Category Archives: productivity

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Rock those meeting minutes

It boggles me when people don’t take minutes during a meeting. How do people make sure that all the important decisions and actions are captured? When people run from meeting to meeting or get buried in e-mail and calendar entries, it’s so easy to let things fall through the cracks.

In my consulting engagement, I’m the minute-taker because I’m the fastest typist in the room. (Also, it helps that I can type and participate in the meeting.) At higher-level meetings where the clackety clack of a laptop keyboard might be distracting, I’ll keep quick paper notes anyway.

Here are some tips for taking meeting minutes. (Click on the image for a larger version!)

2013-11-08 Note-taking tips for meeting minutes

Projecting the agenda/minutes (or sharing them shortly afterwards) helps keep everyone on the same page and catches many possible miscommunications. It’s good to remember that you can guide the flow of the conversation with questions. I often work with the meeting chair to make sure that we cover the agenda at a good pace, and that agenda items that need decisions or tasks are neatly wrapped up. You can create a lot of value by taking the minutes, so volunteer for this whenever you can.

Making the most of Standard Time as the days grow shorter

The transition from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time is always a little shocking. Suddenly the sunlight’s gone by 5 PM. It always used to make me feel a little colder, a little odder. This year, I’m playing around with some mindset shifts that might do for Standard Time what renaming “winter” to “baking season” did in terms of my happiness. =)

(Click on the images for a larger version.)

2013-11-05 Standard Time - Winter Time

Since my consulting engagement has flexible hours, I can arrange my schedule so that I commute during off-peak hours, and I work from home three days of the week anyway. Sunlight is important to me, so I go for a quick walk at lunch. This means that on the days that I work on-site, I’m not too tired when I get home in the evenings, and on the days I work at home, I have time to go to the library or run other small errands.

That frees up the evening for writing, drawing, learning, coding, and all the other things that fill my discretionary time. Having a long evening means I can break it into several chunks of useful, focused work, while still taking care of chores. It feels pretty relaxed – almost freeing! Maybe this will become something that will help me look forward to shorter days.

2013-11-04 Revising my mornings

Mornings are worth playing around with, too. I thought about shifting more of my waking hours to the morning because it often comes up in productivity advice, but I like being able to sleep in a little. That said, I also like lining things up so that I can gain momentum in the morning, and the bright sunshine is nice to enjoy.

This mindset shift looks promising. It breaks down yet another one of those barriers to making the most of life year-round. How do you deal with shorter days? Any tips?

High energy and low energy activities

What kinds of activities need high energy, and what can you do when you feel more tired? Which activities energize you and which ones drain you? It’s good to think about these things so that:

  • You can keep low-energy activities out of your peak creative/energetic hours – save those for high-impact high-energy projects!
  • You can work on something productive even when you don’t feel like you’re at the top of your game – and you don’t waste time trying to think of something to do when you’re feeling blah.
  • You can identify your energy drainers and find ways around them, or limit their effect on the rest of your day.

It’s good to know how to take advantage of your high energy moments. It’s also good to know what moves you from one energy state to another. What do you do to relax or unwind? What do you do to recharge? What drains you, and what gives you more energy? What can you do when you feel tired, and what should you do when you feel at your peak? Don’t waste great energy on low-value or low-energy tasks. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t focus on high-energy tasks when you’re tired.

Here’s a list I made of the things I do when I have low, medium, or high energy. For the most part, things energize me. Some activities like e-mail, talking to people, shopping, or dealing with technical issues can be draining, so I try to avoid doing them before high-energy activities.

Low energy versus high energy

When I drew things out like this, I realized that drawing on paper was different for me compared to drawing on my computer. I find it easier to draw on paper at night because drawing on my computer often tempts me to stay up late. I started drawing more on paper in order to take advantage of those low-energy moments and expand the time I spend thinking visually, scanning the sketches in and using my phone or computer to organize the sketches afterwards.

If I’m alert and energetic, I know that I should focus on writing, coding, or other high-energy activities instead of spending time handling e-mail or getting distracted by watching a movie in the background.

What do you do when you have high energy? How about low energy? How do you energize yourself, and how do you deal with your drainers?

When it comes to juggling multiple interests, it helps to limit your expectations

imageI have a lot of ideas, and it’s easy to get discouraged by the fact that I’m not making progress on as many of them as I want to. It’s simple math. If I make progress on two projects but let eight languish, I tend to feel guilty about those eight.

So I’m borrowing an idea from just-in-time delivery: the kanban method. The ideas are (according to Wikipedia):

  • Visualize: See what you’re working on and where it is in the workflow. Also, keep track of where you’re approaching the limits.
  • Limit work in process: My limit is probably two projects in focus. I work on one at a time. The other is there for switching to if I hit a snag or need to change things up. (See also: Managing Oneself) Everything else is on the back burner, the someday/maybe list, or the “nifty idea but probably not for me” list.
  • Manage flow: I’m not paying much attention to this yet. It would be interesting to track how things move from current to back burner. I have some of that data through my timetracking.
  • Make policies explicit: What gets a project onto my someday/maybe list, onto my back-burner, or into focus? There are lots of ideas that I’m happy to let other people explore; I pick up only projects that I’m personally motivated by and that I see value in. Of those, I identify which ones I can actually make some progress towards today. I focus on 1-2 things that I like the most (especially if other people want them too). I don’t stop myself from working on back burner things, but I no longer have to feel guilty about letting them lapse. If it turns out that I don’t actually spend time on back burner items in a month or two, that’s usually a good sign it’s a someday/maybe thing due to lack of present motivation or capability.
  • Implement feedback loops: I haven’t paid much attention to this yet. Usually, people nudge me if I let some projects take too much of my attention.
  • Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally (using models and the scientific method): Tweaking my mindset to minimize guilt-friction is a good, small improvement. Looking forward to other small improvements!

Strict kanban would probably mean not even starting until I’d cleared off at least one work in progress, I think. I’m not that strict. I’m happy to switch back and forth, but it’s good to be clear about what I’m focusing on. That way, I don’t feel pulled in ten different directions.

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Writing is my key project. Drawing, Quantified Awesome, and Emacs swap in and out of the #2 slot. Delegation tends to be more on the back burners. Someday/maybe? More business stuff, getting better at gardening, learning sewing, and so on. If I were better at delegation, I might be able to increase my capacity to do more, but it’s a lower priority at the moment (I appreciate the extra cushion that frugality gives me). I’m cheating with “Writing” and the books on my list – I’m planning to write them in short segments, one blog post at a time.

Knowing this helps because when requests come in for things that I’m not focused on, I can happily and guiltlessly refer them to other people. It makes decisions easier. Do I spend $X to attend a conference or course on Y? No, that’s on my someday/maybe list. It’s good to know what you can say no to in order to say yes to other things.

I might be able to make more progress if I focused on driving 1-2 things to completion, not switching them on and off the back burner. In that case, I would eliminate writing from my list of projects (it’s never done!) and move up the book projects. I tried that kind of intensive writing with Wicked Cool Emacs and it burned me out a little, but maybe I’ve learned since then. I like the interplay of interests, though. Maybe I can experiment with “week on, week off” patterns – there’s value in immersion as well…

Anyway, the point of this post is: I can’t do everything at the same time, so I’m learning to not stress out about it. =) If that’s something you struggle with too, then you might find that clearly identifying the things you are focusing on and gently letting go of the other things (at least for now) might help. Good luck!

What’s on your back burner?

It’s easy to get discouraged by the vague feeling that you’re ignoring lots of things that you wanted to work on: hobbies that fall by the wayside, projects gathering dust on your shelves, Someday/Maybe lists that grow and never shrink. I’m learning that thinking about what’s on your back burner can help you make your peace with it, deliberately choosing what you want to work on during your discretionary time and letting go of the rest.

I’m focusing on consulting this October and November. Assuming all goes well, December will be taken up by a vacation: wrapping up consulting, going on vacation, and recovering from the whirlwind. I’m going to be less “retired” than I thought I’d be at this point, so I want to be deliberate about what I’m putting on the back burner and what I should keep doing.

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Consulting leaves me with one or two days a week when I can focus on other projects. I also have little bits of time here and there, and some time in the evenings. What do I want to fit into those opportunities?

Daily drawing: I really like this practice of thinking about ideas or questions on paper, and I plan to continue doing this. Since I’ve made it a warm-up and cool-down activity, I don’t need a lot of separate focused time for it. I draw to start and end my day, and I spend a little time filing new sketches. Decision: Continue doing this in small pieces.

Visual vocabulary: Someone asked me if I could share my visual vocabulary with people. I had figured out a good workflow for building my visual vocabulary using other people’s sketches, but I didn’t want to share my 1,000+ term collection because it’s based on other people’s sketches (copyright, you know!). So I started building a new visual vocabulary using only my own sketches. So far, I’ve processed all of my sketchnotes from 2013.

The next step is to process my personal sketches (including my daily sketches) from 2013, and then start going backwards in time. Although the work was simple and not challenging, it was a lot of fun reviewing my past sketches and remembering what the talks were about. Decision: I’ll spend a little time on this each week. I thought about outsourcing parts of it, but it’s probably going to be easier, faster, and more useful if I do this myself.

Topic-focused blog/book: I’ve been playing around with the idea of spinning off a separate blog focused on a small set of topics. The poll results were tied between learning/writing/notetaking/etc. and visual thinking/mind mapping/planning/etc., so I’m planning to focus on learning/writing/notetaking/etc. first because that will let me do all the rest even more effectively. Decision: I probably won’t split it off into a separate blog yet, though. I’ll use some of my daily drawing time to explore topics and flesh them out into a series of blog posts – possibly hitting two birds with one stone. =)

Quantified Awesome: I have bugs to fix, features to add, analyses to run… Well, the bug fixes come first. I’m going to set aside some of these focus days or weekends to get token authentication and a few other things working again. I’m curious about my groceries data now that I have more than a year of it, so I’m looking forward to crunching the numbers. Just how much rice do we go through in a year? How can we organize our space to allow us to stock up even better? Decision: Coding benefits from long periods of focus time, so I should use my free days for this. Once I get past the bugs, though, I’m okay with scaling back on this a little.

Server administration, learning new tech skills: My web server isn’t set up optimally. It’s probably slower and more conservative than it needs to be. There are configuration options I haven’t dug into, performance limits I haven’t tested, and so on. Still, my server hasn’t fallen apart recently, and it should be fine for now. Learning new programming languages, frameworks, or platforms might also help me in the long run, but that’s something I can guiltlessly postpone for this quarter. Decision: Postpone, revisit next year.

Delegation and automation: I keep wondering about how I might be able to take advantage of other people’s skills and experiences in order to learn more or do more, but I’ve been slacking off in terms of actually delegating things to people. I’ve been digging into why that’s the case (what are my excuses? am I missing some quick wins?), so you’ll probably see a blog post about that shortly. Still, I don’t want to delegate for the sake of delegating. I want to make sure that I specify work clearly and can pay enough attention to give good feedback as well as learn from the experience. This takes time and brainspace. I’ll dig into this if the opportunity comes up, but I don’t mind waiting until later.

As for automation, I’ll probably learn more about that on the way to doing other things. For example, AutoHotkey looks like it will repay further study. I’ll use some of my focus days to tweak things here and there, but I don’t need to push too hard on this. Decision: Postpone or do opportunistically.

Sketchnote lessons: This is where I teach myself (and other people!) more about sketchnoting by drawing different variants of common techniques. It helps broaden my visual vocabulary. I currently publish a sketchnote lesson every Thursday. If I make it less formal and more playful, I might be able to fold it into my daily drawing / doodling sessions. For example, I might try drawing people in different professions or in different situations as a way of expanding my visual vocabulary. This does require a bit more research, though, because I need to look at other people’s sketchnotes and reference photos. If I relax my expectations of publishing and make it, say, once a month, then I don’t have to worry about scraping the bottom of the barrel. (I should do one just about metaphors… =) ) That way, if I end up ramping up my drawing/doodling so that I have something publishable once a week or once every two weeks, that’s awesome. Decision: Scale back a little, and focus on doodling different categories?

Wrap-up

When I started thinking about what’s on my back burner, I felt a little overwhelmed. There was too much to fit into my week, not to mention the stuff on my Things I want to learn list that I haven’t gotten around to even starting. As I thought about what I could fit into small pockets of time, what needed more focus, and what I could postpone, things felt more manageable. Now I have a few things I can focus on, and I don’t have to feel bad about temporarily letting go of some of the things I was curious about. We’ll see how this works!

There will always be more things you want to do than time to do it in. You can get stressed out by your limitations, or you can exercise your ability to choose. Good luck!

Not about not wasting time

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A fact-checker from FLARE Magazine followed up on a recent interview I did on time-tracking and sleep, which will come out in the September issue. Among other things, he asked me to confirm the following statement: "You mentioned that after a few weeks or months analyzing sleep date and daily schedules, most can find more otherwise wasted time for sleep." It turns out I have a strong reaction against this idea of “wasting time”, so we explored the nuances in a phone call. I thought I’d dig into those ideas here so that I can understand them further.

People often ask me about tracking time. They say things like:  “I waste a lot of time commuting/waiting/doing chores/watching television.” “I want to spend more time writing, but work and family obligations get in the way.” “I should be exercising, but I find myself playing video games instead.”

I try to share not only the mechanics but also a good mindset. Like everything that you can track, you can lose yourself in self-criticism or frustration. Beating yourself up may work for some people, but I find that it’s easier to learn and grow if I accept where I’m coming from. Practise loving kindness, even with—especially with—yourself.

You choose your activities because you’re getting some kind of payoff from it. Maybe you don’t consciously decide, and maybe you haven’t questioned your assumptions, but you always get something – whether it’s the opportunity for progress or the avoidance of pain. You might take a chance that doesn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean your decision was bad. It’s okay. Embrace that, and work on understanding your decisions and trade-offs.

I gave this example: Work is valuable. But if you work long hours and deprive themselves of sleep, it can affect your ability to do things at work and outside work. If you’re okay with the trade-offs, then it’s fine – maybe a temporary sacrifice to make things better. If you aren’t okay, it might be a good opportunity to examine your assumptions. Is more really better?

So that’s one reason why you aren’t wasting your time: you’re probably getting something out of it, although you might not have thought about what that is and what you’re giving up. If you try to cut out all television-viewing for your life so that you can free up time for reading, but you don’t address the underlying needs or tensions that were why you chose TV over other activities before, you’ll be fighting yourself.  The Power of Habit has a good explanation of the habit loop and how to replace habitual actions with others.

My life is full of things that people might consider wastes of time. I sleep when I’m sleepy. I write my way through tangled thoughts. I read things that may not be immediately helpful. But it’s all part of my life. Sometimes I consciously decide how to spend my time. Sometimes I do things without looking at the trade-offs well. Sometimes I take chances that don’t work out. Still, it feels better to work with what I have than to judge myself for what I don’t.

So instead of “don’t waste time”, I think the goal of my tracking is more about “understand myself better and make better decisions”. Hope that helps clarify the difference!

Do you think you waste time? What do you get out of it?