On scheduling stuff to do

I’m a productivity junkie in the sense that I’ve been reading articles about productivity and productivity “hacks” for a long time. At one point, I was even reading more articles about productivity than doing  anything productive, but it’s become “the period that must not be named” part of my life. I’m kidding of course.

The reason that I’m writing about this is because I got myself in a bit of a pickle with posting twice to the blog last month. Somehow, I ended up doing the second post just about in time (1 day left). This time too, I thought I’d get a head start and we’re just over halfway through October and this is my first post.

I think that this is because the two posts per month “guideline” is fluid and at the beginning of the month it doesn’t look all that bad and then suddenly I’m scrambling [1]. The reason is that I don’t schedule a time to do the blog posts. I’ve told myself that I’ll do them over the weekend, because I can’t make time during the week but I don’t tell myself that I’m going to do it this weekend–you see, the weekend’s fluid too.

Contrast this with two tax-related things that I had to do this Saturday, which I scheduled and wrote down on Friday and did on Saturday. I’ve found this true with tasks at work as well; the moment I schedule something and tell myself that I’m going to get something done by the next morning or whatever, I tend to get things done. When I don’t, I end up feeling like I’ve been doing a lot of tasks but not the important stuff.

Here’s the big idea: Scheduling tasks, i.e. giving them a concrete date and/or time, makes you more likely to do them. This is not a new idea or even my idea; people have been saying this for quite a while now [2] but it’s so simple in its elegance and effectiveness that maybe it seems too simple. Also, my brain, being the monkey brain–no disrespect to monkeys–resists scheduling because there is an impending deadline and a sense of commitment that is now attached to a task.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying that you have to schedule everything–that would be extreme and like anything taken to its extremes would likely be counter-productive. What I am saying is that it makes sense to schedule your important tasks because if you don’t, other urgent, and possibly unimportant, tasks will take away your time your attention.

Just to reiterate that this is not new, it seems pretty obvious, and you probably already know this, but, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the things we know because we forget them. So, try it out, schedule an important task or two and see if that helps you get the task done.

PS: If you’re interested, there are a bunch of articles around scheduling that you can read. Here are two from HBR:

When to Schedule Your Most Important Work

How to Schedule Time for Meaningful Work

[1]: Yes, I know it’s two posts a month and maybe I’m being a tad dramatic

[2]: I’d cite research on this but I’m too lazy to do so and I didn’t really schedule research time for this blog post.

The power of F11*

{* — F11 because it is the shortcut you use (usually) to view a document or web page in Full screen mode. Also available through View -> Full Screen in the Menu bar.}

I’ve discovered recently that if I view a document or a web page in full screen mode, I tend to pay more attention and am distracted less easily. I also noticed that I don’t jump around as much and focus on what’s in front of me — instead of multi-tasking, I am single-tasking multiple tasks.

At first, it is a bit disconcerting in full-screen mode, but now I like it better than the normal mode. When I am in FS mode — and I must confess that this is not as often as I’d like — I do find the overall experience less frantic. (I’m specifically thinking of web browsing here, because I’m a multiple-tab kind of guy and seeing other tabs open makes it tempting and easier to jump, especially when attention wavers even a little.) Using the FS mode seems to slow and quiet things down.

If you’re a multi-tasking, multiple windows kind of person, then try using applications in full screen mode — it’s worked for me, it may work for you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a multi-tab hit.

P.S. You may have read about how using full-screen text editors (e.g. JDarkRoom) is helpful — this is just a way of using full-screen in other applications.

Remember the milk (and eggs)

I’ve been using Remember The Milk (RTM) for a few months now and I’ve used it enough to the point where I can share my experience. I decided to start using RTM (feature tour here)because I felt that I needed some way to remember date-based (or calender) items. Writing stuff down on paper is fine but paper doesn’t remind you when something’s coming up, so I needed some sort of automatic reminder system thingy.

I’m one of those later-adopters, so I finally signed up and got an account. Once you’ve signed in, you’ve got to set up reminders and how and when you’d like to be reminded and that’s all there is to it. I get reminders daily from RTM now and though sometimes it’s a pain in the gluteus maximus, it’s been a sound choice.

RTM works in my favourite browser Opera, so that was a terrific plus for me. There are shortcuts to do most of the tasks, so that’s also something that I like. You can also email yourself tasks, so that’s something that I’ve used from time to time.

Basically, apart from a small glitch in the reminder settings (which had a workaround), I’ve not had any problems in the four or five months that I’ve used the service. I’ve got the free account and I think it’s been great so far. I’ve not used any of the other applications that are out there: I sorta zeroed-in on RTM and I’ve stayed with them.

I’m writing about RTM because it’s the application that I’ve used, but the main point is about using any application that does similar things. I think that if you invest some time entering the reminders initially, the payoff is worth it — it has been in my case. You can put in birthdays, anniversaries, bill and insurance payment dates, computer maintanence reminders (backup, anti-virus, cleaning), and whatever else that you need reminding about — basically anything that you can attach a date to, you can throw into a system like this.

Now, I’m so used to this system that I can’t believe I waited so long to use it. (Shows you that sometimes it’s good to be an early adopter.) Whether it’s RTM or something else, it’s definitely worth a test drive.

Try Mark Forster’s new time management system

Mark Forster, a productivity expert who I’ve linked to previously on this blog, has created a new system called Autofocus.

I started using the system yesterday and it’s different from the others that I’ve used. It’s been interesting so far but I want to use the system for a few days before writing about it. Also, I’d rather that you draw your own conclusions.

If you are interested in using the system (it only requires a notebook and a pen), then go here to sign up.

Use your mobile phone to capture information

If you remember something or get an idea and don’t have a pen and paper handy, use your mobile phone to capture the information. I know many people who use their mobile phone’s reminder feature to remind themselves of things to be done. I use the reminder feature quite often myself. But, I’m not talking about the Reminder feature here.

What I’m talking about is typing your ideas or thoughts as an SMS and then storing the SMS in your (SMS) Draft folder. You could even send yourself an SMS but that would cost you money and it’s probably not necessary. Saving a message as a draft doesn’t cost you anything other than storage space on your mobile phone.

I’ve noted down ideas for blog posts, things to buy, or just captured useful information that I may not have been able to remember later, so it’s a hack I’ve found useful. (I think it was a friend who told me about this hack but I can’t be sure who it was.)

Don’t forget to check your Drafts folder periodically to ensure that you process what you’ve captured and to keep your folders trim. You don’t want to run into storage problems with your SMS folders or make them load slowly.

I’d better check what’s in the Draft folders of my mobile phone now; it has been a while.

Lifehacker’s remedies for stopping distractions

Lifehacker has a nice list of distraction stoppers. Sorry, where was I again? Check out Top 10 Distraction Stoppers to get some ideas on how to focus on the task at hand.

One of the major distractions for me used to be the automatic loading of messenger clients, which I stopped. Of course, I was never a big chat person but even one chat could sometimes be so draining. And, back when I used Outlook Express (and Outlook), I closed the window after checking email, so I wouldn’t feel the need to check email every 30 seconds. Checking email every couple of hours instead of minutes is much less distracting.

This has enabled me to spend my time much more productively–reading blogs and visiting many websites. I have 16 tabs open in Opera as we speak. Ah, the wonders of technology.

Reducing Inbox clutter

If you’re like me, which you’re probably not, you have multiple email addresses and subscribe to newsletters, mailing lists, etc. If you’re also into reading blogs, then you’ve got the ‘blog Inbox’ to clear as well. And, more good stuff keeps coming up every day.

One solution is to retire to the Himalayas (or whatever mountains exist in your part of the world) and meditate on the meaning of life.

If you’re not so much into meditation, here are a few tips:

1) Unsubscribe: No, not to everything but to the ones you don’t really read anymore. This is not a new idea. Michael Hyatt writes in Unsubscribe Me:

I am now scrolling to the end of each message and clicking on the “Unsubscribe” link. Sure it takes a few more seconds, but it is far more satisfying than merely hitting the delete key. Hopefully, I will only have to do this once and thereby incrementally reduce the clutter in my life.

You’ll find that there are newsletters, blogs, mailing lists, that you once read but don’t read anymore and you’re wasting time deleting messages. Don’t. Just unsubscribe. When you need it later, you’ll find it again. Or you won’t. What you will do is reduce clutter.

2) Go into Digest mode: Most mailing lists have a Digest mode option, where they let you receive all the messages for the day in one big email. It isn’t the best option in some ways (when members don’t clip their emails) but it puts all the emails in one place, so you read one email instead of having to navigate fifty.

3) Go online to read blogs: I was reading my blogs using Thunderbird but I realised that the whole downloading your ‘blogs’ and then going through each one was getting tedious. I tried a few online RSS readers or news aggregators and settled into using Bloglines. (Read the Bloglines FAQ for more information.) I’ve found that I read more blogs now and more efficiently too. There are tons of readers like NetNewsWire, Rojo, MyYahoo, NewsGator, that you can also try–that’s a topic for another post.

4) Use the GTD two-minute rule: If you can read an email or reply to an email within two minutes, don’t put it off, do it right then. You’ll feel better about getting it done. If it’s going to take longer, you might want to figure out what the ‘next action’ is, and schedule accordingly. GTD is a huge topic, so I’ll just point you to 43 Folders for more information on GTD and its applications. (Merlin Mann also has a nice article titled Five fast email productivity tips)

5) Organize: This may seem like a no-brainer but I’ve seen people who store all their emails in their Inbox, or use organising techniques that make finding a needle in a haystack look easy. Simply organising emails into folders will help you reduce clutter. Be careful though not to use folders for procrastination, i.e. to keep your Inbox empty without ‘acting on’ your emails.

These tips worked for me, they may work for you, or they may not. Try them though.