Getting Stuff Done with Interstitial Journaling

Coach Tony’s post titled Replace Your To-Do List With Interstitial Journaling To Increase Productivity is a pretty interesting take on productivity.

During your day, journal every time you transition from one work project to another. Write a few sentences in your journal about what you just did, and then a few more sentences about what you’re about to do.

Rather than just working through a list of tasks in your task manager, the idea seems to be to maintain an ongoing narrative of your day. A benefit of this approach is a pretty high degree of mindfulness.

Journaling as you work produces mindfulness about your context, goals, mood, and skills.

Another aspect of this approach that appeals to me is how it incorporates elements of the GTD approach to getting your stuff done. One of those elements is clearing your mind by getting whatever is occupying it out of your mind and onto paper (digital or physical).

The Interstitial Journaling tactic solves all of these normal problems. It kills procrastination, empties our brain of the last project, and then gives us space to formulate an optimal strategy for our next project.

When you write about the task you’ve just completed, and then about the upcoming task, you’re transitioning more fully from the completed task to the next task. At least, that seems to be the idea.

I also just like the idea of maintaining a pretty deliberate account of my days. This feels like something worth attempting, at the very least.

I’ve started incorporating Evernote into my Remember the Milk workflow through a handy integration, so Evernote seems like a convenient choice for the journaling too. I’ll try it out this week and see how it goes.

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

Why you’re not a morning person (unless you are)

Woman sleeping, not a morning person

As it happens, I am a morning person. Our son definitely is. My wife isn’t a morning person at all and we’re not sure whether our daughter is, yet.

Whether you are a morning person or not, it apparently has a lot to do with genetics. Brian Resnick delves into why this is the case on Vox in his article titled “Late sleepers are tired of being discriminated against. And science has their back”.

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on the science of chronobiology, which finds we all have an internal clock that keeps us on a consistent sleep and wake cycle. But the key finding is that everyone’s clock is not the same. Most people fall in the middle, preferring to sleep around 11 pm to 7 am. But many — perhaps 40 percent of the population — don’t naturally fit in this schedule.

It turns out that this is also very much a cultural issue with the expectation being that people who are not morning people are somehow slackers. I didn’t think about it in those terms, probably because I tend to function better in the mornings (at least, once I’ve taken my meds).

Watch this Vox video titled “Late sleeper? Blame your genes” that accompanies Resnick’s article, perhaps with coffee while you wake up.

On a related note, it also turns out that so-called “coffee naps” are great ways to recharge during the day. I tend to nap for around 20 minutes and will do that if I have an opportunity because it works well for me.

Apparently, a cup of coffee right before a 20 minute nap could be just the thing you need to recharge and return to a much more productive state. According to Vox:

It’s counterintuitive, but scientists agree that drinking coffee before napping will give you a stronger boost of energy than either coffee or napping alone. To understand a coffee nap, you have to understand how caffeine affects you. After it’s absorbed through your small intestine and passes into your bloodstream, it crosses into your brain. There, it fits into receptors that are normally filled by a similarly shaped molecule called adenosine. Adenosine is a byproduct of brain activity, and when it accumulates at high enough levels, it plugs into these receptors and makes you feel tired. But with the caffeine blocking the receptors, it’s unable to do so. Here’s the trick of the coffee nap: sleeping naturally clears adenosine from the brain. So if you nap for those 20 minutes, you’ll reduce your levels of adenosine just in time for the caffeine to kick in. The caffeine will have less adenosine to compete with, and will thereby be even more effective in making you alert.

So, if you’re ever accused of being lazy or slacking off because you’re not a morning person or because you just want to have a quick nap and recharge, there is a body of science backing you up!

If you’re curious, also watch “How does caffeine keep us awake?“.

Image credit: Hernan Sanchez

Stop taking detailed notes in meetings

Making notesKhoi Vinh’s post titled “Remembering What’s Important After Meetings” touches on a better approach to participating in meetings and highlights a pretty useful IFTTT applet to facilitate that.

For one thing, taking copious notes in meetings isn’t always the best approach. You risk focusing too much on your notes and missing opportunities to be meaningfully participate in the meeting and just be present.

Instead, he recommends making note of the meeting highlights afterwards:

This advice absolved me of the pressure I previously felt to write down everything. Without that distraction, I’ve been able to generally stay more focused and absorb more of what’s said in meetings. And with fewer notes, the act of searching them later becomes much easier too.

I tend to take a lot of notes in meetings and capture those notes into Evernote afterwards for future reference. I prefer handwritten notes because I’ve read that handwritten notes tend to be more conducive to actually absorbing what you are writing about.

As useful as it is to have comprehensive notes of your meetings, I’ve also noticed that other meeting participants tend to find it a little frustrating sitting opposite someone who seems to be writing down everything they say instead of being part of the conversation.

Something to think about in my next meeting.

Image credit: Stickler Mule

Critical steps to get things done when you clearly lack focus

How to get things done

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.

https://twitter.com/cathjenkin/status/852071262914531328

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.

https://twitter.com/cathjenkin/status/856187110784675840

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!

https://twitter.com/cathjenkin/status/856187258839457792

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 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

Daydreaming about macOS alternatives in my future

I often find myself thinking about possible macOS alternatives. I have a 2011 MacBook Air which I have loved using. Still, it is more than 5 years old and Apple hardware doesn’t seem to age particularly gracefully. For one thing, my battery has failed so my MacBook Air has to be plugged into power when I use it. Thankfully, the battery hasn’t swelled so I don’t have the risk of a catastrophic leak (touch wood).

With the prices of replacement Apple computers being what they are, I have been thinking about what I would buy if my laptop fails one day. The typical choice would be a Windows machine but I don’t really enjoy using Windows. Besides, it confuses me and I spend more time trying to figure out how to do stuff than actually doing stuff.

I have an affinity for Linux and Ubuntu is probably the closest I have come to a macOS-type of environment in terms of general workflow.

Wesley Moore’s adventures with Linux

Wesley Moore published a great series of posts titled “Finding an alternative to Mac OS X” that I enjoyed. He is far more familiar with Linux than I am and, being a developer, he is very comfortable digging around in his machines’ software internals.

I have used Mac OS X since the public beta and use it at both home and work. I’ve also run various Linux distributions and BSDs since around 2000, so am quite familiar with them.

In April 2016, dissatisfied by the lack of MacBook Pro updates (and performance of Ruby) I had a custom PC built for work. It has a fast Intel CPU (4Ghz i7–6700K), plenty of RAM and fast SSD storage. It runs Arch Linux and I have been doing all my development at work on this machine over ssh via iTerm using its amazing tmux integration since.

I tried a couple of times to use this machine as my sole work computer but kept coming back to the Mac + tmux option. The first option I tried was an i3 based desktop. However whilst I liked the idea of tiling window managers I decided they weren’t for me. Next I built an OpenBox desktop but the lack of a complete, integrated desktop where all the parts work together frustrated me.

I deeply value the consistency, versatility, reliability and integration of Mac OS X and the excellent quality hardware it runs on. However the current state of the Mac has me considering whether it’s still the right platform for me.

Still, his experiences are instructive and it is worth reading about his journey. I like the idea of elementary OS (it looks beautiful – not something you often say about open source software) but I suspect that if he found it frustrating to the point where he couldn’t work productively, it would drive me a bit crazy.

Leaving that aside, a Linux machine is very appealing to me. Especially if I found myself unable to use a Mac for some reason.

My story

Fortunately I have had opportunities to test Linux out as in a work context. In my previous company I used a Lenovo i3 laptop which was so under-powered for Windows that I installed Ubuntu on it and used that for a while.

In retrospect, Ubuntu was a little heavy for that machine too because I struggled running most common apps. I eventually gave up and started using my personal MacBook Air for work because I spent more time being frustrated with a totally inadequate machine (I couldn’t even get a memory upgrade) that I wasn’t productive.

Still, that was more an issue with the laptop. I installed Ubuntu on our old home PC that our kids use most of the time. The PC had 2GB of RAM and also struggled a bit with Ubuntu so I switched the machine across to Linux Mint. I managed to find another 2GB of RAM for the PC (it is old RAM so I had to look on eBay) and it runs pretty well. Well, except when my son starts playing Minecraft with his many add-ons.

What I’d probably use

Anyway, if the time comes to replace this laptop (and may that time be in the distant future after many more years of productive use), a Linux machine may well be the way for me to go. I rely on a few apps for my day to day work and I’ve been researching macOS alternatives for Linux. I’ve managed to find options for most of what I do except for –

  • Evernote desktop (the Web app is pretty good though);
  • OmniFocus (my likely alternative is something like Remember the Milk – it seems to support GTD pretty well); and
  • iTunes Music (iTunes isn’t amazing but I have been using iTunes Music a lot).

One of my big concerns has been losing Lightroom which I use for my photography. I recently came across darktable which looks like a good alternative. Unfortunately, it probably doesn’t support the VSCO Film presets I use so I’d need to adapt to photography without those.

I was a little concerned about losing Alfred which I use frequently on my Mac to find stuff and launch apps but there is a Linux alternative called Albert which looks almost identical. In addition, the built in search in Linux is pretty good for most stuff and I tend to use it on the home PC anyway.

My primary text editor is Byword and I love it. Byword is macOS and iOS only so my alternative would probably be Atom. It supports a range of syntaxes so I have the benefit of syntax highlighting along with a huge library of expansions for the app itself. Heck, even the built in Linux text editor, gedit works well for me.

Linux apps are rarely as good looking as macOS apps. Getting things to work can be pretty fiddly and involve the command line a lot. Still, for the work I do, I can probably work just fine on a Linux machine if I needed to.

As far as the OS distribution goes, Mint works well on our home PC. It reminds me a lot of Windows and that puts me off a bit (totally irrational and it doesn’t detract from the software but it’s a bias I have come to accept). I like Ubuntu and I’d probably begin with that if the machine I use is powerful enough to get around some of Ubuntu’s performance requirements.

I haven’t figured out how to replace my desktop UI and retain the underlying OS/file system on Linux. I believe it is possible to change your desktop UI pretty easily so that would make any silly UI niggles I may have, go away.

Not as pretty but viable

Linux isn’t as polished as macOS but these macOS alternatives are viable when you consider the cost of Apple hardware and the direction Apple is going when it comes to ports (if that is a factor for you).

Being a dedicated Apple user can become expensive and although there are definitely benefits buying into the Apple ecosystem, it isn’t an option for everyone.

I’ve noticed that a number of my friends who were pretty dedicated Apple users have switched to Windows 10 machines and Android phones. It just no longer made sense for them to stick with Apple’s products. They weren’t all driven away by cost considerations either.

The bottom line is that macOS alternatives exist and are pretty compelling for a number of reasons: cost, hardware choice and capabilities. I would likely opt for Linux and work around the limitations that would mean for me. I may even dual boot into Windows for the stuff I need to do in Windows but I like the idea of using a Linux machine for my day to day stuff.

For now though, I still love my MacBook Air and all the things it enables me to do.

Image credit: Markus Spiske

What? Me? Procrastinate?

Oh boy, this explains so much about me and why I probably tend to procrastinate so much …

I’ve become better at noticing when I procrastinate and developing tactics to help me manage my procrastination habit better. Much of what I do tends to focus on a highly structured and granular productivity system, specifically my imperfect implementation of Getting Things Done.

GTD has become my lifeline to a much more productive workflow and I guard it from other people’s attempts to disrupt it fairly actively. As it is, I often find I need to somehow harmonise my GTD implementation with whatever my colleagues are using so it can become a little complex. That said, it remains the bedrock of how I (mostly) get stuff done.

I can’t say I have conquered procrastination but I think the trick is to reign it in so it is more manageable. I try be more patient with myself when I do drift off. There is no point being hard on yourself, it just reinforces the habit.

Anyway, where was I … ?

Image credit: ejaugsburg (via Pixabay)

Jason Fried on “The Managerial Entitlement Complex”

The managerial pose

Jason Fried has a terrific post on Medium titled “The Managerial Entitlement Complex” which touches on something I have been thinking about on and off for a while: our attitude towards work versus “not-work”.

Paying someone a salary doesn’t mean you own them. It means they work for you. During work. Work is not always, work is sometimes. If a manager thinks work is always or whenever they want it to be, they have an entitlement complex.

I responded to Fried’s post with some of my thoughts on this:

Isn’t this idea that work trumps everything else a curious one?

On the one hand it is understandable to think that it does. After all, we need to earn a living and we often need to make personal sacrifices at times.

On the other hand, taking care of ourselves and our families is far more important.

You simply can’t function effectively if you are constantly working and pushing yourself. Humans just don’t work that way.

In addition, you don’t receive extra points for neglecting your family (at least not any points that count in the bigger picture).

So why do we buy into this idea so readily?

This isn’t to say that our jobs may never intrude on our personal lives. As Fried points out:

Are there exceptions? Occasionally, yes. True emergencies or crisis are also exempt, of course, but those should happen once or twice a year, if that. And if they’re happening more frequently, there’s an even deeper problem with the company, the culture, and the quality. More hours ain’t gonna fix that.

It’s worth reading his full post. It isn’t very long.

Source: The Managerial Entitlement Complex

Image credit: Pixabay