Setting up a productive day

Today’s post is something I’m working on implementing. Over the last few weeks my productivity has dropped and I’m more focused on acting on the small, loud and urgent rathan on those more impactful projects and actions.

One of a better ways of implementing a success and driving positive action is creating opportunities to accomplish something that has impact. Doing i early into a day can set a tone for the rest of it. There are couple steps that I’m planning to use to make that early success possible:

1.Prep the night before

Having an evening ritual does help to keep things in check and flowing. As your day comes to an end spend 15-20 minutes on reassessing where you are and where you need to focus on tomorrow. This will be enough time to check up on your calendar for tomorrow, scan through actions, projects and waiting for lists.
Doing the prep a night before means I can get going as soon as I’m at my desk.

2.Set a short list of items

It’s good to be ambitious but very often day’s events can render any plan obsolete. Rather than get frustrated by the lack of progress on your key items set a small list of 2-3 actions that you will accomplish first thing in the morning.
For better impact put them on a small sheet of paper or on top on new page in your notebook so that they are the first thing you see.

3.Visualise completion and focus

Once you are ready to kick off your day start by looking at your list and visualise yourself completing these tasks. This will help clear the distractions and increase focus necessary to accomplish them. This doesn’t have to be anything elaborate simply see the end state of all the tasks you want to do and then get going.

4.Avoid your email

Eventhough I think email is one of the best ways to communicate with people and share your ideas it’s a nightmare to manage when sixty different people send something into your inbox.
If you really want to set your self up for a successful day avoid opening email as much as possible for the first 60min of your day or at least until you’ve accomplished your tasks.
At times you will want to check to see what’s going on or you may have a blackberry or other device to check email on your commute. If you need to do that scan for things that are ready to blow up if there are none make the point of shutting of email.

5.Pick the first item from your list

You’ve done all the prep work so now what’s left is to simply pick the first item from your list and get going. There are no more excuses.

As I mentioned above, I’m actually working on implementing this myself and I hope it will increse my focus and the amount of progress that I can make on daily basis. Once the 2-3 pre-planned tasks are done this should give me enough momentum to make further progress throughout the day.

Work Mantras

Mantra has religious connotations and it means as word or phrase which aims at creating transformation.

Through the process of repeating they become embedded into you psyche becoming a behavior. 

I’m always on the lookout go for ideas and inspirations for creating a good working practices, personal workflows and getting things done. I find a lot of these on blogs by Nicholas BateLuis Suarez, Mike Vardy and Michael Schechter.

Recently I came across this excellent summary of work martras by Oscar Berg. It’s simple list of 7 key points which includes things like:

  1. Always strive for simplicity
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Work smarter, not harder

The list is accompanied by some graphics which provide great visual representation of these mantras.

It’s great opportunity to ponder on your own work rules

My 7 work mantras by Oscar Berg.

Always Be Ready

Always be ready (ABR) is a concept I picked up from Jason Womack’s book “Your best just got better”. It’s about being ready to make the most out of small opportunities of free time that show up unexpectedly.
To leverage those times you need a list of small actions which you could do anytime and anywhere with minimal set of tools or preparation.
In the book Jason talks about writing thank you cards, drafting an article, making a car reservation all this while he waits for a delayed meeting to start.

Although this approach is very similar to using GTD context as the key factor for task selection, there is a twist to it. Instead of using context as a location or tool you sort your tasks based on the time required. The simplest approach is to tag tasks based on their expected duration as either less or more than 15 min. Then when a little free time pops up you can refer to it and do something quickly.

On daily basis we make plans, update our calendars but sometimes things change. Planes are delayed, trains are missed, meetings postponed or canceled. The crucial element of recovery from such situation is our default response. What do we do when we have 20 or 50 min of free time?

For me it used to be browsing the web, checking the email and simply some unproductive stuff until the next scheduled appointment. Now I’m gradually changing that and leveraging the ABR approach for my benefit.

What makes ABR successful is having easy access to the task list or at least the subset of it i.e. the small tasks which take less than 15min always with me. For my home system Remember the Milk serves me very well as I can access it on my phone or computer and have my tasks easily marked as either longer or shorter than 15 minutes. At work it’s bit different as Outlook it little less flexible however I started to apply categories to my task so that I can sort through them easily.

Probably more difficult is the change of behaviour. The change of the default response takes some time but it’s a good feeling to be able to use that window of time to do something meaningful regardless how small task it may be.

SANG Conference Interview with David Allen

Continuing from my Mondays’s post I’m in the GTD refresh mode. Coincidentally GTD time has put up an interview with David Allen from SANG Conference in 2012. 

It’s very informal and easy going conversation about the GTD, it’s impact and some practical tips for implementation and keeping things current. 

The interview is an hour long but well worth the time.

Doing Research with Evernote

Evernote is the primary tool which I use to keep my research materials, scraps of ideas and other notes. This post will discuss a three step process of researching any topic and how Evernote can help it make it more effective.

TOOLS I USE

Evernote Corporation created a number of products/applications which are key elements of my research process and come handy at different stages. It’s a very neat power pack allowing you to gather and process different types of media and information.

Evernote desktop client

WebClipper – browser extension

Clearly – browser extension

Skitch – desktop client

THE PROCESS

The process I follow is very simple but having it clarified made it much easier for focus on the specific stages rather than jump back and forth.

1) Find a topic

2) Collect

3) Process

4) Organise

Find a research topic

Ideas come and go. They are spurred by events, things we see, read etc. Yet what often happens, when we seek something todo all of a sudden there are no ideas available. Whenever an idea strikes, I make the point of capturing it and sending it to Evernote. If for example, I have an idea for a new blog post I put “PostIdea” in the title, if it’s a different type I type “IdeaPad”. Then I rely on saved search to bring up either in a single list of notes which I can review. Once a topic is selected I move to next phase.

Collect the information

Depending on a topic there maybe a multitude of sources of information relevant to what I’m researching. If it’s on the web I use a combination of Google and Duckduckgo to search through it. Anything that looks interesting whether it’s a quote, a whole article, image or PDF document gets saved into Evernote through use of WebClipper. Sometimes I’m not sure if I whole article is worth capturing and in such case I would bookmark it into Pinboard and then during processing decide if it’s worth keeping.

If I have other sources of information like email exchanges I can forward them straight into Evernote using my special email address. To see your individual address check your accounts settings.

For documents and files I rely on very neat feature called Folder Pickup. All I need to do is save files into the predefined location, wait couple seconds and check Evernote client. You can check the details of the folder location and the import settings under Tools>Import within desktop client.

Images are either taken straight from the web or through screenshots of pages that I specifically need. All it takes is to press “Win+PrtScr” and select the area to capture. Skitch comes handy for this too but I use it more for processing information.

Process

Once I’m happy with the volume of the information that I have it’s time to look through it in more detail and what’s worth. This allows me to understand what I have, figure out key concepts, note most important points and potentially discover new areas to look at.

When it comes to reading and extracting useful points the most effective tool for that is Clearly. Not only it removes all the unnecessary webpage elements leaving only the main content. It also overlays the page with plain background making the article easier to read. Clearly allows for highlight text you find interesting and send the whole article and highlight into your Evernote account.

Copy and paste is a handy way to gather the material but to better understand the concepts and retain information for longer it’s good to type your own reading notes. If I’m doing that I have one a note in a separate window and the switch between the material I’m reading and the note’s window. Once I’m done I makes sure I have the link to original content saved in the link field of the note. This way I can always refer to it when necessary or at least know where it was published.

What I would sometimes do is simply to grab a bunch of quotes from a single article and let Evernote create a series of notes which I then merge into one. It’s neat approach if you want to grab a large number of items without worrying about manual processing of them.

If I’ve captured any images or graphics that I want to analyse and review I use Skitch. This app has only a handful of features but they are very well designed and thought out. I can Annotate an image with highlights, text and arrows it’s very easy and effective. Since Skitch and Evernote desktop client are well integrated all it take is a single click of a mouse to move between the two. See a sample below.

Organise

Last but not least is organising stage of notes. Although Evernote has excellent search capabilities I personally still prefer to organise information in some form. Evernote allows for assigning tags to notes or creating specific notebooks which are note containers. From what I’ve seen the decision on the approach is very personal matter as some prefer the flexibility of tags, were others like the silo structure of a notebook. I happen to rely on both and use notebooks to store all the notes related to a particular project and then assign tags as way of indicating their status or specific theme they belong to. Once the project is closed, depending on the number of notes that I’ve created I would simply merge them on to one. Alternatively as I prefer to keep the folder structure light I would assign a specific tag to all notes related to particular project and then move them into a project archive folder.

This is how I manage research using various tools provided by Evernote. Do you have a process for managing your research? Do you have any tips for making it better? Please share in the comments section.

Best practices for GTD 5 stage workflow

Over the last weekend I’ve spend some time refreshing my GTD(r) system as it got stale.

My lists were out of date, next actions weren’t next action but rather undefined todo items. Project list was in bad condition too. 

Oddly enough the only list that was in relatively good shape was my Waiting For list. This is probably because I have more interest in making sure I get the things I’m waiting for.

Before I began the whole thing I was looking for some nice way to get the GTD principles refreshed in my mind and also some quick tactical tips to get me going. 

GTD times site was a perfect resource for that. Back in 2011 they have published a whole series about the best practices of GTD workflow.

GTD Best Practices: Collect (Part 1 of 5) | GTD Times

GTD Best Practices: Process (Part 2 of 5) | GTD Times

GTD Best Practices: Organize (Part 3 of 5) | GTD Times

GTD Best Practices: Review (part 4 of 5) | GTD Times

GTD Best Practices: Do (Part 5 of 5) | GTD Times

If you’re stuck in a rut or need quick rundown of main principles and the flow this is fantastic way to get you going.

No post for today

Unfortunately there will be no post for today. As it happens the article I was working on about Evernote did not turn out as I expected.  

Basically after re-reading it I decided the quality wasn’t there and I need to re-write it from scratch.  

I’m posting this little bit on the spur of a moment after listening to Enough podcast episode 199 and reading Mike Hurley’s article.

As result I’m scrapping today’s post and working on making it better.

Easy way to follow up on email

For many email is a productivity killer. Constant inflow of data is more of a distraction rather than productivity enabler. Yet at the same time email is the primary tool for communication, exchange of ideas and collaboration.

Jason Womack, a productivity and performance speaker and consultant, in his recent post for the Entrepreneur shares some of his favorite three tips in which you can improve your email management.

One that specifically struck with me is to bcc: yourself on an email that you need to follow up on and flag or move such email into a follow up folder so. This is an excellent way of making sure you have quick access to the items you need to keep and eye on.

To automate this process even further you can cc: your self not could set up a set of rules in your email client which would recognize that you bcc: yourself and would automatically tag or move messages into the right folder. 

As in my day job more and more of my work is tied to email this will be an excellent solution which will simplify tracking of follow up items.

Be sure to check the other two tips as they are very handy too.

How to Transform Your Email into a Productivity Tool

Update 07 May 2013 – while working on setting up my rule to take advantage of this follow up method I realised that I can’t use the bcc: field when sending emails (bcc: means the recipients are hidden).
If you want to automate filing and still use above method include your email address in the cc: field. Then set up a rule to flag or categorise items for follow up when you’re the sender and your email is in the cc: field.

I tested this today and work flawlessly in Outlook.

Merlin follows up on Inbox Zero

Merlin Mann back in the days of 43folders.com coined a phrase Inbox Zero to address the topic of email management. 

Over the last number of years the term grew in popularity and became part of the common language. Unfortunately as result of it’s popularity the meaning and purpose behind the Inbox Zero has been twisted to the point of ridicule i.e. your mailbox must be at zero. So just the other day after a great interview with Mike Hurley over at the CMD+Space podcast Merlin wrote a great follow up the Inbox Zero.

Let me share some of the key quotes from Chasing the right zero:

Given that every inbox necessarily represents a source of incompletion in our lives, any potential source of new input that we invite (or even permit) into our world presents a never-ending challenge that we may choose to frequently address, but which we must accept we can never even begin to control.

Inbox Zero is merely a philosophical practice of learning to be parsimonious about which and how many inputs we allow into into our lives—and, then, to responsibly but mindfully tend to those inputs in a way that is never allowed to hinder our personal commitment to doing the work that really matters to us.

Once you’ve dedicated yourself to making the things you love, every inbox can and should become a well-monitored servant rather than a merciless master.

Now it’s time for you to think how you manage your inboxes and which zeros are you chasing.

Staying productive with Chrome

Although Chrome browser has been around for couple year I’m relatively new user. Before my browser of choice was Firefox which I switched away from mainly due to performance issues.

Besides being a straight up browser Chrome is also an ecosystem of extensions and applications which can run inside it. Most are designed to run online but many can store the information locally and run offline. This means that if you don’t require powerful applications you could completely live and work in Chrome. Jeff Jarvis, one of the hosts of This Week in Google podcast is experimenting with doing all his work on Chromebook which effectively is a netbook computer with only Chrome on it.

If you like to keep things simple, remain productive with your job and don’t mind relying on the cloud you might consider Chrome as your productivity platform.

Since I’ve been relying on Chrome more and more I would like to share some of the extensions and applications I’ve used to keep things productive and effective. I’ve divided them in to couple categories each with few suggestions to look at:

Email & Calendar

Gmail – you may like it or not but Google offers almost unparalleled access to solid email solution that works everywhere and the offline Gmail solves any problems with lack of connectivity. Google Calendar – I’m yet to find anything better than this. Whether it’s for personal or business user Google Calendar offers wealth of features, multiple points of access, sharing and more.

Calendar reminder – once you’re logged into your Google account this extension will show time to your next event and give you a reminder once it’s time.

Reference Material

Evernote – in short it aims to be your external brain. You can store text, images, audio, pdfs, clippings etc. It’s one of the more popular and feature rich applications that will help you store your ideas, plans, projects and reference materials. Work both in the browser as well as through native clients. Don’t forget about related neat extensions from Evernote Corp. The only down side is that their web version does not work offline yet.

Springpad – Evernote’s competitor, has very similar feature set and in some respects exceeds the Evernote, it runs on the web and mobile only.

Pinboard – a web based bookmarking service. It has simple visuals but it’s a powerful tool for managing pages you want to keep for later. Although I do use Chrome’s build in bookmarks Pinboard is my default long term storage solution. Pinboard Keyboard – is a small extension which adds keyboard shortcuts to Pinboard allowing you to manage your bookmarks without a mouse. Great time saver.

Todo

There is a plethora of applications for managing your todo list and you need to choose one that fits your needs. I won’t go into detail of each but simply mention couple of them which are worth having a look and these include: Remember the MilkWunderlist,AstridAny.doTodoistGoogle Tasks

You need to find something that works the way you work and helps you get things done. If by any chance you decide on Remember the Milk you can find some resources on my site.

Writing & Ideas

It used to be that for writing you needed a powerful word processor with hundred of options and functions. Over the last year I’ve learned that’s not the case. A simple text editor or note taking application will be as effective if not more. The bigger programs still have their place but they are no longer a primary tool. For this category the choice is vast starting with already mentioned Evernote through other tools like Google DriveZohoMarkdown and Plain text editors

If you want to move a level up and start with an idea for a project or a document Chrome has you covered too. There is a number of solutions to manage this stage of creative process. Couple examples worth looking at include MindmeisterMindomoMindjet,MindMapr

Since we are on the topic of writing here is a list of notepad apps you can test in Chrome from simple plain text editor to media rich scrapbook replacements.

Reading

Chrome offers a number of apps and extensions which can facilitate help you with staying on top of your reading stacks.

Feedly is my RSS reader of choice ever since Google announced the end of Reader. Still adjusting to it but it’s going well. Very often you come across articles that you want to come back to later. For that I recommend Pocket or Instapaper which unfortunately does not have native Chrome app. However if you decide to go with it I recommend using InstapaperBeyond which lets us do all the actions with one key stroke

Time and task tracking

A side from keeping tabs on your tasks you may take the advantage of other tools which can help you with maintaining a better focus and accountability. One of more popular techniques of instigating focus is working applying a Pomodoro technique. 

  • KanbanFlow
  • Pomodoro,
  • Timeout,
  • Trello,
  • Remember when you’re comparing different apps and solutions whenever you see the small lighting icon this means the app will run offline.

    There are thousands more of different apps and extensions making Chrome a really compelling solution for a simple, web based productivity.