Browsing the archives for the productivity tag.
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A Unexpectedly Brilliant Tool for Organization


In previous posts, I’ve recommended the online task manager Todoist for Getting Things Done-style organization. All the key features are available for free (though I subscribe to get the advanced features, paying $29/year). In March 2013, they introduced a tool called “karma,” a sort of ongoing game or rating based on how well you do at tracking and completing tasks. At the time, I must have thought it sounded to hokey or decided that the idea of having a productivity “score” was lame, because I didn’t start using it until five or six months ago. Since then, I’ve been a little amazed that it actually seems to work: I’m more productive, more focused, and more diligent specifically because of Todoist karma.

How can what basically amounts to a simple counting game help get more work done? By setting reachable goals and inspiring involvement. (For a more thorough consideration of the connection between games and motivation, read A Surprising Source of Insight into Self-Motivation: Video Games.)

Let’s look at how that works. Here’s a screen shot of my karma as of today (click to zoom):

My Todoist karma


See the gray vertical lines, one for the last 7 days and one for the last 4 weeks? Those are my targets. I’m trying to complete at least that many tasks to keep on track, which is to say at least 5 per weekday and at least 25 per week. These are the default settings, which are actually great for me, but you can change them to whatever you want.

If I keep to these targets, my karma keeps going up, and my daily and weekly streaks (shown at the bottom) accumulate. (For more on motivation and winning streaks, see “Harnessing a Winning Streak.”)

As you can see from my streaks, I wasn’t able to keep on top of tasks in the same way as usual over the holidays, so I missed my targets several times up through the New Year, resetting the impressive streaks I had built up before Thanksgiving. Karma does have an important “vacation” feature (you just tell it that you’re on vacation, and it won’t expect you to get much done until you turn vacation back off). It also doesn’t expect you to get anything done on weekends (though you can change it so that you’re “on duty” any days of the week you like).

Todoist karma levels

The rewards to attending to karma are minimal: your graph keeps going up, you build up your streaks, your score improves, and every once in a long while you “level up” to a new karma category. This may not sound like much inducement to get things done, but if you think about it, it’s very similar to a video game, and video games are notoriously addictive: you have a score, levels, goals, specific challenges … it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible … in a word, you’re engaged.

Another thing I like about karma that initially seemed like a drawback is that it mainly just tracks the number of tasks you get done rather than trying to deal with priority or importance or size. This makes it simple to use–pretty much automatic, in fact–but it also rewards breaking big goals down into small tasks, which is an excellent motivational and organizational technique. If you enter “redo flooring in dining room” in as a task, it’s a good bet you’ll never get it done. On the other hand, if you start with tasks like “Find out what kind of wood flooring options are out there” and “Measure dining room and write down dimensions,” then you’ve got a great basis for accomplishing something.

The way karma helps me the most is in setting a number of things to get done. My task list is probably thousands of items long, set up in many different categories with different priorities. To be productive, I have to get at least a few of those things done each day. Often what happens is that I’ll get to evening and have completed, say, three tasks (this is outside of my work task list, which I maintain separately). Being conscious of my Todoist karma, I’m aware that I can do two more to maintain my streaks and increase my score, or give up for the day, lose points and get my streaks reset. It’s nearly always possible to get two small tasks done, however, and so I generally do them, and this keeps my attention on what I have to do and also encourages me to do just a bit more each day. That’s exactly the level of quiet, private encouragement I need.

In short, if you’re in need of an elegant, easy-to-use, effective, and free task management system, you’ll have a hard time doing better than Todoist–and if you use Todoist, you should consider using the karma feature to engage more enthusiastically with all the tasks in your life.

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Randall Munroe Tells You Whether or Not It’s Worth the Time

Strategies and goals

It’s no secret that I think Randall Munroe often presents things through his XKCD comic that are not only well worth knowing, but that pertain specifically to living a better life. His most recent (as of this writing) is an especially practical example.

Is it worth the time?

A couple of useful things we can do with this chart:

  • Consider areas in our lives where it might be worth some time thinking about improvements.
  • Consider things we’re doing to make life more efficient that might not be worth the trouble.


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When You Hate Your Novel


The original version of this article first appeared in my column “Brain Hacks for Writers” over at the online publication Futurismic. I’ve been editing and republishing each of my BHfW columns here. This is the final one, but you can read others by clicking here.

broken pencil

Writing a novel can be a little like a troubled romance.

Perhaps it started out with a flurry of excitement. Your idea swept you away and fascinated you–this was the one! This was the novel that was going to get finished … or be your first sale … or make a name for you. At the beginning, the characters were endearing or intriguing and the plot opened up before you like a twisty road opens up before a motorcycler on a crisp fall morning.

It’s Not You; It’s My Writing
Yet now … not so much. It’s not that you don’t still love your novel. Of course you love it! Except you also hate it. Writing it is no longer exciting: it’s work, and hard work at that. Worse, you begin to see the flaws in your original ideas and character conceptions, or you begin to worry that the whole thing is dull and unoriginal. You picture yourself plowing untold hours into the book and in the end having a manuscript that gets only contempt from agents and malignant disregard from publishers, or that you put on Amazon yourself and never sell except to your mother and her bridge partner. Ugh.

What happened? Well, of course it’s possible that you veered off the course at some point, that the scene that you thought would be so entertaining has undermined your character’s original appeal, or that you’ve resolved too many problems and now there’s no suspense, or whatever. In a way, though, it doesn’t matter whether the job is to continue writing the draft you have or to go back and rewrite part of it first: in both cases you have to actually sit down and work on the thing, and you are having all kinds of trouble forcing yourself to do that on a regular basis.

(If you never do have all kinds of trouble, of course, that’s wonderful, and this column is not written specifically for you. Congratulations, but please stop gloating.)

Passion, Not Judgment
There are two key questions here, one of which I’ll dig into and the other of which I’ll pretty much ignore.

The question I intend to ignore is whether the novel is good enough or not. That’s a topic in itself, and I’ve tackled it in a separate piece called “Your Opinion and Twenty-Five Cents: Judging Your Own Writing.”

The question I’ll dig into is this: if you’ve decided that you really do want to finish the book, how do you stop hating (or resenting, or avoiding) it?

Fortunately, the basic answer to this is simple: if you think things about the book that make you feel bad, you will have a hard time writing it. If you think things about the book that make you feel good, you’ll be likely to work harder, more often, and more energetically. You’ll also be likely to think about the project more, yielding better ideas, approaches, and insights.

For example, if I look at a novelette I’m collaborating on with a friend (yurt-living goat afficianado mom and talented writer Maya Lassiter) and think to myself “God, I am a jerk for taking so long to get those edits done,” then thinking about the novelette will consist mainly of me beating myself up for not working on the novelette, which will encourage me to avoid thinking about it so as to not feel so lousy.

If by contrast I think “I can’t wait for us to get that novelette sent out!” then I’m going to be much more excited to work on it.

Your Mental Firing Line
Is it really that simple? Yes and no. Sometimes negative thinking patterns are hard to break, and sometimes they’re extremely hard to break. (For help, see my articles on broken ideas and idea repair.) What’s more, we writers have a ridiculous number of things to worry about as we write: is it too long? Too short? Is the genre a good choice? How’s the style? Are the characters coming alive? Is it keeping the reader’s interest? Is it original enough? Is it so original that no one will know what to do with it? Are publishers buying this kind of thing right now? Are publishers even going to still be in business by the time I finish it?

If you want to finish the book, though, worry about those things only if it both helps the book and doesn’t make you want to go hide under the bed. If worrying about selling the book or about how good the book is prevents you from writing it, then assume it has a chance of being terrific and forge ahead.

Different people have different tolerance levels for this kind of thing, and the final measure is how a thought makes you feel. If you really need to get something done, then thoughts should be rounded up and forced to slave away making you happy so you can do it. Those who won’t go along with the plan of encouraging you to write your book should be lined up against the wall and shot. There will be plenty of time for their children, siblings, and friends to come after you seeking revenge later–when the book is finished.

photo by colemama

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How to Write 10,000 Words a Day, Part II (Luc Reid)


Yesterday, I posted novelist James Maxey’s response to the question “How do you write 10,000 words in a day?” Here are my own thoughts on the matter, from my experience writing that much and more. This was written before I read James’s take, but not surprisingly, it turns out that our responses have a lot of comment elements.

  1. Don’t expect the result to be publishable unless you have a lot of experience writing. That’s not to say that you won’t produce something that can eventually become publishable, or even that you’ll necessarily miss the mark even if this is your first attempt at long fiction, but if you are going to be miserable if your work isn’t terrific, you may want to think twice before trying to write at this speed.
  2. Be a fast typist. If you can’t type quickly already, you’ll want to do some typing tutorials to improve your speed before attempting 10,000 words in a day. In theory you can write over 1,000 words an hour if you only type 20 words per minute, but in practice you’ll need to do things like make quick fixes and notes, use the bathroom, and especially think. If you know you won’t be able to type at least 40 wpm, set your sites lower than 10,000 words per day. 5,000 words a day is still an amazing accomplishment, for example–and any personal record or completed piece is worth celebrating.
  3. Clear your schedule; remove all distractions. Don’t check e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter; turn off your phone; make sure you’re alone (or at least will be left alone); prepare food ahead if possible; take care of anything pressing that might otherwise interrupt you before you start.
  4. Have all the ingredients you personally need to drive the story forward. If you’re an off-the-cuff writer, that’s fine, but make sure you understand what you’ll need in terms of research, premise, setting, character ideas, plot ideas, or whatever else you use for starting stories. For instance, although I sometimes like to use outlines, if I come up with two interesting characters having an argument, I’m off and running: setting and plot can emerge for me out of those. Other people will need a few key scenes to shoot for, or will need to know the beginning and the ending. Yet others will need a full-blown outline. Know what you need. If you don’t have enough writing experience to know what you need yet, be willing to experiment, be comfortable with the idea that you may run out of steam, and keep a copy of The Writing Engine handy in order to use the troubleshooting section as needed.
  5. Don’t revise yet. If your story gets off track, you can go back as far as you need and restart from there (while still counting the discarded words in your daily count if you like), or you can go back and insert notes as to what future revisions you’ll need, but don’t try to go back and fix things: you’re likely to lose all of your momentum and begin getting bogged down in editing rather than creation.
  6. Have a vision. If you have a vision of what will make writing so much in such a short period of time wonderful for you (for instance, the excitement of having a finished novel draft, however rough, or exploring a story idea that you’ve been wanting to explore for a long time), you’ll have something to sustain you when you almost inevitably hit those moments of “This thing I’m writing is junk!” or “What am I doing this for, anyway?”
  7. Immerse yourself in the story. The more involved you are in the story and the more you care about spending time with the characters and “seeing” what happens to them, the more likely you’ll be able to keep up the pace, and the more likely you’ll be to create something your readers can be excited about, too. Just as importantly, immersion in your story is another way of saying that you’ve achieved flow, which means maximum productivity and high quality (see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated“).

Photo by lscan

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How to Write 10,000 Words a Day, Part I (James Maxey)


One reader of my interview with James Maxey, “Writing a Novel in One Week,” had this question:

This is an interesting article, but fails to answer the question that every writer must be asking: HOW? He’s writing 10,000 words a day! That’s great! Can it be done? Well, one writer was successful at it. Presumably, others can as well. How? What steps made this goal actionable?

It’s  a pretty practical question, and I passed it on to James to see what his thoughts were. Also, I have some answers to that question myself, because while I’ve never written a novel in a week, I’ve written more than 10,000 words in a day from time to time, including when I wrote the the majority of my novelette “Bottomless,” which won the Writers of the Future contest and appears in Writers of the Future, volume XX.

How do you write 10,000 words in a day? Here’s what James had to say.

Right now, I’m slogging away on a novel called Witchbreaker, wistfully dreaming of those 10k days of Burn Baby Burn. I’m once again back in my 10k words a week territory. Every novel is different, so I’m not overly concerned about my slower speed. Still, while I’m struggling, it’s easy to look back and see what my advantages were at the time.

The things that made Burn Baby Burn a fast novel are actually pretty simple:

1. I’d been thinking about the story for a long time. I had a big list of events and themes I wanted to include. I had enough material to fill a novel ready to go, and a minimalist outline gave me a structure to fit everything into.

2. The unique circumstances that kept me away from work, at home, with no other commitments will be difficult to duplicate again. One thing that’s causing me grief on Witchbreaker is that I bought a house in March that needed a lot of renovations and repairs. Those took time, moving took time, and now we’ve been working on our old house to improve its chances of selling. I have a lot of distractions, and it takes me a long time to ramp back up when I do sit down to write. That said, I’ve carved out some additional time in June to have several sequential days with butt in chair and hope to beat 20k words a week at least a few weeks this month. The more I write in a short amount of time, the better my ability to keep the narrative thread.

3. Burn Baby Burn is a fully developed novel, but it’s also a fairly simple novel. Witchbreaker is the third book in my dragon apocalypse series, and I have dozens of characters I have to keep track of, and at least seven or eight characters with story arcs that have to weave together. Burn Baby Burn really only followed the character arc for Pit Geek and Sunday. The other major characters, the superheroes, remained more or less static. They were fleshed out with backstories and conflicts, but pretty much exited the novel unchanged by the events. This simplicity also provides intensity. By the end of the book you will really be emotionally invested in Pit and Sunday. With Witchbreaker, you have a whole buffet of characters to sample. Some you may fall in love with, some may leave you cold, but all weave together in a grand soap opera. Writing an epic fantasy like this is really kind of like writing a half dozen smaller stories and fitting them all together seamlessly, which is more time consuming.

4. This is probably the biggest factor of all: I’ve been practicing. A long, long time. If Burn Baby Burn were my first or second novel, I would have almost definitely gotten bogged down. Instead, it was maybe the eight novel I wrote? The ninth? On top of what, a hundred short stories? I’ve easily written a million words of fiction by this point. If I count multiple drafts of the same works, I’ve probably got several million words under my belt. I’ve measured my output enough to know that I’ve had several peak days in the past when I did get out over 10k words in a day, usually when I was really swept up in the heat of a story. So, while 10k words in a day is still ambitious, I know it’s possible, so when I have a day where that’s my goal, I can approach it with confidence. Fifteen years ago, 10k words would have felt like a lot of writing. Now, meh. It’s about ten hours of my life. Finding 10 unclaimed hours is an increasingly difficult trick, but, when I do have an hour, I know I can trade it for a thousand words, at least. Last summer, life handed me a week of unclaimed time. I swapped them for a book.

If  you’re just starting out as a writer, your art is just like learning to play a musical instrument or learning to master an athletic skill. Talent only takes you so far. You have to dedicate the practice time if you want to get good. There really are no shortcuts.

I’ll follow up based on my own experience in tomorrow’s post.

Photo by sundaune


The Pareto Principle: Useful, Essential, or Just Another Distraction?

Strategies and goals

A recent post on Lifehacker, “Work Less and Do More by Applying the Pareto Principle to Your Task List,” reminds us of an idea that could be the secret to enormous productivity or just another mirage. Perhaps it’s a revelation for some people and a waste of time for the others. I’m talking about the Pareto Principle.

Pay 20, get 80?
The Pareto Principle is the idea that 80% of the useful results we get in life arise from only 20% of our efforts. It’s a tantalizing idea, and it seems to apply to a lot of different situations. It’s named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist who noticed that 80% of Italy’s land was owned by 20% of its population. It seems to apply to much more than economics, though, having cropped up in business, health care, software engineering, investing, criminology, and elsewhere. Some research even suggests that it’s a sort of naturally emerging dynamic, something that arises on its own in the natural world.

And yet … your mileage may vary. Is everybody on approximately the same level of inefficiency? Do we all prioritize the same way?

For a parallel, consider Stephen King’s usual approach to writing: he generates a rough draft without being concerned too much about having some sections that don’t pull their weight, but then edits to cut out about 10%. Contrarily, a number of pro writers I know typically see their work expand when they edit it, and often this is a significant improvement.

Wait a minute …
Even setting aside individual differences, I’m dubious about the Pareto Principle being a basic law of the universe. For example, let’s look at traditional employment: does 80% of the income come from 20% of the work time? Absolutely not. It could be argued that in some cases 80% of the benefit to the company comes from 20% of the work performed, but even that only holds up in special circumstances. It doesn’t for teachers, for instance, who in addition to passing along knowledge also provide an environment and structure in which kids can ideally grow and learn throughout the school day. It doesn’t apply to assembly line workers, or to farmers. In fact, the kinds of work where it seems to apply are the ones that are mainly about making choices and not much else. Maybe 80% of your investment income comes from 20% of your investments. Maybe 80% of your published writing comes from the best 20% of your writing ideas. Perhaps 80% of your impact as a middle manager at a widget manufacturing concern comes from 20% of your efforts. Elsewhere, it gets iffy.

And we can’t make good decisions all the time. While I certainly agree with focusing on the most important tasks and on the most impactful decisions, it hasn’t seemed to be the case in the world that people know which of their efforts will pay off in advance–and even when they do, they often have a lot of hard work to do to get to that payoff.

An example that refutes by agreeing
For example, this blog currently gets an average of something over 13,000 views per month. It’s certainly true that a small number of my posts are responsible for most of the search hits on the site: for example, “24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry” accounts for a big percentage of those 13,000-odd views. It’s also true, however, that the prominence of “24 Ways to Stop Feeling Hungry” on search engines is based in part on the general popularity of the site and the number of links to it from other places on the Internet, and those factors in turn are based on the hundreds and hundreds of posts I’ve written and published over the years this blog has been online.

So Pareto adherents might point to my blog and say “Look, this one post is responsible for a huge percentage of your visits” without understanding that that post alone would be little use without the rest of the site to support it.

To take another example, consider the non-fiction book contract I once got through the agent I got through the writing group I established from people I met attending two writing workshops. Where was the wasted time there? The writing workshops? The writing group? Getting the agent? Writing the book? I’m thinking the answer is “none of the above.”

To put it more simply and pragmatically: a lot this stuff is connected. Should we busy ourselves blindly with trivia day in and day out in hopes that it will all amount to something? Hell, no. On the other hand, we can’t get far by cherry-picking among our own efforts and trying to stick to only those with big payoffs. A sustainable, rewarding life is built on a lot of little payoffs, with big payoffs helping out now and again. The 20% of our efforts that seems to be making the biggest difference in our lives doesn’t stand alone.

Prioritization is the point
With that said, though, I think there’s a valuable point in the Pareto Principle material: it’s well worth comparing how much effort we’re putting in to how much value we think that effort creates. If you spend hours each day doing social media for your business but barely get a trickle of customers from that, are you doing it because you think over time it will build up to become a major asset to your business, or simply because people keep saying everyone ought to do social media? If I do writing exercises every morning instead of working on saleable material, is that necessarily helping my writing so much that it’s worth the lost opportunities?

What about you? Do you see a lot of 80/20 opportunities in your life? Or does the Pareto Principle not seem to hold water for you?

Graphic by igrigorik

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Annie Bellet on More Productivity Through Scheduled Breaks

Strategies and goals

Writer Annie Bellet, a fellow Codexian, recently offered a useful approach to improving productivity by planning breaks beforehand in her post “The Quest for Productivity.” By planning out work time in alternation with breaks, she finds she’s able to put off distractions and focus on the work at hand long enough to really get something done.

She also mentions writing in groups, a useful approach when it’s practical to increasing a lot of kinds of productivity. Some variations: members of a household scheduling a time to all do cleaning together (we used to do this in a cooperative community I lived in years ago; we called it “chore party”); folding laundry with others; scheduled office organization days for multiple workers to do together; timed write-ins; study groups.

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Brain Overload and Why Your Doctor May Seem Like a Jerk

The human mind

Blogger Dr. Grasshopper, who practices internal medicine in a large urban hospital, posted this today: “Why Your Doctor Comes Across As An A**hole.” Does your doctor seem uninterested in you? Do you feel hurried out of the examining room? Do you ever feel like your big concerns are being brushed aside? Dr. Grasshopper’s post and the article it strongly recommends (“Neuron overload and the juggling physician” in The Lancet) help shed light on issues you and I might not have considered before. They also cover some interesting points about what needs to be fixed in our health care system. They’re the kind of thing practically anyone could benefit from reading in terms of understanding more about their health, their insurance, and their health care providers.

How we’re like doctors
But I have an additional reason to point to the Lancet article in this post, and it’s that many of us have the same problem those doctors do: too many things to juggle with a brain that is designed to only ever juggle one thing at a time.

In my post “How to Multitask, and When Not To” from a couple of years back, I talk about neuroscientist John Medina’s observations on how attention and focus work. His two key points are:

  1. We can only focus our attention on one thing at a time, and
  2. Every time we change our focus, we have to do extra work, and we increase the likelihood that we’ll make an error.

For example, if you’re studying from a textbook while sorta-watching a TV program in the background, then you’re creating constant interruptions as your attention moves back and forth. Every time you start paying attention to the program, your brain has to shut down everything you were thinking about what you were reading and then fire up pathways that relate to the TV show. When you look back to the book, the process has to happen again in reverse, but with a good chance that some of the pieces you had in your head a moment ago won’t be included in the re-activation and will be lost.

The benefits of single focus
Even if you only pay attention to 10 minutes of TV during an hour of studying, the number of times you go back and forth between those two things will make your studying much, much less efficient. It’s much better to study for a solid block of time and then watch TV for a solid block of time: you’ll remember more and still have more time to pay attention to the TV show (if that’s what you want to do with your time).

OK, most of us reading this already know that watching TV while studying doesn’t work well. The reason this applies to so many of us is that the same thing is true for any situation where we’re trying to give attention to two things at once–like trying to figure out what to do about a scheduling conflict over the weekend while composing an e-mail at work. It gets even worse when our attention is distracted by many different things.

An example
This is what can sometimes happen to me: I’ll be working on a computer task (for example), be distracted by a new thought about a writing project, realize I need to arrange something for one of the kids, then recall I still haven’t returned a friend’s phone call, then remember that I was supposed to be working on the computer. Each change of focus comes with an inefficient changeover of my mental setup, and the whole process is likely to be enhanced by stress at having so much to worry about and guilt at not getting more of these things done. What’s worse, I may not be staying with any of these tasks long enough to make actual progress.

How not to fall into this trap
The solution is a good organizational system that’s always kept up to date (so that you don’t have to worry about whether or not there’s something in it that you haven’t checked or updated recently) and setting up tasks one after the other, never intermixed if you can help it. (See my post “Useful Book: Getting Things Done” for what I suggest is the gold standard for organizational systems.) If you add to that organization and focus a habit of getting rid of tasks and distractions that aren’t important in your life–or at least getting comfortable with giving them such a low priority that you understand they may never get done–then you have an approach that can yield a much calmer, more productive, and happier day-to-day existence.

Will this help doctors? Maybe not. After all, the problem doctors face is that they’re required to do more work than they can do effectively and at their highest level of skill. Insurance companies and related forces prioritize doctors’ practices. Fortunately, most of us are the ones prioritizing our own lives.

Photo by lovefaucet

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Toward a More Motivating Working Space (Sylvia Spruck Wrigley)

Self-motivation examples

My writer friend Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (I know, I have a lot of writer friends. It’s kind of cool for me, actually) who maintains the cool handwritten blog Can’t Backspace was recently reading my free eBook (or 99 cent eBook, if you buy it for the Kindle) The Writing Engine and let me know about one of her experiences with it:

I started reading The Writing Engine and got to “Your writing environment” and stopped. The bullet list really made me stop and look around.

So I wrote my thoughts on each point and then went through reorganising. I now have a big bag of rubbish, a clear cabinet in the TV room, an empty file drawer where my camera and peripherals now live instead of on my desk and a clean desk! I have a little mushroom corner with poppets and a bookshelf place of honour for James T. Kirk and a stack of notebooks and a bunch of new pens.

It’s all little things but I feel really good about it!

In case you’re interested, here’s the bulleted section she mentions. It’s followed by specific points to consider.

What could you do to the space where you work that would

  • make you happier or remind you of things that make you happy?
  • make it easier to concentrate?
  • put things more easily to hand or more conveniently out of the way?
  • attract you to your work?
  • remind you of why you do the work you do? or
  • put you in a good mood or a frame of mind to focus?


I was curious to see the details, so asked for a photo, which she obligingly supplied:

She added:

For the full effect, you need to know that the bookshelf was full of books that I rarely refer to and I had to clear the right side of my desk in order to write in a notebook there (in truth, I often got up and moved to the dining room table). I should have taken a before photograph but I didn’t realise how much junk I had!

I filed all my stationary/envelopes in the filing cabinet instead of in the desk drawers and I’ve taken the “desk stuff” that I generally need and put it in the drawers for fast access. I moved almost all of the books into the main bookshelf (which is not very far away) and then just spread around happy things that make me smile.

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Weed Out Task Lists With the 2-Minute Rule

Strategies and goals

I have a huge task list. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the list is well-organized and useful (see “Why Organization Improves Motivation, and Some Organization Tips“), and a lot of the tasks on it are a handy but optional. I do my best to push items that are important and need to be done soon to categories and statuses that keep me focused on those (see “My Top 1 Task“), which seems to work pretty well for me.

Still, the sheer number of items sometimes gets to me. To clear up a lot of them at once, I apply a version of the 2-minute rule, learned from David Allen (see “Useful Book: Getting Things Done“). The two minute rule is If you can get something done in 2 minutes, don’t put it on your task list: instead, just do it.

Part of the logic behind this idea is that keeping an item on your task list requires time and attention from you: you need to review your task list periodically, keep items prioritized, and so on. With a good organizational sytem (like Allen’s), this isn’t difficult, but it becomes easier the fewer items you have to manage. So tasks that can be completed in 2 minutes tend to “pay for themselves” if you do them up front rather than spending the time writing them down maintaining them until some point in the future.

Two minutes doesn’t sound like much, but there are a lot of useful things that can be done in that time, including firing off a reminder e-mail, making a telephone call to check a single fact, finding an item or paper that isn’t too hard to locate, asking someone one question, and so on.

And it doesn’t have to be a 2 minute limit, as long as it’s a short period of time: it could be 5 minutes or even 15 minutes, though probably not longer than that.

To use the 2-minute rule on items that have already made their way onto your list (for instance, because you added them before you heard of the 2-minute rule, or because it wasn’t possible to do them at the times you first thought of them), you can either get in the habit of searching for 2-minute items whenever you have a few minutes free, or better yet, go through your task list and mark any 2-minute items you already have. In my case, I have two separate tags I use: “5 minutes or less” and “15 minutes or less.” You can then jump to a quick-to-do item whenever time allows, or block out an hour or two and mow down dozens of them.

And interestingly, marking quick tasks in your task list, if it’s done in an efficient task management system (like ToDoist or a paper system)  only takes a few minutes.

Photo by Јerry

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