My Tools: IFTTT – Automating Your Life

Why do it yourself if you can get a computer to do it for you.


It really is that simple:

  • IF I favourite a tweet THEN create a note in Evernote
  • IF I go to the gym THEN update a log of gym visits in Evernote

In IFTTT terms the This is a Trigger, the That is an Action. A Trigger with an Action is known as a Recipe. The sources of Triggers and Actions (like Twitter, or Instagram) are known as Channels. There are currently 164 Channels.

Imagine a service on the internet and it’s likely that there will be a channel for it which is likely to have a set of triggers then start thinking about what you could do:

  • Every time I go to the gym I could post on Facebook.
  • Every time I leave the office I could email my wife.
  • Every Saturday I could send an email of the day’s weather.
  • Every time posts in a particular section I could get IFTTT to phone me and tell me.
  • Every time it’s sunset I could turn on my Philips Hue lights (not that I have any).

I only use a few channels, but that’s all I need for now. It’s amazing what you can do with a few recipes:

  • IF I favourite a tweet THEN create a note in Evernote with the tweet details in it.
  • IF I write a tweet THEN create a note in Evernote with the tweet details in it.
  • IF I post a picture to Instagram THEN create a note in Evernote with the picture in it.
  • IF I write a Blog post THEN create a note in Evernote with the text and picture in it.
  • IF I mark a blog as Save for Later in Feedly THEN create a link note in Evernote with a subset of the post text in.
  • IF I arrive at the gym THEN amend a log note in Evernote with time and date.

My recipes all use Evernote as the target; it’s the place that I use to record my online life, and some of my physical life too, but that’s a post for another day.

If you are wondering how you say IFTTT then the advice from the makers is to image GIFT without a G.


How I Process Information (Normally)

One part of my job is to stay current with the ever-changing technology and business landscapes. This means that I process hundreds (probably thousands) of items of information every day.

I don’t read all of them, but I try to process all of them on a normal day. It should be noted here that I try to have normal days as often as possible, but there are many days when that’s not possible. On those many days I do what I can to keep the framework working.

How I Process Information (Normally)

The normal way that I process information focusses on mornings. I’m mostly a morning person so that’s the best time for me to be alert because processing lots of information you should do when half asleep.

The morning is also the best time, for me, to establish and work through a routine. My morning routine works in six phases:

  • Quiet Time – when I read something that is meaningful normally using an application on my iPhone. I’ll then journal about this into a moleskine notebook.
  • Walk Time – I try to start each day with at least 40 minutes walking. During this time I’ll listen to a podcast on my iPhone. I find that the inbuilt podcast application is good enough for me.
  • Scan Time – I will work my way through the overnight deluge of blogs via Feedly and all the interesting updates from Twitter. My focus on Twitter is a set of people I have in a list called Interesting, I am likely to scan through the first few tweets from the rest of the people who I follow but not always. In Feedly I’ll mark some items as Save for Later; in Twitter I’ll Favourite some tweets. Both the favourited tweets and the saved Feedly posts will get copied into Evernote via IFTTT.
  • Email and Calendar Time – I try to limit the time I spend on work emails. The part that I do in the morning routine is to get to inbox-zero by moving items into one of two folders – Actioned or To Action. We happen to use Lotus Notes as an organisation.
  • Plan Time – I have a physical folder with pre-printed Productivity Schedules in it. I’ll fill one of these out for each day. This becomes my plan for the day, it isn’t a task list it’s more than that, I’ll write about it some time.

It’s worth noting that there is only one application in these phases that is provided by my employer; the rest are either free, or I pay for them, this is my personal productivity regime.

Having written this post I realise that I’m a bit delinquent on posts for the My Tools series; time to do some catching up.

A number of colleagues have written something similar:

Icons by Garrett Knoll, Brian Gonzalez, Andrea Verzola and Agustin Amenabar Larrin from The Noun Project used under Creative Commons – Attribution (CC BY 3.0)

Releasing creativity through doodling

An interesting article in the Wall street Journal entitled Doodling for Dollars says:

YewPut down that smartphone; pick up that crayon.

Employees at a range of businesses are being encouraged by their companies to doodle their ideas and draw diagrams to explain complicated concepts to colleagues.

While whiteboards long have been staples in conference rooms, companies such as Facebook Inc. are incorporating whiteboards, chalkboards and writable glass on all sorts of surfaces to spark creativity.

This is something I have noticed too. People are so distracted by technology these days that they need to be drawn into a meeting before they really engage. The most productive meetings I have are ones where there are a small number of people all contributing to a whiteboard. It’s not possible to be a part-time member of that type of meeting, you’re either in, or you are out.

The most popular posts on this site continue to be ones on Rich Pictures which is a form of doodling to communicate a concept. I regularly walk into meetings with sheets of A3 paper in order to draw out what I think I’m hearing, this often takes the form of a mind-map, but is just as likely to be a spider diagram linking together the conversations.

Axiom: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I really like pictures.

The most visited page on this site is one about Rich Pictures.

I regularly pick out interesting Infographics.

One of my favourite books at home is called Information is Beautiful which is named after the popular website.

In Search of JimmyWhy? Because “a picture is worth a thousand words”, or at least that’s the axiom I tell myself.

I wonder, though, whether this is really true.

If it were really true we’d spend much more time drawing, and far less time writing words. Yet writing words is what we do and do a lot (much like I’m doing now).

Many think that the saying is ancient and oriental, but the evidence for that is somewhat sketchy at least the literal translation. What can be said is that it was used in the 1920’s, became popular in the 1940’s and continues to be a preferred phrase. The variation on this “A picture speaks a thousand words” didn’t come until the 1970’s:


Just because something is popular, and just because it appears to be true doesn’t mean that it is true.

In order to assess the validity of the axiom I set off down the scientific route. What research was there for the value if diagrams?

If it were to be true then there would be some clear evidence for a picture being a much better way of communicating than a set of either spoken or written words.

I was always taught that there were three types of learners: visual learners, auditory (listening) learners and kinaesthetic (doing) learners. So I wondered whether there might be some mileage in the research done into that particular subject. If visual learners are stronger than auditory learners then it would add weight to the premise. But it turns out that learning styles might be one of my anti-axioms. So I gave that up as a dead-end.

My next port of call was to think of one particular diagram type and see whether there was any science behind the value of a particular technique.

Most of the pictures I draw are really diagrams with the purpose of communicating something.

As a fan of mind maps as a diagramming technique I wondered whether there was any clear evidence of their value. Back in 2006 Philip Beadle wrote an article in The Guardian on this subject and the use of mind maps in education:

The popular science bit goes like this. Your brain has two hemispheres, left and right. The left is the organised swot who likes bright light, keeps his bedroom tidy and can tolerate sums. Your right hemisphere is your brain on drugs: the long-haired, creative type you don’t bring home to mother.

According to Buzan, orthodox forms of note-taking don’t stick in the head because they employ only the left brain, the swotty side, leaving our right brain, like many creative types, kicking its heels on the sofa, watching trash TV and waiting for a job offer that never comes. Ordinary note-taking, apparently, puts us into a “semi-hypnotic trance state”. Because it doesn’t fully reflect our patterns of thinking, it doesn’t aid recall efficiently. Buzan argues that using images taps into the brain’s key tool for storing memory, and that the process of creating a mind map uses both hemispheres.

The trouble is that lateralisation of brain function is scientific fallacy, and a lot of Buzan’s thoughts seem to rely on the old “we only use 10% of the neurons in our brain at one time” nonsense. He is selling to the bit of us that imagines we are potentially super-powered, probably psychic, hyper-intellectuals. There is a reason we only use 10% of our neurons at one time. If we used them all simultaneously we would not, in fact, be any cleverer. We would be dead, following a massive seizure.

He goes further:

As visual tools, mind maps have brilliant applications for display work. They appear to be more cognitive than colouring in a poster. And I think it is beyond doubt that using images helps recall. If this is the technique used by the memory men who can remember 20,000 different digits in sequence while drunk to the gills, then it’s got to be of use to the year 8 bottom set.

The problem is that visual ignoramuses, such as this writer, can’t think of that many pictures and end up drawing question marks where a frog should be.

Oh dear, another cul-de-sac. In researching the mind-map though I did get to a small titbit of evidence, unfortunately from wikipedia (not always the most reliable source:

Farrand, Hussain, and Hennessy (2002) found that spider diagrams (similar to concept maps) had a limited but significant impact on memory recall in undergraduate students (a 10% increase over baseline for a 600-word text only) as compared to preferred study methods (a 6% increase over baseline).

That’ll do for me for now, it’s not “a thousand words” but it’s good enough for my purposes.

Why am I comfortable with just a small amount of evidence? Because this is one of those axioms where it’s not only about scientific proof.

Thinking about pictures in their broadest sense there are certainly pictures that would take more than a thousand words to describe them.

There are pictures that communicate emotions in a way that words would struggle to portray.

There are diagrams which portray a simple truth in a way that words would muddle and dilute.

In these situations the picture is clearly worth a lot of words, but our words would all be different. The way I would describe an emotional picture would be different to the words you would use. So it’s not about the number of words, but the number of different words.

This little bit of research has got me thinking though.

How often do we draw a diagram thinking that everyone understands it, but we’re really excluding the “visual ignoramuses” (as Philip Beadle describes himself). or the “visually illiterate” (as others describe it)?

In order to communicate we need to embrace both visual literacy and linguistic literacy in a way that is accessible to the audience. I used to have a rule in documentation, “every diagram needs a description”. The PowerPoint age has taken us away from that a bit and perhaps it’s time to re-establish it so that we can embrace the visual and the literal.

I’m happy to keep this as an axiom, but I need to be a bit more careful about where I apply it.

What motivates?

If you still think that carrot-and-stick is still a good metaphor for how to motivate people then you should watch this 10 minute animation of Daniel Pink giving an overview of his book Drive:

Daniel Pink: Drive

A 40 minute version of the who talk it’s available here.

If you think that Daniel is being a bit idealistic in his interpretation of the science then you should also watch Clay Shirky’s presentation to TED on Cognitive Surplus.

That’s right – money doesn’t motivate other than in the very basic of activities.

I love the way that these animations are a bit like an active rich picture.

Rich Pictures – Showing The Peoples Perspective

I’m really enjoying the way that Rich Pictures have entered into the consciousness of the place where I work.

Tarn HowesActually, it’s gone even further than that, I was recently at a customer presentation, with a customer I didn’t know, and they displayed a Rich Picture in the format I’ve been using.

The use for these pictures that I see repeatedly is to display a people perspective for a problem and/or a solution.

The use of people icons and speech bubbles abound – “I need a….”, “Why is this…”

This is a huge result, not because it’s people using Rich Pictures, but because it’s people taking the time to consider the perspective of the people in the middle of the problem, or the solution.

Stories in Business

I seem to be surrounded by long documents and large spreadsheets again. People have spent hours on these pieces of work, but I’m unlikely to read them. It’s a shame, but it’s the reality.

Trying to push a mouse aroundThe other day Shel Israel wrote in “Story Telling VS 10,0000 years of PowerPoint” about the challenge of the bullet-point culture that we are in and the stories that are deep within our human nature.

If you’ve been reading this blog, and my twitter updates for any length of time, I am not a fan of large documents or bullet-points, but I am a huge fan of stories (here)

The following story is a caricature of a real meeting:

“Oh no, It’s that Tuesday in the month again, that one when Bill gets to talk us through the standard 84 page bullet-point fest that he loves so much.” I think to myself as I look at my diary and the day that is ahead.

I know that this two hour green block in my diary means that I will be entering into a form of torture chamber once again. A torture chamber where I want to stand up and say “who cares”, but know that I will, as always, sit there like a good boy and say nothing. I will start the meeting determined to focus and to be constructive, but I know that over time the BlackBerry will get more and more attention, and the meeting will slip steadily into the background.

Sure enough that is exactly what happens. After reading through the contents of the first 10 slides I’m almost 100% focussed on anything other than the never ending stream of bullet-points set out before me.

My BlackBerry flashes, I know what it is going to be before I even look at it, it’s from Mike who’s sat across from me. His phone is getting a similar amount of attention to mine and he has sent me a text – it’s not complementary. My reply isn’t exactly constructive.

I know that I will never get back the seconds, minutes and hours that are passing before me. I set there ashamed by my lack of courage – “why don’t I say something? Anything?” – but I don’t. I let the time tick on and drip away.

And then someone does say something, out of the blue they ask a question. They break right in – mid-bullet-point.

But what difference does all this stuff make to Mary?”

Mary? Why Mary?” says Bill

Because she’s the person who complains the most to me about all of this. There isn’t a week goes by when she isn’t telling me how useless it all is? The other day I could see how stressed and frustrated she was. It’s not like her so I asked her what was wrong, and she told me. She told me about the time it takes to get things done. She told me about the lack of answers she gets from the people running the service. She told me about how no-one else will use the system because it’s so bad, but she doesn’t have a choice. What difference is this going to make to her?”

Well I don’t know?” said Bill looking a bit flustered

“She’s just in the next office why don’t a get her and she can tell us”

Mary joined us and tells us about her challenges, her problems, her frustrations, her annoyances. She has some great ideas about how it could be so much better too.

At first Bill tries to get us back to the slides that he is determined that we should get through, but he soon realised that he has lost. We wanted to hear Mary’s story, we wanted to know how we could make her life better, we want to hear her ideas.

We had our story and we were going to get as much out of it as we could.

There are all sorts of techniques for introducing stories into business, and in particular, into the system architecture and design business where I find myself. These stories are far more powerful than a slide deck of bullet-points could ever be. I think I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again, one of the reasons I love Rich Pictures is because done well they tell a story.

People stand around gossiping and will happily do it for hours, but I can’t imagine people spending the same amount of time discussing the contents of page 46 paragraph 4 of the latest technical tome.

Tell the story.

Designed on the back of an envelope

We are in the middle of a general election here in the UK, and one of the criticisms that gets banded around is that certain politicians have created their policies on the ”back of an envelope”.

SienaThe phrase used to be “back of a fag packet”, but we seem to have gone all politically correct on that.

This phrase is always used as an insult, but for me it’s actually a badge of honour, and I see Rich Pictures as the tool to do that.

My experience after many years of solution design is that the best ones start with a simple diagram, or set of diagrams.

I’m not saying that the detailed work doesn’t need to be done, or that long lists of requirements aren’t needed. The problem with starting there is that you start in the detail and miss out on the reason why you are doing something.

The simple diagram enables you to communicate and understand the vision and the overall approach.

Whether it’s a whiteboard, a flipchart, a notebook, a blank sheet of paper, or even the back of an envelope simple diagrams are the place to start.

Found In Translation: The Case for Pictures in Business

One of the most popular blogs on this site is the one on Rich Pictures. I think that pictures are fabulous, so I really liked Dan Roam’s article on ChangeThis called Found In Translation: The Case for Pictures in Business.

Tower Bridge - Freshly PaintedIn this article Dan tells a simple story about getting directions in Moscow and the four different ways in which he could have been given the directions.

  • The Narrative
  • The Checklist
  • The Map
  • The Landmark Sketch

and Dan describes each one of them:

All four of these sets of directions are correct. Following any one of them should in theory get us to the Gagarin Museum in the same amount of time. But here’s my question: I’d like you to look over the four options again, really think about it for a moment, and then ask yourself this: if we actually were in Moscow, which option would you prefer?

The powerful communication methods are the map and the landmark sketch – without a doubt. We all know it’s true, so why do we use so many words in business?

I believe that for practical, business-oriented problem solving—when you and your team need to address something right in front of you right now, the visual options—the map and the landmark sketch are without question the way to go. The fact that we so rarely see these kinds of pictures used in business is why I write my books.

Over the last two days I’ve filled sheet after sheet of flipchart paper with diagrams. We’ve been talking through a solution with a customer, a solution that takes thousands of words to document. The documents don’t communicate, they just document. I had presentation slides and charts, but I knew that they wouldn’t communicate either. Simple blocks and lines on a chart with a commentary – that’s what communicated.

There’s something very powerful about a conversation held over a piece of paper, and I think it’s something intrinsic in who we are, but something that we suppress as adults. My reason for saying this is the difference that I see in the way that children react to paper table-cloths and the reaction of adults. What do children do with paper table-cloths? They write and draw on them, they get creative. What do adults do? They protect them, even though we know that paper table-cloth is going straight in the bin as soon as we have left. Why is that? One of the reasons, I think, is that the children’s  need to be creative is fresh and unimpaired, as adults we’ve come to suppress it so much that we don’t even think about it.

If you haven’t come across ChangeThis before then you really are missing out on a treat. I really like their manifesto.

Rich Pictures

I’m doing a bit of work with Rich Pictures at the moment. I’m quite enjoying the storyboard elements of the process.

For those of you who don’t know what I am talking about then here is an example from the Open University:


Basis isn’t it? That’s the point.

There are a number of elements to a Rich Picture:

  • pictorial symbols;
  • keywords;
  • cartoons;
  • sketches;
  • symbols;
  • title.

The most interesting part for me is the “cartoons” part. As business people we can be so “professional” that we want things to look great from the start with fancy graphics. Rich Pictures allow us to step back and to deal in symbols and icons to depict an issue.

The challenge I am anticipating is that the Rich Pictures that I have created will need to go through a review cycle with “professional” people. As such I am going to have to battle the tendency to water down the message that comes with reviews. The challenge that I am wanting to depict is a big challenge with lots of facets to it. if we review it too heavily we will make it look far simpler and remove all of the value.

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