend a lot of time scanning and filtering data sources for information
  2. Read, listen to and watch a subset of this information and try to make sense of and share what I find
  3. Curate the information into various types of knowledge base
  4. Develop new ideas and positions and test them through discussion and debate
  5. Create new knowledge, based to a large part on what I learn from the above
  6. Review new knowledge created by others
  7. Convince and cajole others into adopting my ideas
  8. Coach others to help them refine their ideas

As I look at this list though it still provides a very poor definition of what I actually do, especially in terms of the IT services that I need to help me do it.  For example it doesn’t say anything about what the sources of data are, how I share information, curate and store it; it doesn’t say whether the data sources are company systems, or external sources; whether I share information with my peers, with management, or with partners; what form the new knowledge that I create takes, is it video, audio, office documents, or verbal discussion; whether I do all this with a co-located team, via virtual meetings or using asynchronous collaboration tools; it doesn’t provide any sense of how my time is distributed across these activities. 

In fact it doesn’t reveal any of the factors that really drive my work style, which are:

  1. I only work an average of 8 hours a week
  2. I need to keep my body moving throughout the day
  3. I can’t reliably predict when I will be available to work
  4. I am only in the office for an average of 4 days a month
  5. Most of my information sources are external to the company

How is my work style driven by these factors:

I only work an average of 8 hours a week

  1. It’s rare for me to be able to attend scheduled events like conference calls, web conferences or in person meetings, so I depend on recordings of these sessions, transcripts, meeting minutes and in person ‘catch-ups’ for my information
  2. I need tools that are optimised for scanning huge volumes of information and extracting the nuggets rapidly, so I scan a carefully created stream of RSS feeds, listen to podcasts, follow a few people on twitter and have face to face meetings whenever possible
  3. I share information with others automatically using twitter and IFTTT
  4. I write my review comments rather than attend slow and ineffective review meetings
  5. I prefer to write blog posts (rather than emails) and record presentations as videos (rather than deliver them face to face) so that I don’t have to repeat myself
  6. I need to blend my work and personal life intimately, one task list, one calendar, one email account for both, because I context switch between the two so many times during a typical day

I need to keep my body moving throughout the day

  1. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks wile walking and cycling
  2. I download company briefings as MP3s and listen to them as podcasts
  3. I watch content and attend virtual meetings while on my stationary bike
  4. I carry my laptop on my back or my iPad mini in my bum bag where-ever I go
  5. I need 3G/4G connectivity because WIFI is not always available

I can’t reliably predict when I will be available to work

  1. I prefer status reports, rather than status meetings
  2. I depend on asynchronous collaboration tools
  3. I like to be able to record presentations in advance
  4. I need to be able to sketch and annotate on documents, to improve the richness and efficiency of capturing ideas or reviewing the ideas of others

I am only in the office for 4 days a month

  1. I highly value this limited face to face time
  2. I can only work with a small number of people
  3. When I’m in the office all I do is meet people

Most of my information sources are external to the company

  1. Most of what I do, I am able to do in public
  2. Most of my working practices are optimised around public information sources, exposed via RSS, so I want company information to also be exposed that way too
  3. Toggling between information outside and within the firewall reduces my productivity considerably, I want that to be more seamless
  4. Toggling between public data and data that needs to be secured is difficult to manage, I want company data to be seamlessly protected, using for example IRM

Here are some practical examples of how my work style affects the IT services, these are the kind of things that I need:

  1. a phone with more storage than the company provides, for all of those podcasts, audio books and videos
  2. more 3G/4G data than the company provides and I need tethering for my notebook and tablet
  3. a laptop with excellent battery life or a second battery, and it needs to be light enough to carry everywhere
  4. a way to protect company data and applications living on a personal laptop, because connectivity isn’t reliable enough for remote desktops (I know this because I use remote desktops every day for specific purposes and it’s painful)
  5. company information sources to be easily accessible via RSS feeds
  6. company recorded events to be easily accessible via podcast feeds
  7. people to take meeting minutes
  8. people to include attachments in emails, so that those of us who work offline can easily access them
  9. systems that support offline use, offline authoring, replication and caching of information
  10. redundancy in my devices and the ability to support them myself because accessing field services is so difficult and devices break

I’ve written this post in Caffe Nero, Nottingham, using my Thinkpad x230 laptop which I’ve upgraded to 8GB of memory so I can run virtual machines and a 512GB SSD so that I can carry everything I need with me offline, it’s small and light.  I’m using my personal Three data contract on my iPad for connectivity because the WIFI is down.  For the photo that illustrates this post I’ve chosen Cleveleys beach, one of my favourite remote working locations, I sit in the car with my laptop and the view!

Lessons Learned From Trying Windows Phone

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I spent an interesting few days trialling Windows Phone recently, I chose the the highly recommended Lumia 930 hardware to give it the very best chance to wow me into keeping it.  It didn’t stick, in fact while there were a few design features I liked and the hardware was vastly more powerful than my ageing iPhone 4S, I decided pretty quickly that it wasn’t for me.  Deep down I realised that my smartphone is a tool, I’m not seeking a gadget fix, something to occupy me for day while I tinker around with it, tuning it to my life.  I just want the apps that I’ve woven into my life and be done with it.  Windows Phone failed to deliver those apps, so it failed to weave its way into my life, it felt like an annoyance, a glossy, heavy, gadget that rubbed me up the wrong way.

Here’s what I liked about Windows Phone: I loved the deep linking into apps, the ability to put the current book I’m reading right there on my home screen, or my shopping list in Evernote front and centre; and the hardware camera button … but I’m afraid that’s all I really liked.  Here’s what I didn’t like:

  1. The distracting, flickering tiles that tried to grab my attention all the time.  I want peace and calm in my life, I don’t want my phone to remind me of a fun-fair
  2. The lack of an easy way to find apps, Windows 8 lets has simple type down searching (press the Windows key and type), the iPhone has it too, I use it many times a day to get the specific app I need from hundreds
  3. The terrible reliability of the apps that I did find, especially those that needed to sync a lot of data in the background, which invariably didn’t arrive or too ages to sync new data
  4. The poor functionality of the apps that I managed to find. Apps that I love on iOS that really share only the same name, having just a small subset of the functionality (often provided by a wrapped HTML 5 web app).  Many of the apps that I found were clearly abandoned, with no updates for many months, apps that had stopped working, or stopped syncing and not been fixed.
  5. All too often the apps stored data on the phone, not in a cross platform cloud service.  I will rarely use an app now that’s not cross platform and complemented by a cloud service
  6. Apps that exist on Windows Phone but don’t have a companion apps that’s also compelling on WinRT, ie on a Windows tablet.
  7. The horrible shortage of apps, too many of my favourites missing, with no alternatives at all

Here are a sample of the important app gaps for me:

  1. Moves, which automatically tracks where I go throughout the day and then syncs seamlessly into …
  2. Memento, which merges data from Moves, Twitter and Instagram into a surprisingly rich diary with superb searching
  3. MyFitnessPal, which I use to track what I eat.  There is a Windows Phone version of the app, but it’s so slowwww
  4. Tweet Library, which keeps a local searchable archive of all of my Twitter accounts, tweets, favorites, and retweets so that you I find important tweets later. It adds collections and includes custom filters to automatically group or hide tweets – it provides the best interface to my @steveisreading and @steveiswriting accounts and my @steverichards diary account
  5. Overcast, which is my podcast client of choice now.  I did buy and try to use the ‘best’ most highly recommended podcast app on Windows Phone, but it’s just not the same and I listen to a lot of podcasts
  6. GB and Parks, Outdoors app which provides me with a full off-line version of the ordnance survey maps, with excellent GPS support
  7. Instapaper, that I use for all of my reading.  There is a third party app, but it’s very dated
  8. Evernote, which is an extension of my brain, everything that might be important to me goes in there.  There is a Windows Phone version of the app, but really, there’s no comparison
  9. Coach.me that I use for habit tracking, it’s got years of trend data in it that I value a lot

Then of course there are the hundreds of other apps that I use only when I need them, the app to submit my gas and electricity readings, to check the sunrise time, to find out when the next high tide is, to track my walks and cycle rides, to access my bank, to check the train times, to manage my blog, to track my pain levels, and on and on and on, death by a thousand cuts.

The vibrancy of the Apple eco-system is just not present, the buzz and excitement that developers have when they can reach hundreds of millions of potential customers.  I’m hoping that Microsoft has a plan, that they are working hard in the background on developer tools and platform changes that will allow them to fully embrace Android apps on Windows 10, all form-factors, within a year.  As Apple found to it’s cost many years ago, people go where the apps are, developers go where the apps are selling.

I wrote this post sitting in my favourite Caffe Nero in Nottingham,  it opens at 7am and has two excellent clusters of window seats, I got the best one, and watched the city come to life as I typed.  For the picture I chose the beautiful Haweswater, in the eastern lake district, I never consider going hiking without my maps and that means without my iPhone and iPad. 

Time Distortion

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Over the last month I’ve doubled my dose of Pregabalin, one of the medications that I use.  Within a few days I noticed a significant improvement in pain (the desired result) but a strange side effect, the time taken to achieve any cognitively demanding task significantly increased, by at least a third. I wasn’t immediately conscious of this increase, in fact I just felt a little less stressed, but as the days ‘ticked by’ it because pretty clear, I was slowing down. 

Almost every morning I go through a series of research, reading and writing tasks that reliably take me 2 hours, from 7:30 to 9:30, leaving me 30 minutes to check my email, scan twitter and generally wind down before I go walking at 10am.  This has been a regular routine for many years.  After a couple of days on this higher dose I noticed that this routine was now filling a full 3 hours, nothing else had changed, I didn’t think any more work was getting done.  I keep a record (automatically) of how much I read each day, so I checked back through my logs and my reading throughput was constant, it was just taking much longer.

Similarly every night I read for 30 minutes or so in the bath, I take the Pregabalin shortly before I start reading.  The Kindle provides an estimate of how long it predicts I will take to read a chapter based on historical average reading speed and my speed in a specific book (some books are more difficult to read than others).  This prediction is uncannily accurate and I’ve grown to depend on it.  At any point in time I’m reading any one of three books depending on my mood and without fail in every book the predicted time to complete the chapter was much too short.

I wasn’t able to check the quality of my work, but I suspect that this was also worse; the best test I have of this was how many mistakes I was making during typing which subjectively went up.

I’ve no other objective measures of cognitive performance, but based on these two, time seems to have sped up for me.  I feel like I’m working just as hard as before, but I can’t fit as much into my days.  This would have me binning the tablets in short order if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve also been close to pain free for three weeks, the longest and best stretch of feeling ‘normal’ for several years.  In a working life dominated by reading, research and writing though if means 2 hours a day are suddenly missing in action.

No one seems to know how Pregabalin works, but it seems to ‘slow down the brain’, reduce the rate at which new neurons are created and slow down learning.  It also works as a sedative (it helps me sleep) and, in higher does than I take, it acts as an anti-depressant.  All of which seem to suggest that cognitive decline might be an expected symptom. 

The bottom line for me is that as a way to get a few weeks relief from the daily grind of pain, to remind me what I’m working to achieve, or to break a cycle of decline this high dose might be worthwhile; as a long term treatment, that I can sustain while working, it has to be avoided.  I’m definitely not looking forward to reducing my dose though, consciously and voluntarily returning to a world of pain is quite a scary prospect.

Despite my initial excitement I guess there’s no such thing as a miracle cure! 

Update: I’ve reduced my dose and I’m getting my time back, but also my pain

I’m away from work this week, taking what I think of as a Think Week, a time for relaxation and movement with a little research thrown in.  I’m sitting in one of the many Caffe Nero’s in Nottingham, taking a break from walking the wonderful canal system.  The picture today is of my Brompton taken from my last visit here a few months ago. I’m hoping to get a little cycling in while I’m here, the hotel I’m staying in is right next door to the canal, thus avoiding a dicey cycle ride through the busy city centre!

Influence Without Authority

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It’s appraisal time at work right now and it’s our custom to seek 360 degree feedback, which is starting to stream in.  One recurring theme over the years has been that some of my work is too conceptual or theoretical and this makes it hard to directly implement.  I’ve thought long and hard about how to act on this feedback, it’s not easy.  Strategy requires that I work on the big picture, not get bogged down in all of the implementation issues; to challenge and inspire people of the need to change, not to give them specific instructions; to unleash the creativity of others, rather than always relying on my own.  This blog post seeks to confront the hard realities of working on strategy at my level and with my constraints and to explore the approaches that I’ve adopted over the years to address them.

Before I get started though it’s helpful to understand something about my job, which is defined by the fact that I have lots of influence, but no authority.  It’s also important to know that on average I work about 8 hours a week, although I actually do two 16 hour weeks, followed by two weeks off.  My job title is Strategy Advisor and I advise a billion dollar end-user computing services business unit in a much larger company.

Not having ‘authority’ might seem like a major impediment for a strategist, that is until I look at the success rate of those who do have authority in my industry.  All around me I see an endless stream of pronouncements that never get executed on, projects that go no where, initiatives that ‘wither on the vine’, massive investments in tools and technologies that are often not fully implemented before someone decides to replace them with something ‘better’.  In that context authority to execute on ideas doesn’t seem so attractive.

Admittedly at times when I had the authority to execute on my ideas, I did succeed in bringing a lot of them to life, but looking back that life was often short lived.  When I moved on to a new role, or the organisation changed, they rarely survived intact. Even when they did ‘survive’ the reality of poorly disciplined execution often meant that there was a significant drift away from my original concept over time. 

Looking outside my industry at companies which seem to execute flawlessly on their strategy you find a very different reality below the shiny surface.  Take a look at the story of how Apple developed and evolved the iPhone and you see a lot of chaos, desperation, many failed ideas, lots of luck and fortuitous timing.  As the iPhone evolved the strategy swapped and changed many times, the company was riddled with politics and infighting, but huge profits helped to cover these up and in the end they muddled through, learning as they went.  Even now they aren’t perfect but billions of dollars of profit a year helps cover over the cracks nicely.

So what to do? lots of people ask me this question and my general response is “be patient” but actually I have quite a few strategies, the most important of these is to apply my thinking at multiple levels:

  1. As a strategic, I work on the big picture, to inspire, to provide frameworks to guide the way that we think, to bring structure to chaos, to provide direction and give people hope
  2. As a an architect, I try to make sure we think holistically during projects and service execution, to make sure that we are considering the interplay between process, organisation, location, data, application and technology; to recognise that we are dealing with real people with strengths and weaknesses. I spend a lot of time reviewing in this capacity
  3. As a manager, I work on improving the way that the business actually works, clarifying accountabilities, shaping processes, keeping projects focused on the business needs, helping people understand their jobs and the challenges they face
  4. As a technologist, I read about, explore and use a lot of technology so even though my focus is strategy I spend a lot of time positioning and reviewing technology, identifying and solving technical issues, coming up with new product ideas or new ways to use technologies.  I also spend a lot of time reviewing in this capacity
  5. As a coach, I’ve picked a small number of people who I believe in and who want to be coached in some capacity, that coaching involves a mix of inspiration, support, guidance and challenge.  It’s also a great way to introduce some of my own ideas or to nudge them along
  6. As a maverick, I have a lot of exposure to ‘external’ ideas, I’m not part of the ‘group think’ that exists within the company, I’m also not ambitious or afraid of upsetting people or challenging established ideas, poor quality execution, or scratching below the surface of the myriad of problems that I see every year to reveal the underlying issues

What this means in practice is that there’s rarely a direct causal connection between strategic ideas that I have, and promote, and the execution of those ideas often years later.  The reality is that those ideas spread like tendrils throughout the company, some wither and die, lost forever, but many live on.  I nudge them along when I get the opportunity, I’m happy for others to present them as their own.  Sometimes they take years to really take root.  I have to be patient, humble and creative.  Regardless of the success of my strategy though I apply that strategic thinking and context in the five other roles and that’s just as useful.

Looking quickly at how I nudge strategic ideas into life: 

  1. I start by evangelising them passionately, which launches them with some chance of success
  2. I write about them in blog posts, which makes them re-discoverable. Even if every blog post is read by only 20 people, over time that adds up to thousands of little chances to influence
  3. I nudge them along during the dozens of reviews that I do
  4. I champion them during the 50+ coaching sessions I do each year
  5. I use them as a deep repository of knowledge to challenge other ideas that I disagree with
  6. I use them as examples when people need inspiration or guidance to do something similar of their own which happens most weeks

This all works out quite well, I like to think that I see the influence of my ideas in most directions that I look at work.  There’s rarely a causal link, some of what I see might not actually be inspired by me, but I like to think that enough of it is, to give purpose to all the effort.  Working an average of 8 hours a week is a challenge, subtract all the administration, company briefings, social chit chat and other distractions and I’m lucky to get 4 hours a week of quality time to create and influence, that’s 1 hour a day! it’s a good job that I have plenty of time to think while I’m walking along the beach, the cliffs or the hills.

As usual I’m writing this blog post in Caffe Nero thanks to an early start.  I’m heading to Cleveleys later with my second eldest daughter for brunch and a movie.  Cleveleys is one of my favourite spots for doing an hour of relaxed research followed by a long walk. Today’s pic shows the beach in all of it’s glory, ‘decorated’ by an unusual sculpture that’s less than a year old but already looks like it’s been there for thousands of years.

My Relationship With Gadgets and Apps

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Gadgets of one form or another have been a constant in my life, I’m drawn to them in a way that I can’t fully explain, but there’s a constant niggling voice in my head encouraging me to give in to my desire to buy, to tweak, to enhance, to play. For most of my life I was happy with the way that gadgets shaped my life until I started to confront the overflowing boxes in the loft, the shelves in the garage, the mess of cables snaking around my desk and TV chair, concrete evidence of my addiction.  I started to see the financial impact and then more recently the psychological impact.  I started to see how gadgets fuelled social media and email addiction, provided ready access to mindless games, and one click shopping.

Last year I forced myself to stop buying anything, no new gadgets entered my life and I was surprised to find that my life improved, I grew more attached to the gadgets I already had, I appreciated them more, my lust for new and better decreased.  Every month when ‘Stuff’ magazine dropped through the letter box I thought of reading it as essential research for work, I was browsing things that I would never buy for myself. Most of what I saw I just considered evidence of how dysfunctional we were becoming as a society, happy to invest billions in useless ‘stuff’ that would soon be in landfill (or boxes in the loft) while billions of people were starving.

This year I’ve started to look at the gadgets that I still own more closely, at the apps that I use, when I use them, how long I spend using them, what value they add to my life, how compulsively I use them, how much duplication I see.  It’s not a pretty picture.

My first change was to delete the games that occupied my down time, Drop 7 has gone, so has Sudoku, then I withdrew from Facebook, I still have an account with email notifications enabled, but it has no presence on any gadgets.  Then I moved email off the home screen, out of sight, out of mind.  Next up I disabled almost all notifications and I created a list for Twitter that contained only people I actually know.

My gadgets now have a new purpose in life: to help me manage my time, and health, and get more out of my day; to provide focused (curated) reading, and listening experiences; to encourage me to get out into the real world and enjoy it; to update my diary and share real world experiences with my friends and family through photos, to keep in touch with my family through text messages and video.

My day has changed quite a bit: I block out major chunks of each day with focus tasks in Todoist ,which is one of the few apps allowed to notify me on my phone; all discovery of content is now done once a day using my highly tuned RSS reader, all reading is done in distraction free reading environments like Kindle and Instapaper, social media interaction is focused on Instagram once or twice a day, I don’t look at work email until after 12am and I don’t have it on my phone or tablet; I check personal email twice a day.  Even though I love podcasts and audio books I spend at least an hour a day walking without anything intruding on my thoughts.

I’ve noticed quite significant changes, my brain feels much calmer, more open to new ideas, lacking the constant drip, drip, of interruptions I’m more focused, more serene. I feel as if I can enter a meditative state with just one or two breaths. 

There’s still a long way to go though, I still find it difficult to read a book for more than 15 minutes at a time and I regularly reject any Instapaper article that will take more than a minute to read.  I’m still going to invest in new gadgets, but with a purpose in mind, to help me achieve my objectives in life:

  1. Write for myself (wiring is very therapeutic and I want to do it most days)
  2. Read a factual book for an hour (I really want to spend more time deeply engaged in reading, my fitness reading habit is so solid that I don’t need to track it)
  3. Move around most of the day (no long periods sitting for me)
  4. Eat mostly whole foods (obviously)
  5. Drink mostly water (I need to kick my Diet Coke habit)
  6. Do Meditation, Yoga Nidra or listen to music (obviously)
  7. Spend time with friends and family and hug (obvious, but sadly not so easy as they grow up and get busier)
  8. Be kind and do good deeds (worth the daily reminder)
  9. Stretch and do strength exercises throughout the day (sadly I still need reminding)
  10. Go to new places, learn new things (all too lacking in my life)
  11. Draw (one of my key habits to establish this year)
  12. Make a difference at work (obviously, but really making a difference is harder than it might seem)
  13. Improve the house or garden (very rewarding)

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, it’s my haven, it background hum of ‘quiet’ chatter makes me feel connected to the real world while also allowing me to be focused and distraction free.  I’m in the window seat, looking out at a blue sky and contemplating a walk in the dunes later, so I’ve chosen a photo of the beach a few minutes walk away.

My Productivity Highlights From The Last 20 Years

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I’ve been thinking about my productivity a lot over the last few months, it’s struck me that for all the new innovations that have been delivered it hasn’t improved that that much.  As I look back over the last 20 years the high points are not the obvious ones, it’s not been the iPhone or iPad, it’s not been the fancy big screen I’m using now, it’s not been Facebook or the endless cycle of collaboration tools that my company has provided with great fanfare and them withdrawn a few years later.  These are the high points as I remember them.

It all starts with Windows NT 3.51 which I fought hard to introduce as the standard desktop operating system in my company nearly 20 years ago.  NT revolutionised my work experience, providing a relatively rock solid, work focused, local and internet connected working environment with seamless file sharing across the enterprise and publishing to our Intranet.  I’ve never looked back, Windows NT has been my faithful friend ever since and it’s never let me down.  We quickly adopted Windows NT 4 which provided the task bar and since then there’s not been any really significant productivity improvements that I remember that I couldn’t get through free third party utilities.

Next up was Lotus Notes 4.6 which I introduced into the same company, replacing the text based All-In-1,  Lotus Notes brought in the era of easy emailing of attachments, discussion databases and easy calendar management.  Although this was probably 18 years ago I don’t really remember any significant improvements to my deskbound email productivity since then.

Next is the best laptop I’ve ever owned, the ThinkPad A20P, which although it’s 14 years old had a higher resolution screen than the laptop I’m using today, an ultra-bay that allowed me to install a second hard drive, battery or DVD drive in seconds.  It was powerful, flexible and light enough in a backpack.  It was the first laptop that allowed me to easily run a couple of virtual machines, a task my current laptop struggles to achieve even though I now have 16 times as much memory, such is progress.

Now it’s the turn of my beloved Nokia 6310i mobile phone, which is 13 years old.  I still have it, and still use it, it’s battery still lasts days longer than my iPhone and it has better phone reception.  At the time I had a full car kit that was fully integrated.  I loved the single button dialling (press and hold 6 to call home).

Then a miracle happened, 12 years ago I got a Blackberry 5810, a device designed perfectly for my road warrior period.  It revolutionised time on the road, it was perfectly designed for processing and writing emails.  It buzzed when a new email arrived, auto-opened that email when I took it from it’s holster, email was pushed to it every few minutes, it had superb calendar integration and battery life.  It even had a phone (but no car kit).  I loved it, my email productivity peaked all those years ago and has only gone downhill from there.  My team even setup it’s own server to get the Blackberry service up and running, we loved it so much.

Then 12 years ago comes the best tablet I’ve ever owned, a HP TC1100 with a 2G GPRS data card, a stylus, hot swap battery packs and the perfect A4 like form-factor.  It had a better keyboard and docking solution than the Surface Pro 3 and a better feel in the hands.  I loved sketching and brain storming ideas on this little tablet in a way that has not yet been bettered.  A modern device that looked like the TC1100 would fly off the shelves, or at least I would buy it!  I had one of the first TC1100’s ever made!

At this point, also about 10 years ago I started to work from home and adopted a desktop with three screens, a big 27” central screen running at 1920×1080 resolution with two 19” 1280*1024 displays either side.  For high need knowledge work this was a dream setup and I’ve never been more productive sitting at a desk.

Then 10 years ago I got my first good Smartphone, the Treo 650, I’d had a 600 but I didn’t like it.  Wow what a great gadget, it wasn’t as good for email as the Blackberry, but it was an all-rounder.  It was a jack of all trades and master of one, the one thing the Treo 650 delivered for me was podcasts and it was the best podcast experience I’ve ever head because of the app Pocket Tunes and utilities like Freedom and Headset Control that provided customised double-click and triple-click controls.  Podcasts transformed my productivity because they let me get work done while walking, cycling and even swimming! 

Next up is the amazing productivity boost that came from RSS feeds and automated podcast downloading that came with FeedDemon about 10 years ago.  RSS feeds probably tripled my research productivity and FeedDemon was really fast.  I would queue up my articles to read in Firefox tabs (another great productivity boon). 

Finally, about 7 years ago, we get to a service that my company provided that had a productivity impact,  Lotus Sametime that provided presence and chat and then later web conferencing.  I’d been doing web meetings for many years using NetMeeting, and presence and chat using Windows Messenger but Sametime bought it mainstream.  I loved Sametime it made working with a distributed team practical, although of course working in distributed teams brought with it a significant productivity drop!

We are nearing the end now, a couple of web apps arrived 6-7 years ago that really made a difference.  Google as a research tool and Twitter as a discovery, social networking and diary tool.

That’s about it, a stunning condemnation of IT’s ability to deliver personal productivity improvements in recent years.  Most of the peak experiences having been delivered 10 or more years ago, most of the benefits since then having been delivered by Moore’s law. Many of the ‘improvements’ recent have just danced around the edges of innovations made many years ago, providing eye candy, distraction or all too often degradation.  Maybe I just have selective memory, or am feeling particularly nostalgic today, it would be interesting to see how others remember the same period!

I’m writing this post in Caffe Nero, using free WIFI and a ThinkPad x230, Caffe Nero is the latest of a long series of morning cafes in my life.  10 years ago I would have been sitting in the Cafe In The Park (now demolished) eating wonderful hot buttered toast, over looking the bowling green.  I would have been using my HP TC1100 Tablet, connected to the internet using my GPRS card.  As befits this nostalgic post I’m picking a photo to illustrate it from Haweswater where I was hiking at about this time last year.

Lessons Learned From Tracking My Life

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Over the last year I’ve used the Coach Me app on my iPhone and iPad to track all of the aspects of my life that I want to promote or prevent.  For example I wanted to have more family meals and less high pain days, I wanted to spend more time cycling and stop eating foods containing added sugar.  In all, by the end of the year, I was tracking an amazing 75 habits, The list grew gradually over the year from about 50, it grew because I realised, for example, that I wanted to make sure I gave my wife and kids a big hug every day, or that I kept my pain killer use below 15 days a month (to prevent rebound headaches).  This isn’t all that I tracked though, because working on my behalf the Fitbit app tracked my steps and weight; the Move’s app automatically tracked how much time I spent walking, cycling, at the office, in Caffe Nero and much more; the MyFitnessPal app tracked what I was eating;  I used the Chronic Pain Tracker app to record my medical information and using the Loggr app I tracked my finances each month.

All of this fragmented information is mostly aggregated automatically into Apple’s Health app and then, also automatically, into the Loggr app. Loggr provides nice trend graphs and automatically correlates information across all it’s sources.  In addition to all of this habit logging I also aggregate a huge amount of information automatically into Evernote, for example everything I tweet, everything I read online, every blog post I write and every Instagram pic I take.

A subset of this torrent of information also ends up automatically in the wonderful Memento app that automatically creates my diary.

I’ve learned a lot over this last year, but the highlights for me have been:

  1. Tracking really focuses the mind on what’s important
  2. I was shockingly good at deceiving myself, when I looked at the tracking data the truth was revealed.  For example I thought we mostly had our evening meal together, when actually we only managed it 3 times a week, now we manage it almost every day
  3. It’s difficult to focus on too many habits, instead they need to be built into systems, for example we fixed the eating together habit by giving Debbie responsibility for the evening meal.  No one else was allowed in the Kitchen, even if we were hungry enough to make our own
  4. Once a habit has been established, it’s not necessary to keep tracking it every day
  5. Habits that are established and hence not tracked need to be rolled up into a broader habit, to keep me honest

In the spirit of gradually simplifying my life then, I’ve gone through my 75 habits and decided to whittle them down to 25, of which 12 are positive habits that I want to promote and 13 are just trackers that I use for correlation analysis and general target tracking.  The positive habits are:

  1. Write for myself (wiring is very therapeutic and I want to do it most days)
  2. Read a factual book for an hour (I really want to spend more time deeply engaged in reading, my fitness reading habit is so solid that I don’t need to track it)
  3. Move around most of the day (no long periods sitting for me)
  4. Eat mostly whole foods (obviously)
  5. Drink mostly water (I need to kick my Diet Coke habit)
  6. Do Meditation, Yoga Nidra or listen to music (obviously)
  7. Spend time with friends and family and hug (obvious, but sadly not so easy as they grow up and get busier)
  8. Be kind and do good deeds (worth the daily reminder)
  9. Stretch and do strength exercises throughout the day (sadly I still need reminding)
  10. Go to new places, learn new things (all too lacking in my life)
  11. Draw (one of my key habits to establish this year)
  12. Make a difference at work (obviously, but really making a difference is harder than it might seem)
  13. Improve the house or garden (very rewarding)

Trackers and targets

  1. Whether I take pain killers that day (target 2 days a week)
  2. My daily pain level (target low or pain free)
  3. My daily stress levels (target low)
  4. Whether I keep to my agreed working pattern (target Yes)
  5. Whether I’m working that day (target 8 days a month)
  6. My fatigue level (target low)
  7. My Brain fog level (target low)
  8. Whether I’m fasting (target 2 days a week)
  9. Cheat Day (target 1 day a week)
  10. Don’t bite my fingers (target never, biting my fingers is a sure sign of stress)
  11. Don’t buy anything for myself (target never)
  12. Sick, i.e. I have an cough/cold/flu etc (target never)
  13. Visiting Chorley (my local office, target 4 days a month)

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I wrote this post sitting in Caffe Nero on a rainy day, I nearly came in the car, but just as I was walking out the door I remembered the habit ‘Move around most of the day (no long periods sitting for me)’ and so I wrapped up warm and ran for 5 minutes through the rain. To illustrate this post I’ve chosen two of my favourite pictures, at the top, a photo of the Hadza living simply and at one with nature (this is my Lock Screen image) at the bottom is a photo of the local beach (my Wallpaper image) which reminds me of the simple pleasures in life.

Trying The End To End Windows Eco-System

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Well, I took the plunge, inspired by Microsoft’s January Launch of Windows 10, I’ve decided that the only way to really evaluate it is to use it.  I’m already 2/3 Microsoft.  The heart of my home is a HP Micro server running Windows 8, 3 TB of media, backups and Plex. It’s the entertainment hub for my the Home Theatre PCs, Tessa’s Xbox 360 and Anna and Jennie’s Rokus, which also run Plex.  Then almost the whole family have Thinkpads except Anna who has a Surface Pro 3.  My Desktop is powered by a ThinkPad x220T running Windows 8.1 and my notebook of choice is a ThinkPad x230.

That’s where Microsoft ends though, in the spirit of using the best tool for the job we are all using iPads, iPhones and Kindles in our hands.  That’s what I’m going to try and change, for a while at least, I’m moving over to a Windows 8” Tablet and a Lumia Windows Phone.  It’s going to be a tough change to make as I’m very invested in the Apple eco-system having owned (and cascaded to Debbie and the Kids) nearly every iPad and iPhone ever made.  It’s the apps that will be the issue, I have too many to count and they fill lots of niches that I won’t even remember until that situation arises and I’m stuck.  Still I’m going to make the attempt and I’m hoping that it will bring some potential benefits:

  1. Using a single eco-system should be much simpler
  2. Massively shrinking down the apps I use will force me to focus more, to depend on the web more, I’m dumping many distracting app habits in this move
  3. I made some ‘bad’ app choices in the past, investing a lot of time, effort and money in apps that don’t have associated cross platform services
  4. Fortunately I made some great choices too, using apps like Evernote (my online brain), Twitter (my diary), Instagram (my photo diary) that are wonderfully cross platform
  5. I get to take my incredibly powerful Windows Desktop environment with me everywhere, including for example my whole eBook library in Calibre and an offline copy of my whole (massive) Evernote collection of notebooks
  6. I have everywhere access to all of my files, accessible through a real file system (not the iOS crippled version) including my archive!
  7. I get to take the full offline copy of my Twitter archive, using Twitter’s fantastic archive download, which has been my diary since 2007!
  8. I’m finally able to use remote desktop to drive my tablet
  9. I also get a tablet designed for keyboard and mouse
  10. I’ve found a way to acquire a fast phone, at a price I can afford
  11. I get to swap my personal Three data contract for a GiffGaff phone contract that provides ‘three’ times the data for only £1 more a week.  Which also means I can use my personal phone for work too and avoid the constant nagging that’s associated with the company supplied 1GB a month data plan.

All that said I will be keeping the old iPhone 4S around, because it’s going to be my hiking GPS, it has a full offline copy of most of the interesting hiking locations Ordinance Survey Maps.

So what did I buy?  Well true my form I went for a manufacturer refurbished Nokia Lumia 930 32GB with a hip/belt case just like I use with my iPhone and a Nokia car kit.  This is the phone Paul Thurrott just bought for himself and there can be no better recommendation.  For the tablet I went for a refurbished Dell Venue Pro 8 64GB/3G which I got with two Wacom Stylus’ a 3 year warranty, a 128GB SD card and a keyboard case.  I got a years subscription to Office 365 and a free Fitbit Flex thrown in for free!  I got everything for the cost of a second hand IPhone 5S, which was my minimum upgrade option from my 4S prior to making this decision.

The big risk in this change over is Instapaper which is at the heart of my reading and research system, a system that I invest two hours a day in.  There is an old (poor) third party Instapaper client for Windows Phone and Tablet, but I may need to consider switching over to Pocket, it’s going to be hard!  The glimmer of hope is Microsoft’s new Spartan browser (coming soon) which as a built in reading view, a reading list that syncs across Phone, Tablet and Desktop, has full offline support and works with web pages and PDFs!  This sounds great, especially if it has good extensions for Twitter, WordPress and Evernote.

Wish me luck, although I doubt I will be selling my iPad Mini for a while!

The photo for today’s post was taken at Cleveleys, it’s the view I was enjoying yesterday as I worked through my decision to make this investment, sitting in the car, parked up at Rossall Beach.  I had my notebook on my lap, scouring eBay while also checking out the Windows Apps Store and trying to convince myself that I could conceivably make a successful switch. Only time will tell.