The pleasures of transition


Chris Hadfield shows off the unique problem of storing stuff in a weightless closet. Credit: Chris Hadfield, via Twitter

I’ve been chuckling at a set of coincidences this week between my moving activities and those of Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut who arrived at the International Space Station last week.

On Dec. 19, Hadfield and his crewmates lifted off in a Soyuz — the same day I got my house keys. Two days later, I was unpacking boxes for the first time at the new place as Hadfield and his crew did the same at the International Space Station. And yesterday, I was reorganizing a closet when this picture of Hadfield in a weightless closet appeared on Twitter.

I always dream crazy dreams during transitional times. My mind creates metaphors and it’s up to me to figure out what the metaphors mean. This time around, it seemed I was reliving a lot of 2012 and a bit of the years before. I had dream conversations with old colleagues, as well as current family members and friends. Happily, it seemed the tenor of these dream talks was very positive. So I guess the transition is going all right.

2012 was a happy year for me, even though it was full of transitions. I leapt into full-time freelancing, began moving into a new house, and picked up a masters degree. I feel very lucky, and thank all of those in my life who have made these things possible.

I do hope that the year was equally as good to you, my reader. And I wish you all the best for 2013.

Achieving Inbox Zero, Scotty Style


James Doohan, who played Scotty in the original Star Trek series. (Credit: MadMarlin on Flickr)

We all get a lot of e-mail, and it follows us everywhere. I’m not sure what Scotty — that engineer’s engineer — from Star Trek thought of e-mail. Blame me for not growing up with the original series.

But I can bet you he would have dealt with it just like he dealt with everything else. Brutal efficiency.

I think of Scotty when I try to deal with my e-mail. My favourite method — and bear in mind there are many methods, and you must do what works for you — is a method called Inbox Zero. It essentially requires you to process all e-mails when you check your inbox, either by answering them or filing them in such a way that you can follow up on them in a timely fashion.

The website above has dozens of methods to help you get to Inbox Zero. These are the techniques I use to get it done, Scotty-style:

– I have a follow-up folder where I send e-mails I need to think about. I force myself to keep the repository small, and to check it often to make sure I’m dealing with the requests in a timely fashion.

– I have a series of topic folders for items such as trip confirmations or ongoing purchases/shipping notifications. That way, they’re close at hand, but not cluttering up my inbox or follow-up folder.

– E-mails with appointments or interview times get filed immediately after I put the times in my calendar.

– I use filters like crazy. Mailing lists are a killer for trying to keep up with e-mail, so I file all of these alerts into a separate folder that is out of sight of my inbox. If I feel the need to check the folder, I’ll call it up, but otherwise these items don’t bug me.

– On a related note, the “unsubscribe” option is your best friend.

– I get misdirected e-mails quite often, like the time I received a bunch of registration papers for some military school. (No, it wasn’t Starfleet.) Obvious miscommunique. When this happens, I e-mail those folks back right away to let them know they’re in error, then delete the e-mail.

– I sometimes get put on to lists without my consent. Usually there’s an unsubscribe option, but sometimes I have to e-mail the original sender to get removed from the list. Again, the name of the game is efficiency here. If it’s too inefficient to pursue the original sender, I filter to the trash and forget about it.

If worst comes to worst with managing e-mail messages, I remember that Scotty sometimes had trouble managing things when the Romulans or whoever else attacked. But he usually floundered with a sardonic sense of humour. So when I flounder, I try to keep a sense of perspective.

Because after all, if the overall ship is safe, a couple of stray e-mails is no big deal.

Productivity tools, or how I get my work done


STS-125 astronaut John Grunsfeld practices using a tool in 2009 to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)

I’m lucky that most of what I need is sitting on my laptop. It’s like a home office in a box. As long as I have the laptop with me, I can work anywhere in the world with hardly a hiccup.

Here are some of the programs I find help me out with getting my freelancing work done. I include certain program names only because they are of use to me, but please understand these are not product endorsements. There are probably equivalents out there that do the job just as well, or better.

Skype. It easily saves me thousands in long-distance calls every year. Recently I needed to call Chile, twice, to do an interview and fact-check a story about the European Southern Observatory. I probably spent more than an hour on the phone in both calls. With the plan I had, this cost me just a few cents.

– E-mail. It’s on my computer, it’s on my phone, and I can carry on instant conversations anywhere in the world with anyone in the world as long as there’s data access. I still find this concept magical. I can travel far, with peace of mind.

Task program. I have this embedded in my browser, so I can call up the list at a moment. I write my tasks in a cryptic shorthand to keep the list as simple as possible. Essentially, the shorthand tells me what stories are on tap, how far I am to finishing them, my deadline, and when I last was working on the task.

– Calendar program. All of my interviews and meetings are in this program. Any of my appointments go right into this calendar. Then I know where I need to be and when.

– OpenOffice. I type my stories in the word processing program, and have an Excel spreadsheet where I keep track of my income and big expenses. I currently use it for invoicing, but will switch to another program in 2013 so it’s a little more automated.

– Twitter. Yes, I’ve heard that Twitter can be a killer to productivity, but I unashamedly check it often. The interactions are the most important part of Twitter. But besides that, it’s a huge repository of story ideas and I can easily keep up on space news.

– Music. Okay, okay, this isn’t strictly a computer program, but it seriously does give me motivation to get a lot of stuff done and to keep my focus. I tend to focus better on my work when I play familiar songs, so I have a playlist that gets a lot of play. And yes, there are a lot of space songs in there.


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