A system for getting things done

Moleskine diary on desk

My Moleskine diary for 2018.

I have a working system for getting things done. It wasn’t always that way.

Years ago, going back to work after three years at home with a baby/toddler, I was overwhelmed.

I am widely thought of as an organised person, but being a working parent meant I needed to up my game. I started out with complex task lists in the systems that come bundled with Windows, and added similarly complex calendars that linked to my email and was still swamped (and spending a lot of time just maintaining the lists).

I went looking for help and Google found me Bill Westerman and his GSD system.
He says of his system:

I wrote it up and gave it a name: “Getting Sh-t Done”, or GSD. It’s quick, it’s dirty, and it doesn’t require a lot of preparation, special materials, or rigorous thinking.

Pragmatic journalism – how to balance quality and speed

laptop with coffee

My desk at 6am.

Every day I get up early and, coffee in hand, report for virtual duty at allAfrica.com*.
The first order of business is to identify important developments on the African continent that have happened since the end of the last shift the previous evening, find those stories in allAfrica’s network of partners and get them up on the site, with speed.
This is a variation of an early morning routine I have done for many years – and speed is always part of the equation. There is always some new story, or a development on a running issue, that just has to get “out there” as soon as possible.
Working at speed in this way is popularly supposed to mean a decline in quality, as expressed succinctly on the Slow Journalism website:

“Today’s ultra-fast news cycle rates being first above being right. It tells us what’s happening in real time, but rarely what it means.”

Farewell to Shiloh of the Ears

Dog with stick

Shiloh and the very first fabric toy stick that we bought for her. There are more pictures at the end of this post.

This Friday it will be three weeks since the death of Shiloh of the Ears.
Our dog, who was only eight years old, succumbed in the early hours of the morning of Friday August 17 to a horrible cancer, of the spleen thought the vet. We had an appointment to “put her to sleep”, as they say, but death came earlier, and I was glad of that. Better to go on her cushion next to my bed than in fear at the Horrible Place.
She and I had spent a lot of time in the Horrible Place in the run-up to her death, trying to find out what was wrong with her, coming and going with packets of pills and fear and hope in my heart. In her heart there was just fear. She would sit on the vet’s scale in the hope that being a good dog would make me take her home again (because she would always sit on it to be weighed, so obediently, not like other dogs who wriggle and bounce).
She had not been our dog – my dog – for long.
This coming September 24 will be the second anniversary of the day she came to live with us, a gift from a family emigrating to the United States and unable to take her with them. The Snymans posted her picture on Facebook, and since we had been looking for a new dog, and they said “good with cats”, she seemed perfect for us. And she was (good with cats, and perfect).
Her predecessor, our first dog Indiana, taught me the Way of the Dog, to like them, to understand the joyous and irritating and noisy and fun ways that dogs are are nothing like cats.

How to find a free picture that really is free

Google Images search result screenshot

What you get if you search on “eating salad” in Google Images.

If you work on an online news website, or run a blog, or do social media posting for yourself or for your company, you are often going to need a picture to illustrate your work.
If you are lucky, you may have access to images from your organisation’s photographers, or to an agency service. But if you are not in a big organisation, you will need to go elsewhere. And even if you do have access to photo services, you may find a need to illustrate a story with a stock image – a story for a travel site about how to pack when going away on holiday will need a picture of a suitcase.
When looking for such a picture, you have two main considerations:

* You want a good picture – clear, relevant to your content and not too cheesy (we all know the kind of stock photo I am talking about. A friend and colleague describes it as “women smiling while eating salad”).

* You don’t want to use a picture that is copyrighted. It is just not okay to use the work of professionals without paying them. So you either pay or find an image that you can use for free.

Shoes – yes, shoes – are a freelancer’s most important tool

Freelancer tools: Dog, shoes, gas heater

A freelancer’s essentials: a dog, a heater and pair of sturdy boots.

Years ago, when I both a freelancer and immersed in the chaotic life induced by having a small child in the house, I complained to a friend about how I couldn’t find something in my kitchen (or, in fact, anything in my home, most of the time).

Flylady, she said. You need Flylady.

So I looked up Flylady, signed up for her emails and slowly, slowly, regained my organised life.

Most South Africans have never heard of Flylady. She is Marla Cilley, who lives in the United States, and runs an email service aimed at helping people deal with clutter and getting their homes more organised. Her business model is based on selling cleaning tools and organising aids, like a fabulous calendar, so that her website and emails remain free. She offers gently bossy advice, systems thinking and a sense of humour. (FLY stands for Finally Loving Yourself).

Tips for writing an Internet news poll

Today – August 8, 2018 – there’s a poll on the News24 website on the topic of breastfeeding. It asks:

Is breastfeeding in public scandalous?

  Yes, it’s something that should be done in private

  No, but cover yourself

  No, it’s natural and breasts aren’t just for men’s sexual pleasure

The results of a News24 poll on breastfeeding

The results of the News24 poll.

The poll is just one way of asking a question about a burning issue – using what I think of as the “putting words in people’s mouths” option.

On the same day, MSN South Africa is using the same option for the poll choices:

Could SA become the next Zimbabwe?

Yes, we are well on our way

No, people are afraid of change

It’s already too late for us

Things will never ‘get that bad’

I’m ready to emigrate

The results of an MSN South Africa poll on South African politics

The results of the MSN South Africa poll

W24 has the other kind of poll, the one where the vote options are narrowed down simple yes/no choices – it is asking:

Are you attending the #TotalShutdown march?

Yes

No

The results of a Woman24 poll on the Total Shutdown march.

The results of the Woman24 poll.

All three are framed in a multiple choice format, and you don’t see the results of the poll until you have voted.

None of these polls will yield a scientific result, of course – they are really just little bits of Internet fluff, designed to draw readers’ attention to an issue, or drive them to read a story, or perhaps just to generate a few more clicks.

Yet they are all over the Internet, and if they are part of the furniture, then why not do them well?

I have a seat-of-the-pants set of guidelines to making polls. Here they are*:

  1. The poll should be topical, based on the site’s understanding of the news of the day – and it should be changed as soon as it becomes outdated (the W24 poll above refers to an event that has already happened… not such a good idea).
  2. The options should be clear and easy for readers to understand. And broadly applicable. I’d argue that the third option in the News24 poll doesn’t reflect a broad consensus. Lots of people probably think breast-feeding is natural – but it’s unclear how many of those would venture the opinion “breasts aren’t just for men’s sexual pleasure”. The option is harder to choose when so narrowly framed – so No, it’s natural would probably have done the job.
  3. The options should not overlap – they should be different enough that a genuine choice has to be made. In the MSN poll the options are not clearly different from each other. Yes, we are well on our way, and It’s already too late for us are options on the same continuum. People are afraid of change is hard to understand and people might be ready to emigrate for reasons other than a fear that South Africa is likely to become like Zimbabwe. My options as potential answers might have been a simple Yes/No/Maybe. And if I had to put words in people’s mouths I might have done it like this:

Could SA become the next Zimbabwe?

It’s a distinct possibility

No, we are a great country

We are already the next Zimbabwe!

 

  1. To get nuance right, run your poll past someone else – if they look blank, or bored, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
  2. Above all, put yourself in the reader’s shoes: run the question and options through in your mind as if you were seeing them for the first time. Do they make sense? Do they represent the sort of choices that most people might pick?

 

* I am doing some critique of the three polls I used as examples – not to show the particular sites up, but rather in a spirit of constructive criticism. I have made many flawed polls in my time!

The elements of a good headline

Newspaper page with headlines

The “joy to the weed” headline is a perfect example of one that relies on cultural understanding – in this case, it’s a reference to the Christian carol “Joy to the World”. Picture: Hayden Walker, Unsplash.

In the good old days of print journalism, in the depths of a smoke-filled subs room, there was one thing a junior sub-editor* wanted: for a grizzled night editor, or revise sub, to look over and say “Good headline”.
The elements of a good headline then were that it was clever or witty, or contained a subtle play on words. And the basis of that cleverness was the assumption that the newspaper and its readers had a shared understanding of the world.
The first time I got that “good headline” accolade was for a brief two-paragraph story about a doctor somewhere in the East who was using ants (or some by-product of ants) to cure people of a long-forgotten (by me) ailment. My headline was:

Take two ants,
call me later

In a 1982 medical paper, the reference is explained – it’s based on “take two aspirin and call me in the morning”, an age-old joke about the telephone advice given by a doctor trying to get a little extra sleep.