Critical steps to get things done when you clearly lack focus

We live in a wondrous technological age that also makes it harder to get things done. This is a challenge when you have a lot of things to do. Obviously.

We live in a wondrous technological age that also makes it harder to get things done. This is a challenge when you have a lot of things to do. Obviously.

Fortunately there are a few steps you can take to be more productive. Here is my list for tomorrow morning.

Step 1: Silence reminders

I love that I can set, snooze and gaze fondly at reminders on my phone. I also really like how Google Calendar can help me schedule time to achieve goals such as learning Hebrew, how to code in Python and do my weekly reviews.

It’s all great.

The problem is that these reminders tend to chime at the same time when I am in the middle of some or other task. That is mostly my fault because I don’t really think through the timing for my reminders when I set them.

My first step is going to be clearer about when I need to block off time to finish a task. With that done (possibly by blocking off the time in my calendar), I can set my reminders for “unreserved” times.

Step 2: Email should know its place

I know better than to keep checking email throughout my morning whenever my phone informs me that I have received more email. Sadly, I have forgotten the importance of batching this sort of stuff.

Email, calendar defrags and task batches (or "How Gina Trapani could preserve my sanity")

My next step is to remind myself to keep my email tabs closed until I reach my designated time slots dedicated to checking my email and other batch-able tasks.

Step 3: Be antisocial

I should have paid attention to Catherine Jenkin’s Facebook/Twitter hiatus. She clearly had the right idea.

Although I am tempted to take an extended break from social media, I probably won’t. What I can, and must, do is severely limit how much time I spend on social when I need to focus on my work.

I am also going to keep WhatsApp and Skype closed. Yes, people contact me through those apps and some of those conversations are even work-related. But do I need to keep the apps open all the time and check them obsessively? Probably not.

I can batch this stuff too.

So, step 3 is resisting the idiotic urge to open Facebook/Twitter/Google+ (yes, it is an equal opportunity, time-wasting urge) when I should be focused on the task at hand. That goes for WhatsApp and Skype too.

Step 4: Quiet, you beast!

One of the biggest culprits is my phone. It notifies me about everything. My phone finds everything just so exciting that it has to tell me immediately.

Lacking discipline and willpower, I pull my attention away from what I am working on and check my screen far too often. Each time I do that, I break whatever flow I’ve managed to cultivate and cost me additional time restoring my focus on what I was doing in the first place.

This sort of thing does not constitute “winning” when you need to get things done.

Fortunately, my phone has a handy “Do Not Disturb” mode that silences notifications from anyone outside my family members. It also silences incoming phone calls, which can be a challenge in itself, but the benefits may outweigh the downsides.

Step 4 is going to be to switch my phone to “Do Not Disturb” and cut out most of those little interruptions that pour in throughout the day.

Note to self (2017-04-26): Create an exception for event notifications so you don’t inadvertently miss the important, scheduled events you need to attend!

Right, so that is the plan for tomorrow and, quite possibly, all the other work days that follow.

I hear that it can be pretty rewarding when you actually get things done when you mean to.

Featured image credit: Veri Ivanova

Ok Google, show me how to get things done

I recently started experimenting with Google Keep, Calendar and Reminders to get things done. I've only really just dipped my toe in the water but it's been interesting so far.

I recently switched to an Android device. I have a post in the works that I may eventually finish and publish. Until then, I still need to get things done and, like I pointed out in my post “The tools I use to be productive with ADHD”, my big challenge has been to migrate from iOS/macOS-centric workflows to something more cross-platform.

When it comes to picking a solution to manage my tasks, I went with OmniFocus. It was practically designed for GTD and I can use it on all my devices. It isn’t cheap and it only works on macOS/iOS (the platform limitation bothers me but I can live with it). At the same time, it is excellent software and nothing really comes close to it.

My first challenge was which task manager to use for my tasks. I started exploring alternatives such as Remember the Milk and Todoist but the thought of reinventing my whole system wasn’t a happy one. Still, I experimented with them a bit and even started migrating tasks to RTM.

Fortunately, I discovered the Focus GTD app for Android that syncs with my OmniFocus data in the cloud. The design isn’t as polished as OmniFocus but the main thing is that the app syncs reliably with my OmniFocus data and I don’t need to recreate anything to keep going.

Lately I’ve been playing around a bit with some Google options for getting things done. In particular, Google’s Reminders that integrate with Google Inbox (which I don’t really use, I prefer Gmail), Google Calendar and Google Keep.

It’s not that Focus GTD doesn’t work. It does. The notifications could be better but the app does what it says on the box and it saved me hours of recreating a GTD workflow with another app or service.

Mostly, I’m curious about the Google option because they are cross-platform, cross-device and are pretty native to my Android phone.

Google’s integrations

Google’s approach to productivity is to combine everything, where possible. Makes sense; Google wants us to use its services more. The Google approach is pretty different in many ways.

I’m accustomed to a task manager being distinct from my calendar and email. Google’s approach is to bring it all together and even go so far as to use your email interface as your task manager (specifically, Google Inbox).

By contrast, my OmniFocus workflow is more about using a standalone task manager as the focal point of my productivity system with email being just one input. Calendars are where you record tasks or events that are date sensitive and everything else goes into a general task service that you review regularly and maintain on an ongoing basis.

Still, the Google productivity suite that comprises Calendar, Gmail/Inbox and Keep is intriguing because it is better integrated with my phone (probably my primary device overall) and is largely OS independent.

So I started using Reminders in Google Calendar this week just to see how they would work for me.

I also started playing around a bit with Calendar’s Goals feature. I’m curious to see if this approach will help me achieve those goals more effectively. I also really want to see just how smart the machine learning behind goal-related task scheduling is when it is tied into my calendar.

Keep is another part of the overall mix. I’ve read a few articles about how to implement GTD with Keep (such as this article in Wired and this one by Clayton Glasser) and it certainly seems feasible. The only thing about Keep is that it seems like a weak replacement for Evernote for me.

At the same time, Evernote isn’t really a task app for me. As I mentioned in my productivity post, Evernote is my reference system with almost 27 000 notes about just about everything in my life. Reconfiguring Evernote to handle my tasks as well as function as my reference service would be messy so I haven’t really explored that.

Method behind the madness

That brings me back to my experiment with Google services for get things done. The linchpin when it comes to OmniFocus is currently my MacBook Air.

If I reach a stage where I can’t use a MacBook every day for work, it will become that much harder to maintain an OmniFocus-centric productivity system. Focus GTD is good but relying on that completely while a work machine doesn’t support it adds a lot more friction to being productive.

This is a real concern for me. I am currently looking for a new job and it is rare to be offered a MacBook by a new employer. My MacBook Air has been my primary work machine for most of my time in Israel but the battery has failed and I think it’s time to give my trusty device a vacation.

My next work machine will likely be a Windows-based or, preferably, Linux machine. Neither will support OmniFocus so this seemingly academic debate about which productivity system to switch to isn’t going to be academic for very long (I hope).

A big plus in the Google column is that the apps it uses are free and available on whichever device I am likely to use. Of course, there is a reason for that. Not only does Google want to keep us actively using as many of its services as is possible, it uses the data from and about our interactions to build and improve its services (including ad targeting) overall.

One day we may see the true cost of that and it may bother us. For now, though, it seems like a fair exchange: we get stuff to help us get things done fairly effectively and Google receives a lot of data it can use to create more things and deliver really accurate ads.

Ok Google, help me be more productive

A lot of this experimentation is about experiencing all the things Google services can do. I’m still getting used to using Google’s voice stuff and it’s pretty impressive. I don’t have Google Assistant yet but I’m sure that will be even better.

I’m not sure if Google Reminders/Keep/Calendar will be a viable replacement for OmniFocus but it seems to be worth exploring. What do you think? Do you use Google services to get things done?

Image credit: Lauren Mancke