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This One’s Free: 10 Basic Tech Tips that Make a Difference

This One’s Free: 10 Basic Tech Tips that Make a Difference

Old_Gears

    Coaching is usually about ‘the big change’: generating significant new business strategies or leadership behaviours. But along the way there are dozens of small adjustments that make a big difference as well. Many of those are in the realm of technology.

    Especially when working with small businesses and lone entrepreneurs, I suggest to a variety of tools and approaches to build capacity and pull down obstacles. Here are 10 tips that are drawn from interactions I have with clients every day.

    A word on security. This article does not deal with security issues. If you are using off-site servers, Bluetooth connections, storing data on your phone, etc. there are significant security issues. Lifehack, Google, About.com, and other sites can provide important, current information on these issues. Or talk to your local technology guru. Just so you know.

    That said, here we go:

    1.  Learn how to share and export files

    • Regardless of which bookkeeping software you use, learn how to export to an Excel spreadsheet or a CSV (comma separated value) file. This allows a coach or consultant to review your financial situation easily (without charging you for re-entering the data manually!). Most financial software will have a ‘Save As…’ or ‘Export…’ item under ‘File’. Check it out.
    • CSV files are also a standard format to export contact information from your PIM (Personal Information Manager) like Outlook or Entourage. When you export your contact information for example, you can load it into a spreadsheet for mail merges, or upload it to services like Constant Contact to create electronic newsletter campaigns.
    • When you send documents (such as resumes, reports, or business plans) by email for review you want to be sure that the document arrives looking exactly the way you sent it.  You also want to protect your documents from malicious or accidental alteration. The best way of taking care of both concerns is by saving the document as a PDF (Portable Document Format). A locked PDF document arrives looking EXACTY like you sent it, and cannot be easily altered. Newer versions of most office and graphics software can save, print, or export in a PDF format. There are also a number of free- or share-ware programs that you can download which will convert almost any document or picture file into a PDF.

    2.  Be systematic in using folders and files

    • Whether it is individual document names or whole file systems, create a name- and location- system you can repeat. You will save time and reduce errors. For example, I have a ‘New Client’ folder that has all the empty sub-folders I normally require for client documents. When a new client comes on board, I simply copy and rename the ‘New Client’ folder and I am ready to start populating the already-named sub-folders with new documents. That way I know each document I create has the same home for each client.
    • Ever looked for a file in a certain folder and not found it there? We are creatures of habit. As likely as not, you will look there again the next time you want that file. Unless there is a clear reason not to, when you do find the file, consider moving it into the folder you first looked for it in.
    • When naming files, use a standard structure so that a) the name tells you what you are looking at and b) your files sort properly when you open the folder. One tip for this is to name files ‘year-month-date-filename.doc’ for files that you have multiple versions of (e.g. 2009-07-23-newsletter.doc), and set the sort criteria for that folder to be ‘date – most recent first’. That way each time you open the folder, the files are sorted so you can see the file you worked on most recently at the top of the list.

    3.  Backup

    I know. Unbelievably boring. But really, if you don’t back up your stuff you are asking for trouble. And today, with the various back-up solutions available, there is no reason to have that icy cold feeling creeping up the back of your neck when you realize something really bad has just happened to your computer.

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    • If your software has an auto-save function, use it. How long should the interval be between auto-saves? I don’t know. How much work are you OK with re-doing? 10 minutes? 20 minutes? 2 minutes?
    • Full-system backups. Today you can get external hard-drives, off-site network backups, and back-ups that occur while you sleep or while you work. One of my favourite backup utilities is SyncBack SE. The technology is cheap and easy to use. There is no excuse.
    • Smart phone as backup. Your smart phone can do a lot of cool stuff. Did you know you can use it to store your contact information and calendar? A good smartphone like a Blackberry, IPhone, or Palm will easily store all of your contact information and your calendar, and keep it up to date. These phones come with software to allow you to synchronize data with your main computer. You can ensure that both devices have the same calendar and contact information. Never a bad idea. Which brings me to the next item…

    4.  Sync or sink!

    Did you know that your phone can synchronize your contacts, calendar, tasks, notes, and more, with your computer? If your phone and computer have Bluetooth built in, you don’t even have to plug anything in. Increasingly through off-site servers and Bluetooth, you have the ability to store key word processing, spreadsheet, PDF and other documents on your phone as well.

    By syncing your computer with your phone, not only will you keep your PIM items up to date, but you have created another form of back up!

    5.  Dig a little deeper

    A colleague or client will sometimes mention that they are planning to buy an expensive piece of software to solve a specific problem. Most of the time, the software they are considering is overkill. It is not that the software is no good or that it won’t solve the problems that they want it to, it is simply a question of ROI. The investment in money and training time is often not justified by the return on productivity.

    The solution? Dig a little deeper into the software you already have. Have you actually watched/read any of the basic tutorials for your office suite or bookkeeping software? Most people are surprised at how much they can do with what they already have on their computers.

    If a certain functionality is missing, there is a very good chance someone has plugged that hole with free software you can download or use on-line. I am experimenting with Tungle for example, an online solution that allows people to book appointments in my free slots. The online bookings are automatically synced with my Outlook calendar. And it is free.

    6. Learn your sums

    While spreadsheets were originally invented to handle basic bookkeeping functions, where they really shine is in modeling possibilities and options. The more sophisticated stuff is for full-time spreadsheet specialists, but there are basics that I use almost every day in making financial recommendations to clients.

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    Spreadsheets allow me to compare various averages and ratios, changing some numbers and seeing the different results instantly, without having to redo the calculations every time.

    Knowing how to create a basic budget, including sums, averages, and ratios, in a spreadsheet can give you greater control over your finances.

    7.  Calendars, tasks, & alarms

    Our minds can only hold about 4 – 7 pieces of information at one time. Why take up that precious memory capacity remembering to stop at the dry cleaner when you could be thinking about how to deepen relationships with customers?

    There are many tools available for your smart phone and your computer that can manage your schedules and to-do lists.  I prefer these tools to using paper. Why? For me, the big advantage of digital PIM tools over paper are:

    • The information can be synchronized between devices (no book to lose or forget);
    • They can actively remind you of things that need to be done (so you don’t to have to remember to check your book to remember what you need to do);
    • They can be set to schedule your repeating events and reminders, daily, weekly, monthly, etc. This saves you the time of having to write every repeat event down. When the schedule changes you don’t have to erase and rewrite.

    8.  Email & SMS Text

    Email is more than just a way of communicating. One of the most powerful benefits of email is that it is a great way of tracking and organizing communication.

    I love face-to-face conversation, but there are times when I am glad that there is a way of tracking exactly what was said when there is a disagreement. Even little disputes like the date or time of a meeting can be confirmed in a way that is not possible otherwise.

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    Email is also the easiest thing to organize. Simply create folders representing the way you organize your information (see Item 2 above), and drag/move the emails in.

    A lot of professionals haven’t caught on to SMS (small message service) “texting” as a communication channel. Obsessive texting about trivial things is a huge time waster, and can give the illusion that meaningful communication is taking place. Furthermore, text messages can’t easily be organized like email. All of that said, texting is a useful tool because it can be done between different kinds of phones, not just the more expensive and complex smart phones, and because it is fast and discrete. If you are trying to figure out which movie theatre someone is meeting you in front of, you may not want to send an email. Further, there are times when you want to send someone a short quick message and a phone call is not appropriate (say if they are already in the theatre). Sending a text message can handle that.

    Telephone calls, email, and texting each have their strength. Like Social Networking the trick is to know when to use the right tool.

    9.  Social networking

    This topic is much larger than can easily be covered in a brief list like this. But every business person should be aware of it. In my experience there are four main social networking platforms that every business owner and leader should understand.

    Facebook. This is so far the least business-oriented of the networking platforms. I recommend to most clients that they keep Facebook for their personal social network. I know Facebook is working hard to reposition itself, and there are a growing number of experts providing reasons and approaches to using Facebook in business, but so far I have not seen enough potential for return to invest the time.

    There is one exception: Facebook is a powerful and cost-effective way to advertise. Facebook allows you to advertise to people of pre-determined demographics, and allows you to set a fixed budget that relates to the number of times your ad will appear on the pages of people who fit the profile you are looking for. For the right product or service this can be powerful.

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    YouTube. Like Facebook, YouTube started as a non-business platform. However, recently a growing number of businesses are using YouTube to post low-cost, guerrilla-style video promotions. If you have a business that has a significant visual component or can educate the public through video, Youtube can be a powerful tool. Don’t know how to shoot and post a little video about your business? Get one of your Generation Y employees to show you how it’s done! They can even show you tools that allow you to shoot, post, and promote videos on YouTube, all from their smart phones!

    LinkedIn. This is a business-only site that is like Facebook only on the surface. Under the hood they are very different. Privacy controls are tighter and even your profile is more like a resume. LinkedIn’s singular focus on business and professional networking has created an environment that is a fertile ground for networking, career and job seeking, and professional development. Formalized referral systems, common-interest groups, business and personal branding opportunities, etc. are all well thought out and work well. If you are a professional or business owner/leader and you don’t have a profile on LinkedIn, you may be missing an opportunity to grow your network in a powerful way.

    Twitter. This micro-blogging site (limits you to 142-character posts) is rapidly becoming another powerful networking and communication tool for professionals. Businesses are using it to keep customers informed about new promotions, and many professionals are using it to share ideas, links to useful articles, and announcements of events in their communities and markets. When a post catches on in Twitter it can go ‘viral’ in hours and find its way to thousands of people. Increasingly, stories about significant events (as defined by the people who care about them) are spreading rapidly on Twitter even before they hit traditional news channels.

    An interesting note on Twitter is that unlike other social networking channels, it is not being picked up by the majority of adolescents/Gen Y’s. There is a great deal of debate about why this is, and my two cents are that it is so ‘content’ oriented in its structure and as a medium that it does not lend itself to the repetitive and relatively inane use to which channels like SMS texting are often put. It is difficult to restrict your messages to a limited group of ‘friends’ so it doesn’t function well as a purely social tool. Tweets really are ‘micro-blogs’ with a focus on ideas and information (at least the ones anyone reads), and both users and non-users seem to have unconsciously reinforced that reality (for a hilarious proof that not everyone ‘gets it’ check out http://tweetingtoohard.com/ )

    10.  Think of your smart phone as a digital Swiss Army Knife

    You can use smart phone for telephone calls, email, and/or texting. But it is also a powerful tool that can make your professional life easier in many other ways. Here are some tips and tricks:

    • Use your phone’s unique ring-tones or signals for different events. Want your phone to remain silent unless a key client or family member phones? You can set your phone to do this.
    • Want to get a discrete signal that your meeting hour is almost up? Set your phone’s clock or timer to vibrate at a certain time.
    • Want to remember where you parked your car at the airport? Take a snapshot of the area with your phone’s camera.
    • Record voice memos when you don’t have the time to write a note
    • Calculate tips or bill splits at lunch.
    • On some smart phones you can now find an address or retrace your steps using built-in GPS.
    • You can store and update shopping lists, check out movies playing in your neighbourhood, and access Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter on your phone.

    Remember, this is just a list of activities and solutions that I have found useful in my own practice or in the work of my clients. It isn’t even close to exhaustive. If you want to know more about some of the things I have mentioned, or wonder if technology can solve a particular problem, feel free to contact me!

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    Last Updated on March 25, 2020

    How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes effectively.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    1. Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    2. Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    3. Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    4. Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    5. Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    6. Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    7. Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    8. Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More Note-Taking Tips

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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