Archives for Productivity
As a telecommuter, I don’t have the benefit of a boss keeping tabs on me and making sure I do what I need to do. You might think that freedom sounds nice, and it is, but it also means I must be the worker and the supervisor. Ultimately, it’s up to me to sit down and do what needs to be done. My best trick in that regard happens at night. I think of what must be completed the following day and write it down. That way, I’m ready to go when I hit my desk the next morning. Recently, I’ve added a clipboard and some special forms to the mix.
Each night, I list the tasks I must complete the following morning on an Emergent Task Planner (EPT). Persnickety? Yes. But it works. I’ve also taken to keeping my EPT on a clipboard. Behind the EPT are several other forms that let me track what’s going on throughout the day and the week. An inexpensive clipboard keeps everything tidy and portable. Here’s what I’ve got clipped together on my desk every day.
Top sheet — the Emergent Task Planner
On the left hand side, I list what will happen from hour to hour, in 15-minute increments. On the upper right, I list the tasks that must be completed before the day’s end. There’s no particular order to this list. The only important thing is that each item be completed. There’s a notes section on the lower right that I tweak a bit. Specifically, I divide it in half. On top I list what I consider “minor” tasks. These could be completed by day’s end, but the world won’t end of they’re delayed. Below that is the “running commentary.”
The running commentary contains anything: thoughts on the day, ideas, accomplishments, what I did during scheduled breaks (“strawberry patch looks great”), etc. Anything can go there. I created the running commentary section to give my wandering mind an outlet and to give myself an empirical list of the day’s accomplishments. It sure feels good to review the major and minor achievements from the day.
Center sheet — Resource Tracker
This two-parter is fantastic. It lists the major deliverables that will represent progress on a major task, as well as the smaller steps that lead to each deliverable’s completion. I staple both forms together (one lays over the top 1/4 of the other in a clever way) as well as any support files (for instance, I’m using the Fast Book Outliner to prep my next book project). Now, I can flip to each major project and see what needs to be done, my estimate for completion time (as well as actual time spent working), tasks to complete, as well as outstanding (and completed) milestones. Fantastic in a hugely nerdy, paper-centric way.
Last page — Concrete Goals Tracker
Here’s an important one. The Concrete Goals Tracker lets me “score” the tasks I’ve completed on a scale that reflects my working toward goals. For example, “signing a new sponsor” is worth 10 points, “published an article” is worth five points, “new social development” is worth two and “maintaining a relationship” is worth one. At the end of each day, I score anything that meets these criteria, and tally the grand total at the week’s end. If I score higher than I did during the previous week, I know it’s going well. It sounds a bit silly, but the CGT also provides empirical, measurable evidence of progress toward life-sustaining goals.
In this way, my clipboard functions as the manager. It’s pretty handy. Try this: write down the three tasks that must get done by the end of work tomorrow before you go to bed tonight. After 7 days, let me know how it goes.
I’ve been working from home since 2009. The temptation to tweak or add to the gadgets in my office is enormous. I love gadgets to begin with, but give me a personal office to fill — one that’s in my home — and I can get carried away.
Recently I’ve made an effort to identify what I really need instead of what I think would be cool. The following is a list of gadgets that serve a utilitarian purpose beyond, “Oh man that’s so neat.” Each one actually makes my home office a more pleasant and productive place to be.
- The RadTech OmniStand. After a few months of using a laptop all day every day, I noticed that my shoulders and neck were quite sore at the end of the day. The laptop stand lets me get the computer’s screen up off the desk and just about at eye level. After a couple of weeks, the pain was gone. Sure, I had to buy an external keyboard and a mouse, but I’d rather do that then contract a repetitive stress injury.
- The Glif for iPhone. I love this little piece of rubber because it can be many things. It’s an iPhone stand with notch on the bottom that will fit into a standard tripod mount. It’s great for shooting photos and video, for talking on FaceTime, for being an alarm clock or a mobile photo frame. I use it to reference quick information while I’m at my desk. I can’t recommend them enough.
- Jawbone Jambox bluetooth speaker. Here’s another stellar device that takes up little space and works very well. Since it’s a bluetooth device, it connects to your smartphone wirelessly. It sounds great and looks good, too. I use it all the time.
- A Dropbox account. I don’t know why computers don’t just come with Dropbox installed. It makes online backup and sharing so very easy. Plus, it’s supported by almost any platform you can think of: The Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.
- An Inbox. Don’t scoff. At first I resisted buying one of these, as it seems like such a cubicle thing to own. But it’s so much better than a stack of papers, notes, and who-knows-what cluttering up my desk. Take your pick from Amazon or your local office supply store to find one you like.
- A decent filing system. Again, visit your favorite office supply store or look online. Many people have intricate filing systems. I do simple manila folders, labeled A-Z. Nothing fancy.
- A backup system. Your office machine is probably backed up by your company’s IT department. At home, you’re on your own. There are several options to choose from, like CrashPlan and Carbonite. Even if you don’t work at home, you likely have work-related information on your home computer (not to mention other irreplaceable files). Back it up!
I have more items in my office, of course, and you likely need other items depending on if you work at home and what kind of work you do. But these are the universal things — beyond my laptop and smartphone — I can’t work without. Pare down to what you need and avoid cluttered items like this that get in the way of the work you need to do.
It happens to the best of us. At some point or another, your motivation will seem to dissolve into thin air. This can happen quite spontaneously or, at other times, it seems to gradually sneak up on you. Chances are that throwing your to-do list out the window is not an option. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to increase your motivation and actually begin getting stuff done.
- Start small. Often when your motivation is lacking, just getting started can be a big obstacle. But, you can convince yourself to begin working on your projects by committing to work on the least amount items for the shortest amount of time. This means that you can narrow your focus by picking one thing to work on for a short time block (like 10 or 15 minutes). Keep in mind that using a timer can also help to release you from the task once your time is up, though (in my experience) you’ll notice that once you get started, you’ll probably continue working a little longer.
- Focus on a mantra. Mantras and inspirational quotes can spur you to doing your best work. They can also help you get through difficult tasks. When I start feeling frantic because I have a lot to do, I often say to myself: “A little plus a little equals much.” (Thanks to my friend and fellow professional organizer, Geralin Thomas, for that wonderful quote.) This helps me to keep a steady pace and to push the temptation to multi-task aside.
- Think with the end in mind. How successful and proud will you feel after you finish your tasks? Ask yourself this question when you find that you’re ignoring your most important projects. By focusing on the positive feelings you will have when you actually do what you set out to do, you are actually creating a persuasive argument for getting things done.
- Choose a reward. Extend those positive feelings by planning a way to reward yourself when you start crossing stuff off your list. This can be the shove you need to get you started, but remember to pick something that’s attainable so you don’t end up feeling disappointed.
- Rewrite your list. If your to do list seems daunting, reconfigure it. Do you need to move things around? What about your deadlines? Have you set “due by” dates and are they realistic? Which items can you delegate to someone else?
- Do something else. Sometimes working on something else on your to do list (perhaps a task that’s easy to take care of) can help put you in the right mindset — even though it may not be a top priority. This sort of structured procrastination can build momentum for sustained productivity.
- Exercise. Exercise can energize you and improve your mental outlook. Engaging in physical activity can also help to clear your mind so you can focus on those important tasks. If you create a schedule where exercise is regularly included, you might find you are well-equipped to successfully handle those moments when your motivation and productivity begin to wane.
And, there’s research to back this up:
A habit of regular exercise will help keep you mentally sharper throughout your entire life. Over a shorter time-frame, an exercise routine can give you more energy throughout the day. Most of your cells contain components called mitochondria, often referred to as the cell’s “power plant.” Mitochondria produce the chemical that your body uses as energy, known as ATP. Physical exercise stimulates the development of new mitochondria within your cells, meaning that your body will be able to produce more ATP over time. That gives you more energy to exert yourself physically, but it also means more energy for your brain, boosting your mental output.
- Organize your work space. Chaotic workspaces probably don’t contribute to productive work nor do they motivate you to get things done. So, set the stage — remove paper piles, clear pathways and the space behind your chair, and neatly gather together the supplies you need. Though organizing your work area isn’t directly linked to the tasks you need to get done, putting things in order can reduce stress and create the productive mindset you need to get started. (Just don’t decide to clean your entire house, stick to your workspace.)
- Listen to uplifting music. Music can help you feel more inspired when you don’t feel like working. Is it any wonder that it’s the one constant that you’ll find at your local gym? Once you begin tackling your list, consider listening to unfamiliar music to ramp up your productivity.
- Call a friend. When all else fails, consider calling a friend (also known as an accountability partner) who can impart a few words of encouragement and check in with you on your progress. You’ll probably be more likely to get your tasks done (or started) if you know that someone will be following up with you.
These are just a few ways that you can turn your workday around when you just don’t feel like doing anything. As with any strategy, not every suggestion will work for everyone. Give some of the suggestions a try to find the ones that move you from inactivity to productivity.
“Is there such a thing as a fake unclutterer?” This question was asked by an Unclutterer reader in response to a previous post, “Uncluttering is a lot like running.” What exactly does it mean to be a fake unclutterer? One person replied:
… yes there are fake unclutterers, my mother-in-law is one. She has convinced everyone she is uncluttering but has instead just moved the clutter to her bedroom …
Someone else commented:
My mom was the perfect example of a fake unclutterer. She had every closet crammed with stuff, all categorized and neatly organized in plastic boxes. It didn’t look bad until you pulled it all out and realized just how much junk she saved. Yes, junk–hundreds of neat little bundles of twist ties for one example. All useful junk in reasonable quantities, but several lifetime supplies of pens, pencils, sewing needles, thread, chopsticks, notepads, letter openers, grocery bags, paper coasters, tape, hotel soaps and shampoos, ad infinitum.
Family dynamics aside, I suspect many people have their own notion of what it means to be an effective unclutterer as well as what the opposite looks like. The underlying impression of the latter is that you’re not really ridding yourself of clutter. Even if you move your stuff to a different location, hide it, or make everything look neater (though a reasonable first step), it is still clutter. If the items are useful but not used by you, that’s clutter, too.
The following are three steps you can take to begin the process of letting go of things you don’t use:
Figure out why you’re keeping items
It can be a tricky endeavor to figure out where to store everything you own and that’s probably why some things still linger throughout your home. You might feel sentimental about a few items or you might keep something even though you don’t want it because it was received as a gift. Maybe you think you might use it someday. In addition, when you don’t use something often (or at all), it may not be clear where it should be kept. There’s no framework for how to store and access it. So, if you find yourself surrounded by (or are hiding) items that you’re not using, look at the reasons why letting go is difficult. Your reasons for holding onto things can help set the stage for creating a successful plan for letting go of real clutter.
Create a plan and take action
Before sorting through your stuff, create a plan with steps that you can follow through on easily. For instance, your plan might include working in microbursts to avoid getting overwhelmed. You may also want to work during times when you are most alert and focused (so, if you’re not a morning person, you likely won’t be productive during early morning hours). Each of these strategies can work very well when they are incorporated in a regular routine. On the other hand, you’re not likely to see consistent results if you don’t commit to taking action on each item. If you begin to feel stressed or overwhelmed, resist the temptation to shuffle things from spot to spot or to put them in closet.
Think about the purpose of each item
What’s the likelihood that you’ll use the item and how often will you use it? Is that item essential to getting things done? Can someone else benefit from having it? Is it still in good working order? The questions you ask yourself will vary depending on the things you need to act on, so consider the purpose of each one so that you can let them go. If you still have trouble deciding, you might want to work with a friend who is a good accountability partner (or professional organizer) who can help you through the decision-making process.
Letting go of things that are not useful to you or that you don’t want doesn’t have to be a difficult process. Set aside some time each day (or as your schedule allows) to sort through and decide what to do with these items so that you can free up your space for things that you do use.
Dropbox is a service that offers online storage of your stuff. It’s tremendously convenient and used by lots of people world wide. Dropbox is a quick-and-dirty sharing and backup tool that many workers (including yours truly) couldn’t work without.
What many people don’t realize is that Dropbox is capable of a lot more than drag-and-drop storage of your files. There are numerous cool things you can do with it, but the following are 10 useful tricks I’ve discovered to help keep me organized and reduce my digital clutter.
Save space with selective sync
My personal computer is a MacBook Air with just 128 GB of storage. I know that sounds like a lot, but with a bulging music collection and photo collection, it gets full pretty quickly. Fortunately, my work computer can hold much more. I can hand pick which files get synchronized to Dropbox and then to my MacBook Air, and which get ignored.
To do this, open the Dropbox preferences on your computer. Select the advanced tab and then click Selective Sync. From there, tell Dropbox which folders to sync to that computer. Those you choose to ignore are still available at dropbox.com, they’re just not automatically synched. You still have access to them.
Access previous versions of files
Dropbox offers one huge benefit that many people overlook. It saves versions of your files for up to 30 days. That means, for example, if you make changes to a Word document you’ve got in Dropbox and then decided you wish you hadn’t, you can restore a version that existed before you made all of those regrettable edits.
Go to dropbox.com and find the file. Right-click on it and select Previous Versions from the resulting menu. A list appears; select the one you want. Easy.
Backup your smartphone photos automatically
This is a very nice feature that was introduced within the last year or so. Dropbox for iPhone and Android can automatically move a copy of every photo you shoot to a folder on the service. Check your mobile app’s preferences for the setting to enable this. It offers real peace of mind.
Mark files as favorites for offline access
I do this one quite a bit, especially when traveling. As you know, Dropbox stores your stuff on its servers. However, if you mark a file as a favorite, a copy will be downloaded to your mobile device, allowing you to view it even when you don’t have Internet access.
To mark an item as a favorite, simply navigate to it on your tablet or smartphone and tap the star icon.
Recover deleted files
“Ack! I didn’t mean to delete that!” No worries. If you delete a file, versions from the last 30 days remain. To get something back, go to dropbox.com and navigate to the folder where it used to be. Find the Show Deleted Files icon and click it. Then select it from the list.
Back up your blog, two ways
I use Dropbox to back up every post I publish to my blog. There are at least two ways to do this. I use a service called IFTTT, or If This Then That. You can use IFTTT to build actions or recipes to accomplish tasks for you. I have one that watches for any new post I publish to my blog. When it finds one, it copies the text to a file in my Dropbox account. If worse came to worst, I’d still have all of my posts.
If you don’t want to fiddle around with IFTTT (and you own a WordPress blog), check out this great plugin for one-click backups.
Print a PDF right to Dropbox
Here’s a great tip that’s reserved for you Mac users. You probably know that you can turn nearly any file into a PDF by choosing Save to PDF when printing something. What you may not know is that you can direct that PDF to save right to Dropbox.
When you click Save to PDF, you’ll see Edit Menu as the very last option. Click it, and then click the “+” in the resulting window. A new list appears. Navigate to your Dropbox (or any folder therein) and then click OK. Now, that folder will appear in the Save to PDF menu every time. Simply click it, and a PDF will be automatically shuffled off to Dropbox.
Back up your Instagram photos
Here’s another IFTTT trick. I’ve created a recipe to monitor my Instagram account for new photos. Whenever it finds one, it moves a copy to a folder on my Dropbox account. The photograph is backed up and I didn’t even have to lift a finger.
Publish a website (pancake)
If all decisions were easy to make, we’d probably save time (for the things we love) and we’d likely have less clutter, too. In that ideal world of easy decision making, we’d know what to do with everything we own and we wouldn’t scratch our heads trying to figure out where to store our things. Gone would be the days of delaying decisions because of uncertainty. And, we’d probably have fewer opportunities to procrastinate.
…when faced with a decision, we should assess how long we have to make it, and then wait until the last possible moment to do so.
He goes on to say that if/when we do this, we’ll ultimately be happier. I’m not inclined to agree with those sentiments, but he makes an interesting distinction between active procrastination (doing important things you also need to get done) and passive procrastination (like watching TV, playing video games). Basically, he says that it’s not really procrastination if you choose to do something of higher value (like spending time with family, restocking the first aid kits, organizing/clearing pathways) than the project or task you should be currently addressing. While there may be some merit to that, if you’re on a tight deadline because you’ve significantly delayed getting started, you really do have to focus on the tasks at hand.
Though practicing the “art of delay” can help your productivity (like waiting to respond to emails at specific times during the day), when an important and urgent project comes calling, even active procrastination needs to be put on the back burner. But, if you find that you’re cringing at the thought of getting your important tasks done, why not use that delayed time to your benefit? Instead of choosing to focus on trivial things, use that time to think through how you’re feeling, to figure out why you may be feeling stuck. Perhaps you don’t have enough information to get started or are not sure how to begin? Is it possible that you’re putting on your perfectionist hat and waiting for the theoretical right moment? Maybe you really do want to focus on something else that’s of more interest to you.
No matter what the reasons are, if you can figure them out, you’ll be in a better position to start looking for ways to turn things around. You can use that time to come up with a plan.
Work for a short block of time
By simply working for a few minutes at a time, you can chip away at those important, deadline-driven tasks until they’re completed. You might also find that you’re likely to keep working once you get started. But, if your motivation to get things done seems to be underfoot for an extended period of time …
If you tend to put off working on a specific task, it could be because you don’t value it very much or you just don’t like doing it. This can be an opportunity to call in reinforcements and help can come in a variety of forms. Perhaps you just need to call a friend who can give you a much needed nudge. Or, maybe there’s a colleague who can handle a portion of the project (the part that has you stuck) so you can focus on the rest of it.
Using a pro vs con list can probably help, too. Thinking about all the aspects of waiting until the last minute can give you a different perspective. What are the super cool things about delaying the project? What are the evil consequences? Seeing the good vs evil reasons in black and white just might be the motivation you need to get going (and so can a change of environment).
Rethink your priorities
If you notice that you’re continually putting off things that you need to do on a recurring basis, you may want think about whether or not the projects you accept (or are assigned) are the right fit for your skills and interests. It’s not realistic to think that you can only work on things that you like or are passionate about, but if you find that you’re consistently having negative feelings about particular activities and, as a result, delay working on them, it’s time to identify tasks that interest you even nominally. Where possible, make some adjustments. This may require additional planning and involve others depending on the nature of the tasks (personal vs work).
Though procrastination is generally frowned upon, it can be beneficial if you use that time as an opportunity to think through a plan to get things done. While you may not be able to make changes straight away, you can brainstorm ways to curb the tendency to put things off until the last minute.
A couple years ago, my wife and I succumbed to the fact that individual paper planners weren’t doing it for us. As much as I love jotting things down on paper and carrying a notebook of lists in my back pocket, it’s no good when two people are trying to coordinate Cub Scouts and ballet and play practice and Girl Scouts and chorus and homework, etc.
In other words, our Family, Inc., needed an appropriate tool. For us, it’s Trello.
Trello is a web-based collaboration tool that’s meant for teams, but it’s perfect for families. It runs in a browser so it doesn’t matter if you’re using a Mac or a PC, and it allows you to create “boards” that hold the tasks, assignments, reference materials, and so forth for a given project.
We have a board for each of the kids, as well as for ourselves. In addition to who needs to be where, we add things like what needs to go where (pack the script and change of ballet clothes for Tuesday drop-off) as well as who’s going to do each.
Trello’s emphasis is on speed and no-fuss teamwork. Essentially, a board holds several cards. Each card contains one item in the list of information that becomes the support material for a project. Each board (“William”) holds several boards (“Cub Scouts”). Here’s how we use Trello at Chez Caolo.
The need for quick capture of ideas and news
Items added to Trello from one device show up on another. For example, my wife can update a card on her iPhone and that edit shows up on mine. Likewise, I can make a note from my computer and it shows up on both phones. As we go about our days, it’s comforting and useful to know that we’re in touch and up to date, even on those days when we barley see each other between 7:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (Perhaps you know how that goes?)
As I said, Trello works great in a modern web browser. There are apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, too. But, honestly, the website is smart enough to work and look great on a mobile device, so check it out before you install an app.
Trello is really meant to be used by business teams, but we’re getting a lot out of it as busy parents. In the end, we’re pretty happy with it. Trello is a near ubiquitous capture tool that is always in sync. Shortcuts make it fast and cloud sync lets me stay on top of things.
I’m more selective about the information I put in my body than what food I consume. — Robert Reid
If you have wide-ranging interests or just a huge sense of curiosity, you may be like me — someone who could happily spend days just reading things online or in newspapers or magazines.
But, of course, we also want to do other things with our lives: earn a living, get exercise, see friends, pursue our hobbies, etc. So how do we cope with the never-ending flow of interesting information?
When I’m making my decisions about what to read, I focus on four questions.
Why do I want to know about this subject or read this article?
If it’s information related to my profession, it might change how I do my work. Since I do editing work, updates from Associated Press about changes to the AP Stylebook matter to me. As an organizer, sometimes there is a new product or an explanation of a specific technique or even just a cool way of wording a familiar concept that might really help a client.
News about what’s going on in the lives of family members and close friends matters to me, because I care about these people. So yes — I do use Facebook to follow the lives of the relatives and close friends who use Facebook for that kind of sharing.
Sometimes there’s information I need in order to take action. For example, if there’s an election coming up, I need to get informed about the candidates and the ballot issues. And I may want to learn more about a specific cause to decide if I want to get involved.
Irrespective of the reason, it is a good idea to be aware of why you want to know about a topic before you take to reading about it (even if it’s a simple reason like I want to smile at cute kitten photographs to lighten my mood).
How much do I need to know?
Do I need an in-depth knowledge of a topic? Often, I don’t. Sometimes just a headline is enough. Sometimes one thoughtful article by a trusted source is enough; I can read one article instead of 20.
Is this a source of information I want to pursue?
Many people write about the topics I care about. Over time, I’ve found which ones tend to provide the most useful information, so I can ignore the rest. I’ve also found which people tend to refer me to articles I want to read; if they share something, I know it’s likely to be worth my time.
Do I need to know now?
If the article relates to something I may do in the future — travel to a place, buying a product — I can just file the information away, often in the form of a bookmark to the article or others might save the link to Evernote. All I need is a very quick skim to determine if it’s likely to be useful; I’ll read it more carefully when the time comes (such as when I’m waiting for an appointment or relaxing on a Saturday afternoon).
Asking myself these questions allows me to skim through a huge amount of possible information and pick the few things I really want to read. It’s still a challenge — I’m an information junkie at heart — but these questions at least set me going along a path away from information overload.
Many people are often in search of a strategy, tool, or productivity system that will help them to get more done. This is a good goal to have — afterall, who doesn’t want a set of habits that will help them cross stuff off their to-do list? In addition to actually accomplishing what you set out or agree to do, there’s a strong feeling of satisfaction you get when you actually pull it off on a regular basis.
On the other hand, it is possible this exuberant feeling you get from being productive can be taken to the extreme. You might crave that feeling so much that in your attempt to consistently recreate it, you end up working all the time. One could speculate that the need to work all the time is really about wanting to be in control. Others may characterize this as an addiction to working, even if the task you’re engrossed in is a worthwhile endeavor. Perhaps, work feels like a comfortable place to retreat to, a way to escape other parts of your life. No matter what the underlying reasons are, if you find yourself focusing on work tasks all the time, you are likely to be considered a workaholic.
On the surface, there may not seem to be a downside to spending a few extra hours at work each day, especially when you’re achieving the goals you set for yourself. But, keep in mind that you may be confusing working too much with having a strong work ethic. While both may require diligent effort and a reliance on core values, overworking likely includes a lack of discipline or the inability to stop working and recognize when it’s time to take a break. Here on Unclutterer, we’ve often extolled the benefits of taking mini-breaks throughout the work day as well as the positive effect exercise and sleep has on productivity. Certainly, if one is always working, there would be little or no time for either of those activities or any outside interests. Ultimately, this would lead to burnout.
In addition, an overly zealous worker is not beneficial to employers. Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, explained:
A workaholic might seem to be every CEO’s dream: an employee who comes in early, stays late, doesn’t take vacations, and takes on mountains of work. But those very qualities may make the workaholic a poor candidate for employee of the month because they often have more work than they can handle effectively, don’t delegate, aren’t team players, and are often more disorganized …
If you’re taking on too much, it is possible that you may not realize it (take Dr. Robinson’s quiz). As I mentioned before, you may think you’re simply a hard worker. Of course, there may be times when you need to work extra hours. Business owners everywhere (myself included) understand this all too well. However, it is important to prioritize specific tasks and to recognize when it’s time to ask for help. The latter will not only allow you to streamline your focus, but also help you to be more productive.
This past fall, I was contacted by the amazing people at Behance and 99U about contributing to a book series they’re editing and curating. I’m a big fan of 99U and have been in the LifeRemix network with Scott Belsky (the publisher behind Behance and 99U) for years. It took me exactly one second to agree to the project before I even really understood what it entailed.
The book, Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus and Sharpen Your Creative Mind, released today is the first in a three-part series exploring creative productivity, time management, individually tailored processes, and great design. 99U’s traditional focus is the creative community (artists, designers, writers, etc.), but the information in this book is applicable to most everyone — especially those of us tied to desks all day.
Jocelyn K. Glei, the editor-in-chief of 99U and this book series, explains:
In Manage Your Day-to-Day, we address the specific challenges that this 21st-century influx of information presents for creative professionals, and offer solutions for how to build a daily routine, maintain focus amidst a constant stream of distractions, and keep your creative mind (and work) fresh … Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, Manage Your Day-to-Day provides a playbook of tried-and-true best practices for producing great work. To accomplish this, we recruited 20 of the smartest creatives and researchers we knew—from Stefan Sagmeister to Seth Godin to Gretchen Rubin to Tony Schwartz to Dan Ariely—and asked them to share their road-tested insights on what helps them do great creative work.
The chapter I wrote for the book is “Learning To Create Amidst Chaos” and admits that “like it or not, we are constantly forced to juggle tasks and battle unwanted distractions” while working and to “truly set ourselves apart, we must learn to be creative amidst chaos.” I provide advice for ways you can train yourself to find focus in disruptive circumstances, much like a basketball player has to learn control so he or she can be successful throwing free throws on a rival team’s court.
The official book trailer:
The book is published by Amazon’s new publishing house and is available in paperback, audio, and digital format for the Kindle. Learn even more about the project and the contributors at 99U.
You’ve probably read about the negative impact a sedentary lifestyle can have on your health — sitting for long periods of time can create a multitude of health issues, including lower back pain, poor mobility, and an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
…the more hours a day you sit, the greater your likelihood of dying an earlier death regardless of how much you exercise or how lean you are. That’s right: Even a sculpted six-pack can’t protect you from your chair. But it’s not just your heart that’s at risk from too much sitting; your hips, spine, and shoulders could also suffer. In fact, it’s not a leap to say that a chair-potato lifestyle can ruin you from head to toe.
This infographic shares more details about how sitting for too long can affect various parts of the body.
Image credit: CBCNews.com
Is it any surprise then that it’s often recommended that you get up and take breaks regularly throughout the workday? Not only can getting up often help increase blood flow (to your legs in particular), but this also gives you a chance to hit the “reset” button so that you can return to work more prepared to get stuff done. It seems that standing while you work also can help you to be more productive. A recent study (The Take a Stand Project) conducted by Dr. Nicolaas Pronk found:
Office workers who spent an hour or so a day at stand-up workstations felt more energized, productive and even happier … and if they keep it up, they may help reduce the damage done by sitting at a desk all day.
This doesn’t mean that you should stand for eight hours a day, but you can choose to work while standing for short bursts during the course of the workday. When it’s time to sit back down again, be sure your spine is erect and your shoulders are relaxed. If you slouch or lean forward, you can put stress on your back. Sitting with the proper posture will also allow for better breathing.
What are some work-while-you-stand activities that you can put into practice? There are a couple of things you can begin doing immediately, like standing (or pacing) while you talk on the phone or while you meet with a colleague. You can ramp things up a bit by working at a standing desk. If you choose this option, be sure to wear comfortable shoes and get an anti-fatigue mat to stand on. If you’re interested in making your own standing desk, you can find a number of tutorials at IKEA Hackers, like this one:
Image credits: IKEA Hackers
There are other things you can do to reduce the amount of time you’re sitting down, like holding a walking meeting or if your meeting is on another floor, consider taking the stairs instead of the elevator. You also might want to try working while walking using a treadmill desk or riding a pedal desk.
While sitting for too long does have poor health effects, standing for too long is likely not a good idea either. Consider varying your movement so you’re not in any one position for long periods of time. Test various schedules to see what works best for you (like intervals of 20 minutes sitting and 40 minutes standing) and use an alert to remind you to get up until it becomes a regular part of your routine.
A creative, productive person has a motor. Much like a car or scooter, that person is driven by his or her motor — driven to do, to make, to create, to find fun things to do with the kids, to build a media room in the basement, to learn French, to pursue innovative carrer goals, or to plant a flower garden.
The problem is that sometimes the motor won’t shut off and you get more ideas than you have time or attention to achieve right now. Many people put these on a “Someday/Maybe” list of goals to consider for another day. I think a list such as that is organized clutter. The someday list can cause a lot of guilt. So, instead I put my own spin on this type of list.
Someday/Maybe is a tenent of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. He refers to it as (I’m paraphrasing), a way to capture the projects you’d like to complete in the future, lest they continue to nag at your thoughts. Additionally (critically, even), those items should be a part of your weekly review. Every seven days, ask yourself, “Is it time to move on any of these things?”
My problem is, the answer is always “No,” and that fantastical trip to Japan remains untouched, emphasizing my inaction for another week. Here’s what’s worse: noticing the pattern, I add items that I know I won’t act on, consciously or not. The someday list is my personal waiting room.
I’ve no doubt that it’s important to have long-term goals, even those whose only benefit is dining in an out-of-the-way noodle house. However, there must be a better way to keep track of them and taking action.
A few years ago, I attended Macworld | iWorld in San Francisco (it was still called Macworld Expo back then). One of the highlights was hearing Merlin Mann speak. He said, among other things, that one should take a good, hard look at the Someday/Maybe list. Ask yourself, “Will I ever do this?” If the answer is no, ditch the item completely. Will I ever become fluent in Japanese? It’s highly unlikely. Off it goes. But will I ever travel to Japan? That item is much more likely, so it stays.
While understandable, culling the improbable has a “crush your dreams” vibe that bothers many people. “Spend a month in Japan” is a huge project, but there’s a little more likelihood I’ll achieve it than learning an entire language.
Before ditching that trip all together, let’s consider how it can remain on the list of things I’d like to do without any of the guilt.
Years ago, I worked as a special needs teacher in a residential school for children with Autism and other developmental delays. I taught in a classroom and eventually supervised a group home with 8 students and a staff of 12 teachers. We practiced the Ivar Lovaas method of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). I’ll do Dr. Lovaas (and by extension, B. F. Skinner) a great disservice here and offer too brief an explanation of his life’s work.
ABA uses positive and negative reinforcement to change behavior. One method is called chaining, or breaking a complex task into several simple ones that can be taught in succession and, when successfully performed sequentially, comprise the original task. I never guessed that training would be so influential in my everyday life.
In GTD, “visit Japan” is not a task, it’s a project. Fortunately, my old job helped me get good at breaking complex behaviors (or in this case, projects) down into very small, observable, concrete actions. Perhaps “discuss life in Japan with uncle who used to live there” is a doable first step. Maybe “research seasonal weather in Japan” or “find a well-written book on Japanese customs or food” could be other first steps. In breaking down the project, two things happen.
First, I feel like I’m making progress on this huge task, rather than letting it stagnate. Second, I’ll get a true measure of my willingness to go through with completing the project completely. If my interest wanes, I can safely remove it from the list as Merlin suggested. If I have an increase in interest that will suggest motivation, and I’ll continue to devise small steps that move me closer to completing the project.
The Research List
What’s really happening here is I’m turning the someday list into research tasks. Therefore, I’ll suggest changing the name from Someday/Maybe to Research. It sounds more pro-active and suggests something to do other than sit and wait until I get around to it “someday.”
I’m not going to tell you to ditch your Someday/Maybe list completely. Again, let’s not crush those dreams. However, I will say be very honest with yourself and consider:
- Is this list a dumping ground for the unachievable?
- Am I dropping things here that are too unpleasant to consider for some reason?
- Is there a way to actually make progress on this?
- What is the first tiny baby step I can actually do?
Figure out the answers to these questions and get moving. Avoid the clutter and guilt of a Someday/Maybe list and start working toward these projects in the present.