The power of instant capture

NASA-SpiralGalaxyM101-20140505As a kid one of the things I thought was so cool about Star Trek, along with the instant opening doors, and the communicators, phasers, and transporter, was the omniscient computer.  All you had to do was address the computer by voice (makes you wonder why they had the consoles at all…) and you could access the sum of universal knowledge.  And the computer was always recording, so in a couple of episodes they were able to bring up the computer’s video records and replay what had happened previously.

Setting aside the privacy concerns (they were in the military after all…) as I got older I frequently wished for instant recall: the ability to augment my feeble memory with a replay of earlier events (even what I’d just missed on the radio).  I love the rewind on DVRs for the same reason.

Since I don’t have an omniscient system for recall, the best I can do is capture items the instant they come to my attention.  That was one of the first principles of GTD that produced immediate results in my previous job, and it saved my bacon everyday.  I started with a pocket notebook (Moleskin thin, don’t see them anymore), and then a succession of Palm PDAs, ultimately replaced by a smartphone.  Whenever someone would bring up something I needed to track, I’d make a note.  Have an idea, make a note.  Need milk, make a note.  Hear about a book on NPR, make a note (while trying not to crash the car).  I got some of my best ideas while driving, so I eagerly adopted Jott, an app that would record an audio note, transcribe it to text and then email it to me.  Since my thoughts frequently related to my @work context, next time I opened my email there it was, ready to be filed or acted upon.

I’m still amazed by how few people do this.  Some certainly have better memories than I do, but whenever I ask someone to do something and don’t see them make a note (digital or otherwise) I wonder if they’re going to follow through.  And more than half the time they don’t.

Jott’s morphed into something else, and I haven’t yet found a replacement.  I use Omnifocus as my primary GTD system, and Evernote for archiving, and both of them have good capture capabilities.  I have both on all three platforms (phone, ipad and laptop), and tend to use Omnifocus’ Quick Entry feature the most, especially on my laptop.  I used it several times during my daily pages this morning: I’d been steaming along writing about one thing, and “I need to send email about the banquet” popped into my head, and all I had to do was hit a key command, type it into the text box, and go on writing.  When I sit down to process my Omnifocus inbox later it will be there, ready to be acted upon.

Evernote is a particularly powerful tool for capturing information you may want to save, but not necessarily need to take action on.  The Evernote servers run OCR (optical character recognition) on any images you upload, and once that indexing is done all that text is searchable.  That means that you can take a photo of a document, sign or menu, upload it to evernote, and later search for text contained in that image.  It even manages fairly well with handwriting (not mine, but I can’t OCR mine).  I’ve never tried OneNote, but apparently it does the same thing as well or better.

The keys for any capture system are

  • it has be fast (I called j=Jott several times only to forget what I wanted to capture before getting connected…I know, there’s no hope for me)
  • it has to be reasonably accurate  (saving the original recording or image for reference is a plus)
  • it has to be with you at ALL times

It’s a bonus if the tools you use can be tied together, so that all the bits of info or inspiration can be routed into a pre-exiting inbox.  But the most important characteristic of any capture tool is…

you have to use it.




Filed under productivity

“Do something, even if it’s nothing but jump up and down.”


“Do something, even if it’s nothing but jump up and down.”

When I was a kid my dad would use that phrase on me occasionally, most often when he asked me what I had planned for the weekend and I’d say “Uh, I dunno”.   After too many weekends conscripted into weeding flower beds and painting trim I learned to have a lots of homework assignments whenever he asked that question.

One thing I regret about my teenage years is that I didn’t get more involved in extracurricular activities.  I joined Boy Scouts, but I never pushed enough to get merit badges and move any higher than second class.  I got into band, but not until my junior year in high school, and I wasn’t involved in any other clubs or sports programs.   In short, I wish I’d done more than daydream and watch TV.

Later I was in college, and then working for a living, and I told myself I was too busy to volunteer for anything.   Then a few years ago I got involved with Trout Unlimited, a group dedicated to the conservation and protection of coldwater fisheries (trout and salmon).  Our chapter members move logs and rocks to restore Brook Trout habitat in north Georgia streams, set up chilled aquaria in middle school classrooms so that students can learn biology as they hatch out trout eggs and grow the fry large enough to release, and teach fly fishing and fly tying to everyone from Boy Scouts to senior citizens.   I’ve gotten to meet dozens of people with similar interests, watched kids formerly addicted to video games catch bugs and hold wriggling trout in their hands, and fished some achingly beautiful streams that I never would have known about without tips from my new friends.

My wife and I joined Trout Unlimited because she wanted to get back out in the rivers that she had studied while working in the Georgia Museum of Natural History, after we moved from biology into boring jobs in IT.  But we got seriously committed after we realized how active our chapter was, and how much the members do to support conservation and education programs that directly benefit the citizens and trout of north Georgia.

Whatever your interest, find a way to get involved with something larger than yourself.  Not only will you make meaningful contributions to a good cause, your investment will be returned tenfold in experiences, learning, and connections with others who share your passions.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”  Winston Churchill


Filed under fishing, volunteering

A hidden cost of war, poverty and disease

One of the first excuses that creative people use for not shipping is they have no energy and creativity after working a full time job in or out of the home.  Very few of us can afford to devote all our time to creative endeavors:  the patronage system of the Renaissance is all but gone, and the modern system of government and non-profit grants to artists is limited, so most of us have to make a living and provide for a family.  It can be done, there are artists and authors who manage it, but anyone working a job that requires decision making and innovation knows how little creative juice they have left at the end of the workday.

Can you imagine the struggle for the two billion people the World Bank reports are living with fragility due to poverty, disease and conflict?  Many people living in countries afflicted with war, crime, disease and poverty spend every waking moment simply trying to stay alive.  The cost of war, poverty and disease in terms of human suffering is staggering, but another cost is the loss of human potential.  Conflict and poverty impacts potential poets, musicians, authors and artists, people who have talents and viewpoints that may never be allowed to enrich the human experience.  In addition to the cultural losses, conflict and fragility have an equally severe impact on engineering and technological innovations that could provide answers to some of the challenges that make life in the developing world so difficult.

Creating at the end of a full workday may seem difficult, until we compare it to the accomplishments of those who are able to create in spite of the struggle to survive.

One example of innovation in the face of hardship:


Filed under General

Will the Guerrilla Girls ever be finished?


Apparently I’ve been living under a rock, since I just heard about the Guerrilla Girls today, although they’ve been active since the 80’s.  Their mission is to bring attention to the fact that very few galleries or art museums feature women artists or artists of color.  You can find out more about the Guerrilla Girls here.

Amy and I decided to get a bit of fresh air and a change of scenery, and decided to visit the Georgia Museum of Art this afternoon.  They have a permanent collection heavy on american folk art (not my favorite) but like all art museums they also feature traveling exhibits.  One was “Not ready to make nice”, featuring the mission and graphic art of the Guerrilla Girls.

As someone who’s been in the IT world for the last 14 years, where women are seriously under represented and often discriminated against, I’m disgusted that we’re still having these conversations.  And then I read this in the Washington Post:

This is ridiculous.  Women are just as smart, and creative, and driven, and innovative, and logical, and capable as men. Women aren’t asking to rule the world (we should be so lucky) they are asking for equal opportunity when they’re equally qualified, and equal pay for equal quality work. I don’t blame the Guerrilla Girls for turning that request into a demand, I applaud them.

“There’s no such thing as a glass ceiling for women. It’s just a thick layer of men.” ― Laura Liswood


Filed under General

The Yin-yang of production and consumption


It’s bitterly cold outside (at least for north Georgia), and I’ve got a dozen things to do (some requiring exposure to that cold), so I’m dawdling with my coffee, reading amazing writing by the people I’ve discovered through the Your Turn Challenge.  They share personal fears, pose daring questions, and open my eyes. There’s a niggling voice down inside telling me this is just passive consumption, wasted time, and yet I’ve absorbed a dozen inspirational ideas that will serve as fuel for my future.  Can anyone really be productive in isolation?

In my scientific training the first thing we were taught was to “know the literature”: you don’t write a paper in isolation, you review all the relevant research so that you can place your work in context. And reviewing the literature often exposes you to questions that then drive your own inquiries.

I think the same grounding is required in any creative endeavor: there are times when you need to focus on producing your work, and there are times when you benefit most by absorbing the views of others.  The important part, as with so many other aspects of life, is maintaining the balance. So now I’m off to work.


Filed under General

There are 10 kinds of people in the world


I recently found that I’ve been accepted in a course at a prestigious school, taught by an artist I’m in awe of.  I didn’t get in because of my abilities (applications are selected in a lottery, and I’m paying for the course), but it’s my dream opportunity to learn from someone whose work amazes me, and I’m delirious with excitement.  Of course the minute I found out my registration was accepted I started worrying, about the cost of the course, whether I have the skills to keep up, if I’ll be able to come up with some creative projects for the class, if my wife will resent me for leaving her alone for a week right before we go on a big trip, and on and on.  I had waffled for a while about applying, because of those concerns, but I knew I’d regret it for years if I didn’t take the leap, so I sent in my application.  I know it will be the experience of a lifetime.

I have a friend whose approach to life is to avoid anything that takes effort.  They’re brighter than I am, able to do impressive work, but they are just not interested in making any effort to change their life.  Everything is just too much trouble.

I know another person who lives their life afraid:  of crowds, of being alone,  cold weather, hot weather, snow, rain, driving at night.  They see a world filled not with opportunities, but with threats that must be guarded against.  In the unlikely event they commit to participating in something, they often change their minds and back out rather than take a risk.

The title of this post is a joke that went around tech circles a few years ago, a visual pun on the binary numerical system.  The joke is “there are 10 types of people in the world, those that understand binary and those who don’t”, because in binary “10” equals “2”.  (details here).

When it comes to change there are two types of people in the world, those who are willing to act to get what they want, and those who aren’t.  You get to make that choice every day. Are you going to be a zero, or a one?

Photo Credit: <a href=””>Josh Bancroft</a> via <a href=””>Compfight</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;


Filed under General

Keep going until you’re gone


I’ve written before about the impact the YourTurnChallenge had on me, making me realize that I could write, and do it every day.  I’ve missed a few days, but I’ve been writing regularly for almost a month.  I feel a drive to continue, and find myself frequently thinking about topics to explore.  Those that study human behavior say that it takes a month or two to develop or change a habit, and some might say that my writing is an established habit.

But it’s not that simple.  I once ran almost every day, worked myself up to marathon level training (20-30 miles/wk, 16+ mile long runs), registered for two marathons, and yet I don’t run at all today.

I went on Weight Watchers, lost almost 50 pounds, made “Life Member”, kept it off for about 3 years, and yet my weight is almost back to what it was before I started.

The lesson in this?  You’re never done, until you’re gone.  You don’t establish a habit, and then coast.  Even actions that become truly automatic, seemingly requiring no thought to maintain, still need attention.  Even habits that provide enormous positive rewards, like my weight loss and running, can fall by the wayside.

You’re never finished, you never reach perfection, because the world changes, and you change.  The excitement of accomplishment becomes routine, priorities change, or situations that made a habit easy to maintain become less convenient.  The best you can do is to keep striving, to keep working at it every day.  When good habits can be so hard to establish, and bad habits so hard to break, it can be tempting to give up, but when you do that you’re making a choice to be less than you can be.

If you’ve developed good habits that you want to keep, or dropped habits that are bad for you, keep going until you’re gone.


Filed under General