Getting work done using time blocking techniques

If you’re having trouble getting work done — because you procrastinate, because you lose focus, or because of your perfectionistic tendencies — a time blocking approach to managing your time might help. The Pomodoro Technique, developed back in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, is the best-known approach but certainly not the only one.

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique has you work on a specific task for a 25-minute block, called a Pomodoro, with no interruptions. You set a timer to let you know when each Pomodoro is done. After each Pomodoro, you put a check mark on your log sheet and take a 5-minute break. (You also note how many times you were tempted to break the Pomodoro.) After four Pomodoros, you take a longer break, around 20-30 minutes.

The 5-minute breaks are not meant for anything requiring a lot of brainpower. Getting up and walking around is recommended. You could also do desk exercises or start a load of laundry (if you work at home). The idea is to give your mind a rest.

One thing I really like about this technique is how it gets you to understand how long a task takes, which is very helpful for anything you do repeatedly. Is something a one-Pomodoro task, a two-Pomodoro task, etc.? You may also choose to limit yourself, only allowing a specific number of Pomodoros to complete a task, and thus keeping perfectionistic tendencies at bay.

Fans note that this technique helps them get going on a dreaded task, since deciding to do just one Pomodoro isn’t so intimidating. It helps them stay focused, since they know that doing something like checking social media is off the table until the Pomodoro is done.

Shared Pomodoros

For those working in teams that require a lot of interaction, Pomodoros can be a problem unless everyone starts in unison. If they don’t, team members may never be free at the same time to have discussions. As Ben Northrup wrote, what’s needed in this situation is a “shared Pomodoro.” His project team solved this problem by having two shared Power Hours per day, when everyone agreed to do focused work.

The Rule of 52 and 17

Julia Gifford looked at the data in a time-tracking and productivity app and found that the most productive 10 percent of users worked on average for 52 minutes at a time, and then took a 17-minute break before getting back to work. So if you like the idea of Pomodoros, you may want to play with the times and see what works best for you.

90-minute blocks of work

As Tony Schwartz noted in The New York Times, a study of elite performers (musicians, athletes, chess players, etc.) found they practiced in uninterrupted sessions of no more than 90 minutes. They took breaks between these sessions, and seldom worked for more than four and a half hours every day.

Schwartz said he changed his own writing practice to work in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions. He found that he finished writing his books in less than half the time he took for his previous books, when he worked for 10 hours a day.

While many people can’t work for just four and a half hours each day, this approach may work for those who have more control of their time, especially those who are focusing on building their skills.

Do you use any time blocking technique? If so, please add a comment to let us know what you do and how it’s worked for you.

Unitasker Wednesday: Nose Shower Gel Dispenser

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are jokes — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

This week’s unitasker was picked because it has an “ewwww” factor of a million. Introducing the Nose Shower Gel Dispenser:

Putting on my Unclutterer hat for a moment, I think it’s completely unnecessary to transfer shower gel from its original packaging into a giant nose. It creates one more step to a simple process. (It’s a weak attempt at an explanation for why I think this is a unitasker, but at least I’m trying. I haven’t blown it altogether with this, right?)

However, if I take off that Unclutterer hat and replace it with my normal human hat, at face value, I think this device is plain ol’ icky! I’d probably stop taking showers with this in my bathroom.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2014

  • Even professional organizers need to unclutter
    People sometimes assume that professional organizers are 100 percent organized and uncluttered, at all times. But every organizer I know has a few problem areas that pop up occasionally. Organizers face the same challenges that everyone faces: unexpected events disrupt our plans, we fall out of our routines, etc. And, sometimes it helps all of us, organizers included, to take another look around our homes to see what no longer serves us.

2013

2010

  • A lesson on mental clutter from the book Zen Shorts
    Frustrations caused by occasional messes are usually not worth carrying around with you and cluttering up your mind, energy, and emotions.
  • Maybe you can take it with you…
    Why leave behind beautiful solid-wood furniture for your heirs to fight over when you can be buried in it?
  • Project Basement: Day 3
    Except for a couple hours this morning pulling out the washer and dryer, sweeping the floor where they had been, and doing a general cleanup in the laundry area of the basement, I’ve been sorting, scanning, and recycling a couple hundred pounds of paperwork.

Keeping essential home work supplies on hand

As spring approaches and winter thaws (it will eventually thaw, right?), my family and I have found ourselves in that dreaded time of the elementary school year: projects. It’s like a perfect storm, when everyone’s energy levels are low, the cold and dark days have all of us down, no one feels like completing anything requiring a great deal of mental effort, and certainly no one wants to doing anything that involves creative depths, pasteboard, stencils, or Papier-mâché.

This is also the time of year that supplies start to run low around the house. None of the pencils have sharp points or erasers. Lined paper is at a minimum, and I assure you the teacher won’t accept a paragraph written on the envelope from the water bill, no matter how neatly it’s written. With that in mind, the following is a list of items you can grab to restock, organize, and survive the second-half of the school year.

Pencils. My kids, at nine and eleven, are not yet to be trusted to complete homework in pen. So, we buy pencils in bulk and store then in mason jars right at their desks. Doing this sure beats the nightly search for a pencil. Speaking of…

An electric pencil sharpener. Spend some money on a heavy-duty sharpener that’s going to last a long time. Remember that hand-crank job that was probably screwed into the wall of your elementary school classroom? Don’t put that nightmare in your house because it will only cause a mess. And please avoid those little handheld jobs that deposit pencil shaving all over the floor. Instead, look for an electric sharpener with a heavy base for one-handed sharpening. We have a Bostitch model at home and it’s dependable.

Erasers. By now, all of our pencil erasers have been worn to mere shadows of their former existence. A large box of pink erasers is a great alternate when erasers detach from their pencils. Divvy them up among your kids’ work spaces and never hear “Does anyone have a pencil with an eraser?” again. Similar to pencils, erasers can be stored in jars, and inside desk drawers in a drawer organizer.

Index cards. Maybe I’m showing my age, but I still think index cards are fantastic homework aides. I use them as flash cards, of course, but their usefulness extends way beyond that. For example, I have the kids use them as to-do lists for larger projects. When attached to all related papers with an office clip, you get a handy, mobile reference packet. They’re also good for scratch paper when working out math problems or outlines. They’re a high utility tool for all offices. Wrap the index cards in a rubber band and store them on top of the spare paper and notebooks mentioned in the next item.

Lined paper and notebooks. We’ve been in the situation in our house where the only available paper is a sketch pad, and that doesn’t pass muster with a teacher. Keep the paper and notebooks (and the index cards mentioned above) in a traditional office desk inbox to keep them organized.

A designated homework zone. A space dedicated to doing homework will help prevent papers, supplies, and assignments from migrating to the kitchen table. And, as is the case in our house, the kitchen table is where homework quickly transforms into clutter.

With these essentials on hand and organized so they’re at the ready, you’re prepared to take on any big, winter projects teachers assign.

One definition of project clutter

According to the 2007 article “Measuring Visual Clutter,” in the medical Journal of Vision, “clutter is the state in which excess items, or their representation or organization, lead to a degradation of performance at some task.”

This definition implies that clutter depends on a task being performed and is strongly tied to messes made while working on a project. Having too many items for a task will impede performance because the user has to sift through inessential items to obtain useful ones. Conversely, too few items may reduce productivity because the user has to go elsewhere for the items and the task takes more time than necessary.

Project clutter may also be dependent on a person’s level of skill at a particular task. Novices at a particular task may prefer to have only those objects necessary to perform the task from start to completion. Whereas experts at the same task may have items from several projects on their desks at the same time because they are familiar with the processes for each project.

Within families and offices, because project clutter depends upon the task and the users’ expertise, one person’s way of working and their tools may seem like clutter to someone else in the family or office and cause tension. Finding the answers to “How much stuff needs to be out to complete a project and for how long?” can go a long way in resolving these disputes.

Solving project clutter disputes

Begin by planning the project and defining the break points. If you have a large project to be completed that may disrupt normal household or office operations, divide the project into a series of tasks with logical points for taking breaks. For example, if you were making a quilt, cutting fabric into the correct shapes would be one task. If you were re-organizing an office filing system, categorizing the accounting files might be considered one task.

When examining your tasks, estimate the amount of time needed to complete the task and how long it will take you to return the workspace to its original state. For example, when I am preparing our quarterly submission for sales tax reimbursement, it is easier for me to remove the files from the filing cabinet in my husband’s office and stack them on the laundry room counter for the period of time I am working. The counter has lots of room for me to work and my office is beside the laundry room.

I love doing my quarterly tax claim on the spacious laundry room counter and it takes me several hours to complete the paperwork and return all the items to their regular storage area. I schedule this task on an evening when there is very little laundry to be washed or early on a Sunday morning before the counter is used for school homework projects.

It takes a bit of planning when using shared space but it will reduce clutter and improve everyone’s productivity. Talking about these issues with your family members or coworkers before you begin working will give everyone proper expectations and reduce tensions. Finally, working through this process with a child will help him/her to better understand time management, productivity, as well as putting away items when you’re finished using them.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2014

  • Shed some light on your organizing
    If you have a room that is dark and dreary, it’s going to work against you in your organizing efforts. You can’t see properly — and you may well find yourself avoiding the room, because it’s unpleasant.
  • Your keys to organizing
    Not a big post today, just some inspiration to get you thinking about where to keep your keys so you’re not searching for them when you need to leave your house.

2013

2012

  • The second pass
    Do you do a second pass on your uncluttering efforts to make sure that you didn’t accidentally leave clutter in your collections? If you haven’t been doing a second pass of the areas of your home and office you’ve uncluttered, I recommend you schedule it on your calendar for a few days or weeks after your first pass in your uncluttering process. My guess is you’ll find one or more items you’re now ready to purge from your bookshelves, or whatever area you’ve recently uncluttered.
  • Organizing your workspace based on function zones
    Whether you’re moving into a new office or simply uncluttering and organizing your current space, one of the easiest ways to get your desk in order is to focus on organizing zones according to purpose. When you deal with the items on your desk based on similar function, you can keep the most important items as the focus of your space and put the least important items out of the way.

2011

2010

  • Ask Unclutterer: Auto office
    My wife uses her mini van as an office for her process serving business, and a shuttle bus for taking our children to and from various events plus all the household shopping. What suggestions or gadgets have you come across for organizing a vehicle? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Managing your wardrobe: award shows vs. real life

I’m not much into fashion, but one of my guilty pleasures is reading Tom and Lorenzo’s run-downs of the dresses and suits worn to award shows like the Grammys and the Oscars. I’ve been thinking how their comments do (or don’t) apply to non-celebrities and how those comments might be used as guidelines for creating a flattering, uncluttered wardrobe.

Choose colors and styles that work for you

Tom and Lorenzo were full of praise for David Oyelowo’s red tuxedo at the 2015 Oscars, noting that the color looked great on him. If you read through their write-ups from a number of awards shows, you’ll see plenty of comments about something being a good look (or not such a good look) for that particular person.

So feel free to ignore “what every wardrobe needs” advice, which will almost certainly include something that won’t look good on you or doesn’t fit your needs. I cringe every time I see a white blouse listed as an absolute necessity, since white is most definitely not my color. Also, given my current lifestyle, I really have zero need for a white blouse, even if it would look good on me.

Don’t worry too much about trends, either. Marsala is the color of the year, but don’t buy something in that color if it doesn’t become you.

Instead, fill your closet with clothes that are right for you, specifically — clothes with flattering colors and styles, and clothes that are appropriate for the way you live. If you’re not sure what looks good on you, ask a friend with good clothes sense or splurge on hiring a wardrobe consultant. (You might save money over the long haul by not buying clothes you wind up discarding because you discover, too late, that they’re wrong for you.) You might also consult an expert who focuses just on identifying your best colors; I did that some years ago, and it was extremely helpful.

Pay attention to the fit

Tom and Lorenzo’s commentary is filled with notes like: “The pants are too long” and “The pants need hemming.” There are also comments about clothes that are too tight or too baggy. These comments are directed equally to men and women.

This is a case where the awards show commentary applies to everyone else, too. I’m short, so I know how frustrating it can be when you need to get most of your pants hemmed, but I also know it’s a necessity. If your clothes need hemming, either do it yourself or take your clothes to a local tailor. (My dry cleaners do hemming.)

When shopping, be honest with yourself about whether or not something really fits. If you love something and it’s perfect except for a slightly wrong fit, consider whether it could be easily altered. If so, do you have the skills to do that, or are you willing to pay to have it done?

Don’t worry about repeating an outfit

In commenting on one woman’s gown for the 2015 Grammys, Tom and Lorenzo wrote, “We’d swear we’ve seen her in that exact dress dozens of times.”

That’s a reasonable comment from fashion critics writing about a celebrity. But unless you work in a fashion-conscious industry, you probably don’t need to worry about wearing the same outfit (or outfit components) fairly frequently. Either no one will notice, or no one will care. However, the more memorable the outfit, the less frequently you may want to wear it, as people will recall something like a jacket with a wild, brightly colored print.

If you have the money and space for an extensive wardrobe, and clothes are your passion, you may want to own enough of them that repeated outfits are infrequent. But those who prefer a more streamlined wardrobe can often go that route without concern. Some people even choose to own multiples of basic wardrobe items so they can wear identical outfits every day. That choice might well be noticed — think of Steve Jobs and his 501 jeans, black mock turtleneck and New Balance sneakers — but needn’t be a problem in the right environment.

And sometimes even a large degree uniformity isn’t noticed, or at least not remarked upon. A male TV presenter wore the same blue suit (but with different ties and shirts) almost every day for a year, and neither he nor the station got any comments about that.

Unitasker Wednesday: The lettuce knife

All Unitasker Wednesday posts are for entertainment — we don’t want you to buy these items, we want you to laugh at their ridiculousness. Enjoy!

Growing up, my mom had a giant green plastic knife that she kept in our family’s kitchen tool drawer. When I got my first apartment, she asked me if I wanted it. Seeing as I had no idea what the knife did since I’d never seen her use it, I had to ask her why I could possibly want to take it with me. She informed me it was a “lettuce knife” for the purpose of cutting lettuce. Apparently, she continued, it also prevented lettuce from browning when/if you cut it. The lettuce knife looked similar to this:

A couple weeks ago, I randomly started thinking about that knife and how strange it was. It reminded me of a movie or play prop, not something you would actually use in a kitchen.

I researched what a couple of the most trusted food scientists today had to say on the matter of traditional knives causing lettuce to brown to see if they were true.

Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking on page 318 strongly suggests to use a regular knife to cut lettuce:

If the leaves need to be divided into smaller pieces, this should be done with the least possible physical pressure, which can crush cells and initiate the development of off-flavors and darkened patches. Cutting with a sharp knife is generally the most effective method; tearing by hand requires squeezing, which may damage tender leaves.

Since the plastic lettuce knives are about as sharp as a plastic knife you might use at a picnic (which isn’t sharp at all) and they can’t be sharpened, this excludes the lettuce knife as a possible tool to keep lettuce from browning. (His statement also dismisses tearing leaves as a viable method to prevent browning.)

The magazine Cook’s Illustrated studied lettuce in their test kitchen for more than two weeks and came to a different conclusion than McGee, but it’s hardly an endorsement for buying a lettuce knife just to cut lettuce. They used a stainless steel blade (one with a super-thin high-carbon steel blade), the Zyliss Fresh Cut Salad Knife, and tore some, too:

Though all lettuce began showing some browning on the ribs after 10 days, none showed any signs of browning on the cut or torn surfaces. After 12 days, the heads cut with metal knives showed faint signs of browning on these surfaces, and the lettuce cut with the plastic knife followed a day later. The torn lettuce was last to brown on its ruptured edges, starting to turn at 2 weeks.

In short, the test kitchen discovered that lettuce naturally browns by 10 days, making the methods for cutting or tearing pointless since the cut/torn edges didn’t brown until a couple days later. As I said, it’s hardly an endorsement to buy a special knife.

My guess is that most people don’t keep lettuces in their refrigerators for more than 10 days, especially since they can’t be frozen. People buy lettuce and use it in a week. If you are someone who does keep lettuce for more than 10 days, the lettuce will already be brown, so using a plastic lettuce knife won’t matter.

For best results when cutting lettuce, use a very sharp, very thin, stainless steel blade and then plan to consume the lettuce immediately or up to 10 days after purchase. If you plan to cut it and store it, be sure to buy the freshest lettuce you can so as to make it those full 10 days (if the lettuce is old, it won’t even last 10 days before browning). You can also tear lettuce with your hands if you plan to use it right away, not dirtying any knives at all.

Knowing how to use and care for the knives you already own will save you from spending money on specialty tools you don’t need, especially when the specialty tools don’t improve or benefit your desired outcome.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2010

2009

  • Organizing food storage wraps
    If you’re not lucky enough to have a designated drawer for food storage wraps in your kitchen, you probably have to sacrifice space in your pantry or cupboards for these items.

Sleep and productivity

Yesterday, Jacki Hollywood Brown’s article explored the relationship between music and productivity. Today, I want to continue with another productivity booster, which has been called the “third pillar of health,” sleep.

The relationship between sleep and productivity seems obvious: adequate sleep means you’ll have enough energy and focus for the coming day. While that’s true, there is much more to it than that.

A 1999 study discussed at 2013’s Corporate Sleep Health Summit demonstrates that a lack of sleep can affect not only productivity, but innovation. After losing just one night’s sleep, subjects experienced “…particular impairment to tasks requiring flexible thinking and the updating of plans in the light of new information.” While most people don’t regularly lose an entire night’s sleep, consider that many driven business people and entrepreneurs wear their four and five hours of sleep like a badge of honor.

Meanwhile, a BBC study suggests that deep sleep “makes room” in your brain for the next day. “One of the main things the brain is doing [during deep sleep] is moving memories from short-term storage into long-term storage,” the study claims, “allowing us more short-term memory space for the next day. If you don’t get adequate deep sleep then these memories will be lost.” Ever forget some crucial information for that big meeting? An extra hour of sleep could be the remedy.

Now that I’ve described just some of the benefits of a restful night’s sleep, I want to point out some technology that will help you hit the hay.

Sleepy Fan ($1.99, iPhone). When I was a kid, I spent summer nights falling asleep to the sound of a large box fan, not unlike this one. I fell in love with is steady hum, and today I use the Sleepy Fan app in its place. It offers three fan types to choose from, and even lets you adjust the sound itself.

The FitBit has a feature that lets you track your sleep. When paired with a smartphone app, it lets you view data on your previous night’s rest, including restful moments and when you were fidgeting.

The Philips Wake-up Light is a nice alternative for those who dislike being jarred awake by a screeching alarm. Over a period of 30 minutes, the Wake-up Light gradually brightens itself from dark to a custom illumination level (up to 250 lux) and provides pleasant audio.

You can get a good night’s sleep, listen to music appropriate to your task at hand, and enjoy a satisfyingly productive day.

Music and its relationship with organizing and productivity

There have been many studies over the years about the effect of music on productivity in industry. One study has suggested that music increases productivity when workers are engaged in repetitive tasks that may not be intellectually stimulating. The findings of another study show that music has a positive effect on a person’s emotional state and can help with self-motivation.

Dr. Lesiuk of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami carried out a study in which workers could listen to whatever music they liked for as long as they wanted. She found that those people who were reasonably skilled at their jobs realized the most benefit. Workers who were identified as experts saw almost no effect on their productivity and some novices found that listening to music was distracting and did not help them accomplish the tasks (which makes sense as they were acquiring new skills).

In short, music will likely help you and/or your employees be organized and productive. If you have a project you have been putting off for some time or if your task involves repetitive work (such as sorting through clothing), turn up the volume and listen to your favourite music to get you motivated.

However, if your task involves complex decision-making (such as writing a research proposal), you may want to keep your surroundings quiet, especially if the task is something you don’t usually do.

Personally, I find when I listen to dance music with a fast beat (anything from the Big Band Era to Disco to Electronica) my house gets organized and cleaned much faster. When I have a large re-organizing job such as a storage area clean out, I listen to classic rock (Led Zeppelin, Rush, Van Halen, AC/DC). If I’m working on a project that requires my full concentration such as writing or working on data analysis, I don’t listen to music at all because I end up singing to the music and getting distracted from my work.

Most of the time I work from home so I can choose the music I like, but if you share a working space, keep a set of comfortable headphones handy so as not to disturb your co-workers. At the office, always check with your manager or supervisor before you don your headphones. Some companies have policies regarding listening to music during working hours. If you are a manager, consider letting employees listen to music if you find it makes them more productive.

Do you find listening to music helps you be more or less productive? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

A year ago on Unclutterer

2013

2012

  • Tax time: Three basic steps to get you closer to filing your taxes on time
    If you’re good at procrastinating and do it often, putting off doing your 2011 tax returns would be a very simple thing to do. I know it’s even easier to procrastinate doing them when you suspect you owe the government money. There’s no need to let stress about completing your taxes take its toll on you, though. Getting started with just a few easy tasks right now can alleviate some of your anxiety, help you to be better organized, and assist you with meeting the federal and your state’s tax deadlines.

2010

2009