Oh, Shiny Squirrel!

In my last post, I talked about some tools and concepts to help with productivity, prioritization, and doing the right task at the right time. If you haven’t read it, take a look: To-Do or Not To-Do
These tools do work for me and I have been able to set up a good plan for what to work on and when. But they are not perfect. The biggest issue I face is procrastination and quickly falling into the rabbit hole of the many little distractions. Leo Babauta, author of the habit changing blog Zen Habits, has written a nice post about it. (BTW: I am reading his book Zen Habits about a better way to form and stick to habits. I will talk about it in a later post)

What Productivity Systems Won’t Solve : zen habits

Just like he says, procrastination creeps in easy even after reducing your tasks to the 3 important ones. Now, I know what I need to do next but I still need to climb the hurdle of uncertainty. I like his analogy of jumping into cold water. Whenever you want to start your important tasks you have to overcome powerful forces of discomfort. As he points out, these are all negative feedback loops, which makes it even harder for the next task. It is so much easier to follow the distractions, check your notifications, browse social media, read some fun articles, etc. And they do give you the instant gratification even if it is an illusion. The problem is, the more you follow them the more often you will in the future. Trello, the company I talked about using for my to-do systems, wrote an article describing the dangers of one of those distractions: phone notifications.

Constant Phone Notifications Are Ruining Your Productivity – Trello Blog

I have to admit that phone notifications and browsing on my phone are likely the biggest distractions that interrupt my flow and make me less productive at work and at home. One lucky exception being while gardening, due to the nature of it 🙂

So how do you combat these constant interruptions and self-sabotage?
I love the solution of Leo to step back mentally and realize what you are about to do – to feel the urge and just recognize it until it floats away. This is part of a mindfulness approach to life that I am trying to adopt. However, this is not always so easy. You would be surprised how strong the avoidance behavior of the mind really can be. And then you have the phone in your hand again although you swore to leave it in your purse all day.

Therefore I searched and found a few tools that can help me along the way. One of them was recommended to me by a friend. It is site that lets you listen to sounds with relaxing or stimulating effect and also blocks out noises around you. I guess you could listen to music, but I have found that if I do, I will try to listen to lyrics and that is a distraction too. And even classical music has too many changes in tempo and volume for me to focus. The sounds from this site however consist of a mix of noises from rain and storm to crackling fire and birds singing, that you can mix and match into a nice background noise. If you want to try it out, it is free to use:

Noisli – Improve Focus and Boost Productivity with Background Noise

That helps me focus on the task and not be distracted by my surroundings.
But that still leaves the phone with the browsing and notifications. As a first step I turn off the notification sound and only let an actual call interrupt me. However, I am still tempted to just check my notifications manually fairly often. And for that problem, I have found forest. It sound silly and maybe it is, but it works. It is a phone app that let’s you plant trees in a virtual forest. You have to select how long you want this tree to take to grow. After it starts growing the app monitors your phone for any not white-listed (like calls or music) activity. If you use any of those apps before the growing time is up your tree will die and you will have the dead tree in your forest. Again: yes, silly, but at some level I really do not want the poor little tree to die or a tree corpse in my forest. 🙂


With these tools as well as trying to be more mindful, I have been able to be more focused and give into distractions a little less.

At the end of my post, I leave you with a great TedTalk about exactly this issue of distraction and the potential changes that technology could or should undergo to prevent this behavior. So instead of distracting us and keeping us from doing the things important to us, how can technology adopt a different way of measuring success by providing more net benefit to our productivity.

Tristan Harris: How better tech could protect us from distraction

I hope to see you again next week where I talk about how trying to be more energetic lead me to a habit changing plan and why I do one push-up a day.

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To-Do or Not To-Do

Last post I promised I had some posts around productivity lined up, so let’s start!
I started taking some interest in productivity tools for many reasons: I tend to forget the things I wanted to do, and usually only remember at an bad moment when I didn’t have time or wasn’t in the position to do the task. I get easily distracted with new projects, and unfinished projects start piling up. More about how I try to deal with distraction – or I like to call it the Squirrel Problem – in my next post.
So I end up with many things I want to do, but there is no structure to this and everything gets confusing and overwhelming. Not to mention that there are days I just don’t like to do anything. Other days I am bored, but again nothing comes to mind, or the wrong things.
I started talking to a friend about brainstorming some ideas, which we haven’t done yet. Hey, I never said I am good at this productivity thing, but I am starting.

During the discussion, my friend mentioned a tool called Trello that she wanted to try for project management. I believe she has abandoned using it, but I got hooked.
I read up on the tool, and it is really intriguing and fun to use. Check out one of their blog posts on how to start using the tool:
Beginner Tips for Using Trello – Trello Blog
I think, one of the reasons I dove a little deeper is that I am pretty much a gadget / app junkie that needs to try out new stuff all the time. That is probably not the best approach for productivity either, but that is how I am. And often enough I find something useful that sticks around.

When starting to use Trello there were some basic concepts I found that I utilize two of:
The first is a Kanban system that is not really time oriented. You have tasks that are WIP (work-in-progress), which are the only ones you work on. Once a task is done, a slot opens up to be filled from a to-do list. This to-do list is prioritized frequently so the tasks that get filled in your WIP are in line with overall goals and priorities. The prioritized to-do gets filled by an idea/backlog pile, which I cannot decide if it should be prioritized or not. If you do, some tasks would never get done, if you don’t you may not be always working on the highest priority. Especially if the low value tasks are quick items that could be done in no time. For this and for emergencies that need to jump ahead, I added a Just-Do-It category that trumps the WIP. I am tracking how many Just-Do-It I have completed compared to the WIP, because I fear they may take overhand making this system unproductive again. This system I use for work items. Sometimes I need to assign some deadlines as well.

The second way is having a WIP for different time frames: today, this week, next week, later; as well as an idea pool. This technique is also a Kanban but it is not so much priority oriented. I am trying this for my personal to-do.
So far it is working very well.

However, there is one thing I made as a basis which I discovered in a few articles: the WIP has to be a short list of things. That means you only work on a few things at a time. and that is very important.
Why? The biggest one for me is that it will be a lot easier to complete a small set of goals, and benefit from the positive impact of the sense of achievement. Then move on to the next.
I have read the number 3 most of the time, therefore that is what I picked.
Here some articles I found interesting about 3 item to-does / short list of items to work on:
Accomplish More with a 3-Item To Do List
What Is An Enough List And How it Helped Me Enjoy Everyday

As of now, my productivity seems to have improved. Although I still struggle with consistency, motivation and distraction. I will write more about how I try to conquer those in the next posts.