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.