Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Not all problems need a hammer

How to be a productivity ninja is a question that can never be answered. Only pointers and a personal toolkit can be shared. Take your pick.

A few days ago, on the back of a recommendation from a friend and colleague, I ended up at a fascinating workshop run by Bain Group Consulting, a Canadian firm I hadn’t heard of earlier. The intent of the two-day seminar was to introduce participants to the power of facilitation.

The workshop’s key speaker, Kimberley Bain, introduced us to several tools that could be deployed to navigate tough situations. A seasoned negotiator, she helps governments, think tanks, organizations, NGOs and even families in distress across the world to chart an amenable course.

As each set of tools was unveiled, hypothetical situations were introduced and we were compelled to think about whether or not these tools could be deployed in that particular situation.

Inasmuch as the tools were interesting, what I thought equally compelling was the behaviour of some participants. A few who looked like veterans maintained copious notes and attempted to commit all of these tools to memory. They then attempted to force-fit the tools to the situation on hand.

Inevitably, when inspected by Bain, their solutions couldn’t stand up to scrutiny. This, in spite of her subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that if you imagine you have a hammer on hand, every problem looks like a nail. But as is often the case, that most critical faculty of them all—thinking—was put on the back-burner.

In my not-so-humble opinion, that is precisely why consultants flourish. Each time there is a problem, thinking can be outsourced to them. They then march in—an armada of B-school graduates in hand—deploy tools, “fix" everything, collect hefty fees and walk out.

It is against this backdrop that I write this dispatch. Over the past couple of weeks, I have received a flurry of messages on Twitter asking that I make some very specific recommendations on what tools can be deployed to improve personal productivity.

I will tell you what. There are many tools out there that promise to make a productivity ninja out of you. But all that I have to offer are learnings from the road that work for me.

And after having spent more than two decades covering technology among other things as a journalist, I am circumspect when asked to recommend anything. Inevitably, there is a lot of breathlessness that accompanies all things shiny and the potential they hold to disrupt the world.

I plead guilty to being one among those perpetrators of breathlessness. Because I love technology, my infatuation with the latest works for me. I have the bandwidth on hand to tinker around with all of these. And when the next big thing comes around, I migrate to whatever it may be.

I enjoy it. But like I just said, don’t take my word for it. Use what works for you. All I have to offer are pointers. Discard everything else.

As things stand, I’m invested in the Apple ecosystem. I understand that it is expensive. I have defended why I am part of this ecosystem in the past. But I refuse to any more. Not because I have given up on it. But because if I continue to dig my heels in, I will stop learning.

Suffice to say, I have dug out an outdated laptop everybody at home has given up on and I’m tinkering around with it in my spare time using free and open source software (FOSS). Incidentally, FOSS is an idea I had dissed many years ago, attracting the ire of friends in the community. But heck, I’m open to change my mind again and again and again if need be.

Talking of software, how I so wish I was taught the basics of programming when I was younger. Like I have articulated in this space, I think it ought to be part of mandatory learning. “Where do you begin" is a good question to ask. Python is a good place as any I had suggested a few weeks ago in this series.

Just as I was dipping my toes into it with my eldest daughter, I discovered Derek Sivers, a programmer and writer whom I had stumbled across on one of my online rambles. I reached out to him. A few days later, he wrote me a gentle note with a few pointers, for which I am grateful.

“Languages come and go like fads. Python, JavaScript, Swift, etc. People get kind of religious about the one that they have spent the most time learning, so don’t let them try to convert you to their religion. What matters most is getting the mindset of how to think in programming (tiny stepwise if-then, functions, variables, etc), and then learn a few different languages. If you ever need to dive into one language deeply, whether for work or a project, then it will be easier if you had that initial broad overview," he wrote.

To start with, he offered a few links my daughter and I could use and have fun.

“My main recommendation is to use whatever language is set up to help her make something she really wants to make. So that it feels more like play than study.

https://scratch.mit.edu/ is extremely well-suited for that. It has been developed and improved for decades at MIT for exactly this purpose. https://scratch.mit.edu/parents/

“And yes, it would be fun for you, too.

“Look at the great e-books from No Starch: https://www.nostarch.com/catalog/kids

“Specifically:

https://www.nostarch.com/learnscratch

https://www.nostarch.com/teachkids

https://www.nostarch.com/byow

https://www.nostarch.com/swiftforkids"

I am happy to report that on the back of these pointers from Sivers, Nayantara has created a game on her own. I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it. Unlike her, I haven’t created anything yet. But I continue to tinker and learn.

What does my current toolkit look like?

RSS feeds: I still haven’t wrapped my head around the fact that only a very small bunch of people who are online use RSS feeds. To the uninitiated, a dated, but useful primer on the theme is here.

The premise is simple. This is a content aggregator that brings all of what you subscribe to into one place. The more contemporary ones can classify, tag and structure themes into appropriate directories.

Many obituaries to RSS readers have been written. But they have evolved and every social media platform including Facebook and LinkedIn have adopted them in some form. I use Feedly. More recently, for all its glitches, Apple News has got my attention.

What I like about RSS feeds is that it means all of my consumption is consolidated in one place. It gets better as I use it.

Most content publishers don’t like it for obvious reasons. It takes monetizable traffic away from them. As a consumer, that’s not my problem (though as a content producer, it is).

In fact, two global brands I subscribe to and pay precious monies that I may gain full access to for their content now refuse to entertain my calls or emails to unsubscribe because RSS feeds meet all of my requirements and there is only so much I can consume.

Note taking: There is a dogfight on between Evernote, OneNote (part of Microsoft’s Office Suite), Apple Notes and Google Keep. Like I said earlier, each serves a purpose.

For all practical purposes, I swear by Evernote, and have used it for more than five years now. It was once the darling of Silicon Valley and attracted both investors and users like me in droves. OneNote seemed clunky, Apple Notes unevolved and Google Keep wasn’t on the horizon.

But as things are, I don’t like the sounds emanating from Silicon Valley. News reports have it that Evernote may be in for trouble. The management has been shuffled and the funders seem to be on shaky ground. I don’t like the idea of apps getting yanked out of the ecosystem when I have gotten used to it.

This is not to suggest Evernote has become any less useful. A Twitter poll I ran on my personal handle suggested 50% of respondents still prefer Evernote as their note-taking app of choice, compared to 29% who voted for OneNote and 21% for Apple Notes at the time of writing this.

That said, like I mentioned at the outset, two decades of covering technology later, scepticism creeps in.

I like how OneNote has evolved. There are some chinks in Microsoft’s Office Suite. But I like the pricing strategy Microsoft has for Office, and OneNote is part of that bundle.

Not just that, spec-to-spec, OneNote has clearly evolved and seems to be able to do everything Evernote can. It no longer comes across as clunky. That Microsoft is taking aim at Evernote is evident from the manner in which it has made it a breeze to migrate, with a built-in assistant.

While Evernote continues to be my default note-taking app, I have backed up all of my notes to OneNote as well. Because I have seen a good many Internet unicorns come and go.

Apple Notes is easy to use. But I will reserve comment because I haven’t used it hard enough. Google Keep is new territory for me and I’m still exploring the terrain.

My limited point is, do take a look at all of these options. Take what note-keeping app works best for you. We live in a complicated world that increasingly resides on the cloud. And I would much rather have access to my thoughts on a cloud across platforms and devices.

There is a school of thought which argues that nothing beats paper and pen. Given a choice between stacking everything in memory, I would much rather go with the weakest pen than the strongest memory.

Etiquette: Nothing gets my goat more than a badly phrased email. We live in a global world. If we cannot get our words right, we got no business to be in business. That is why I have taken an instinctive liking to Boomerang Respondable. It is new and I haven’t used it long enough to pass verdict. But if it works, I don’t mind paying for the premium version.

It is a browser plug-in that deploys artificial intelligence (AI) to tell you whether or not your email will elicit a response.

Not just that, it can schedule when an email will go out, remind you to reply to an email and check whether it has been read, among other features. There’s a 30-day free trial period on. Go ahead, give it a try. Right now, it works as a plug-in only for Gmail and Outlook, though.

Another app I have taken a liking to is Wordzen. This is a plug-in that works with Gmail. What I find interesting and intriguing is that there is no AI deployed. Instead, after you have scribbled a note, you “Wordzen" it. It resides in that folder for a few minutes. Human editors take over, go over it, rewrite and edit it, put it back in your draft folder, and if you are happy with the result, hit send.

As things stand, it is a free service. “We’re still assessing the value of this service," says the website. “Most of the early adopters are within the entrepreneurial network of Wordzen’s founder. Our goal right now is to amass a user base who can test the service, provide feedback, and attest to Wordzen’s value—whether it be in time saved dealing with email, or in a stronger image presented to customers. Wordzen will likely employ a subscription fee business model in due course."

All this said, on a parting note for the week, there is one tool everybody ought to have with them. It is a book, and the wisdom it contains cannot be acquired by money, power or technology. Rules for a Knight by four-time Academy Award nominee Ethan Hawke.

The sum and substance of the book is a letter written by a knight to his children. He is leaving for a battle and he fears he may not return. In it, he attempts to “leave a record of all he knows. In a series of ruminations on solitude, humility, forgiveness, honesty, courage, grace, pride, and patience, he draws on the ancient teachings of Eastern and Western philosophy, and on the great spiritual and political writings of our time. His intent: to give his children a compass for a journey they will have to make alone, a short guide to what gives life meaning and beauty."

Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.

His Twitter handle is @c_assisi

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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