Watch with RescueTime

Follow TonyH’s advice received through the wonders of twitter I installed RescueTime as part of my move towards managing time. The result over the first couple of days is shown below.RescueTime plot

I think the plot is interesting but I am not sure how useful. Over these two days my main work tasks were involved in meetings that don’t show up (at least not automatically) so the graphs show how I filled in time imbetween. Looking at the detail it shows my top three as e-mail, word and ThinkingRock, which made me wonder at first that I am spending too long thinking about what to do and not enough time doing it! However on reflection I have decided that it shows the value of having a place to organise thoughts and, for the moment at least, I intend to carry on with ThinkingRock and see it as a good thing rather than a distraction.

For RescueTime itself so far it is “interesting” but not necessarily useful. From the descriptions on the website usefulness will come if I can either turn this into measures of behaviour I want, or if we adopt this across a group. The group model is where RescueTime hope to make money – but not sure I want to know what other people are up to or compare myself to group norms (though if others at the OU want to join in I might consider trying the group mode).

For now I will try setting a few goals to go on with and see how it goes.

RescueTime Goal

Restructuring 2.0

Martin Weller across on his blog has written about how we have just been reviewed where we work at IET. The review has plenty of reasonable anlaysis but ends with a suggestion that IET splits in two and bifurcates – which if it is not handled carefully might lead to chaos, or at least some effort spent in the wrong place.Bifurcation diagram


Martin’s post considers what happens when reorgs strike. I agree with his view that we ought perhaps not be so tied up with how we actually are organised, as Martin puts it 

Actually, I think that with new ways of connecting, it’s not that the reorg should be more prevalent, but rather that organisational structures, which are often physical organisational structures, are increasingly irrelevant.

However I have another reference point for thinking about organisational change and that is the book the Dilbert Principle. I picked this up at the airport a few years back and found it shaped by view of how management works (even though there are several warnings to ignore such books and reminders that you are reading the management advice of someone who draws cartoons for a living). In the book Scott Adams makes some good points against “one off” activities with restructuring as the prime example of such activity. So  I feel very cautious about setting off down that route. However if we can do something more about changes in ways of working, picking up on knowing what we are doing and why, building on the latest tools so that structure and boundaries matter rather less then I think the review and the push for change could do us some good. 

Remember the milk v ThinkingRock

I think that life needs a decent swap algorithm but first we need a way to know what we are doing. In Unix terms I want to do “ps x” to find the processes that are

The GTD approach is to dump a whole list of everything that you need to do and that makes a great place to start. But where to make the dump? A couple of years ago I got on fairly well with a simple little note book; but then it got messy and I stopped. Then I tried the todo list on on an iPaq; but then I switched computers and it wouldn’t sync and I stopped. So this time around I started with the application that seems to be in favour for time management: Remember the milk .

In RTM there are some good features: it embeds in iGoogle desktop, it is easy to use, there are ways to set the different contexts. But I think I might be too much the optimist when filling in the things to do with the result that each day’s todo list becomes dominated by the things I didn’t do on the previous days. I felt that I needed something to hold those items that I need to do after i have done something. So I looked around for something a little bit more sophisticated. What i have found is ThinkingRock.

ThinkingRock seems to take the GTD approach more seriously than other pieces of software and act as a thought organiser rather than time organiser. I have been impressed by the way in which the software goes beyond the actions to include projects – i.e. things that take more than one action. After a few days I remain quite enthusiastic about ThinkingRock as a process gatherer: but it seems less good as a time schedular. I feel that someone out there has probably mashed this into Remember the milk but I can’t see it in a quick scan. It also sits as a main application rather than embedding into other things. But for the moment I think I will use it as my process gatherer.

I now need to find a way to work my process scheduler: this should pick out what needs doing, give it a time slice, up the priority of things I ignore too long, and not be annoying. Mini-spec only as again this time-slice is used up.

By the way following Tony’s advice now running RescueTime so at least I should start to know the applications I spend time using – though not sure if it will help me know why.

OS Life

Following up on my previous post about Life Thrash I have carried on thinking about the parallels between operating systems and life. The two suggestions so far “switch off and on again” and “upgrade to a newer model” are a bit tricky to implement – however a software upgrade does not seem out of the question! Sticking with process control in particular I feel that I am currently running a poor algorithm that loses processes, can fail to complete, and works best when simply just doing one thing (but not necessarily the right thing). In OS terms this is like an old version of DOS and things would be a whole lot better if I was running Unix.

So what is a decent process management system. A quick Google for Unix process management shows that there are likely to be some good guides out there, and I may even see if I still have my lecture notes (in troff) on a CD somewhere, but for the moment I want to just describe it from memory so apologies if there are some mismatches here.

Useful concepts are: processes, priorities, nice, running, sleeping, zombie, time slice. Each thing that can be run is a process, the priority is how much you would like it to run, nice is a way to lower (or raise) that priority. Processes can be running, sleeping waiting their turn to run, or a zombie which is something left around that can’t do anything anymore. Just had a check – I left out stopped, which I think is something that needs to be started again.

The key then is to apply a decent algorithm that gives each process a turn, but while a process is having its turn the priority reduces so that no process will miss out for long. Swapping processes in and out switches the context and the OS will try to do this fast enough so multi-tasking appears to work even though the reality may well be that the machine only has one processor. 

OK well my time slice on this task is now up and I will switch to something else (sleeping). I hope that there is enough here to help me think about how actions in life can also be viewed as processes. I want to explore what can be done to help control these: process lists, contexts, priorities and time slices. I think the answer will look a lot like David Allen’s Getting Things Done and that will be good as that opens up some tools that can be used to help.

Life thrash!

I feel that just as computers suffer from disk thrash when asked to do too much and spend all the time just swapping things in from disk and back again, I am suffering from Life Thrash – switching attention from one thing to another and not completing tasks.

Having recognised this I want to do something about it! I have a Computer Science background and in the past lectured on operating systems and how computers behave and algorithms and tools that made things work better, matched things to memory and resources and gave everything appropriate priority.  I used to like teaching about the Unix (BSD) way to do things and how it assigned what should happen next. 

So this short post (not least as it is past 1am) is a marker that I am going to work on Life Thrash a bit more, play with the tools that help (again!) and see where I go. I said to Will today I needed to post a declaration to get past this and stop “post about Life Thrash” adding to the  multi-tasking load. So I have.

DigiLab as a model for how to work

DigiLab discussionOriginally uploaded by openpadThe Open University Library has developed an area known as the DigiLab as a drop in space to look at and use new technology. Recently we have used this area for a couple of discussions and I feel it could offer a model for how people could work in the future. There is comfy area where you can hook up to large screens or just plug in laptops, behind that a small table and chairs plus two small work areas and a more powerful media area. Finally there is a coffee machine. In one of our sessions other people came in and had a separate chat – without either group disturbing the other too much.P1000665.JPGCan this map on to out new building? I am not sure. Trying to do it at a small scale may well not work as it means that we have to sacrifice individual space to create shared space and if only a few people do that the result is just their loss!

Going open plan

As part of open university, open content and open learn is it right that I am starting to get some cold feet about going open plan? The bit of the OU that I am in (Institute of Educational Technology – IET) is housed in an old style set of offices off corridors and I am not too attached to it. So I have been fairly calm about change thinking that what we might lose in privacy we would gain in better communication and space to show off to visitors. The building itself (Jennie Lee Building – JLB) looks ok and the lab areas and way the public spaces work sounds quite good. But and it is a big but the actual areas for people to work in are just too small. In current drawings these are then filled with as large a desk as possible and as much storage as can fit in to try to fit us all in. The result fills me (and not just me) with a feeling of impending doom.

On the other hand I am not precious about what we have got and, before it is too late, I think we need to do something radical to rescue the situation. I know at the beginning there were some great ideas floating around and those have probably been priced out or pressured out by too many people needing to go into the building. What I think there might be scope for is to take at least a bit of the building and treat it differently by thinking through what we want out of a building in the academic world. Suggestions from me – are no desktop machines, shared book space, comfy places to sit, easy places to plug in and display, plenty of informal meeting areas. If moving into the building can reduce time spent in one hour meetings when 10 minutes will do, switch from staring at email to working jointly to achieve things, and to connect up with the great people who work here then I wouldn’t mind losing my cell. If it doesn’t deliver on that then I suspect the building might be less than busy and in the end those who turn up might well get enough space. Just not sure if I will be one of them.

Down time

My summer has involved two good traditional get away from it holidays. On the first occasion we stayed in Gites in Brittany and in the second a cottage in Northumberland. What they had in common is no Internet! We had a computer with us but other than backing up pictures from the camera we did not touch it. At home on the otherhand we are a one desktop, three laptops (at least), online games console and wireless broadband sort of family.This means we easily end up watching television with laptops on and connected doing a weird combination of shopping, planning trips, having conversations, watching tv, looking up things to do with what’s on, and even work. I was going to do a post about the opportunities of that sort of life (and I will do next!) but actually the holiday made me see also the advantages of an unconnected life.For example up in Northumberland we went for a trip to Cragside – the first home to be lit by hydroelectric power. To do this we picked up a leaflet, went to the information centre and had a very nice visit there to the grounds. If we had our Internet connection I am sure we would have spent an hour or so the evening before looking up more detailed information, finding alternatives and random distractions, probably for very little gain.So, along with the wonders of connected learning, living and working I think I will make more space for downtime, and leave the computer switched off a bit more!