If you’re a developer who lives in Sublime Text, this conversation I had today with Wes has some great information – give it a watch.
I feel absolutely compelled to share something that has over the past week tripled my productivity: Focus@Will. This “productivity music service” will. Rock. Your. World. It’s that good. I find that when I’m coding away on PetSitterApp or DevNewsApp listening to this, I effortlessly slip into Flow and crank right through what I want to get done. At about triple the speed. This is an almost scary improvement over the halfway focused but easily distracted state I’ve been in for years.
Focus@Will can explain the science behind the profound effect music can have on your mental state, concentration, and focus; but what you need to know is that you will be more productive, less distracted, more focused, less self-interrupted with it. For $3.99 it’s a steal. Get it.
So what was your most terrible anti-productive habit in 2012? Mine was checking email. On my desktop, iPad and iPhone, morning, noon, night, between and during and before and after everything else.
Killing this habit in 2013 would be the #1 thing I could do to increase productivity. And maybe, just maybe, I’ve chanced upon an approach that will work.
Make a mobile checklist of your email checks and check off a check each and every time you check email.
A little unpacking is in order.
Having bought nearly every todo managing piece of software in the past 20 years for every platform I’ve used, I decided this year to separate enumerated lists of simple tasks into one software stream available and synched on my macs, iPad and iPhone. Simple tasks/things go there, project planning – figuring out how to accomplish and execute work that matters elsewhere (more about that in a future post).
I wanted the absolutely barest amount of overhead for managing day-to-day stuff: shopping list, what I need to do for our cats, daily routine todos, ideas. And it has to be utterly usable on my phone since I, like you, have my phone within 3 feet of me all of the time (relevant stats).
Enter Cheddar. Free on the web, Mac. If you need more than two lists, you’ll pony up $5.99 for 3 months to 19.99 a year. It’s the absolutely minimalist attractive checklist-making software experience I’ve ever seen, synching happens instantly and combined with Siri, a near-frictionless way to track simple tasks.
So besides a Daily Plan checklist, a Family with Fur checklist, a Store List, a Post Ideas list, etc., I added one more this morning: Allowed Email Checks. I’m starting with 5 allowed checks, and hope to par it down to 3. Every time I check email, I am forcing myself to check that off in Cheddar on my phone.
Email controls us because it takes literally no thought at all to stop what you are doing and see what’s in your inbox. By adding the commitment to check off each such self-inflicted interruption in Cheddar, I am forcing myself to think before I act. This new habit has already prevented a half dozen interruptions of whatever else I was doing this morning.
And, since all too often todo lists are places tasks go I’m not motivated to die, maybe some of that will wear off on my most anti-productive behavior. That would be a very good thing.
So how are you going to reduce your email bondage in 2013? Please share your ideas!
Here’s a quick rundown on three jawdropping online productivity tools I heard about and installed in the past hour:
- Buffer just added updating LinkedIn, giving you much better control over what you add to your LinkedIn Profile. In fact, just by this one change, LinkedIn at least for me goes from the so what to the it’s useful column.
- CloudMagic – Adds a floating search box to gmail and twitter that as you type returns results in one freaking second. Twitter goes from a fleeting stream of noise to instant database of anything I’m interested in. And Gmail? I can find anything, anything at all in a single second.
- Smartr – Instant social context to anyone who emails you or you email, plus who you know in common, plus all of your related email.
Want to know the single biggest problem with every single GTD system in existence? They don’t enforce specificity when defining a task. Tasks, (unlike checklists which can be semantically reduced to a single word - “milk”), require, demand, beg for as much specificity as you can muster.
What catches most people, most of the time, is that our To Do lists are a mix of things we’ve done countless times before and already know how to do because we’ve internalized their details, and things we’ve never done before.
- clean house.
- take out garbage cans.
- add Twilio to mySuperDuperWebApp.
- SuperBowl prep.
We hit Item 3 like a mountain bike hitting a tree as high speed. Thud. Item 3 is like just about every single one of hundreds of startup tasks – is not something we’ve done before. We need to query it and break it down into things we do have experience with:
- clean house.
- take out garbage cans.
- add Twilio to mySuperDuperWebApp by
- Reread Twilio API,
- Review Twilio Rails examples:
- Review this Rails example:
- Check StackOverflow for questions tagged with ruby-on-rails or ruby-on-rails3 and Twilio.
- Setup a testbed app
- SuperBowl prep.
Whether you do that breakdown into things you do know how to do when you make your list or when you’re doing your list is up to you. But you’ll find the process easier if you mark those items (I use !!!) when you’re creating your tasks – to remind you that here there be dragons.
(A while back I’d planned to launch a new productivity site, ProductivityToDo.com, but it makes more sense to fold that effort into 47Hats. So, here’s the first of a series of posts on tools and services for improved online productivity. Note the .pdf download at the end of the post! :))
The more people you interact with in, the harder it is to remember to follow up with them. Enter FollowUpThen.com (FUT) – an elegant alternative to missed deadlines, dropped conversations, and things in general falling through the cracks.
Here’s a few examples of what this free service can do for you, starting right now:
- You email a friend, coworker, your boss a question. More times than not, if they don’t reply you won’t remember. Instead, you BCC email@example.com and three days later you get a reminder from FUT with a copy of your email.
- Your girlfriend, boyfriend or just a friend has an important event coming up in a few months. Usually you’d shortchange them and you because you either forget it entirely, or don’t prepare to do it right. With FUT, you slap together and an email with info on the event – say your anniversary – a couple of to do’s (get flowers, gift) and email that to firstname.lastname@example.org. Come March 12th, you get that email back – just when you need it.
- You’re working on a project and have nailed down who is supposed to do what. You’ve got what you have to do neatly tucked away in your GTD system, but do they? In the recap email you send CC email@example.com and all recepients will get a reminder email every friday until you turn this off. Don’t like the generic look of that reminder? Spend $24 for the year to upgrade and add your logo, custom colors and custom explanation, and remind via SMS.
FUT is elegant – for the price of adding an email address, you get back a clear reminder exactly when you need it. No more wasting time emailing back and forth “Have you looked at x,y and z yet?” “no I haven’t can you send me that email again?”
I’ve been using FUT for two months now to:
- Make sure to send my girlfriend’s weekly timesheet in on Sundays at 4pm.
- Remember to evaluate that awesome new online tool I just signed up for before the free trial expires (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Remind me when a book by an author I like is set to go on sale at Amazon so I can don’t waste my time checking again.
- Send low value emails I need to respond to my least productive time of the week (everyFriday3pm@followupthen.com).
To start using the FollowUpThen.com, just email email@example.com.
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I don’t know if this is profound or just a case of me finally understanding last month what everyone else gets: Productivity is not one problem, it’s three.
For the past decade I’ve been trying to solve how to be productive as if that problem begins and ends in Getting Things Done (David Allen’s productivity methodology). GTD is a great solution for problem #2 – how to effectively warehouse and inventory tasks somewhere other than between your ears.
The first problem domain is Personal Information Management – everything from (too many) passwords to notes to relevant information to finding information again without searching for it again to shoveling email (got a new trick for this – more on that tomorrow). It’s all the info I need to create, store, pull together and break apart so I can get work done.
The third problem is actually doing the work. How, when drowning in distractions, do I produce good work? In fact, how do I work well even when I’m unmotivated, tired, distracted, and/or brain fatigued? Having the longest task list, the best GTD system doesn’t get you a prize or put money in the bank. Accomplishing, completing, creating, executing, does. Enumerating the work is not the same as doing the work, let alone doing the work well so that other people will pay you for it.
- Information Management comes first. You’ve got to handle that problem otherwise you will be constantly stymied as you try to deal with problems two and three.
- There’s a point of diminishing returns solving the Task management problem with GTD. GTD is not about the first problem, and tangentially about the third problem. Especially if burn all of your disposable time trying to fix problems #1 and #3.
- There are thousands of programs out there for managing some part of your information load, and thousands of GTD-centric programs. But there’s only a few – a tiny few – that focus on developing better focus: Minimal writing environments like Byword and exercising your focus like various Pomodoro Apps. Handful of apps + huge unmet need = startup opportunity.
Also, it’s is a lot easier concentrating on and solving some part of each of these problems than trying to find either software or methodology which will magically solve all three.
So what do you think?
For as many years as I’ve had e-mail, I’ve tried to keep my inbox empty. First it was because I liked neatness, then because David Allen’s GTD mandated it, and then because Merlin Mann came up with some excellent techniques for keeping your inbox empty.
The problem is, the problem has gone from out-of-control to beyond my control. I think it’s actually now beyond anybody’s control.
It’s like trying to keep the sea from washing away your sandcastle. You could do it early on – a folder or tag for every email you wanted to keep, a spam filter to get rid of spam. Those techniques worked not because they are effective, but because the ocean of email had not risen to your particular sandcastle.
And now it has. Five years ago, RSS was the bomb, email was overrun with spam, and the sheer volume of information from people you individually want to be in contact with had not flooded your inbox. For me, the tide has come in as every company, organization, and person I voluntarily deal with on the web lays claim to a chunk of my attention via email. I can’t blame them – I too want you to read my email. You – startup founder, microISV, what have you – do too.
Call this a self-inflicted wound if you must; but the reality is whether you dump everything from your inbox to some other folder or just let your inbox fill up with thousands of messages, it’s impossible to even file, let alone act on every single message that comes down the pike.
There is hope: I’m reading Douglas C. Merrill’s “Getting Organized in the Google Era” right now and maybe the biggest point that he makes that I’ve taken to heart is we’ve reached a point in the evolution of information where search isn’t justifiable strategy, it’s the only viable strategy.
So as of today I’m giving up keeping my inbox at zero, and will declare daily victory if I can only flag and capture emails I need to act on into OmniFocus which is my GTD master program. No more nice neat folders – it all gets crammed into “Reference” once I’ve picked and flagged what I must do from the stream. File them all, and let search sort them out.
Incidentally, I’ve noticed that searching my IMAP-centralized Gmail in Chrome is about eight times slower than searching for the exact same term on my iMac in Mail. This could be because I’ve been singularly cursed by the gods of Google, or maybe everybody else has the same issue. Considering you can pick up a 2 terabyte hard disk for about $100, I’ll let Google continue to aggregate my email in the cloud so I can get it from anywhere, but will rely on my fast and trusty desktop legacy OS X Mail app to find what I need fast.
How about you? How are you turning the few nuggets of real, actionable e-mail into tasks that you can define, work on, and complete? I’d love to hear about how you do it – please comment.