Leadership

The absentminded IT consultant: How to stay focused and organized

Chip Camden, a self-proclaimed absent-minded IT consultant, shares a few secrets to his success. He offers tips on how to get focused and reveals which app has helped him stay organized.

 

My wife has started keeping a list. She's documenting every time I ask her something she just told me, or I look for something where it was kept years ago, or I fail to notice some "obvious" change she's made. I think it's all part of a secret plan to have me committed.

But like I tell her, I've always been this way. I'm absentminded by nature. It's not that my brain is deteriorating -- it's just always thinking about something else. I'm not alone -- this tendency is so prevalent among us geeks that the character of the absentminded professor has become almost archetypal. Absentmindedness affects us geeks more than the general population for at least two reasons:

  • Hyperfocus: When we're thinking about a problem, we tune out everything else. This trance-like state often accompanies us when we leave our desks to perform other mundane activities; we can't concentrate on those activities while we're hyperfocused on something else, so we rely on unconscious habits. When those habits become disrupted because somebody moved the toothpaste to a new drawer (even if it was six months ago), then we're comically (in everyone else's eyes) confused until we can shift our focus to the utterly unnecessary problem at hand and locate said toothbrush.
  • Filtering: We have so many mental tasks to perform every day that we often ignore issues that seem unworthy of our attention. It might be something that we consider trivial, or that we have mentally stamped "handled." Other people can get pretty angry over their inability to distinguish between these two reasons for our filtering. When I don't remember what time my wife is leaving to take our child to the doctor, she may think that I don't care about his condition; I do, but since that task has been delegated to her, I don't let its details consume my precious CPU cycles.

To test the depth of your ability to concentrate, watch this video and count the number of times a basketball is passed from one person to another.

While it's often inconvenient for our loved ones and even sometimes for ourselves, absentmindedness has its benefits. Besides enabling us to concentrate deeply on technical problems, it also keeps us from overloading our brains with mundane details. For instance, I didn't see the gorilla in the video, did you? Now that I've pointed it out, you won't miss it again -- but it's also a lot harder to concentrate on counting the passes now.

Get focused by asking "big picture" questions

IT consulting is not all about solving technical problems -- people and business issues frequently require our attention. Lots of gorillas cross our field of vision, and if we don't notice them and give them a banana, they're likely to get vicious. We need to respond quickly to our clients and to new opportunities and vulnerabilities, and we need to be sensitive to people's feelings (which control their business decisions more than they realize).

To be successful as a consultant requires a hybrid between the hyperfocus of the geek and the "big picture" thinking of the business owner. It may not be possible to do both at the same time, so I advise setting aside some time each day to ask yourself a few "big picture" questions:

  • What's important to each of my clients right now?
  • How is my business plan working out?
  • Am I missing any opportunities?
  • Is something about to bite me in the you-know-what?
  • What else am I forgetting?

Stay organized with SOPs, apps, and software

The "big picture" questions could easily consume all of your time, so again, you need to lean on habitual behavior to enable your "zone" periods. Besides setting aside time for the global view, a number of other standard operating procedures (SOPs) can help you stay organized with less thought required. Here are three SOPs that have been helpful to me:

  • Put reminders on a calendar, and give the reminder enough lead time but not too much (so you don't forget it again after the reminder).
  • Keep a task list with everything you need to remember to do.
  • Every day, make a daily task list. This not only forces you to review your overall task list, but it also tells you what you need to focus on today.

I used to use Microsoft Outlook for all three of these functions. It's not bad for the calendar with reminders, but the Task list drove me crazy. I spent way too much time updating the Task list, and it eventually become so overgrown that I started ignoring it. To make a daily list, I added a custom checkbox field so I could create a view that would show me only those tasks (because I like to sort the list by client), but it was a pain to keep that updated, too. I'd always gravitate back to a handwritten list.

Then I discovered the Remember The Milk application, which easily combines the calendar and task-list functions into one. The Overview page automatically provides a list of work due today, so that bullet is just a matter of review and revise. Or, you can set up and save a "smart search" to filter the tasks any way you want. Even though it's a Web app, it's very responsive, thanks to its liberal use of JavaScript and Google Gears.

Of course, software can be used to prop up our absentmindedness in a lot more ways than just remembering to do things. Good systems for version control and automated builds mean that you never have to remember a lot of details, such as what files you've changed in what ways or what needs to be rebuilt when certain files are changed. While these systems sometimes take a bit of time to set up properly, there is a handsome return on investment for ongoing projects. The less absentminded consultants have to remember, the more we can concentrate on the things that really make a difference.

What techniques, tools, and applications do you use to stay organized? Which techniques, tools, and applications have you found to be a waste of time? Share your experiences in the discussion.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

63 comments
reisen55
reisen55

ROLODEX LIVE, used to be called HOLD EVERYTHING and it is a DOS program. Nothing fancy but it is about the fastest index card and name/data storage product I have ever found. And I have much stuff inside of it that it is impossible for me to get rid of it. At one job, however, I did an incredible job of pulling data out, moving into a spreadsheet and importing into a Windows version of ACT. Being a DOS product it is FAR faster on search parameters than almost anything in Windows. If you need a quick and dirty pocket manager for names and data, I highly recommend this one. IF you can find it anymore

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

Just asking :) Hyperfocussed, introverted... oh just look it up yourself.

johnandjack66
johnandjack66

After some point in my career life i started carrying a pocket diary with me always to jot down activities, phone number, special dialgoues people have told me, technically challenged problems and their remedies found , daily expenditure etc. I have found that greatly useful exept the disadvantage that you have to carry an extra weight in the breast pocket.

Harry.Hiles
Harry.Hiles

I've used RTM in the past and now use Google Tasks with Google Apps. No tags but you could create a separate list for each client and easily switch between them. If you assign a due date, the task appears in your Google calendar. I'm glad to hear there are other absent minded people out there. For the record, my wife does the same thing with me.

valcovinnie
valcovinnie

Here's what I've go to say about this. Wait....what was I going to say???

bhoch
bhoch

I use Astrid on my Android phone. It syncs with RTM. Pretty nice interface too.

phyrefly.phyre
phyrefly.phyre

I've had similar problems to these, but not as a consultant, as a Dev manager in a small department. What that meant was having to deal with the same "big-picture" questions, as well as focusing on code at times. What I battle with, is the switch itself. If someone walks up and asks me a big picture question in the middle of coding, I actually can't answer them. If I force myself to switch out of code-mode, then I can deal with them, but I find it really hard to switch back! So if I try to leave time in the beginning of the day for being a human being, then I can't switch on the internal computer later. But if I do it the other way around, then it's usually 8pm by the time I remember to switch, and it's too late to do anything. So when do you find time to be out of code mode? What works for you?

reisen55
reisen55

My co-colleague and I have a strained relationship because he is a genius and a lousy businessman. I am collecting over $4200 in invoices he left slide by a major client and also have to pick up the threads of a ton of additional work he has done since January of this year and never invoiced for or advised client of his time management!!!!! This has hugely impacted our relationship in a negative fashion.

boydwiley
boydwiley

What I hate is that someone will stop me in the hall to ask for help if I am not busy at the moment I will get to them, but If I am in the middle of something I always tell them to email me. Sometimes they don't get that I may or may not even remember speaking to them at the time.

mpaunescu
mpaunescu

Using a web app for something like looks like using a rocket to hit a mosquito. I've always used a pda with a notepad application. Most of them have something more or less similar. I have a main list with daily tasks and then specific files for each client. One thing that this article sugested me is ... I did not tried this system on family related tasks .. should I? My wife would be hapy for sure :)

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

And here my wife had me convinced I was the only one. Thank Heaven, there are others like me. Now all I have to do is show my wife this post -- and duck of course!

apotheon
apotheon

I use tofu to help me keep track of stuff. No, not bean curd -- a todo list manager called tofu. One of my lists (tofu calls them "stacks") is called today. Any time I have to make a decision about what to do next, I start by entering tofu today at the shell prompt. At the end of the day (or, if I don't get to it at the end of the day, first thing the next morning) I edit the today list so that it's set up properly for the upcoming day. The use of priorities in tofu works well, and I can filter by both priorities and tags within each list. Each item in a list is just a heading for a file, too, so if I have notes to myself to associate with each heading, I can access them with a read command or edit them with an edit command. It works quite well for me, and since it's distributed under the terms of the MIT/X11 license, it's [copyfree](http://copyfree.org) software, too. What's not to love?

KSoniat
KSoniat

How many basketball passes were there. Then I'm thinking it's a trick because when the person had their back to you you couldn't see the pass, but ultimately someone else had the ball. I did see the gorilla. I keep a to do list. I use outlook calendar frequently - but not the tasks - I'll look up the hybrid. Good article.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I use tags in RTM to organize the tasks by client. Getting a list of the tasks for a client is therefore as simple as clicking on that tag.

apotheon
apotheon

I have many of the same characteristics Sterling has, and I don't have Asperger's. Hyperfocus isn't just an Asperger's symptom; it's also an occasional symptom of ADHD and something that some people just do, regardless of any syndromes or disorders. Meanwhile, introversion isn't a symptom at all: it's just a different way to be than extroversion. I find it rather annoying that many extroverts assume there's something wrong with someone who behaves in an introverted manner.

Madsmaddad
Madsmaddad

I carry a letter size (A4) week to a view academic diary to keep track of things I do, state of work, students I have seen and problems resolved etc, a pocket diary for personal things such as Car problems, doctors appointments and such, and there is a calendar on the wall at home used by both of us. Mentally I can keep all my appointments straight between all the calendars, but do I ever remember to look at them in advance? Rarely!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... to do the "big picture" mode first thing in the morning, before I get into the zone. It can actually act as a stepping stone towards getting into the zone, because it confirms what I should be zoning about. I don't have a problem switching into the zone later, if later is 10AM or earlier. If I get so tied up in other concerns that it's the middle of the afternoon before I can start coding, though, then it gets tough. But I still find if I just get started, I'll slip into the zone within 15 or 20 minutes.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Keeping track of time, billing, collecting... it's no fun. But I have to be able to keep a sharp eye on it, or I won't have anyone to finance the fun stuff.

apotheon
apotheon

There are benefits that come with the detriments, statistically speaking. It's no illness. Extroverts tend to think there's something wrong with people who display introverted tendencies, too. It's annoying.

Madsmaddad
Madsmaddad

to me all the time. If I don't do it to myself - Thinking of doing one thing and then see something else that needs to be done can blow task no. 1 completely away.

Madsmaddad
Madsmaddad

In my previous job, which was very customer centric, I used to spend a couple of minutes before I went home making a list of all the things that I had to do/complete tomorrow, and leave it on my desk, then I could clear my mind and go home. A few minutes in the morning used to clear up a lot of the little ones, and felt good because I had some 'accomplishments' for the day. These days, I use the notepad on the desktop of Kubuntu KDE 4.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Admittedly, given today's technology the web approach is a bit heavy. But I also think it's prophetic -- web resources will only become more available and client-side data will become more rare. Using RTM, I can access my tasks from any computer or web-enabled phone, not just my usual workstation.

seblair
seblair

I've been doing it since I was programming on a commodore 64 and it drives my entire family nuts. Doesn't seem to matter what I'm doing either, automotive, computer, carpentry; you name it if I get in the zone everyone/thing gets tuned out.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I intend to repurpose the term "duck typing" to refer to any time that I write about my wife online. (ducks)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Does it have any way to tag things so you can group them together differently -- like by client, for instance? I think I'd have to rename it, though -- I hate tofu.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... you have to count the passes for which you only see a result. I counted 28, but of course I might have missed one or two. I absolutely did not see the gorilla the first time i watched this video. On my second viewing, I couldn't believe I had missed it, since I was paying such close attention. But it goes to show that hyperfocus on one important type of detail can result in the exclusion of other inputs. My wife doesn't believe that I actually can't hear her when she speaks to me when I'm in that state -- but it's true.

biancaluna
biancaluna

But I can do both really well - big picture and connecting the dots and detail. Maybe that is my artists brain. I once did one of those personality aptitude tests and I am a visionary planner executor type pigeon holed types. It is like a rubick's cube to me, I am a massive writer, I write everything down and then I can start seeing the patterns and I can break it down to the task level. My memory has always been a help to me but I use a notepad for day to day tasks and am usually a few steps ahead. What am I not good at? Routine. So I hire someone for the routine things that bore me to tears and sap my energy. Questions are good. What can bite us on the backside, what can I do right now, am I missing something, what is on the other side of the mountain and how do we get there, where do you want to be in 5 years and what can we do today to make the first baby steps. Some of that is naming the sucker and articulating how we get from a to b. It is like working with clay. You start with a lump of mud, then you start working it, massaging it to plasticity, adding things to it, planning for loss of moisture, cracking etc. You need tools, you need stamps, you need to dry it slowly, but they are serial tasks, you cannot start forming until you have the clay pliable. But you know what you want it to look like, as the vision of the piece came to you. That is how it works for me in the consulting space too, I do a lot of thinking and exploring with the client. Sometimes we venture down a path and turn back, but it is always useful. The tools I use are simple. Post it notes, facilitation skills, Outlook, notepad and a pen to scrible key words, and my brain and the patterns it can detect. Yeah, my partner picks up stuff too that I am lousy at, scheduling the bills for utilities every month, doing the laundry (what a waste of time) And you know what, after a few years, you know what you can ignore for a while. What will come good, or fall into place. That piece of sky in the puzle that you can spend hours on trying to make fit, or you can start with the pieces with the square edges and the sky piece will fall into place. That ain't absent minded at all, it is the sign of a creative genius brain, Chip. It is using your energy wisely and doing the thinking up front. Some don't, they dive right in, and find out that there is a whole side missing. Me, I think, zone out, meditate. And you can see Nirvana. Use the force, Luke, use the Rubick's Cube and keep turning until it falls into place.

Techcited!
Techcited!

Throw a hat back into the ring for Outlook. Actually, Outlook with a plugin. I use PlanPlus from Franklin Covey. The main reason for use is for my task list. I have my A-B-C task priorities and am able to rank my tasks within each of those priorities. And, best of all, it has a nice orgaizer feature that helps you get those tasks whipped into shape (or maybe get ME whipped into shape). The other parts of PlanPlus are valuable as well. Things like goal setting etc. Overall, a pretty nice litte add-on.

jck
jck

I rarely do charts, graphs, etc. The most design I do on a project (unless otherwise told to do it by my bosS) is scribbling on a notepad or maybe some little BS diagram in paint. Of course my big distraction isn't how to make things work...it's life...like...Mom calling and seeing how I am or telling me about things I told her 100 times I don't really care about...or telemarketers. lol I swear, I'd be better off programming at 3am :^0 BTW, was I an inspiration for this article? ;)

Chaz Chance#
Chaz Chance#

Without a negative diagnosis, and a confirming second opinion, it's all just speculation. Being on the autism spectrum myself, I don't make assumptions about anyone. I have found that many apparent extroverts are introverts who are over-compensating to fit in. This behaviour often includes repeating things they have heard others say, not because they have thought it through and agree with it, but because it was well received when the other person said it. The underlying motivations is fear, so I have some sympathy for these so-called normal people, too.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I have a son who is on the autism spectrum, and even though we do have many traits in common, his are disabling while mine are not. That's the difference.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I can set reminders, and I can always fit more items onto it and still be able to read them. My wife still uses paper calendars, and she has to keep two because there's not enough room on one. I can never find either of them, but I always know where mine is.

reisen55
reisen55

Always Be Billing A very good acronym.

geekGirlFri
geekGirlFri

... and so am I... though part of me doesn't like the term "glitches"... hey, "It's not a bug; it's a feature!" :) Whatever you want to call it, it's definitely hereditary... I noticed you wrote the article on my daughter's 11th birthday, and it reminded me of how she & I both exhibit "hyperfocus" with our reading. I used to read voraciously when I was growing up but rarely do anymore because I can only seem to find time to do it when the kids are in bed at night, and I have no control over my hyperfocus abilities at night. I have been know to stay up all night (6-8 hours) reading, organizing photos, researching genealogy. I will look at the clock, realize in some disconnected way that I need to go to bed, and then go right back to what I was doing because I'm "not done yet." Starting any kind of project at late at night is a no-no for me for this very reason. I've tried in fits and starts to implement some kind of to-do list that I will actually use from day to day. Your article has reinforced the idea that I do need to keep trying to find a way that works for me. Thanks! :)

apotheon
apotheon

Does it have any way to tag things so you can group them together differently -- like by client, for instance? You can use either lists/stacks or tags ("markers" in tofu parlance) to "group" things by client. It's hierarchical, though, so things with the same market but in different stacks don't list together. If there's a way to get around that within the application's functionality, I don't know what it is (and haven't bothered to check). I have one list (stack) in which I keep track of things I plan to read, another full of financial matters I need to deal with, and so on, and I just use the "today" list for stuff that I'd like to get done on the current day. Things can be moved between stacks, if you want/need to do so, of course. Does any of that answer your question?

KSoniat
KSoniat

If anyone is reading a good book and you speak to them it is as if you do not exist. We can talk about that person not hearing us - and they are right there - eventually they will look up because we are all looking at them. We tap shoulders or call their name until they are looking before convering with them.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I have to admit that I've never had the patience to solve a Rubik's cube. But my son is a whiz at it.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

It's such a pig, and anyway I intend to get away from using Windows except for developing cross-platforms apps that also have to run there.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but I found enough inspiration right here in my own little scrambled brain. I know what you mean. I can be incredibly efficient when working on the weekend, if I can get my family to leave me alone. I don't do charts of graphs either, usually. But I definitely need a to-do list.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... and I would venture that the percentage of fear-motivated belief is higher than most people would have the courage to believe.

apotheon
apotheon

Thankfully, my significant other is an intelligent, introverted woman with interests and beliefs that are eminently compatible with my own.

jck
jck

is limited to TR and parties where I have more than 5 long island iced teas lol ;)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's not quite as flexible as what RTM provides with tags, but I'm not sure that I would need more than that.

jessica.smith
jessica.smith

I feel like my boss thinks that too. lol They even have little mirrors that fit on your monitor if you don't want to (or can't) put one up on the wall. Just google monitor mirror.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... when I jump, she thinks I've got something to hide so she immediately scans all my open windows looking for something incriminating. Mirror. Now why didn't I think of that?

jessica.smith
jessica.smith

That's why I have a mirror in my office to show me the door [my desk layout forces my back to the door, which I hate]. People walk in and scare the s**t out of me when I'm in the zone. Even the mirror isn't foolproof, if I'm really concentrating. At my old job, there was also some type of fan (intake,exhaust,whatever) right over my cube. I couldn't even hear people, so they'd just walk in and start talking. I ended up putting up a bell so people could ring it instead of scaring me half to death. :)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

He could read a book, watch TV, and carry on a conversation all at the same time. He could even answer questions while he was asleep. I'm much more like your family -- my Dad always chided me for not being able to more more than one thing at a time.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I agree. Often we try to force ourselves into a mold of what a consultant "should be" and beat ourselves up when we don't. There is no "should be", there is only what works. And what works for me may not work for you -- as you said, make the most of your unique qualities.

biancaluna
biancaluna

I couldn't for the likes of me remember how to spell that. Rubic, Rubich, Rubik, Rubick it all looked weird. I also believe it is important to understand how we are wired, Chip. One size does not fit all, even though those personality type tests tend to pigeon hole us somewhat, it was quite useful for me as it helped me identify what needed to be supplemented, what my tools of the trade were and which projects not to take on. If we understand what makes us tick, it is easier to identify patterns and tools (either pad and paper, daily task lists, key words, mind mapper, Outlook, something else) that suit our style and be more productive and effective.

jck
jck

I still have it in a box on 5.25" floppy. The real, original, IBM Xenix...with manuals...all original. Think it'd Ebay for much? lol Thanks. The neck is okay. Hoping it gets better by December. I am making some plans for a trip to see someone. :D I think I am going to start back on the software in late September/early October once the neurosurgeon clears me fully. I want his blessing before I start sitting at the computer at work 9 hours a day and 5 after I get home. :)

jck
jck

HP 3000 Series 40 In fact, we could embed characters in file names and documents...and they would display fine on a Wyse 100 or 101 terminal. But when you sent it to the line printer...ERRR....ERRR....ERRR ERRR... Those big old 160 column line printers used to sit there like they were thinking "What the HELL is that character?!?!?!?" and then moving on after half a second. :^0 My favorite thing was messing with friends. I remember when MS came out with the way to hide a file was to change the first character to a "?" or something like that. When my friend one time had a BBS, I managed to hide all his files when he went back to his bedroom to do something then sat there like I was reading things. He comes back, the BBS file directory is empty...and he FREAKED. I laughed and unhid them. But man was it funny. I think before I get back to work on the app, I am gonna take a break and do purely me stuff in the off-hours. I am feeling burnt out and worn down from having to re-learn to use my neck and keep it from going stiff with 2 pieces of titanium in there and stitched together muscles.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... used a non-printable character in a variable name? I forget where I saw this, but on one of the early systems I worked on the compiler would allow it -- but it would drive the CRT and the printer wild.

jck
jck

like trying so hard to keep anyone from reading module names to know them, you mix reverse polish notation with a Rot 13 hash

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... can't be over-emphasized. With all of the levels of abstraction we navigate in our business, just slapping any old name on something can result in confusion in a hurry. By the same token, overdoing it or applying a foolish consistency (as in some Hungarian notation schemes) only adds to the confusion.

jck
jck

That's why I have the notepad. And, even a cryptographer couldn't make out what I mean. I'll jot down something, and add to it, but upside down in the opposite corner of the page or on the back right behind it (I'm good at reading upside down and backward :^0 ). One big thing that helps me is naming stuff in the development to be succinct about what it's for, what it does, etc. Then I can kinda look at things and see how they're piecing together and helps me in stepping through things. Notes and to-do lists are good stuff.

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