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.

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 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

Parent hack for kids with devices

Like many of you, we have kids with devices. Specifically, an iPad 1 (so VHS!) and an iPhone 4s. Our kids wake up pretty early on weekends used to immediately start playing while we sleep. That part was fine because they let us sleep a little longer.

The challenge was that they’d still be playing by late morning on the weekend without having eaten anything, changed out of their pyjamas or brushed their teeth. Sure there are times when a pyjama day is a perfect way to spend the weekend but we don’t want to raise Zombie Screen Kiddies.

We came up with a pretty effective little parent hack to get them to do all that admin without a weekly fight about it. We introduced a new rule: no devices on weekends before they –

  • eat breakfast
  • brush their teeth (properly)
  • change into day clothes.

The result has been impressive. Both kids are typically fed, teeth brushed and dressed by 7am.

The bonus benefit is that our son has been helping our daughter with her tasks. He gives her breakfast and a 1 minute timer so she brushes her teeth long enough. He even opens blinds in the apartment so they’re exposed to some of that natural light.

They didn’t even argue with us when we introduced the rule. They’re probably still too young to realise when they are being manipulated.

I am really proud of them for embracing this new rule. I’m also really impressed with our ingenuity.

Cross-platform or best platform?

What is better? A cross-platform productivity system or the best productivity system, even if it is only available on one platform? I was thinking about this some more after I published my previous post this morning.

A productivity system for autonomous adults

The answer mostly hinges on whether you can be reasonably assured that you will be able to use the device/operating system of your choice going forward or whether you need to cater for an environment where you could find yourself working on whatever your employer gives you?

My employer, like many companies, issues Windows-based laptops to its staff. I have been a Mac user for about a decade and I use a number of apps that are only available on the Mac. That said, much of how I work on my Mac is also possible on other operating systems. I write in plain text using MultiMarkdown and I can do that on just about any device and OS. We use Google Drive for internal document sharing and that is available from any modern desktop browser and most smart devices.

One of the reasons I really love MultiMarkdown is because it is truly cross-platform and it doesn’t matter what you are using to write, it will work because it uses the most basic format: plain text. I’m going through a phase right now where I wish I could just do everything in plain text files and easy to migrate and sync files. I want to explore some sort of alternative to Evernote. Evernote is my primary reference repository for my stuff. I have a lot of data in there and I am a bit concerned that Evernote might go away one day and I won’t have an independent and similar system I could switch to.

So the question which has guided many of my productivity system choices has been whether to focus on a cross-platform system or on the best system available to me?

  1. A cross-platform productivity system would be something like Asana, Trello or even a plain text file with some customised syntax to reflect tasks and actions on tasks (I had a pretty interesting system running in Atom for a while).
  2. The best productivity system available to me at the moment is OmniFocus but its value is entirely dependent on me being able to use a Mac and iOS devices day to day. I’m using my MacBook Air for work at the moment but that is primarily because I returned my underpowered, office issued laptop and it hasn’t been replaced yet. This works well enough but if my MacBook Air were to decide to take a vacation on me, I’d have to switch to something else and my efforts to set up an effective productivity system using OmniFocus would be rendered useless.

At the moment I am leaning more towards using the best system available over cross-platform, primarily because nothing else is as good, intuitive and effective as OmniFocus on my Mac and iOS devices. I’ve discovered that “good enough” isn’t always good enough and carries a fair amount of aggravation with it.

The underlying question still remains, though.

Image credit: Pexels

A productivity system for autonomous adults

I once lost about a day and a half exploring a new productivity system to help me be more productive. That lost time is one of my favourite life experience ironies. Part of the reason I wound up spending so much time obsessing about a new productivity system is that I am more than a little OCD about that sort of thing.

I don’t remember emerging from that “process” with a coherent system but it remains a personal reminder not to let myself become distracted by the search for something new for the sake of finding something new. Instead, I focus on simplifying my processes and my toolkit with a preference for the stuff that I know works for me. When it comes to tasks, I prefer OmniFocus because I have it on all my devices and because I paid far too much money to just ditch it.

The catch, though, is that it doesn’t tie into anything I could use to collaborate with my team at work. Over time my work tasks have split from my personal tasks because different managers have wanted us to manage projects using different tools which became additional layers on top of my OmniFocus system and another layer of complexity to manage.

When I diverted off the productivity cliff

In my quest for something I could use to tie in with my colleagues, I stopped using OmniFocus as my “everything” productivity app and OmniFocus became my poorly maintained personal task manager and a procession of other tools became my work options. In retrospect, that was probably when things started falling apart.

I used OmniFocus exclusively before I started my current job because I worked for myself and I could focus on being productive, not finding ways to adapt to whichever project management system my managers wanted at that point in time. I’ve tried a few services:

  • Asana, which I really dislike for reasons I can’t quite identify (and some I can);
  • Spreadsheets, which are terrible for managing ongoing tasks and, when I think about using them for this purpose, can make me physically ill;
  • Basecamp, which is a terrific project management service and the only reason it became problematic is because there was no meaningful integration for me with OmniFocus so it required a work/other split to minimise duplication;
  • Pen and paper, which isn’t dynamic and too easy to forget about and ignore because my brain knows it isn’t reliable for me; and
  • Trello, which is my current choice at work and works fairly well except, as I write this, I just think it is another layer of distraction I should ditch and return to OmniFocus.

As I see it, the thing about productivity systems and work projects involving teams is that you really have two choices if you want to remain productive[1]:

Option 1 – the team system

Use a system that everyone uses and that works well, generally, for everyone. When I had a small team back in the day, I was looking at Basecamp or Podio (I think). I gave my candidate attorney the two options to look at and she picked Basecamp because it made sense to her. We went with that and it worked well for us. I only stopped using it when my team moved on and maintaining it for one person didn’t make sense.

The key thing with a team-based system is that the directive to use it must come from management even though the choice of what to use should only be made with the team’s input (after all, they need to use it and stick to it and no-one will stick with a system that doesn’t work for them).

Option 2 – The “autonomous adults” system

I was chatting to Don Packett a while ago and I asked him what Missing Link uses to keep projects going effectively. I was expecting him to give me the name of some slightly fringe productivity app (if you know Missing Link, you’ll understand why I wasn’t expecting them to be using Ye Olde Corporate Standard Fare). He surprised me with a really smart and appropriate answer (I wasn’t surprised that it was smart, just because it wasn’t what I was expecting). He told me that they –

aggressively push for ‘autonomous adults’ who can set their own timelines and deadlines and get their shit done in the right fashion.

I love that. As soon as I read that, I realised that a system imposed on a team can, more often than not, reflect an attitude by management that the team does not comprise “autonomous adults” who can be trusted to get their stuff done “in the right fashion”. Instead, people are treated as if they lack the capacity to do what they need to do and be productive.

Update (2016-03-09): Don messaged me and clarified that Missing Link uses dapulse to co-ordinate their autonomous adults, which makes a lot of sense.

This attitude comes through in how they are told which steps to take to complete tasks and when to do them. A better approach is giving them a set of priorities (or, even better, involved in the decision-making process about the upcoming priorities) and left to figure out how to meet them effectively and on time. That doesn’t mean people don’t make mistakes or miss deadlines. Being an “autonomous adult” means being able to make those mistakes, taking responsibility for them and then fixing them without being told that making mistakes somehow deprives you of your right to be a grown-up at work.

My point is …

What prompted to start this little verbal foray into productivity systems was a post by Shawn Blanc titled “A System That Works (for You)” which begins with this truism:

Everyone wants a time management system that works. One they can stick with. One that’s not a pain in the butt.

He goes on to explain what such a system looks like:

  1. It empowers you to do the things you want and need to do.
  2. It aligns with your personality.

What I have learned is that a system that doesn’t have these two qualities very much becomes an obstruction to just getting stuff done. I am also constantly reminded that the key thing is to find a system that just make sense to you and works for you. A system that requires constant tweaking and reconfiguration is, literally, counterproductive. I have reached a point where I can feel just how wrong the system is when I started using it.

A good productivity system should have something that makes it easier to use, enjoyable even. As Blanc noted:

The reason I use a pen and paper is because I enjoy it. The analog aspect adds a bit of joy, which, in and of itself, is enough grease for the skids to keep me on track with using my system.

I definitely find that a productivity system that isn’t aesthetically pleasing to me is problematic because appealing design is a great introduction to a system for me. It is “grease for the skids” to help ease the transition to a new thing and how I can use it.

Most of all, a good productivity system should support you and, as Blanc puts it, empower you “to do the things you want and need to do”. Adding more friction to your workflows is an effective way to dissuade you from using a system and becoming less productive overall[2].

Postscript: I have written a follow-up about a related issue so consider reading “Cross-platform or best platform?” too.

Cross-platform or best platform?

Image credit: Pexels


  1. Being “productive”, to me, means getting stuff done and not spending more than the absolutely minimum time required to maintain your system. If you spend too much time just keeping your system afloat, so much so that it cuts into the time you need to actually get your stuff done, change your system. It isn’t working.  ↩
  2. Of course, now that I am thinking about it more, I am tempted to move all my tasks back to OmniFocus. The challenge with these sorts of moves is that each time you reconfigure your productivity workflow, you take more time away from the time you have to get stuff done so it has to count.  ↩

Clarity about your tasks with the Clear app

A new app called Clear, due for release in early February, may be the productivity lifeline you have been waiting for to help you make sense of your tasks.

I am an OmniFocus fan. I use it on my desktop and sync it with the app on my iPhone. OmniFocus is one of the primary reasons I am pretty much committed to the iOS platform (there are others but OmniFocus is one of the anchors). OmniFocus let’s me maintain my fairly complex set of tasks and projects and is one of the best productivity apps I’ve tried.

That said, an app like Clear has its appeal. Its simple, the UI looks awesome, and it could even be fun to use. Its interface looks really simple and that’s probably a good thing. Forced simplicity helps avoid too much complexity and let’s focus on just doing stuff.

(Source: Ars Technica)