Posts belonging to Category Productivity

PP6: Task processing – One thing at a time (micro-tasking)

(Part of the series: 12 Favorite Productivity Principles)

6. Task processing – One thing at a time (micro-tasking)

It’s one thing to put all your tasks in one place. It’s another to know how to process those tasks effectively. Your task list tells you what you need to do, but it doesn’t tell you how to do it. How do you know what needs to be done first? How do you know the right order to do your tasks? How do you know what you should be working on right now?

Some of the principles we’ve already looked at will help you here. If you wrote down your MITs from principle #1, then you already know the 3-5 most important things to work on for the day. If you follow the morning, afternoon evening rule from principle #2, then you will have allocated your various tasks accordingly. And if you have put together your ideal weekly calendar from principle #4, then you already know the ideal time for you to work on your various tasks and projects.

These principles will all help you in processing your tasks, but the most important part of task processing is to do one thing at a time. This means no multi-tasking. There’s an old Russian proverb: “If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither one.” You may think you are getting more done when you multi-task, but multi-tasking dilutes your focus, and focus is essential to working effectively.

So instead of multi-tasking, try micro-tasking. Micro-tasking follows two simple rules: 1) Work on one thing at a time; 2) You don’t need to finish the task you are working on. You just need to work on it. Micro-tasking helps you focus on one thing at a time, and it also helps you overcome resistance because you only need to work on the task, not necessarily finish it. Of course, once you get going on any task, you build up momentum which may help you to complete the task anyways.

I have used a variety of systems over the years to process my tasks for the day. My favorite systems are from Mark Forster which all work well in helping you to focus on one task at a time while overcoming resistance. For the past several years I have been using a form of Mark’s “No List” system to process my tasks. The key here is to write down each task before you do it. Don’t do anything without first writing it down. Writing it down helps you to focus on the task at hand. It also helps you overcome your resistance to getting started on the task.

I store all my tasks in Todoist (see principle #5), but I use a notebook and pen to process my tasks. Here’s how my process works in detail:

I open my notebook and write today’s date at the top of the page. I open Todoist to see my active tasks for the day. In the right-hand column of the notebook I write down my 3-5 MITs for the day. I pick one and write it down in the left-hand column.

Before working on it I ask, “Is there anything else I want to do first?” If so, I write the second task on the next line. If not, I put a dot to the left of the first task and start working on it. If I’ve added a second task, before working on it I ask, “Is there anything else I want to do first?” If so, I write the new task on the next line. If not, I put a dot to the left of the second task and start working on it.

I keep asking the question and adding tasks until I arrive at the task that I feel I should be doing right now. I rarely add more than 3-4 tasks before I start working on one, and often just start working on the first task. The dot next to the task I’m working on singles it out as my one active task so that I am not distracted by the other tasks.

I work on the task until it is finished, or until I feel I have done enough work on it for now, or until I need to move on to the next task. When I stop working on the task, I put a checkmark over the dot to signify I have stopped working on it. If I have completed the task, I also cross it out of the right margin and check it off in Todoist. If not, I just leave it in the right margin and Todoist as a reminder to come back to it later.

I then go back to asking and entering tasks in the left margin. Before starting work on any item, I ask, “Is there anything else I want to do first?” If so, I write the new task on the next line and ask the same question. If not, I put a dot to the left of the task and start working on it.

The whole process is very simple, and it usually takes less than a minute to decide on the next task and start working on it. I also like the fact that I have a complete list at the end of the day of all that I have worked on, as well as any tasks that I did not complete. I could just use a random piece of paper each day but using a notebook gives me a running journal of all my tasks for the past week, month, year, etc.

The next day I start fresh and work the whole process over again. Try it! I think you will find it a very pleasant and effective way to process your tasks for the day.

PP5: Appointments, tasks and information – Using the right tool for the job

(Part of the series: 12 Favorite Productivity Principles)

5. Appointments, tasks and information – Using the right tool for the job

Most of us use a calendar and some type of to-do list to help us keep on track. But we don’t always use them in the most effective way. We put tasks on our calendars and spread our to-do lists over several different mediums (sticky notes on the desk, miscellaneous sheets of paper, even our email inbox!). And then where do we put all the information that we need to store (things like future vacation spots, registration numbers, AC filter sizes, etc.)?

The key is to use the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t try to cut down a tree with a hammer, and you wouldn’t hammer a nail with a saw.

Here’s the general principle: 1) Use your calendar for appointments and reminders; 2) Use a task management tool for projects and tasks; and 3) Use an information tool to store and access information. Keep these tools separate and do not overlap. Don’t put tasks on your calendar, and don’t store information in your to-do list.

I like to use electronic tools that sync across all my devices. I use Google Calendar for appointments and reminders. I use Todoist for projects and tasks. And I use Evernote for storing and accessing information.

You may prefer a paper calendar or day planner or a different set of tools, but either way I suggest you choose three different tools to deal with these three very different types of information. Use the right tool for the job!

Note: The best resource I’ve found on how to use these tools and integrate them together is the book, Do More Better, by Tim Challies. Tim has done a great job showing how to set up these tools so that they integrate with each other and with the various roles and responsibilities in your life.

PP4: Ideal weekly schedule – A place for everything, and everything in its place

(Part of the series: 12 Favorite Productivity Principles)

4. Ideal weekly schedule – A place for everything, and everything in its place

Take some time to think of all the things you need or want to do on a weekly basis. What would the ideal week look like for you? Now, using what you learned from the first three principles (1-first things first; 2-the morning, afternoon, evening rule; and 3-habit stacking), design your ideal weekly schedule. Put everything on it, including time for family, leisure, rest and sleep. Some people like to map out 30-minute blocks, but I just use broader one-hour blocks.

Designing an ideal weekly schedule gives you several immediate benefits.

  1. It helps you face reality. If it doesn’t all fit in the calendar, you are trying to do too much.
  2. It helps you prioritize. Once you see what you can realistically do, you can choose the most important things.
  3. It helps you know what to do next. Once you have determined the best times to do your various tasks, you will know what you should be doing at any given time.
  4. It helps you set aside large blocks of time. This is essential for regular, deep, focused, uninterrupted work.
  5. It helps you be flexible. The ideal weekly schedule is simply that – an ideal. It doesn’t mean that it will work out that way every week. Life happens. We face all sorts of interruptions and unforeseen circumstances. The ideal weekly schedule allows you to be flexible, because you use it more as a guide rather than as a strict rule.
  6. It helps you get back on track. When you do get interrupted, you know what you missed, so you can reschedule or get back on track.

I have a basic, ideal weekly schedule that I tweak or redesign from time to time depending on new goals or life circumstances. Here is an example of my current ideal weekly schedule. Once again, I use this more as a guide rather than a strict rule.


(Note: Click to enlarge)

That’s it for this week. I hope you are enjoying the series. I will be back with the next four tips Monday-Thursday next week. In the meantime, please feel free to share the links with family and friends! (You can click on any of the Share buttons below.)

PP3: Habit stacking – Habits are hard, but routines are routine

(Part of the series: 12 Favorite Productivity Principles)

I learned this third productivity principle from S.J. Scott’s excellent book, Habit Stacking: 127 Small Changes to Improve Your Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The idea behind this principle is that there are many small habits that would improve our lives if we did them every day, but we often don’t do them because they are so small and easy to forget. Some we learned as children and do automatically, such as brushing your teeth, but there are others we would like to do but we leave undone day after day. Habit stacking helps you incorporate these small habits into your daily life by organizing them into routines.

For example, two habits I always had difficulty establishing were taking vitamins and drinking water. Both are small enough tasks and easy to do, and yet I would continually forget to do them. Now they are part of my morning routine. The first thing I do when I get up is drink a glass of water, take two vitamins, and then drink two more glasses of water. Then I’m off for my morning walk. As habits they were hard to develop. But now that they are part of my morning routine, they are automatic.

Two other habit stacks I have incorporated into my day are: 1) tea and stretches routine – doing five minutes of stretching and planks in the morning while I wait for my tea to brew; 2) ready for work routine – when I get to work, I fill my water cup, quickly clean/organize my desk, review my MITs for the day and pray. There are many others, of course, but that should give you the idea.

Habits are hard, but routines are routine. There are many small habits that would improve your life if you did them every day. If you try to do them individually, you will inevitably fail. But when you stack your habits into routines and tie them to specific parts of your day, they become automatic. Give it a try!

PP2: Morning, afternoon, evening rule – Finding your rhythm

(Part of the series: 12 Favorite Productivity Principles)

2. Morning, afternoon, evening rule – Finding your rhythm

A second productivity principle I find helpful is the morning, afternoon, evening rule. The idea is that different parts of the day are better suited for different tasks. I’ve found that the following arrangement works best for me:

  • Mornings for creative work (writing; thinking; creating)
  • Afternoons for action work (tasks; chores; administration)
  • Evenings for reflective work (walking; reading; unwinding)

Thinking about my day in these larger categories gives a rhythm to the day and helps me as I plan out my regular weekly schedule as well as my specific tasks for each day. By doing the types of tasks that are best suited for the various parts of the day, I gain momentum and find that I am more productive throughout the day.

PP1: 20/20/MIT – First things first

(Part of the series: 12 Favorite Productivity Principles)

1. 20/20/MIT – First things first

The most important productivity principle for me is, appropriately enough, to do the most important things first. This is often called the “big rocks” principle, named after Steven Covey’s famous illustration of putting the big rocks in the jar before adding the smaller pebbles and sand.

I like to break this down into two areas. What are the most important things for me to do every day? And what are the most important things I specifically need to do today?

The two most important things for me to do every day are to read my Bible and pray. To make sure I do this every day, I do what I call my 20/20 – twenty minutes of prayer followed by twenty minutes of Bible reading.

For prayer I take a twenty-minute prayer walk first thing in the morning. I talk to God about my upcoming day, confessing any wrongs I have done, thanking him for the good things in my life, praying for my family and loved ones.

Then I come home, make a nice hot, cup of tea, sit in my favorite chair and spend twenty minutes reading from the Bible. I use a Bible-reading schedule that helps me read through the Bible each year. This is a peaceful time each morning as I read and reflect.

Now there are other things that are important for me to do every day as well – exercise, grooming, spending time with family, etc. I have a system to make sure I do all those as well. But these are the two most important things for me, so I make them a part of my morning routine and do them first every day.

Then I spend just a few minutes writing down my MITs – my most important tasks for today. I write down between 3-5 tasks that are the most important things for me to do today. I keep that list with me throughout the day and make sure I work on those things first rather than put them off until later.

The 20/20/MIT is essential for me to make sure I do the most important things every day. I encourage you to think through what the most important things are for you and to use some form of the 20/20/MIT to build these things into your daily life.

12 Favorite Productivity Principles

I am a pastor and have a variety of tasks to fulfill each week – study, prayer, counseling, visitation, teaching, administration, etc. I also enjoy reading about productivity and learning how best to use my time for both professional and personal pursuits. I’ve learned a lot of tips and tricks along the way and have compiled my twelve favorite productivity principles below. I trust you will find them helpful in your life as well.

(Note: I will post a tip a day on the blog and compile all twelve principles in one longer posting here: 12 Favorite Productivity Principles)

Links to individual articles in the series (updated as added):

1. 20/20/MIT – First things first
2. Morning, afternoon, evening rule – Finding your rhythm
3. Habit stacking – Habits are hard, but routines are routine
4. Ideal weekly schedule – A place for everything, and everything in its place
5. Appointments, tasks and information – Using the right tool for the job
6. Task processing – One thing at a time (micro-tasking)
7. Working with resistance – Resistance is not futile
8. 10-3-2-1-0 rule – Countdown to a good night’s sleep
9. Capture notebook and pen – One book to rule them all
10. “Briefcase” principle – Avoiding the last-minute rush
11. “Default” principle – Choosing enjoyment over easy
12. “Do it first” principle – Tell what you’ve done, not what you will do
00. Miscellaneous – Your mileage may vary

How to Beat Daylight Savings Time

This year I finally found a way to beat Daylight Savings time.

I get up at 5am each morning, so moving the clock ahead an hour in the spring makes my body feel like it’s getting up at 4am instead. Last year the time change completely wiped me out, and it took several weeks (months?) before I finally adjusted.

I’ve tried going to bed an hour earlier in the past, but that doesn’t work because I don’t fall asleep right away. My body hasn’t adjusted to going to sleep a whole hour earlier, so I lay in bed for an hour, fall asleep at the regular time and still have to get up an hour earlier the next morning.

So I decided to do something different this year.

I took a multi-day approach starting on the Monday before the time change. Monday night I set my clock ahead ten minutes. I went to bed ten minutes earlier than usual and set my alarm for ten minutes earlier in the morning. The ten-minute adjustment was easy to make, and I got up ten minutes earlier Tuesday no problem. Each night all week I set my clock ahead an additional ten minutes and got out of bed another ten minutes earlier in the morning.

In order to stay in sync with the rest of the world, I only changed the time on the bedroom clock. That way all the other clocks including my smartphone and watch all showed the correct time throughout the week. But when it was time to get ready for bed and go to sleep, I only went by the time on the bedroom clock.

So by the time I got to Saturday, my body was already fifty minutes ahead. Saturday night I set the bedroom clock ahead the final ten minutes, set all the other clocks in the house ahead an hour, and I was now fully ready for Daylight Savings Time.

And it worked! I got up Sunday morning at 5am, and it felt like 5am instead of 4am. No extra adjustment time needed.

I realize this tip is too late to help for this year, but if you have trouble adjusting to Daylight Savings Time, I recommend you try this incremental approach next year. I know I will definitely be doing it again.

New Search Options from Google

Google just unveiled new search options to help you search for information more effectively. Whenever you search for an item, the search results page now includes a “Show options” link at the top left of the page. Click on “Show options,” and Google will open up a left sidebar with additional filtering options such as:

  • Videos, forums, or reviews
  • Recent results, past 24 hours, past week, or past year
  • Images from the page, or more text
  • Related searches, Wonder Wheel, or Timeline view

Here is a brief video showing these new search options in action:

(Video length: 2:04)

HT: Lifehacker

Best Advice on Procrastination

Do you have a habit of procrastinating? Here is the best advice on procrastination I have read.

“No unwelcome tasks become any the less unwelcome by putting them off till tomorrow. It is only when they are behind us and done, that we begin to find that there is a sweetness to be tasted afterwards, and that the remembrance of unwelcome duties unhesitatingly done is welcome and pleasant. Accomplished, they are full of blessing, and there is a smile on their faces as they leave us. Undone, they stand threatening and disturbing our tranquility, and hindering our communion with God. If there be lying before you any bit of work from which you shrink, go straight up to it, and do it at once. The only way to get rid of it is to do it.”

-Alexander MacLaren (1826–1910), Scottish preacher

HT: C.J. Mahaney

12 Alternatives to Beating a Dead Horse

“The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians says when you discover you’re riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount. However, in modern business and ministry, because of the heavy investment factors, other strategies are often tried with dead horses, including:

  1. buying a stronger whip;
  2. changing riders;
  3. threatening the horse with termination;
  4. appointing a committee to study the horse;
  5. arranging to visit other sites to see how they ride dead horses;
  6. reclassifying the dead horse as “living-impaired”;
  7. hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse;
  8. harnessing several dead horses together for increased speed;
  9. donating the dead horse to a recognized charity and deducting its full original cost;
  10. doing a time management study to see if lighter riders would improve productivity;
  11. declaring a dead horse has lower overhead and therefore performs better; and
  12. promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position.”

My favorites are numbers 4, 5, 8 and 12. Which are yours?

HT: Dr. Sam Lamerson.

Average American Work Day Chart

Here is an interesting chart on the average American work day from the American Time Use Survey, released by the U.S. Department of Labor – Bureau of Labor Statistics. The chart shows time use on an average work day for employed persons ages 25-54 with children. Data include non-holiday weekdays and are annual averages for 2005.

Time use on an average work day for employed persons ages 25 to 54 with children

So, how does this compare to your typical work day?

Note: The Bureau of Labor Statistics page provides many other interesting charts, organized in the following categories:

HT: Lifehack