A few months ago during my first end of year review at Microsoft I was doing an assessment of my year. One of my personal goals to come out of this reflection was to improve my personal productivity. While I hear many people say “I wish I had more hours in the day so that I could get more done” I feel like that is the wrong approach. There is an inherent assumption that you are being productive with your time that you already have and thus more time would allow you to be as productive given more time.
Instead of wishing I could add more hours to the day I’ve begun adopting a number of processes or behavior changes in my personal life to make better use of my time with the goal of improving productivity. The areas of focus are as follows:
- Personal health
Note: A number of these topics have spawned from reading Scott Hanselman’s blog posts on productivity, reading of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, and discussions with friends and coworkers who had great insights into this topic.
Pre-reading / viewing:
Its Not What You Read Its What You Ignore (Scott Hanselman video)
I highly recommend Scott Hanselman’s video above and this post before continuing with this article. It is well worth the 40+ mins price of admission for the video and couple minutes for article. One key takeaway for me was listing out my activities in an average week and realizing which ones held little or no value to me. We all have a finite amount of time to work each day. Do you know how much time and effort you spend on various aspects of your life (family, friends, religion, work, personal happiness, etc.)? Do your actions and commitments reflect your priorities?
The biggest time consumers with little value for me were time spent on social media services (Twitter and Facebook), playing an MMO video game, and watching TV. I still check up on Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft internal chat forums, and other services to keep contact with others but I’ve reduced that time significantly. As for TV I’ve cut the cord and no longer subscribe to cable TV. Instead I use Netflix, RedBox, and over the air channels but again with reduced time consumption. With the time I’ve freed up I’m back to working out 2-3 times a week and reading 4 nights a week (both of which I had been neglecting previously). I’ll mention a few tools for helping measure your time in the Tools section.
Do not multi-task. I’ll say it again. Do not multi-task. There is no such thing as multi tasking. The human brain is optimized to work on one thing at a time. When you are “multi-tasking” you are really doing 2 or more things at less than 100%, usually by a wide margin. I take pride in my work and when I’m doing something less than 100% the results typically degrade rapidly.
Now there are some ways of bending the rules of physics for this one. There is the notion of getting a double amount of work done in the same timeframe. Some examples would be listening to podcasts / watching a movie while working out, using a treadmill as your work desk, or reading while in the bathroom.
Personally I’ve found good results in combining one task that does not require focus (making dinner, playing certain video games, working out) and one task that does (watching a movie, listening to podcasts). I believe this is related to me being a visual and kinesthetic (using my hands or actually doing it) learner. I’m terrible with auditory learning. My fiance and I joke that sometimes we talk and talk to each other but never really hear each other.
Goals / Tasks
Goals can give us direction in life and a sense of accomplishment when we complete them. Goals can also overwhelm us and give us a sense of failure when we don’t complete them. I propose that you shift your perspective and not dwell on all of the things that you haven’t gotten done, but focus instead on regularly setting measureable goals that are within reason of accomplishing.
At the end of each time frame have a retrospective to review your progress. Do not feel guilty about what you did not accomplish. Feel proud of what you did accomplish and readjust your goals for the next time frame to more attainable goals. Here is a sample schedule I’ve seen proposed by some. I have not consistently set goals for each timeframe, but I do typically set 3 small goals a day (this blog post is #2 for today).
- Each day set 3 small goals
- Each week set 3 medium goals
- Each month set 1 large goal
- Each year set 2 very large goals
Tools are an extension of our human body. They help us extend beyond what we can physically and mentally do. Below are some tools I use almost daily or have found useful as of late.
Disclaimer: I am not getting endorsed to promote any of these products. I just happen to like them and find them useful.
Stacks for Instapaper – A Windows Phone 7 app for reading my Instapaper articles on the go. It does require a subscription to Instapaper (nominal $3 every three months) but is easily worth the cost. Alternatively you can set up your Kindle to sync with Instapaper easily but I haven’t done so.
News.me – News.me is a web service that will aggregate the top stories from your Facebook or Twitter stream and then send you a daily email. I used to use a service that got bought by Twitter a few months ago, but I’ve honestly forgotten the name of that company. I now use a combination of News.me and Instapaper to read news stories on my time schedule instead of constantly checking Twitter all day long.
SlapDash Podcast – Apps for Windows Phone and Windows 8 (possibly other platforms) to sync podcast viewing / listening across multiple devices. Now that I have my Surface RT device (which I love) this is making my consumption easier to manage.
Feed Reader – Simple Windows 8 app for quickly catching up on my RSS feeds. I used to have hundreds of unread items all the time. Now I’m down to 20-50 regularly and it is much easier and faster to consume on my Surface RT. There is also a free version (which I use) and I can’t see much different between the free and paid versions currently.
Rescue Time – Have you ever wondered how much time you’ve spent on websites vs. email vs. “doing work”? This service tracks your computer actions and then lets you report on them. This can help you quantitatively identify areas where your actions are not in line with your priorities.
PowerShell – Windows automation tool. It is now built into every client and server OS. This tool has saved me days (and I mean the full 24 hrs worth) of time and effort in the past year alone. If you haven’t started learning PowerShell and are administrating any Windows OS or server product you need to start learning PowerShell today.
Various blogging tools – I wrote a post a couple years ago called How I Blog about my blogging process and tools used. Almost all of it still applies today.
Some of these may be common sense or debatable, but I’ve found them to help prioritize my daily activities.
- Get plenty of sleep on a regular basis. Sacrificing sleep too many nights a week negatively impacts your cognition, attitude, and overall health.
- Exercise at least three days. Exercise could be lifting weights, taking the stairs up multiple flights of stairs, walking for 20 mins, or a number of other “non-traditional” activities. I find that regular exercise helps with sleep and improves my overall attitude.
- Eat a well balanced diet. Too much sugar, caffeine, junk food, etc. are not good for your body. This is not a matter of losing weight but taking care of your body and helping you perform at your peak potential.
Email can be one of the biggest time consumers (i.e. waster) if you aren’t careful.
- Time box your email usage. Set a meeting invite for yourself if necessary to limit how much time you spend checking email.
- Use rules to prioritize your email. Email from external customers, my manager, or include me directly on the To line go into my inbox. Everything else goes a level down and I have 30+ rules to further sort it, mostly distribution lists.
- Use keyboard shortcuts (when available). I use Outlook for my primary email and am constantly hitting Alt + S to send, Ctrl + 1 for my inbox, Ctrl + 2 for my calendar, Space / Tab / Shift + Tab to mark items as read, and a number of other useful commands. Learn them and you’ll see your speed getting through emails increase.
- Keep emails short.
No oneFew people like reading through long emails. The first line should state exactly why you are sending the email followed by a 3-4 lines to support it. Anything longer might be better suited as a phone call or in person discussion.
In this post I walked through various tips and tricks I’ve found for improving personal productivity. It is a mix of re-focusing on the things that matter, using tools to assist in your efforts, and cutting out actions that are not aligned with your priorities. I originally had a whole section on keyboard shortcuts, but with my recent purchase of the Surface RT I’m finding that touch gestures have replaced numerous keyboard commands that I used to need. I see a big future in touch enabled devices. Hopefully some of these tips help you out. If you have any tools, tips, or ideas you would like to share feel free to add in the comments section.
Scott Hanselman Productivity posts
Overcome your work addiction
Millennials paralyzed by choice
Its Not What You Read Its What You Ignore (video)
Cutting the cord – Jeff Blankenburg
Building a sitting standing desk – Eric Harlan
Stacks for Instapaper
Windows Phone –
Windows 8 –
PowerShell Script Center