Thursday, April 18, 2013

Shape of the Day: software-free productivity

You have so much to do that you don't know where to start. Or often, you know exactly where you ought to start but, grief, no, please, anything but that. And some of this stuff is so small and fiddly that it's irritating. And some of it is so big that it doesn't seem worth starting because you'll never make the slightest dent in it.

I've told you before about how I put a £1 coin in a pot every time I get up to work at 5am – and how I don't remove a £1 coin if I fail one day, I remove every one of them and start again. But now I'm 67 unbroken weekdays into this and it means not only am I unbearable, not only can I reasonably say it's a successful productivity technique, but I also have enough coins in the pot to spell out actual words.

I haven't got enough coins yet to spell out either 'tomorrow' or 'yesterday' so I have to do this now. I have to tell you today about the other big productivity gig of mine. I mean, the other one apart from my utter dependence upon OmniFocus and my increasing dependence on Evernote. This is the one that requires no software and gets no coins.

Actually, there is software you can use for this and I have tried but it was just too much piddling about. One tremendous thing about OmniFocus as a To Do manager is that you tend to use it first and last thing in the day; you come back to it and go yep, yep, yep, done those. Rather than constantly ticking off things, it's there when you want it and gone when you don't. Similarly, Evernote stays under your fingers but it doesn't get in the way or need you to fiddle. And the only software I found that helps with my other productivity gig turned out to be very pretty but require a lot of work.

The whole point here is to put your work into your work. So let me tell you about the thing I sometimes do that always helps when I do: it's called Shape of the Day.

Two things to note:

– things are pretty bad when I use this

– I'm using it today

And I should probably also tell you that:

– it doesn't work

But it helps. It also helped me sleep last night instead of churning over the To Do list and my calendar into the small hours. When you get up at the time I do, there aren't many small hours to go into. Yesterday evening, I checked my calendar for today and I went over the various tasks I have outstanding. And I shaped the day around them.

Follow. My calendar says I'm doing one phone interview at 10am and another at 5pm. They may move around, one of them has shuffled about a little bit already, but they're set and in the calendar. That means a certain amount of time is set before them. It will vary but it's rarely less than an hour so now I know I have prep work at 9am and 4pm.

Since I know when I'll start and I'll know how I can typically last until I'm useless for anything, I could go on to plot out every hour of the day. It would be a stupid thing to do.

I plot out every hour of the day.

Only on days like this, you understand. Only on days when there is so much to do that you can't see when you'll be able to stop, to eat, to breathe out, or to write a blog post.

That doesn't stop it being stupid. What makes it irrevocably silly is that you cannot plan out your day like this unless you somehow plan out everyone else's too. And they stuck to it. And nothing else ever comes up in the middle of the day. And the phones wait until you were done. And everyone you need to email replies immediately with exactly what you need to know.

That's why the Shape of the Day does not and cannot work. But it also can't work because what I do is divide the 12/13 hours or whatever it is into hourly chunks. I'll throw in the odd half hour, the odd ninety minutes, just to keep it varied. But chiefly it's in hour blocks like we were back at school and working to a timetable. Hand on heart, swear to god, I've only this second thought of the timetable analogy. I may have to abandon this entire plan right now.


The reason dividing the day like this can't work is that there is nothing you do, no task you have, no duty you need to perform, that happens to exactly fit sixty minutes. Plus, you will need the loo from time to time. (Caution: take regular screen breaks. I don't do this, if there were time to do that I wouldn't be using this stupid Shape of the Day idea, but I feel honour bound and legally advised to recommend you do.)

You could do what I do every time and that's make the hour slot broad enough to cover lots of tasks but narrow enough that I get down to it. I can't give you today's example shape of the day because most of it is contractually required to be quiet for the moment and some of it is a thing I should've done for a friend about ten days ago and haven't yet. (Pardon? This is all supposed to make us productive? I've gone off you now.)

But 06:00-07:00, for instance, was "Write plan for [redacted] project". Maybe a bit too broad, but it did the job. I stopped the script I was on at 06:00 and I wrote for that hour on that project.

Here's the last reason why the Shape of the Day is stupid and why I tell you it doesn't work. I did not finish that [redacted] project plan by 07:00.

But here's why it does work and why I do keep coming back to it at key moments: I now have a lot of the plan written and I didn't have that before. If I'd sat here paralysed by having to choose what to do next, I wouldn't choose and I would be paralysed.

Plus, at 07:00 the next slot in the day was a big current project that actually I returned to many, many hours today. But first I did 07:00-08:00 on it and I was significantly further into it by 08:00 than I was at the start. It was also fresh to me, it was so different from the development stuff I was doing right before it. And when I go back to that development stuff, it will seem fresh, I left it at a good spot, I know what the very next thing I want to do with it is, I will start its next hour at a clip. If I'd spent two hours on it instead, I'd be waning before I finished the second hour.

Sometimes you don't have a choice, you've just got to press on. But there are two major and two comparatively minor projects I have got to deal with today and while the ideal is that I would finish some or all of them, the ideal is not going to happen.

So while I end up with a series of unfinished pieces today, they are all much further ahead than they would be if I'd just panicked, they are all high-energy because I broke them off before I went stale on them, they are all fresh because I came to them from somewhere completely different. Plus, there's little to no paralysis of indecision because the decision has been made: in this hour I am working on this, next hour it's that and so on. You can concentrate on the job at hand knowing consciously and unconsciously that you are doing what needs to be done. That is a strange one because it's a lie: you've just made up this plan but you're sticking with it as if it's real. But it works and it helps enormously, it is perhaps the strongest part of this Shape of the Day notion because what it does is remove the flapping time: you don't ever lose time thinking oooh, should I do this bit next or that?

You're working the plan instead of flapping about trying to triage everything every time.

I have sketched out a shape of the day on paper before. Couldn't read it. Now I tend to write it as a single task in OmniFocus or part of the day's notes in Evernote. But you don't have to use software. I'm not pushing an app on you. Not this week.

The software I tried was an iPhone app called Daily Routine and I've just seen, getting this screengrab (right) for you – and getting that screengrab right for you too – that despite my not using it at all this year, it has continued to chug away popping my calendar items into a kind of shape of the day.

And waiting hopelessly for me to go fiddle and add more.

You may like it a lot, I certainly enjoyed using it at first, but even this bare routine-less day looks too complicated for me.

I don't do complicated. I'm the sort who has to pay himself to get up in the morning.

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