Category Archives: Productivity
Several times already since February when the new version of Remember The Milk came out, I’ve considered moving my “Work” to do list into it, merging it with all of my personal tasks. I’ve loved Remember The Milk for a long time even when it’s design was questionable and there was no native (or “native”) app. But when RTM made a huge update to all their apps, they definitively reasserted their competitiveness in the field of To Do List Apps (despite the fact that they’re an 11 person organization and three of their employees share a last name with the two co-founders and one of the 11 people is a stuffed monkey).
Much like Rands (aka Michael Lopp), I try out productivity solutions whenever I hear of a new one. The main reason I’ve been so hesitant to move my Work Stuff into Remember The Milk is because I feel like I need the separation there. On the evenings or weekends, or even when I just want to see if there’s any personal stuff I can knock out, I don’t want to have to see all the work stuff that I need to do. I still think about it… Especially as we approach the start of a new year and I think about all the ways I can
procrastinate by pretending I’m becoming more efficient continue my journey of self improvement. But in the mean time, here’s why I think that the new Remember The Milk is the solution.
(Note that this post is not intended to convince anyone to start pursuing a path toward a productivity system, or dictate how such a system should work. It pretty much assumes that you already use one or more apps or that you have some sort of productivity system already in place. It’s also not a step-by-step how-to because you can get that other places and it would take me forever to repeat what others have done better. This is mostly just to promote Remember The Milk because I use it and love it.)
It Feels Solid, Yet Easy To Use
I know this is very difficult to quantify and/or qualify objectively, but it’s also the most important thing for me when I am essentially unloading my mind into “the cloud.” I want an app that feel like scaffolding on which I can build a skyscraper of productivity. Or, since it’s that time of year, a tree on which I can hang bright lights and shiny ornaments and have people marvel at how I have it up right after Thanksgiving. I don’t want something that feels like scaffolding on a rainy or icy day. Oh, sorry… continuing the wrong metaphor. I don’t want an app that feels like a stocking full of little trinkets where I have to unpack the whole thing to find what I’m looking for.
With Remember The Milk, I don’t get the feeling that I’m going to lose or misplace something (in the digital realm at least). Remember The Milk isn’t the only app I’ve tried that feels solid and secure. Most of those that give me that feeling, though, also feel cumbersome, like there’s a trade-off between feeling like To Do items won’t get lost in a red velvet sock filled with them and the ability to quickly add new items.
Remember The Milk makes entering new tasks easy, fluid, almost frictionless, whether you use the short cuts available on the web site or “native” app (# for lists or tags, ! for priority, @ for location, ^ for due date, * for repeating tasks, = for time estimates) or whether you are entering tasks via the mobile app. Look at this layout:
Everything is there – you can add every piece of metadata with two taps. Adding due dates at a specific time takes a couple extra taps, and sometimes adding tags requires typing in the first couple of letters, but even when you want to do that, the interface provides enough room that you don’t struggle with it.
The app I use for Work To Dos (which shall rename nameless), has actually gone backwards in terms of the interface for entering tasks; a big reason I’ve considered moving them over into RTM. Some parts are clean and efficient, some parts feel cluttered and confusing or make me feel like I’m using the app wrong.
You Can Postpone Tasks Quickly
Getting Things Done purists will argue that having a due date for most of your tasks goes against the natural decision making process that GTD encourages by discouraging due dates entirely. However, finding a system that works has to be a matter of personal preference: A system that doesn’t fit the exact model prescribed by any productivity guru but that you’ll actually use is always better than a system that conforms to specific rules which falls by the wayside before you even hit a rough patch.
With that preface out of the way: I use due dates. Mostly because Remember The Milk (like every other app I’ve tried) makes it easiest to view a list of tasks that are due Today. When you open them up, they default to the Today view, so I use a due date of Today as more of a “Next Action” tag than an actual hard and fast due date. (There David Allen, you happy?)
The only problem with using a due date of Today as a Next Action tag is the next day when the app thinks that a tasks is Overdue. Most apps make assigning a new Due Date pretty easy (which makes sense since they force the Today list on you), but Remember The Milk does it as good as the best and better than most. Witness:
That’s 6 options right off the bat. Most apps I’ve used provide a decent variety of options for quickly changing due dates, but the ones they provide are not as useful (to me at least). RTM’s options make it easy to say:
- “This is still a high priority – make it due tomorrow”, or
- “This isn’t that important, I’ll do it in 2 or 3 days” or
- “This is something I wanted to do this weekend, but I didn’t get to it and I know I won’t do it during the week, so make it due next weekend”, or even
- “This was something that I already postponed and I still haven’t gotten to it, so put it off by a whole month”
And if you don’t want one of the predefined choices, “Pick interval” allows you to pick a date in a number of days, weeks, months, or even years, with a couple taps (instead of having to scroll through one of the date picker wheels that most apps use).
In the web and native app, there are also keyboard shortcuts that make it easy to postpone tasks (as well as adding new ones – using the punctuation I mentioned in the previous section). All these combos make it easy to keep your list(s) up-to-date and manageable and still focus on the things that need to get done.
Add To Dos From the Browser on Your Phone
This is a smaller one, and something that other apps also provide, but again, Remember The Milk it does efficiently and effectively. To get things into RTM, I used to have to email links to myself for entry later, or copy the link on a mobile phone (which in my experience can be tricky). The best part about RTM’s integration is that they have a URL field as a distinct part of the metadata so when you save a link from the web it pre-populates the task with the name of the page and the URL field. All you have to do is pick a date (or not, up to you) and a list (again, not required if you just want to save it to your default list and then move it when you get to your weekly review). The other fields like Priority and Tags are also available when saving from the browser (or not, it depends on the default fields which are configurable).
I mentioned it above, but it bears repeating. The URL field is key. When you have a repeating task like “Check fantasy team” or “Enter this contest every day”, having a URL as a separate field keeps it from cluttering up the task description (even if it’s a clickable link from that description field).
Wide Range of Tag Colors
This is another thing that seems fairly mundane, but when you have a wide variety of tag colors to choose from, it means you can choose a different color (or one shade with a light background to distinguish it from another shade with a dark background) for different concepts and then you can just glance at your list(s) to see what kind of tasks you have to do.
I use this (though not as consistently as I should) to get an idea if I’m doing the right kinds of tasks. I have different label colors for “finances”, “fun”, “ltg” (long term goals), “writing”, “gtd” (getting things done), “tv”, “profdev” (professional development). If I look at a day and don’t see many colorful little tags next to my tasks, it’s an easily identifable sign that I’m probably working on things that aren’t that important (because they don’t fit into a project or category that I’ve already predefined). I can also see at a glance if I’ve got a good balance of writing and fun and professional development.
I’d provide a screenshot of that too, but it would take a lot of work to redact all the personal stuff that I don’t want to publish on the web, so here’s one that will give you the idea (from PCMag):
Hopefully this list has provided you with a little incentive to try out Remember The Milk for your productivity system (though if you’re like me, it probably won’t take much convincing to sign up and at least kick the tires).
Since 2013, when I read about Ramit’s Year of Taking Control theme, I decided I would come up with themes for my years. I actually stole his for the first year just to bootstrap it, but after spending a year with the concept I was able to come up with my own themes that were more relevant to me. (Such high-minded things as: The Year of Finishing and The Year of Awareness.) Sometimes, I have to get into the year a little bit to figure out what the theme will actually be (I try to decide before it starts, but usually something else will present itself as a more natural path to follow).
As a very concrete example, I thought this year was going to be the Year of Productive Procrastination or the Year of Putting the Time to Work (that is: the time saved by being efficient and organized being used in the most productive way possible instead of just more time to check Facebook). Both of those would have been great. I read an article on overcoming productivity addiction on the Todoist blog and it seemed to fit with either of those themes. Instead of reading more about productivity, I would instead use my system of lists and calendars to make sure that even when I wasn’t working on my highest priority items (like writing the next book in the series), I would still be working on something productive to help me reach one of my numerous other goals. I would finally leverage my system in a more conscious way; being aware in every moment of the time I was saving, the little moments here and there, where putting things on a list or on my calendar, would help me build up a reserve of extra time that I could spend on doing what I really wanted. (If only time could actually be garbage collected like that into more contiguous blocks) I even went so far as to think: Hey, maybe instead of always doing something that is obvious, like opening and sorting them mail, or cleaning the dishes in the sink, maybe I’ll let those things slide until they really need to get done so I can put that time to use in the present instead of trying to save it for some nebulous future.
Then I read an article on the Todoist blog about strategies for overcoming procrastination. Initially, it sounded either like something that would fit perfectly with my theme, or something that I’d read a hundred times before and would be able to skim in a few minutes. It turned out to be mostly the latter, but also contained the seed of something else entirely. The strategies for overcoming procrastination were actually very good (please read them when you’re done procrastinating by reading this post), but nothing I hadn’t seen before. (Good to remind yourself periodically though)
But the breakthrough actually came in the background part of the post, where the author – as per usual – quotes some study that someone has done in order to back up the stuff they’re about to tell you. This one went like this:
Research shows that our brains are actually wired to think about about our present and future selves as two separate people. That’s why we’re able to prioritize our present mood at the expense of our future well-being even though it’s an irrational choice in the long-term.
A study run by UCLA psychologist Hal Herschel and a team at Stanford University found that participants actually engaged different areas of the brain when they thought about their present selves versus their future selves. In fact, when people were told to think about themselves in ten years, their brain patterns closely resembled those observed when they were asked to think about celebrities they didn’t know.
This separation of present and future self encourages us to make different decisions about ourselves now and in the future. For instance, one study showed people asked to tutor other students would offer to do so less in the present, but would offer more of their time in the future.
To sum up the research, we procrastinate because our brains are wired to care more about our present comfort than our future happiness.
So “Do something today that your future self will thank you for” is not just a good saying for a meme or an inspirational poster. It’s a legitimate scientific concept.
You think that your future self is someone else.
So from the point of that realization forward, this has been the Year of the Future Self.
Evidence of this can be seen if you look at the dates of the blog posts that I refer to above. They’re from February and March. I started this post in April and it’s been 2 months. Because there were things that were more important for me to get done for my future self. (No offense to anyone who reads this blog, but I don’t think anyone is sitting around anxiously waiting for the next bi-monthly installment of my random thoughts)
Thinking more about my future self has already helped me overcome a lot of procrastination. It actually kind of forces you to do a lot of things that you would see listed in those articles about overcoming procrastination, but I like the change in mindset that comes with it. Eat That Frog! becomes not just a funny way to think about doing something difficult, it becomes a question:
What is the one thing I can do right now that my future self is going to appreciate the most?
For me, and especially for my writing, I can ask myself, “How does my future self feel when he comes home from work and his writing for the day is already done?” That is a question I can answer because I know how my past self felt when that happened and it makes it much easier to imagine how my future self will feel. It draws him closer to me, makes him less of a stranger and more like someone who is almost me. And when that happens, I imagine the feeling my future self will have (or the opposite feeling he’ll have when he has to come home to a 0 word head start), and it turns it into something more about my present comfort than my future happiness.
So really, I think they key is not just to see that motivational quote on someone’s Instagram and go for a run or do a workout. It’s not eating the frog because that’s what a book tells you is the key to overcoming procrastination.
It’s about drawing your future self back into your present self. So he or she doesn’t feel like a celebrity you don’t really know. Think about how you’ve felt when you’ve procrastinated or when you haven’t. Recognize that is how your future self is going to feel.
If I think about how I felt last year when I was falling behind in my writing goals, there was stress. I know how that felt. It’s concrete. I don’t have to imagine it like it’s a future scenario. I know that if it happens again (which it is), my future self will feel that same stress. (It’s totally irrational stress since it’s not like writing is anything close to a full time job that puts food on the table or a roof over my head, but that’s a whole different
therapy session blog post)
When I imagine my future self feeling that concrete emotion, it makes present me stressed. Not as stressed as I certainly would be in the future. But enough to make me think: “It’s worth suffering for another thirty minutes to crank out two hundred more words so that my future self doesn’t have to write those extra two hundred words on top of everything else I’m going to ask him to do.”
Zen Habits has a very good list of things that will help you simplify your work day.
Most of these I’ve seen before, but here’s a new one (which is sort of similar to other things I’ve seen, but different enough I thought it was worth quoting):
# Practice a focus ritual. Every hour or two, do a refocus ritual. This only takes a minute or two. You might start it by closing down your browser and maybe other open applications, and maybe even take a walk for a couple of minutes to clear your head and get your blood circulating. Then return to your list of Most Important Tasks and figure out what you need to accomplish next. Before you check email again or go back online, work on that important task for as long as you can. Repeat this refocus ritual throughout the day, to bring yourself back. It’s also nice to take some nice deep breaths to focus yourself back on the present.
I’ve been using RescueTime for a while now, and while it hasn’t really improved my productivity, that’s mostly because I’m actually really productive already. And I can prove it thanks to RescueTime.
RescueTime is an software application you install on your computer that tracks the active application and logs that information so you can view it in their web app. You then rate the applications on how productive you are when using them. For example, when I’m using my IDE, I’m clearly being productive. Same when I’m using putty. Not so much when I’m using iTunes.
RescueTime gives you nice little graphs (one of which you can see above) on a daily and weekly basis, and you can also view your productivity by category. They also let you compare to the average of everyone who uses RescueTime and give you a rank based on your percentile.
When I first installed it, I was kind of obsessed with checking and categorizing and scoring everything and trying to get my productivity score as high as possible. When I get busy, I can drop to just checking weekly when it sends me a report via email, and I don’t even really notice it running in the background. When I’m not as overwhelmed, it’s a fun little game to play, and a small little reminder in the system tray to check what application you’re using and how that’s going to affect your productivity score. It’s also a good way to effortlessly track and log your productivity/application usage, which is especially good for people like me who love tracking productivity/output but either spend too much time time tracking stuff in spreadsheets, or go to the other extreme and just give up on tracking completely.
During the live Mindsweeping event on Twitter (@GTDSpecialEvent) I was basically writing down all my “mindsweep material” in a plain text document because when I put Next Actions into Remember The Milk, I like to tag them, put them in a context list, and prioritize them right away.*
Of course, after reviewing the items in that text document, I realized that most of them were either Next Actions or Projects that I needed to then copy and paste into RTM.
So, I kind of “redid” the Mindsweep by putting everything into the Inbox list in RTM and didn’t really eliminate a lot of the things that I’d swept out of my mind because, as I said, they had already sprung from my forehead in the form of Next Actions and Projects.
After filling up my RTM Inbox in this way, I was able to essentially conduct the Mindsweep using RTM and eliminated the step of putting the contents of the sweep somewhere else in the mean time. In the future, this will save me the step of transferring items from the “Mindsweep Dustbin” to RTM, and allow me to Organize those items at my leisure. I think that’s an important part of the Mindsweep because it means that I can sweep away everything so that my mind can detach from those items and focus on things I should be doing, while at the same time, I don’t have to spend the time organizing them unless I want to do it at that time (and if I have the time to do it). As Kelly Forrister tweeted during the Mindsweep:
I don’t think I’ve ever looked back after a GTD mindsweep and said, “Damn, I wish I didn’t do that.” It’s always valuable to me.
When I did the first Mindsweep into the text file, I almost did say “Damn, I wish I didn’t do that” because I realized I’d have to copy and paste a whole bunch of stuff that should really have already been in RTM. Now that I have gone back through and realized how easy it is to let RTM be unstructured, I can do sweep my mind more frequently without worrying that it’s going to hurt my productivity (I don’t ever consider Organizing to be unproductive because it always makes me feel good to clarify things).
To finish things off, here is a post from Kelly Forrister about clearing your mind with a Mindsweep.
* This may sound like I’m trying to capture, process, and organize all in one step. Not the case, I say. If it’s going to one of my RTM lists, then it’s already essentially been captured and processed because it has to have passed through one of my inboxen, and I’ve already decided on a Next Action or I wouldn’t be putting it on the list. So, arriving at the point where it’s been captured and I’ve got a Next Action ready means that it is time for organization. Of course, the whole point of this post is that I want to start using RTM as a capture tool in addition to an organization and review tool.