Projects and Updates, 2020-07-01

It's been a weird three months.

Projects and Updates, 2020-07-01

It's been a weird three months.

Playlist of music in this post: Spotify

Life in the age of SARS-CoV-2
Obviously the novel coronavirus has thrown everyone's life kittywampus; luckily I've been able to continue working from home. While that's introduced a set of challenges, addressing these challenges is absolutely a good problem to have. All the same, in case someone finds it helpful, here are some ways I've shifted my life in response to SARS-CoV-2.

Support Your Local Community
Supporting your community appeared in a previous update, and I've spent even more time considering how I can divert my dollars to locally owned businesses.

While I love their french fries, I haven't been to my local fast food mega-chain since the Great Pause. If my money helps a business survive until we're on the (hopeful-and-eventual) other side of this, I want it to be a place like The Naughty Greek. Or, when I decided I needed tea towels in my life, it was a great excuse to shop I Like You. I've even diverted my default grocery store option to Kowalski's.

Work/Life Balance
I keep a strict work/life balance and, along those lines, I have a work wardrobe that I keep fairly separate from my life wardrobe: work shirts, work jeans, work socks, work t-shirts, etc. For me, having separate clothing is a good brain hack: when I put on my work clothing, it's time for work; when I take them off, I'm very done with work.

I'm grateful that I can do my job from home, but it created a problem: I didn't have a good work/life sweatpants balance! Of course I didn't... who has "work" sweats and "life" sweats?

As of right this second? This guy.

If I'm going to spend so much time at home, I wanted something to make my personal time feel special... A work/life balance is still important, and I wanted a way to make work feel different from life.

So I called up Mill City Running (another chance to shop local!) and I bought some amazingly comfortable cozies. Now, when I’m done with the work day, I take off my work sweats, put on my life sweats, and get on with living.

The mental difference this makes for me can not be overstated. Changing out of my work sweats and into my cozies is like a light switch for my brain... a few seconds and my subconscious is done, despite being in the same physical space.

Feeling fake grass between your toes
I'm also grateful to have a balcony, which has been excellent. Almost immediately I decided to buy fake grass for my balcony and it's been amazing. A) The visual trick of something resembling grass outside is surprisingly effective at bolstering the spirits. B) It's surprisingly nice to walk outside in your bare feet and stick your feet in the fake grass. It's not as nice as real grass, but still entirely pleasant.

Kitting out my balcony has encouraged me to spend even more time on my balcony, which is an important change of scenery when stuck at home.

Feeling fresh flowers in your hands
Fresh flowers were already a normal-ish part of my life, but I figured if I'm going to be home all the time I might as well have more fresh flowers. And since they last 2 weeks max, there's ample opportunity to switch it up and get new visuals for your home.

Personal productivity in the age of SARS-CoV-2
When the novel coronavirus first spread across our nation, we all simultaneously realized we'd be spending most of our hours at home. I was one of the many people who determined I'd use the time alone to do Every Single Project that was ever on my backlist of projects to do.

Three months in, I can say:

  • I've been terrible about getting to creative projects.
  • I've been amazing about getting to non-creative projects.

Turns out creativity can be tough in times of high anxiety and uncertainty. It also turns out that crushing tasks with definitive steps to completion can make you (me) feel more in control of life, which can be helpful in times of high anxiety and uncertainty.

Of all the backburner projects to tackle during the Great Pause, my first focus was sorting through how I get stuff done. I'm decent about working through projects, so generally I fret about the efficiency and effectiveness of my infrastructure more than actual task completion.

In this particular moment, there was too much chaos in where and why I housed data: Google Keep, Microsoft To Do, Google Shopping Lists, Chrome bookmarks, Dropbox, Google Drive, blog drafts in Ghost (which are different from blog ideas in Keep), the third iteration of me trying to use OneNote but it still gets too messy for my purposes... all for tracking grocery shopping lists, home shopping lists, lists of things I may want to buy in the future, interesting whiskeys I should buy if I ever see them lists, articles I want to read, topics I want to research, articles I want to keep so I can reference them now, articles I want to keep so I can reference them later, articles I kept to reference when I was building a Raspberry Pi but I think I don't need them anymore, tasks to do, projects to plan, planned projects to turn into tasks to do, etc.

Here's a great example... Back in 2016 I noticed a tree that turned beautiful colors in the autumn. I took a picture and found out what type of tree it was. I decided if I ever purchased a home, I wanted my home to have that tree. But where in the heck am I supposed to store that information? How do I keep it out of the way until I need it, and discoverable once I do?[1]

Here's how I decided to focus my efforts:

  • Store most files with Dropbox, since that's where I have the most space.[2]
  • Google Photos is really useful, so keep pictures backed up with Google.
  • Anything that needs to be written or edited, including early drafts for this website, are stored in Google Drive for quick editing access with Google Docs.
  • Consolidate everything else into Microsoft 365.

The tools of Microsoft 365 were the biggest game changers for me, so here's a bit more on how I use them.

Microsoft Planner

I was first introduced to Microsoft Planner at work. It was so helpful that I determined to grab whatever special Microsoft subscription I would need in order to have access to the software at home.[3]

The essence of Planner is fairly straightforward: Plans > Buckets > Tasks.

  • A task is the smallest unit you'll use
  • A bucket holds tasks
  • A plan holds buckets


Planner's organizational structure works really well for me... for example:

  • Plan: "Life Plans"
  • Bucket: "Future Home?"
  • Task: "Find (Silver?) Maple trees"


The true glory of Planner, though, is how it interfaces with some other Microsoft products, namely syncing tasks with To Do and automating stuff with Power Automate.

Microsoft To Do
Planner can send tasks to To Do, and that makes To Do markedly more useful for me.

As far as list making software goes, Microsoft's is like many others: you make a list of lists, you put tasks in those lists, you check tasks off. My personal difficulty with "to do" software has always been how do you plan the tasks? Task-checking-off software is usually not designed for task planning, but that's usually where I tried to plan my tasks. The end result was always a list of lists that was messy and chaotic and overwhelming, and then I'd stop using the software altogether.

However, with Planner now planning my tasks, To Do can focus on what it does best... putting checkmarks next to tasks. And because Planner can feed tasks directly to To Do, planning tasks and doing tasks ended up dovetailing fairly seamlessly for me.

At this point, my doing stuff routine looks like this:

  • Create a broad plan in Planner
  • Hone the broad plan into specific, actionable tasks
  • Go through Planner, find tasks I'd like to complete soonish, and send them to To Do.
  • When I have time to work on something, look at the tasks I've sent to To Do and choose something to work on.
  • Work on task, put a checkmark on it.

This is all somewhat simplified, but the basic picture is there: Do complex planning in Planner, send discreet tasks to To Do.

Microsoft Power Automate
So this process is already a good, game changing process. However, a friend who works at Microsoft gave me the heads up that Power Automate was where the real good fun was, and he wasn't kidding.

Planner, excellent as it is, lacks a few features a person might want. For example, Planner doesn't do recurring tasks. However, Power Automate does recurring tasks, and Power Automate connects to Planner.

Here's my elementary understanding: Power Automate is a tool that can connect any app in your Microsoft 365 suite with any other app in your Microsoft 365 suite[4], while doing some cool stuff in between. Any of Power Automate's flows can be triggered manually, can be triggered by a certain process (e.g. receiving an email), or can run on a recurrent basis.

Example Usage
Here at I'm listening to all of the Grammys' Album of the Year nominations and re-choosing winners. For any given year of the Grammys, there are a lot of things to do:

  • Create nominee playlist
  • Create nominee post
  • Create winner playlist
  • Add winner(s) to page of all winners
  • Add winner(s) to playlist of all winners
  • Create winner post
  • Create winner story on Instagram
  • Create revisited large review playlist
  • Create revisited playlist
  • Create revisited post
  • Create revisited Instagram story

Previously, I would try to remember each step as I needed to remember it. (Even while typing the above, I forgot that I had a playlist with all of the winners.) Now, it's automated:


Whenever I need, I use a manual trigger to have Power Automate produce a Planner task for each of these items; when ready I can attack them one at a time.

Archiving... with Yammer?
Archiving data is another thing Planner isn't really designed to do. If I need to read an article on service blueprinting, Planner is a great place to put that URL. If I need to save an article on service blueprinting to reference later, there's no useful place to store it in Planner that's not in the way.

My ideal archiving solution would be something like:

  • A knowledge base or wiki,
  • In Microsoft 365, since I'd be logged in anyway,
  • That utilizes tags or hashtags.

The closest thing I could find was Yammer: it creates posts, it supports hashtagging, and for now that's most of what I need. Here's how I have it set up:

  • For any plan I have in Planner, I have a parallel plan[5] in Yammer.
  • Anything I want to keep as long-term knowledge, (like a service blueprinting article,) moves from its plan in Planner to its parallel plan in Yammer.

It would be rad if Yammer auto-generated a page of all of my hashtags, but beggars and choosers and whatnot.[6]

Events App: Update
(When better technology = less technology)
A personal rule: if I'm at home, I turn off my phone.

The nerd reason
I really like my Pixel 3, and I'm hoping I can keep it until Pixel 6 comes out. The battery is likely to go first, and batteries fail as charge cycles increase.

I did some napkin math, and turning my phone off when I got home meant I'd start to reach my charge cycle max around year 3 instead of year 2. So, in napkin-math-theory, this will keep my battery operational until Pixel 6.

The social reason
I actively minimize the time I spend looking at my phone while in public. Instead of giving my attention to my phone, I want to give that attention to what's around me... especially when I'm with friends.

Using my phone at home trains my brain to give attention to my phone... I figure ignoring my phone when I'm home makes it easier to ignore it when I'm out.

So when I'm at home, my phone is off. However, my events app lives on my phone.

Although I'm not planning complex events right now, it is nice to occasionally see a friendly face for a round of online Codenames. When considering how to go about planning with my app unavailable, a few options immediately came to mind:

  • Use my phone at home?
  • Chromebooks can run Android apps... Is it possible to install the app, from Android Studio, directly to my Chomebook?[7]
  • I have some old tablets I'm not using?

The perfect solution came to me after a good night's sleep:

My phone was a great location for the original solution because I often accessed the data on-the-go. Since I'm home most of the time, and the events are less complex, a good ol' notebook is actually the best solution.

A reminder to us all: digital can do some pretty rad things, and sometimes the best solution is analog.

Five Albums

  • Betty, Betty Who
  • Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa
  • [Love Symbol], Prince
  • Sweetener, Ariana Grande
  • Ugh, those feels again, Snoh Aalegra

Spotify playlist

  1. For the record: It's currently stored in the "third iteration of me trying to use OneNote and still not quite liking it"; it's definitely a maple tree and perhaps a silver maple. ↩︎

  2. Note: Dropbox's killer feature is that programs like Gimp and Android Studio can read and write directly to a Dropbox folder in Linux, meaning files are automatically backed up as soon as they're saved. If Google's storage solution did that, I'd likely migrate. ↩︎

  3. Microsoft 365 Business Standard ↩︎

  4. So, essentially, it's a series of tubes. ↩︎

  5. They're called Communities, and I'm sure they actually operate very differently. For this purpose, though, just know that that for every plan in Planner I set up a similar thing in Yammer. ↩︎

  6. In theory, Power Automate may be able to do this for me... A) Check new post for hashtag B) check hashtag against known list of hashtags C) if a new hashtag, add it to the list of hashtags. ↩︎

  7. I'm thinking this would be wildly complicated... and I couldn't even find a website that addressed the existence of this concept, let alone provide any sort of hint of how to do it. ↩︎