My Productivity Essentials

Kabbage.com wrote a great list about ways to be more productive.  It made me think about the ways I try to focus my attention and be more productive. These are all things I will need to use intelligently this year to be successful at home and at work.

I’m a lifelong procrastinator, and the Internet is a constant distraction. However, overall I’d say I do a fairly good job of accomplishing tasks, though naturally some take longer than they might need to. Here are a few things that I do to help keep me on track. Technically they’re sort of related to the same concept: Writing stuff down.

1. PAPER LIST

I make lists. Lists everywhere. I have the worst memory in the world, so if I don’t write it down, it disappears into the mist of my fogged-up brain. Over the last couple years, one of my mottos has become, “If it’s not on a list, it doesn’t exist.”

The main ‘tool’ I use lately is just a legal pad. I tend to make lists in two columns: a column on the left for personal to do items, and a column on the right for business tasks. Often these lists get very long and out of hand, for two reasons. One is that once I start writing things down, I think of other things that need to be done. Two is that I keep using the same list until I’ve crossed most of the things off. I love seeing the sea of cross-outs: a visual reminder of some good task-doing! Then I re-write the list on a fresh, clean page (and inevitably add to it. Lists never ever stop growing!).

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A subset of this is the whiteboard in our kitchen. It’s the household to-do list, sort of. There’s a spot for grocery lists (with columns for different stores), and there’s an area with that week’s happenings. Each day has a little space for any household events (recurring or unique), so that we always know what’s coming. Again, if things aren’t on those two lists/spaces, they don’t exist in my brain.

And check out this new book I just read about: Listful Thinking: Using Lists to Be More Productive, Successful and Less StressedRight up my alley! Hurray for lists! She has a blog that looks great too.

2. PAPER PLANNER

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For my day job, I use this Staples planner. A colleague of mine introduced me to this planner years ago; it was her favorite and she swore by it. We actually went together to a local Staples so I could pick one up myself, and I now swear by it too. It’s a Staples brand planner that has a monthly calendar page, and then for every one-week spread, the page on the left has a space for each day to jot down tasks and things, and then the page on the right is just empty lines for notes. This is AWESOME. I love it because all the notes for each week get taken right there. I don’t need to put notes other places, and I don’t need to worry about running out of space on a daily square. For example, during a team call, if there is a new project starting and I have some tasks, I take notes about all of that on that right-side page. Then later I can distill smaller tasks and write those on the daily spaces to the left.

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The only bad news is that I haven’t seen any other planner that does this, and it’s getting harder to find. This past year I could only find it in hardback, but this fall I found an academic-year version that was in softcover. I like the softcover because you can fold it and sit with it on your lap comfortably. You can order it online but you may need to hunt in your local Staples stores to see if it’s there.

3. NICE PENS

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I also have certain pens I like to use. I love these purple gel ballpoints (Pentel EnerGel 0.7mm) and I use them (and sometimes a blue version) exclusively for my to-do lists. They write smoothly and the lines are thick and pretty. Plus writing with pens like this feels a little more fancy and intentional than with a regular blue Bic, you know?

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I am also a little obsessed with pens from MUJI. They come in lots of happy colors, and in different tip sizes. I use these pens for writing in my paper calendar.

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There’s a store in the Jetblue Terminal at JFK, and I’ve totally had my husband buy me some pens when he’s traveling through there. When I went to NYC last summer, I made a point of going to the Sixth Avenue MUJI to buy a few more pens for myself. And next time I go I’m going to buy a whole bunch more. 🙂

4. CALENDAR

Of course I do use Google Calendar to keep track of everything electronically, but again, if it’s not right in front of my face, I won’t remember it. So I print out a paper calendar
to keep on my desk. (I don’t have the space for one of those huge desk calendars; otherwise I’d use one of those. I also don’t want to lug around a regular dayplanner, since I’ve got enough binders and crap on my desk as it is.) It’s actually a page from photographer planner that I have, but it’s just a general set of empty boxes. [A few years ago I made one like this myself in Word; it would be super easy to make one yourself.]

In this calendar, I write down all my photography-related events (meetings & sessions), days when my husband or I will be out of town, and any other scheduled event that either I will go to, like my book club, or that the whole family will attend, like a twins club party. I keep them in a plastic page protector so they stay clean, and then I can move it around with me if I need to. I have a month on each side of the protector, because there’s always things scheduled in the future! I also keep the previous months in there too, behind the current ones, just in case I want to go back and check something.

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PS, did you notice the title of that calendar page? HELLO WHAT? Two thousand twelve?!! Sigh.

5. TIMER

The Pomodoro Technique is something I’ve heard about around the internets and kept meaning to check out…but only did recently. It’s basically a time management tool to focus on specific tasks and improve disciple to get shit done. There’s an online Tomato Timer that you can use if you don’t have a kitchen timer or don’t want to involve your smart phone.

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I always have a zillion things on my to-do lists…sometimes I power through them all Bam! Bam! Bam! Check! Check! Check! and other times those items languish. Even if it’s not a tough thing to do, sometimes I just drag my feet for whatever reason. So last week I decided to finally tackle a couple of those tasks already. I started the Tomato Timer and got one item COMPLETED! I also intentionally focused on that one task instead of getting distracted by the two dozen open tabs in my browser, or checking on Facebook, or refreshing my email. I set the “short break” timer, and then when it buzzed, I started the task timer again and completed ANOTHER task! That one I finished with about 40 seconds to spare, and since I felt like I was on a roll, I went and did at least one other thing I’d been meaning to do. And I was still focused on each task as I worked on it. It really helped me see that things *don’t* take that long, and buckling down to just freaking DO THEM already feels a million times better than seeing them on my list, waiting and waiting for me. So I hope to take advantage of this concept a lot more this year, to help me be more efficient and disciplined with my time.

6. PRIORITIES

The last thing I try to keep in mind is that it’s important to use judgment about priorities. Of all the things on my list, some of them are related to hobbies or fun stuff, and when I get into a time crunch, I know that I can ignore that stuff. When work gets busy, I know that it’s perfectly fine to let personal/hobby stuff fall by the wayside. I *want* to do All the Things, and I’m usually more excited about the Want-To-Do’s, but I know that the Need-To-Do’s come first. (I got behind on this blog and Project Life and some other stuff because I was working on actual work stuff most of the time. And I don’t like having those other tasks sitting on the list, but I know that it’s also not a big deal.)  Sometimes I go through my list and put a star or circle around the priority tasks for that day, as an additional prompt and visual reminder that it’s GO TIME.

What are your best productivity tips and tools? Have you used one of the timers or other time-management apps?

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