Monthly Archives: September 2011

Tools of the trade, my 2011 edition

One of the most interesting parts of going through everyone’s responses to my question about managing their cognitive load was seeing the similarities and differences in strategies.  In fact, a couple of you wondered what those commonalities might say about us and our work. That may be a post for another day. ;-)

I thought it would be fitting end to that series to go over what tools came up as useful, and list some of the changes I’ve made to my information consumption strategies based on your input.

Twitter
The #1 tool, and the only one that everyone used was Twitter. This may be a sampling artifact, since I use Twitter a great deal, but in my decidedly unscientific pondering of the last three conferences I was at, I can pretty definitely claim that most of the museum people I run into use it as well.  Respondents to my email, like me, use Twitter clients rather than Twitter’s web page.  Filtering is vital if you’re not going to drown in the tweetstream. I have a love/hate relationship with Tweetdeck. I love it’s flexibility, and it’s lists that allow me to sort my incoming tweets. I’ve got my general museum list, hashtags I’m following like #mtogo and conferences, as well as a friends’ list, and even a celebrities list (Stephen Fry is just too interesting!) Being able to sort them means I only have to see the one two lists I feel like listening to on any given day. Things that seem interesting or worth following up on get favorited and go into their own favorites list.

After I’d started this series, I found ifttt.com. It stands for “If This, Then That” and it allows you to set up logical equations using web services. My favorite task has become “If I favorite a tweet, copy the text to a file in my Evernote account called ‘twitter favs’.” Very convenient!

Google+
We came, we saw, we looked around… and left.

RSS feeds
Coming in second was relying on RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds to aggregate the websites you want to follow.  I’d given up on RSS some time ago in favor of doing it old school style, slogging from site to site with the Firefox Morning Coffee plugin that lets you add a button to Firefox that will open tabs of any number of sites at once.  RSS readers like NetNewsWire let you corral thousands of sites and group them so you can manage your browsing before you start.  I have my twelve or so museum sites I’m most interested in keeping abreast with, maybe another twenty more tangentially connected to my work, and then a slew of general science and tech sites that spew forth potentially interesting content daily. With a reader, I can decide if I really (need to/want to/can stomach) wading through 317 Slashdot articles today or not, and I’m pretty ruthless now about hitting the “Mark All as Read” button when I don’t want to be bothered. I find it satisfying in fact to see all those little numbers of unread posts disappear. Poof! Like Jasper said in the first post, letting go is important to your sanity.

Email
I’m on the verge of getting moved from Mail to Outlook, so changing my email habits now is bit counter-productive. That said, I did clean out my inbox and outbox and went through my mail filters and updated a bunch. My inbox is a lot more manageable! More to come, post migration.

LinkedIn

What was interesting to me about LinkedIn was how many people used it, but not much, and not often.  Off all the responses I got, only one person really invested in LinkedIn, and that was for the discussion groups. For most of the others, myself included, we filled out our profiles, connected with people we knew, and … not much else.  Tweetdeck lets me post to LinkedIn, so sometimes I will send tweets that way, so it looks like I’m on more than I am.  Again, this may be a sampling artifact. Most of the people I asked have jobs and aren’t doing the kind of networking that freelancers and job seekers have to do. I have to admit that the reason I check LinkedIn is usually because I’ve gotten an alert that a contact has changed their profile, usually because they’ve gotten a new job.

Make Learning a Formal Activity, and Do It with Friends
Organizing these local meetups has been very rewarding.  And making them regular, and reliable has been important to them. Getting to the point where people expect them to happen is gratifying, and the pressure keeps me going.  I’ve enjoyed watching people make connections, and actually learn useful things from each other at the events.  Even these ostensibly social occasions can be learning experiences.

Reading about departments with built in learning communities made me a little jealous at first, and I realized how much I enjoy that kind of interaction. As I’ve been writing these responses, I’ve had any number of little epiphanies. One of them was that if I wanted to work in a more learning-centered workplace, I’d better do something about it. The outcomes of this were twofold for me.  Firstly, it reminded me that I really wasn’t doing much to pass on any of the benefits I received at the start of my career. So, I’ve got a shiny new intern (actually she’s a highly skilled, veteran intern) and am trying to figure out what is useful for her to know is a very valuable lens into my own practice.  What do I do? Why do I do it this way? It’s a lot of work, keeping an intern learning and doing stuff that’s not make-work.  Hopefully, she’ll get something useful out of the experience. Stay tuned.

The other outcome has been that the exhibit developers here agreed that we’ll hold regular professional development meetings. There are only three of us, so it can be very informal — read a book or article and discuss.  It’s not hard, it just takes determination to keep doing it.  Got any exhibit topics that you think are hot?

 

 

 

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part four of four

This is the last of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. The second post looked at how people store information. The third covered separating inspiration from information.

Thanks to the generosity of you all, I was able to share all kinds of strategies that you can use to think about how you manage the information coming at you via the Internet. However, none of them have any value if you never have time to use them. So this last post is going to be about personal professional development and how vital it is to museum professionals in this newish century.

Make is part of the schedule

calendar from Flickr user Jeremy Toeman


The best way I’ve found to make time to learn is to not treat it like a nice thing to do if you’ve got time.  It’s important, so put it on your calendar. Kate Tinsworth says, “I do set aside every other Tues morning from 9-11 for my whole team to read. Read whatever—I read blogs and articles online, but the others read more traditional evaluation journals, mostly. That time being designated helps a lot.” At my museum, Christine Reich has the Research and Evaluation department hold regular monthly professional development meetings, and everybody in the department is in charge of running one meeting.

I spend the beginning of each work day scanning my social media feeds like Twitter and LinkedIn, and browsing my RSS feeds for interesting nuggets. Thanks to suggestions from Jasper Visser and Kate Haley Goldman, I’ve also gone back to actually looking more deeply at a very few sites I like that usually get me thinking.  I find that making it a regular part of my day helps me keep abreast of things and keep it from getting out of control. My undirected web surfing seems to have gone down since I started being more directed.  Thanks to Bruce Wyman for nudging me to give RSS another go.

This blog is also part of my regular professional development. Making myself step outside the the daily grind and trying to synthesize what I experience going on in my work and consulting projects has been a great way to keep my thinking fresh and to crystallize half-formed thoughts. It’s a blessing.

Get out and talk to people

from Flickr user elthenerd

You may recall that in Part One, Nancy Proctor surprised me by saying she prefers phone calls over email for anything substantive. Kate Haley Goldman remarked on how conversations stay with her longer than other kinds of communications. Kate Tinsworth seconded that idea, saying, “I find that much of what sticks for me still comes from those (human conversations) too… be it at a conference or other opportunities to actually meet up.” I was talking to Nina Simon about conferences recently, and when I expressed my reservations about AAM, she seemed surprised. “I love AAM, because everybody I want to talk to is there in one place. I can have breakfast with Elaine, lunch with Kathy…” After that, I started casting my mind around for other highly-efficient museum professionals (or dare I say it, “thought leaders.” No, I daren’t…) they all share that drive to have high-quality interactions.

It may seem like a no-brainer that voice communication, or even better, face to face communication, is the highest bandwidth medium we currently have, but it is surprising to me how often people (myself included) will opt for a lower-quality method of communication. Probably the best thing I’ve done in this regard has been to emcee a monthly meetup for techie museum folks in Greater Boston.  It’s a broad, open group. We get managers, developers, teachers, vendors, students.  It’s different every month thus far, and it’s like a little bit of conference-going on a Thursday night. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you can’t find one in your area, consider it an opportunity for you to step up and make some connections.

Save things for down times

Waiting at the station from Flickr user domesticat

Another way to make more time for yourself is to be more efficient about the time you already spend on routine tasks. I am great faffer.  Ask anybody who’s ever shared an office with me. But I’m trying to be better…

When I first started talking about this idea with Nancy Proctor, she scheduled our phone call during her walk to work. She also aggregates informational meetings with colleagues into regular 2-hour “meet-ups” instead of a zillion individual meetings. Somebody at Museums and the Web 2011 said the killer app for mobiles was that they were a way to “kill time while waiting for the bus.” I don’t know who said this, though I vaguely recall it being Seb Chan. (If you know, tell me. I hate misattributing quotes).  Kate Tinsworth downloads documents to read on her tablet when she’s not doing anything.  I’m excited to look at my schedule and see what undiscovered efficiencies are lurking out there.

Take charge of your professional development

Carpe Diem by Flickr user Darcy Moore

All of the strategies listed above have one thing in common. They don’t require anything aside from your own desire to learn.  As someone who has worked in a large institution for most of my professional career, it’s easy to succumb to the mindset of waiting for permission to do anything.  This is especially true of old-school “professional development.” There are forms to be completed, signatures to be garnered, and justifications to be gathered before any learning happens.  But in the current climate, waiting for anything seems like a recipe for getting left behind.  This is particularly true in exhibits, where new media and modalities (like mobiles) are promising to shake up the status quo. And when mobiles are old hat and everybody has augmented reality, there will be something else new.

One of my favorite parts of Rob Stein’s talk at the Tate Handheld conference last Fall was his use of the image of a bridge to symbolize how we deal with new technologies in museums. We have, in the past, tended to view new disruptive technologies as obstacles to overcome. There on the other side waits a land of peace and technological harmony. All we have to do to cross that bridge is… wait for Netscape and IE to duke it out, or wait for Java to save us, or  adopt HTML 5, or pick Android or iOS or web apps… The list never ends and Rob brilliantly  demonstrated the fallacy of the bridge metaphor. The reality is that we never reach the end. There is no place of stability where we can make a leisurely, fully-informed decision. So how do you keep abreast?

There’s a great post (actually several if you poke around) from Beth Kanter on personal professional development. You could also look at Harold Jarche’s model of networked learning for more technologically-oriented ways to think about your own learning.  I like them both, because they’re well-linked and can take you to a slew of other resources.  It’s worth being serious about.  I’m on the Advisory Board for this year’s Horizon Report, Museums Edition, and of all the technologies being considered, I don’t think a single one existed when I was in college.  And even if I’d graduated five years ago, I’d still have missed a healthy proportion of them.  So even if you’re fresh out of school, your expertise is aging pretty fast. And nowadays you have to contend with a yearly crop of freshly-minted museum studies MAs, with newer skills and lower salary requirements than you. The greatest benefit I find to taking responsibility for your own development is that it gives focus to your thinking.  I find a topic I’m interested in, and suddenly I see connections to it all over the place.  It focuses my information consumption and acts like a filter to help decide what *not* to consume.  And isn’t that a relief? Yes, it is.

Thanks for sticking it out this long. The next post will be a much shorter (I promise!) one listing the changes I’ve made to my routine based on this and a recap of what tools people use and how. It should be interesting.

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part three of four

Separating inspiration from information

from Flickr user Matthew Wynn

This is the third of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. The second post looked at how people store information. This post will cover separating inspiration from information, and final one will discuss the importance of making time to learn. My apologies for taking awhile to get through this. It’s been a pretty fascinating trip, though.

When I posted about cognitive load and asked for your processes and practices, I was pretty vague in how I framed my question. “Information” is a pretty opaque term. And sure enough, the responses all went over slightly different territory.  Kate Haley Goldman applied her analytical eye to my question, and replied, “If I understand you correctly Ed, you’re interested in the processes and tools that we use to manage information.  I see that as different than the tools and processes for managing research, connections, inspiration, or products of creation.  Or workflow.”  Though I was tickled at how thoroughly she’d unpacked the question, the “managing inspiration” part made me sit up and read faster.

 “Over the last few months I’ve been thinking quite a bit about separating managing information and managing inspiration.  I find Twitter to be useful in all sorts of ways, but I’ve noticed that only occasionally do I find something that makes me think for more than 5 minutes.  Or something that truly inspires me there.  The content ebbs and flows like a YouTube video of the week, and I find that the buzz of the Twittersphere fascinating and distracting, but rarely provides concepts or insights that stick with me.  So I’ve returned to reviewing a much smaller set of sites regularly with my morning coffee (and the Firefox plug-in).”

There is some big truth in what Kate says. I find Twitter to be a great sort of links to useful information, news about what’s going on, and other things. But the information is usually something of short-term importance and relevance. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever gotten a tweet that has lead to me to something truly inspirational. (I’ll have to go back through my Favorites list and double check!) One of my motivations for this whole series was to heed Thoreau’s call to “Simplify, simplify.” and be more directed and less distracted. My answer to this has been to go back and gather loads of resources into an RSS reader and try to be brutal about not even clicking links unless they seem pertinent. My less-directed web surfing has decreased and so far, it feels like a good thing.  I’m working on being more like Jasper Visser, and replacing the nagging sensation that I’m missing something with the certainty that I am missing something, and it probably doesn’t matter that much.

The part of Kate’s response that really spoke to me, though, was this,

“The inspiration pieces I manage differently, and it changes depending on the type of inspiration.  Truly inspirational researchy things I sometimes try and re-sketch in notebooks, sometimes whiteboarding, generally after talking to someone about it. … For other pieces of inspiration, primarily visual, I’ve been doing some pin boards, which seems more effective for me than bookmarks.  I’ve been experimenting a bit with photo and audio more, but nothing very advanced.”

There’s a whole new post here, and I may have to dragoon Kate into having a long conversation about her experiments. One reason this resonates with me is that all of her methods for managing inspiration are kinds of sketching, which I wrote about awhile ago.  Taking some idea, internalizing it, and re-expressing it in your own way is crucial to the creative process.   So the obvious question this raises for me, members of the great hive mind, is, “What tools do you find most useful for mentally wrestling with content?”

This idea of managing inspiration is intricately engaged with the fourth and final post, which is about taking time to learn.  None of the strategies discussed in any of these last three posts have any value if you never have time to use them.  In this current austere climate, time spent on professional development, or on anything not directly serving a current funded project, is hard to come by.  I’ll wrap up with a post on making and taking time to learn on the job, and recap what I’ve learned and some of the changes I’ve made to my routine based on your wisdom.