Productivity Management

in musings

I joke sometimes that I ought to stay in academia just so I can live up to my potential for fulfilling the stereotype of an absent-minded professor. I walk into a room without any idea what my purpose there was (or the digital equivalent - opening a new program or browser tab only to forget my task), I am perpetually scrambling to find my keys, I set objects down only to lose track of them moments later, I get caught up in work and forget about important things. I cannot tell you how many times in the last week I have caught myself just in time to realize I’m about to put a box of cereal in the refrigerator. And of course, I procrastinate. Sleep deprivation makes all of it worse. It also makes me restless and unable to sit still through any number of mundane tasks I can normally handle.

In the past I’ve managed basically by being smart, having high standards for myself, and working hard at the eleventh hour. And honestly, for some things, this works really well. Any writing shorter than about 10 pages, and my way of doing lots of reading and thinking and stewing, and then churning out the final product in one or two focused sessions, produces some really good work.

But this semester I have two challenges: an unusually busy and inconvenient schedule, and major projects with far-off deadlines. The kind of project that simply cannot be produced in one or two sessions, no matter how much useful stewing has gone on beforehand. So, I need some new habits.

I could try a whole productivity system like Getting Things Done or The 7 Habits or whatever, but I’ve never been good at adopting other people’s systems as my own. I just fight against them until I’ve found something through my own struggles. Too stubborn, I guess. Anyway, I want to document the things I have been doing for myself.

I started realizing last year that the nature and pace of grad school was such that my previous method of “deal with stuff as it comes along” were not going to cut it any longer. Since then I’ve really improved my system for dealing with emails (mainly by having a system at all), and google calendar is basically the glue that keeps my life from flying apart. Even moreso than the paper planner I used in undergrad, having things organized in my google calendar helps me keep track of what I need to do, how much time I have to do it, and, extremely importantly given all my group-based work, keeps me from double-booking myself.

My goal this semester is to work on my inability to do one thing at a time. Sometimes that can be a good thing, particularly in design work, where my tendency to be thinking about at least three things at once is an advantage - I can process new information while relating it back to things I already know, drawing connections and seeing how concepts fit together into a big picture that guides and inspires my designs. Sometimes it also means I suddenly remember important but unrelated things that I’ve left undone, but, you know, tradeoffs.

Still, when it comes to “multitasking” on my computer, it’s obvious that I’m just distracted. I’m reasonably good at focusing on work when I’m not using a computer (and not sleep-deprived or unusually agitated), but the minute I open my laptop, there are just so many things I think of that need doing, or want to be doing, or make me think of some other thing that I want to look up on wikipedia or find a blog about or…

And the more my work becomes computer-centric, the worse all of it becomes. So clearly, I need some new work strategies. My first step has been very simple and psychological: divide my information streams into things that are urgent and things that are not, convince myself it is ok if I don’t read every email minutes after it arrives, or every tweet, or every rss feed. Many of these things are interesting, but ultimately unimportant, and most of the important ones will not suffer from being left unchecked for a couple of hours. It happens all the time when I’m away from the internet, and it’s ok if it happens when I’m connected, too. If I can just reassure myself that it’s ok to close this tab or that application, hiding the visual reminders of Stuff I Want To Read Eventually can make a big difference.

The next step is to track things I need to deal with later. One of my biggest problems is that all those important things I remember in the middle of doing something unrelated, are things I will almost inevitably forget again until some other inconvenient time. For some tasks it’s relatively easy and harmless to simply stop take care of more urgent business. For everything else, I am trying to develop a better system for keeping track. Microsoft OneNote is becoming my best friend. I already have a system for class notes worked out that I love, and now I’m using it to upgrade my old method of list-tracking, “throw a txt file on my desktop.”

And then, finally, there is the business of tools to help me track my work and support my focus. And all this is a very long-winded and rambling way to introduce the fact that I’ve started using this application called focus booster. I’ve used it for a grand total of 90 minutes tonight, and any improvement I saw may simply have been a novelty effect, but so far I like it. It’s simple and completely under my control, and I’m hoping that when I’m just not feeling my current project, being able to look at a timer and say to myself “it’s ok, I can do this for another x minutes and then I’ll be able to look at that other thing I’m real interested in right now,” coupled with a reminder that the break needs to end too, will give me something concrete to focus on.

Oh, and I think I’m finally learning to keep track of my keys. I haven’t missed the bus once because of searching for them this semester. I haven’t even had to run all the way to the bus stop in order to avoid missing the bus because of my keys. It’s almost like I’m finally learning to be a responsible adult. Sh, don’t tell anyone.