Archives for Productivity
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.
“Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.” — Francis Bacon, Sr.
It’s no secret that writing things down is beneficial in several ways. A mind that’s not trying to remember tasks is better prepared for problem solving and focusing on the present. Good ideas are fleeting and need to be captured, irrespective of when they happen. It’s important to have written goals and lists that can remind you of what you need to do. There’s more, of course, but I’m going to address that last point.
I’ve been keeping a to-do list in my pocket for years. For most of that time, it was a simple list of things I needed to do. That’s great, but I found problems. Notably, I’d feel guilty about tasks I couldn’t complete because of my circumstance.
For example, I can’t make progress on “get pants hemmed at the tailor” while I’m stuck at my desk. I can’t pay the registration fee for the kids for soccer while I’m standing in line at the DMV. Likewise, I often don’t have the energy or time available for more demanding tasks when I’m reviewing my list at the end of the day.
Looking at items I couldn’t take acton on was stressful. It was time to re-think the simple to-do list. The following are several ways to sort, organize and prioritize the items on your to-do list for easy reference and guilt-free productivity on the go:
Sorting by context
Step one was to sort by context. I know a lot of people dislike this idea, but hear me out on this. At the top of my to-do list, I’ll put a heading like “@phone.” Beneath it I list tasks that require a phone call. Next, I’ll put “@errands” and “@computer”. Appropriate tasks are listed under each one. That way, when I’m at my desk with some free time, I can look at “@phone” or “@computer” and hammer out those tasks. I don’t even see items listed under “@errands”, so I don’t feel guilty about not making progress on them. (David Allen refers to these location-based lists often in his writing.)
Time and Energy Available
Of course, context isn’t the only way to decide what you can work on at any give time. It’s smart to also consider your time available and energy available. When your fresh first thing in the morning, tackle those jobs that require much physical and/or mental energy. Reserve something less taxing, like filing receipts, for the end of the day or after lunch when you might have a dip in focus. Likewise, I don’t always have the time to lay out the new flower bed. But a free Saturday afternoon lets me do just that.
A few weeks ago, I came across Word Notebooks. My notebook addiction is legendary, so I could not resist buying a pair. They’re similar in size and shape to the Field Notes brand notebooks that I love so much, but offer something different.
Each paperback notebook has a “use guide” that’s printed on the inside cover and in the margin of every page. You’ll find a small circle around an even smaller circle. The idea is to highlight the importance and completion state of each item with these circles. Here’s how it works.
- Color in the inner circle to identify an item as a bullet point
- Highlight the outer circle to identify something as important
- Put a single line trough both circles for items that are in progress
- Draw an “X” over items that are complete
It’s tidy and offers an at-a-glance overview of the status of your to-do list. Unlike the context system that I use or the energy-available strategy, the Word notebooks visually arrange action items by priority and state of completion. Pretty nice! Of course, you don’t have to buy a special notebook with pre-printed circles. You could roll your own solution.
The Dash/Plus System
My Internet buddy, author and all-around nice guy Patrick Rhone described a system that he devised for keeping careful track of the items on his to-do list. His system uses plusses, arrows, and geometric shapes to denote the status of an action item. It’s clear, simple, and doesn’t require a special notebook.
Now I’ll turn it over to you. Do you keep a plain list or have you adopted a system like these? Let me know in the comments.
As an independent worker, I’m learning to be the manager, technician, and boss of “Dave, Inc.” I’m also a devotee of productivity tools (read: junkie) and I’ve tried most of the major systems, techniques, and software. By far, the most effective strategy I’ve adopted is also the simplest, and possibly the oldest: write things down. Not only does it reduce the stress of possibly forgetting something important, it also helps answer the question, “What should I work on now?”
I write things down all day, from capturing ideas to outlining articles and ideas. However, the most important list is the one I make right before bed.
Every night, I review what I’ve accomplished and what’s outstanding. Next, I write down the three most important tasks that I must complete the next day. This practice has two main benefits. First, it shuts off my brain. Tell me if this sounds familiar: your body is ready to go to sleep but your brain decides it’s party time! So it starts to review everything that needs to be done. Good times! When I’ve got those things out of my brain and committed to a list that I’ll see in the morning, the plug gets pulled on that party.
Second, it lets me avoid the overwhelming feeling of not knowing where to begin. Many of us have 10, 20, or more outstanding projects. It can be hard to know where to start when you have so many. Deciding before I sit down helps alleviate that feeling and provide direction.
Conversely, approaching the workday without a list of observable, clearly-defined actions creates one of two scenarios. Either you’ll attend to every distraction that pops into your mind and make insignificant progress on many projects, or you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time on a project that’s less critical than others.
Every night between 9:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., I review my project lists and pick the three mission-critical tasks that MUST be completed the following day. Then, I gather 5–6 other tasks that can wait a day but would be the icing on the cake if completed within the next 24 hours.
I then take a pen and a notebook and write them down. This simple practice reduces my anxiety tremendously, lets me sleep, and gives me direction in the morning. When it’s noon and I’ve completed all three critical tasks, I feel fantastic.
There are a huge number of tools available for creating such a list of actions. I use David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner. It lets me create a list, track how much time I actually spend on each (instead of my estimate), and gather incoming “stuff” as it shows up. It’s super useful.
Of course, most computers come with a quick note-type app. If you’re happy with just a bullet list, give it a try.
I’ve also started exploring these other programs:
The Pomodoro Technique. I use a modified implementation of this method. At its heart, it’s a way to alternate timed work sessions with break sessions. I work for 25 minutes straight and then take a 5-minute break. When the break’s over, I start again with another 25-minute work session. After three rotations, the break extends to 15 minutes, the I go back to 25 on, 5 off.
Mac users who want to try it out will love BreakTime. This unobtrusive utility lives in my Menu Bar and times your work/break sessions all on its own. Others should consider Focus Booster, a free, browser-based timer that looks great and works well.
Boomerang for Gmail. I usually check email at 9:00 a.m., noon and then 2:00 p.m. I, like so many others, had become a slave to the inbox and I don’t want to do that anymore. I use Gmail for a lot of work-related email, and Boomerang lets me schedule when I interact with it. I can determine when messages will be sent, but even better, select when I want to see certain messages. During my morning sweep, I can use Boomerang to remind me of certain messages while I’m processing email again at noon.
Like many of you, I’m still struggling with the best way to manage all of this. These practices and apps have helped quite a bit. If you’re doing something similar (or completely different), let me know.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been completing my three mandatory tasks by 3:00. It feels great.
I’ve written about the benefits of a trusted system before. It can be anything you like, really: index cards in your pocket, project management software, a notepad, audio recorder, whatever. The crucial thing is that your brain knows: 1.) You’ll enter information into it reliably; 2.) You’ll check on it regularly, and 3.) Nothing entered into the system will get lost through the cracks. Some people use Getting Things Done, while some use a home-grown solution. When you trust your system in your bones, your brain will stop nagging you about what needs to be done.
That nagging happens to me when I carry around excessive “mental clutter.” As I’ve said before, I use David Allen’s definition of clutter (I’m paraphrasing here): Anything that isn’t where it’s supposed to be for all time. For example, sneakers lying under the coffee table are clutter until they’re placed in the shoe basket in the mudroom. Likewise, “Dentist appointment on the 14th at 9:00 AM” is clutter while it’s in my mind until I write it on a calendar that I know I’ll check.
Mental clutter is detrimental to me in several ways. When I my mind is cluttered I remember obligations when it’s impossible to do anything about them (“Finish William’s Pinewood Derby car” is useless to me while doing 60 mph on the highway), and the subsequent distraction causes me to miss other, more important things.
Now, about the snowman.
A year ago, I was in the checkout line with my then-4-year-old son. He clanked his Keds against the steel shopping cart as I moved bottled water, bagels, and potato chips onto the conveyor belt. While my hands worked I thought about which items would go into the freezer, which ones I’d cook right away, what we’d eat later that night….
“Daddy, look at the snowman.”
“Look at the snowman.”
“Honey, it’s summer time. There’s no snowman.”
“I see a snowman.”
I looked up, my arms moving items from cart to belt, my eyes scanning the store. “Where’s your snowman, honey?”
He pointed. I looked. I saw it.
A snowman. In the floral department, there was a balloon shaped like a snowman, about 18 inches tall.
I hadn’t noticed it. I never would have if he hadn’t pointed it out. What’s more, he was right. Why would there be a snowman balloon for sale in July? What an odd thing that I missed. What else had I missed? I wanted to know.
That’s when I vowed to notice what I was missing. The first step, I figured, was to identify how I was missing things. Once I found it, I could change it and then cease missing things. I began to monitor my habits. Initially I didn’t change them, I just observed. I was stunned at how frequently I invited distraction upon myself. Here’s what I was doing:
Waking up in the morning, and switching on the news. Dressing while barely glancing at my clothing. Heck, I was watching the news while barely glancing at the TV. Between buttons and sound bites, my eyes were scanning emails while my brain was running its own acrobatics. What will happen today? What will happen this weekend? I need to do laundry. Why are the kids moving so slowly, don’t they know it’s a school day?
There were constant distractions and a mentally consuming dialogue like this throughout the entire day.
Eventually, I realized something significant — I never did what I was doing. For example, when I got dressed in the morning, I didn’t get dressed. Instead, I spent that time filtering much incoming stimuli: The TV, email, my children’s progress toward getting ready for school and so on. My mind wasn’t on what was happening, which was selecting clothing, buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe, tightening a belt.
With the problem identified, I worked on eliminating it. In the morning, I turned off the TV and the computer and just got dressed. I even told myself, “I’m getting dressed.” It was nice! I kept doing it. I found that I appreciate that I have the motor skills required to dress myself. I found that I have nice clothes. I found that my backyard looks nice in the morning through the bedroom window, and I can look down on the berry patch and rhubarb plants. When I was done, I felt, well, happy.
I also realize that there’s so much good in the ordinary. Kurt Vonnegut expressed this more eloquently that I can:
“[When Kurt Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying an envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, I don’t know. The moral of the story is, we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, with the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”
Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do two things at once. Nor am I suggesting that we eschew productivity or fail to pack the kids’ lunches because it’s time to examine every detail of every moment. I still occasionally write and listen to music at the same time, or breeze through my Twitter stream like a humming bird, or review the day’s schedule in my head. But now I know that’s what I’m doing, if that makes sense. And I’m missing a lot less.
Several weeks ago, we were contacted by Staples about running a series of sponsored posts on their office products. Because Staples sells so many different products in their stores, we agreed, provided the arrangement would allow us to be free to review products we already use and have no hesitation recommending to our readers. Since both David and I purchased, have been using, and have even been recommending the Staples’ Arc Notebook system, we thought we would start there. So, the following is a sponsored post from Staples about a product we believe in. These sponsored posts will be infrequent, and they will help us continue to provide quality content to our audience.
I’m a notebook junkie. I can’t resist buying them. Even as the guy with an iPhone and an iPad, I still love writing on paper. There’s a pocket-sized notebook in my pocket at all times and I keep a larger notebook on my desk. For years I’ve used Moleskines, but in February I purchased an Arc Notebook from Staples and I’m in love. It’s highly customizable, folds neatly in half, lays flat when open, looks great, and suits my needs wonderfully.
The Arc is similar to the Circa notebook system by Levenger, but much less expensive. (A basic leather Circa notebook for 5.5″ x 8.5″ paper is $80, and the same size basic leather Arc is $15.) It consists of various styles of paper (lined notebook, calendar, to-do, project manager, and more), pocket and divider inserts, and covers in poly, fabric, and leather that are bound together by a series of discs. The notebook also is available in two sizes — one for 8.5″ x 11″ paper and one for 5.5″ x 8.5″. An optional hole puncher lets you add your own papers to the system. In short, you can create a custom notebook with exactly the information and pages you want in exactly the amount and even order that you want. The line also includes adhesive notes, sheet protectors, page flags, business card holders, a built-in pen holder, and other accessories.
The pages are cut so that you can slide them on and off of the disks easily, yet they remain securely intact while in place. There are so many options available, that each setup will be unique. With that in mind, here’s how I’ve set up my Arc.
The very first item in my Arc is the adhesive flags. I resisted using these for a long time, as I disliked the way they protruded from the edge of whatever they happened to be stuck to. However, I’ve grown to love them. Today I use them for quick reference to something that doesn’t warrant a whole tab divided separator.
Next is a flowchart that describes the basic of the Getting Things Done system I download from DIY Planner. It’s a super, at-a-glance reference that reminds me of the GTD process.
After that, I’ve got five pages I’ve printed from my calendar, Monday through Friday. I print one day at a time, so I can remove each as that day passes.
Several copies of David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner come next. This document has been one of my favorite tools for years. I use it to list the priority tasks I’ll complete in a given day, record how long each task takes, record what I’m doing from hour to hour and capture ideas, tasks and more that need processing at the end of the day. It’s invaluable. You can print the Emergent Task Planner from David’s site, or order a pre-printed pad from Amazon.
Next is a plastic tabbed divider. I’ve added a label marked “Notes” with my labeler. The divider precedes about 60 notebook-style pages. These are the heavy pages that came with my basic Arc and I use them for scribbling all manner of information.
Those are followed by another tabbed divider labeled “Projects” and half a dozen Task Project Trackers, again from David Seah. I use these to identify an open project, all the steps that are required before I can mark that project as “Done,” time how long each step takes and finally scribble related notes. I also could have purchased the project manager pages from Staples, which are similar, just not what I have been accustom to using.
And, that’s it. The hole puncher is an added expense ($40) but worth it if you want the benefits of creating your own custom setup.
Do you find that it’s difficult to keep still and do nothing? Even when you’re supposed to be relaxing (and though your body may not be moving), your mind might be running though your task list and the many things that you need to get done. Or, perhaps you decide to stay later at work a few days per week in an effort to “catch up.” Though you may be in the mindset of trying to get things done, if you don’t get enough sleep, this can decrease how much you actually get done and increase your stress. And, when you’re stressed, you won’t sleep very well. This is a vicious cycle.
The fact of the matter is that if you want to get more done, you need to be well rested. Lack of sleep or not enough of it can really hamper how productive you can be. The The New York Times recently reported:
Spending more hours at work often leads to less time for sleep and insufficient sleep takes a substantial toll on performance. In a study of nearly 400 employees, published last year, researchers found that sleeping too little — defined as less than six hours each night — was one of the best predictors of on-the-job burn-out. A recent Harvard study estimated that sleep deprivation costs American companies $63.2 billion a year in lost productivity.
This connection between sleep and productivity seems to affect you no matter what your job function is. The article goes on to say that when basketball players slept 10 hours per night, “their free-throw and three-point shooting each increased by an average of 9 percent.”
So, how can you get more sleep — the type of rest that will help you feel energized and well prepared to tackle each workday? To get started:
Stop hitting the snooze button
Though it’s intended to be helpful, the snooze button on your alarm can interrupt your sleep cycle which will in turn make you feel more tired and groggy (this is known as sleep inertia). You’ll feel this way because your body may not be ready to be awake (depending on the stage of the sleep cycle that it’s in) when the alarm sounds. This can translate into poor performance during the day. Instead, implement a consistent sleep schedule so that you are not dependent on the snooze button. Get up and go to bed at the same time every day so that you create a pattern of restorative sleep (you can even use a sleep cycle app on your phone to help).
Schedule recovery time during the workday
Recovery time can include planned breaks from working on your projects. It can also mean taking power naps during the day (whenever possible), particularly if you didn’t sleep well the night before. You’ll want to take relatively short naps so that when you wake up, you’ll feel more alert and energized. Though napping longer than 20 minutes has benefits (like better decision making and being able to recall directions more easily), if you get into a very deep sleep, you may wake up feeling more tired. Consider experimenting with shorter or longer nap times to find the right amount of time that will help you to recover.
Schedule time for energizing movement
While everyone needs downtime, exercise has been proven to have a positive effect on how well you sleep. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, “just 10 minutes of exercise a day could make a difference in the duration and quality of sleep.” The good news is that you don’t have to carve out several hours to exercise, but rather build in a short stints of energetic movement throughout your day to reap the benefits at night.
Keep your sleep space uncluttererd
When there’s clutter build-up in a room, there’s likely to be a good deal of stress felt when you’re in that particular area. So, set the stage for a restful night by uncluttering your space. Put away clothing and keep your nightstands neat and organized. Be sure that you don’t keep receipts, mail, or any other (non-sleep) related items hanging about. One thing you can keep on your nightstand: a sleep journal. Use the journal to track how well you’re sleeping, how much sleep you need to function optimally, as well as specific things (soft music, completely dark room, bath before bed) that help you achieve restorative sleep.
Do less: Practice single-tasking
So, this isn’t a sleep tip specifically, but it’s good to put it into practice as it can have big results. Though I’m suggesting that you should do less, please don’t throw your to-do list out the window! Doing less doesn’t mean that you should ignore your responsibilities. It simply means that you should focus on one thing at a time, instead of trying to wrap your mind around several tasks and projects simultaneously. This can be tricky at first, but after a bit of practice, you’ll begin to notice that you can get more done and, perhaps more importantly, you’ll have a greater chance of getting things done more completely (and with less stress, too).
Getting enough rest should be at the top of your list if you want to improve your ability to be productive. If after trying some of today’s suggestions you find that there has been no improvement to the quality of your sleep, consider talking with your doctor to see if there are other things that could be having an impact (like certain medications) on your performance.
I had an amazing college gig. My job was to deliver papers and envelopes to medical offices around town. I’d show up at work and pick up a van full of deliveries, and, when the van was empty, my work was done. Afterward, I would return the van and go back to my apartment. Guess how many times I thought about delivering papers between drop-off and the next morning?
That was what David Allen would call a “widget-cranking job.” You show up to find a bunch of un-cranked widgets. Once they’re all cranked, you go home. The job description is cut and dry.
Today, my job is quite different. I write and edit articles. I produce one podcast and participate in another. I’m working on a book. I’ve also got the responsibilities of a husband, father, brother, and son. In comparison, my job requires more attention than driving a van around town while listening to music and drinking a soda.
A good number of jobs can be overwhelming. The good news is that any job can be a widget-cranking job. The trick is identifying the widgets and getting them in front of yourself in a timely manner and on a friendly, non-intimidating list.
How do you get almost any job into a widget-cranking job? Try these steps:
Identify the widgets
This is the most crucial and the most difficult step. It often takes more time and attention than you initially assume. I think a case study will be the best way to illustrate the process.
Next week, I’ll produce another episode of my podcast, Home Work. There’s a lot to be done each week, like think of a topic, communicate that idea to my co-host, conduct research once a topic has been agreed upon, share notes, confirm sponsorship details, ensure that my software and hardware works, and so on. It’s easy to look at that and think, “Where do I begin?”
To find the answer, I ask myself this question: “If I had nothing else to do in the world but work on the podcast, absolutely nothing at all, what could I do right now to make progress on it?” And by do I mean a concrete, observable action. Let’s say my answer comes back, “brainstorm topic ideas.” OK, great. What do I need to do that? Well, a piece of paper and a pencil.
OK, but bah! My beloved brainstorming notebook is out of scratch paper. I guess I need to get more. So, the next step on the project Produce the Podcast is “drive to Staples and buy my favorite notebook paper.”
That’s a widget. “Think of a good topic” is hard. “Buy paper” is easy.
From there, I continue to my next step, which is “brainstorm ideas.” Then, I identify two or three good ones for the podcast. Next, I need to “share list of good ideas with my co-host.” All of these actions are easily-cranked widgets. Put them on a list and you’re good to go.
To-do management apps
All you need to crank these widgets is a simple list. High-powered project management software is overkill here. Below are several examples of simple and effective task management applications that might work for you.
- Remember the Milk. This handy little app is available for the iPhone and Android phones. It works with Gmail, Google Calendar, Twitter, and has a nice web interface. It’s been around for a few years and works quite well.
- Todo List. Todo List can be used entirely browser-based so it will work with just about any smartphone and any computer. You’ll also find apps for Android, the iPhone, Windows Phone, and the Mac OS. It features handy color coding and nearly infinite list sizes, so go nuts.
- TeuxDeux. This app lets you sort tasks by day and can be used in a browser. An iPhone app is also available. This one is very nice-looking in addition to being useful.
- To.DO. This a solution I’ve only recently started playing with. It’s available for Android, the iPhone, and Chrome. The Chrome browser plug-in is very nice. It syncs automatically with the smartphone apps and reminds you of what needs to be done.
- Astrid. Astrid takes your to-do list a step further and makes it easy to share task lists with co-workers, family, and friends. It’s available for the iPhone and Android.
Once you are clear as to what steps to take, work through your list of simple to-do items. As long as you stay current with your concrete actions, you’ll know exactly what you need to do. You can free your mind to think about non-work things during non-work time.
I’ve been working from my home office exclusively since 2009. In those four years, I’ve learned a lot about managing home and work life, staying productive while cozy at home, avoiding distractions, and more. Based on these experiences, the following are my ten tips that keep my work on track when I’m at home.
Before I delve into my list, I should define “home worker.” It certainly includes telecommuters, freelancers, and those running a business from home, but that is not where the definition ends. Anyone who runs a household definitely works from home. Also, the number of people who spend 9–5 in an office, school, or at an off-site job, but then take additional tasks home to work on, is increasing. When I was young, I knew one family who had an “office” in their home, and I thought it was the oddest thing. Today, it’s pretty much the norm.
Now that we’ve got that sorted, on with the tips.
- Define a workspace. You needn’t have a dedicated room to be a productive home worker. A corner of the kitchen, back porch, or garage will do, as long as it accommodates the tools and space you need. I have an IKEA desk in my bedroom that is my office. Occasionally, I want a change of scenery, so I’ll move my laptop to another part of the house. Other times I’m forced out entirely, which brings me to …
- Have an emergency backup office. There will be times when the power is out or your internet connection is down. Or, perhaps, a construction crew is working on The World’s Loudest Project right outside your window. When this happens, you’ll need a backup site to go to. My default remote office is the public library. It’s clean, well-lit, quiet, and has free Wi-Fi. The employees don’t care how long I stay and there are electrical outlets everywhere. Good thing I travel light.
- Define a lightweight office-to-go. Figure out the bare minimum of tools you can get away with and remain productive. Something you can fling into a bag and go. Will your computer do? An iPad? A camera? Figuring this out ahead of time will save you a lot of aggravation when you need to vacate your home office pronto.
- Make your home office efficient but also pleasing. You’re going to spend a lot of time in your office, so make it a pleasant place to be. I have LEGO projects on my desk, Star Wars toys, and a pencil holder that my daughter made for me. Since I am at home, I need not comply to corporate decorating policies, and neither do you. Find things that you love and make you feel good and add a little style to your space.
- Adopt a system you trust. Unless you’re in business with your spouse, partner, or housemate, you likely don’t live with a co-worker or superior. That means that you are both the worker and the supervisor. Conquer the latter role by devising a system you trust. I follow David Allen’s Getting Things Done system and, in effect, that system is my supervisor. Trust is the critical factor here, as that’s the only way your brain will stop nagging about all of your undone tasks.
- Don’t be too informal. This one applies mostly to those who are earning their living from home. Since you are in the house, it’s easy to adopt a casual attitude about your day. In my experience, adding a bit of formality helps draw a line between work time and leisure time. I always shower, shave and put on nice clothes. I make a cup of tea and begin the day in the same routine one might in a traditional office. When I’m done with work for the day, I turn my computer off, kick off my shoes and join the family downstairs. That routine also helps me feel like I’m truly “off the clock” when the workday ends.
- Get your own inbox. This simple tip has vastly improved my marriage. My wife and I shared an “inbox” (an end table by the front door) for years and it made both of us crazy. My stuff mingled with hers, she liked to store things one way and I another. Now, I have an inbox on my desk and she has one on the end table. I process my inbox items on my schedule and according to my system, and my wife does the same her own way. I cannot recommend splitting this up strongly enough if you live with other people.
- Take Breaks.I alternate between work time and break time all day. A great Mac app called Breaktime lets me alternate between 25-minute work times and 5-minute breaks all day. This practice helps me maintain a productive streak and is also a luxury I wouldn’t have in an office.
- Take advantage of working from home. You work at home and that means you’re at home! Take advantage of this opportunity that many aren’t able to experience. Sit on the porch, eat lunch in your own kitchen, and never miss an event at your kid’s school.
- Be flexible. This lesson was the hardest for me to learn. I’d make a plan for my day, only to see it fall apart thanks to a sick kid, malfunctioning computer, flooding basement, and more. Understand this might happen, and don’t get too stressed when it does. Try again tomorrow.
Services like Instapaper, Pocket and Readability are great for saving articles for later reading. But sometimes I want to read something right when I find it and, better yet, with a clutter-free layout like those services provide. This is when an in-browser reader like Apple’s Safari Reader, Instapaper’s Text Bookmarklet and Evernote’s Clearly come in handy.
Each has its own pros and cons, but which is the best? Everyone has their preferences, but I took a look at three options and picked my favorite. Here’s what I found while comparing Safari Reader, Instapaper Text, and Clearly:
Apple introduced Safari Reader with Safari 5. Like the others, it offers a distraction-free reading experience by presenting an article without ads, sidebar images, headers or footers. Instead, you get a center-aligned, black-on-white version of the article with any inline images intact. Plus, multi-page articles are displayed in one flow. That’s it.
It works by first detecting an article or post on a web page. Once it has, a grey “Reader” button appears in the URL field in place of the RSS button. Click it to view your article in the Reader interface (Command-Shift-R works, too).
The article appears on a white background in the center of Safari’s window. Also, the Reader button turns purple while the Reader view is active. Finally, a scrollbar on the right allows you to navigate the article.
There are several tools available while Reader is active. Move your cursor toward the bottom of Safari’s window and the toolbar appears. From left to right, you’ll find “-” and “+” re-sizing buttons, as well as options to email or print the article. Lastly, a big “X” closes the Reader UI and restores the original website (clicking outside of Reader does the same).
The best thing about Reader is that it works as advertised. The black text looks great and is highly legible. It loads quickly and lets you adjust the text size, print and share via email. Plus, it’s only available after a web page has fully loaded, so advertisers aren’t cheated out of impressions.
While Safari’s Reader for the Mac isn’t my favorite (more on that in a minute), it absolutely shines on mobile Safari. Especially on the iPhone. Typically I dislike long periods of reading on the iPhone because the screen and text is so small, but Reader fixes that. It commandeers the screen completely (unlike on the iPad, which still shows the toolbar and any open tabs), with big, legible text on a lightly textured background that just feels nice. An unobtrusive share button offers several options, like tweet, print, add to reading list and more.
My main gripe is that Reader doesn’t fill the browser window. Instead, the original web page is seen behind the Reader presentation. Even though it’s grayed out, I’m still aware of it, which defeats the “distraction-free” aspect. In fact, it’s a deal-breaker. Sorry, Apple.
Customization is also limited, though you can alter its look with a little work. It’s nice to re-size the type, but compared to others, it doesn’t do much. Finally, it’s restricted to Safari.
Reader is nice on the Mac, super on the iPad, and, hands-down, fan-flipping-tastic on the iPhone.
Instapaper Text Bookmarklet
Instapaper offers a bookmarkelt that lets you read an article in the service’s text view without saving it to your collection of stories. It offers black text on white like with Apple’s Safari Reader, but with more options for customization.
By default, the Instapaper Text Bookmarklet centers your text on a field of white. The customization tools are hidden until you click the font icon at the top left. Options include re-sizing the type, and I clicked the button 22 times and was obliged each time.
You can also single- or double-space the text and adjust the column width. Again, it seems happy to stretch the text as wide as I like, easily filling my 24″ display. Finally, there are four fonts to choose from: Geneva, Times, Helvetica and Veranda. There’s no button to send to Instapaper, however. For that you’ll need a different bookmarkelt.
Right off the bat I’m happy because it fills the browser window. Instapaper Text also offers more customization options than Apple. It also loads quickly, and is quite legible. Since it’s a bookmarklet, it’ll work in any browser and, like Safari’s reader, it displays multi-page articles on a single page.
Can’t think of a one.
I found this one recently and have been test driving it. Like the others, Clearly (formerly Readable) presents your target article without ads, a sidebar, header or footer. It’s an extension, not a bookmarkelt, and is available for Firefox and Google Chrome. Once it’s up and running, a click sends the article to your Evernote account. But, the single click action isn’t what I love most about it.
If looks are everything, Clearly is a bombshell. The whole point of these things is to display an article so that it looks great and is pleasant to read. Clearly succeeds better than the rest.
A click on the themes button on the right sidebar reveals multiple thematic options. By default there are three themes to choose from: Newsprint, Notable and Night Owl (pictured above). A fourth option lets you create a custom theme, with control over almost every aspect of how Clearly presents your pages. Finally, there’s a button to print the article and another to send it to Instapaper.
It’s not available on Apple’s Safari browser.
Evernote’s Clearly is my new favorite way to read articles without distraction in my browser. Yes, Instapaper is backed by a tremendous service that I love, but so is Clearly. Like I said, this is a beauty contest more than anything else and the team at Evernote has done a stellar job with Clearly. I’ll still send articles I wish to save to Instapaper, but will enjoy stories I want to read as I find them with Clearly.
When I think of avoiding clutter, I often think of my physical surroundings: the car, the office, my kitchen and my kids’ playroom. However, my computer’s screen — or desktop — also gets pretty messy on a regular basis. What’s more, that clutter can be just as distracting as a physical mess, and hinder my willingness to sit down and work. Fortunately, I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. Here’s how I manage digital clutter on my virtual desktop.
Make a Mess As You Work
Much like a potter who goes home with clay on his jeans, I get messy while I work. The time you spend meeting obligations, making ends meet, and fulfilling the 9-to–5 is not the time to get fastidious about the location of every file and folder. Do your job, fling clay, and get stuff done.
At the end of my work day, I’ve typically got screenshots and other images, snippets of text, installers and more all over the desktop. This is perfectly acceptable. Leaving them there for all eternity — or worse, treating the desktop as a filing cabinet — is not.
Process As An Inbox
Most of us have several inboxes in our lives. There’s the physical in tray on your desk, but also email, voice mail, notes from school, and so on. When I sit down to go through those things, I follow the same process each time. Specifically, I ask myself what is this item, what needs to be done about it (if anything) and am I the person to do it? Sorting through the files and folders on my computer desktop requires the same process. Some stuff can be thrown away, others spawn ideas or join existing projects, while others go into long-term storage as reference material. Here’s how I separate the three types:
- Screenshots. At work I write, edit and take a lot of screenshots. All of these can go into the trash.
- Text snippets. I also paste bits of text into Apple’s Text Edit as a temporary placeholder. These also get trashed.
- Installers. Occasionally, I install new software, often for testing purposes. Those installers are unnecessary after a piece of software has been properly installed, and they love to pile up. Off to the trash they go.
Occasionally I’ll come across a website that I want to return to, an article I’d like to read during down time, an idea that could spawn or improve a new project or something I’d like to share.
There are many great ways to capture web site addresses for future reference. Pinterest is a popular service, but my favorite is Pinboard. It’s definitely no-frills, and that’s what I like about it. Pinboard costs about $10 to sign up for the service, and offers a place to store your bookmarks that is aways accessible. Multiple computers, smartphones and tablets can all log into your Pinboard account and have access to your saved sites. You can organize your collection with tags, and optionally share select finds with others. Again, I use Pinboard for sites I’ll refer to often.
That collection is different than articles I’d like to read in my free time. There are several great services that offer a super “read-it-later” experience, and my favorites are Instapaper and Pocket. Both store your saved articles for later viewing on a computer, smartphone or tablet. They also strip out the images, ads and so on so that all you get is the article you’re after. Honestly, I like them both and believe you’d be happy with either.
The next category is new ideas and/or information that pertains to a project in progress. This is also where the article takes a geeky turn, though I’ll ease into it slowly.
I like to store ideas, thoughts worth follow-up, etc. in a file format called plain text. Why? My Internet buddy David Sparks explains it beautifully at his site, Mac Sparky:
Text files are easy to read on any computer running any operating system and don’t require any proprietary word processor to interpret. Even more important, text files can be read by humans. Keeping your writings in text makes them digitally immortal.
Moreover, text is internet friendly. The files are small and can jump among connected devices with poor connections like hopped up Disney faeries. It is really easy to work with your text files on any device from anywhere.
Your computer can read and create plain text files right out of the box. There’s nothing to fiddle with or buy. It just works. Plain text files also act as a nice half-way point before going into your formal project manager. So a folder full of plain text files does it for me.
That’s the non-geek version.
Ideas that require developement go into a piece of Mac software that I love called nvALT. I love nvALT because it’s insanely fast, supports keyboard shortcuts so I don’t have to move my hand to the mouse very often, saving time, and has powerful search capabilities. It syncs to my iPhone and iPad almost instantly, thanks to Dropbox and another app called Simplenote.
Finally, when it comes to long-term storage of reference material, I’m a loyalist to one product. This is information that does not require an action but might be useful in the future (a local theatre’s summer schedule, for example). This goes into Evernote.
First, don’t get distracted by trying to stay neat while you work. That’s counterproductive and will leave you frustrated. At the end of the day, process the stuff that has accumulated on your computer’s screen as you would any other inbox. Decided what a file is, what must be done with it (incubate, throw away, delegate or save for later), and then act accordingly by moving that item to the proper location. You’ll be glad you did.