Why I’m leaving Vision Critical

As of today, I’m leaving my role as Vision Critical’s VP of Social Media so I can spend more time with my devices.

While it’s been a delight to lead Vision Critical’s efforts on social media R&D, I’m returning to my life as an independent consultant so that I can focus on an even more demanding job: maintaining and optimizing my various devices, accounts and social media presences. Although these systems have flexibly accommodated the many hours I have put into my work at Vision Critical over the past three years, I want to be sure that when I look back at how I’ve spent my life, I’ve given my technologies the attention they deserve.

Alex surrounded by multiple computers and devices
My new lifestyle

As you may be aware, our household now encompasses 7 computers, 4 iPads and 6 iPhones; simply keeping all these devices updated and synchronized is nearly a full-time job in itself.  In addition, I am responsible not only for my own primary Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn accounts, but also for maintaining my ever-growing number of blogs and Facebook pages.  Facebook alone requires a schedule that can accommodate the hourly breaks I need to view and reply to comments on my wall, and ensuring an adequate flow of relevant content to my other social networks takes up many of the minutes in between.  This leaves only a few hours in my day, much of which is occupied by installing system patches and application updates or reviewing a newly revised Apple ToS or Facebook privacy policy.

Once I have fully updated, stabilized and automated the maintenance of all our devices and online presences, I will have more news to share about this next exciting chapter in my work on the digital frontier. For the time being, however, it is time for me to acknowledge that the work of maintaining all my work-related technologies no longer leaves time for an actual job.

It has been a great privilege to be part of Vision Critical’s innovative approach to using social media as a source of consumer insight.  As that chapter closes, I feel equally privileged to be shifting my attention to the day-to-day technology maintenance that has too often been relegated to the margins of my workday.

Digital overload is no longer an obstacle to doing our work: it is the work.


20 requirements for a great coffee shop for home office workers

Carberry's Café in Cambridge, MA (now closed)What are the ingredients for the perfect working café?

I’ve been thinking about this question because I’m heading into a period when I expect to spend a lot of time working in coffee shops.  I’ve spent a lot of my career, including my most productive periods, working in coffee shops, largely because they offer the perfect balance of solitude and simulation. I don’t work well in totally silent environments —  the inside of my brain is way noisier than any café, so the background noise of a coffee shop helps to drown that out. But unlike an office, where you know the people around you (and may therefore get interrupted by them) a coffee shop offers the benefit of background noise without the interruptions.

That said, not every coffee shop is created equal when it comes to getting your work done. My first long-term coffee shop relationship was with the now-defunct Carberry’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I did the lion’s share of my grad school reading and note-taking. At the time I was obsessed with Tony Buzan’s method for mind-mapping, which involved using lots of markers to turn all my reading notes into colorful trees. Since I was constantly switching colors, I left the markers uncapped on the table, so by the time I got to class my left forearm was a veritable rainbow. But at Carberry’s (unlike in my seminars) even my graffiti-ed forearm was unremarkable, because there were so many other even more colorful characters — not least of which was the man steadily filling journal after journal with tiny handwriting and meticulous drawings that (as he explained it to me) were being dictated to him by God.

In the twenty years since then, my criteria for coffee shop heaven have evolved. From the safe remove of two decades, I will confess that a major contributor to my Carberry’s loyalty was the super hot barista I used to flirt with; now I am old and married enough that flirting with young hot baristas would just feel creepy. The advent of wifi pushed connectivity to the top of the list for a long while; now, iPhone tethering and the near-ubiquity of Shaw Go Wifi (wifi service provided by our ISP, free to subscribers, and available almost everywhere in Vancouver) make that much less crucial. In my twenties, I could sit on just about any chair for hours at a stretch; in my forties, I need padded seats if I want to last more than an hour without Advil. Once upon a time, I’d park at any café with butter-filled baked goods…these days, I look for places with healthier options.

But my longtime neighborhood standby — the Take 5 on West 4th — is now closed, so I’m looking for a new office-away-from home. And as with any tech project, this has to begin with a good requirements definition. So here is my first stab at a set of requirements for a great working café in 2014:


      1. Strong, fast and reliable wifi (free in-house or via Shaw Go)
      2. Power outlets in a few different spots
      3. Location close to home (12 block radius is ideal)
      4. OK smell (we had to give up on a favorite spot because they were constantly mopping the floor with an overpowering cleaning product)
      5. Comfortable chairs with padded seats
      6. Clean
      7. Decent coffee
      8. Bar-style counter seating at a height that allows me to switch to working standing up
      9. No horrible Muzak
      10. Kindly manages disruptive customers (Take 5 unfortunately had a regular visitor who conducted loud shouting matches with an invisible interlocutor; ideally cafés find a way of respectfully addressing these kinds of disruptions — as well as those from overly loud cell phone users — without being unwelcoming)
      11. Clean bathrooms
      12. Quiet enough to make phone calls, but not so quiet that it’s obnoxious to make phone calls


    1. Nearby free/cheap parking
    2. Wheat-free lunch options (salads, soups, sandwiches on something other than wheat bread) so that I can spend enough on food to avoid being a coffee shop parasite
    3. Friendly baristas
    4. Actually good coffee
    5. Non-table seating options (sofas, easy chairs)
    6. Good music (otherwise I’ll just listen to my own)
    7. Some pleasant (but not intrusive) regulars — Rob and I actually exchanged a few business referrals with a lovely Mac tech we got to know through one of our former haunts
    8. Keyless bathrooms (seriously, is there anything grosser than a bathroom key?)

Of course, I recognize that not every coffee shop wants to attract people who might stay for hours at a time — which is why this list works not only as a set of requirements for me, but as a tip sheet for coffee shop managers who want to repel the likes of me. For these folks, omitting at least 3 of the must-haves should do the job of not only avoiding me, but others like me.

What’s missing from this list? What do you look for in a working coffee shop? And most crucially, what can you recommend as a working coffee shop in Kitsilano, Vancouver? I’d love to hear from you.

The 23 stages of the task management software lifecycle

  1. Totally on top of all pending tasks
  2. Moderate slippage of select tasks leads to mild anxiety
  3. Catastrophic failure to complete one or more mission-critical tasks leads to wholesale re-evaluation of career choice, self-worth and why are we even on this earth anyhow?
  4. Application of medication, coaching and/or psychotherapy scales existential crisis back to actionable item: adopt new task management system
  5. All tasks put on hold for 3-14 days while documenting software requirements and researching available options
  6. Software selection creates brief window for completion of most-urgent tasks
  7. Installation of software across all desktop and mobile devices
  8. Optional: acquisition of any additional hardware devices or accessories that are revealed to be vitally necessary [read: nifty] in light of new task management software choice
  9. Troubleshooting of cloud-based cross-device task synchronization
  10. Capture of top-of-mind tasks
  11. Blissful peace of knowing all crucial tasks are captured
  12. Hey! all this blissful peace helped me remember the 27 other tasks I keep forgetting about
  13. Contact high from daily experience of checking off task checkboxes
  14. Evangelization of preferred task management solution to foolish friends and colleagues with their hopelessly antiquated systems
  15. Significant financial and/or temporal investment in software, workflows or custom hacks on the Best. Task. Management. System. Ever.
  16. Religious daily capture and review of all current tasks
  17. Religious daily capture of all potential tasks
  18. Gosh there sure are a lot of tasks in there
  19. Minor failure of task completion due to task management software avoidance
  20. Capture of project or event-specific task list in a separate app or document, where it won’t get lost in that big, overwhelming, depressing list of tasks
  21. Important tasks captured in emails to self so that they won’t get lost in the morass of recorded tasks
  22. Realization that completion of task list will require 8,918 hours worth of work leads to total avoidance of task management application
  23. Moderate task slippage (repeat from step #2 above)

5 essential steps to online security

Today’s practice: Tighten your online security.

You’d think that writing a dissertation about political computer hacking would make a girl sensitive to the challenges of online security. And it has, up to a point. But I recently decided to up my level of tech security, and in the process discovered some handy new tools that make good security easier to achieve.

Securing your computer, accounts and home against these security threats can take some work, but it’s well worth the effort, particularly if any of the following risk factors apply to you:
  • You work with sensitive data (like health, legal or financial records)
  • You are a public figure or work with/for a public figure
  • You have a current or past relationship with someone who has harassed or stalked you on- or offline
  • You have a friend or family member who has been harassed or stalked
  • You work in or with organizations and countries where cyber-surveillance or hacking is common (like China, Russia and Iran)
  • You or someone in your household has been a victim of identity theft at any time
If you do only 5 things (yes, it’s a lot — but they all matter!) make them these:
  1. Install anti-malware software to catch any spyware on your computer and prevent future intrusions. Quick pick: Norton Internet Security 2012 for Windows. DO THIS BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING ELSE.
  2. Use a strong password. Test its strength using  http://howsecureismypassword.net/  and don’t use any password that can be hacked in less than a year.
  3. Setup phone verification for your e-mail account, like Gmail’s two-step verification.
  4. If your email account is linked to a second, recovery account, make sure it’s secure too — otherwise anyone who has access to that recovery account can get access to your primary account.
  5. If someone else has ever had access to your phone, wipe it and reinstall your software from your computer. Only install applications you know and use; it’s possible someone else has installed an application that is spyware.

5 ways to make task management software work for you

I have a love-hate relationship with task management software. On the one hand, I’m kind of obsessed with it: trying out new task and project management tools is one of my favorite pastimes, and it’s hard for me to resist trying out each shiny new entry in the market. On the other hand, I’m a fairly resistant user: once the honeymoon wears off,  and my task management program is full of a huge list of tasks that I MUST DO TODAY, I find that list so daunting that I tend to avoid looking at it, and go back to keeping my list in my head.

Recently, however, I’ve returned to the task management fold. For the past month I’ve been using Things, a task management app that runs on both my Mac and my iPad (and would run on my iPhone too, if I paid another $9.99). I hate to jinx it, but this time, my task list feels different. Not because Things is the Holy Grail of Task Management I’ve been looking for — I used Things for a while last year, and ended up in the same old avoidance pattern once I accumulated a few dozen items on my to-do list — but because I’m using my task list in a new way. Here’s what seems to be working, and could also work for you:

  1. Minimize your list. In the past few years, I’ve followed the GTD religion of writing down every task that is in my head, so I can free up my brain power to cure cancer or crack the problem of nuclear fusion. But in this iteration, I’ve returned to a piece of wisdom I read many years ago: for right-brain people like me, task lists tend to be generative, inspiring so many ideas that we soon get overwhelmed. So this time out, I’m writing down only the absolutely crucial tasks that I don’t want to lose track of — not the “some day” or “shoulda coulda woulda” tasks that tend to clutter up my list.
  2. Use existing software. As usual, I began my return to task management with my beloved process of investigating new software options. But I caught myself, and decided to just use the same damn software I had already purchased last year. I took everything that was in my old Things list, and archived it, so I didn’t have to deal with that backlog.
  3. Use one device. Syncing is another obsession that typically gets me worn-out with my task management regime.  Even though I use two computers, an iPhone and an iPad, I’ve resisted the temptation to pour hours into figuring out the right Dropbox setup to keep my Things list in sync across all of them. I’m just using it on the single computer I use most of the time, and since I’m only trying to track my major tasks — and not every damn thing — that is working just fine.
  4. Go solo. As a social software addict, I’ve been an intermittent evangelist of tools like Basecamp and Manymoon, which let me share tasks with my team. But one of the reasons I am now afraid to look at my Manymoon list (oh yes, it’s still there) is because of all the tasks other people have recorded for me, and one of the reasons I avoid Basecamp is that I get distracted from my own tasks by looking at other people’s. With Things, I fly solo, and if someone needs to get a task onto my list, they simply tell me about it — and I decide whether and how to put it on my list.
  5. Check rarely. One trigger of to-do list resistance is the feeling that I’m being ruled by my task management software, rather than vice versa. So I look at Things relatively infrequently — once or twice a day, or sometimes not at all. The only reason to look is if I have a major item to add, if I’m trying to decide what to work on next, or if I’ve just completed something and need to check it off.   Looking at my task list when I don’t have any time free to actually work on it is simply a source of stress, and my daily glance is enough to ensure nothing drops off my radar.

I’ve fallen off the to-do list wagon far too many times to feel confident that I’ve finally cracked the task management nut. But I’ve been shocked at how much more productive I’ve been in the month that I’ve used my task list in this moderate, non-fetishistic way. And it’s that productivity payoff — rather than the joy of using geeky software — that could keep me on track and to-doing.

Be the e-mailer you wish to see in the world

How many people do you receive e-mail from that you read and reply to every single time?

I’m guessing it’s just a handful: Your best friend — the one who sends you short periodic updates with a single recent photo, not the one who sends you weekly 2-pagers. The super-smart former colleague, now a rising star at another firm, who e-mails you two or three times a year with useful introductions or a succinct request for help you can actually provide. The client who sends you the latest round of project notes in a friendly, tightly-edited bullet list. And maybe, for the sake of self-preservation, your boss (unless your boss is one of those 45-separate-emails-a-day types, at which point I bet you’re doing some subject line-based triage.)

What do these correspondents have in common? Each one offers:

  • A benefit for reading each message: it’s pleasurable or it helps you do your job better/more efficiently
  • A limited claim on your attention (both in the frequency and length of messages)
  • Emotional gratification: the tone of their messages reinforces your positive feelings about your relationship (and if your boss consistently writes in a way that doesn’t make you feel positive, it’s time to consider a move)

In other words, each of these correspondents provides a high return on investment — either because the time required to read their correspondence is very low, or the pay-off is relatively high (compared to the other messages in your inbox).

This is the kind of e-mail correspondent we should each aspire to be. But it’s not something you can achieve by signing a manifesto or adding a sig line that says “I hope you enjoyed this friendly, concise and valuable message.”

You’ve got to get there by actually writing the kind of messages you want to receive — and only those messages. You’ve got to ask three questions of each message you send, before you send it:

  1. What problem does this e-mail solve, or what benefit does it offer, for the person I’m writing to?
  2. Could I make this e-mail shorter? If I’m going to e-mail this person again today or this week, could I usefully combine multiple messages into one?
  3. Does the tone of this e-mail reflect my affection and respect for the person I’m writing to?

Ask yourself these three questions, and you can become the kind of e-mailer you wish to see in the world. If we each work towards that goal, we can look forward to a day when opening our inboxes is a moment of delight rather than dread.

Tweet if you like to procrastinate

I am always amazed at how much I get done on my focused writing days — the days when I leave the office and camp in one of the cafés or restaurants where ambient noise helps me concentrate and write, write, write.

But it’s not my word count that amazes me: it’s all the other stuff I get done while desperately trying to avoid the blank screen, daunting paragraph or elusive synonym. Here’s what a typical hour looks like:

10:00: Check email. Reply to four messages.
10:10:  Check Twitter. Retweet something.
10:12    Look at the document I’m working on. Read three paragraphs from my last writing day.
10:16   Check Facebook. Like something.
10:20   Check email. Reply to a message. Remember a related task, and add it to my task manager. Decide it’s easier to just write that memo memo right now, so quickly knock it off.
10:28   Look at my document again. Read another paragraph. Write two more.
10:42   Check email. Reply to a meeting invitation. Google to see if I can find a solution for the calendar syncing issue that’s been bugging me, and fix the problem.
10:48   Write another paragraph
10:57   Brainwave while writing inspires me to tweet something. Look at other tweets while I’m in HootSuite. See a few things to retweet, and schedule them to retweet later.

And so on. OK, so maybe this isn’t the textbook version of “focused” writing, but I am getting a good page written every hour. And while I’m at it I’m also catching up on email, restocking my Twitter queue, and troubleshooting my tech.

I’m such a productive procrastinator, in fact, that it makes me wonder why I schedule any other kin dog work day. If I can get all my tasks done on the days that I’m writing, why don’t I make most days writing days, and fit my tasks into these interstitial moments?

If it weren’t for meetings, I would. So if you have any thoughts on how to make meetings work in 5 minute, between-paragraph increments, please let me know.

For Harvard Business book: How do you reward yourself at work?

How do you reward or motivate yourself to complete a task or project?

I’m tackling this question in one of my pieces for a forthcoming edition of Harvard Business Review’s Getting the Right Work Done. And I’d love your help.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who takes a five minute break every time you check something off your to-do list.

Maybe you’re the type who saves up for a big reward — like a day at the spa after you wrap a major project.

I’d love to hear your secrets to staying motivated at work, or the way you reward yourself for a job well done. You can leave your thoughts in the comment thread below, tweet them to me (@awsamuel) or drop me an email (alex [at] alexandrasamuel [dot] com).

Thanks in advance for your help!

How to stop wasting time on technology challenges

Today’s practice: The next time you dive into a time-consuming tech challenge, stop to ask: what would a normal person do?

Saturday morning I woke up at 4 a.m. in preparation for my flight to London — and accompanying time zone readjustment — later that day. I looked forward to having eons of time to relax before the kids woke up, or at least to getting a bit of work wrapped up before hitting the road. Instead, I spent three hours converting, transferring and syncing video files so I could catch up on my favourite shows while in flight.

About two and half hours into this process — after reading up on iPad video formats, updating to the latest version of HandBrake, finding and tormenting a couple of video files, queuing up my video conversions, troubleshooting our home wifi network,  testing transfer options, clearing hard drive space on my Macbook, and syncing my iPad so it would be backed up before I started transferring video — I stopped to ask myself:

What would a normal person do?

You know, a normal person: somebody who doesn’t want to learn about video codecs, install new software, tweak IP settings or do any of the other little techie fidgets that geeks like me accept as part of the price of online living. I am told that the very device I wanted to watch video on — the iPad — is designed for these normals. Apparently many of them use it to watch video. And I’m guessing that none of them use Handbrake or bit torrent. So what’s their secret?

Imaging the normal person alternative is something that has occurred to me during many of my recent tech (mis)adventures.

Like when I found myself two days into learning the Google Maps API…because I wanted to make a photo album of our latest family vacation. Surely, normal people make photo albums without learning any APIs whatsoever.

Or when I nearly clicked “buy” on a $200 WordPress Plugin that would let me integrate Amazon affiliate links….so I could monetize my compulsive shoe shopping. Surely, normal people indulge their shopping habits without expecting a direct ROI.

Or when I spent 10 hours trying to create a bootable dupe of my Windows netbook’s hard drive….before turning it into a “hackintosh”. Surely, normal people who want a Mac, buy a Mac.

Thinking about a normal person would do when confronted by a particular obstacle has proven to be a useful check on my habit of diving deep into a tech challenge without asking how much of my time it’s really worth. Unfortunately, by the time I think to ask the question, I’m usually several hours into the process, and so many steps past what a normal person would take on that I can no longer fully imagine pursuing the normal person path.

From what I see, the normal person path is usually one of the following:

  1. Pay money for it. Instead of doing my 8-step video download, conversion and syncing process, a normal person would just buy the damn show on iTunes.
  2. Take it or leave it. A normal person would use the digital photo book software as designed, even if it didn’t offer the ability to make a map of where all the photos were taken. If she didn’t like the way that photo book looked, she just wouldn’t use the software. Modifying it to make it work the way she wanted wouldn’t be a viable alternative.
  3. Don’t even think about it. A normal person wouldn’t try to do half the stuff I end up wasting time on. It just wouldn’t occur to a normal person that you might want to turn your PC into a Mac.

Of course, the normal person path has its limitations. Much of the knowledge I have to offer my clients and colleagues is acquired in the course of attempting some time-wasting, non-normal endeavour: just a week after I “wasted” the weekend learning all about Google Maps, a client asked me to mock up a web app that was a perfect use case for a photo+maps combo, and I knew just how to do it.

More profoundly, my fundamental ease with technology comes from a willingness to knock my head against a wall until I finally accomplish what I’m after. Sure, I may spend a lot more time than the task really warrants, and I may not always prevail.

But most of the time my efforts are guided by a simple philosophy: Big woman, small computer. I’m bigger, so I will make the computer bend to my will.

For some reason, normal people don’t make the assumption that being physically larger than a laptop or desktop means that you will prevail in a battle of wills. While they may miss out on the opportunity to test and strengthen their tech skills, they make up for it with sheer efficiency. They can crank out a lot of wax tablets (or more realistically, Word documents) in the time it takes me to set up an RSS aggregator that automagically creates a single web page with a highly customized content structure.

The normal person lifestyle isn’t for everyone. If you get a rush from making a computer or website do something that you weren’t sure it could do, you’ll continue to spend lots of time on tasks that no normal person would undertake.

But if you’ve ever found yourself wondering where the day is gone, only to realize you’ve spent it delving deep into some tech-low challenge you’d have been better-off pursuing in a low-tech way, it’s worth adding the normal person mentality to your repertoire. The more often you practice, the more quickly you’ll stop to ask: What would a normal person do?

Protect your intention span from the distractions of social media

Tonight I coined the term “intention span” to refer to the amount of time that passes between intending to work on something and actually starting work.

Intention span: The amount of time that passes between intending to work on something and actually starting to work on it.

Social media may be the leading contributor to the growth of your intention span, because it throws so many obstacles in the way of you focusing on whatever it is you mean to do.

“I’ve got to reply to that Twitter mention,” you think. “It’ll only take a minute.”

“I forgot to post that photo on Facebook!” you suddenly remember. “I have to do that before I can get down to work.”

“I owe her a comment!” you realize. “How rude it would be to overlook that post.”

If social media is your professional responsibility as well as your creative, social or expressive outlet, those rationales are even more compelling. Taking care of your social media outreach or replies is part of your “brand management” or “reputation management”.

But the reason you care about your brand or reputation is because it helps you do your work in the world. You know, the work that is beckoning to you from that Word document or Excel spreadsheet or desk full of paper, just behind the window with all the shiny tweets.

Social media will wait for you. And when you come back to it, there will be even more for you to read, share and engage with.