Those who know me, know that I always care with me a cheep and thin notebook which I use as an extension to my mind. Today, I opened a new notebook, and this is a good opportunity to share some links about my productivity system.
To sum up, I use a custom variant of Mark Forster’s Final Version productivity system that uses a plain notebook to track, prioritize, and eliminate tasks. Using a physical notebook, as opposed to an electronic tool, is a massive boost in productivity, as it forces you to process your priorities in an unplugged mode, without any distractions.
When I was a freelancer, I felt forced to use a combination of a physical book and an electronic system (http://todoist.com/), but that didn’t work too well for me, the connected nature of this (and any other) app kept distracting me. I also played with a combination of a notebook and a portable kanban board. That didn’t work out for me either. So, right now, I’m back to a physical notebook with a small addition.
I now have two notebooks. The first one is a small (80 pages) soft notebook that I use to track and prioritize tasks (as in Mark Forster’s system). I also use this notebook to reflect on what’s going on, write questions to my future self, and document my decisions.
The second, larger notebook is used for note keeping, drafts and sketches. The fact that the notebook is vertically bound allows me seemingly switching from Hebrew (that is written from right to left) and English. When a sketch of a draft isn’t relevant anymore, I tear the draft pages away; and I use a small binder to keep the note pages together for future reference.
Overall, I like this combo very much and it fits my workflow well.
Here’s a neat method that helps me organize my week, increase my productivity and fight procrastination.
Being a freelancer data scientist, I’m involved in three hands-on projects for two clients. I also manage/mentor two data scientists in two other projects, and participate in strategic discussions for a customer of mine, and in a startup in which I invest. Oh, I am also in the final stages of writing a paper. I never imagined I would be in the situation with so many balls that I need to keep in the air. How do I manage to keep sanity?
This is what I do. Following the advice in “15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management“, I try to keep as many items in my calendar as possible. When my workweek starts, I print out the weekly schedule on a sheet of paper. Then, I apply the tangible GTD hack that I learned from another book [link] and write out all my projects on a bunch of small post-it notes. These notes allow me “dumping” all my brain contents into an external medium, which frees up my brain to spend more CPU cycles on processing, rather than remembering and worrying.
Next comes the fun part, I get to play with my cards by arranging them on the weekly schedule. The geometry of the post-it notes and the sheet of paper ensures that I allocate reasonably larget chunks of time for each “big thing.” It also reminds me that the amount of time each day is limited, and I can’t stick too many plans into a day or a week. (No, I won’t be able to finalize the paper, complete the analysis for a retail shop, learn a chapter in Bayesian statistics book, before the end of today).
After I’m done, I copy each post-it note into my calendar. Thanks to the integration with Todoist (an excellent productivity tool), all these tasks end up in my todo list, where I can further work with them.
To sum up:
Global week overview – check
Prioritization and honesty – check.
Fun playing with sticky notes – check.
Work gets done – (I wish!).
Oh, did you notice the appointments between 5 and 6 am? This is my sports activity. Sometimes working out charges me for the entire day. Sometimes, all I want to do for the entire day is to have a nap 🙂
On November 7, 2016, I started an experiment in personal productivity. I decided to use a notebook for thirty days to manage all of my tasks. The thirty days ended more than three years ago, and I still use notebooks to manage myself. Today, I started the thirteenth notebook.
One month ago, I stumbled upon a book called “Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life” by Jim Benson (all the book links use my affiliate code). Never before, I saw a more significant discrepancy between the value that the book gave me and its actual content.
Even before finishing the first chapter of this book, I realized that I wanted to incorporate “personal kanban” into my productivity system. The problem was that the entire book could be summarized by a blog post or by a Youtube video (such as this one). The rest of the book contains endless repetitions and praises. I recommend not reading this book, even though it strongly affected the way I work
So, what is Personal Kanban anyhow? Kanban is a productivity approach that puts all the tasks in front of a person on a whiteboard. Usually, Kanban boards are physical boards with post-it notes, but software Kanban boards are also widely known (Trello is one of them). Following are the claims that Jim Benson makes in his book that resonated with me
Many productivity approaches view personal and professional life separately. The reality is that these two aspects of our lives are not separate at all. Therefore, a productivity method needs to combine them.
Having all the critical tasks in front of your eyes helps to get the global picture. It also helps to group the tasks according to their contexts.
The act of moving notes from one place to another gives valuable tangible feedback. This feedback has many psychological benefits.
One should limit the number of work-in-progress tasks.
There are three different types of “productivity.” You are Productive when you work hard. You are Efficient when your work is actually getting done. Finally, you are Effective when you do the right job at the right time, and can repeat this process if needed.
I’m a long user of a productivity method that I adopted from Mark Forster. You may read about my process here. Having read Personal Kanban, I decided to combine it with my approach. According to the plan, I have more significant tasks on my Kanban board, which I use to make daily, weekly, and long-term plans. For the day-to-day (and hour-to-hour) taks, I still use my notebooks.
Initially, I used my whiteboard for this purpose, but something wasn’t right about it.
Having my Kanban on my home office whiteboard had two significant drawbacks. First, the whiteboard isn’t with me all the time. And what is the point of putting your tasks on board if you can’t see it? Secondly, listing everything on a whiteboard has some privacy issues. After some thoughts, I decided to migrate the Kanban to my notebook.
In this notebook, I have two spreads. The first spread is used for the backlog, and “this week” taks. The second spread has the “today,” “doing,” “wait,” and “done” columns. The fact that the notebook is smaller than the whiteboard turned out to be a useful feature. This physical limitation limits the number of tasks I put on my “today” and “doing” lists.
I organize the tasks at the beginning of my working day. The rest of the system remains unchanged. After more than a month, I’m happy with this new tangible productivity method.
Have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what “Resistance” is.
As a known procrastinator, I was intrigued and started reading. In the beginning, the book was pretty promising. The first (and, I think, the biggest) part of the book is about “Resistance” — the force behind the procrastination. I immediately noticed that almost every sentence in this chapter could serve a motivational poster. For example
It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.
The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight.
The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit.
The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Individually, each sentence makes sense, but their concentration was a bit too much for me. The way Pressfield talks about Resistance resembles the way Jewish preachers talk about Yetzer Hara: it sits everywhere, waiting for you to fail. I’ tdon’t like this approach.
The next chapters were even harder for me to digest. Pressfield started talking about Muses, gods, prayers, and other “spiritual” stuff; I almost gave up. But I fought the Resistance and finished the book.
My main takeaways:
Resistance is real
It’s a problem
The more critical the task is, the stronger is the Resistance. OK, I kind of agree with this. Pressfield continues to something do not agree with: thus (according to the author), we can measure the importance of a task by the Resistance it creates.
Justifying not pursuing a task by commitments to the family, job, etc. is a form of Resistance.
The Pro does stuff.
The Artist is a Pro (see above) who does stuff even if nobody cares.
Nir Eyal is known for his book “Hooked” in which he teaches how to create addictive products. In his new book “Indistractable“, Nir teaches how to live in the world full of addictive products. The book itself isn’t bad. It provides interesting information and, more importantly, practical tips and action items. Nir covers topics such as digital distraction, productivity and procrastination.
I liked the fact that the author “gives permission” to spend time on Facebook, Instagram, Youtube etc, as long as it is what you planned to do. Paraphrasing Nir, distraction isn’t distraction unless you know what it distracts you from. In other words, anything you do is a potential distraction unless you know what, why and when you are doing it.
My biggest problem with this book is that I already knew almost everything that Nir wrote. Maybe I already read too many similar books and articles, maybe I’m just that smart (not really) but for me, most of Indistractable wasn’t valuable.
Until I got to the chapter that deals with raising children (“Part 6, how to raise indistractable children”). I have to admit, when it comes to speaking about raising kids in the digital era, Nir is a refreshing voice. He doesn’t join the global hysteria of “the screens make zombies of our kids”. Moreover, Nir brings a nice collection of hysterical prophecies from the 15th, 18th and 20th centuries in which “experts” warned about the bad influence new inventions (such as printed books, affordable education, radio) had on the kids.
Another nice touch is the fact that each chapter has a short summary that consists of three-four bullet points. Even nicer is the fact that Nir copied all the “Remember this” lists at the end of the book, which is very kind of him.
The best way to procrastinate is to research productivity.
This week, the majority of Automattic Data Division meets in person in Vienna. During one of the sessions I presented my productivity method to my friends and coworkers.
Presenting this method was a fun and enjoyable experience for me. I decided to try doing this again, in a more formal and structured way. If you know of a productivity-oriented meetups that might be interested in hearing me, let me know.
Some post-talk notes
It turns out that the method I’m using much closer to Mark Forster’s “Final Version” than to his AutoFocus
During the years, Mark Forster created and tested many time management approaches. Scan through this page http://markforster.squarespace.com/tm-systems to find something that might work for you to find something that might work for you.
Working from home (or a coffee shop, or a library) is great. However, there is one tiny problem: the temptation not to work is sometimes much bigger than the temptation in a traditional office. In the traditional office you are expected to look busy which is the first step to do an actual work. When you work from home, nobody cares if you get up to have a cup of coffee or water the plants. This is GREAT but sometimes this freedom is too much. Sometimes, you wish someone would give you that look to encourage you to keep working.
This is the exact problem that Taylor Jacobson, the founder of https://focusmate.com is trying to solve. Here’s how Focusmate works. You schedule a fifty-minutes appointment with a random partner. During the session, you and your partner have exactly sixty seconds to tell each other what you want to achieve during the next fifty minutes and then start working, keeping the camera on. At the end of t the session, you and your partner tell each other how was your session. That’s it.
I signed up for this service and participated in two such session. I really liked the result. During that hour, I had the urge to get up for a coffee, to make phone calls, etc. But the fact that I saw someone on my screen, and the fact that they saw me stopped me. The result — 50 minutes of uninterrupted work. I even didn’t check Twitter, despite the fact that my buddy couldn’t see my screen.
I heard about this service in a podcast episode that was recommended to me by my coworker Ian Dunn. Focusmate is absolutely free for now. In that podcast show, Taylor (the founder) talks about the possible business models. Interestingly, when Taylor tried to crowd-fund this project he managed to get almost five time more money than he eventually planned to ([ref]).
One more thing. This podcast show, https://productivitycast.net, looks like an interesting podcast to follow if you are interested in productivity and procrastination.
I’m a terrible procrastinator. A couple of years ago, I installed RescueTime to fight this procrastination. The idea behind RescueTime is simple — it tracks the sites you visit and the application you use and classifies them according to how productive you are. Using this information, RescueTime provides a regular report of your productivity. You can also trigger the productivity mode, in which RescueTime will block all the distractive sites such as Facebook, Twitter, news sites, etc. You can also configure RescueTime to trigger this mode according to different settings. This sounded like a killer feature for me and was the main reason behind my decision to purchase a RescueTime subscription. Yesterday, I realized how wrong I was.
When I installed RescueTime, I was full of good intentions. That is why I configured it to block all the distractive sites for one hour every time I accumulate more than 10 minutes of surfing such sites. However, from time to time, I managed to find a good excuse to procrastinate. Although RescueTime allows you to open a “bad” site after a certain delay, I found this delay annoying and ended up killing the RescueTime process (killing a process is faster than temporary disabling a filter). As a result, most of my workday stayed untracked, unmonitored, and unfiltered.
So, I decided to end this absurd situation. As of today, RescueTime will never block any sites. Instead of blocking, I configured it to show a reminder and to open my RescueTime dashboard, as a reminder to behave myself. I don’t know whether this non-intrusive reminder will be effective or not but at least I will have correct information about my day.
I am an awful procrastinator. I realized that, many years ago. Once I did, I started searching for productivity tips and systems. Of course, most of these searches are another form of procrastination. After all, it’s much more fun to read about productivity than writing that boring report. In 2012, I discovered a TiddlyWiki that implements AutoFocus — a system developed by Mark Forster (AutoFocus instructions: link, TiddlyWiki page link)
I loved the simplicity of that system and used it for a while. I also started following Mark Forster’s blog. Pretty soon after that, Mark published another, even simpler version of that system, which he called “The Final Version.” I loved it even better and readily adopted it. For many reasons, I moved from TiddlyWiki to Trello and made several personal adjustments to the system.
At some point, I read “59 seconds” in which the psychologist Richard Wiseman summarizes many psychological studies in the field of happiness, productivity, decision making, etc. From that book, I learned about the power of writing things down. It turns out, that when you write things down, your brain gets a better chance to analyze your thoughts and to make better decisions. I also learned from other sources about the importance to disconnect from the Internet several times a day. So, on November 2016, I made a transition from electronic productivity system to an old school notebook. In the beginning, I decided to keep that notebook as a month-long experiment, but I loved that very much. Since then, I have always had my analog productivity system and an introspection device with me. Today, I started my sixth notebook. I love my system so much, I actually consider writing a book about it.
You’ve been there: you need to complete a project, submit a report, or document your code. You know how important all these tasks are, but you can’t find the power to do so. Instead, you’re researching those nice pictures the Opportunity rover sent to the Earth, type random letters in Google to see where they will lead you to, tidy up your desk, or make another cup of coffee. You are procrastinating.
Because I procrastinate a lot, and because I have several important tasks to complete, I decided to read more about the psychological background of procrastination. I went to Google Scholar and typed “procrastination.” One of the first results was a paper with a promising title. “The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure” by Piers Steel. Why was I intrigued by this paper? First of all, it’s a meta-analysis, meaning that it reviews many previous quantitative studies. Secondly, it promises a theoretical review, which is also a good thing. So, I decided to read it. I started from the abstract, and here’s what I see:
Strong and consistent predictors of procrastination were task aversiveness, task delay, selfefficacy, and impulsiveness, as well as conscientiousness and its facets of self-control, distractibility, organization, and achievement motivation.
Hmmm, isn’t this the very definition of procrastination? Isn’t this sentence similar to “A strong predictor of obesity is a high ratio between person’s weight to their height?”. Now, I’m really intrigued. I am sure that reading this paper will shed some light, not only on the procrastination itself but also on the self-assuring sentence. I definitely need to read this paper. Maybe tomorrow.
PS. After writing this post, I discovered that the paper author, Piers Steel, has a blog dedicated to “procrastination and science” https://procrastinus.com/. I will read that blog too. But not today
I don’t know anyone, except my wife, who doesn’t consider themselves procrastinator. I procrastinate a lot. Sometimes, when procrastinating, I read about procrastination. Here’s a list of several recent blog posts about this topic. Read these posts if you have something more important to do*.
I’ll Think of a Title Tomorrow Talks about procrastination from a designer’s point of view. Although it is full of known truths, such as “stop thinking, start doing”, “fear is the mind killer”, and others, it is nevertheless a refreshing reading.
The entire blog called Unblock Results is written by Nancy Linnerooth who seems to position herself as a productivity coach. I liked her last post The Done ListThe Done List that talks about a nice psychological trick of running Done lists instead of Todo lists. This trick plays well with the productivity system that I use in my everyday life. One day, I might describe my system in this blog.