Solving problems with pen and paper

Problem is a situation where you don’t know what to do. You’re faced with an obstacle, task or question to which you have no solution.
Finding one isn’t always easy and straight forward process. Very often leads to more confusion and more questions than answers. This is especially true if you try to solve a problem in your head. One way of dealing with problems and finding solutions is putting them down on paper. Write everything down, make an outline, list all the points and aspects of the issue the look at paper and see what emerges.

Solve a Problem with Pen and Paper


Each day many of us spend some time to planning our day. We look at our projects, next actions, appointments etc. Then we decide on the things we want to do. Some select only 3 critical items other prefer more 5 or even 10. Once the day starts we quickly jump into our lists and get to work. One after another those actions, projects, to-do get ticked off and they disappear from our list.
Disappear. Once you’re tick done on a task it disappears from the view all that’s left are task which are still outstanding. Using electronic task list we lose ability to see the progress to see the number of things that we’ve accomplished. With out seeing the progress made it’s difficult to tell how are we doing. You can’t enjoy your daily successes as you really don’t see them. Yet celebrating your successes, taking pride from completed items is important. Rushing from one thing to another we often forget to reflect on our success which we often see as not grand enough. However remember Success breeds success! If you see your self succeeding today then there are greater chances that you will succeed tomorrow and the day after and one after that.

If you use paper to manages tasks it easy to see your victories. Paper is perfect for that, you cross items off and at the end of the day you have a page full of accomplishments.

What can you do if you relay on Outlook or Ominfocus, Remember the Milk or any other computer based task manager?

Simply set up a list or a view, whatever your app of choice supports to show the items completed today, or this week, or this month and then review that list on regular basis. Then enjoy your victories.

This is exactly what I did in Remember the Milk. I created a simple list called “CELEBRATE” and yes I used capital letters.

The list shows me all tasks that I have accomplished today. Then I look at it every couple of days and hopefully enjoy a nice number of tasks that I have accomplished.

Do I look at it every day no but I know it’s there and I can look at it when I need it.

It’s simple and powerful reminder of how much we accomplish every day. Give it a try and CELEBRATE your accomplishments.

Use Evernote more effectively

Evernote is very powerful application that allows you to capture, save and create different types of information from simple notes and web clippings to images and pdf documents. As more and more information gets saved in it making it easy to find can be a challenge. J. D. Meier shares some simple strategies how can you make this process easy.
My two favorite are including yyyy-mm-dd in the note title which make reviewing and finding notes much faster and keeping the notebook structure as flat as possible. Too many notebooks and stacks results in a big clutter that is difficult to manage and besides Evernote have very good search which makes finding notes breeze.

10 Ways to Use Evernote More Effectively

Getting clear on productivity

This Friday I wanted to share a link to an interesting blog post about productivity written by Michael Schechter written over at site. Below are three quotes that really stuck with me after reading it.

Regardless, the longer I study this subject, the better I try to get, the more I’m starting to understand that, at least for me, it’s becoming about one thing and one thing only: finding the best way to do your best work.

Unfortunately, true productivity and a coherent workflow don’t come easy (or at least they don’t come easily to many who need it most, myself included). It comes from learning about what’s out there, learning a lot about yourself and taking some time to see how those options can help you improve.

It’s important to remember that many, if not most of the people, who think and write about productivity aren’t doing this because we’re seriously amazing at it; we’re here because we struggle.

We often seek quick tips and simple advice in hope that they will solve the problems we have but it’s rarely that easy. Most of the time becoming more productive is a tool, a proxy to something different like more happiness  fulfilling life ect. Working on those things never ends. So when you are looking to become productive sure apply the nice tips and quick fixes but also look at the larger picture think about your work habits, workflows and tools you use to support yourself in creating your best work.

Clarifying Productivity

On avoidance of stuff

Few weeks ago I contemplated spending some time installing Ubuntu Linux and learning more about the platform and it’s capabilities. When you look at the images and videos of the most recent version you can clearly see that it’s very compelling offer. Even before I started, I somewhat new that I would not move there permanently  the whole experiment would be a failure and I will be back using Windows in no time. All I wanted to do was just to play with something different.
I shared this with my wife and she asked one question that sorted everything out.

What are you avoiding?

So simple and so powerful!! We spoke briefly about the stuff that seemed to underlay the issue. I thought about this more later that evening and realised that “playing with apps and tools” is somewhat a default response to being challenged with bigger or more difficult problems. Solving them takes time and effort and for while you can’t see any results.

In the end I went back and looked at things that I was avoiding and not willing to do. I needed to spend more time clarifying them and figuring out what I wanted to do and how to approach them. I’m still in the process getting clear on some of those things. Sometimes it’s painfully slow and difficult yet I believe that with the right amount of time and effort I will get what I want. I no longer look at Ubuntu (regardless how cool it looks) or other tools for that matter as a solution. Solutions to your problems and questions are results of thinking and planning, tools help only craft the solutions and make them a reality.

What are you doing to avoid your important stuff?

Organasing files on your computer

We save and store more information on our computers from simple documents to notes, ebooks, bills etc.It’s no wonder that finding a good way of keeping on top all of this is almost never-ending endeavor.
Some people result some give up and keep everything amassed in one folder and rely on search to find relevant information others resort to constructing intricate structures of nested folder up on folders. None of the above is really sustainable in the long run as sometimes you want to look through your files and are faced with giant list that’s not usable. The solution lies somewhere in the middle where you keep a light folder structure that matches most important areas of you life but also rely on search so you don’t have to browse manually.

If you need some ideas on how to approach organisation of files AsianEfficiency has very good overview on how to do that.

Organizing Your Files, Folders and Documents

Do you have Personal Productivity Rules?

A week or so ago I shared a link to Chris Brogan’s blog post on how to get things done. He shared an operating instruction for setting up yourself for a successful day. The 10 step process includes getting good night sleep, breathing deeply, having light breakfast.
Following on this theme of having operating model I wanted to share post about creating your own productivity rules.

Internet is full of productivity advice which means there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It also means you may be spending hours trying to find the ultimate best tip. But the truth is, no matter how much time you spend looking for the perfect productivity method until you sit down and think what works,  you will remain stuck in the search mode.

Find out what works for you, own to post your productivity system and come up with rules you want to follow. This is excellent advise and potentially will prevent you from wasting time on futile search.

My Personal Productivity Rules…What Are Yours?

Getting grasp of contexts. Ownership and Review

Although this is not a series this post nicely links with a last weeks post about general usefulness of contexts in keeping productive.
I’ve been practicing GTD for few years and at first could not make any sense out of contexts. Sure I set them up as described in the Getting Things Done book but they never clicked with me. Each time I was revisiting my implementation of GTD whether it was on paper or digital I would set up context based list and rarely look at them. As the action became older and older I would grow in frustration over the idea. The situation changed when two things happened: I took the ownership of contexts and when I started to look at those lists.

Owning the contexts

My initial set of contexts was very much based on the suggestions provided in the GTD book so I would set things like @computer, @phone, @home, @desk etc. Such setup didn’t work for me very well I didn’t have may phone calls to make, nor many things to do at desk. Since I kept my home and office system separate @work context was completely obsolete.

After much browsing and listening to some podcast I came across Augusto Pinaud and his way of setting up contexts. To put it simply he owns them which mean he creates and deletes them as needed. This is what I also applied into my implementation. I spent a bit of time analysing different aspects of my life, where are the items I need or want to do and then come up with a context that was relevant.

The second aspect of owning the context was to create them on an ad hoc basis, almost like project tasks. If there would be a set if items to do prior a holidays I would set up a context for that and add all the related tasks. Now I have fairly stable list of contexts that includes items like @home or @computer and @email plus I supplement it with contexts that I create on the fly some are reusable like @trip or @bike but many are one-off items.

This really helps in focusing on the task that can be done in a given setting.

Looking at the lists

Creating lists of actions is one thing but actually looking at them is a completely different type of beast. Although this may sound odd very often I would not look at my lists. There would be something else that would grab my attention and I would ignore them for a good while. The sole purpose of these list was to actually help focus on the predefined work as opposed to looking for a new and shiny to look at.

How I started to look at the lists?

There are couple strategies that I tried to make sure I look at my lists on regular basis. Initially they were a bit of an annoyance but over a period of some weeks they helped with creating a necessary habit ie looking at my lists. The importance of this habit is particularly big as it increases the trust of your system.

keep them in front and always handy

  • pin them in your browser so the webapp of you choice opens as soon as you launch your browser
  • print a fresh list of tasks daily
  • stick your Most Important Tasks o your monitor or on a wall in front.
  • add a tasks widget on your smartphone’s home screen. My favorite task management app Remember The Milk does that and I know few others like Astrid and GTaks do that too.

get reminder to check contexts list

  • set up an email reminder service to give you a prompt about today’s tasks. I get a daily email from Remember the Milk at 6am with a list of tasks due for that day
  • set up few repeating tasks to remind you of checking the to-do items at different times of day. Initially you could do it at 9:10 am just as you start your day then 12:00pm and last at 16:45. Although this is quite meta i.e. to use tasks to remind about tasks the purpose is to get a reminder or a ping to look at things you decided to do.
  • third option is to use a calendar and set appointments for yourself to look at specific list/context. For example you want to look at your email only 2-3 times a day making it an event in your will help you not miss the processing time.

Two steps

Successful and long-term use of any productivity system no matter how simple or complex, stems from the fact that, the person using it owns it. Perhaps they are following one of the well-known methods like Covey or GTD but even then they make the necessary adjustments so that the system fits into their lives, that it’s matches their working habits, tools etc. There is absolutely no point in following someone else approach as you will most likely fail.

So the two steps needed to grasp the context and making the most out of them are

  1. set up YOUR contexts based on where and how you work and what tool you use
  2. create a simple support structure that helps you make sure you look at the lists of contexts.

Simplicitybliss Evernote GTD and reference files

Sven from Simplicityblis has a very insightful post about the intersection of Evernote GTD and reference files. His main point is that Evernote isn’t best at being your task manager although some seems to have done made it work like one (see Daniel Gold’s ebook or The Secret Weapon site. Where Evernote excels is storage of support and reference materials. Search, tags, notebooks, ability to index PDFs, audio and photo storing make it very powerful archive.
I would agree with Sven and this is how I now use Evernote. I Initially used it for content creation, storing ideas, research etc however since I moved to plain text for most content creation needs and list keeping using Evernote became much simpler. Before I blended various types of work and content now I have a nice and clear division between creation tools and storage/archiving.

Sven’s post: On Evernote, GTD, Reference and Support Material

Organising notes using plain text. Yet another example.

As I’m diving deeper into managing stuff in plain text files I constantly find interesting examples of other people workflows. This time I wanted to share a setup by Gabe Weatherhead. It’s fairly in-depth overview of plain text organisation and tools used to support it.
Two things that grabbed my attention is the use of MultiMarkdown for structuring notes and TextDrop app with appears to be online equivalent of Notational Velocity.

How I organize everything with plain-text notes

Using contexts to enhance productivity

Fraser Speirs is dumping OmniFocus as for him there is only one context – online. With Evernote becoming his primary tool this means that he can do almost anything, anywhere. There is no longer a distinction between work and home. Fraser’s post prompted me to look at the spend some time thinking about context, their purpose and usefulness.

What are context for?

One of the key elements of GTD implemention is dividing your next actions based on the context in which they can be done. The main reason behind this idea was that you can’t complete every task anywhere. Certain tasks can only be accomplished in a specific place or need specific tools or access. This way one could “ignore” some actions until given context is available. Focusing only on tasks that can be accomplished means you’re not wasting time on those that can’t be done.

The “original” contexts are somewhat anchored in pre-internet era where the access to the web was not so ubiquitous. In that time contexts referred primarily to specific physical locations like @office, @desk, @shopxyz, @home, @phone.  Everything changed, once internet access grew exponentially, allowing us to work, connect, play anytime & anywhere The second element was the rise of the smartphones which became as powerful as computers from 10 years ago.  The same email that few years ago required expensive computer to send can now be written a very cheap phone.

Context in the online era & why they work

It would seem that in the always connected world context would become obsolete  Almost everything can be accomplished with a computer and internet access that is becoming ubiquitous. Everyone has a mobile phone so you can make calls at any time from anywhere. @Online seems to be the meta context encompassing everything. Think of it, what can you not do online? So you may ask why even bother with contexts? Are there any benefits to them at all? I my opinion using context is still valid and practical tool for managing your actions. Here how they help:

  • batch work – some tasks are best done in batches like dealing with email, post, processing receipts, making small system updates. Create a context that represent the type of work that can be done in a batch. Wait until you have few items there and tackle them in one go.
  • filter and categorize – contexts let you organise next actions into different groups. Dealing with a large single list of tasks can be daunting and disheartening. It’s difficult to see the progress on a such list. By adding contexts you can simply focus on tasks that you can actually do. You can also reduce distraction caused be mere existence of other tasks and filter them off from the current view. Look only at what’s appropriate to where you are and what you have available.
  • keep boundaries – with computer and internet access we can do anything but it doesn’t mean we can do everything. By adding context to an action we set some boundary for our work. We can put our attention on this specific area and work through it’s tasks and see the progress. The opposite would be jumping from calls, to writing, to thinking all in space of minutes. That’s hardly an effective use of resources that we have.
  • type of work – certain tasks can only be performed on special places or with special tools or in presence of specific people. Using context lets you accommodate such requirements. Imagine your ability to focus and produce good or excellent work if you would constantly shift from one physical place or mental state to another simply because that was the order of your task list. Applying context lets you leverage the fact that you are in specific place or make the most from the tool you now have access to.

How to use contexts?

The real power of using contexts for managing tasks comes from making them fit your needs. This means setting up contexts that match your work style, tools you use, locations etc. It’s no longer necessary to link them only with a place. Something that I have picked up from August Pinaud is to limit lists to a most of 20-30 items. Once the list gets bigger than that I look if the list can be divided into two or more smaller ones. Just to give you some examples of context I’ve been experimenting with:

@wordpress – for tasks related to my wordpress blog
@writing – for post ideas that I wanted to specifically develop further
@trip – for items that I want to complete before a trip
@race – for items that I want to complete before a race
@comment – list of links that I want to comment on.
@think – list of items to think about
@bike –  list of things to do with one of my bicycles

I don’t always have many tasks sitting in above list but I definitely benefit from them as they let me break my work into something specific. Apart from the above contexts I still use the standard items like @email, @home, @waiting for etc.

Recent discussions on use of contexts

There are two links that I wanted to share here. First is a conversation with David Allen on Mikes on Mics podcast where 20 min into to show the topic of context is discussed extensively.

The second link I wanted to share is a recording of the regular call of the GTD Virtual Study Group. The main guest is Augusto Pinoaud who has just published his short book “25 tip fro Productivity”. Augusto is a big proponent of context and uses them extensively.


To some people using contexts adds unnecessary complexity to task management. I think it may be true if you are working on a very small number of things and you complete your tasks as soon as they show up. Essentially if your task list is never longer than 10-15 items that contexts are not for you.

However for a majority of people the number of tasks that they want or must do exceeds the time available during a normal working day. For such types contexts are a practical and effective way of grouping similar tasks together  To make the most out of the context make sure they are your own. Whether you refer to a specific location or a tool as your context it does not matter, the key is that they fit into your working style. In the end what you really want is simply to work on the tasks you can do because your are in the right place, you have the right tool or the mood to do it.

The No Journal

We all want to participate in projects, be engaged in our communities, help other people. All this comes at a cost sometimes it’s a financial cost but more often it’s your time and attention that are being used.
It’s fairly easy to get involve in so many things that there is not time left for our own pursuits perhaps the cooking class you wanted to take or those french lessons that you wanted to sing up or more simply the latest book of you favorite writer.

David Sparks shares a nice way of keeping tabs on things you are saying “yes” to and those you said “no”. To be more mindful of those things simple keep a list for both categories. Then when you’re being asked to take part in something simply check the list before giving your answer. David call this file the “no journal”

The No Journal

Paradoxical Productivity

Very often we realise that we’ve chased down the rabbit hole in an effort to get more done, be more productive, have more time.Yet often enough the results are the opposite of what we wanted. Instead of  less work we do it more, instead of reduced stress we have more of it. In Paradoxical Productivity series Nicholas Bates shares some tactics which paradoxically (pun intended) will improve  your productivity.

1: Send Less E-MailGet less e-mail.

2: Tidy UpGain clarity.

3: Fewer PeopleFaster, focused and easier.

4: Use A Wall Planner Not Your Phone To Plan. The future, not just today.

5: You KNOW the problem: (1) Wake Up (2) Look Up (3) Get Real

ParadoxicalProductivity, The Director’s Crib Sheet 1-24