Use a checklist to control your email addiction

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!

Cheddar

Inner Productivity by Chris Edgar

(Weekend Media Review is a new section here at 47Hats. Why Media instead of Books? Because I now find myself – probably like you – “reading” a lot more media than paper books: digital books,  audio books, YouTube presentations, podcasts, iTunes U and more.)

Every so often I come across a productivity book that stops me cold. This week’s WMR -  Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work – grabbed my attention and as soon as I finish this post, I’m going back to reading and thinking about it.

Published in September, it only has two reviews on Amazon right now. Ordinarily, I’d never buy a book with that few ratings, but the disruptive beauty of books in the Kindle format (Note, I did not say the Kindle Reader.) is you can start reading the book, then decide to buy the rest of the book with one click, and cheaper too! :) By the way, I’m using the free Kindle reader for the iPhone – an excellent reading experience, in my opinion.

Edgar starts by focusing on a deceptively easy question: We all know by now the basics of productivity – limit distractions, don’t constantly check email, etc., etc.. So why do we find it so damned hard to consistently apply these practices?

These people’s problem isn’t that they don’t know enough “tips and tricks”. Instead, the problem they almost always face is that some persistent pattern of thinking or feeling is making it hard to stay focused on their work.”

This is not happy New Age tie-dye shirt tree hugging time: it’s understanding and taking control of how you experience, define and relate to work. It’s the difference between those rare, brilliant days when we feel on, capable, and enjoying the work we’re engaged in – and all those cold, dreary weeks, months and years we fight ourselves to pound out the deliverables. It’s about developing Inner Productivity.

There’s a lot that feels like Edgar is writing this book for every self-employed person / startup or microISV out there, and it’s causing me to question assumptions about the nature of work I’ve taken as Gospel for decades.

This is one of those books you’re going to have to actually read: no quick blog post is going to do justice to it, and certainly not give you enough to actually change your behavior.

This blurb by David Allen sums up why you should read this book:

“Chris Edgar has taken an exploratory dive into the procrastination pit and come up with a cogent explanation of this phenomenon as well as an elegant set of techniques to transcend it. It’s a great read and a useful guidebook for turning the daily grind into something much more interesting and engaging.” –David Allen, bestselling author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Bottom Line: Get this book if you want a much more productive 2010.

5 tips for focusing on your MicroISV

money is the target

In some ways, it’s the hardest hat a microISV can wear: how do you stay focused and keep moving forward as you build your microISV?

It’s not easy, as “The Tired One” lamented in this post at Business of Software recently, but it can be done.

But first, you’re going to have to disenthrall yourself from the way “normal people” who are paid by someone else work:

Here’s the short list of habits that have to go:

“Being available is important.” Maybe when you are a cog in someone else’s company, or when you’re contracting, but as a someone trying to get a microISV to the point of making money, this value has to go out the window.

“Someone else is responsible.” Again, a favorite among the corporate set and impossible when the company is you.

“My job is planning.” That’s a big NO – it’s good and right to define your product/service, marketing strategy, blogging/social networking strategy, but that’s only the start. It’s all about execution, which is why a formal, formatted business plan (unless you’re going for angel/vc money) is a waste of time.

“I have time for that.” No you don’t, at least during the time you’re working on your microISV. You need the best you can do – not just what you get by with on your hundred times a day interrupted day job. If you want to focus that means making the decision that what you are doing is important and all of the distractions are just that.

    And here’s a starter list of tips to get your focused and keep you focused:

    Compartmentalize your life. That means, when you are in microISV building mode, that, and that alone, are what you are doing. Off goes email, IM, twitter, the phone, the net, the spouse, the cat. You can’t sort of work on this stuff – it’s too hard. You need to build a clear mental space, reserved for this work alone, which you come back to again and again.

    Get used to saying No. No, you don’t want to go out with your friends. No, you don’t get to take the day off. No, you can’t indulge in any of the countless distractions out there. You’ve said Yes! I want to create my own software and my own company and that means you’ve also said no to a lot of other things, opportunities, people and yes, family and friends for the duration.

    Schedule. Start. Work. End. Building your commercial app – be it SaaS, desktop, mobile or whatever – and building your company’s identity, marketing, support systems and market positioning are going to take time. Lots of it. Get in the habit of scheduling time and targeting what you are going to do, defining it down to the level of detail you need to so you can execute it. I strongly recommend you establish a set of starting and ending rituals for this, even if those rituals are nothing more than pouring a new cup of coffee, starting the same playlist, and putting on your favorite baseball cap. (See last point as to why.)

    Keep score. Specifically, keep some sort of log or journal – from simple text file to the most elaborate tracking system you can find. And in that log or journal you want to track three things:

    • The decisions you make as you plan your microISV/app (otherwise you’ll just keep making the same decisions over and over),
    • The ideas you get in the middle of the night, after a shower, on the way to your day job. Those little flashes of inspiration/insight that light the way to adding a really good feature, dropping one no one else cares about, writing a Hook that works, positioning your product to sell really well. “I remember that” isn’t a plan for capturing these gems, it’s an unanswered prayer. Write it down!
    • How much time you spend, what results you’ve gotten. If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t count.

    Keep moving forward. That means you plan to spend at least 30 minutes each day alone with your microISV, just the two of you. Sounds like to little time to be useful, right? True if you spend the first 20 minutes figuring out where you left off, what you’re doing, what your desired outcome is. False, if you make how you get back to working on your microISV a ritual, a routine, a habit. Spending 30 minutes a day on any longterm project, IMO, keeps it loaded in “near-term memory”, quickly accessed via the same entrypoints. Even if you only have 30 productive minutes a day to put into your future, you will get there.

      On power outages and 50 hour weeks.

      Sometimes life smacks you upside your head with a lesson you need to learn. Today was one of those days for me – not as bad as my friend Matt had last week – but definitely eye-opening.

      Start when you wake up, ready for another day of trying to achieve your goals, complete your projects, move closer to the life you want. Except there’s no power. And it stays that way hour after hour, despite automated voicemail promises to the contrary, for 9 hours.

      Now I can do with out running water, food, music and even coffee, but when my local utility has yet another outage and everything I need turns from cool empowering devices with happy little green lights to metal/plastic bricks, I get seriously bent out of shape. I feel like Neo in the Matrix movies when someone yanks the cord out of his head – this is not pretty.

      [Please resist the urge to comment I could have gone to Starbucks, maybe I should have a backup generator, etc. etc. I was packing my laptop about to go to Starbucks just so I could get my email when the lights came back on. Keep reading a little longer, there's a point to this post. Really.]

      Two things I noticed as I sat around – it’s damn quiet when the power’s off and I could really think through various issues – technical, business and personal – for a few hours. It was as if by being disconnected from everyone else I was more connected to myself.

      When the power came on, one of the first things I did was catch up on posts to approve over at the Business of Software forum I co-moderate. That’s where the other half of today’s life’s little lessons was waiting.

      Gili posted a fairly innocuous post on moving from Canada to Israel for a better programming job and was commenting on how people there seem to work 11 hour days for the same pay as he gets working a 8-hour day. In part he said,

      “I just can’t honestly understand how any Engineer can work those many hours on end productively, not to mention not burning out.”

      You could tell by how many different BOSer’s commented, and how fast they posted, Gili really hit a nerve. Kind of like the nerve hit last week by Jason Calcanis when he posted How to Save money running a Startup (“#11: Fire people who are not workaholics.”)

      Far too many of us in the IT/developer/microISV/connected world work 60, 70, 80 hour weeks, week in and week out. We hear about the 100+ years of research that has documented productivity falls when you do this, we read how over at 37signals they’ve cut the workweek to 4 days and are just as productive (and that’s very productive indeed), but we still rebel against the concept.

      And at the same time in that 60+ hour week how much do we actually get accomplished? Nothing like 60 hours worth of accomplishment. And how many of us end the day, and the week, exhausted? We weren’t out there digging ditches, moving boxes, doing physical activity. We end up utterly exhausted after a hard day of sitting, wiggling our fingers and reading. It’s not the muscles in my back that hurt – it’s the one between my ears.

      What’s the lesson?

      It’s about focus and attention.

      It’s about how being continuously connected and on the net is like all those devices in our lives that are never really off, except instead of running up my power bill they are running down my focus/attention battery. And if I want my $503 a month electric bill to drop I’d better find ways of turning off as much as I can, when I can. And if I want to have the focus and attention I need to accomplish what I want as a microISV/consultant/writer, I’d better find exactly where and how my attention and focus is getting used up during the course of my work days and work weeks. Those attention/focus leaks matter.

      It really, really really isn’t about whether you work 40 or 70 hours a week, or “time management” or even Getting Things Done (GTD); it’s about focus/attention capability, usage, training and improvement. Definitely something to ponder as I gear up to do a completely new successor app to the task manager I started selling two years ago that started me on the road that lead to here. And hopefully an idea you find useful and worth pondering too.