Small productivity tips with large benefits

The following are four super-simple things you can do in less than five minutes to make a huge improvement in your productivity and efficiency.

First and foremost: disable the alert sound that announces every new email you receive on your computer. This alert sound is such a compelling distraction that it can pull me out of almost anything I’m doing. It’s similar to the sound of a ringing phone — no one can resist it. A lot of people learn to check email at pre-determined intervals (which I recommend), but even just silencing that insistent little beep and checking your email whenever you want will go a long way to reducing distractions and increasing productivity. I killed the beep on my iPhone, too. You can easily turn these notifications back on if the need arises.

A second suggestion and another large improvement for me was eliminating leisure computing after 9:00 p.m. Nothing increases productivity like sleep, and late-night Facebook browsing or tweeting was robbing me of that precious commodity. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy! I’m going to order the book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us by Larry D. Rosen for more insight on this topic. But even my modest efforts have been beneficial, as I’m getting more sleep.

My favorite online calendar is Google Calendar. I’ve been using it for years and I love it. However, I only recently discovered the “Quick Add” feature. Here’s how it works: when creating a new event, click the downward-pointing arrow next to the “Create” button. Then, enter an event that follows the what, where, and when pattern (note that only “what” and “when” are required). For example, “Meeting with Tom at Starbucks on Tuesday 2.15 p.m.” Using natural language is SO much faster than creating an event and filling each field one at a time. How did it take me so long to find this?

Finally, and this is my favorite, install an app launcher. This is a piece of software that, among other things, lets you launch applications with only a stroke of a key or two. I’m a Mac user and I swear by Alfred. LaunchBar is another popular alternative. On the Windows side, consider Launchy. With Alfred, I can open any app by hitting Command-Space and then typing just the first one or two letters of that app’s name. I can’t even measure how much time this saves me throughout the day. All of these programs do a lot more than launch other apps, but this feature alone makes them worth installing. In fact, when I get a new computer, the absolute first thing I do with it is install Alfred.

You can get fancy with your productivity enhancement to great benefit, but remember that sometimes small changes can make huge differences. Share your favorite small tips that reap huge rewards in productivity and efficiency.

Hobonichi Techo is my new favorite notebook

“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” — Han Solo

Han Solo accidentally gave great productivity advice when he made the statement above in the film Star Wars. Google “productivity” and you’ll find a seemingly endless supply of methods, systems (the “hokey religions”), tools, and gadgets (the “ancient weapons”) seemingly required to help you. Han understood that while those things have their place, they can’t compare to a tool that is reliable, tried, and true. In my case, my blaster is a Hobonichi Techo notebook.

I love working with paper and I’ve used plenty of notebooks over the years. Currently I’m in love with the Hobonichi Techo. This pocket-sized book is so pleasant that I find myself making excuses to write in it. It’s my planner, scratch work area, journal, and scrapbook. It even has an interesting history.

It’s a popular notebook/planner from Japan. The company, Hobonichi, began selling an English-language version in 2012. Each year, Hobonichi asks its customers for ideas and feedback that influences the next year’s production model, which is pretty neat.

It’s available in several sizes. I use A6, which is slightly larger than my hand. This is a good choice for me, as it’s large enough to write in comfortably, yet small enough to fit into the back pocket of my jeans.

The Techo is divided into several sections. First is a yearly overview, followed by eight pages of monthly overview (two months per page). Next you’ll find several pages that look like a typical wall calendar, two pages for each month. What follows is the heart of the Techo.

The notebook has one page per day of the year. Each contains the date, day, moon phase, and an anecdote. Of course, there’s plenty of room to write on color-coded grid paper (one color per month). Also, there are five slots for to-do actions at the top of each page. I’ve been using these pages to outline articles, record to-dos, capture incoming stuff like “schedule that appointment” and jot down fun stuff the kids have done. This book has become a real companion.

In the back there are several completely blank pages, followed by sections to recored special dates to remember; restaurants, movies, music or stores that you love or want to visit/see; measurement conversion charts, and other random information.

I love devices that can handle more than one task and the Techo does so gracefully. I’m not as artistic as these folks, but I’m getting a lot done and that is good enough for me.

Are you a paper planner person, too? If so, what is your favorite and why? Finally, just to be transparent, I wasn’t paid or provided with any product in exchange for this review. It is genuinely what I use and spend my own money to buy.

Kicking off February with Valentine’s Day resolutions

Last year, I was inspired by David Seah’s post “Ground Hog Day Resolutions.” In the post, he introduces a set of goals that he revisits monthly with standardized check-ins. Each goal is meant to provide a tangible means of fostering success throughout the year. I came across this practice on Valentine’s Day, so my list of Valentine’s Day resolutions (VDR) was born.

Defining a VDR

A Valentine’s Day resolution is a monthly goal. I’ve decided to focus on professional resolutions, not personal ones. To be considered, a goal must meet certain criteria. Specifically, a VDR must (this list is strongly influenced by Seah, as his list is darn-near perfect):

  • Make me more visible.
  • Build a product inventory.
  • Create a reason for people to visit my site.
  • Build a new habit.
  • Build excellence (practice makes perfect).

Review Days

A goal that meets all five criteria will be considered. Once a goal is set, it requires a monthly check-in, so that progress/success/failure can be determined. To make things easy, I’ve made the check-in date for each month equal to that month’s number on the calendar. For example, in April, my VDR review day (VDRR) is on the 4th. In May, the 5th and so forth. Therefore, my schedule looks like this:

March 3 — VDRR #1
April 4 – VDRR #2
May 5 – VDRR #3
June 6 – VDRR #4
July 7 – VDRR #5
August 8 – VDRR #6
September 9 – VDRR #7
October 10 – VDRR #8
November 11 – VDRR #9
December 12 – VDRR #10

There are no goals set for January, as the beginning of the new year is set aside for reflection and relaxation.

My February resolution

My main professional goal for 2014 is to improve my writing skills. This February, I will write one post per day on my personal site. This satisfies all of my criteria: it increases visibility, builds a product inventory, creates a reason for people to visit the site, reinforces a productive new habit, and fosters excellence.

I encourage you to play along. You needn’t adopt professional goals, of course. Anything will work. Define the criteria that will represent success for yourself and set up monthly review periods (that’s the crucial bit). And, by December, I should have accomplished nine awesome monthly goals.

Selecting the right bulletin board for home or office

I recently admitted that I need a bulletin board in my home office. They really are supremely handy. Bulletin boards can serve several purposes (often more than one at a time) and come in a variety of materials and sizes.

The problem was that a quick online search resulted in several options that were, honestly, pretty ugly. Plain cork board and thin, one-inch plywood borders reminded me of the sad, half-abandoned classroom bulletin boards of my youth. I just didn’t want that hanging in my office, where I’d see it every day.

But before we get to the design options, the first step is to identify what role a new bulletin board will play.

Purpose

I knew I couldn’t make a successful purchase until I clearly defined what I role I expected my board to play. I came up with several options:

  1. Decorative. My daughter has a small bulletin board in her bedroom, which she uses to display photos, mementos, and other paper-based keepsakes. It’s all fun and no business. Some “files” partially cover others and the contents don’t change very often. Occasionally something is added, but rarely anything is taken away.
  2. Reference. Unlike a decorative board, reference boards are more orderly and purposefully organized. The idea is to store oft-referenced material right out in the open for easy use.
  3. Communication hub. For many of us, I’d bet the family refrigerator fills this role. As I’ve said before, this is a tempting but ultimately ineffective practice. Still, I see the appeal of a public communication hub. When I was a college student, it was a common practice to put a dry erase board on the door to one’s dorm room (note: this was long before texting and smartphones existed). Today, it’s a great idea for busy families.
  4. Short-term memory. I maintain a form of this with 3″ x 5″ index cards. There’s always a stack on my desk and I’m always grabbing them throughout the day to jot down something I need to remember but can’t attend to when it arrives. Again, I see the appeal of a larger version of this hanging on a wall, especially when processing all of that incoming “stuff” at the end of the day.
  5. Combination. Of course, it’s quite possible for a bulletin board to meet any combination of the above listed needs. A communication hub with pictures from that summer at the lake? Sure. A reference board with a corner dedicated to quickie tasks? Absolutely.

Knowing your needs can help you choose the type of board to buy, as some materials are better suited to one function over another.

Types based on purpose

  1. Decorative. In this case, boards with felt straps are a great choice. The straps keep you from having to poke pin holes in treasured mementos. Find one that looks great, as looks are a big part of the experience here.
  2. Reference. Unlike a decorative bulletin board, this one has strictly utilitarian needs. Find something that will stand up to wear-and-tear as you’ll be moving things around a lot. It needn’t be ugly, of course, but aesthetics ins’t your primary concern.
  3. Communication hub. For this bulletin board to work, it’s got to be easy to use. Having a bulletin board with a dry erase board is a great option, as is a DIY chalkboard paint option. You might also want to consider a magnetic and push pin board, so kids can quickly attach notes from school to it, for example.
  4. Short-term memory. Dry erase or chalkboard paint combined with a heavy-duty push pin board is again the way to go here. This is for temporary storage of information that is captured quickly, and then purged when no longer necessary.

And, of course, there are boards that combine all four. Find the one that best suits your plans and go for it. As for me, I want something that will give me an overview of what needs to be done for the week: articles due, school stuff for the kids, un-missable calendar events. A magnetic board will work, but I’m going with something that can accept push pins. My current plan is to buy large sections of cork board and cover it with old, decorative burlap sacks we have with vintage farming graphics. I’ll wrap the result in a nice, painted frame. That way I won’t feel badly about putting pins into it and it won’t look terrible on the wall.

Ten things you can do when you don’t feel motivated to get stuff done

It happens to the best of us. At some point or another, your motivation will seem to dissolve into thin air. This can happen quite spontaneously or, at other times, it seems to gradually sneak up on you. Chances are that throwing your to-do list out the window is not an option. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to increase your motivation and actually begin getting stuff done.

  1. Start small. Often when your motivation is lacking, just getting started can be a big obstacle. But, you can convince yourself to begin working on your projects by committing to work on the least amount items for the shortest amount of time. This means that you can narrow your focus by picking one thing to work on for a short time block (like 10 or 15 minutes). Keep in mind that using a timer can also help to release you from the task once your time is up, though (in my experience) you’ll notice that once you get started, you’ll probably continue working a little longer.
  2. Focus on a mantra. Mantras and inspirational quotes can spur you to doing your best work. They can also help you get through difficult tasks. When I start feeling frantic because I have a lot to do, I often say to myself: “A little plus a little equals much.” (Thanks to my friend and fellow professional organizer, Geralin Thomas, for that wonderful quote.) This helps me to keep a steady pace and to push the temptation to multi-task aside.
  3. Think with the end in mind. How successful and proud will you feel after you finish your tasks? Ask yourself this question when you find that you’re ignoring your most important projects. By focusing on the positive feelings you will have when you actually do what you set out to do, you are actually creating a persuasive argument for getting things done.
  4. Choose a reward. Extend those positive feelings by planning a way to reward yourself when you start crossing stuff off your list. This can be the shove you need to get you started, but remember to pick something that’s attainable so you don’t end up feeling disappointed.
  5. Rewrite your list. If your to do list seems daunting, reconfigure it. Do you need to move things around? What about your deadlines? Have you set “due by” dates and are they realistic? Which items can you delegate to someone else?
  6. Do something else. Sometimes working on something else on your to do list (perhaps a task that’s easy to take care of) can help put you in the right mindset — even though it may not be a top priority. This sort of structured procrastination can build momentum for sustained productivity.
  7. Exercise. Exercise can energize you and improve your mental outlook. Engaging in physical activity can also help to clear your mind so you can focus on those important tasks. If you create a schedule where exercise is regularly included, you might find you are well-equipped to successfully handle those moments when your motivation and productivity begin to wane.

    And, there’s research to back this up:

    A habit of regular exercise will help keep you mentally sharper throughout your entire life. Over a shorter time-frame, an exercise routine can give you more energy throughout the day. Most of your cells contain components called mitochondria, often referred to as the cell’s “power plant.” Mitochondria produce the chemical that your body uses as energy, known as ATP. Physical exercise stimulates the development of new mitochondria within your cells, meaning that your body will be able to produce more ATP over time. That gives you more energy to exert yourself physically, but it also means more energy for your brain, boosting your mental output.

  8. Organize your work space. Chaotic workspaces probably don’t contribute to productive work nor do they motivate you to get things done. So, set the stage — remove paper piles, clear pathways and the space behind your chair, and neatly gather together the supplies you need. Though organizing your work area isn’t directly linked to the tasks you need to get done, putting things in order can reduce stress and create the productive mindset you need to get started. (Just don’t decide to clean your entire house, stick to your workspace.)
  9. Listen to uplifting music. Music can help you feel more inspired when you don’t feel like working. Is it any wonder that it’s the one constant that you’ll find at your local gym? Once you begin tackling your list, consider listening to unfamiliar music to ramp up your productivity.
  10. Call a friend. When all else fails, consider calling a friend (also known as an accountability partner) who can impart a few words of encouragement and check in with you on your progress. You’ll probably be more likely to get your tasks done (or started) if you know that someone will be following up with you.

These are just a few ways that you can turn your workday around when you just don’t feel like doing anything. As with any strategy, not every suggestion will work for everyone. Give some of the suggestions a try to find the ones that move you from inactivity to productivity.

Procrastinating can give you time to think

If all decisions were easy to make, we’d probably save time (for the things we love) and we’d likely have less clutter, too. In that ideal world of easy decision making, we’d know what to do with everything we own and we wouldn’t scratch our heads trying to figure out where to store our things. Gone would be the days of delaying decisions because of uncertainty. And, we’d probably have fewer opportunities to procrastinate.

This sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, begs to differ. Partnoy, in an interview with Smithsonian.com, said:

…when faced with a decision, we should assess how long we have to make it, and then wait until the last possible moment to do so.

He goes on to say that if/when we do this, we’ll ultimately be happier. I’m not inclined to agree with those sentiments, but he makes an interesting distinction between active procrastination (doing important things you also need to get done) and passive procrastination (like watching TV, playing video games). Basically, he says that it’s not really procrastination if you choose to do something of higher value (like spending time with family, restocking the first aid kits, organizing/clearing pathways) than the project or task you should be currently addressing. While there may be some merit to that, if you’re on a tight deadline because you’ve significantly delayed getting started, you really do have to focus on the tasks at hand.

Though practicing the “art of delay” can help your productivity (like waiting to respond to emails at specific times during the day), when an important and urgent project comes calling, even active procrastination needs to be put on the back burner. But, if you find that you’re cringing at the thought of getting your important tasks done, why not use that delayed time to your benefit? Instead of choosing to focus on trivial things, use that time to think through how you’re feeling, to figure out why you may be feeling stuck. Perhaps you don’t have enough information to get started or are not sure how to begin? Is it possible that you’re putting on your perfectionist hat and waiting for the theoretical right moment? Maybe you really do want to focus on something else that’s of more interest to you.

No matter what the reasons are, if you can figure them out, you’ll be in a better position to start looking for ways to turn things around. You can use that time to come up with a plan.

Work for a short block of time

By simply working for a few minutes at a time, you can chip away at those important, deadline-driven tasks until they’re completed. You might also find that you’re likely to keep working once you get started. But, if your motivation to get things done seems to be underfoot for an extended period of time …

Get help

If you tend to put off working on a specific task, it could be because you don’t value it very much or you just don’t like doing it. This can be an opportunity to call in reinforcements and help can come in a variety of forms. Perhaps you just need to call a friend who can give you a much needed nudge. Or, maybe there’s a colleague who can handle a portion of the project (the part that has you stuck) so you can focus on the rest of it.

Using a pro vs con list can probably help, too. Thinking about all the aspects of waiting until the last minute can give you a different perspective. What are the super cool things about delaying the project? What are the evil consequences? Seeing the good vs evil reasons in black and white just might be the motivation you need to get going (and so can a change of environment).

Rethink your priorities

If you notice that you’re continually putting off things that you need to do on a recurring basis, you may want think about whether or not the projects you accept (or are assigned) are the right fit for your skills and interests. It’s not realistic to think that you can only work on things that you like or are passionate about, but if you find that you’re consistently having negative feelings about particular activities and, as a result, delay working on them, it’s time to identify tasks that interest you even nominally. Where possible, make some adjustments. This may require additional planning and involve others depending on the nature of the tasks (personal vs work).

Though procrastination is generally frowned upon, it can be beneficial if you use that time as an opportunity to think through a plan to get things done. While you may not be able to make changes straight away, you can brainstorm ways to curb the tendency to put things off until the last minute.

Change the workaholic mindset to improve productivity

Many people are often in search of a strategy, tool, or productivity system that will help them to get more done. This is a good goal to have — afterall, who doesn’t want a set of habits that will help them cross stuff off their to-do list? In addition to actually accomplishing what you set out or agree to do, there’s a strong feeling of satisfaction you get when you actually pull it off on a regular basis.

On the other hand, it is possible this exuberant feeling you get from being productive can be taken to the extreme. You might crave that feeling so much that in your attempt to consistently recreate it, you end up working all the time. One could speculate that the need to work all the time is really about wanting to be in control. Others may characterize this as an addiction to working, even if the task you’re engrossed in is a worthwhile endeavor. Perhaps, work feels like a comfortable place to retreat to, a way to escape other parts of your life. No matter what the underlying reasons are, if you find yourself focusing on work tasks all the time, you are likely to be considered a workaholic.

On the surface, there may not seem to be a downside to spending a few extra hours at work each day, especially when you’re achieving the goals you set for yourself. But, keep in mind that you may be confusing working too much with having a strong work ethic. While both may require diligent effort and a reliance on core values, overworking likely includes a lack of discipline or the inability to stop working and recognize when it’s time to take a break. Here on Unclutterer, we’ve often extolled the benefits of taking mini-breaks throughout the work day as well as the positive effect exercise and sleep has on productivity. Certainly, if one is always working, there would be little or no time for either of those activities or any outside interests. Ultimately, this would lead to burnout.

In addition, an overly zealous worker is not beneficial to employers. Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, explained:

A workaholic might seem to be every CEO’s dream: an employee who comes in early, stays late, doesn’t take vacations, and takes on mountains of work. But those very qualities may make the workaholic a poor candidate for employee of the month because they often have more work than they can handle effectively, don’t delegate, aren’t team players, and are often more disorganized …

If you’re taking on too much, it is possible that you may not realize it (take Dr. Robinson’s quiz). As I mentioned before, you may think you’re simply a hard worker. Of course, there may be times when you need to work extra hours. Business owners everywhere (myself included) understand this all too well. However, it is important to prioritize specific tasks and to recognize when it’s time to ask for help. The latter will not only allow you to streamline your focus, but also help you to be more productive.

We’ve cured boredom and that’s not good

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.

Stand while you work to improve your health and productivity

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.

NBCNews.com reported:

…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.

Marking up your to-do lists for increased productivity

“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.

Word Notebooks

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.

Three tips and apps that have improved my productivity

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.

Want to be more productive? Get more sleep.

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.