Changing it up for 2014: Get Agile with New Year’s “Revolutions”

Well, we’re halfway through January (seriously, where did the time go?!), so there’s no better time to do a quick check in with yourself to see how those New Year’s resolutions are panning out. Have you been able to make any new habits stick, or are you still feeling like you’re stuck in the same rut from 2013?


When we asked our staff the same question (for those of us who actually buy into the whole resolution thing), it became clear that being successful with these desired changes means less about going cold turkey, and more about committing to an ongoing process of overriding old habits and rewiring them with new patterns of behavior until something clicks.

Case in point:
-“My resolution is to be as organized and productive in my personal life as I am at work. I can’t say I’m knocking it out of the park, but I’m making progress. Although the fact the Patriots have been in the playoffs isn’t helping my cause at all since my husband’s participation is required to finish some of my home projects!”
-“This year I wanted to keep it simple, so my resolution was to walk the dogs each evening before dinner. Not only would it be good for all of us to get some fresh air, but it forces me step away from the computer for a few minutes. Our new routine lasted all of a few days, but at least we are getting out more often when we can.”
-“I resoluted to slow down and play with my kids more. It was going well until they got back to school, I went back to work, and they started all their activities. I need to have some sort of reminder to stay on track better.”

See a common theme here?

So did we, which got us thinking about our clients, particularly the Agile software development methods they use (for both product development and team management) and how much more fluid an iterative and incremental approach can be when it comes to making significant, sustained progress. As you know, Agile is a solution-oriented process that relies on adaptive planning and evolutionary processes, along with rapid and flexible response to change…so if it’s been proven successful in our business lives, it only makes sense that we could apply the same techniques in our personal lives, as well.

Enter what we like to call our New Year’s “Revolutions” for 2014.

Sure, we still need to keep an eye on the bigger picture (such as losing 10 pounds or seeing X increase in revenue), but you’ll get there more quickly if you create a list of actionable steps for the short-term, adjusting as you go along. Is something working – like a pitch that strikes a nerve with reporters, or a new way to remind yourself to stop and smell the roses with your kiddos? Then double down on those efforts to see bigger gains. Or is something not working – like an old press release format that’s lost traction, or dog leashes strewn about the house, so it takes you 15 minutes to find them before you lose all momentum to get outside? Then it’s time to switch things up, and try something new that removes the friction that’s preventing you from moving forward.

Respond to change – both positive and negative – and you’ll see results more quickly. See results, and you’ll no doubt be inspired to do more. The cycle slowly snowballs, and before you know it, you’ve got some major momentum to keep you going toward – and achieving – all of those goals.

Have you successfully added agility to your personal life? We’d love to hear more in the comments!

Talking Productivity with Robert Strohmeyer

Robert StrohmeyerIn our fast-paced, often furious, line of work, we communicate with dozens upon dozens of people every week. Few stand out. Accomplished editor, reporter and blogger Robert Strohmeyer is one of the few. I decided to pick his brain on a topic that is a personal and professional challenge for me and many others – productivity. Read on for some wise insights and simply tremendous tips.

Q: Robert, as the author of PCWorld‘s Simply Business, a popular business productivity blog, you must have some keen insights on top productivity killers. Give us your take.

A: My biggest productivity killer is interruption. Moving my attention away from a task to deal with an interruption — whether it’s an incoming call, an IM, or an email — makes it difficult to pick up where I left off once I return to the task. I often find myself spending ten minutes or more just reviewing my train of thought before I can get back into a state of flow with the task. So for me, the central focus of my productivity system is the elimination of distractions. One of my favorite tools for this is the Pomodoro Technique, in which I turn off all possible distractions (close my inbox, turn off IM, ignore the phone) and set a timer for 25 minutes. I work single-mindedly on one thing for a solid 25 minutes, then give myself a 5 minute break to get coffee, check email, etc., before diving back in for another Pomodoro session.

My second biggest productivity killer is a failure to capture commitments. In general, if I capture a commitment in one of my inboxes the moment it arises, I can be sure that I’ll deal with it appropriately. But if I don’t capture it the moment it arises, there’s a good chance I’ll never deal with it at all. It might as well never have come up in the first place.

Q: What’s a day in the life like for you? On average how many emails do you get a day?

A: A little over a hundred emails a day make it past my spam filter. Of these, about 70% are press releases and general information. Of the remaining 30 or so, about half actually require some overt action or attention from me, while the rest are mostly threads on which others have included me for CYA purposes.

My work day is split between my primary responsibilities for researching and creating and/or editing content and skimming through various information sources (including the press releases and FYI emails that comprise 70% of my inbox) to spot possible new stories.

Q: What tools do you use to manage your inbox?

A: I’ve played with a lot of tools to manage my inbox, but in practice I rely on methodology rather than technology. My inbox is a Google Premier account, so I use some Gmail Labs add-ons (mostly super stars) to tag messages. The rest of my methodology is a combination of labeling and zero-inbox. Apart from these, I do like to use Nudgemail for messages that require my attention at a later time, so as to keep my inbox empty while not losing sight of pending tasks indefinitely. The problem with Nudgemail, I find, is that it acts like any other snooze button, and it’s all too easy to hit ‘snooze’ a few dozen times too many.

Q: What social networks do you utilize? Do you find story ideas this way?

A: I use Facebook and Twitter, and lately, Google+. I’ve discovered some interesting stories via Twitter, and I like it as a low-friction source of PR pitches and tips. In many ways, I prefer Twitter to e-mail, because it forces brevity where e-mail permits rambling. Most PR pitches are, in my opinion, way too long to be interesting, and I can recall a few instances where a given pitch failed to catch my eye via e-mail but managed to draw my interest in a <140-character tweet.

Facebook is good for polling peers and audiences, but I’ve never “discovered” a story there. It’s too chatty for that sort of thing.

Google+ looks like another Facebook, so far.

In general, social networks have limited value for me in story generation, because they promote a herding effect. If a story is trending on Twitter, chances are it’s also trending on news aggregators and in my e-mail inbox. So I still rely on old-fashioned brainstorming when I want to discover a story topic beyond what’s dominating the tech news world this week.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about how social media is impacting tech news and business? Your least favorite?

A: I think the best contribution social media has made to tech news and business is that it’s allowed (“forced,” some might say) what was once a fairly static, monolithic information culture to embrace pluralism by giving consumers and audiences a voice. This has arguably contributed to a more responsive media culture and a more responsive business culture. At the same time, the social media feedback loop between audiences/consumers and media/business can lead to another kind of information monoculture in which media and businesses strive to give consumers and audiences more of what they seem to want, which amplifies popular themes in a sort of fun-house mirror distortion of what people want. Eli Pariser talks about this at length in “The Filter Bubble,” and I think could prove to be one of the most pressing social problems of the information age.

Q: Do you ever black list PR people? What would push you to do that?

A: I’ve “blacklisted” two PR people in the last 15 years. Both cases involved daily (in one case, multiple times daily) emails and/or phone calls about topics that had nothing to do with my areas of interest. One of them was a guy who auto-sent me daily reminders, for weeks on end, to update my profile in his company’s database. No working member of the press has time for that kind of stuff. The other was a person who sent me multiple off-topic pitches daily, complete with lengthy voice messages–literally about miraculous skin creams and diet products. Just nonsense with no regard for who she was calling.

Q: What tips would you give to PR people that would make working with them easier?

A: Phones are dead. I almost never use them for business communication anymore. One email per week, per subject, per contact. If a reporter hasn’t responded to your first follow-up email, they’re not interested. Sending third email on the same subject is more likely to undermine the reporter’s perception of your next pitch than to generate interest in the current one. Whatever it says about the myth of unbiased journalism, all journalists are more responsive to pitches from PR people they like and respect than pitches from PR people they find annoying. I wouldn’t have taken the time to do this interview for a PR person I didn’t like.

Q: What is your take on managing “digital distractions”? As a professional? As a parent?

A: I think the best definition of “distractions” is a lot like my favorite definition of “weeds.” Weeds are just plants out of place. Likewise, distractions are just calls for attention at inopportune times. My preferred way to guard against distractions also bears some resemblance to my preferred way to guard against weeds: have a full, healthy garden. By proactively determining how I focus my attention throughout the day, I give myself permission to ignore inputs and calls for attention that are extraneous to a present task. I also allot time for seeking or accepting “random” inputs, as well as time for just plain screwing around.

Q: If you weren’t a journalist, what would you be doing now?

A: If I weren’t a journalist, I’d probably be a either a winemaker or an academic. I’m drawn to intricate processes that intersect the practical and the aesthetic. In college I was split between my first love of writing and a fascination with anthropology. I chose writing, and ended up drawn to tech, which is nothing if not an intricate intersection of the practical and the aesthetic.

Q: What is your #1 tip for busy people to achieve personal and professional productivity?

A: Know your purpose. That is, decide what you really want to accomplish, in ultimate terms, in whatever aspect of life you’re engaging, and determine subordinate goals and actions accordingly. I think it’s folly to pretend that “reducing human suffering” is a less worthy professional goal than “increasing shareholder value” or “maximizing revenue.” If you haven’t considered your ultimate purpose and settled on at least one grand mission that satisfies your greater self, you’ll never be able to confidently invest your full attention in any given task, no matter how small.