Writing Tips for Time-Starved Folks

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

From a decade of making it happen on a strict time budget

I’m tired and annoyed by these “how to be a better writer” articles with advice about finding your flow state and writing entire drafts at a time. I’m a parent. With a job. I don’t have time for a pre-writing routine to do daily before losing myself in my writing for hours at a time. I can’t schedule multi-hour blocks on alternating days for writing and editing, and I can’t write and publish every day. Time is the scarcest of all resources.

I do love writing, though. It’s helped me immensely throughout my career as a software developer, manager, and parent. (Turns out there’s a lot of overlap between professional leadership and parenting. I recently experienced this through the irony of yelling at my kids while writing an article about the importance of being present and reducing multi-tasking, but I digress.)

Each year seems to bring a few more distractions and a little more responsibility, but I’ve managed to keep blogging for more than a decade now. Finding the time to write and meet my own increasingly high standards isn’t easy. It requires dedication and discipline. In this story, I’ll discuss the tactics that keep me going, publishing regularly, and improving along the way.


One goal to rule them all

There are two primary trains of thought in the when-to-publish debate. There are the folks who say not to be a perfectionist. They advise you to get your article to what you feel is 80 or 90 percent, then pull the trigger and move on. The other camp argues that you shouldn’t stop until it’s the best you’re capable of because there’s enough bad content out there, and a great article will outperform a poorly written one by orders of magnitude.

Have an overarching priority

Both philosophies are valid, and that’s why the single most important thing is to know what you’re trying to accomplish. Your specific goal has a significant impact on the relevancy of most of the other advice you’ll find. Consider your key metric for success. Is it the number of articles, views, likes, dollars, follows, or something else?

It’s kind of like asking a business to focus on product versus sales versus marketing. The truth is, you need all of them, but with limited resources, you must prioritize. So pick one — quality, quantity, or distribution — and make it your top priority.

Adjust the dials

Picking a top priority doesn’t make it your only priority. In the beginning, I was entirely focused on writing as many articles as I could. I think I was aiming for two articles per week at one point. The articles weren’t terribly deep, and the pace was unsustainable. I was publishing things as quickly as possible to keep up, and I’d stress or lose momentum entirely when I’d fall behind.

Photo by Drew Patrick Miller on Unsplash

Quality and enjoyment were being sacrificed to maintain consistency. It wasn’t worth it. But, by dialing back my commitment to a single article per week, I’ve found a much better balance. My writing quality has improved because I’m not rushing to get things out the door as quickly as possible. Stress is down, enjoyment is up, and I stay focused and committed.

Set deadlines

With your overarching goal in mind, set deadlines for yourself. My number one goal is to publish regularly, so I strive to write one article per week. This helps with the whole when-to-publish dilemma because I only have so much time. If I want to meet my deadline, I need to find good enough and stop.

However, if my goal was to provide deep, insightful content, I might target one article per month, so I have adequate time for research and analysis. In this case, it would be beneficial to invest the extra time to make my writing as perfect as possible because the stakes are higher when you publish less frequently. You’ve still got that finish line drawn in the sand to keep you honest about when to move on, though.

Work ahead

Sometimes I get ahead of my deadlines. An article comes together quickly, and it’s done several days before I intend to publish. I stick to my target schedule, though, and begin the next piece.

When articles come easy or when I have extra time, I keep pushing to build some buffer. This helps a lot in the long-term because I don’t stress about an unproductive week here and there. No time to write for two weeks? It’s okay because I’ve got four weeks of material scheduled and ready.

The buffer also lets me take a breather when I’m tired or low on inspiration. Instead, I can take a few weeks to read or focus on other things and come back reinvigorated.


Be ready to throw down

It’s Saturday. The kids just went outside, and you’ve got about 30 minutes to be productive. Go.

You need to be ready to take advantage of the time when it becomes available. Optimize your writing process for fragmentation so that you can use it effectively when you have a little bit of time.

There are two primary influencers of what activity I can do at any given moment. First is where I am and what’s available — like, physically in the world. Am I at home? Do I have a computer? The second is the state of in-progress work.

Being stuck somewhere with a little bit of time but no computer is a great opportunity for phone-friendly activities. You can brainstorm new ideas and create story stubs or develop outlines. It’s hard for me to do actual writing from my phone, but I can begin filling in notes for sections. Phones are good for proofreading and light editing, though. I read a lot of articles on the go; why not experience my own content that way?

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

A quick disclaimer on the phone thing, though. Many of us suffer from some form of digital addiction. Don’t choose to edit articles instead of enjoying the company of your friends and family. Be present — it makes life better. It’s those times we find ourselves obsessively checking story stats, investments, and social media that are our opportunities. If you’ve got 15 minutes alone in the car while waiting for your partner to grab a few things from the grocery store, that’s the perfect time to put in a little work instead of re-checking your various feeds.

The actual writing process at a computer is a little different. For a new story, I try to focus on a single section at a time. Usually, I’ve got at least an outline with notes that I can expand upon. As the work draws closer to completion, effort shifts toward reading & revising, repeating until I’m either satisfied or up against my deadline.

The point is when you don’t have the luxury of being able to schedule consistent blocks of time, you need to make effective use of the time you do get when it’s available. Try to view content creation as an incremental process. Start with a skeleton. Expand it to an outline. Write sections one by one. Add images, headlines, & headers. Proofread and revise. All these tasks can be completed in short bursts.


Make it part of your job

I had no aspirations of being a writer when I started blogging. As a software developer, I was constantly learning about new technologies and figuring things out. I’d solve the problem du jour and move on. Inevitably, 6 months later, I’d find someone else who was bumping up against the same problem, but I’d long since forgotten the details.

So, I started writing to create a repository of things I’d learned that I could refer back to and share.

It became part of my job to document my findings into succinct little packages. These weren’t the kind of articles I write today. They were tiny, how-to articles about whatever I happened to be working on that week.

You know what, though? In my first 5 years, from 2009 to 2013, I published 215 posts this way. These weren’t deep, insightful pieces, but they were valuable practice. They were “putting in the time” and learning to write. I was curious how bad my first post was, so I dug it up — it’s less embarrassing than I was expecting.

However, the most important thing is that I didn’t have to find time outside of work to hone my writing skills. It happened as part of my job. Even if work isn’t your passion and the thing you really want to write about, all that practice is valuable and makes you better.


Find a robot editor

No matter how many times I proofread, I always notice small mistakes while reading the published article. It drives me crazy. As a result, I’ve embraced Grammarly as my editor.

Is it as good as a human editor? Probably not. Does it find a lot of small mistakes that I might’ve missed otherwise? Yup.

When I first learned about Grammarly, I was a little smug about it. I know how to use a comma, thanks. It’s pretty good, though. I like that it checks for things like passive voice and can optimize for conciseness. I also like the score it gives — it feels good to get the thumbs up from my robo-buddy.

All this can be a little distracting. It’s hard to ignore the squiggles while you write and easy to do too much ad-hoc editing as a result. (Even though I poo-pooed it earlier, there’s a reason people like to suggest separating writing & editing.) Good outweighs bad by a lot for me, though. When up against a deadline, it’s really helpful for quick cleanup. I definitely suggest employing Grammarly or a similar tool to sweat the small stuff.


You got this

Writing, parenting, working, and everything else in life are almost entirely about doing the best you can with what you have. Parenting and a full-time day job take up a lot of time. Like, a lot a lot. That doesn’t leave much for writing and all the other things you want to do.

With what precious little time you have left, it’s important to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and do the things that most effectively move you toward your goals. There are many important parts of the writing and publishing process, and you need to dip into all of them to be successful. So, investing time in any of them is valuable and makes you better — that’s how “practice” works.

Identify your overarching priority. Adjust the dials, so time spent is invested in the right ways. Set deadlines to motivate yourself and promote productivity. Approach writing projects iteratively and chip away at them in all those little free spaces. Finally, find ways to make writing part of your every day; use them as a reason to write instead of an impediment.

Do these things, and I promise you’ll write more, get better, and sustain it for a long time.


This article was originally published on The Writing Cooperative on January 29, 2021.


I’m not an author, but I play one on the internet. If you’re looking for real writing, try the wonderful Mulrox and the Malcognitos by my friend & colleague Kerelyn Smith. Note that I use affiliate links when linking to products on Amazon. Thank you for your support!

Light Up Your Razer Peripherals In Linux Mint

Photo by Emmanuel on Unsplash

A tutorial for installing OpenRazer and Polychromatic

I’ve been slowly building a Linux Mint desk setup in the basement, and this weekend I added an old Razer BlackWidow Lite keyboard and Naga Hex mouse to the mix. As expected, they were plug & play functional out of the box, but the keyboard didn’t have its backlighting enabled. This will simply not do.

Luckily, Razer has pretty good support for Linux with its OpenRazer project.

Installing is pretty simple, but lighting still wasn’t enabled. It took a few minutes of research to figure out that I also needed to install Polychromatic.

So it’s really a 3-step process but still very easy. Here’s how to do it!

Step 1 – Install OpenRazer

Open a terminal and run the following commands:

sudo apt install software-properties-gtk
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:openrazer/stable
sudo apt update
sudo apt install openrazer-meta

Step 2 – Install Polychromatic

Open a terminal and run the following commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:polychromatic/stable
sudo apt update
sudo apt install polychromatic

Step 3 – Configure Polychromatic

Now you can run Polychromatic Controller to enable the lighting effects. I found and launched it by typing “poly” in the system menu.

Source: author

Polychromatic detected both of my peripherals and allowed me to configure them just as I expected.

Source: author
Source: author

Once I selected the static lighting effect and turned up the brightness, the keyboard lit up. Very exciting. Now everything’s working exactly how I hoped and expected!

How To Run Websites As If They Were Apps in Linux Mint

Photo by Carlos Lindner on Unsplash

A WebApp Manager tutorial

I’ve been using Linux Mint for just a couple of weeks, and I’ve been very impressed with it. One of my grumbles from previous forays into Linux has been, why is it so hard to add a shortcut to a website?

Like, look at this tutorial for How to Create Desktop Shortcuts on Ubuntu from 2019. The instructions have you installing applications, doing extra steps to customize the icon, and creating .desktop files. It’s a lot.

So, I was intrigued while reading about Linux Mint’s WebApp Manager. You can read the announcement on the Linux Mint blog or check out the WebApp Manager project page on Github, but the idea’s simple: run websites as if they were apps.


Sounds cool. How do I do it?

I don’t know where I got this impression, but I thought WebApp Manager was supposed to be included with Linux Mint. My first hurdle was realizing that it wasn’t and I needed to install it.

You can download and install the beta from the Linux Mint blog article mentioned above. Here’s the download link they provide in the article.

Download and install WebApp Manager, and it becomes accessible from the system menu.

Source: author

Once installed, it’s ultra-intuitive to use. Open it and click to add a new website. When you save, the web app becomes accessible from the system menu like all your other installed applications.


Okay, but can I get an example?

The thing that pushed me into figuring out WebApp Manager is that Amazon doesn’t offer a Kindle reading app for Linux. They do, however, have a cloud reader available at read.amazon.com.

So, let’s see how it looks as a web app in Linux Mint.

First, we launch WebApp Manager from the system menu, as shown in the screenshot above. Click the “+” icon to add a new app and enter the URL.

Source: author

There are a few cool things to note. First, when you enter the URL, it automatically grabs an icon, but you can also click the icon next to the address box to look for and select other icons. The Amazon smile icon is okay, but I wanted something a little more Kindle-specific.

Source: author

Other options include which category of the system menu to list the web app under and which browser to use. Also noteworthy is the “Isolated profile” option, which is equivalent to running the app in private or incognito mode.

Enter the details, save it, and you’re done. The application now shows in the system menu with the name and icon specified.

Source: author

Launching it opens a satisfying experience that has a very “native app” feel to it. You can pin the icon to your panel for quick access, or right-click it in the system menu to add it to the desktop.

Source: author

Conclusion

In our increasingly web-based world, having access to installable, platform-specific programs becomes less and less critical. It’s one of the reasons Chromebooks are so popular, and Linux benefits from it, too. Linux Mint’s WebApp Manager does a beautiful job of converting websites into an app-like experience.

WebApp Manager is still in beta, and I couldn’t find much information about it after some (very brief) research. It makes a great first impression, though, and it’s another bullet on my growing list of reasons to love Linux Mint.


This article was originally published on Medium on January 7, 2021.

Family Board Game Round-Up!

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

With reduced options for things to do this summer, my family ended up buying and trying a lot of board games. Here’s a list of games that I enjoyed playing with my 5 year old son and 7 year old daughter. These all make great gifts or just a something-to-do on those long pandemic nights.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

  1. Zombie Kidz Evolution
  2. Catan Junior
  3. Outfoxed!
  4. Ticket to Ride: First Journey
  5. Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters

Honorable mentions: Uno & Skip-Bo (bundle)

Zombie Kidz Evolution

Zombie Kidz Evolution

What kids like: My kids loved picking which character they will be, and using the characters’ special powers to kill zombies. They looked forward to opening the secret envelopes that cause the game to “evolve” over time.

What parents like: I like that there’s a lot of strategy to the game. It’s not just rolling dice or drawing cards and seeing what happens. Co-op is great, too, because kids work together rather that getting upset about competing.

Catan Junior

Catan Junior

What kids like: For my kids, this game is all about the Coco (parrot) cards. Being able to spend resources on almost every turn kept them engaged. Even though they were competing with each other, there isn’t a lot of doing bad things to each other — so play stays amicable.

What parents like: There are different strategies you can use to win the game. Counting and resource management seemed to provide some educational value, which was a nice unintended side-effect. I loved seeing my daughter take on the role of “banker” and doling out resources with each player’s turn.

Outfoxed!

Outfoxed!

What kids like: All the dice-rolling makes this game feel more active and engaging despite being so simple and straightforward. Kids love using the clue finder to find out details about the suspect and solve the mystery.

What parents like: This is an ultra lightweight version of Clue. It’s very easy to play, and it’s cooperative — so less fighting! Despite being really easy, my daughter still really liked playing. This is perfect for kids who are just getting started with games, but I’m not sure it would hold the interest of older kids.

Ticket to Ride: First Journey

Ticket to Ride: First Journey

What kids like: My son loves trains so for him, that’s most of the appeal. Both kids love collecting cards and using them to put trains on the board. They especially loved getting the “golden ticket” for winning at the end, which doesn’t make sense to me since the game is over and you just put it back in the box. But, hey — I’m not a kid.

What parents like: This kid version is very similar to the regular version, it’s just simplified and has less points for contention. Similar to other games on the list, I like that you can think and make choices versus just blindly following mechanics to see what happens. (Looking at you, Candy Land.)

Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters

Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters

What kids like: The game pieces are really cool, and it’s fun for them to put the pieces out on the board and have something to interact with. The kids loved being able to put the treasure jewels in their characters’ backpacks while they tried to escape.

What parents like: This is a fun game for 3 or 4 players, but I don’t like it for just 2. I also don’t like how much shuffling is required with the small deck of cards. But, those things aside, it’s a cooperative kid-friendly game that’s a bit more challenging than the others on the list.

Uno & Skip-Bo

Uno & Skip-Bo bundle

Throughout all the board games coming and going, these classic card games saw the most play. My son’s a little young to play on his own, but my daughter was very into them and very competitive with them. You can’t go wrong with these — not joking when they say fun for all ages!

Gift Ideas for Folks Like Me

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Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Oh, what a year it’s been! The pandemic. The wildfires and hurricanes. The election. Now we’re heading into gift-giving season, and who knows what to get for their spouse or partner who they’ve spent every waking minute of the past 250 days with?

Working from home is kind of a new world for a lot of people, and most of us have at least a few months more of it ahead of us. I’ve been full-remote for a number of years, and I thought I’d share a few of my favorite difference-makers to give you some ideas.

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless Headset

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SteelSeries Arctis Pro Wireless Headset

First on my list is the Arctic Pro Wireless headset from SteelSeries. They’re expensive, but I decided it’s worth it since I spend most of my days and many of my evenings in them. Prior to these, I’d had connection problems with wireless headsets — even expensive ones. I love the freedom of being able to walk around while on a call or make a quick run to the kitchen, though, so I gave these a shot, and I haven’t had any problems at all. Sound quality is great, but my favorite feature is the hot-swappable battery. The USB receiver base acts as a charger with an extra battery. So, if the headset battery dies, you do a quick swap and you’re back in business, lickety-split. The battery usually lasts all day, too, so the only time it dies is when I forget to swap it.

They’re comfortable and versatile. I love that they work via USB, stereo cable, or Bluetooth. This makes them really great for travel (remember what travel was?) because you can plug-in for the airline’s inflight movie or use Bluetooth to watch shows or listen to music on your phone or tablet. The noise-canceling is great, too. My wife often complains about how I can’t hear her and the kids.

For a more affordable option, check out the wired Arctis Pro. They give the same comfort and sound quality for half the price!

Yeti cups

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YETI Rambler 20 oz Tumbler, Stainless Steel, Vacuum Insulated with MagSlider Lid

My parents got me a Yeti Rambler as a gift a few years ago. I admit, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about receiving it, but I became a huge fan after using it. It keeps your coffee hot for so long!

Since then, I’ve picked up a few more. I love the feel of the colored ones more than the stainless steel, but it’s mostly an aesthetic choice. They also make wine tumblers, which I picked up because I was tired of hand-washing wine glasses.

iOttie Wireless Charger Phone Mount

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iOttie Wireless Car Charger Auto Sense Qi Charging Automatic Clamping Dashboard Phone Mount

I needed a new phone mount for my car, and I loved the idea of charging automatically any time I put the phone in the cradle. Part of the problem, though, is that I didn’t have a phone with wireless charging. Turns out, that’s not a problem. After a bit of research, I bought a Qi Wireless Charger Receiver for my Pixel 2 XL. It’s very discrete and works through my phone case, which was a major concern for me when purchasing.

For the phone mount, I got the iOttie Wireless Charger. It’s really cool. It’s motorized and uses sensors to open automatically when you hold your phone near. Now, when I get in the car, I put my phone in the cradle and — boom — it’s charging. I also picked up this Anker Wireless Charger for wireless charging at my desk.

Standing desk

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SHW Electric Memory Preset Height Adjustable Computer Desk, 48 x 24 Inches

Speaking of desks, how about a standing desk? I’ve wanted one for a while, but they’re expensive! I found this sub-$300 one on Amazon and have been absolutely thrilled with it. It has motorized controls and memory settings to quick-adjust between heights. It’s sturdy, too. It’s everything I would’ve wanted and expected from a more expensive model for less than half the cost!

The Phoenix Project book

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The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win

The Phoenix Project is an IT novel that resonated with me and all of my co-workers. It’s a great, quick read that’s both entertaining and valuable in terms of education and professional growth. Highly recommended for any IT professional–even ones that don’t read a lot of books.

Roost Laptop Stand

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Roost Laptop Stand

I’ve been using an old toolbox as a makeshift laptop stand for longer than I’d care to admit. Following the recommendation of some co-workers, I picked up a Roost Laptop Stand this summer, and it’s wonderful. It puts my laptop at exactly the right height to work well along side my other monitors while also making my desk feel less cluttered and more organized. When you’re on the go, it collapses to be quite small — so you can chuck it in your laptop bag or backpack.

The construction is sturdy and feels durable. This was why I chose the Roost stand over other cheaper options. I’m glad I took the chance with this stand; it’s a great addition to my setup.

Zombie Kidz Evolution

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Zombie Kidz Evolution

Since we’ve had less away-from-home options for entertainment, my family has tried a slew of board games this year. If you’ve got kids, Zombie Kidz Evolution is a slam-dunk. It’s simple and quick, and it’s the children’s game I enjoy playing the most. I love the achievement and progression systems built in, and the envelopes that “unlock” new features kept the kids interested and engaged for weeks.

All-Clad Waffle Maker

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All-Clad 2100046968 99010GT Stainless Steel Belgian Waffle Maker

And finally, we have a waffle iron. I lived two decades with a $10 Belgian waffle maker before it died. After taking almost a year off from waffles, I decided to go all-in on this All-Clad Stainless Steel 4-Square Waffle Maker. It boasts a hefty price tag, but let me tell you — it’s worth it.

This thing is awesome. It makes big, crispy waffles with amazing consistency. It beeps at you when they’re ready, and it makes four at a time. Starting from scratch, I can make a batch of waffles to feed the entire family, eat, and clean up in less than 30 minutes. I view this as a lifetime investment in delicious waffles. I was skeptical about the price tag but have 0 regrets about it.

So, there you have it — my list of “proven winners” gift ideas for your friends and family who are woefully tied to their desks working from home here in 2020. These have all made my life a little bit better in their own little ways, and I’m happy and confident to recommend them to anyone. Cheers!

Multiple Chat Windows in Teams (Workaround)

My company recently made the full switch from Skype for Business to Microsoft Teams. For calls, it’s fine and mostly feels the same if not better since I prefer the aesthetic of Teams. The one thing that drives me insane about Teams is that I can’t have more than one chat window.

This is particularly irksome when I’m on a call where somebody’s screensharing, and I want to have a side-chat or ask/answer a question from somebody outside the call. As soon as you open another chat, the screenshare is reduced to an unusably-small size, and switching back makes the other chat go away. There’s a similar problem with managing multiple conversations or team chats at the same time.

Here’s an easy workaround: use the Teams web client. Just login at teams.microsoft.com, and you can have as many windows as you want. This works pretty well for side-chats on a conference call, for example if you want to have a parallel internal conversation while speaking to a client or customer. If you have frequent contacts, you can even create bookmarks to specific conversations.

Use bookmarks for conversations or contacts you access frequently

Featured image photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

6 Tips For Remote Team Success!

Source

I’ve been a full-time remote employee for more than five years now. There are lots of benefits to working from home, but it’s also easy to lose transparency or negatively impact the productivity of your team. Today I’m sharing my best tips for being successful as a remote team.

1. Be Visible

The most important thing you can do while working remotely is to be visible! Don’t make your team wonder if you’re showing up or question your contribution. In my opinion, the single best way to do this is to favor open channels of communication over private ones.

If you have a question, and you know who you want to ask, it’s easy to direct message them and have a private conversation. However, you could also ask that person in a team channel so that everybody can see. Having these conversations “in the open” is great for team engagement and knowledge-sharing. It can also lead to you getting your question answered sooner–for example, if the person you’re asking is away but there’s someone else who can answer. Before you direct message someone, think about what you’re asking. Is it something that needs to be private? If it’s not, consider asking in a more-public way that will benefit everyone!

Slack is my preferred “open channel” for these sorts of things, but you could just as easily use Teams or even Discord. It helps me keep track of what my team is doing, and it also gives me an opportunity to jump in on a conversation when I have additional context. It also helps with socialization so I don’t feel isolated, and the mix of work-related and non-work-related conversations help to build and strengthen relationships.

If your team doesn’t do formal daily standups, implementing “virtual standups”–as an individual or a team–can be another good way to keep your contributions visible. At the beginning or end of your day, send a summary of the things you accomplished, what you plan to tackle next, and highlight any roadblocks that are getting in your way.

2. Use a Webcam

Webcams are one of those things that everybody says is a good idea for working remotely but that nobody likes using. It’s easy to be self-conscious, and it can definitely be awkward to be on a call where you’re the only one on camera. I try really hard to embrace the cam, though, because the benefits are so important.

One great benefit is that it opens up a whole world of nonverbal communication. You can see when another participant is shaking their head, making a confused face, or raising their hand to get a word in. These cues make meetings more productive by providing feedback about the pace of content and helping to moderate the discussion. You can also see when somebody is talking while muted–because everybody stays muted when not speaking, right? (More on that in a minute.)

The thing I like most about webcams is that keeps me honest about paying attention. It’s hard not to get distracted by laptops and cell phones in regular, in-person meetings when everybody can see you, and it’s even harder when you’re sitting at your computer with all its alerts and notifications plus your phone’s right there and nobody can tell what you’re doing! Being on camera helps me resist the temptation to multi-task, and it turns out meetings are more productive when everybody’s engaged. Who knew?

3. Mute Your Mic

This one’s more about being courteous than productive, but as a remote team member you’ll likely find yourself on a lot of conference calls. Stay muted by default so people don’t have to listen to things like you munching on potato chips, your dog barking, or you yelling at your kids. I prefer to use a headset that has a hardware mute button on it so I can quickly mute & unmute when I have something to say. It’s a small thing, but it can be annoying to have “that person” on a call. Don’t wait to get shame-muted by someone else!

4. Keep Normal Hours

Keeping normal hours while working from home is an important anti-productivity preventative measure. Similar to the webcam, part of the benefit is just that it keeps you honest about your day and helps you resist all the temptations from things you’d rather be doing. More importantly, though, keeping sporadic hours poses a big threat to the team’s productivity, especially when there are multiple people doing it. It’s incredibly frustrating when there’s one person who has the answers you need, but nobody knows where they’re at or when they’ll re-surface, and it’s easy to lose a day when “the early person” needs something from “the late person” and the two don’t connect.

Be honest with yourself about how you should be spending your time, and hold yourself accountable. Have a predictable schedule so teammates know when you’ll be available, and say something if you do need to be a way for a bit. Be visible!

5. Virtual Office

The concept of a virtual office, or persistent team call, is something that’s becoming more prevalent at my work. One of our teams has a recurring all-day meeting, and people just join it throughout the day. Usually someone shares their screen regardless of whether others are actively working on the same thing or not. It’s great for socialization and relationship-building, and it also drives engagement through knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

Another team uses Slack to create open calls when they’re working on things. I love Slack calls for this because you can set a title or topic that’s visible in the channel allowing people to pop in & out. Slack calls are also great because they give the ability to draw on a screenshare. It’s fun for doodles but also great when you need to say, “Right HERE!”

6. Have Fun!

Fun’s important for in-office and remote workers, but it can be harder to find the fun when you’re on an island. You can’t walk around and look for a conversation, and you can only see what others choose to make visible. So, how can you keep it fun?

Slack is a great way to spread some fun with its emojis, reactions, and gifs (used sparingly!). It’s easy to share a joke or tell a funny story about your kid that’s melting down upstairs.

My team used to use Skype’s whiteboard feature to make the most ridiculous drawings before our daily standup. Somebody would make something, and everybody else would just keep adding. It was a good way to flex creativity and almost always made us laugh.

Webcams can also be good fun. We have a few people that use green screens to replace their backgrounds or apps like FaceRig to replace themselves with avatars. Even just holding up a hand-written note at the right time can be hilarious.

What are some things you do to keep it fun while working remotely? And what other tips do you have for being a successful remote worker? I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences!

New Home Office & the IOGEAR Dual View Dual Link DVI

I just recently moved back into my house, and a lot’s changed since I was here. Perhaps the most notable difference is that home and work have combined. So, when it came time to configure my home office, I wanted to make sure I had everything I needed to adequately work and play in the same space while also keeping them sufficiently separate.

Let’s talk needs. Two monitors is a minimum for work. Some people like a third display, but it’s give-or-take for me. I find that I’ll be looking at the far-left monitor and not notice something important that’s happening on the far-right. I’m not anti-third display; it’s just not something that I particularly care about. I like two displays for home for some of the same reasons. If I’m learning something, I want to have a page up on one screen while I work on the other. Or, maybe I want to poke away at some code while watching some TV. Either way, two screens makes life better. The old home office had my home and work computers in different rooms because I didn’t have a proper office, but it was time for them to unite.

This union created a dilemma: two computers, three monitors, two keyboards, and two mice. Seems like a perfect job for a KVM, but I was surprised to find that multi-display KVMs aren’t cheap. After a night of research, I decided it would be worth it to splurge and get an IOGEAR 2-port MiniView Dual View Dual Link DVI. On paper, it’s just what I needed. Two monitors, a keyboard, and mouse could be shared between the two computers. The third monitor would be hooked up to a DVR for some entertainment on the side, but it could also be used as a third display for either computer if desired. (I’d change the third display manually using its built-in source selection.)

iogear-miniview

The MiniView is a cool piece of hardware. It’s got some decent weight to it, and the metal case and buttons look nice–essential for a desktop peripheral! I ran into some hiccups hooking everything up, but I think it may have been because I was hot-swapping everything instead of turning everything off like recommended in the user manual which, of course, was not read until after the fact. The functional shenanigans during setup caused the initial configuration to take the better part of 2 hours and was really frustrating. I was definitely feeling some buyer’s remorse and considering sending it back, but I got it working after a few reboots and do-overs.

Okay, initial setup was done. Displays were working; keyboard was working; mouse was funky. I’d read some reviews about issues with wireless mice, so I wasn’t entirely surprised by this. I had a nice gaming mouse, so I decided to just roll with that, but I couldn’t do it. I missed my Logitech Performance MX and had to go back. Fortunately, the MiniView has a USB port to share a single peripheral between computers. I plugged my Logitech universal receiver into it, and the mouse worked just fine. Boom, problem solved.

I was all done, or so I thought. I ran into another problem a day or two later, this time with the keyboard. The “t” got stuck, and even unplugging and re-plugging it in didn’t solve the issue. So, I grabbed a cheap 3-port USB hub that I had laying around, plugged it into the single shared port on the KVM, and plugged my mouse, keyboard, and wireless headphones receiver into it. Now I’m not using either of the KVM’s dedicated USB keyboard or mouse ports, but everything works perfectly. I lose out on the KVM-specific keyboard and mouse commands, but the KVM is front & center on my desk so I probably wouldn’t be learning or using those commands, anyway.

Everything’s been good for another day or two at this point, and so far, so good. I’m feeling good about this configuration and hope it keeps working!

Oh, and if you’re curious about the monitor/computer connections, my two monitors connect to the KVM via HDMI-to-DVI cables. Computer 1 is connected to the KVM using the KVM’s provided DVI+USB cable and a DVI-to-HDMI cable. Computer 2 uses the DVI+USB cable and an additional standard DVI cable. The third display connects to Computer 1 using a VGA cable (Computer 1 only supports 3 displays if one is VGA), Computer 2 using a standard HDMI cable, and the DVR using a standard HDMI cable. I’m generally keeping the third display disconnected from the computers (through their display control panels) and just using it as a TV, though.

Mountek nGroove Snap 3

Back before everybody’s cell phone had built-in GPS, I had a TomTom GPS. It came with a suction cup so you could stick it to the window, but that never really worked that well for me. It would constantly fall off the window, and it drove me nuts. So, I bought a beanbag friction mount that I could stick it to, and it would sit nicely on the dashboard whenever I was driving somewhere that I needed directions.

Fast forward to present day. I use my cell phone for directions when I need them, but I prop it up in a little groove below my car’s instrument panel. If I turn too fast, it goes flying, and it’s low enough that I’m constantly looking down for the next turn. The solution is a cell phone mount, and I’ve been shopping for the perfect one for a long time.

I didn’t want something that used a suction cup because of my previous bad experience, and I didn’t want something that used an adhesive because I worry about it doing permanent damage or failing over time. The vents in my car are not in a good location, so any clip-on mount’s not so great. I was considering going for a suction cup to re-use with my beanbag, but I was turned off by storing it. I wouldn’t want to leave it out all the time because the rubber could melt on a really hot day, it’s too big to store with the base & mount assembled, and the idea of disassembling & reassembling with each use is less than ideal, too.

Enter the Mountek nGroove Snap 3 magnetic car mount.

mountek_ngroove_snap3

This thing is great. First, it attaches to the CD slot in my car which is perfect. It’s right where I want it in the middle of the instrument panel, and I don’t think I’ll ever put another CD in there, anyway. The mount is small and reasonably unobtrusive, so I won’t have some big, bulky bracket that’s either out all the time or being stored with each use. It’s magnetic, so I just stick a metal badge under my phone’s case and it just sticks–super easy to mount and remove with one hand. There are no brackets, so I can put it in any orientation with whatever cables I might need (charging, stereo). It’s universal, so it’ll work with phones or tablets or anything else that’s light enough to be held by the magnet (which is pretty strong). It can also be used as a desktop stand for your phone, if you’re into that kind of thing, too.

The only thing that I can even think to complain about is that my phone blocks the clock a bit when it’s mounted, but I can still see the time by leaning a little to my left. (So be sure to think about what controls or displays it might be blocking.) Other than that, it’s amazing. Even my wife was impressed, which is really saying something. Best mount ever.

My Year in Gadgets

I like gadgets, and so I tend to buy a lot of them. Some are life-changers, and some fizzle out after a few weeks or months. Here’s a rundown of notable gadgets I’ve acquired this year.

Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker

This little guy ended up on my wish list after playing with a demo at Best Buy. I definitely had a “whoa” moment when I heard it for the first time. So, when I moved into an office at work, I decided it was time to pull the trigger. I mean, it would be silly for me to listen to headphones in a room all by myself, right?

This is one purchase that I have zero regrets about. I use it almost every day. I listen to music in the office, NPR in the kitchen, and have toddler dance parties in the living room. It’s also great for being outside. The battery life is really good. I can’t tell you exactly what it is because I think it’s only gone dead on me once or twice. (It has a charging dock that I keep on my desk, and that’s it’s usual resting place.) I think you get a good 10+ hours on a full charge, though.

JayBird BlueBuds X Sport Bluetooth Headphones

After going to the gym for a few weeks, I decided it was time to invest in a pair of quality workout headphones. I wanted to go wireless because I’ve never really liked having the cord flopping around while I run, but I also wanted great sound since I could be using them 5-10 hours each week between workouts and other uses.

First, the good. The sound quality did not disappoint. I was nervous that I’d regret not going for a pair of wired buds with better quality, but these were great. The battery life is pretty good. I charge them every few days, and that’s sufficient to keep them from ever dying on me.

There is some bad with these, though. It took me a week or two to get used to them. In the first few days, I was really disappointed. I had tried a few different configurations (cord over the ear, under the ear, different size buds & wedges), but they weren’t comfortable and kept falling out during workouts. However, I stuck with them, found a configuration that I like, and no longer have any problems–so don’t give up! The only problem I have with them now is that every now and then, I’ll have problems with the audio just stopping. I don’t know if it’s my phone or the headphone that’s the culprit, but I’ll be listening to a song and it will just stop. There is no indication that I have disconnected, but I can take a few steps to reconnect and everything will be fine. I have tried rebooting my phone, power-cycling the headphones, and anything else I could think of. Most days everything is fine, but it’s super annoying on that one day every other week where it’s being temperamental. There have been a couple of days where I’ve given up on them and just stuffed them into my pocket during a workout.

One final gripe is that when I’ve used these to watch Netflix in bed, the audio has been out-of-sync with the picture. The audio sounds great, so I don’t blame the headphones here, but it’s out-of-sync due to bluetooth. So it’s not a problem that I’d have if I’d gone with wired ear buds.

Despite this seemingly negative review, I’m happy with what I’ve got. I’m sure that if I’d selected a wired pair, I’d have regrets about the cord. I love the sound and they’re comfortable. Great for listening to music, not-so-much for video.

Jackery Giant+

A portable power bank is one of those things that I never seemed to think about unless I was in need of one. Before my most recent trip out to the west coast, I decided to pick one up. I was initially deciding between the Lumsing 10400mAh and the Jackery Giant. I liked the Lumsing because it’s super-economical ($25), but I ultimately went with the Giant+ because of–of all things–the location of the USB ports.

One of the reviews of the Lumsing pointed out that it was awkward to use the charger from a pocket. I don’t expect that I’ll be doing my charging from my pants (but who knows), but I like that I can stick the Giant+ in an inner pocket of my backpack and still have the ports exposed. When I need some juice on the go, I can easily plug-in without any fuss and toss the device in need of charging into my backpack. The Giant+ is also slightly bigger (12000mAh) and has a flashlight. The flashlight seems like it could be useful, but the question is whether I’ll have the Giant with me when I need it!

Microsoft Band

When the Band was first announced, I was very “meh” about it. I had been looking for a watch with a built-in timer or stopwatch to help me with my workouts, and so I convinced myself to try it out. I headed over to my local Microsoft Store and they were all out of stock. Now that I couldn’t have one, I really wanted one. So I got myself on a list and waited.

It came a couple of weeks later. I’ve had it for about a month now, and I’m pretty happy with it. The thing I like most is something that I did not expect: the email and text alerts. You can’t really read or reply to these messages, but it’s great to take a quick peek by flipping your wrist to then determine if the it’s worthy of bringing my phone out of my pocket and dealing with it. Payment notification from Verizon, ignore. Text from wife, address immediately.

I haven’t really tried the guided workouts, I don’t really go on runs, and I don’t really care about my step count. I like the workout tracker (essentially just a timer + heart monitor) and sleep tracking, and, as mentioned previously, I really like the email and text alerts. It’s still early with this one, but it seems like a win.

Kindle Voyage

The Kindle Voyage is my latest toy. I had a 1st generation Kindle Fire that was ironically lost in a fire. I like it for reading at night, but I didn’t use many of the tablet features (browser or apps) and the glare was not so good for daylight reading at times. So, I decided to go for a pure e-reader this time. I’ve read just one book so far, but the more I use it, the more I like it.

I decided to get the Voyage for the auto-brightness adjustment, and it works nicely. I also like the page turn buttons on the side but wouldn’t consider this to be any sort of killer feature. All-in-all, I’m happy with this. It’s definitely better for reading than my Kindle Fire was, but I can’t say how it compares to another pure reader like the Paperwhite.

Wagan Power Dome EX 400-Watt Jump Starter with Built-In Air Compressor

This is less techy, but it is no less awesome. I’m a stickler for tire pressure, but the condo that I’ve been living in does not have a nearby power source for me to connect my small air compressor. The gas station air is a pain since it’s usually not free, and I probably don’t have correct change. So, I wanted to find a wireless air compressor that I could keep in my car to use when I need it.

There were mixed reviews about this, but I decided to take a chance. I’m glad I did–I love it. Low pressure? I just pull this puppy out of the cargo area, and I’m back to normal in no time! It doesn’t fill up super fast (about 1-2 lbs every 30 sec), but it definitely gets the job done. Putting a few pounds of air into all four tires is easy work. There are gripes about the valve cord not being long enough, but just tip it on its side and it’s plenty.

It’s also got a jump starter. I haven’t had to use it, but it’s nice to know that I’ve got it. (I’ve been burned by jump starters in the past, so I’m keeping regular jumper cables around, too!) It has USB ports for charging devices, a radio, a flashlight, and both AC and DC power outlets. Plus it looks cool and seems to impress dads and grandpas. I’m happy with this thing just as a portable air compressor, but it does a lot more!