A Lesson in Productivity

Posted by Aaron West at 10:31 PM in Productivity, Personal, GTD, Mac

Who among us does not have the desire to be more productive when it comes to spending time on a computer? Whether it's sifting through hundreds of e-mail, managing several to-do lists, or finding that obscure MP3 among thousands, it is a constant challenge to stay productive when working on my mac. Many times I find myself drifting from task to task without completing anything. Sometimes an e-mail will spawn something that I need to do, other times, I make my own lists of things that need to be done. Examples include updates to my Web site, tutorials that I want to write, e-mail that needs a response, and Adobe user group related tasks. All these items come together, at times halting my productivity, because I'm doing a poor job managing things. I equate juggling all these tasks to the term "DLL Hell" as it relates to the Linux platorm. Let me explain. When you install software on Linux, you often realize you're missing an important component (or DLL) that is required in order to get the software to run. So, you venture off to find that DLL or software piece only to discover that it too has a dependency you're missing. It doesn't take long to get lost in "DLL Hell," searching for all the necessary components. Sometimes this same thing happens to my task list. I start one task only to discover another and another.

So, I decided to combat the confusion and discover better ways to use my mac ultimately breaking bad habits and adopting good ones. What follows are changes I've made that have made the difference.

Better E-Mail Management
In the June 2005 issue of Macworld there was an article called "Secrets of Mac Superheroes." In the article, various Mac experts shared secrets that help them make the most of their time and get the most from their Macs. While the article was Mac-focused the ideas can be applied to a Windows computer as well. I took particular interest in the portion of the article that dealt with getting your e-mail under control, since I receive hundreds of e-mail a day.

The article starts off:

Each e-mail message in your inbox demands your time and attention. Filters and rules are great for reducing some of that demand, shunting easily defined mail such as e-newsletters and personal notes to their appropriate folders. But important e-mail messages are often hard to define and organize with automatic, rules-based management. They require filters and rules that reside only in your brain.

The article goes on to describe a method of e-mail organization (largely based on David Allen's book Getting Things Done) that shuns filters and rules. Given this type of e-mail management has been part of my routine for the better part of 10 years I was more than hesitant to abandon my current workflow. Nevertheless, I proceeded.

The first recommended steps involved creating special folders in my mail program that categorize messages by the actions they require. They are as follows:

Your Inbox folder should contain ONLY those messages that you have not yet read or processed. With all your rules and filters turned off every single message - except for spam - will be initially stored here. As you process each message you'll make a decision on where the messsage should be moved.

Any message that requires a short response, one taking a minimum amount of your time, should be placed here. Responses to these message will be sent periodically throughout the day.

Messages that require detailed or time-consuming responses, or that illicit additional work, should be placed here.

Messages that need to be temporarily held or remembered should be placed here. These are typically messages that require you to do something but that don't need a reply. For example, I have a Flex community presentation that I need to view but I haven't had time yet, so the e-mail with the presentation details is temporarily stored in the Hold folder. The Macworld article mentions other appropriate items such as messages containing package-tracking URL's. The key here is to prune items in this folder weekly. I need to watch the Flex breezo today!

Messages that will require action in the future but are waiting on some other outside factor - such as someone giving you specific information - should go here. For instance, I've been notified an account activation e-mail is on its way. Once that e-mail arrives further action by me will be required. Until that e-mail arrives, I have the notification e-mail sitting in the Waiting folder.

The Archive folder is for ALL other e-mail. In my case, I moved all of my specific folders - that were previously set up with rules - into this folder. Instead of having messages directed to these sub-folders automatically, I manually move them as necessary as I review my main Inbox (see below for more information).

Once all the folders are in place and all your rules and filters are removed or disabled, reviewing your Inbox means focusing on the action each individual message requires. The Macworld article puts it like this:

If [a message] requires action, either do it now or put it in the right folder for deferred action. If not, archive it or delete it.

Whenever you're in doubt about where to file something, ask yourself whether you can just respond or act immediately. Like a short-order cook, you want to stay focused on making sandwiches, not on putting the orders into pretty piles.

If you can knock off a reply the first time you see a message, do so. But if you accumulate items that need a bit more attention, concentrate on getting them all in the right place, and then go back to your work - return only when you have time to start chipping away. Above all, don't let unprocessed mail live in your inbox: this is a lazy habit that invites procrastination, guilt, and inaction.

The last piece to the e-mail productivity puzzle is to change how often you are working with your e-mail. Many people have their e-mail programs set to check for new messages every minute or so. Doing this creates upwards of 500 interruptions in your day. As I thought about this I realized every time a new message was downloaded to my computer I stopped whatever I was doing and immediately went to read the message. Every time this happened I was forced to spend 5-10 minutes getting back on task. After setting my e-mail to check for new messsages every 30 minutes I was absolutely amazed at how more in-control I felt. After all, very few messages require a response within minutes. With this change, I found myself opening my Inbox maybe 2 times an hour. As the article suggests, I would "get in and get out" spending only a few minutes ticking off those quick responses and sorting my messages into the right action or archive folders. E-Mail has now become more about decisions regarding replying immediately or waiting until I have more time. I've also found, with this change, that I am more able to keep up with important e-mail, follow through on tasks and e-mail responses, and keep myself from forgetting important information. It's like a dream come true!

Managing Ideas and Todo Items with OmniOutliner
With my e-mail under control it was time to take a hard look at my todo lists. I'll admit it, I've been a post-it note guy as long as I can remember. There's something oddly glamorous (call me crazy) about filling out lots of post-its and sticking them all over your desk. I typically do it for short notes and information that I want to remember for the next couple of days - but not forever. Unfortunately, these little pieces of paper tend to go missing very easily. Whether it's the cleaning crew's attempt at organizing my desk or me accidentally discarding them. While I've used all sorts of virtual post-its - for both Windows and OS X - they've never worked well for me. Plus, I need something that will work for general project notes, meeting notes, conference note taking, and those simple todo's. I had remembered a co-worker talking about a program called OmniOutliner so I looked it up. For a product to have a tagline like "Capture your ideas, organize your universe" it must be good. And quite honestly, I needed my universe organized (in more ways that one).

It's been two weeks since I downloaded the OmniOutliner trial. Besides Apple Mail, the program has become the most used in my software toolbox. I take it (and my Powerbook) everywhere. I take notes in meetings, I keep track of my development projects, my general todo's and more. The easiest (though likely not the best) way to describe OmniOutliner is that it's a glorified, quick way, to bullet point stuff. You start typing and tabbing and pressing enter as you blast through ideas and agendas and topics of discussion. Each entry in your document gets a checkbox for marking when the item has been completed. OmniOutliner documents can each be customized with specific columns that relate to the subject matter. For instance, many of my development projects have a column for the date the item was added to the list. Not only do I like to track things that are completed but I also like to know how long it took me. New in version 3 of OmniOutliner are styles. You can now assign font colors, sizes, background colors and more to all the different aspects of your documents. You can save your styled documents as templates for quick creation of new documents. Other features include AppleScript support and multiple export options (Keynote, RTF, etc). The professional version includes additional features such as named styles, audio recording, and a "clipping" feature used to easily document and track URL's or text selections seamlessly without copying and pasting.

As I mentioned previously, OmniOutliner is one of my new best friends. It's versatility and usefulness make it easily worth the $39.99 ($69.95 for the professional edition) price tag.

Quick Access to Programs, Contacts, Tunes and more with LaunchBar 4
The last software gem I want to mention is called LaunchBar 4. LaunchBar is a productivity utility giving Mac users an easy and efficient way to search your computer and the Web. (NOTE, yes Tiger's Spotlight is very similar to LaunchBar. LaunchBar however runs on Panther as well as Tiger.) By entering short abbreviations you can gain instant access to programs, address book entries, your music library, bookmarks, search engines and more. Once LaunchBar is running, you simple type Command-Space to bring up a small search box. As soon as you start to type LaunchBar begins pilfering through your machine bringing you the most relevant information it finds (at near lightning speeds). For instance, let's say you quickly wanted to play music from the Rock genre in iTunes. Or maybe you want to know how many rock tunes are in your library. By bringing up the LaunchBar search box (Command-Space) and entering the text "rock" you'd quickly be given a quick entrance to your rock music including how many tracks there are in that genre. Or, let's say you are knee deep in application windows and you need to get to your desktop fast. Just type "desk" and press enter and wala, a new Finder window pops up with your Desktop as the chosen folder.

You can also launch applications without having to click them in the Dock or find them in your Applications folder. For instance, typing "net" in the LaunchBar window (and pressing enter) immediately launches NetNewsWire on my system. Google searches couldn't be more easy either. Just type "gep" (which stands for Google Exact Phrase) and enter some search terms to send Google your query. For more information on how you can use LaunchBar more effectively visit their tips section of their site here.

One thing has become strikingly apparent: there are always, always better ways to do things. Reading the Macworld article on productivity really started me down the right path. I'm more aware than ever that it's too easy to become comfortable in the way we do things. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, the benefits of investigating our habits and altering the way we do things for the better pays huge dividends. I encourage everyone reading this to think about your own habits and how you can work more productively. What's the worse that could happen?

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This entry was posted by Aaron West on April 10, 2006 at 10:31 PM. It was filed in the following categories: Productivity, Personal, GTD, Mac. It has been viewed 6941 times and has 0 comments.

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