8 posts categorized "Tips & Techniques"


How To Work Better

ReminderHowToWorkBetter This is some good advice.

As far as I am aware, the original is explained best here in the Tate Etc. magazine archive where the piece is identified as being Peter Fischli and David Weiss's How to Work Better from 1991. Since then - in addition to inspiring from studio walls - it has wandered the internet, often in the visual form you see at left.

One of the things I like best about this particular form, and which gives it more weight with me than the text alone, is the imperfection of it. It is a good reminder that it's better to get something out into the world than to endlessly tweak on it seeking perfection.

The words are great too.

Do one thing at a time.

There's a key Expediter principle; you will achieve more working on multiple projects if you give them your full attention for set chunks of time than if you flit between them rapidly. The chunks don't need to be large - even 15 to 30 minute sprints can be hugely productive. Just focus and don't give in to the "I'll just take a quick peek to see if there's new email" urges.

Know the problem.

There are many ways to interpret this, but one which I find valuable is to confirm with myself what it is I am trying to solve or achieve. What is the outcome I am seeking? I've heard GTD coaches phrase this as "What would done look like?"

Learn to listen.

Simple, right? Nope. This one is a lot harder than it seems and critical to success in all aspects of life. Really shut up - mouth and mind - and really listen. Then think. Then respond.

Learn to ask questions.

Assumptions can bite you in the butt later. Ask, clarify, confirm. Even when you're working on something for yourself, ten minutes spent unpacking and spelling out your expectations into a brief journal entry can both vastly improve the finished work and steer you clear of avoidable problems.

Distinguish sense from nonsense.

This is the outcome of listening and asking questions. What actually works in this situation? What doesn't fit?

Accept change as inevitable.

This is true of our projects, our companies, our culture, and most definitely ourselves. Much of the nonsense we deal with results from trying to shoehorn the no-longer-current into a changed situation.

Admit mistakes.

They are inevitable and they are valuable. Denying them is a far worse mistake than anything else that could go wrong and interferes with learning.

Say it simple.

Omit needless words.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

"Do only what is necessary to convey what is essential. [C]arefully eliminate elements that distract from the essential whole, elements that obstruct and obscure... Clutter, bulk, and erudition confuse perception and stifle comprehension, whereas simplicity allows clear and direct attention."
- Richard Powell, Wabi Sabi Simple, quoted in Presentation Zen

Be calm.

"The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are."
- Marcus Aurelius

Calmness is essential to clear perception and appropriate reaction.


Yes; it helps. Being happier tends to make all the other parts easier. So keeping your spirits untroubled is a good investment.

And even when you aren't feeling your best, be nice. That's a prudent investment too.


Does your workspace energize and focus you?

Next time you're at your desk, open up your attention and be where you are. What does it feel like? What bothers you? What doesn't belong? What do you love? What gives you a lift as soon as you notice it?

It's funny how such a simple thing as asking "am I getting what I need here?" can be so hard to remember to do regularly. The benefits of asking that question of yourself and acting on your answers are huge.

Take five minutes out from everything else, breath deeply, and look around.

Spot one thing that isn't as it should be and change it right now.

Maybe it's a souvenir you no longer love that can be thrown out or donated to charity. Get it out of here.

Maybe it's your computer desktop still showing the default image it came with. Put a picture on there of someplace beautiful that makes you feel alive and awake.

Maybe it's a stack of magazines from two years ago that you should decide you really don't need to read. Toss 'em in the recycling.

Maybe it's an empty stapler that needs to be refilled, for which you've been needing to get a fresh box of staples. Walk over to the supply closet, drop a note to the person who'll restock your desk, or add it to your errands list to remind yourself when next you're out and about.

Maybe it's something big like the complete lack of a view. So add "get a better office" to your projects list and spend a moment brainstorming a few things you can do to get that ball rolling (e.g. prep notes for annual review, rearrange office layout to face more towards windows across the hall, update resume). Whatever your tasks are, add them to your to-do list and make them a priority.

Every day take these few minutes out to tune in and give your world a little twist toward the best day you can imagine. It all adds up!


You are already smart; just step back from the noise & listen to yourself

Increased productivity often comes more from better tools and processes than it does from new data. When you make it a regular habit to take time out to think about your commitments and organize your ideas, the logical next steps will reveal themselves. When you know what your potential next steps are for each of your projects, it becomes much easier to find one to fit your present context and energy level.

A best practice which can pay off more than any other is to stop trying to keep track of everything in your head. These days we've all signed on for more stimulating input than any one person can engage with fully in a lifetime.

"You receive too much information, and its not your fault. Just accept that there is more information than time, and that it's increasing every day." - good experience guru Mark Hurst, in his book Bit Literacy

The essential trick in the face of this daily onslaught is to think in advance and to respond appropriately in the moment acting in accordance with your priorities. This is as true for a creative professional as it is for someone who works with structured plans in an office. 

"The randomness of my job is one of the most interesting things about it but that randomness feels less chaotic if I have all of that disparate clutter out of my head and categorized." - comedian and actor Rob Corddry

By learning the tools and techniques to regularly clear your head and review your goals and projects, you free yourself to act on new input in ways which help get you where you want to go. Distractions are transformed into opportunities or their negative impacts are minimized.

"In truth, I've found that any day's routine interruptions and distractions don't much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster's shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters." - author Stephen King in his book On Writing

Taking the real stuff of your daily life and using it to produce your best outcomes radically changes your experience of the world for the better. It is this practical approach to being focused and open to change which creates a better work/life balance and a happier you, even in the face of moment-to-moment chaos.

Gaining new skills and understanding is a gift which pays off both in the short and long term. There isn't a single one-size-fits-all answer, but the specific practices which will most help you are out there. As productivity guru David Allen put it in regard to his coaching practice, "I'm not here to tell you what's the content of your process; I'm here to find out what is it that's getting in the way of you being fully available to whatever is now. And now. And now. And now."


Improving your relationship with your email inbox, part 4

Finally, I'd like to close out this series of posts with a few high level tips.

Hoard your attention

I said it before in part one, but it is vital that you take control over default settings that distract you. Start by turning off all audio and visual alerts that you have new mail. Of course you have new mail or you will shortly. Unless your job is purely to read email and then do nothing that takes longer than a minute in response to it, you shouldn't let your email flow dictate your day. If that is your job, your email is already open anyhow. Turn off the alerts.

Work on your priorities, not on what's freshest

Don't sit and press the "Check Mail" switch like a lab rat hoping to get a tasty food pellet. Yes, okay, you might get something you can answer quickly and scratch off your list, but that will not be as important as what is currently on the top of your to-do list. Do what you already spent time and energy deciding was most important. Dive in, knock out a task appropriate to your current resources and energy level, then surface and check email quickly before diving in again on the next prioritized task. By "quickly" I mean processing only. Anything that generates a new task for your list only needs the question asked: "Is this more important than what I was planning to do next?" If the answer is no, which it usually is, carry on as planned.

Merlin Mann said it beautifully: "Don't let the blur of movement try to replace one elegantly completed task."

Pay for checking email

If you find yourself checking mail far more often than actually results in a change in your plan of action, start forcing yourself to complete the next task on your list before you are allowed to check again. Quit the mail program if you need to keep yourself from autopiloting back into your inbox. The task list - whatever you use to track the next steps on your projects and other high priority work - is where you need to land whenever you're not sure what comes next.

Set a good example

As you want your email processing to be quick and prone to inspire clarity, so too do those who receive email from you. Write good email. Be brief. Use good subject lines; not "about next week's meeting" but "Tuesday 8/18 ABC meeting agenda & goals". As Mark Hurst suggests, "frontload" your messages to state the one key piece of information and then, if needed, support it.

You can find more great tips on writing effective email in these two articles by Merlin Mann:
Writing sensible email messages
Recap: Becoming an Email Ninja


Improving your relationship with your email inbox, part 3

"All these best practices are well and good", I hear some of you crying, "but what do I do with this backlog of email clogging up my inbox?"

I assure you, you don't need to deal with all of it at once. You can get rid of it, and quickly, but you need to do just a few little steps.

1) Draw a line in the sand.
Create a label called "Old Inbox" and label every single thing older than 48 hours with that. Give it a color you dislike so you'll be motivated to get rid of that stuff. (If your mail program doesn't have labels, then you'll have to drag everything to a new folder called "Old Inbox" but you will need to be tough on yourself to keep dealing with its contents until it's empty).

2) Above the line, practice good inbox habits as described in my previous posts.
Get clean and clear on everything in the inbox that's newer than the "Old Inbox" label. Live above the line and use search to dig for things below it only if needed.

3) Just ten minutes at a time, knock the old stuff into shape.
Whenever you can spare the time, but at least once a day, set a timer (I recommend Minuteur for Mac users) for 10 minutes and process the old stuff. Do not let yourself get distracted in that time. It's just ten minutes; you can do this!

The best part? It turns out it doesn't actually take very long to get through the old stuff, even if you have hundreds or even thousands of "Old Inbox" messages. Make use of sort by sender or subject to help you knock categories of messages into the right place quickly.

Mastering your inbox will reduce your stress, help you focus your time on the most important actions, and give you the ability to respond thoughtfully when response is appropriate. The calm and control it creates can transform the way others perceive you, building trust and respect.


Improving your relationship with your email inbox, part 2

Sorting incoming email faster is one of the critical ingredients of email mastery. You need to be able to process the contents without getting bogged down in doing everything.

First, know what you have. Second, do the right next thing.

Taking as few seconds per message as possible whip through your inbox and delete, file or label everything as appropriate.

If you don't already have labels set up for your mail, do that quickly now. You need very few:

1) "active project support" (or "task support" if you need a shorter term)
These are emails which you need in order to perform tasks for a current active project. If the task won't be done in the next 48 hours and the information in the email can be easily copied to your to-do list entry for that task, don't keep the email. If the task is coming up quickly, just apply the label and spare yourself the extra effort; strike a good balance between the pleasure of an empty inbox and busywork copying information around more than is necessary.

2) "waiting for"
Use this label as a reminder of something you may need to nudge someone else for or which is queued up behind another task you want to finish quickly.

3) "to read"
You will probably want more than one of these, for example, "to read: business" and "to read: personal". This label goes on anything you can tell from the subject line you don't need to read right now, but will need to look through at some point. Catching up on these categories can be a good task for when you are feeling braindead or have only a few minutes before you go into a meeting.

Bloggers may also find it handy to have a "to post" label for email to which they want to respond publicly or which inspires a post, but in general the 3 labels above should be sufficient to cover anything worth keeping in the inbox temporarily.

Use color for your labels to help you quickly recognize the categories of the past decisions the labels represent. I like to use a moderately dark color I'm fond of for "active project support" and a pleasing but limbo-implying color for "waiting for" (which for me are forest green and light purple, respectively). For tasks you need to draw yourself to more often than you might otherwise do them, use your favorite, most energizing color (in my case, bright spring green on my "to read: business" label to keep those newsletters from getting stale).

If your mail program allows you to list the label in a dark color with light text (e.g. Gmail) or otherwise make labeled messages really stand out from new or 'read but unlabeled' ones, do it. This approach makes it incredibly easy to tell at a glance - without needing to read the text itself and be distracted by it - what's in your inbox and that no processing action is currently required.

Why label instead of move to folders? It avoids the risk of "out of sight, out of mind" while allowing you to tell at a glance that you've already handled everything that currently needs handling. You get the benefit of inbox zero without wasting a lot of time or having to establish new rituals to check special folders.

For categories that you don't want to be reminded of until you're performing a round of that activity (e.g. something like "to read: professional development"), folders are helpful. In Gmail you can keep those pending things labeled appropriately but archived, ready to be retrieved by selecting all messages with that label (which you just remove after reading). Gmail users are also encouraged to take advantage of the latest controls for showing & hiding the list of labels to keep only these primary ones in view in your sidebar.

Remember, when processing new email you want to be incredibly quick, spending as few seconds on each message as is necessary to answer the questions "does this require any action on my part?" and "if so, what?"

Most email can be immediately deleted (or thrown into a single archive). My approach (using Gmail) is to scan over the unread subject lines checking the boxes beside any spam and then clicking "Report Spam" to clear that out of my way. Then I scan down again - faster this time because I've already read the subjects once - checking the boxes for anything that can be archived without opening (e.g. "John Doe is now following you on Twitter") and click "Archive". What's left can be dealt with one by one: reading, forwarding with brief comments and usually an improved subject line to someone else if appropriate (delegate), noting a task or event for the future by copying information to my calendar or OmniFocus (defer), replying if it will take less than 2 minutes (do), and/or labeling if the email needs to be kept for the moment to support a future task (including any responses which would take more than 2 minutes).

The goal of the 2 minute limit on doing is to avoid duplicating effort on low-return tasks; you've just spent enough energy and time to decide the necessary action, so rather than having to remind yourself of that again later, do the fast actions now. Beware though; any "it'll just take 5 or 10 minute" emails really add up. Be firm with yourself about the 2 minute limit and come back to the longer tasks after you've finished processing. Remember: first, know what you have; second, do the right next thing - as opposed to the one that just happens to be next in the inbox.

Building this habit into your daily routine will change your relationship with email. Instead of a murky pit of unknown obligations, your inbox will be a functional space. Repeatedly throughout your day you will know exactly what's there, if anything, and what commitments it represents when it isn't empty.


Improving your relationship with your email inbox, part 1

Is your inbox a source of despair? Fear not! You can conquer it and develop good habits which will reduce its negative impact on you in the future.

First, a few basic principles:

1. Discard the idea that every email you get deserves some of your time. Make a quick evaluation and then delete, do any less than 2 minute task, or add the appropriate task to your to-do list.

2. Be brief, if you need to answer at all. Not every email you get deserves to be answered with a correspondingly lengthy reply or, in many cases, any reply at all. Mail templates which you can use to auto-insert frequently used responses are huge time savers; learn how to do them in your mail program.

3. Don't file, archive. Mail programs have search functions; unless its a category where you regularly need to retrieve the last action on it (& you don't have that status in a more trusted system) or something that would be hard to capture in a search, just throw it in one big Archive folder.

4. Trash is your friend. Delete anything which requires no action on your part and isn't something you need to reference soon or in the future.

5. Give up your job as unnecessary archivist. If this email isn't the very first place you'd look for this information, don't save it for future reference. Put the information where you will look if it isn't already there.

6. Stop the distraction machine. Turn off ALL new mail alerts. No sounds, no counts, no pop-ups. Check email on your terms, as needed, and only between doing other actions.

7. Filter where possible. If you know that mail fitting a particular pattern belongs to a particular task - for example, email newsletters which fit within your recurring professional reading activities - then automatically route it to a folder for that task and remove its "unread mail" status on the way there, so that you aren't tempted to pay it more attention than it deserves. In your to-do's and/or calendar is where you'll track the need to do the recurring activity of examining those folders.

Finally, and most importantly:

8. Don't use your inbox as your to-do list. It is ill-suited to that purpose because it doesn't help you focus on doing. It is poor at distinguishing between things you want to pay attention to today and things you may not need to act on for days or even weeks. Think of your inbox instead as your hand, reaching out to someone passing you a piece of paper. You can glance at the paper to see if it's urgent, but what really needs to happen is not that you stand there with hundreds of pages in your hand, rather that you put the pages where they need to be. They represent actions you should do now or add to your to-do list or else they can be archived. A small percentage may need to spend time in an Active Project Support or Waiting For folder, but pretty much everything can be deleted or archived. 

In my next post, I'll share tips for quickly processing what's in your inbox so you know exactly what's there, if anything, and what commitments it represents when it isn't empty.


How to take a vacation & truly leave work behind

Having trouble getting the most out of your time off? Here are some tips which apply particularly to vacations, but can be helpful principles too for having great weekends.

Clear your head before you go.

Schedule at least an hour a week with yourself in the three weeks before to do the following:

  • Brainstorm about all your open projects, deadlines and other stuff on your mind; write it down as you go, either freeform or in a mindmap style if you like something more visual. Look over your calendar for the months before, during, and after your vacation to spark recollection of any other open activities.
  • Once you feel like your head is clear, group the things you wrote down into goals & projects. Identify the next actions in each of them and when they need to be done by. If the deadline is before your trip, schedule when you'll do them. If it's during or in the week after, do them early or delegate them. If they're due more than a week after, but less than a month after, list them in a clear, prioritized way on a piece of paper and set that front & center on your desk as your starting point for your return.
  • Briefly talk over at a high level the status, next actions and upcoming deadlines for your active projects with your boss and/or colleagues who may cover for you while you're gone. If they'll need to cover a lot of new ground in your absence, provide them with a similar sheet listing next steps, goals & deadlines for that project.
  • Place a clearly marked inbox on your desk or chair to receive anything physical coming to you while you're out.

You'll be able to travel knowing that nothing is forgotten - you gave yourself three whole weeks to remember anything known - and that you've prepared others to deal with unknowns within the context of your goals.

I find it also helps to return from vacations on a Wednesday, use the Thursday to recombobulate myself at home & finish unpacking, then spend Friday on processing email &, if I quietly go into the office, any accumulated inbox papers. Say to everyone that you'll be back in the office Monday, but use Friday to get you soundly back on your feet at work, with a weekend as an additional reward for doing so!

One gift you can give yourself before you dive into your inboxes, is an hour or two of high-level, undistracted, newly relaxed thinking about your work, tools and processes. This can be hard to carve out of day-to-day business, so take any opportunity you can to give yourself quality thinking time.

Another great thing you can do on that Friday if you go into the office is look at your space with fresh eyes. Have a large trash can and some bankers boxes brought to your workspace and purge stuff that is not useful, required, or inspiring.

Good luck and have a great vacation!