“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” - Yoda
Time has become a precious commodity for me lately. Between management meetings, team meetings, and then actually trying to improve small things in process and code, it is easy to loose track of things. Even worse is that it is easy to loose track of what is important. So I am finding myself going back to some old habits that died off during different shifts in my career and apply many of them again.
Most of these tips revolve around focus. When things get busy it is easy to loose focus and that is when productivity drops.
All the things
Ubiquitous capture. Write down anything that you aren't going to do now as soon as you become aware of it. An email comes in that you need to action. Capture it on your TODO list. Once it is down on paper, you are much less likely to worry about it and you can't forget about it.
How you capture
The list. How you capture is less important than being consistent. When trying out things I find todo lists can actually make things worse for a while before they become better. The reason for this is I am not capturing in a single place. Trying to minimize the number of mediums you use to capture tasks is important. I tried and like the idea of a notebook but I just didn't carry it around enough. I have settled on Todoist because I can have it open on my laptop and my phone. It also has integrations with tools I use like Slack. I will discuss this a bit more in the next section. Start off simple. Don't have too many categories/projects etc. Just capture everything that comes in.
Revue and rate
Go over your list often and prioritize it. Make sure you are doing the most important things first. Creating a habit of going through your list every morning will make sure it is current as well as keep in mind the most important things only.
Set reminders if you need to. I use bots in Slack to remind me to do things at specific times. I also use it to remind others. Just be careful of information overload. If you use it too prolifically people will start to ignore the reminders, especially if it is for things they don't find too important.
Many people find the Pomodoro Technique really useful. It is especially useful when you have lots of little things that can distract you. Switching focus often can kill productivity so committing to spend at least a little time focused on one thing can make a huge difference. I use an app called Tide that does the job for me. It has a timer and can play music or white noise. This is perfect for when working in a noisy environment. As I write this I am in a noisy cafe but am listening to birds chirping, which I find less distracting than multiple conversations, moving chairs, and clinking cups.
Clear your mind
Meditation has a bad reputation among many people as the pastime of hippies and mystics but it is a useful skill to develop for those who value focus and clarity of thought. There are many practices you can use to achieve different things. I will briefly touch on a few that I use. There are many others and I encourage you to explore the options. I will mention some resources at the end of this section where you can start. Also note that I will only talk from my experience so what I write might not be 100% what you might find out in the wild, or even what you may experience yourself. Meditation is about as personal as it gets as it is your consciousness observing itself.
Here you focus on something in an effort to still your monkey mind. This isn't an evolutionary reference but more a comment on how our mind works. Just observe your inner monologue and attention as you read this. "What is this guy on about? Meditaiton! Really?", "Maybe I should try this?", "Can I move things with my mind?", "It seems really boring... I could do other things...I need to go to the shops... do I have milk in the fridge...". And so our mind goes on ceaselessly. We usually about as in control of our thoughts as a leaf in a river.
So in focused attention I focus on my breath. First I scan through my body and try release any tension felt with each out breath. As the mind goes off I bring it back to the breath and just focus on the up and down. The sensation around my nostrils. Sometimes I only hold my attention for a few seconds before it goes off again for a few minutes on some train of thought. When you realise you bring it back to the breath, and try again. This isn't a fight you are trying to win. You are just slowly training the brain to focus on what you want it to focus on. Not only that, your brain and your body will appreciate the moments of peace where you are not lost in thought.
Benefits: Increase mental focus, relax the body, decrease stress
Loving kindness is a technique for developing compassion for yourself and the people around you. This can have a profound impact on how you treat yourself and others.
As I near the end of my meditation I spend a few minutes cycling through the people in my life. I start with those most beloved to me and move out to colleagues and acquaintances, and eventually just general humanity. I visualize the person, or people (hard for all of humanity), and try generate feelings of compassion toward them while repeating the phrase "I am grateful for person X. I wish them peace, happiness, and freedom from suffering". That is it!
Benefits: Increase compassion for others, increase personal well-being, mend and tend relationships
I tend to lump this one in with my loving kindness but it is a distinct practice. After being appreciative of the people in my life I also make a point of reminding myself of other things I have to be appreciative of such as things, opportunities, and health.
Benefits: Peace and happiness
Resources for meditation
- Sam Harris has some guided meditation recordings
- Headspace is a subscription service to teach meditation but has a 10 day trial
- Practicing Mindfulness audible book from The Great Courses
- The Science of Mindfulness audible book from The Great Courses
This is a real simple one but it can be very helpful to block time in your calendar to do specific important tasks. This is useful if your calendar can quickly fill up with meeting requests. I block time to just be available for my team as well as for specific tasks.
Another little tip is to not accept meetings until you have been furnished with an agenda. This allows you to determine whether you really are the best person to be at that meeting, or if invitees are missing.
Although I stated productivity comes down to focus, we explored how to increase it from multiple prongs. Techniques and tips, training, and tools. Use what works for you but please try give all of them an honest try. I would love to hear what you use to keep focused. Please let me know in the comments below.