Two books that have had a great influence on my productivity over the last six months have been The 12 Week Year and Deep Work.
This evening I updated a script I first wrote back in March 2014. I wrote about it on the old University of St Andrews web team blog.
The script, which runs in the browser using an add-on such as Tampermonkey, lets you define Trello list titles to search for, and then apply a background colour to it.
About two months ago, I reinstalled Windows 10 on both my desktop and laptop computers. This post is about what I do to make sure the process is as smooth as possible.
Something I have done for years (since Windows 98) is to store most of my installation files in a directory.
I store mostly drivers, plus applications that are either rare or that I have purchased. I don’t store applications that update regularly (e.g. web browsers, WinSCP, IrfanView, etc.).
Within my installation directory I organise the files into sub-categories, like this:
This allows me to find drivers and applications more easily. It’s also roughly how I organise the installed applications on my Windows start screen:
I store these files on a separate hard drive from the one that I install Windows on; I always install Windows on its own drive. This allows me to quickly reinstall Windows without worrying about overwriting the installation files.
I also backup these files to an external hard drive. I currently use a 2TB Seagate Backup Plus drive (USB 3.0).
For each computer, I have created a separate Trello board to guide me through the installation process.
I have boards for my desktop and laptop computers, plus my work computer. I also do the same for my Android smartphone.
Each board outlines my backup routine for each computer, any applications or services that I need to uninstall or deactivate before the reinstall, and then for each driver or application I record the steps I need to take, options to select, or any problems that I’ve encountered, etc.
The first few columns on each board outline the order in which I like to install things: drivers first then essential system applications. Within each column, again the arrangement of cards shows me the order that applications need to be installed, e.g. motherboard drivers, graphics card drivers then Windows updates.
I use images on some cards to make it quicker to identify them.
And as you may suspect, the column names on these Trello board match one-to-one the sub-directory names in my installation folder.
I then use Trello labels to track the status of each driver or application. I can see at a glance which applications I regard as essential and which I install only the first time I require them.
I use red labels to indicate any problems; purple labels tell me whether I need a reboot after installation; navy labels indicate work-related applications; and light blue labels give me a clue as to where to find them.
The last piece of the puzzle is where I keep any registration or serial keys. I store these in my encrypted password safe, SafeInCloud.
Since moving to this workflow, I have found the process to be very straightforward. I can track everything using my smartphone using the Android apps for Trello and SafeInCloud, and I can easily record any problems or lessons learned meaning that each time I do this it gets easier each time.
Do you have any top tips for reinstalling your computer?
Ever since I first read Sally McGhee’s excellent book on productivity Take Back Your Life! (Microsoft Press, 2005) I have been acutely aware of the importance of writing good email subject lines.
The subject line is the message title that appears in your email client before you open the message to read it. To illustrate, here are a few emails that I received about National Youth Choirs of Great Britain-related activities:
Write the subject line afterwards
McGhee’s advice is to write the subject line after you’ve written your email, as the subject line should summarise what you’ve written.
How many times have you written a subject line, then written the email message, and then had to go back to edit the subject because it now doesn’t match what you actually wrote?
If the subject line is meant to be a summary of what you’ve written, then it makes sense to write it afterwards.
What makes a good email subject line?
McGhee suggests that when writing a good subject line you should make it very clear:
- What project or task you are communicating about.
- What action is being requested,
- Identify a due date, if there is one.
So, a subject line of “Website” isn’t really helpful at quickly conveying what is being asked. Which website? What would you like me to do with the website? Is it one that you’d like me to update, or visit, or build? Is there a deadline?
Something that I love about McGhee’s approach, that I would love to see spread more widely, is her use of action prefixes for email subject lines.
There are four different types of action, McGhee suggests:
- Action reqiured (AR)
The recipient has to complete an action before they can respond.
- Response required (RR)
The recipient needs only to respond. There is no action required.
- Read only (RO)
The recipient needs only read the message. There is no action required, and no need to reply.
- For your information (FYI)
The recipient doesn’t even need to read the message, they simply need to archive the message somewhere as it may be useful later.
McGhee then suggests prefixing the subject line with the initials of the action required. For example,
AR Project board status report required by Monday 9 January 2017
Immediately I know that I need to do something, I know what it relates to (the project board), I know what it is (a status report), and I know when it needs to be completed (Monday 9 January).
More than that, if all my emails were prefixed accordingly, I could then sort my inbox by subject line and see a prioritised list of what I need to do: act on, respond, read, or simply archive.
McGhee also has a neat practice for very short messages: write the whole message in the subject line only, so the recipient doesn’t even have to open the message, and end the message with “EOM” (end of message). For example, if I’m replying to an email trying to fix a date to meet for lunch I could write a subject line: “RO Tuesday at 12:30 is fine EOM”.
Don’t make me think!
We know from numerous studies by the Nielsen-Norman Group that screen users tend to scan rather than read every word.
Usability consultant Steve Krug encouraged digital content authors to write with a user-centred approach. His book title “don’t make me think!” has become a mantra in my team.
A bad example from my web host
I became very aware of the importance of writing good email subjects in the light of these insights these past couple of months as the renewal date for my web hosting approached.
45 days left…
On Monday 28 November I received an email from my web hosting provider telling me that I had “45 days left until service expiration”.
Fine, I thought, I have about six weeks to sort it out. I knew that I wanted to look into moving my website to another host, so pencilled in that period between Christmas and New Year to look into it; my current hosting package expires on 12 January 2017 so that would give me plenty of time.
21 days left…
On Thursday 22 December, I received another email from my web hosting provider: “21 days left until service expiration”.
I glanced at the subject line and read the opening paragraph:
There are 21 days left until the expiration of your [package] Hosting garethjmsaunders.co.uk on Jan 12, 2017.
Great! I still have three weeks to do something.
14 days left… WHAT?!
So, imagine my surprise when six days later I received an email from them with the subject line “Sales Receipt”.
But my hosting doesn’t expire for another two weeks. Why are they suddenly charging me the best part of £260 now?!
That’s when I read through the rest of the email that I received on 22 December. Paragraph two:
In order to provide you with a smooth and uninterrupted service, we will renew it automatically on the next bill date – Dec 28, 2016. We will charge you 215.46 GBP (excluding VAT) for the renewal period of 12 months.
I quickly got in touch with their support team, got a refund, and instructed them to cancel my hosting on 12 January.
What would have been a better subject line?
Looking at McGhee’s three tips for what makes a good email subject
- What project or task you are communicating about.
- What action is being requested,
- Identify a due date, if there is one.
we can look at the email subjects I received from my web host, and suggest how this could be improved. The email I received on 22 December read, “21 days left until service expiration”.
What project or task were they communicating about? A service was expiring. No indication which—I actually pay for two services with them. It would have been clearer if they’d indicated which one.
What action was being requested? They were implying that I needed to renew (or at least review) my hosting service.
What was the due date? Well, the subject suggested 21 days, but in actual fact I had only 7 days before something was actioned.
A better subject line would have been:
Action required: 7 days until automatic service renewal for garethjmsaunders.co.uk
That is the action that I am most concerned about: when does the money get transferred out of my bank account.
I will certainly be paying closer attention to emails now, but also more careful about writing meaningful subject lines that better summarise the email message for recipients.
This paragraph in particular spoke to me:
“The crucial milestone for me was the completion of our first rough mock-up of the entire game—in essence our first rough draft. I knew that once we could move through the maps from beginning to end, without cheating, we would all discover a new vision of the game. Something closer to the final vision. This was something I believed very strongly, based on my experience as a writer. First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish.”
That final sentence “first drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish” is what really stood out. I wrote it down in my to-do app and have referred to it on more than one occasion since then.
It reminds me of a passage from Tom Shippey’s book J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century who reveals that this was also Tolkien’s experience while writing The Lord of the Rings:
“Tolkien had no clear plan at all […] It is is an interesting, and for any intending writer of fiction rather an encouraging experience, to read through the selections from Tolkien’s many drafts now published […] and note how long it was before the most obvious and seemingly inevitable decisions were made at all. Tolkien knew, for instance, that Bilbo’s ring now had to be explained and would become important in the story, but he still had no idea of it as the Ring, the Ruling Ring, the Ring-with-a-capital-letter, so to speak: indeed he remarked at an early stage that it was ‘Not very dangerous’.”
Tolkien, in many ways, wrote himself into the story and, like the rolling countryside of the Shire around him, the plot began to develop and evolve. It was a gradual revelation to him: some aspects were obvious, others had to be teased out, and there was much revision.
I have found that a very useful thought to hold onto this year, not only while working on writing projects but in life in general. I don’t need to get things right first time. I don’t need to know how it ends, I just have to make a start.
This quotation from Ernest Hemmingway in A Moveable Feast (1964) has also been close to my heart:
“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.”
All you have to do is write one true sentence… First drafts exist only to teach you what you really want to accomplish… Now there is a plan for going forward into 2017: step by step, living forwards, living without fear, open to failure, open to living in the moment.
Who knows where 2017 will take us but I pray that we do it with integrity, with grace, and with compassion.