FocusTodo: AutoFocus for the iPhone

FocusTodo is for those who dislike GTD.

AutoFocus is a minimalist time management system by Mark Forster.  It certainly has its merits, especially if you find that time management systems like Getting Things Done (GTD) are too complicated.  While there’s all kinds of GTD apps for the iPhone, only recently have apps based on AutoFocus started to appear.  A very interesting AutoFocus app is FocusTodo (n.b. the website seems nearly entirely in Japanese) by Syncreticworks.

I’m going to do a short review of FocusTodo and suggest some possible improvements.  It’s a pretty cool app anyways, and I think that AutoFocus purists in particular will really appreciate it.

Continue reading “FocusTodo: AutoFocus for the iPhone”

Put Things Off: Great Potential; Needs Work

PTO icon
PTO: will be cool someday

To-do apps for the iPhone are a dime a dozen. So when one comes along that goes about things differently, it’s worth a closer look. Put Things Off, by is that kind of app.

PTO is a very simple task manager, more suited to the AutoFocus crowd than the GTD folks. (If you’re already lost, try reading this.)  But it goes about things in a rather novel way: rather than emphasizing the need to do things, PTO makes it easy to, well, just put things off. Each task can be deferred by a fixed amount of time with just one tap. The period to which tasks are put off can be changed in the app’s settings.

Continue reading “Put Things Off: Great Potential; Needs Work”

Getting Things Done vs AutoFocus: A Preliminary Comparison

tempus fugit
tempus fugit

Getting Things Done (GTD) is  David Allen’s blockbuster time management approach.  AutoFocus (AF) is Mark Forster’s method for staying organized, which is gaining popularity quite quickly.  Though they have they same goal, I’ve not seen two more dissimilar ways of achieving it.  As I try to keep myself organized – and (no surprise) doubtless end up designing my own time management system – researching what’s available is an important part of the process.  And while this is neither an exhaustive nor an authoritative comparison, it has been beneficial in my own thinking.  So I thought I’d share.

Continue reading “Getting Things Done vs AutoFocus: A Preliminary Comparison”

My Favourite iPhone Apps (so far)

The iPhone rulez!
I love my iPhone

For a little end of the year fun (yeah, I said “fun.” So?), I thought I’d quickly summarize my favourite iPhone apps.


NoteMaster is my favourite writing app.  You can write notes with embedded images, organize everything in folders, and sync your notes with Google Docs.  It supports landscape mode for those who prefer it.  It’s clean and simple and does its job. It’s not as fancy as, say, EverNote, and not as clumsy to use either.

Continue reading “My Favourite iPhone Apps (so far)”

Priority = impact + effort

What's a priority?
Priorities are only useful if you understand them.

There’s many time management systems and software tools that include the concept of priorities.  But priorities change with time and circumstance. Priorities can be useful, but not if you’re constantly re-evaluating them to keep them accurate. I think we can get around this conundrum with a combination of due dates and measuring one or both of two other characteristics: impact and effort.

The reason for prioritizing tasks is to help us decide now which task we should do at some future time. Obviously, we would prefer priorities to remain fixed once established. The basic problem is that they do not remain fixed. Continue reading “Priority = impact + effort”

Teetering at the Edge of the Time Management Abyss

You need to find the time to make time.

Up until January 2008, I was a devoted Palm Treo user. To keep track of all the things I needed to do, I used a nice, simple, and useful app called DateBk by Pimlico Software.  It never occurred to me that there might be other, possibly better software (though even now, I’m pretty sure that DateBk was nearly ideal for me at the time).

Then, in January 2008, I bought my first iPhone. I had to give up DateBk and find something else. I tried a few of the simpler – and more economical – task managers and list apps, but they just weren’t enough.  Then I found Appigo’s ToDo, which I’ve written about before. It had just the right balance of simplicity and functionality, and it synced with a free web service to ensure a functional copy of my tasks were available elsewhere.

The service that ToDo synced with is Toodledo. Eventually I found out more about Toodledo’s iPhone app, bought it, and used it quite a lot.

Toodledo implements Getting Things Done (GTD), the very popular personal time management system developed by David Allen, but of which I’d not heard till then. Naturally, I became interested in understanding GTD, and while I didn’t find GTD entirely satisfying, it had many interesting features.

So I started downloading other task management apps that implemented some or all of GTD, looking for one that gave me just the right function set. Considering how cheap iPhone apps are, there was no reason not to try lots of them.  Eventually, I settled (at least for now) on Pocket Informant (which I’ve also already written about elsewhere).

As I read about GTD, I found that many people tweak the standard GTD method to suit their particular circumstances. (Try googling “tweaking GTD” to find out more.)  This gave me hope that I could come up with my ideal system, one based on GTD but better suited to my specific needs.  (Which raises another prickly question: what exactly are my needs?)

…But wait!  When exactly did I become so fascinated with time management that I wanted to develop my own system?  And doesn’t that mean I have no life?  Would I start waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I was dreaming that I was a complete dweeb?  Or, even worse, hopelessly disorganized?

Well, no, actually, because keeping organized really does give me more free time, and because this is really a design problem: I want a better balance between the work I do, the way I manage my time, and the “meta” work of improving how I manage my time.

Let me emphasize that first reason, because it’s really important.  The real reason I keep myself organized is that I’m basically lazy. Many of the things I enjoy doing most involve my wife and kids, and also a lot of sitting around, preferably under strong sunlight, and with something cold to drink near at hand, not far from one of my notebooks or my iPhone in case I am suddenly  inspired. By staying organized, I have more time to do things well but without rushing, and still have free time left over to watch TV, play with my kids, go out with my wife, and generally veg.

That is, I stay organized because it helps me live better. In my opinion, that’s the only reason to worry about staying organized.  This is, I think, a good way to check and make sure you’re not obsessing over your time management system: if you’re using time management to schedule things like “play with the kids,” you are, in my humble opinion, in deep trouble.

There’s something else, though, that eggs me onward: I’m an academic and a designer. The way I naturally look at things is from a design point of view.  Is a thing well-balanced?  What does it do well, and what does it do poorly, and why?  Things work poorly because they aren’t well-balanced in use.  And that’s the rub: I’m drawn to design something better because that’s the way I am.

So will I be going head-to-head with David Allen or Mark Forster?  No, not at all. I’ve got a job and I don’t need another one.

On the other hand, design is a service: one designs for the benefit of others, so putting my ideas “out there” is not only natural but also quite necessary for a designer like me.  (Although how exactly I shall do that is not yet clear.)

My designerly sense of all of this may be a benefit; but it’s also a hindrance because designers create specifics, not generalities. David Allen, Mark Forster, and others who develop time management systems, are trying to build systems that are in some ways very general so that they work for as many people as possible.  But my training keeps pulling me to design specific solutions for specific (groups of) people.

The problem is that I don’t have anyone for whom to design – except me. This works out well because I started all this wanting to keep my self organized.  But it also means that what I come up with is unlikely to work well for others.

Again, we’re back to the question of balance. How do I balance designing a time management system that works well for me with my designer’s instinct to design for others?

My solution is to capture the process I followed (indeed, am still following) to build my system, and to present it in a way others can reuse to develop their own time management system.  I’m using the process to develop my own system. Someone else using the same process might develop an entirely different system.

I don’t know if people will cotton to this idea – having to develop their own system – but as I see it, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Either you have to learn someone else’s time management system, possibly tweaking it over time and without any particular guidance, or you have to invest time up front to work through a process with guidance on decision-making, and then start using a system that is, in principle at least, finely tuned to your specific needs.  The advantages of weaving your own system using a process are that there’s (a) more assistance where most people need it (at the process level), and (b) less change of having to backtrack and rebuild things because your own tweaks weren’t as successful as you’d hoped.

In the end, perhaps it’s all a rationalization: I’ve long gone off the deep end, and I’m just trying to reconcile my extreme nerdiness.  We’ll see once I get things sorted and posted somewhere.

In the meantime, you can take this post as a case study in how design and balance can fit in to nearly any situation.

A new iPhone PIM on the block – and it’s good!

After all my ranting and raving about ToDo versus ToodleDo, Pocket Informant comes along and changes everything.

Just a few months ago, I went to great pains to write about my anguish over choosing between ToDo and ToodleDo as my iPhone task manager.  So it’s rather ironic that I should be writing about something else now.  But write I must, cuz Pocket Informant – though not perfect – raises the bar in some pretty fundamental ways.

When I was using ToDo and ToodleDo, I was also using the iPhone’s built-in calendar app for personal appointments.  I had another system on my server, Calcium, on which I kept my work appointments.  Calcium is cool because you can configure it to allow anyone to add an event so long as that block of time was free.  So any student could book time with me without logging in or jumping through any other hoops.  The problem with this was (a) most students didn’t make an appointment – they just dropped in, and (b) I had to “sync” Calcium and my iPhone calendar by hand, copying appointments manually when needed.  This led to more scheduling malfunctions than I would have liked.

I’d looked at using iCal on my server, but it was just too hard to sync things with my laptop at home and my iPhone, without converting to MobileMe and whatever else Apple wanted me to use.

Then along came Pocket Informant.  It’s been around for other platforms for a while, but the iPhone app is quite recent.  PI includes a very full-featured task manager, and a full calendar system.  And it syncs tasks with Toodledo’s servers (like ToDo and ToodleDo) and calendar events with Google Calendar.  And I can access GCal from any browser, so syncing my laptop would be unnecessary.  PI gives me a wide variety of layouts, including a very useful Today view of what I have to do just today.  It supports both GTD and Franklin-Covey prioritizing systems.  It also has an integrated search capacity that looks through my calendar, my tasks, and my contacts too.  Another really cool feature is that it looks for the first reasonable task from each project that has been started but that isn’t complete, and creates a list of all next actions, which are then displayed on the Today view.  Of course, you can reorder tasks in any project, so the right item comes up as the next action.  Brilliant!

There were three things I had to give up, none of which are showstoppers for me.

  1. Letting students book themselves time with me.  Fortunately, as I’ve suggested above, this wasn’t a big deal.
  2. My iPhone is jailbroken, and I had bought an app called IntelliScreen that showed my calendar on the iPhone’s lockscreen.  With this app, I don’t need to unlock the phone every time I want to check my next appointment.  IntelliScreen only works with the native iPhone calendar app, so switching to PI meant giving that up.  I can say, however, that after a couple of months of living without IntelliScreen, I’m doing very well indeed.  So I guess I didn’t need that feature after all.
  3. Under iPhone OS 2.X, third party software can’t access the system to alert the user – so event alerts and reminders in PI’s calendar don’t work.  This would be a big deal if I depended on those reminders.  Fortunately, I don’t.  And it seems that in the next release of the iPhone OS this is changed, so it won’t be long before PI’s reminders work properly.

One thing I had to think through was how to deal with my personal appointments on GCal.  I want people to know I’m busy, but not necessarily why. So I set up a “personal” GCal calendar that I can edit from either my laptop, my server at work, or my iPhone, and since that calendar is configured to hide details, others only see that I’m busy.  Combined with my other GCal calendars, I get what I need.  Not as elegant as I would have liked, but plenty good enough for me.

There are some things about PI that bother me (given my experience with ToDo and ToodleDo).  Some things are just annoying, others are probably bugs.  But PI for the iPhone is only at version 1.02, so I’m willing to cut them some slack and give them a chance to sort it out.  (I should add that the differences between version 1.01 and 1.02 were huge and excellent, so I’ve got big expectations.)  A few of these things are:

  • The star icon for “starred items” is yellow, just like the icon used to indicate that a task has a “note” with it.  As a result, I often get confused between notes and stars.
  • There’s no way to choose which GTD features you want to use.  ToodleDo let you configure that yourself, to cut down on the size and complexity of the data entry fields.  In PI, you just have to ignore the fields you don’t want.  Which means you end up tapping the wrong item sometimes.
  • The order of next actions shown in the Today view appears random; I wish there were ways to sort those things in some way.
  • There’s no “fast” way to enter a task(1).  In ToDo, there’s a “lightning add” function that uses user-defined defaults for all task parameters except the task name.

So it turns out that neither ToDo nor ToodleDo are the right answer for me.  The ability to have a calendar and a task manager together just outweighs everything else.  So I’m with PI now.

Now, there is one more app, a real dark horse in my opinion, that has huge potential.  The app is SmartTime.  It has an impressive user interface: clean, simple, and usable.  It also has a fascinating way of arranging your tasks.  You tell it how long you want to spend doing something, and SmartTime will schedule it wherever in your schedule it can find the time.  If you don’t get to something in time – i.e. you don’t mark it complete – it can just bump it forward in time to the next available slot.  And it syncs both tasks and events into GCal alone.

I really, really like it, except for one thing that, for me, is a mortal flaw: each project requires you to create two Google calendars, and the process of connecting those calendars to the projects is not very easy – certainly not as easy as it should be.  Indeed, I’ve found it to be supremely inconvenient, especially as I keep a fairly large number of projects, and add new ones quite frequently.  This is the only thing that has stopped me from switching to SmartTime.  It’s too bad, cuz I love the user interface.

Anyways, there it is.  Even if you go through massive rationalization to decide on a good solution, you must always be ready for the alternative you never thought of till someone bring it up.

  1. Update 21 June 2009: Actually, PI v1.02 does have fast task entry, but it is active only in some folders, like the Inbox.  It is not available in project folders, which is were I do all my task entry, and which is why I didn’t notice the feature till late last night.

ToDo or ToodleDo, that is the question

Two “todo” apps are vying for my iPhone’s heart. Here’s how I decided on a winner.

I like PDAs because they help me manage the things I have to do – and I’m all about the “todo” lists. I don’t know if I’ve become dependent on lists because I have a bad memory, or if my memory is failing because I use lists for everything.  Still, it is as it is.

Over the past year or so, a number of todo apps have come out for my beloved iPhone, and I’ve been trying most of them. It’s surprising how I keep coming back to the same two apps, and equally surprising (to me) that after months of playing around with them, I still can’t quite decide which one I prefer.

The two apps is Appigo’s ToDo, and ToodleDo for the iPhone. Both cost only a few dollars, and both are very well-rated by the public at large.

So, I figured, lets use some design analysis tools to evaluate the two apps, and see what the numbers say.

I’m going to use two tools: pairwise comparison, and a weighted decision matrix. These tools aren’t only useful for analyzing designs – they’re basic decision-making tools, and they’ve always done right by me to evaluate designs, conceptual or otherwise.

Both tools depend on having a good set of criteria against which the two apps will be compared. You might not know what decision to make, but you need to know how you’ll know that you’ve made the right one. In our case here: How do I know when I’ve found a good todo app?

The formal term for what I’m doing here is qualitative, multi-criterion decision-making. It generally comes involves four tasks, which in my case are:

  1. Figure out criteria that apply to any “best” todo app.
  2. Rank the criteria by importance, because the most important criterion will affect my decision more than the others.
  3. Develop a rating scale to rate each app.
  4. Rate the apps with the rating scale and the weights.

Here’s my criteria, in no particular order of importance, based on years of using other task management tools:

  • Fast. No long delays when telling the app to do something.
  • Easy. Minimal clicking (e.g. hitting “accept” for everything or burrowing into deeply nested forms and subforms).
  • Repeats. Repeating items at regular intervals.
  • Priorities. At least three levels of priority for tasks.
  • Checkoff. One-touch checking off of done items.
  • Backup. Easy backup (or sync) to some remote server that is fairly robust, using standard formats.
  • Groups. Group items by tag or folder or project or whatever.
  • Sorting. Multiple ways to sort items.
  • Hotlist. Some overview page showing only near-term, important items.
  • Restart. Picks up next time I run it where I left off last time (oddly, not every iPhone app does this).
  • Recovery. Uncheck items that were accidentally checked off.
  • Conditional deadlines. Due dates based on due dates of other items (e.g. task B is due two weeks after task A is completed).
  • Links. Link an item to a folder of other items.

Oddly, not a single iPhone app I’ve checked out so far meets all my requirements.  In particular, I’ve not found any apps that even try to meet the last two requirements. I say “oddly” because I don’t think these requirements are excessive. Still, there it is.

Next, we have to develop weights to assign relative importance to the criteria. The word relative is key here; we’re not going to say that one criterion is certainly and universally more important than any other. What I want is to know how important each is with respect to the others and my own experience. Remember, one size never fits all.

This is where pairwise comparison comes in. Details on how this works are given in another web page (it ain’t hard).  The chart below is just the end results.  In each cell is the criterion that I thought was more important of the pair given by that cell’s row and column. Since it doesn’t make sense to compare something to itself, and since these comparisons are symmetric (comparing A and B is the same as comparing B and A), then I only need to fill in a little less than half of the whole chart.  If you’re thinking this took a long time, you’d be wrong. It took me about 15 minutes to fill in the whole thing.

Fast Easy Repeats Priorities Checkoff Backup Groups Sorting Hotlist Restart Recovery Cond. Deadlines Links
Fast Easy Repeats Priorities Fast Fast Groups Sorting Hotlist Fast Fast Cond. Deadlines Fast
Easy Repeats Priorities Easy Easy Groups Sorting Easy Restart Easy Easy Easy
Repeats Repeats Repeats Repeats Repeats Sorting Repeats Repeats Repeats Cond. Deadlines Repeats
Priorities Priorities Backup Groups Sorting Priorities Priorities Recovery Priorities Links
Checkoff Backup Groups Sorting Hotlist Checkoff Checkoff Cond. Deadlines Links
Backup Backups Sorting Backup Backup Backup Backup Backup
Groups Sorting Hotlist Groups Groups Groups Groups
Sorting Sorting Restart Sorting Sorting Links
Hotlist Hotlist Hotlist Hotlist Hotlist
Restart Restart Cond. Deadlines Links
Recovery Cond. Deadlines Links
Cond. Deadlines Cond. Deadlines

This leads to the following weights:

Fast 6%
Easy 9%
Repeats 13%
Priorities 8%
Checkoff 3%
Backup 10%
Groups 10%
Sorting 13%
Hotlist 9%
Restart 4%
Recovery 1%
Cond. Deadlines 8%
Links 6%

So this tells me that I think having repeating tasks and good sorting of items are the two most important criteria.

The point of this process is that the human mind is not good at juggling a bunch of variables, but it is very good at comparing one thing against another. Take the trivial case of choosing between three alternatives, A, B, and C. If you prefer A to B, and B to C, then you should accept the logic that A is the most preferred item.  To do otherwise just isn’t rational.  That’s exactly what pairwise comparison does. And there’s good evidence that this technique actually works.

The next step is to choose a rating scale.  This scale will be used to rate each app with respect to each criterion.

There’s a variety of scales I could use, and a great deal of research into qualitative measurement scales has been done.  The scale that works best for me – and seems to be the most general – is a five-point scale from -2 to +2, where 0 means “neutral,” -2 means “horrible,” +2 means “excellent,” and -1 and +1 are in-between values.  If you prefer something a little finer, you can use a 7-point scale from -3 to +3.  I think it’s important to have  a zero value to indicate neutrality, and I find it meaningful to have negative numbers stand for bad things and positive numbers for good things.

It’s interesting to note that in some industries (e.g. aerospace), I’ve noticed a tendency to use an exponential scale – something like (0, 1, 3, 9).  This is because aerospace people tend to be extremely conservative (for reasons both technical and otherwise), so they tend to underrate the goodness of things.  This scale inflates any reasonable rating to make up for that conservatism.

But I’m neither an aerospace engineer nor particularly conservative, so I’ll use the -2 to +2 scale.

Now we can do the weighted decision matrix. The gory details are given elsewhere.  The weights come from the pairwise comparison above.  In a decision matrix, we rank each alternative to some well-defined reference or base item.  We need a reference because we need a fixed point against which to measure things.  If we were evaluating design concepts, none of them would be suitable as references since a “concept” design is not well-defined.  In this case, we’re evaluating two existent web apps, so we can choose either one of them as the reference.  For no particular reason, I’ll use ToDo.

I worked up a weighted decision matrix comparing ToodleDo to ToDo.  Here it is:

Reference (ToDo) ToodleDo
Weight Rating Score Rating Score
Fast 0.06 0 0 0 0
Easy 0.09 0 0 -1 -0.09
Repeats 0.13 0 0 0 0
Priorities 0.08 0 0 0 0
Checkoff 0.03 0 0 0 0
Backup 0.10 0 0 -1 -0.1
Groups 0.10 0 0 0 0
Sorting 0.13 0 0 1 0.13
Hotlist 0.09 0 0 1 0.09
Restart 0.04 0 0 0 0
Recovery 0.01 0 0 0 0
Cond. Deadlines 0.08 0 0 1 0.08
Links 0.06 0 0 0 0
0 0.11

This table might not look like much, but it tells a bit of a story.  ToDo is the reference, so I’ve given it zeros in every category.  That way, when I compare ToodleDo to it, a positive number means it beats ToDo and a negative number means it’s worse than ToDo.  Obviously, they’re very close to one another.

If you look at the ratings for ToodleDo, you see that it’s a bit better than ToDo on some points, and a bit worse on others.  But the +1’s don’t actually cancel out the -1’s because of the weights.  The criteria on which ToodleDo beat ToDo are more important to me than the others, because the weights are higher.  That makes ToodleDo just a little bit better than ToDo.

And that jives nicely with my intuition.  I got ToDo first, and enjoyed it.  But ever since I got ToodleDo, I’ve preferred it.  Every once in a while, I switch back to ToDo, but it never lasts very long.  And up until I did this decision matrix, all I had was a vague intuition that ToodleDo was better for me; now, I actually have an explanation.

But there’s a problem.  ToDo handles repeating events internally; that is, when I check off the current instance of a repeating event, ToDo immediately creates the next one in the series.  ToodleDo, on the other hand, generates subsequent repeating events only when you sync the app with the ToodleDo website.

This is a problem for me when I travel.  I was in Berlin recently, for a conference.  And I don’t have a data plan for my iPhone (that’s a whole separate story), so I couldn’t sync either app.  But that means ToodleDo  couldn’t roll repeating items over properly.  So before I went to Berlin, I sync’d up ToDo and used it while I was gone.  When I came back, though, I switched back to ToodleDo.  When I go to Sweden at the end of March, I’ll be using ToDo again.

Does the evaluation consider that?  No it doesn’t, because I didn’t.  The evaluation is only as good as the evaluator.  When I evaluated the two apps, I was nestled snugly at home, WiFi at the ready – and sync’ing either ToDo or ToodleDo is a non-issue.  If I’d’ve done the evaluation in Berlin, I’m sure I’d’ve gotten different numbers, because the repeating events problem would have been right there in my face.

So this underscores a limit with the evaluation method – indeed, a limit with any method: it’s only as good as the situation you’re in when you use it.  Some people might say a method is only as good as the information you use, but it’s more than that.  My situation, in this case, includes me, my goals (at the time), my experiences, all the information I have handy, constraints, and anything else can possibly influence my decisions at the time.

The problem, then, is that a method depends on the situation when it’s used.  But that situation may be different for the person doing the evaluation than for the person(s) who will have to live with the decision being made.  Indeed, it’s virtually guaranteed that the situations will be different, if for no other reason than the implications of a decision will only occur later.

Does this put the kibosh on these kinds of methods?

Not at all.  It just means that we must be vigilant and diligent in their application.  If I did the evaluation in Berlin, ToDo would have won, because in that situation, ToodleDo would have scored poorly on repeating events.  This is as it should be.  That means that in the two different situations, the method worked.  The problem is that in any one given situation, there’s no way to take into account any other situations.

Happily, there is fruitful and vigorous research concerned exactly with this.  Some people call it situated cognition; others call it situated reasoning.  We’ve not yet figured out how to treat situations reliably, but I think it’s only a matter of time before we do.

In the meantime, there is at least one other possible way to treat other situations.  A popular technique to help set up a design problem is the use case (or what I call a usage scenario).  These are either textual or visual descriptions of the interactions involved in using the thing you’ll design.  They can be quite complex and detailed.  Usage scenarios try to capture a specific situation other than the one that includes the designers during the design process.  So it’s at least possible that usage scenarios could help designers evaluate designs and products better.

One final caveat: this evaluation is particular to me.  It is unlikely that anyone will agree completely with my evaluation, because their situations are different from mine.  So I’m not saying ToodleDo “is better” than ToDo.  I’m just saying it seems to be better for me.

As they say: your mileage may vary.

My web presence II: what’s my problem?

I realized my web presence was all wrong. This was the first step: recognizing imbalance.

I’ve already explained what I mean by web presence.

One day, I realized that my web presence was slowing me down. And then I thought I must be an idiot for not having noticed before, because I also realized that my general frustration with syncing my web presence with my self had been going on for some time.

Why hadn’t I noticed sooner?

I think there’s two reasons. First, though my conscious mind hadn’t noticed any deep problems, my subconscious ming had. This is just how the brain works. A huge amount of cognitive computation is done unconsciously. Indeed, it seems that parts of the nervous system like the retina, the optic nerve, and the spinal cord are not just cabling trunks that transmit stuff to and from the brain, but are in fact essential processing units. Consciousness only lives in the cortex; we’re just not aware of all the “thinking” that the rest of the nervous system does.

So, part of my brain recognized the problem, but had nothing to “report to management” as it were – nothing to pass up to my conscious mind. In the meantime, my conscious mind, living in blissful ignorance of what the rest of my brain was thinking, kept on doing business as usual, convinced that it was doing the right thing.

But the brain is not a serious of compartments; it’s just one big thing, and there’s bleed-over (like dreams) between it’s elements. So my subconscious mind kept niggling my conscious mind that something was wrong, and my conscious mind kept telling it to shut up.

And that’s what my frustration was: the mismatch between what the conscious and the subconscious parts of my mind wanted me to do.

The second reason that it took me so long to recognize that I was doing something wrong was that I was unaware of all the possible tools I could use to create and manage my web presence.

I’m an old-school UNIX geek: in my day, if you needed some software to do something, you wrote it yourself. I know that must sound terribly parochial today, but that’s how I was growed up. So it never even occurred to me to look for software that did what I needed. And even if it had, I wouldn’t have known what keywords to give Google to look for it. It was only dumb luck that I came across some of the software, and, over time, studied more of it. Eventually, the amount of stuff I learnt reached a critical mass. And then it all made sense.

I’d found all kinds of services on the web, each providing a certain kind of functionality. What I needed to do was match up my needs with specific tools. DUH! (Yes, it’s embarrassing to admit I fouled up like such a newbie.) Once I did that, everything started falling into place.

So what are my needs?

Create a Body of Knowledge about Designing. This is my windmill against which I tilt, and probably will for the rest of my life. There is a huge amount of information about designing, but it’s not yet been integrated into a sensible body of knowledge. So I need a way to create suitable content for this.

Collect Bits of Information. Some things interest me. Bits of information about those things are scattered around, in assorted web pages and especially blogs, all over the world. This isn’t just trivia. It’s useful information that I find forms the subtext of things I think about, write about, and do in my research. When I find these bits, it’s important to save them because I can’t be sure I’ll ever remember where they were. So I need a way to capture and organize those bits of information.

Keep Current on Certain Topics. Besides the bits of knowledge floating out there in the ether, there’s also a good amount of information on current events. As a designer, it’s important to understand the context of design problems and solutions. I get the context by keeping up with current events. This comes through blogs (at least, the good stuff does). So I need a way to organize how I read blogs.

Share What I Find. Besides the pragmatic concern of making good information available to my students, I tend to want to share what I know and learn. This means that whatever bits of information I do gather, I want to make public. This also affects the way I present it – I would want such information to be arranged in a way that (as far as I can tell) will be usable to others.

Share What I Think. The information I gather informs my thinking. Sometimes this results in “research,” other times in opinion. Pure research I save for official publications in journals and at conferences. The opinions, however, can also be quite useful. Having to explain one’s thoughts to others is an excellent way of clarifying those thoughts to oneself; as they say, the best way to learn something is to have to teach it. So I need a way to communicate that’s more than just passing along bits of information.

What’s important to note here is that even my identification of these needs emerged only as I struggled to create a solution. Looking for the solution helped me understand the problem. Some designerly folks call this co-evolution (the problem and solution evolve together).

So how did I get to the point of understanding what the problem really was? That’s what my next post will be about.

My web presence, I: What’s a web presence?

As promised in a previous post, here’s the beginning of the explanation of how I am designing my web presence.

Web presence is the term I use to describe the abstraction that is the sum total of everything I put on the web. My web presence not me, like some avatar or simulation of me. It’s what I leave behind; it’s the things I build and give some purposeful shape to on the web, the things that are still there after I log off that others will use or abuse for their own purposes.

My web presence not an artifact, like a product I might design, because once the artifact is done and out the door, I’m through with it. My web presence is different because I’m always revisiting it, tweaking it, disassembling and reconstructing it to better reflect me, help me, stimulate me. It grows and evolves with me. I do log off, but I always log back on, loaded with new ideas and bits of information that I want to add to my digital universe-self.

Everyone’s web presence is different. Discovering what exactly your web presence is can be alot like a vision quest; you have to start seeing yourself from the outside and relate your self to the rest of the (digital) world. Your web presence will also evolve over time – partly because the web itself continues to change and evolve. The services that you can use today to express your web presence are far more sophisticated than what was available just a few years ago.

And if you want to have a true web presence – a presence that is true to you – then you need to learn about the alternatives. Don’t just use facebook because everyone you know uses facebook. Use it because it best suits your web presence.

My web presence is that of a geek with a slight case of OCD. I like to order and organize the things I know. And I like to keep up with certain kinds of information, even though that information isn’t directly useful to me in my career. I also like to express myself – not in social settings, but in more one-way settings. Hence this blog, and my wiki.