Posted in Podcast

Season 2 Episode 8 of Being Productive is out!

This time I’m digging into two articles about timeblocking and habits vs. routines. Some interesting stuff if you’re looking for practical recommendations on managing repetitive activities and your schedules working from home full time.

Season 2 Episode 8 – Timeblocking and Habits vs Routines

The key to productivity is distinguishing ‘habits’ from ‘routine’ –

Popular Time-Blocking or Time-Management Techniques You Can Use While Working Remotely –

Posted in Strategy, Tools

Productively dealing with life after a crisis

It’s been about three months now since our family crisis happened and put my productivity solutions to the test. It is time to review what worked, what didn’t, and share what I learned from the experience.

To recap, at the beginning of December my father was struck with a rare spinal disorder resulting in near full paralysis of his arms and legs. He has since recovered some mobility but has a long way yet to go. His inability to do the things he did before both at work and at home created dozens of challenges we needed to cope with to help him and my mother both return to as normal a life as possible.

As the immediate challenges were dealt with we moved onto the long term support and care issues that so few of us are prepared to handle. This is again where my personal productivity systems and tools shined as well as fell on their face. For example let’s talk about dealing with insurance companies and health care providers.

The amount of information you need to go through when it comes to health insurers is staggering. Now add to that government organizations such as Medicare and the fact that you’re doing it for someone else and you can easily wind up buried under details and have no idea where to start. Yet again, this is where the capture part of my system shined. By capturing copies of government handbooks, insurance benefit breakdowns, and contact information for everyone involved I had the resources and information I needed on hand whenever I had to place a call to get something handled.

On my Chromebook Pro I leverage a tool called Squid to allow me to capture handwritten notes as well as mark up PDF files as easily as using a pen and paper. More than once Squid let me pull up an email from a provider, open a PDF, fill out a form, sign in, and email it back within minutes. No printing, no paper, no problem. Unfortunately Squid does not sync across multiple devices but aside from that limitation it proved to be an invaluable asset.

The second growing challenge was managing research. We suddenly had to deal with hospital beds, Hoyer lifts, manual wheelchairs, power wheelchairs, and a host of other things we knew little about. Being able to capture the manuals, web sites, YouTube videos, and more about the equipment we needed to put in place meant the difference between success and failure when it came to getting him situated back at home. Normally I would use OneNote from Microsoft for this type of work, but it was also about this time I started using a new tool that has become a staple of my system…Notion.

Notion is a text and information management system that carries many of the features of OneNote (except for digital ink) and adds to the mix more powerful database style features. Creating templates, setting up tables, creating kanban style boards for tracking tasks, and adding calendars meant I had only one tool I had to rely on. The mobile applications are strong and reliable as well as fast and flexible. I don’t doubt I could have duplicated the majority of what I needed in OneNote or Evernote but Notion just made it easier.

The third challenge was handling all the unexpected processes of my father’s daily life that only he is aware of how to handle. For example, during a recent high wind storm they lost power for a number of hours at their home. Normally this would be a non-issue with my father firing up their generator and switching over their house to the bypass feeds. Notice I say my father since he was the only one who knew how to do it. Having to work through the process myself involved running back and forth, taking and sharing photos with him to make sure things were switched properly, and then working through the steps in a distant part of the home.

Since that time I’ve been making my own checklists and aides for going through the processes at their house that may need to be done without him being able. It’s having to do this that has compelled me to do the same in my own home, something that I should have done in the past, and if a crisis had arisen would have been a huge failure of my systems.

So what have I learned or validated through all this?

  1. Take time to process your information. Capture alone does not a solid system make.

  2. Keep in mind that at some point someone else may have to use your systems.

  3. A small investment in a good system and tools pays huge dividends over time

  4. No matter how many tools you try, the best one for you is the one you use.

  5. The most dangerous things to your system are the things that slip through the cracks. Not only are things missed but it erodes confidence in your system for you and others.

Time will tell if more changes are needed but for now the system I use (CPR – Capture, Process, Report) is doing what it should and keeping me on top of things for the most part. So long as I maintain a current, flexible solution I’m confident I can handle most things thrown my way.

Posted in Techniques

Handling a Crisis

No matter how hard we plan there are times when adversity strikes and throws all our efforts off the rails. We’ve likely all experienced this at one time or another. In my own case it was quite recent, quite traumatic, and continues as an ongoing challenge.

Recently a member of my immediate family was struck by a sudden, severe illness resulting in the loss of movement and self-care. There was no warning, no early signs, no time to prepare. Within a matter of hours, the damage was done, catapulting my world into a level of chaos I was unprepared for but from which I did not have the opportunity to take time to recover. It was this situation that put my systems and tools to a level of test I had never expected nor designed them for.

The first test came in the need to manage the flow of communications to a large group of people unexpectedly. Normally our processes help us manage a controlled distribution of information, sending emails and texts, making calls, all with an even-handed approach. When crisis strikes, smooth control is exchanged with a firehose of demands and information. To my luck this is where the first part of my system came to my rescue.

I maintain all the contact information I need for family and friends in my smartphone. Now in any given month I may make a dozen calls. Most of my communications are electronic rather than voice. Within the first hours of the event I had made a dozen calls and that was only the beginning. I needed an immediate way to organize the contact information for instant access without wasting time searching.

Using the launcher on my smartphone, Evie launcher if you’re an Android user, I created a launcher page and added direct shortcuts to the most direct method to reach each key contact. For some that was a voice call, for others a text message. The important part was I didn’t need to remember what worked best for each person once the decision had been made. From that point on I could reach out to whomever I needed with just a tap.

I have thought about if it would have been more efficient, for those who use text messaging at least, to create a group text message and broadcast the updates. I decided against that due to the CC effect we all know can happen. Control of information flow was the paramount need more than convenience.

The next challenge was handling the massive influx of information I had to parse, understand, react to, and share. This is where the long-practiced habit of capture everything came into play. Unfortunately, this also revealed the largest weakness in my capture tools.

My capture tools are set up to handle a certain volume of incoming information at any time. The format could vary, but the amount never exceeded a reasonable level, such as action items during a staff meeting. This wasn’t the case any longer. Now I had information coming at me as fast as Eminem lyrics and there was no time to organize as I went. I had to capture as I went, starting and stopping at a moment’s notice, then circle back to make sense when a moment of quiet was found.

My saving grace was the ability to take handwritten notes on my smartphone. I know the argument will be made that typing could be faster (it isn’t) or that voice notes could be captured (they can’t when you’re trying to listen to a doctor or nurse on the phone) but what it came down to is I needed to write down and move on rather than worrying about auto-correct. Yes, you could accomplish the same thing with analog notebooks for the most part but for me the digital tools offered more advantages than disadvantages. Regardless of the tool, the process of immediate capture was critical, especially when you are operating on four hours of sleep out of 48 hours.

As the immediate crisis evolved into an ongoing support and care effort again, I fell back on my systems to provide the support I needed so I could provide the support needed from me. When a family member was worried and wanted to know what was going on, being able to look up the name of doctor, diagnosis, testing protocol, or treatment option not only provided information but also peace of mind. Nothing is more disconcerting than the phrase “I don’t know” when a loved one is in crisis.

If you’ve ever had a loved one in the hospital you know there are great stretches of waiting broken up with periods of stress, uncertainty, and doubt. I forced myself to follow my own advice and use those periods of waiting to process the information and formulate plans of actions and questions to ask. It sounds cold and clinical, but it truly kept me from breaking down and curling up into an overwhelmed ball of worry.

The idle time could be used looking up information, researching terms and courses of treatment to be followed, learning about tests and approaches for diagnosis. My normal tool of choice would have been OneNote but due to the need for rapid capture of text, handwriting, and images, and the subsequent sharing of that information I dove headfirst into Google Keep. I was willing to sacrifice the more structured parts of my system in deference to speed and flexibility.

Finally came the issue of continuing information access. Living wills, power of attorney documents, insurance documents all started to accumulate. Some were here, some were there, some were in “secure locations”, but all were needed at a moment’s notice when questions arose. Google Drive became my repository, not only for capacious storage but because of image scanning and folder sharing as well. I needed a way to have a file cabinet in my pocket and share that file cabinet with my sibling so we both had the information we needed at any time.

I’ll admit that if I looked at my productivity systems with a critical eye, I would cringe and likely chastise myself for allowing things to become so “imperfect”. But after the past few weeks I have yet again needed to remind myself the “perfect” system is a fool’s errand, and the single tool for all needs a unicorn in the forest. Holding to the core tenets of my system (capture, process, report) is what made the difference for me, not the tool I was using.

It is in the crucible of real life that we and our systems are tested. Only there do we know whether our hours of preparation and design have been worth the effort. Only there can we discover if we truly have a system we can trust. I don’t wish this kind of test on my worst enemy, but it has reminded me of a saying we should all follow when trying to be productive, “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

I’ve often said that productivity is, “doing the right things at the right times in the right ways.” Now I know that is a narrow and almost arrogant definition. True productivity is about systems handling the small things so we can focus on the most important project of all…life.

Posted in Strategy

I’m so busy I must be important

Ever wonder why when you ask someone how they are the reply is, “Busy” we nod and agree that yes, we are busy too even if we may not be? Busy is worn as a badge of importance and success. It’s as if you’re not busy, you lack value and are not contributing to society as a whole. People “hustle”, or “work their side gig”, and we acknowledge with a little sympathy their level of activity as a measure of their importance. But how true is this?  Are we disguising our inability to manage our time and activity levels with updated jargon to make overwork appear to be a good thing? Why do we candy coat the fact we are working two or more jobs with the perception that one of them is us “hustling?”

In Episode 69 of NPR’s Hidden Brain, the idea of busyness being worn as a badge of honor is discussed briefly as part of the overall concept of value based on public perception. Think about the last small talk conversation you had with an acquaintance. If you asked them, “How are things going?” and they replied, “Good.  Not much is going on so I’m just taking it easy” how would you react?  Perhaps a twinge of jealousy at their available time because you’re so busy.  Maybe a question or judgement about why they don’t have more going on? Or just maybe a thought, “Wow, I have so much going on. Too bad he/she can’t achieve more like me. I need to do more things to make sure I’m even more busy, because busy is where happy is.”

It’s the last sentence where the lie lies. Some people are exceptionally happy when they’re busy; running full speed all the time. Others, not so much. What kind of a person are you?  Do you prefer to be busy, always ticking off boxes and updating your lists as you knock down one task after another? Are you a person who would rather savor your idle time over finding ways to fill the hours? It is the false equivalence that busy people are happy people that trips up so many.

We wait longingly for the idle paradise of our vacations, but then take our computers with us to check on email and statues because, if we’re not busy, we’re not valuable. Many cultures encourage and praise the concept of idle time as a matter of success, or at least did in the past. We’ve taken the concept of working to have non-work time and turned it into non-work time being a nigh impossible goal. This isn’t just employment focused either. We watch our children’s sporting events with smartphones in hand, checking social media and text messaging to line up the next activities for the day and week. We measure our lives based on our activity level over our satisfaction level. What can we do to flip this equation and focus on the value of not being busy?

If you want to truly revel in being productive you have to look at completed tasks as successful accomplishments, not as openings to stick something in their place. Taking time to not “do” anything but rather focus on resetting your mind, your body, and your goals can be the best “busy work” you could do for yourself. The next time someone asks how you are, try answering “Busy, but I’m getting better” and see how they react. It’s a good use of your time no matter what.



Posted in Uncategorized

Five ways to have a more productive weekend

Weekends are supposed to be times for rest, relaxation, and recharging to prepare you for the return to work on Monday. More often than not weekends become collections of chores, errands, and tasks you didn’t have time for during the week. Add in activities, events, and other commitments and the rest of the weekend quickly disappears.  Here’s some tips on getting more out of your weekend without burning yourself out.
1. Schedule time in your weekend for “down time”. Don’t count on finding that time in-between your planned activities. Allot time on your calendar specifically for yourself and consider relaxing as important as those other chores on your list.
2. Set realistic expectations. Don’t try to accomplish every possible thing you could cram into your weekend. Be reasonable and set your goals for things you want and need to accomplish with the understanding that this is time you can run at a slower pace and completed tasks may be fewer but just as important.
3. Set a reward task. We need to remind ourselves we’ve done good work and the weekend is the time to do that. Add a task to your weekend that is a reward to yourself for being productive and focused during the week.  Maybe it’s a special coffee Sunday morning or a walk through the park Saturday afternoon, in any case it doesn’t have to b big and expensive, but it does have to make you feel good and encourage you to keep up your good work.
4. Take time to plan the next week. If you take time to make sure you’re planned and ready for the next week, then stress levels are lower and you get to enjoy your time off. Set a specific time in your weekend to do your planning and any time your mind wanders back to the regular week, remind yourself that you have time to deal with that already set aside and return your mind to what you’re doing.
5. Keep a notebook with you. I know this sounds a little counter-intuitive to rest and relaxation, but it actually is a huge benefit when it comes to being in the moment. Rather than having thoughts about work and the coming week rattling around in our heads, trying to remember them while we’re trying to relax, just jot the thoughts down and move on. When it comes to planning time you can walk back through the thoughts you’ve captured with confidence that nothing will slip through the cracks.
Taking time to recharge your batteries, physically, mentally, and emotionally when you have down time is critical to being productive during the rest of your activities. Now…enjoy your weekend!