#jcarn: Workflow hacking

For this month’s Carnival of Journalism, we’ve been challenged to write about life hacks, tips, tools and techniques that help us work smarter and more effectively.

It’s been an interesting one, because it’s forced me to quantify the things I do to try and work efficiently. The things I’m sharing here make me sound like some sort of uber robot journalist geek, which I’m not, really, but trying to follow these principles helps me pretend.

Your job is not your admin

  • Every job has a tedious admin phase you have to deal with every day. But that’s not your real job – it takes time away from doing what you need to do.
  • The most basic ways you can be more awesome involve cutting down on admin time and increasing the time you spend actually working.
  • I keep track of what I do to work out which tasks take up time without contributing anything meaningful. I’ve used Rescue Time, Remember The Milk, Epic Win and custom Google Docs to track this in the past.
  • Once I’ve worked out where there’s time to be saved, I start working out how to save it. This is useful admin time.
  • It’s always worth learning keyboard shortcuts for any program I use daily. It saves small chunks of time over and over again.
  • I use a To Do list for big stuff that needs it rather than day-to-day routine things – I’m using Remember The Milk at the moment, but I tend to rotate list apps every few months because otherwise the novelty wears off and I stop using them. I’ve used 2Do, Google Tasks, Outlook Tasks, Doomi, enormous spreadsheets and Epic Win in the past.

Repeated tasks can be automated

  • It’s worth a day of my effort to automate something that takes me more than about 20 minutes a day to do. If it’s an interruption or a flow-breaking task or something I will have to do every day for a year, it’s probably worth more.
  • I think of certain tasks – finding sources on Twitter, for instance, or researching a topic for a story – as building a re-usable resource, not a one-off event. It takes much less effort to build a Twitter list or filter and aggregate a few RSS feeds the first time around, so you can go straight back to your sources if you’re doing a follow-up.
  • I use a lot of dashboards. The new Google Analytics beta lets me customise and keep half a dozen ways of slicing web data at my fingertips, so I can answer common business questions in seconds not hours. iGoogle combined with custom alerts by RSS lets me filter the entire web for certain subjects. Hootsuite and Tweetdeck let me monitor social networks in similar ways.
  • I use macros to automate tasks in Excel and Word. I use Google Docs with various APIs to build a few regular reports, occasionally combined with ScraperWiki. I build a lot of very specific spreadsheets where I can plug in data in a certain format and get back insights very quickly. I try to build things that can be re-used or re-purposed.
  • If there’s a boring repetitive task, there’s almost certainly a plugin or a script somewhere on the internet that’ll help you make it faster or easier. Sometimes those are more work to rewrite/implement than it would be just to get on with it. Other times they’re lifesaving.
  • Greasemonkey can be astonishingly helpful in saving little annoyances (and big ones, sometimes). For instance, I love this script that automatically pushes the “access analytics” button in Google Analytics. It saves one click – but it saves it three or four times every single day.
  • After all that – I do very little coding. I mostly borrow other people’s code and put it to use in new situations.

All information can be filtered

  • Twitter lists, search operators and even individual users if they’re focussed on a specific topic of interest. The -RT search operator is fantastic. Topsy‘s advanced search is also amazing powerful. And it has an API, which I haven’t yet worked out how to use to best advantage.
  • RSS folders in Google Reader (or a similar reader service) and combinations and filters using Yahoo Pipes. Postrank is an awesome service that helps you filter popular and engaging content from feeds. Combining Postrank with Pipes gives you neat automatic filters.
  • Google alerts, especially using advanced search terms – you can use site:youtube.com with keywords to build a video alert service, for instance.
  • Google custom search – great for checking whether anyone’s covered a particular story, or for working out who on your beat is talking about a certain subject – just give it a list of links.

Interruptions can be limited

  • I use rules in Outlook to limit the number of times I see email alerts – I have several set up to filter out various levels of noise, including a white-list for emails most likely to need urgent responses. It was well worth the time spent setting these up – if every pop-up on-screen is only 5 seconds of attention, I’ve still saved more than 5 minutes a day.
  • I use rules in Gmail to sort incoming mail by priority, and use the email game to deal with it all in small bursts, quickly and efficiently, when it’s convenient rather than when a mail comes in.
  • I turn off email notifications for sites I visit every day anyway. I set up as much as possible to come via RSS (where I can filter it using Yahoo Pipes and categorise it in a sensible folder) or via Twitter (where its immediate impact is limited to 140 characters).
  • When I need to focus, I stay away from Tweetdeck completely. I have a 2-column view in Hootsuite with nothing but mentions and direct messages, so I can see anything requiring urgent responses at a glance. I turn my iPhone off.

Waiting kills productivity

  • If a task I do regularly is governed by a set of rules and involves waiting for something to happen, I do my best to automate it away. I win twice.
  • If I’ve got to do something that involves waiting, I plan for the wait: go take a break, stretch, do a simple time-limited task.
  • I have a  folder of RSS feeds from folks who write short, and I read a couple while Iwait. And I have Reeder on my iPhone, for long out-of-the-office waits (some people call them “commutes”).
  • I save up several stop-start tasks and use them as a “distraction loop” – taking each one in turn and switching when a wait starts.

What do you do to hack your workflow? What tools do you use to simplify the stuff that doesn’t matter and help you spend more time on the stuff that does?

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Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

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