My colleague at The Unofficial Apple Weblog, Chris Rawson, recently explained why most people should think long and hard before installing a beta version of the iPad and iPhone operating system. These betas are typically distributed to developers so that they can test their apps against future updates, but any interested party with $100 can sign up as a developer and get it themselvers. It was a great piece and contained this blurb from a frustrated iPad owner:
I recently bought an iPad right before a trip to Africa for a family vacation. Being right after the release of the iOS 5 beta 2, and being part of the development program, I [installed iOS 5 beta 2]. It worked very well for the first 2 weeks of my trip. Then at exactly the halfway point in my trip, the screen went black … It’s just sitting in my backpack now, useless for the next week until I’m home.
Really a pain, because I’m still in Africa with nothing but my iPod nano and an Internet cafe to entertain me for the rest of the trip.
Forget the iOS install and focus on the huge problem illustrated by this user: He’s on vacation in AFRICA — a foreign continent — and can’t find anything to do without his iPad.
There isn’t one single compelling thing to do in all of Africa?
I don’t condemn this reader individually, because he has succumbed to an insidious epidemic. Specifically, we’ve cured boredom. And that’s a real problem. In The Wall Street Journal, Scott Adams wrote back in 2011:
But wait — we might be in dangerous territory. Experts say our brains need boredom so we can process thoughts and be creative. I think they’re right. I’ve noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me.
I make my living being creative and have always assumed that my potential was inherited from my parents. But for allowing my creativity to flourish, I have to credit the soul-crushing boredom of my childhood.
I’ve expressed this idea in less articulate terms myself. The insistent nature of Twitter, Facebook, and a thousand games in your pocket has produced a generation that never experiences a dull moment. That means we also never experience a contemplative moment, a reflective moment, a creative moment. Scott Belsky agrees:
Interruption-free space is sacred. Yet, in the digital era we live in, we are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched by email, the internet, people, and other forms of distraction. Our cars now have mobile phone integration and a thousand satellite radio stations. When walking from one place to another, we have our devices streaming data from dozens of sources. Even at our bedside, we now have our iPads with heaps of digital apps and the world’s information at our fingertips.
I know this makes me sound like a cranky old misanthrope, but I don’t care. It’s impossible to generate a truly creative thought while the incessant barrage pelts us. It’s like complaining that we’re not dry while standing in a rain storm. You won’t dry off until you go inside and get away from the falling water.
Turn off, be quiet, and be comfortable with your thoughts. It’s OK, I promise.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Would you be surprised to learn that when you are distracted while working, you can make mistakes when you get back to your intended task? The results of a study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that you also have a greater chance of “resuming at a different point in [your] train of thought” then if you had not been interrupted. Perhaps the most telling thing the researchers discovered is that even quick interruptions of less than three seconds made participants more likely to make a mistake.
… when their attention was shifted from the task at hand for a mere 2.8 seconds, they became twice as likely to mess up … the error rate tripled when the interruptions averaged 4.4 seconds.
Interruptions seem to be a part of everyone’s daily work life and they can come in a variety of forms: a request from a colleague, a phone call from a client, or even your own desire to do something other than what you’re supposed to be doing. All of these moments stop you from fully focusing on your important tasks. It’s not that those other things may not also be worthy of your attention. They very well may be, but when you attend to them is essential to how productive you can be.
Since shifting your focus even for short periods of time has a direct effect on the quality of your work, it makes sense to:
Figure out what your regular interruptions are
Are there interruptions that happen frequently during your day? Do specific people continually seek your attention causing you to pause what you’re doing? Do you respond to all phone calls and emails immediately? Take a few minutes to jot down all the things that tend to take your focus away from your intended tasks.
Come up with a game plan
No matter what the interruptions are, you can thwart them with a strategic game plan. Create a time plan so you can manage your tasks. By doing this, you’ll be able to set realistic timeframes for working on your to-do’s and setting your schedule accordingly.
Share your calendar with others. Make your schedule available to colleagues so they’ll know when you’ll have time available to meet or talk with them. You may still get interrupted, but hopefully your colleagues will begin to request your attention when they know you’re not otherwise occupied.
Use friendly, but direct reminders. When you do get interrupted, consider using statements such as:
- “I’m working on a project that is making my brain spin and requires a lot of focus. Can we meet this afternoon at 3:00 to discuss your matter in detail? I’ll be much more helpful to you then when my mind isn’t filled with this project.”
- “Unfortunately, I’m swamped today finishing project X so we can meet the deadline. I won’t be able to help today. Have you talked to Sally? I know she has been interested in getting involved in a project such as this.”
- “I’d like to help, but if you need an answer today, I’ll have to to say no.”
You can also post a sign on your office door (if you have one) or cubicle panel, and you can even wear one. When I worked in the corporate world, my workspace was in a highly trafficked area and it wasn’t unusual for someone to tap me on the shoulder with a request. Since I didn’t have a door that I could close, I sometimes wore a sign that said something like: “I’m not here. I’ll back at 3 pm.” Of course, I explained to others in the office what I was doing so that they wouldn’t be caught off guard or be put off by my sign.
Control self-imposed distractions. Remove the temptation to share your attention with unimportant activities by turning off email notifications, silencing your phone, or forwarding your calls to voicemail or another person. You can also use a browser extension like Leechblock to block your favorite websites while you work on your most important projects.
Stop interruptions before they happen
Planning ahead is a great way to limit distractions before they occur. Is a teammate, project manager, or client waiting on information from you? If the next action lies with you, consider completing it ahead of schedule — before they contact you with a reminder. This is a win-win solution for everyone and you’ll be rewarded with a solid block of focused time. Additionally, you can be proactive and keep others up-to-date with your project by communicating with them first, and on your schedule. When others are well-informed of your progress, they won’t interrupt you to see how you’re doing.
Use strategies to help you get back on track
Whether you need to take a phone call or reply to an urgent email, try to keep your time away as short as possible. And, think about writing down your thoughts before you stop working so you have a frame of reference for when you return. You could leave yourself a note with your voice recorder or you can type in your last train of thought directly in the document you’re composing.
When possible, go to another location
If you find that you’re getting an influx of interruptions, find a different workspace (if possible). Pick an alternate location that allows you focus and get stuff done (library, local cafe, co-working office, conference room).
He was highly organized and prioritized his tasks and responsibilities while serving as president, a five-star general, supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, and supreme commander of NATO. Eisenhower devised an effective system that’s simple enough to be executed with a pencil and a piece of paper and effective enough to, well, run the free world. It’s called the Eisenhower Matrix.
Why use it?
First and foremost, it answers the question, “What should I do now?” There have been times when I’ve sat at my desk with an overwhelming list of projects and to-do items. They all seem important in those first few moments, and it’s often hard to be objective enough to identify what is urgent and what isn’t. The Eisenhower Matrix formalizes that process.
The Matrix also forces you to carefully consider potential projects. Is it life-sustaining work that will pay the bills or something that might be fun (and devour billable hours)? Alternatively, will this new opportunity or idea rejuvenate your productive, creative self, or lead you down a rabbit hole of avoidance? In other words, you get an answer to the question: “Is this worth doing?”
Finally, when you’ve got your tasks written down and plugged into the matrix, it’s very easy to identify urgent tasks at a glance. As the president often said:
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Here’s How it Works.
So what is it? The Eisenhower Matrix categorizes tasks across a 2×2 matrix. The categories are:
- Important and urgent. Tasks in this category are both urgent and time sensitive. They must be completed as soon as possible. Examples might include a report due within the next 48 hours or last-minute tax preparations. This is the stuff that keeps food on the table and a roof over your head.
- Important and not urgent. These tasks are to be handled immediately after those in quadrant number one. They’re less time sensitive, but you should be prepared to complete them after any crises in quadrant one have been solved. Examples include long-term financial planning and physical exercise.
- Not important but urgent. It’s odd to consider something that’s unimportant to be urgent, but this happens more than you might think. Administrative tasks are a good example of items that fall into this category. You might not want to file your reports with your boss each Friday and it’s even okay if you miss a few each year, but today is Friday and you should get the report done by the end of the day.
- Unimportant and not urgent. I reserve this area for tasks that aren’t related to work and don’t affect my income. I need to get them done, but there’s no time-crunch in place. Scheduling an oil change for the car is a good example.
Keep Track of it All
Now that you’ve decided what goes where, it’s time to keep track of it all. You’re in luck because it couldn’t be simpler. A 3×5 index card (I love 3×5 index cards) is perfect! Just draw the four lines and add the day’s tasks.
Notebooks are great, too, for keeping track of your Matrix. I’m a fan of Field Notes Brand, but really anything will do.
If you’re tech-savvy, there are a couple applications you can employ. There’s one called, appropriately, Eisenhower. It’s totally free and runs in almost any web browser, so it doesn’t matter if you use a Mac or a PC. The makers of Eisenhower have also released a companion iPhone app ($2.99).
Priority Matrix is another software solution that’s available for Windows, Mac, iPhone and iPad. I’ve been using it with success this winter. It’s really nice to glance down at my index card and know what must be done and when.
When I taught pre-school children (way back when), I would have the kids jump up and down to “shake the wigglies out” before working on projects that required their sustained attention. This allowed them to have a bit of fun before starting to work, and they were ultimately able to focus and complete their projects more easily. Though I should probably be jumping up and down more (exercising) myself, I’ve noticed that my productivity doesn’t get up to full speed until after I’ve done a few non-essential tasks. Though they’re not specifically related to tasks on my to-do list, doing them helps me get into a productive mindset. And, while I’m working, I subscribe to the “silence is golden” rule. I have a better chance of completing tasks efficiently when there’s very little noise and few interruptions.
While it helps to identify the strategies that help you do what you do consistently well, you probably need to figure out the things that cramp your productivity style, too. Are there particular things that throw you off track? A recent article on Mashable suggested that there five things that you should stay away from so that you can get more done (like not sleeping enough), and I’m sharing six more that you should consider kicking out of your regular routine.
Having poor eating habits
This one goes along with not exercising enough (or exercising too much), not drinking enough water, and not taking regular breaks. Lest you start thinking that I sound a bit like your mother, there are some statistics to back up this suggestion. A study published by Population Health Management found that …
Employees with an unhealthy diet were 66 percent more likely to report having experienced a loss in productivity than those who regularly ate whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Employees who exercised only occasionally were 50 percent more likely to report having lower levels of productivity than employees who were regular exercisers.
So, in order to be at your best, take care of yourself and refrain from…
Moving at the speed of light
There are many benefits of slowing down and keeping your pace at a speed that doesn’t make your head spin. Taking your time means that you’ll likely be better at deciding what your priorities are. You’ll also be able to give your full attention to your most important tasks without feeling frazzled.
Trying every productivity strategy
There are many strategies that can motivate you to get stuff done, but not all of them will be the right fit for you. For example, if you know deep down you’re a paper person, use a paper calendar, a notebook, and handwrite your to do list instead of investigating digital options. Gadgets and digital solutions may seem bright and shiny for a moment, but if they don’t suit you, they won’t really help you in the long run. The same is true for how you set up your environment. If you get tons done when you have music playing, go for it. But, if you prefer silence, then keep the music off.
Once you find “the one,” stick to it. Yes, you may need to use a new technique when your life changes, but when you find a system that works well with your learning and work styles, don’t spend any unnecessary time checking out other things.
Working only on other people’s stuff
Sometimes it may seem that you’re getting a lot accomplished, but are those tasks that you’re checking off your to-do list yours? Or do they belong to someone else? It’s nice to help your colleagues, but not at the expense of your own responsibilities. Set aside time to assist others but ensure that you’re giving priority to your own projects. You also need to be careful so you’re not …
Taking on too much
In the spirit of being helpful and wanting to be a team player, you may say yes to any or all opportunities that are offered to you. (Can you really take that board position and coach the basketball team?) Instead, be more selective about what you choose to take on and figure out if accepting something new will negatively impact your life in other ways. Think about the time commitment and, before you say yes, take a look at your calendar and task list to see if you really can accept new projects. Your stock response when other people make requests of your time should be, “let me check my calendar and get back to you.” Save the “yes” responses only for those rare times when you know your boss will be very upset if you don’t jump right in.
Having no way to keep yourself accountable
Whether you’re working on personal or work-related goals, you will need to find a way to hold yourself accountable so that you can meet those goals. If you have no way of tracking your progress, you probably won’t accomplish the necessary tasks. An easy way to work toward completing your goals/projects is to set deadlines and/or milestones. Add due dates and milestones to your calendar (or project management program) and use “naked planning” to your benefit by scheduling regular check-in meetings others involved in the project.
If you can avoid these six productivity traps, you should be able to get things done on time and done well.
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.
Those of us in the United States (except Hawaii and Arizona) turned the clock back one hour over the weekend to reclaim the 60 minutes we lost when Day Light Saving Time started. Originally, Day Light Saving Time was instituted to save energy, not necessarily to capture time. But, the change in time during the winter (verses the spring), though a seemingly good one (most of us crave an extra hour to sleep), can still take some getting used to.
If the new change disrupts your usual way of doing things or your sleep schedule, you’re probably not going to be very productive. And, since the days are a bit shorter during the winter, you may want to make a few adjustments. The key to staying on top of things and ensuring that your productivity doesn’t slip might be to:
Stick to your regular nightly routine
Getting enough sleep will have an impact on how much you can accomplish on a consistent basis. Now that you have an extra hour to play with, you might think it’s a good idea to go to bed much later. Instead, consider going to sleep at your usual time and get up when you would normally for a few days and then gradually make slight adjustments. Try turning in for the night about 15-20 minutes later and slowly increase that to 60 minutes over a week or two to get your body (and mind) accustom to the change. If you have children, you can use the same strategy to help them get acclimated as well.
Get more sunlight
A recent article in the Columbian discussed the importance of getting out during the light hours. “In general, darkness stimulates our body to want to sleep. Chemicals in our brains actually get triggered because of the darkness. That can lead to fatigue …”
This will likely be the case during the winter as it’s probably dark when you leave for work and also when it’s time to head back home. This means you’ll get less exposure to sunlight, unless you sit by a window during working hours (or use a light box), be sure to spend some time outdoors to soak up some rays (perhaps during your lunch break). Include a brisk walk or a light jog around the block and you’ll likely increase your energy level, improve your ability to get things done, and have a better chance at having a good night’s sleep.
Keep doing what works
Of course, if you’re using a strategies that have been working well for you (tackling important projects when you’re most alert, delegating some tasks, staying hydrated throughout the day, using a “done” list or a timer, etc.), you should keep up with them. If you haven’t found strategies successfully that fit your process style, this is a great opportunity to start investigating uncluttering, time management, or productivity routines that would best suit you.
Though it may be challenging to stay productive during the winter months, you can still find ways to keep your energy high and stay on top of all you need to do. As I often mention, not every tip will be a good fit for everyone, but try one or two of the suggestions above to see how well they work for you.
Over the weekend, I read an article on 99U called “Setting the Scene for a Productive Day” that suggested that when you take advantage of “the fact that you have emotional and mental responses to specific places, you can dramatically increase your productivity.”
Where you sit (or stand) to work will have a big impact on how productive you can be on a consistent basis. Most times, everything has to be just right and you have to set the stage (not too cold or hot, comfortable seating, great lighting, aesthetically appealing) to get your productive juices flowing. But, there are many times when you just need to grab the opportunity to be productive no matter where you are. Ideal scenery or not, work must get done.
So how do you do it?
Change your background
There are some places where you can actually get stuff done that don’t look like your usual work space and can give you a change of scenery when you need it. For instance, if you want (almost) pin-drop silence, your local library might be the spot for you. Also, you’ll still get to be around people, but without having to interact them. Prefer working in an office-like environment with others? A coworking space or working alongside a group of colleagues in a conference room can be helpful. If being outdoors sparks your creativity, a park, campground, or botanical garden can give you the productive boost you need.
Take notice of places that help you to get more done
Using wait time (instead of just waiting) can help you cross a few things off your to-do list. As you stand in line at the bank or grocery store, you could take a few minutes to review your calendar for the upcoming week. Or, perhaps, those moments as you sit in the doctor’s office will give you an opportunity to check your voicemail or write a note in that card you’ve been meaning to mail. These are all great times in your day to take advantage of getting things done.
But, sometimes, you can accomplish a lot in places you’d least expect, like at the gym. You might be surprised that some of the most interesting ideas or thoughts on how to complete an important project could pop into your mind while you’re getting your heart rate up (and since you’re likely to have your smart phone with you, you can easily capture those thoughts using the voice recorder or on Evernote). In fact, studies show that exercise has a positive impact on how motivated you are, how well you concentrate, and your ability to meet deadlines.
Keep doing what works
Does this mean giving up your usual productivity spot in favor of someplace else? Not at all. Do plan and set up your workspace so that it helps you get your work done consistently well. For example, if you notice that some of your best ideas come to you in the shower, use that to your advantage and incorporate it as an important part of your productivity cycle. And, write down all those great ideas before they leave as quickly as they came. Aqua Notes waterproof note pads, Shower Notebook, or a diver’s slate will be a very useful tool for you.
The search for sustained productivity will likely never end. There will probably always be strategies and techniques to test out, including some tried and true ones, like a change of scenery. Every so often — no matter where you are — take a moment to check how much you are (or are not) accomplishing. Look around to see what is contributing to your ability to successfully tackle your tasks or what’s distracting you, and build a routine around what’s working. Don’t overlook that productivity can take many forms in a variety of places.
I tend to be more organized than my husband. If I were to let my ego get the better of me, I might start thinking this means I’m also more produtive than he is. I started giving this more thought a few days ago while listening to a local DC radio station. The host of the program said:
Moms, be more like dads. Don’t multitask. Dads just do one thing at a time and are more productive.
Naturally, I started comparing myself to my husband, and thought about how we both started our morning that day.
Got up before husband and baby. Changed the baby’s diaper. Prepared bottle for the baby. Put client materials in the car. Put laundry in the washer. Washed coffee mugs. Showered. Started getting dressed. Removed clothing from the dryer (put in from the evening before). Folded clothing. Put wet clothes in the dryer. Filled dog bowls with food and water. Finished getting dressed. Did make up and hair. Wrote a note for the babysitter. Left for a client visit.
Got up. Showered. Got dressed. Fed the baby. Packed up laptop. Left for work
As you can see, we both had vastly different mornings. Did you also notice that I did a bit of multi-tasking? Against my better judgment, I moved from one task to another, at times, not finishing one thing before starting the next (e.g., doing laundry before I finished dressing). I’ve read the studies about the negative effects of task switching. I know that trying to attend to more than one thing at a time makes you less efficient, and that people who multitask tend to underperform. It also can cause negative stress, which I certainly felt.
Why did I do this even though I knew better? The short answer is because I had lots to do. Truth be told, I added more tasks to my usual routine even though my schedule that day was not typical. I tried to get many things done so that I wouldn’t have to take care of them later in the evening. Still, there were other options available to me. Looking back on that day, I would have done things differently.
The next time I’m faced with a similar situation, I will:
- Create a reasonable plan for the next day and stick to it. I normally take a look at my schedule each evening to see what the next day will be like and make adjustments as needed. My forecast didn’t include anything extra because I had a limited amount of time to get things done, and I should have kept it that way. The laundry could easily have been done at another time. When there will be a change to your regular routine, decide on a realistic plan and schedule non-priorities for another day.
- Pause and assess what is important. I decided to do laundry that morning. This chore wasn’t a part of my master plan or essential to my day. Did it need to get done? Yes, but not then. We can often be reactive instead of being proactive when we feel pressured. As a result, we can end up moving too quickly without fully thinking things through. Taking a moment to slow down, to figure out what things need to be done will help stop you from randomly starting new tasks. At times like this, your schedule and/or to-do list will come in handy.
- Focus on one thing at a time. Had I given my attention to one thing and completed it before moving on to the next, I would have realized that I just didn’t have enough time to include any unplanned activities. Multi-tasking can negatively affect your ability to make purposeful decisions and you will expend more time switching from task to task. You can find yourself in the midst of doing many things at once and begin to feel overwhelmed. Instead, try your hand at single-tasking. Focus fully on one thing before proceeding to the next, and you will feel more calm and prepared to manage your remaining tasks, and ultimately, be more productive.
- Ask for help. This is often a simple fix and one that is frequently overlooked. I could have asked my husband to take care of the laundry before he left for work. It’s possible that I was too caught up in what I was doing to even remember that I had that option. Getting help from a friend, coworker, or family member can certainly make a chaotic day less stressful. If specific days are more hectic than others, you can arrange to have help on those days or partner with other available parents/colleagues/professionals, if possible.
Interestingly, though I was focusing on more than one thing, I seemed to get several things done. However, I can’t argue with the fact that I felt agitated, a side effect of multitasking. Was I was less productive than my husband on that morning? I could probably come up with a good argument that I wasn’t based on the number of things I did. However, in hindsight, I don’t think it was worth it in the end. The laundry was no worse for the wear, but my morning could have had a much better start. I didn’t need all that stress in my morning.
The next time you’re tempted to tackle many things at once, stop and breathe. Re-focus, check your list, and pick one item to start working on at a time. It may take a little getting used to, but in the long run, you’ll be pleased with how much you can accomplish and feel less frazzled at the end of the day.