Productivity and Pixel Rigs - My Workspaces

So I was working on my post about Project Management and started this little guy right here, realizing that it was in need of it's own post (I know, 2 posts in one day = bad).

I'm a sucker for slick desktop setups and slick usage of screen space. Hell, Rands even made a term for something I do a while back and I was finally able to refer to my precise window management systems as Pixel Rigs.

My setups at work and home are so blaringly different, it's pretty obvious which is used for what. My home setup is dark, almost brooding, and allows me to enjoy myself to the max, while my work setup helps me to work most effectively on the things that I do.

After I show you these two completely different environments, I'll explain what's used for what.

Here's the comparison between the two:

The image to your right is my home setup. On the left is a 37" widescreen LCD TV. That's for media. Movies, Music, Etc. Right now, there's WinAmp on the Bento Skin running the Milkdrop Vis. To the right of that is my monitor. A 22" widescreen LG LCD. I love it. And to the right of THAT is my laptop. All of this is sync'd up using Synergy, which lets me use the same keyboard and mouse to control both systems. Speaking of input devices, I've got a new Logitech G15 as my keyboard of choice, as well as a Logitech G9 as my mouse of choice. Love those guys. The little blue glowy thing that you see on the bottom left is the power switch on the front of my server, and the blue glowy screen between the monitor and the laptop is the control unit for my Z-680 5.1 Speaker System (no link available). To the lower right, you see my Full-Tower case.

System Specs for main system:
Motherboard: Asus A8N32-SLI
Processor: AMD Athlon FX-60 OC'd to 2.86 ghz
Proc Cooler: Thermaltake Big Typhoon
Ram: 3 Gigs
Video Card: eVGA 9600GT SSC
Optical Drives: Sony DVD/CD R/RW Drive, LiteOn CD R/RW Drive
36 Gig WD Raptor System Drive
150 Gig WD Raptor Program Drive
250 Gig WD Caviar Data Drive
500 Gig WD Caviar Data Drive

Server Specs:
Motherboard: Asus A7N8X Deluxe
Processor: AMD Athlon 2800+ XP
Ram: 2 Gigs
Optical Drive: Sony DVD
40 Gig Maxtor System Drive (no link)
2 x 500 Gig WD Caviar Data Drive

Compare that to the picture to your left. That's my work setup. The laptop is to your left now, propped up on a monitor stand, with personal stuff above it to give me the mental breaks I need at work, but not at home. To the right of that are my two main monitors at work. Normal. Not widescreen. Above those is a shelf with stuff and junk. To the right of them are my phone and headset, an organizer/pad of paper thinger, and off-frame is a calendar, a paper organizer, and behind me is a whiteboard. Also, off frame to the left is another shelf, as well as a whiteboard under it. The keyboard is my old Logitech G15, and the mouse is my old Battlefield2142 G5. Behind that left monitor is my 250 Gig external drive. That sucker contains a nearly complete replication/backup of my music collection for work. It also serves as a backup.

Common to both of these setups are my headphones. The Steelseries Steelsound 5H V2 headset is incredible. I use 'em for late-night loudfests, and for listening to music at work.

Click the pictures for the Flickr-commented versions.

Looking at these two images tells you that I use these two setups for very different things. My home setup is dark and almost brooding, with big screens and not much else (save for a pirate flag hanging to my right and a Stevie Ray Vaughan poster above the T.V. This allows me to maximize my gaming experience and creative juices when, say, I'm playing CS:S, or mixing down music using Audacity. I also get into the Zone VERY easily in my home environment, because my setup is naturally great like that. My work setup is bright and the mental breaks that I don't need at home. It's accessible and open, almost inviting (which I do to make sure people know they can bug me for stuff).

You'll notice that I didn't post the system specs for the work rig, save for the external drive. This is because I don't few the system specs as being important for it. It's my work desktop. I use it for nothing else, really, and don't need to worry about it doing much else. While it would be nicer to have some bigger monitors (I'm starting to pull for 19" widescreens) and maybe slightly faster system (P4s are showing their age), it's purpose isn't speed, It's purpose is functionality, and for that, it wins the Gold Medal.

Pixel Rigs

I stole the term "Pixel Rig" from Rands over at Rands in Repose. He gave a term to this bizarre obsessive art that we've got.

I can't really provide a graphical representation of my work setup at the moment, so hopefully this description will suffice - My left monitor has Outlook maximized on it 24/7. The right monitor houses various other windows, including Firefox, spreadsheets, and various XML, HTML, and CSS files open in Notepad++. A console window is sometimes open, too, for me to do my groovy console thing. When I get boned and need to crunch for time when, say, styling HTML that's getting dynamically called through a javascript file, I'll switch over to another desktop to separate it from email and the like, which helps me focus on it more. I'll explain in a moment how I do that.

My main desktop has no pixel rig, because it doesn't need to. The only item worth mentioning is WinAmp, which is usually maximized on the T.V. After that, there's no order here, only chaos.

The best pixel rig I have is on my laptop. I sucked every pixel I could into the pinnacle of organization (at least for me). I can see everything I want to at once, without needing to touch a window. Here's the screenshot (Click image for fully commented Flickr version):

There's a lot going on here. On the left there's a large amount of info from a program I use on the laptop called RainMeter. This little app monitors system stats, tells me the time, and a few other small uses, and does it in a lean little executable with highly customizable skins. Really neat little app. To the right of that is my WinAmp playlist editor. Below those two is the WinAmp Vis. To the right of the Vis and Playlist is Trillian Territory. There's tabbed window that holds all of my conversations, including my always-open twitter IM interface through XMPP. Right of the main window is the contact list window for Trillian. Below all of that stuff is the main window for WinAmp. And below that are the Slit and Task Manager for my shell, Xoblite (a fork of the BB4Win code).

This layout will get other windows on top of it for web browsing, jotting notes, etc., but it's extremely effective for me. I've always been obsessed with pixel rigs and this is probably the best one I've ever had. When at home, I just close WinAmp (since it's on my desktop) and away I go.

This gives me a perfect opportunity to talk about my shell. Those of you who looked at that and wondered what distro of Linux I'm running would be wrong in your assumption. I don't run Linux. Instead, I run a windows shell replacement called Xoblite, a fork of the BB4win code. The idea is simple: replace the windows "explorer"shell with something that's more configurable and leaner. Usage is easy. Right click the desktop (which holds no icons), and there's a menu. I just navigate to the correct item (stuff I use a lot get's put right in that first menu, other things get put into intuitive submenus that I define) and I'm good. Xoblite also has multi desktop support, which means that I can have as many different virtual workspaces as I want, further enhancing my productivity. Also, I hardly use windows explorer after I found xplorer², a dual-pane, tabbed filebrowser. I've got Xoblite running on all of my systems, as well as xplorer². That lets me do a lot at any given moment. Throw Notepad++, Excel, and Firefox into the list and I'm in heaven.

What kind of setups are you using at home? Leave a comment and tell me all about it. I'd love to hear.


Project Management - A Look

I work in an interesting field - one that doesn't really get touted by universities in big banners or promotional campaigns, nor gets the same kind of mention as a Programmer, but a field that is incredible and vital for some companies that wish to move forward.

Project Management. It's quite a pain to define exactly what a project manager does. I say that, knowing that some people would grill me and define it in a few words. But each of those people would define it differently. Which is partially what makes Project Management such an interesting field. That's also one of the reasons it's such a strange field, though, as the expectations from project managers varies from company to company.

In my particular case, I facilitate the launching of websites for clients. Most (not all) project managers focus on a few HUGE projects a year (usually, not always), and generally get to dedicate their time to these projects with little else on their plate. In my case, however, I've managed the process of launching 30-40 websites at once. Granted, that's what it's like when I'm super flooded, but still. My goal is quality, then volume. I'm usually managing somewhere between 10-15 launches at any moment, all with different people, needs, etc.

So how do I manage all of this and keep a level head? How do I meet 15 different needs simultaneously? Also, how do I make sure I maintain a high level of customer satisfaction and give each client that feeling of a 1:1 ratio, while still spreading my time out amongst 15 of them? And how do I not work a ridiculous amount, while keeping projects on time?

One thing I will point out (before getting to the meat n' bones of this) is that this from the experienced I've gained working with people in the newspaper industry, who (once they realize they, too, want their ads online) are incredibly impatient sometimes, partially due to the fact that each of these projects lasts 4 weeks. Sometimes it's shorter than that, but sometimes it can go longer. These observations are just general thoughts and ideas.

Mantra: Manage the project, never let it manage you

This is possibly one of the most important lessons that you can learn, and it you can easily use it for whatever you do.

It is critical to remember that you are a Project Manager. Your abilities are within the scope of Managing Projects. Kinda weird, huh?

I think a lot of people get lost on this one, because they think that the project is the most important thing at that moment. But it isn't, because there's something else that's far more important. You.

Yes, you as a human being are far more important than any project. Doesn't matter how much money, time, effort, etc. has been invested. What matters is that it gets done. Or resolved. Or abandoned because it's been realized that it's not necessary. Or something else. But you need to keep you in mind. If it's too much, just say "no".

Think about that one guy in your office who's always really stressed, working late, and unable to stop jittering from the massive amounts of caffeine that he has to endure to stay awake and alert enough. He's always saying "Sure!" to taking on more work, but he's lost that touch that he had when he first started. He lost his finesse. He's still good, but lacking in customer satisfaction.

That's the guy who lets the project run his life.

Process Management, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and love the Process

Let me come out and say, very clearly, that processes can be the greatest productivity boosters in the world, as well as the biggest creativity killers, time wasters, and pains in the ass.

Here's the thing with processes. They have their place. They make common tasks easy to handle, because we know what we have to do every time. But let's be honest here: real actual creativity is hindered by the structure that processes can give us. Yes, we have processes that we go through when we're creative, but those processes are inconsistent as all hell, and rarely are the same each time.

But the really cool thing about processes is that we can let it control projects for us, without much thought. In my particular case, I have a sort of tiered system of processes for each site launch I do. There's a definite hierarchal system that must be followed if the site's to make it live, and be functional. There are also items that are "standalones" in that they don't depend on anything else, and nothing really depends on them (kind of) and can be done at any time. When one item gets finished, I usually quickly verify, record, and then assign the next item that needs to be done. This well-defined system allows me to not think about the minute details of the launch. They let me focus on the more important things, like site design, managing expectations from the client, setting up major backend revisions for their site should they need it, etc. As long as I keep tabs and push items along, I'm golden and don't need to think much other than "Cool, this is done". It also allows me to maximize my time in the Zone (scroll down the page for the section on that) and be as effective as possible.

Another important part of Process Management is knowing where all of your shit stands. You should be able to know with little effort where your project stands. What's done, what's being done, and what's to be done. If you cannot accomplish this, you're boned.

You should also know what issues and items the receiving party has had so far, so you can be aware of future requests, should they arise. Not required, but definitely helpful.

Timelines: How to not be completely off on time estimates

I figured this warranted it's own header, as it can be important to not PISS OFF A LOT OF PEOPLE.

One of the biggest mistakes I see made most commonly is the committal to the timeline as the end-all of the project. If you ever catch yourself saying "This item needs to be done by x time, but it'll be done by y time, and I can't do that, because the timeline says I can't", then you need to reread the first point of this post. The timeline should be a guide. If something isn't going to get done by the time the timeline says it should be, give a heads up to ALL affected parties that there's a darn good chance that you won't make the agreed upon deadline.

This isn't to say that timelines are always a bad thing, however. You can use them to gain backing, for instance, when an important item needs to get done at that particular moment. You can use it in the political sense, but this can get old, and make you look bad and increase tension pretty quick, among other things.

When plotting out a timeline, try to "pad" each date. For instance, if an item usually takes 2 days to turnaround under normal circumstances, then give that item 3 days in your timeline. If an item normally takes 1 week, give it two, or a week and a half. Remember, there's no penalty for getting things done early.


Productivity is not just when you know you're getting things done, but when you feel that way, too. It's that thing where you get into the zone and aren't going to leave for any reason and HEY that person just bugged me and now I'm pissed. But then you get back in fairly easily because your work environment is conducive to it. Productivity is just as influenced by your personal work space as your own work ethics.

Actually, no. I take that back. The space can be MORE important than the ethic.

Here's my thing: if my work area is setup to make working easy, enjoyable, and etc., then I'm going to kick more ass because my workspace is going to help me do that MORE than a space that's not.

I could get into the individual workspaces I have, but I'm all ready working on that post.


This area is one that a lot of project managers (especially the newbies) tend to forget about.

Think about something for a second. You've been enlisted to orchestrate something, and that something more than likely involves a group of people, sometimes an entire company. Your work means JACK if you don't do something to let people know what's going on. This can be as simple as an IM, a Twitter Post, and update to your CRM and/or Issue/Project Tracker, or some other form of announcement. But there's one thing that every milestone should have. I'm going to give this point it's own line, because I feel that it's that important.

An Email.

Everything that gets finished, from the small to the large, should have an email with some info about it, and that email should be sent within 24 hours of completion, ideally 4 hours, tho.

Why an email? Email acts as a great tracking system in itself. It's independent of many of the other solutions out there and can act as the great "OH BTW THIS GOT DONE AT THIS TIME THX" tool, which is extremely useful for CYA, or Covering Your Ass. Covering your ass is what you do when you communicate. This communication thing should also be done if there are problems or changes that could possibly pose any potention issue unde specific circumstances when the moon is in this phase on this day of the month but only if it's a Wednesday. This gives you the opportunity to make it known that you did what you could and that you made them aware that something might be POSSIBLY REMOTELY POSSIBLE.

Wait, that's it?

All in all, remember that project managers are of an interesting breed. We have this natural ability to wear multiple hats, sometimes wearing all of those hats at the same time. If you are just getting into project management and don't really understand what the rest of the company is about, you need to spend time learning that BEFORE doing ANYTHING ELSE. I say that because, especially in circumstances like mine, you'll hold up projects and make things take longer than they should. Plus, it'll help you think of ways to solve problems quickly and with as little effort as possible. Hell, your new insight might even help people to find a new process to manage things, saving everybody time.

Leave comments to share your tips and tricks. Even if you're not a project manager, feel free to leave a comment talking about your experiences with us. What you like, what you don't, etc.



I've been pondering my insatiable appetite for nicotine as of late, and it comes as no surprise to me that I've got a problem.

I've got an addiction to stimulants of the legal variety.

We're not discussing Amphetamines here. Nor are we talking about the various substances that some use to get high. I'm talking about the substances that let me live out this nice little existence without going out of my fucking mind, let me stay up late, let me work effectively, and let me be creative, and let me be who I am.

The following sentence is partially a realization about myself. It's also a very simple statement:

I am addicted to a couple substances.

There are only two that exist in my world, really, but they allow me to function on a basic level, which is kind of depressing, as I never thought that I'd get to this place, let alone write a blog about it.


This one's nearly vital to my existence. After having my 24 hour cessation (chain of flights to Prague), I now know that I could give this bugger up easier than I originally thought. I had my nic fits, but it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it'd be. I was thinking of taking some drastic measures, including Chew and Snuff. Nicotine Gum and Patches came into my mind, as well, but I decided against them, each with their accompanying reasons.

I was going to see my girlfriend for the first time in 2 months and didn't want that horrifying taste to reside in my mouth. It wasn't something I was quite ready for, and I didn't want to put her through that. Also, spit.

Not only is this stuff old-school, it's disturbing. I don't want to put this shit in my nose. Okay, okay, so when I exhale smoke, it goes out through my nose sometimes. But seriously? I don't want powdered tobacco going through there.

Gums and Patches:
Expensive as fuck. And these don't take care of the "ritual" part.

So how did I cope? There was this non-nicotine gum I found. It's trendy bullshit, but decent nonetheless. It's really the only stuff I've found that holds flavor for as long as it does. It's called 5, and it's good. So what if I didn't get my nicotine? Those fits only last for about 5-10 minutes depending on my stress level at that particular moment, and this helps me get my ritual done. Plus, the packaging is done in a way that fulfills it even more. It's pretty good. This'll come in handy the next time I try to quit.


This stuff is amazing. Seriously. It's probably the one drug on this entire planet that I'll always have a soft spot for. It's been probably the most helpful drug I've ever used.

Let's go back into my history and discuss a topic that's near and dear to my heart:

I have, in the course of a few mere hours, consumed 1 pure gram of caffeine.

Let's give some perspective on this. According to the Caffeine Database, your average Diet Coke contains 45 mg of caffeine. One Rockstar is 160 mg. Starbucks double shot is 130 mg. You can do that math.

How did I do it? When I was 16 (I think), I discovered this lovely syrup called Sky Rocket. It's 100 mg per ounce. Per ounce. That's little more than what's in 2 diet cokes, which would be 24 ounces. Again, you do the math.

Sky Rocket + Diet Coke = Amazing experience for those who want to try to get really fucked on caffeine.

Freezing my ass off is worth it this time

Right now, I'm sitting outside of London Heathrow Airport having a cigarette in 8 Degree C weather (that's 46 Degrees F), and I wouldn't have it any other way. Or maybe I would...

See, I have a small problem. Less than 5 hours ago, history was repeating itself to me in the most bizarre and unusual fashion, and it's something I'm not very keen on going through again. I had to say goodbye to her again.

I left Prague after the most amazing 8 days of my life. I was so happy to be there, on my first real vacation in about 9 or 10 months. When I say real, remember that it's on the scale of NO WORK WHATSOEVER FOR AN EXTENDED PERIOD OF TIME. I hope the caps made that apparent.

Regardless, I spent 8 days in Prague. Beautiful city. Absofuckinglutely the most amazing city I have ever had the privilege to see. Great city, great people, great times.

But there was something that occluded my view - and you know what? I'm extremely happy that it was there.

My main reason for going to Prague happens to be probably the most important person in my life at the moment. So when I say that I had a distraction with the city, what I really mean to say is that my girlfriend is the most kickass and beautiful woman on the entire planet. Seriously. Had I not gone with her, I might've absorbed more of the city. But you know what? I'm not really that disappointed. I saw her, and that's what counts on this one. I got to be around her after 2 months of something I like to call P.C.D. - or Physical Contact Deprivation. I'll get more into that and it's effects on relationships at another point.

But enough about my babble on that (She's another post entirely), I was glad to be there an experience some of the most amazing sights there are on this planet. Standing on ground that has been held as a castle for 1000 years (that's right, one thousand) was humbling at the very least. Prague Castle is goddamn amazing and put my view of "old" into perspective. Think about it. I'm an American. My view of old is the 232 years of independence my nation has had. The buildings are around 200 years old, give or take, and it's really nothing compared to the castle. F'Serious.

We also hit up Berlin for an overnight stay in the Heart of Gold hostel in Berlin. Ally's a huge fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and this hostel is themed with that. Granted, we didn't get one of the hugely themed rooms, but it was cool nonetheless. No curfew, no bullshit, good price. I'd highly suggest it.

While in Berlin, we pretty much just walked around and looked at the amazing architecture of the place. The Germans know how to build some ridiculous buildings. The
Reichstag is fucking HUGE. Made me feel small. Like crazy. It was nuts. We saw a few other buildings, as well as the Jewish memorial there, and that was pretty interesting. All though I have to say, Prague is better. It stole my heart, for lack of a better term.

I need to go in. It's 6.6 C (43 F), which means my ass is about as cold as it can get.

Until next time.