Being Productive by Being Efficient


Here are some tips that help keep me productive.  Adapt these to suit your work style and see if they don't boost your motivation and productivity.



The "to do" list

Keep a "to do" list.  It takes what's in your mind and puts it out of it.  I've previously written a lot about "to do" lists here, but let me add a few things that I've started doing in more recent years.  Some tips follow...

Write "actionable" steps; don't write down projects.  It is impossible to check off "do a project" from your list, but you can write down the steps you took to get that project done, especially if there are a lot of separate little things.  For example, you might write down materials you need to pick up from the (hardware?) store, then write down what tools to get out and set up, then the first tangible step, etc.  Since every project is a sequence of steps, I started writing down manageable series of actionable next steps.  I can always delete one link in the chain as I accomplish it, and then have the next step waiting for me.  For example, I foster pugs for a rescue, so one short chain on my "to do" list at the moment is: "pics of Pug -> send to Annette."  It's two related items, but I have to accomplish each separately and in the order written. Most people think about the last step, but that's precisely the one they can't do until other steps must be completed.  Write down those steps so you "to do" list tells you what "to do."

Write the steps in a way that are tiny reminders you can keep in your head.  One way to do this is, instead of sentences, I reduce them to keywords, then follow that with the description (if necessary).  The keyword stays in my head; the rest is just elaboration to prompt action.  For example, "Pick up toys in the living room" is reduced to "Toys - clean living room."  Now it's the noun first followed by the verb and location.  I'm literally thinking "toys" when I go into that room because that's the first word.  It makes me even more focused.  You can try your own games with syntax.  Lists of keywords make things much more direct than a list of "things to do."  Compare and you'll see!

Use rich text.  By that I mean there's nothing wrong with using all sorts of formatting: Change colors, change the font size, make things bold or put it in italics, etc.  If you're using paper (still?!), use Sharpies and highlighters.  These changes can be used for emphasis or organization.

Rotate how you organize it.  For example, sometimes I organize things by the area I need to be in when I do each, so that I do several things in a row (e.g., while I'm upstairs or in the shed or in the kitchen or on the computer).  Other times I have most items organized by topic (see below).

Organize categories by topic.  Here are several of the categories on my "to do" list:


Other documents beyond the master "to do" list

Create micro "to do" lists.
  Find a way to keep a related series of items on or near you.  This is separate from the master "to do" list that is likely to grow into a huge file listing all sorts of things you won't even begin to address that particular day.  Ideas for keeping this micro list on you include wipe boards, notepads, or on your phone.  It has to be something/someplace you'll consult easily and/or regularly so you can move to the next item as soon as you finish each, especially if they're unrelated tasks.

Create media "to do" lists.  Many folks consume media (i.e., movie, tv shows, books both fiction and non-) passively.  That is, they simply read whatever happens to come into possession.  They watch whatever dvd is handy.  Instead, be more targeted with your consumption.  Make "to watch" and "to read" lists well in advance of a Netflix queue.  Put these in your "to do" file as you think of or hear titles.  Do a little research as well, such as consulting "best of" lists.  For example, my friend Leiann worked her way through a list of the "100 Greatest Novels."  Similarly, I have a list of books on my "wish list" that I want to read.  For movies, I made a meta-list of the "Most Acclaimed Movies" up to that point, and over the next few years I watched many of those between current movies I wanted to see.  I also keep a list of tv shows that are getting good buzz (i.e., making headlines, winning accolades from critics and/or awards shows).  As I'm writing this, I'm working my way through adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories, so I have a list of those I'm checking off for a project I'm writing.  It's a way to ensure that I'm focusing on "must see" and "must read" shows and books rather than allowing fluff to creep in the way of better choices.

Keep a calendar.  This is an extension of your "to do" list, but instead of one-time things, these are reminders.  Assign events periodically.  Use a calendar and set it up years in advance once you've worked your way through your system to test it.  I have multiple categories based on the interval:

Keep an address book.  Mine is simply a text/Wordpad file.  Low-tech means it's easy to edit, and I can pop into it and cut/paste what I need.  Also, it isn't organized alphabetically.  Because it's just a document, I always search it for who I'm going to call or email.  Instead, I organize it by groups of people and places: several circles of friends are organized as separate lists, including a separate lists for people from my home town vs. local to me, neighbors, my partner's friends, my dad's friends/neighbors, and so on.  There are also sections for different portions of my family (e.g., mom's side vs. dad's vs. in-laws) as well as sections for numbers I call periodically such as home repair people, doctors' offices, emergency numbers, etc.  If someone falls into more than one category, I simply duplicate their contact info and put it in both sections.  This makes it easy to go through for compiling lists of invites for, say, karaoke nights or parties because I only have to look through short lists of people rather than every single person I have ever known.

Keep a "wish list."  In addition to what you want to *do*, you can keep a list of things you want.  These aren't actionable things other than buying it.  As with the "to do" lists above, this is a way of putting things out of your mind.  You can organize the list any way you want: Purchase price, prioritized by how much you want it or how soon, or any other scheme.  Personally, my list is simply organized by categories: Things for Halloween, things for the house, books I want, guitars I would like to own, etc.  Sometimes this is a means of helping me get perspective and realizing I can cross certain items off the list for various reasons such as seeing that I don't have enough room for something, have lost interest in it, or have something else that duplicates it in some way.  The most important thing is that you're putting it in a file and thus taking it out of your head.


Getting organized

Bin things.
  If you group things, it means you don't deal with every little thing.  Instead, you do a whole bunch of things all at once, especially organizing.  Examples around my house include:

Document and archive.  There's no limit to how much of a return you get on this just in terms of nostalgia, but it also helps keep track of where you've been, what you've done, and even who you were, existentially-speaking.

Make the most of location and motion.  Where you place things and how you move throughout an area allow you to "bin" things.  For example:

Put things where they go and where you can get to them.
  Some examples include:

Organize your workspaces.  Whatever time you dedicate to developing an organization scheme for parts of your life will pay itself back in time saved searching through what used to be disorganized or unmarked territory.  I already talked about "binning" things.  Go ahead and get/make/label bins you will use for various purposes.  Additionally, it helps to "sub-bin" things using zip-lock bags and/or twist-ties.


On the computer

Make workspaces on your computer.
  Most people think computers are for storing things rather than working through things.  By default, the computer is a good place for holding information, but it doesn't immediately lend itself to being a workspace, other than within whatever document you have open at the moment.  You need to organize your hard drive so that there are places to process things. 
Back up your hard drive and store your back-up off-site.  I have two external hard drives so that I can rotate them out approximately monthly, which is roughly how often I run back-ups.  More about my system for back-ups on this page.

Save your installation files.  Put them in a folder so that you can quickly get to them when you need to restore your hard drive (Because, remember, you're doing back-ups on an external drive, right?).  It's also convenient when you need to reinstall a program that has gone wonky.  I do organze these into subfolders representing different commonly-used categories: music programs (players, editors), web programs (browsers, editors, FTP), graphics (viewers, editors), games (mostly old stuff; see comment about games below), drivers (for hardware such as printers, scanners, etc.), and a "misc." folder for everything else.


More tips

Establish routines.
  For example, before bed, I make a pass around the house and pick up things.  All the dirty dishes around the house (because I have kids; this is a thing) go to the sink and get rinsed out.  I close out any windows on the computer I'm not using and leave open only the ones I'm planning to use the next morning.

Be simultaneous.  Multi-tasking is over-rated and is often ineffectual.  However, you can be active when you're passively consuming media.  That's the best way to "multi-task": Pair an item from your "to do" list that requires hands-but-no-brains with something that requires brains-but-no-hands.  For example, while you're watching a tv show, lift weights or do sit-ups.  Your mind (via your eyes and/or ears) gets a workout while the rest of you gets some exercise as well.  Listen to an audiobook on your iPod while you do your laundry or load the dishwasher.  Find small, menial tasks to check off your "to do" lists while you're chilling in front of a tv or your computer.  For example, I recently bought a bunch of used books, so I finished watching a movie while I peeled all the big clearance price/UPC stickers off.  Other times I paint Halloween decorations or other projects while I'm catching up on a show.  (I do the design work and tracing first.  The painting is just staying between the lines.)  I discuss some strategies for this concept of simultaneity on this page.

Do the reapeted intermediate steps all at one instead of over and over.  Ever notice that you have to so several small tasks every time you do something?  Do all of those at once.  Some examples:

Develop systems.  Think about the best way to do things.  Many of the examples on this page are systems I have for accomplishing things.

Realize that organization is reiterative.  Try different things, then give yourself time to grow accustomed to it so that it comes naturally.  After that, most of the systems you come up with will evolve over time.  You will add on additional layers or components to accommodate more things.  Most systems will not stay the same from when they're first implemented.  You have to field-test everything, then tweak it to get it to work for you.  You may even toss an approach entirely.  That's a reasonable part of the process so long as you are really trying things out rather than simply giving up because you can't get used to a new approach. 

Systems even should go through a forced upheaval from time to time.  For example, like I mentioned above, reorganize your "to do" list periodically to get a fresh perspective and to keep it from stagnating.  Some exercises you might try:

Work with other people.  You can't do everything anyway, so you need to find ways to work with others.
You can do combinations of the above.  There's a lot of overlap between these categories.

You can also divide tasks so that portions of it belong to someone other than yourself (or part of someone else's task now belongs to you).  My partner and I share portions of many household tasks.  For example, she washes pots and pans (i.e., things she doesn't want to put in the dish washer; she has her own way of doing those).  I do all the other dishes.  And when they're done, I put away most things, but she puts away the tupperware since she knows how she wants that all to be arranged.  Similarly, I collect, sort, wash, and dry the laundry, but I don't put it away.  I would have to know where she keeps everything in her closet, but that's more of an investment than I want to make.  I sometimes help her in the process, but I designate her in charge of the task.  She has to tell me where each piece goes.

Abandon fruitless pasttimes.  Example include:

Copyright 2014 Alexplorer.
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