Friday, September 21, 2018

Alignment - Google Calendar

We come to the penultimate post for this series. Over the past couple of months, I have written about being stuck, getting unstuck, aligning my day, and finding peace even though I am busier than ever. A part of that alignment has come from re-aligning how I use certain tools (ToDoist and Google Calendar) and switching to a different note-taking tool (Evernote). I have covered ToDoist and Evernote in previous weeks, so today, I conclude the tool part of this series with a look at the last of the primary three items necessary for personal effectiveness - the calendar.

Many calendar options exist, but I have chosen Google, and have used it since it was in beta (I probably began using it in 2007 or early 2008, along with gmail). At the time, I traveled for business and needed something with me wherever I was. I had used yahoo for the few years prior to that, but simply did not care for it as well. So, I chose Google - and have used it for most everything since (including tasks and notes, ironically).

We all have calendars we use for various purposes, and my purpose this week is not to show how to place something on a digital calendar, but to share a couple of principles as to what I include on my calendar - and only on my calendar.

The most important reason for a calendar is to track your schedule of meetings and appointments. These appointments can include appointments for yourself. For a pastor that could include study time, sermon prep time, prayer time, etc. A few weeks ago, I mentioned the book Deep Work. The idea of engaging in deep work is that you need to schedule blocks of time to allow you to go deep, to think deeply (and often critically). If we do not plan these times, they will not happen. Personally, I have several calendars that show themselves on my Google Calendar. I have a personal calendar (family gatherings, doctor appointments, etc), one for the church, one for MY work at the church, one for PTC, and one for all other ministry aspects such as teaching at the college/seminary, helping churches, etc. All of these show on one calendar and are distinctive by color (which is the same color I use for the tasks in ToDoist). I will say more about how tasks and calendar items are kept separate in a moment. First, let me mention why I keep a separate calendar for the church and MY church work.

The idea of having two calendars may be obvious to some, but perhaps not to everyone - especially for a new pastor, particularly one at a small church, who might be reading this. The rationale is that the church will have regular items on a calendar. For instance, each week, our church gathers on Sunday mornings (Sunday School and Worship), Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings. Those items are rather fixed. However, we also have other semi-regular events, special events, and meetings that are on the calendar (which is online for members or guests to view). But sometimes, something is not a church-wide event or meeting. For instance, items related to meeting with someone (or a group) about a prospective idea for the church, or mentoring someone, making a home visit, etc. do not need to be on the public church calendar. They do need to be on mine. So, I have a separate calendar for these items. However, because they are both related to the church, they both are in the same color family (green). (From a task perspective, I do not separate these items.) Another benefit of having this second calendar is that it separates your identity from that of the church. Especially for those serving at smaller churches, as I do currently, many expect the pastor to be at every function. If your calendar and the church's calendar are the same, you might fall for that trap. Having a distinction, even a minor one, can help provide an air of freedom which is important because the pastor is not the church nor is the church the pastor!

Let me move on to discuss another important distinction I make with my approach to calendaring. I do not like a cluttered calendar, so whenever possible, I leave it open. That is, I don't have to schedule my time for a lot of what I do and thus does not go on my calendar. Appointments, meetings, and gatherings (such as with family) are what go on my calendar.

A calendar is for things with dates and times. Most of the tasks I do throughout the week do not need to have a time. For instance, I am writing this on Wednesday and one of my Wednesday tasks is to take out the trash. It must be done in the morning, but I know that. Because it is a task, I have a task in ToDoist (without a time listed, although ToDoist does allow times), but not a calendar item. So, simple or even time-consuming tasks do not show on my calendar in part because I want to keep it simple. I am not trying to create a colorful mosaic. Now, if I am doing a task that may take awhile, I can schedule a block of time and simply block that time off on my calendar with the appropriate color and an event title such as Sermon Prep. But I try to keep a hard line between tasks and calendar items. I do not use this approach much (except for Deep Work) because if something unexpected occurs, you have to shuffle everything on your calendar. I used to do this thinking it made me more organized. However, I have found the white space on the calendar much more beneficial. Again, I am busier than I have ever been, but by including "less" on my calendar I have more freedom to accomplish my daily tasks and goals when I want to/can throughout the day.

So, calendars are for dates and times, not tasks. I keep a hard-edge between the calendar and task list except for the synchronization of colors which define the role I am in on a particular day and/or at a particular time. The one commonality between the calendar and task list is an item that reminds me of my overall focus for the day. For instance, apart from this blog which I typically do on Wednesday so it has plenty of time for editing before posting on Friday, today's focus is mainly church and some PTC related (if time allows). I have two all-day color-coded calendar items defined each week on Wednesday which say Focus-1-FBC and Focus-2-PTC. These same two items are at the top of my ToDoist app each Wednesday as well (flagged with the top priority - red - so they are at the top of the list). I have something similar for each of the other weekdays, depending upon the day. So, again, I keep a hard line on this distinction between dates and times versus tasks. But I know others (like my wife) who uses times within her tasks. The key is finding what works for you. But for me, keeping a hard-edge between the various tools has worked very well. (Incidentally, my tasks contain few notes, because notes are for Evernote. A note may need to outlive a task, so storing it in a separate place, unless it is specific to a particular task alone is quite helpful.)

So, that is it. A calendar is a calendar. But we can be strategic in how we use it. My comments here may not be exactly right for everyone, but after much trial and error I have found my current approach to be best for me (I did use to link ToDoist to my calendar, but found it overbearing - remember, I like a simple calendar! And remember the general premise of whitespace I mentioned several weeks ago, here.).

And with the coverage of the calendar, I have come to the virtual end of this series. Next week, I will conclude the series and make an announcement regarding the new home of this blog. Until then, be productive, but more importantly, be effective!

Friday, September 14, 2018

Alignment - Evernote

Two weeks ago, I mentioned the need for a way to track tasks, gather information, and keep a schedule (here). Last week, I elaborated on the idea of gathering information (i.e. data storage, here). This week, I will provide a brief overview of how I use Evernote as my tool of choice. Please note that many tutorials and helps exist, and that is not my intent here. Rather, my premise is to reveal some generalities of my use to allow readers to conceptualize how they might use it as well. If you are interested in seeking specific ideas on a particular use, I recommend checking the Evernote website or searching YouTube for videos.

The two primary aspects of Evernote are notebooks and tags. Everything that is stored ends up in a notebook, but tags are optional. Evernote will allow you to create 250 notebooks for a personal account and can store up to 100,000 notes. I have 14 primary notebooks, two of which are stacked. A stack is having notebooks within a notebook (like a subfolder in a filesystem). My primary notebooks are for personal, for the church (as pastor), for PTC (as chairman/trainer), and for MBTS (as a professor). Others relate to the Bible (with notes linked from Google), templates, checklists, journaling, etc. The advantage of a stack is evident in areas with multiple responsiblities. For instance, as an adjunct, I teach multiple classes so I have a notebook for each class under MBTS, but I also am developing three courses so I have a folder for that as well. I do something very similar for church-related work, particularly for sermon information and research.

One of the greatest benefits of Evernote is the webclipper tool. The key to using Evernote is to USE Evernote. With much of our research today being done on the web, having a tool like the webclipper makes storing worthwhile articles and information easy. I mentioned in the above paragraph that I store research for classes and sermons under certain notebooks. With the webclipper tool, I can easily clip full articles (minus the sidebar advertisements) into the folder I want. Of course, bookmarks in the browser can do something similar, but after I store it in Evernote, I can highlight, tag, and title the article in such a way that I know exactly how I intend to use it. With a bookmark, I have to sift through the article again, so this is a much better approach.

Again, USING Evernote is the key to getting your benefit. But how you use it may take some time to determine. For instance, I still store files on my computer, but some I now have linked to Evernote. One change I have made is files I have with notes from the Bible. As I take personal notes while reading, I will place the notes in a file. I have now moved those files to Google Drive and set up a link in Evernote. I have one file for each book of the Bible and now those files are accessible on Evernote and tagged, highlighted, etc. wherever I need access to them (you can make certain folders available offline which can be handy when you are in remote places in Kenya or elsewhere!).

Two other uses I have found extremely beneficial are journaling and storing book notes. As for journaling, I have established a template in a note. I copy that note each time I journal and then record key events, reflections, lessons, and next steps. By the way, if I have next steps, those items are immediately recorded in ToDoist or Google Calendar so I do not forget them. At times in my life I have kept a journal, but mostly on paper. By using Evernote, I can attach pictures as well! For instance, our church has recently done some renovations and while recording thoughts in a particular journal entry, I attached three or four pictures. Thus, my journal becomes somewhat like a intrapersonal blog.

As for the book notes, I have found a reason to return to Kindle. I have used Kindle off and on for several years, but as a professor, having the physical copy of many books is helpful. Thus, I buy a lot of physical books even if it isn't necessary. But when travelling I take my Kindle in order to save on space. Well, with Kindle, you can easily move any highlights or notes to Evernote. The process can even be done by a copy/paste when you are logged into Kindle through a browser. Of course, some books have a lower limit on the amount of data that can be "moved" from the book, but the availability store notes in Kindle allows them to be searched by keyword. This has begun to, and will continue to, transform my reading, and therefore, I hope make me a better teacher and preacher as I am able to find information for lessons and sermons more easily as opposed to trying to remember where and when I saw a particular quote, thought, or anecdote. If for no other reason, this option makes Evernote worth the investment (I do use the premium version).

The final benefit is the tag-system Evernote employs. This system is no different than some other systems, including the labels used for this blog. Basically, beyond the idea of linking items within a notebook, the tags allow items (notes) to be grouped by common characteristics - including across notebooks. For instance, I have a travel notebook which includes itineraries and notes about upcoming trips, but also notes about prior trips (with a year label such as 2018). But a trip to Kenya is not just travel, it is mission oriented, and it relates to training pastors and I have journaled about the trip, so into which folder should the notes be placed. A note can be in only one folder, but tags provide additional options for linking similar items together. Of course, with Evernote's powerful search capacity, labels are not necessary, but for me, I have found them particularly useful.

One final thought on how I use Evernote. Like ToDoist, I place my new notes into the Inbox first. This allows me to process them later which can help me to remove frivolous notes. So, I have set up the Inbox as my default notebook (including for the webclipper tool) and then once a week, at least, I move items to the notebook that is the best fit. This overall approach is not necessary, but seeing a note twice helps to make the content stick in my mind better in the short run, which is likely when I will need it. Once it is moved to the appropriate notebook, I will likely forget about it in a short period of time unless it involves a particular project on which I am working (and for this, make sure to add notebooks or even notes to the Shortcuts).

So, that is an abbreviated review of how I use Evernote. I could say more about each of those items or how effective using the built-in Evernote camera is for allowing a document to be indexed by Evernote even if it is handwritten (this is great for meeting or conference notes). As I mentioned last week, other tools exist, but Evernote has proven most effective for me. Whichever tool you choose, experiment with the tool until you are able to make it work for you.

We have now reviewed tasks and information storage. We have one more piece to the productivity triad - the calendar. Next week, I will review my use of Google Calendar. Until then, be as effective as you can!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Alignment - Information Storage

In last week's post, I mentioned that to be truly effective we need to be in control of three aspects of our lives - the schedule we must keep, the things we must do, and the information we must know/remember. Of course, each of those areas may cross-over into another area. For instance, what we must do requires knowledge and must be done within the schedule we must keep. However, while overlap exists, the ideas of these three elements can be separated, and should be for clarity sake.

Having covered that concept last week, and having spent a few weeks on tasks (including a mention of ToDoist as the tool I use to manage tasks), I now want to turn to the information portion of the triad. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the choice of tool is not the most important part of being effective - the use of the tools you choose is what will make you effective. By that statement, I mean two things. First, you must choose a tool that best fits your need. Second, you must use it. This week, I will cover my journey through three tools. Next week, I will spend more time on Evernote which has become my tool of choice.

As I just mentioned, choosing the right tool is important. But my choice of tool may not be the best choice for you. Personally, like most anyone over the age of 30, most of my information storage in the past was on paper. I have a couple of file cabinets that contained a great deal of information in a manner which was easy to find as long as I filed it properly. But as technology has developed, the amount of available information has exponentially increased. A paper file system may work for some aspects of life now, but having information at our fingertips has become more important. Thankfully, with the advent of smartphones, we are able to have information at our fingertips if we take the time, and develop the know-how to do so.

Like to-do list managers and calendars, options exist for electronically storing data. Of course, if you have a computer, you are familiar with storing files in a file system. But data storage in the second decade of the 21st Century goes well beyond that option. And the options can help us store anything from pictures to book notes to receipts to recipes and even a great article or blog entry that you find on the web. So, with multiple options, you may need to take your time to try a few and determine which one works best for you.

For me, I have spent time with Evernote, Google Keep, and OneNote, but have settled on Evernote after eight years of trial and error. Google Keep was a nice option for me because of it being a part of the Google ecosystem. Back in the early 2000's I traveled occasionally on business, and I needed access to email and a calendar wherever I was. This was before smartphones, so I began with Yahoo. But I didn't truly care for it, and soon switched to Google. Because I was already using Google for email and calendaring (and a few other items), adding Keep seemed natural. I used Keep some, but never liked the design and could not get comfortable with the notes as they simply appeared on the screen. I would try to shuffle them to make the total process more appealing, but I just never liked the overall look and feel.

I also gave OneNote a try. However, OneNote's biggest obstacle initially is that I am not a fan of Microsoft. However, I really liked OneNote, particularly the earlier version (2013, I think). The "notebook" concept with the individual tabs on the right and the pages within each tab was ideal for someone who demands the functional aspects to be matched by the visual (i.e. aesthetic) aspects. Because of my work with the seminary, I needed to convert away from a Linux-based operating system and OpenOffice, so OneNote became accessible and I liked it. However, because of my different roles I found myself using the product a little differently on three different computers. That is not the fault of OneNote, but when I went to fix the issue, I was unable to get the notes to match as I needed them. Furthermore, the changes in OneNote2016, and the phone app, were not as appealing to me.

So, that led me back to Evernote. Interestingly, I first used Evernote back in 2010, but after a year or so, I abandoned it for Keep. But on my most recent trip to Kenya, I decided I would use it to track my days (i.e. journal) and give it a fair chance to be my tool of choice. On the previous trip, I had used Keep, and again, that was ok, but at that point I was using Keep for a few items and OneNote for others, and when I went this past January, I knew my goal was to stay consolidated. Well, Evernote, did the trick. I liked the phone app and when I returned to the States, I installed it on my laptop. Soon after, I decided to pay for the premium version so I could have it installed on another device as well. Over the past seven months, I have become well-acquainted with Evernote and plan to use it for years to come. (Of course, the challenge of moving data from one system to another is one reason not to switch, but I have done that with all of my old notes to Evernote, and I suppose I can do it again, if I ever need to do so).

So, that is a bit about my journey with storing notes and information. I realize you may not care, but as I flesh out much of how I have become more organized which, in turn, has made me more effective, I wanted to share that I have tried a few options and found some to be wanting. But, again, it is a personal preference. If you are all-in on Microsoft, then integrating OneNote and Outlook may be a tremendous help for you. Likewise, some may prefer Keep. Other options such as Zoho exist as well. But for me, I have found much to like about Evernote and I am still finding new tricks to use.
Next week, I will share a few of the ways I use Evernote to help me be productive, to remember, and to reflect. Until then, make your week a productive week - for you and for God.