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.
It’s amazing how much organizing/productivity software there is. It’s even more incredible that software has become a valid gift option. When I was a kid, getting software for Christmas meant you got a game. Today, there’s an app for just about anything you want to do. Below is a list of can’t-miss apps to keep your family and loved ones organized and productive in the new year, or to add to your wish list:
- An Evernote Premium account. Evernote is my external brain. I use it for “cold storage” of reference material. That is, information that doesn’t require action but will be useful in the future. Evernote is great because it automatically syncs your information across almost any device with an Internet connection. It has very powerful search function, tagging, and more that makes it easy to find what you’re searching for in your stuff. The $45 premium account enables larger uploads, offline notebooks, improved upload speeds and collaboration with other users.
- Dropbox Pro account. Dropbox is so useful I almost think it should be installed on computers by default. The online storage solution is a fantastic way to backup important documents and share them with others. With Dropbox, you can access your stuff from nearly any Internet-connected computer. The pro account starts at $9.99 per month for 100 GB of online storage. I use it every single day.
- This Life pro account. I wrote about This Life earlier this year and I’m still enjoying it. This Life lets you organize and share your photos and videos easily and with a beautiful interface. Uploading photos is easy, as is creating “Stories.” This Life Stories collections of photos that you’d like to group together, like those of a certain person, trip, location, time period or whatever you desire. It’s browser-based so, like the other applications I’ve suggested to far, it doesn’t’ matter if you own a Mac or a Windows machine. There’s also a great app for the iPhone and iPad. The Family Plan lets you upload and share 50,000 photos or 25 hours of HD video (1080p) for $14.99 per month.
- Backup software. This is the gift that keeps on saving, not giving. As a Mac user I recommend Dolly Drive. Named for Dolly the cloned sheep (get it?), Dolly Drive uses Apple’s own Time Machine software to save your backup remotely, or “in the cloud.” I’ve been using it for years now and it’s always worked. Local backups are important – like a hard drive in your house or office – but remote backups are even more so. Dolly Drive puts your backup on their own server. That way, a laptop can back up anytime, even when it’s not in your home. Dolly Drive starts at just $3 per month. Windows users should consider Carbonite for similar, remote, automatic backups that start at $59/year. And, Erin swears by Backblaze. Irrespective of the program you choose, backup your computer and make sure your loved one’s computers are backed up, too.
- OmniFocus from The Omni Group. Forgive me while I recommend a Mac-only app here. OmniFocus is the big daddy of project management apps on the Mac. It’s so flexible and powerful that I can only touch the surface of its capabilities in this post. It was built with David Allen’s Getting Things Done system in mind, but you needn’t follow that method to use OmniFocus. Easily create projects and their associated tasks. Break them down by category, context or location. Keyboard support is extensive, so you can flip from one function to another easily. My favorite features let you focus on one project at a time, hiding everything else on the screen, while review mode let’s you see what’s outstanding at a glance. OmniFocus is $79.99.
- BreakTime and Focus Booster. I work best when I schedule in break times. BreakTime is the app I use for this purpose. It’s a Mac app that sits in your menu bar and counts down timed work sessions and break sessions. I work for 25 minutes and then take a break for five. Then, I repeat the process. It keeps me moving and allows for some time to “goof off,” walk around, etc. If you’re not a Mac user, consider Focus Booster. BreakTime costs $4.99 and Focus Booster is free.
I’ve got one bonus item that isn’t software, but it is a piece of technology:
I’m recommending the Emergent Task Planner notebook. I use one of these every day. It allows you to list the most important tasks you wish to accomplish, estimate how long they’ll take, recored how long they actually take and recored notes/incoming stuff or ideas that pop up while you work. There’s even a small, travel sized edition. I really do use this every day.
The full 2012 Holiday Gift Giving Guide.
Summer has kicked into high gear here in the northern hemisphere and this is when I like to retreat from the heat with a proverbial good book — but certainly not a “book” as my great-grandparents would have described one. Today, there are apps and devices that let you curate your summer reading from varied online resources and onto hand-held devices. With a little bit of time, an Internet connection and some free software, you can create your own digital reading experience and bring it to the beach, the hotel or even your favorite quiet corner of home.
Below, I’ve described several services that allow you to save or bookmark online articles for later reading. Once captured with the various apps, the articles are presented beautifully and legibly, as if you’re reading a digital book or magazine. Advertisements are stripped out, as are distracting sidebar ads and colors. You’re left with a great-looking and largely distraction-free reading experience. Best of all, these services are free and work on a variety of platforms, from iPads to Android devices to Nooks and Kindles.
Compatibility: iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, some Android devices, Amazon Kindle Fire, various web browsers
The web service Read It Later was recently re-branded as Pocket. Once you’ve created a free account online, you can add a special bookmarklet to your web browser. Then, when you come across an article you’d like to read later, simply click the bookmarklet. A small window will appear confirming that the story has been saved to your Pocket account. You can further organize things with tags at that point. For example, “beach reading,” “research” or “kids.”
When you’re out with your mobile device, launch Pocket and you’ll find all of the articles you’ve saved. Some of Pocket’s useful features let you browse articles by tag, add a star to favorites and view videos and images you’ve saved in addition to articles.
Compatibility: iPhone, iPad, some Android devices, Amazon Kindle, Nook Tablet, various web browsers
Readability works much like Pocket. Create a free account, install the bookmarklet in your browser and send articles to your mobile device. There are important differences, though. For starters, Readability’s bookmarklet is much more robust. You can opt to read an article right then if you like, and Readability with present it in a beautiful, distraction-free layout. You can also send it to your Kindle or Nook Tablet with a click. Once you’ve synced your devices, you can access your reading list when offline.
Cost: Free with optional subscription plan
Compatibility: iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, some Android devices, Amazon Kindle and Fire, Nook Color and Nook Tablet, various web browsers
Instapaper is among the first of these distraction-free reading services. Today it’s available on a huge number of devices and supported by a passionate developer and legions of fans. The iPhone and iPad version has some unique features, like tilt scrolling. This lets you scroll through a long article simply by tipping your device back and forth. There’s no need to swipe with a finger.
You’ll also find lots of layout customization options, like font size, several color schemes, spacing and brightness. After a minute or so of fiddling, you can get Instapaper’s articles to look just how you’d like.
Compatibility: iPad, iPhone, iPod touch and Android
Flipboard is unique in that you don’t add content to it. Instead, you tell Flipboard what to find for you. It will search the web for stories, photos and videos across several categories, including sports, technology, travel, photography, news, music, film and so much more. It will even pull content (articles your friends have linked to) from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, presenting all of it in a beautiful layout that’s reminiscent of a high-end design magazine. You can even add local news and your favorite RSS feeds. It’s such a great-looking app and has become my favorite way to browse Facebook.
There you have four services that will let you curate your summer reading, across several devices. Now start collecting, get reading, and enjoy these lovely, lazy days.
I’m always on the lookout for smart phone and iPad applications that can improve my productivity. It’s probably not a good idea to keep app switching all the time (it certainly makes more sense to stick with what works), but if I did that I wouldn’t have discovered Unstuck, a free iPad app.
Basically, if you’re stuck in a rut, Unstuck can help. It helps you to get rid of said rut, take action, and “live better every day.” I’ve decided to use it for a project that’s been hanging over my head for a bit, and it’s time to get it moving.
But, first, a test run. Here’s the process:
After downloading and registering, the app asks you to select three emotions in response to “How are you feeling in this stuck moment?” Some of your choices include hazy, high and dry, tired, unprepared, uninformed, indecisive, to name a few. Then, you get to rate how strongly you feel each emotion. I chose conflicted, uninformed, and up in the air, all with medium strength.
In this step, you drill down the type of stuck you’re in (personal, professional, or both) and who’s stuck with you (alone, you + another person, or you + other people). For my test, I chose professional and to go it alone, but if you select that you’re working with others, you’ll be asked to name the people in the rut with you.
You get to answer why you’re stuck and see examples of what others have written. I entered: “I’m stuck because there’s so much I want to do.” Even though this is a test, that statement is 100 percent true.
Now for the fun part. You get to sort your thoughts using these cool thought cards (they look like playing cards except they have words on them) that you drag and drop into two categories: So Me and Not Me.
Here are some of the cards:
- I thought I knew what to do but now I’m not sure
- I don’t know why this is not working
- It doesn’t seem real yet
- Remind me why this is important to me
- Maybe I need to ask somebody else what to do
- I NEED HELP
- Why is it so hard to decide?
- Doing a lot but getting nowhere
Can you see how these might be helpful? I really think this app forces you to think about the nuances of why things are not going the way you want them to.
Here, you’re asked to pick three (out of twelve) things you’re doing. I randomly chose:
- Letting yourself get distracted
- Doing busywork that gets nowhere
- Debating an issue over and over again
You wait a second or two until Unstuck diagnoses your problem. The app decided that based on my entries, I’m a Waffler. I may not like being called wishy-washy, but I like knowing that I’m not the only one in this spot. And, I know this because the app tells me that three other people, like Amy Tan, Ellen Degeneres, and Wallace Stevens, are just like me. Well, if they can get past that … you know the rest. I also learn that 9 percent of the Unstuck community is also having a “waffler” moment.
There’s an explanation of what it means to be a waffler, and I’m asked to confirm if this really sounds like me. I clicked yes, but when you click “no,” you get to start over, save and start a new stuck moment, or keep going. You also get a few tips.
This is where the work really begins as I’m asked to select a tool to help fix my flip-floppy self. But, first, I’m greeted by a lovely note that tells me not to give up and that change is a process. I’m also encouraged to be creative. I’m so in love with this app!
And, it loves me back by telling me to Take a stand, a.k.a., make a decision.
The next three steps really help you to do just that. It’s a very simple process, but that’s the beauty of it. It makes you think things through and gives you several tools (e.g., Map it out, Get your game on, Shake up your routine) so that you’re not just muddling through. If you don’t think that you’re quite through the woods, you can try out other tools.
So far, Unstuck seems different from all other project motivation apps I’ve seen. It seems to ask the right questions and help you to really think through your next steps. It’s similar to having a mentor or coach.
Could this app help you make life-altering decisions? Maybe. Could you get a few steps closer to a project’s goals? Definitely.
And, just to be clear, Unstuck didn’t pay me or reward me in any way for writing this post. I’m just really fond of it and think it can help anyone who is stuck on a project or problem.