The Four Poxes Upon Productivity

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I'm starting a new four-part series that will include the Packrat Factor, Procrastinators R Us, Prioritizizing and Paperphobia. Each post will discuss a different obstacle to being productive. Keeping too much stuff, not doing stuff, not knowing which stuff to do first and not knowing where stuff is are all common problems.

Trees The Packrat Factor
This just in: Stuff is not the problem, you are. When you keep doing something that you know doesn’t work for you, well, the problem is all yours to solve. Stuff isn’t going to go away. In fact, there’s more right now than there was a minute ago. Ain’t it grand?

Instead of trying to figure out why you collect stuff, which leads straight to the land of rationalizing and excuses, let’s pause and consider the effect of all this stuff.

A confession: I had to stop writing this article to clear off my desk because I couldn’t focus on it. Now all I see is my coffee cup, my pencil jar, my notebook and the view from my window. Better!

If you can think clearly and act decisively while surrounded by stuff, you don’t have a problem. If you can’t do those things, the good news is, you don’t have ADD, you just have too much stuff. Everyone thinks they have ADD. What they really have is an unwillingness to detach from stimulation.

Show appreciation.

Become an admirer rather than an owner. The world is full of wonderful things that you don’t currently own. Make that world larger by merely appreciating things you see and not buying them. If you need visual stimulation, go window shopping or indulge in glossy magazines (for best results, find a bookstore where you can sit and read the mags. Do not buy them and take them home).

What about stuff from the past?
Distinguish between things you’ve kept just because you’ve had them forever from ones that have strong feelings attached to them. Memorabilia isn’t just old stuff, it’s personal old stuff that you’re attached to. If you’re not really attached to Great grandma’s tea cozy, get over feeling that you have to keep it.

Re-evaluate every year or so. Over time, things can lose their appeal and relevance. Decluttering is a constant process and it’s also an iterative one. Things that made the cut this year might not in three years.

What about stuff that’s valuable or was expensive?
So, you’ve made some mistakes, bought some things you regretted later. Or you just don’t feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth out of them yet, even though in your heart of hearts you would never miss them if they were gone. If you keep these things just because they’re “valuable,” you are letting things be in charge of your life. You’re letting their importance dictate what to do with them. Turn it around and be ruthless in judging their value to you, right now. 

Pass it on.

If that thing really is important, why is it in a moldy box somewhere in your garage? Again, be clear about its current value to you. Then set that thing free to find a new owner who will truly appreciate it. There, doesn’t that feel better?

Let the chi flow.

Just as a room crowded with furniture and stuff prevents people from circulating in it freely, a packratted home prevents energy from flowing. This may seem woo woo to you, but you can feel that it’s true whenever you go into a stranger’s cluttered home. Moving energy around is one reason we go out into nature to refresh ourselves. Nature is well designed, purposeful and balanced. It’s not cluttered up with inessentials. It evokes feelings of harmony and serenity. Your home can be that way too.

I need a lot of stuff that inspires my art.

Have faith in your creativity. What you need is already here for you. If you’re a visual artist craving stimulation, get out and find it. Go to shops with wonderful wares, visit museums, walk in nature. Inspiration is everywhere. Also, “inspiration” is the breath you’re taking right now. Even though you have a trove of treasures, don’t you find that some of them inspired you at first, but when you didn’t use them, their glow faded? Whatever you’re creating now needs the fresh energy of today and what you find here.

Trees from jumpinjimmyjava's photostream

Tricks to Motivate You

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Magician I answered a question on Linked In today about whether it’s possible to become more disciplined. My answer wasn’t really about discipline though, because that word turns me off. It makes me think of following rules, being punished if I don’t, rigidity and fear. Ick.

So my answer was about motivation instead. And tricks. Fun ways to get yourself to do stuff.


If the end result of your work is something you really, really want, it’s not hard to get motivated. If you don’t want the result, why bother? Whatever project you’re putting off, trace it back and find out what the original motivation was and whether it’s still valid.


If it’s valid and you still don’t want to do it, pay someone else to do it! Or, try some of these tricks.
  • Work on your project for just two minutes. Use a timer. If you get inspired, keep going. If not, you got two minutes worth done, more than you had before.
  • Imagine the day is over and you’re looking back over what you got done. What will make you feel like you got something really worthwhile accomplished? Then, do that thing.
  • Make a “Not To Do” list. Put anything that you’re not getting around to and that can go undone without the planet exploding. Keep the list somewhere safe. This tells your brain that it can forget about those things and relieves you of that mental clutter.

What tricks do you use to get yourself going and stay on task?


Rabbit out of a Hat from laneesque’s photostream.

Goals vs. Tasks

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You need both goals and tasks, and they’re easy to confuse. A big reason that people don’t get things on their to do list done isn’t that they procrastinate, but that the list entries aren’t really do-able.

Does your to do list look like this?

  • Design the book
  • Increase sales this month
  • Find an accountant

These are actually all goals, not tasks. A goal is reached via a series of tasks. Once you identify a goal you need to figure out what the first thing to do is. Do that, then figure out the next thing. And so on.

Here’s a real to do list based on the list above:

  • Narrow color schemes down to 2 choices and create palettes
  • Contact top three clients this week and remind them of the new products
  • Ask Maya and Rob if they can recommend an accountant

Notice that to do’s are much more specific. They are active, they have deadlines and they involve particular people. As soon as they’re done, they’re replaced by the next logical step, for example, schedule a meeting to present the color schemes, or follow up the client calls with mailed brochures.

If something is languishing on your list for weeks on end, it might be a goal. To find out, just ask yourself, well, how do I design the book?  You know the answer already; you just need to put that on the list instead.

Tips for To-Do Lists

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I’m giving a talk tonight in San Francisco about optimizing your to-do list. There’s still time to sign up here: Biznik meeting.

To do list tattoo I’ll summarize my talk here, in case you can’t make it. First, there are a bunch of reasons to make daily to-do lists if you don’t already. They help you focus in on the small number of things you need to get done and actually can get done. Everyone is busy and gets distracted by myriad things daily. Put 3-5 tasks on your list.

Writing down those tasks clarifies them. When they’re in your head, they’re a little vague. If you have to write them or tell them to someone, you fill in lots of important details that your mental version overlooks. It’s important to write down projects that only you are responsible for. If you’re not accountable to anyone for them, you’ll often relegate them to your free time, and we all know that “free time” doesn’t really exist.

Make sure your list items are really to do’s and not entire projects. You can’t “do” a project. Projects have multiple steps. If “redecorate the guest room” or “design the new brochure” are on your list, you’ll feel lazy and incompetent for not doing them. Instead, put “look at curtains for the guest room,” or “draft the Services section text for the new brochure” on your list.

If there are undone tasks hanging around on your list, make a “not to do” list. This is where you write down those tasks that you feel guilty that you haven’t done, but you honestly know that you’ll never do them. Things that others want you do to, or that you feel you “should” do. Even when these aren’t written down, they nag at you. Put them on this list and then burn the list! Let go of those tasks forever.

When are you going to do the things on your list? Make sure you know where your time is going, if you find yourself running out. Track your time by setting an alarm to go off every hour. Stop and make brief notes about what you did since the last alarm. Don’t judge yourself, but get curious; when do you get most distracted? By what? How long does it take to do routine tasks? We often underestimate that time because we do them automatically and the time seems short. Until you know where your time is going now, you can’t make effective decisions about changing what you do.

Keep losing your list? Have it tattooed on your arm. Courtesy of robstephaustralia.

How Do You Spend Your Time?

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For clients with time management troubles, I have recommended occasionally that they keep track of what they do all day. It may be startling to find out exactly how much time you spend cruising around the internet or caught up in cross currents of email, but the idea isn’t to make you feel bad. The idea is to find out what you’re actually doing with your time so that you can change it effectively.

Keeping track can be as simple as having a pad ready to jot down notes at timed intervals. David Seah has an elegant, easy to use version that shows time graphically since you fill in a bubble for each time increment. You can see it immediately; the more bubbles, the more time spent. His tool, the Emergent Task Timer, is available as a free PDF download on his site (which has tons of great productivity information, too).

Benefits of time tracking:

  • Find out what you’re doing when you’re wasting time
  • Find out how long you spend working on specific tasks; makes it easier to plan for them in the future
  • Get an idea of when your high and low productivity times are during the day
  • Discern patterns to tasks that you can use to your advantage. Email flurries at certain times of day can mean that others are most easily contacted then, for example
  • Find patterns of work time followed by down time. You may find that some aspects of your work need more downtown to recover from
  • Make sure you’re taking productive, refreshing downtime; don’t count more email checking as an actual break

A key to getting the most out of tracking your time is to do it now, or starting tomorrow morning. Don’t wait for a less stressful week, or one with more interesting things going on. Print out enough sheets for the rest of the week and just get started. There won’t be a better time.

Time Disappears” from jtravism’s photostream

Use Email to Stay Organized

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I asked my friend David over dinner one night how he manages to keep on top of all his projects at work. I don't always talk about organizing with friends, but I often discover new ways to do things from them, and that's always fun. He said that he uses his email program.

How does that work? For each project he opens a new email and starts typing in bullet points for all the tasks that need to be done that day. The emails are automatically saved as drafts and he can quickly cycle through them to see at a glance what's happening. He continues to add to them during the day, including notes from conversations and other emails. So he ends up with an outline of all project activity for the day.

He sends the emails to himself using the date and project in the subject line and then keeps them in the appropriate project folder. Sometimes they're also mailed to other people working on the project, saving him the step of copying information from other sources. And he has a chronological, easily accessible log of project activity.

I like this idea because it's simple and fast, it uses a program he already knows (no learning curve) and the information is easily transferred elsewhere, including to other people.

Juggler from jayniebell's photostream

A To-Do List by Any Other Name

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A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. ‘Tis true. If it were called bog shrub we would love it just the same.

It’s not true for your to-do list, however.

A to-do list should have a handful of concrete tasks on it that are related to your projects. Problems start growing when it’s used as a catch-all for everything you have to do.

This is a common problem for creative, expansive thinkers. They have no difficulties filling up to-do lists. When I did a brain dump recently with Nancy, she told me her head was churning out ideas like a popcorn popper.

As we talked about her list, it became clear that some things needed to be done right away so that other things could happen. Some things she really wanted to do now. Then there were other things that could wait a bit.

It was confusing to have all of these on her to-do list. I suggested that, for starters, she put the things that could wait onto a new list and call it the “deep freeze.”

Simply dividing and renaming the list let Nancy mentally set aside those ideas so she could concentrate on today’s work. The ideas don’t get lost or forgotten. They’re safely stored for the future. She can review that list anytime to see what should be moved onto it or off of it.

How can you divide up your too-long to-do list?

Some people use names like “projects,” “work,” or “personal.” Those are fine, but it might motivate and focus you to use more descriptive phrases such as “deep freeze,” “back burner,” “holding pen,” “bucket list,” “next in line,” “crystal ball,” “wait ‘n’ see” or “parking lot” for the things you’re not going to do now.

For the tasks you want to do try “cool stuff,” “dream bag,” “love it,” “empire building,” or “world domination.”

For current stuff, try “right now,” “today,” “just do it,” “on fire,” “yes!” “in progress,” “daily specials,” or “full speed ahead.”

Those phrases all have different feels to them, don’t they? It’s important to choose names that inspire you. If you’re motivated by urgency, for example, go for something like “on fire.” If you like metaphors and themes like Havi does, call it something like “the pony corral.”

Be totally silly and call your list “Debbie.”

There are two points here. First, divide your list into things you will do today and those you’ll do in the future (the latter can be several lists). Second, pick names for your lists that are evocative and meaningful to you.

List names are significant. They help us clarify and categorize our thoughts. Names have attitudes and moods associated with them that we can use to motivate us. Plus, they can be fun, and, ahem, we all need that.

Write It Down!

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Writing hand It’s said that Einstein didn’t know his own phone number. Why not? Because it was written down in a book that everyone had handy. He could look it up himself if he ever needed to. He knew he had better things to do with his brain than remember information that was easily located elsewhere.

Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson has just written a book called Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life. Your brain uses deliberate and spontaneous pathways. The deliberate pathway is when you’re planning and reasoning and the spontaneous one is about getting ideas out of the blue. You need both.

A lot of productivity advice is geared optimizing your environment for deliberate thinking, and that’s good and necessary. It’s equally important to set the stage for spontaneous thinking and to capture the results of it. Don’t overlook the importance of that capturing! How many times have you gotten out of the shower and almost immediately forgotten that fantastic idea that came to you while the water was running?

Paper and pen is the easiest capture method, but it doesn’t matter what you use. What matters is to honor that fleeting thought. It doesn’t evaporate because you’re becoming forgetful; it’s because the deliberate part of your brain is the one in charge of working memory. You’re just going to forget. Accept that and write it down!!

Build Your Own Organizing System

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I don’t follow a particular organizing method or recommend a specific system. My clients all have their own unique needs, ways of thinking and taste. The challenge is to come up with something that works with the least amount of fuss and bother.

My friend and fellow entrepreneur, Erin Saul, has developed her system by trial and error. The visual aspect is important to her, as is being able to see a whole month at a glance. It’s not, as she says, “elegant,” but it does the job and she likes it. I asked her to share it with my blog readers, so here’s her description:

IMG_0429 When I quit the day job to run two businesses from home, it took me a while to get organized in a new way. I finally came up with a weekly schedule that would apply some kind of — if not routine, then maybe STRUCTURE to my week. But with the way my mind works, it was difficult to find some existing method of keeping me on track. I tried a couple versions of some productivity software, but they didn’t really work. I had to make it myself.

It’s rudimentary, but it made sense to me. And then I found that it didn’t work… but it sure was a good idea at the time!

Instead, now…  I’ll admit it: I keep three calendars:

IMG_0431 1)  The TO-GO PLANNER, which is a dual week-at-a-glance/month-at-a-glance color-coded piece of brilliance I found at The Container Store, and which I take EVERYWHERE with me. The MONTHLY part is what I use when booking events with clients and hang-time with friends. The WEEKLY pages have a timeline/appointment section and also a color-coded section which corresponds nicely to my ‘Business 1’, ‘Business 2’, and ‘Personal’. I can make more granular notes of what to do when, and see how my day is weighted. This weekly part informs my DAILY to-do list…

2)  I make a separate DAILY to-do list on a 3×5 index card, which fits in my pocket, and which I can access easily and frequently throughout the day to check on my progress, and add more things that need doing, as I think of them. Part of that to-do list is the MAKING of it, which is when I consult the WEEKLY color-coded part of the TO-GO PLANNER I carry around with me. That’s when I try to make sure everything matches.

3)  The BIG WALL CALENDAR is mostly for fun, but keeps my head in the game when I’m in my home office, planning my days and weeks and months. I’m a visual learner/rememberer… so the color-coded stickies are for visual reference: Do I have enough pink ones to achieve my goals? Do I have everything done far enough in advance of the yellow events? Did I send birthday cards? And, maybe most importantly, this is where I can see days that have NO events, where I can spend the day on those pesky tasks it takes all day to do (like taxes!).

I realize that this all seems like the OPPOSITE of a simple, elegant system… but it works for me. Digital calendars and PDA solutions don’t help me because I can’t get a good VIEW of a day, week, or month the way my mind needs to see it. When my head starts swimming with random, disorganized things-to-do… that’s when they slip through the cracks, and when I start getting cranky. I’ve learned these things about myself… and also that I’m one of those bizarro organize-y people who just love calendars. This way, I get to use three! The key is to find something that works for you and to be diligent about it. I also found that I love routine. When I get to start my morning making my daily to-do list with some hot tea, that grounds me. Then I’m off and running toward a productive day!

Erin’s company, Namaste Mofo™, designs and sells T-shirts with “irreverently reverent yoga slogans” on them. The company motto is that all human beings are complex and can honestly embrace holistic ideals and still be totally punk rock. She rocks!

Try the Easy Way First

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I just spent 45 minutes trying to figure out why my Palm wouldn't sync up to the computer. It worked fine a few days ago. I haven't changed anything. What's up with that?

I Googled my question and got some ideas. None worked. Went to the Palm support site and got some more ideas, which sent me back to the Internet for more inquiries, hoping to narrow down the solutions. No help there. Plug it into a different port. Open and close programs. Nada. Back to the Palm site, then some Macintosh help sites. By now I'm kind of irritated.

Okay, I'll just reset the stupid thing, I decide out of exasperation. Still not working. Might as well restart the computer too. That's the last trick in my book. Success!

So, what's the lesson here? Sometimes, it's not worth discovering what's wrong if you know a fast way just to solve the problem. I have no clue why the hotsync didn't work. I'd like to know, but what I'd like more is to be able to get back to work. I need to remind myself to cut to the chase and just solve, or overcome, a problem and let go of my desire to understand it.

Does this happen to you? Do you suddenly realize that you've spent an hour troubleshooting instead of circumventing and getting on with it? I think it's natural to attempt to solve a problem that's right in front of you, but it's worthwhile to stop and consider whether you can make progress without actually solving it.

Detour from ngader's photostream