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Preview: Matt's Idea Blog

Matt's Idea Blog

Original thoughts on productivity, creativity, and self-experimentation for personal growth.

Updated: 2012-04-15T21:11:15.763-07:00


Matt's Idea Blog has moved! Please update your feed


My blog's new home at is up and running. The feed for it is:
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P.S. Kudos to drupaler (AKA Nauris), who's taking care of this [2] for me via GetAFreelancer [3]. Highly recommended.


My Academic Productivity post is up


Jose Quesada's fine readers over at Academic Productivity (one of my regular destinations) have asked me some great questions around the unique productivity challenges faculty face. I have tremendous respect for education, and I very much enjoy working with the folks in these fields. Their jobs are some of the most broad and demanding I've encountered in my practice. You can read my thoughts here: Matthew Cornell answers to your academic productivity questions. Even if you're not in academia, I think you'll enjoy the ideas there. I talk about adopting a method without its taking over, the tension between productivity and creativity, social networking for academics, and the crazy hours and the price of success.

Note: I'll be out of commission the next week or two. Concordantly, the switch to should be finished soon. The new (and only) feed will be

A heads up: Switching to in the near future


Just a quick notice that I'll be moving this blog to in the next few weeks, and you may see some side-effects - including re-postings - as I play with backing up [1] my posts. (Side note: I'll be outsourcing this transfer - see The 4-hour workweek applied: How I spent $100, saved hours, and boosted my reading workflow for another example.) I checked back and see that this is #193, and my first was on 4/5/05.

Reader question: Any tips for doing this? I'm planning on using FeedBurner (which frankly I haven't 100% figured out), and my site's built on Drupal.

There are many unknowns, which means there will be some LessonsLearned (see Some thoughts from tracking "lessons learned" for a year). FYI I'm using this time - the project is move Blogger blog to existing Drupal-based site, and I've selected the winner.

The reason I'm coverting is to drive traffic to get more work. Thanks for your patience, and stay tuned [2].


An idea (and question) dump from the big-arse text file


You know those crisis weeks when everything comes to a head, and then you get whacked by some nasty - and urgent - surprises? Well I've had three weeks of those, which explains the slow post rate. I apologize for that.So rather than my usual long, link-rich, in-depth, and rather dry article (the patented Ideamatt style ;-) I'd like to tap into my pickle jar [1] and ask you some questions around productivity and living. Any thoughts would definitely be welcome.Living (and suffering) with graceHow do you cope with life's curve balls? Last week I got some nasty medical news [2] that I'm having trouble coping with, and I'm looking for ideas. So far I've had great benefit from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. I'll also be re-studying Full Catastrophe Living to ready myself for pain (you might enjoy this interview with him).Is it possible to live out of ... the inbox?You've read a hundred times that base 0 is a best practice for staying on top. However, that's not the only perspective. For example, The Hamster Revolution talks about deciding an optimum number of emails you'd like to have in your Inbox, and it's easy to find systems that use email flags to mark actionable messages. So is it possible to have a principled system based on the inbox? In my workshops I ask participants to list ways we use the inbox, and get answers like action reminding, reference, waiting for, even junk. So we'd need a system of tagging, I guess. Possibly related: Noguchi Filing System (sorry the images are gone).The quality-quantity time mythI forget where this comes from, but the standard line of spending "quality time" with our loved ones is bunk. Instead, spend quality time at work (go read Koch's The 80/20 Principle [3]) and quantity time with your family. Big idea. I wonder if the myth came about as a rationalization for working too much...Dimming the lightsDo you notice cycles in your work - perhaps during an intense week - in which one big project overwhelms everything else? I know someone who calls this "dimming the lights," and it provides some really interesting challenges to staying on top. The main problem is other work gets sacrificed, creating crises, and work backlogs build so high that good productivity habits are at risk. Does this happen to you? How do you deal with it?There is no "set and forget" in self-managementFor other aspects of our lives, some habits are set and forget - once they're adopted, they're rather self-sustaining. It seems to me that staying on top of our lives isn't like that. Rather, it's a process of mastery [4]. But is there always a risk of falling back on old habits?Desquamate your desktopWhat can we learn about productivity from the medical profession? For example, Triage and checklists (you might enjoy The Checklist)...William Morris and simplicityWhat can we learn from the Arts and Crafts movement about elegant self-management? William Morris talked about values like craftsmanship, simplicity of expression, individuality, and usefulness in his designs. Anything we can learn?Principled use of Selective PerceptionIn The Achievement Factors, the authors talk about seeing clearly, and the idea of selective exposure - avoiding exposing ourselves to information with which we disagree. (Related: The process of Selective Perception.) Seems there are two ways to use this. First, by only allowing into our minds those things that support our beliefs. A positive example: Visualizing the shape of your future. A negative example: Getting stuck in a worldview that's harmful to future goals [5]. Do you actively use this in your life?Do you know about "Po?"Among some of the great ideas in Mind Performance Hacks is the that of "Po," from De Bono's book Po: Beyond Yes and No. Suggested use is to interrupt mental interpretations of negative events. Anyone familiar with this?The best gifts are either loved or hatedIt seems that in-between gifts are almost not worth it. Do the best gifts take a chance? (Related: How to help people.)Pro[...]

A Blast from the past & A little shout out


Apologies for the delayed post - I've been out of town on personal and business trips, I'm preparing for up-coming workshops and one-on-one work, plus continuing my switch to the Mac (!), so a short post this week.A few blasts from the pastFor my new readers, here are a few past posts you may not have seen:Using "Follow the energy" to refine your personal development experiments Use Gmail's "star" to highlight your good news Living in the moment, preventing regret, and appreciating life Camera Phones and Ten Cent Augmented Reality Photo Blogs, Wikis, and Memories for Life Debbie Downer and the Six Thinking Hats When inputs exceed your workflow system's capacity And just to keep it light: Top 10 things people are Getting, in addition to 'Things Done', 12 Wild Things people are visualizing, in addition to "Success", and How to Make The Ultimate Cup of Hot Chocolate.Lots of GTD-related postsSome GTD-related articles you might not have seen:Are daily to-do lists and GTD compatible?Best practices for GTD and administrative assistantsDealing with Meeting Notes - GTD to the Rescue!Depressurize your email with a 24 hour response timeReading Books The GTD WaySome GTD warning signsSome answers to "Should I keep it?" when filingSome common GTD questions, with answersWhat's your maximum response time?Transitions: A secret ingredient to Getting Things Done?Is GTD the "Extreme Programming" of Time Management?Plus a few fun ones: A GTD WorkFlow tool: The five stages on a business card cube and Personal Productivity Playing Cards!Shout OutI always enjoy hearing success stories and good news from friends and readers, so here's a little tip of the hat.Photographer and buddy Steven Vote continues to take great pictures. The great folks at Rokenbok showed what customer service means when I lost a part. Hey - How can a former engineer resist these toys? I connected with the other Matthew Cornell not too long ago. Him: Painter, Me: helper of successful, overloaded, smarties. (Question: A while back I believe I came across a book about a person's quest to meet everyone on the web with his name. Took a year or so, IIRC. Anyone know the book?) I recently received a surprise copy of Heidi Roizen's Skinny Songs - upbeat music that encourages keeping the pounds off. Great idea, and timely - check out What GTD and Weight Watchers have in common. Pam's "Escape from Cubicle Nation" book is real, and coming! Colleague Taco Oosterkamp has released his book on using Outlook productively. Kudos to Tracy Welsh and her company's super-useful program WebDrive - I used it for years before switching to the Mac. Tatsuya Nakagawa and friends have come out with their book Overcoming Inventoritis: The Silent Killer of Innovation Andrew Flusche has a nice "crash course" on copyright fair use. Ted Vickey's book 101 Fitness Games for Kids at Camp is out. Bob Walsh's marketing and selling ebook MicroISV Sites that Sell is out, and it's a great value. Michael Sampson wrote a whitepaper The 7 Pillars of IT-Enabled Team Productivity: The Microsoft SharePoint 2007 Analysis Peter Radizeski's written SELLECOM: 101 Ideas for Marketing in the Telecom Jungle And finally, thanks to Alvin Soon, Nicholas Bate, Steve Spalding, and everyone else who's reminded me how important it is to give public acknowledgement.Have some recent good news of your own to share? Let me know![...]

Three indecisiveness phrases, and when (not) to use them


I'd like to tell you about three phrases you and I use that actually mean the opposite, and, when used improperly, hurt productivity and weaken your mind (Gasp!) Fear not, I'll also share the only times they are OK to use. And I'll start with a biggie."Let me think about it"This is a classic in being indecisive. Situation: Have you ever been asked for something or had an offer made to you and you answered "Let me think about it"? Typically what this answer really means is "The answer is no, but I don't want to disappoint you so I'm going to pretend to think about it." Implied in this is "...and I hope you forget to bring it up again." Nasty!In this case, you're is using the phrase as a crutch, and it has a cost:It's going to dog you until it's resolved. You're misleading someone and wasting their time; it's disrespectful. You're training yourself to be indirect and less decisive.What you're really doing trading is clarity for a temporary reprieve in disappointing someone. It's a bad practice. If you know the answer, train yourself to be direct (but sensitive) and get closure right then. If you want to leave the bridge open, fine, but not if you really don't want to discuss the issue again.That said, this phrase does have a few specific productive uses:You need to collect more information. However, ask yourself whether this is an excuse to put off deciding. It's frequently better to make a decision early on, with less than 100% of possible information, than to strive for perfection. Most decisions can be mitigated later. You need to clear or verify it with someone else. In this case, commit to a specific date to get back to them, no longer than a few days. Germination: You really might have to let it germinate. The blogosphere is rife with creativity stories around the subconscious, and hey - who am I to take away your productive shower time ;-) But be honest about whether you really need to sit on it. Here are a few rules if you do decide to defer: Only one defer allowed per person. Think of it as a rare coupon you don't want to squander. Make your decision time bound: Limit how much you're willing to spend on it, and don't make it too big - one hour max, say. Commit to a decision by a specific date (no longer than a week), and tell it to them. Then keep your word."Let's get together sometime"This really means "I'm not interested (or mildly interested), but not enough to follow through." The solution here is simple: Pick a date. I found myself weaseling out last week. I really did want to get together with a friend and peer, but I was having a weak moment and used the phrase. It felt weird. Thank goodness she called me on it and said "Let's set a date. how about next Monday at lunch time?"A common variation: "We'll be in touch" - sadly not uncommon when applying for a job or sending an unwanted proposal. Please, put me out of my misery and get it over with! (I'm told companies sometimes get so inundated with resumes that they make it easier on themselves by not sending "sorry" letters. I don't respect this practice. Disclaimer: I've never been in the hiring role.)"Interesting"This is a true classic, and often means "That's really uninteresting" and/or "I disagree but don't want to get into it with you." To be fair, this can also mean "I don't understand or agree, but I'm willing to think about it." Also, it rally depends on the tone.Instead of saying this, try getting into question asking mode and being genuinely curious. (For more, see How to help people, step 1.)(An example: I once sent a resume to a company, waited a few weeks, heard nothing, then called the hiring person. She said "We got your resume. It was ... interesting." Her tone made me think "We thought your use of crayons for the resume was innovative." Not getting hired worked out much better, BTW.)Others?Do you have any favorites? A few others:"Send me a brochure" ("I'm not interested, but I won't say so.") "That's[...]

What GTD and Weight Watchers have in common


One of the personal changes I was surprised by when adopting David Allen's work was how relatively efforlessly I lost 15 pounds [1]. In my case a simple engineering-based approach worked: Calories in < average calories burned. But keeping it off can be a challenge. What helped a lot was my wife's adopting the Weight Watcher's ("WW" from here on) program [2], which not only opened my eyes to how I thought about eating, but also kicked off some thinking about how WW and GTD are very much alike.Following are some observations. As always, your thoughts and clarifications are very welcome.Both are caused by a mismatch between abundance and old brainsClearly we're not wired to to handle abundance - WW: Too much food available [3]. GTD: Too many demands and requests for our attention. As a result we make poor choices that impact our health and happiness. WW: We eat too many calories (and too many unhealthy ones), which overtaxes our bodies, causes self image problems, and cuts lifespan. GTD: We try to do it all, and don't do the highest impact work, which causes stress, hurts our lives outside of work, and can certainly cut lifespan.The cause is our 100,000 year old brains, which aren't well prepared for these modern challenges. "Aha - here's some food. Better eat now while I have the chance! I know I'll store the unused bits for the lean times." (Filling up opportunistically doesn't apply to a full fridge.) "Gahh! Email, the phone, my Blackberry - I'm ready to tear my hair out!" (Fight or flight doesn't apply to a boardroom, a research lab, or your office.)Sure, in another thousand or two generations we might have better brain structures to manage this (assuming no environmental changes - not likely), but that's no help to those of us suffering right now. Note: I would *love* to hear from you about minds and abundance, and recommended reading of leading theories.Both address a huge gap: Self-managementThis is the mind blower that got me into this work: Given the above mismatch, we're just plain not taught a principled method to manage these problems. And we're talking about two of the most fundamental things we do in life (eating and working). (Want another one: moving our bodies - see Reflections on Alexander Technique and personal productivity.)So as I think of it, WW and GTD seek to provide systems, thinking, and tools to solve their respective problems.Both are difficult, and not a silver bulletThe bad news? Quick fixes won't cut it. This includes fad diets that result in short-term gains (e.g., dehydrating) and tips and tricks to working better (e.g., a one-time office purge). Instead, changes like these require major habit adjustments, and those take time. It's a process of mastery (see George Leonard's great little book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment).So there's a heavy requirement for WW and GTD "users:" Realize there's a problem (WW: overweight; GTD: overloaded).Be exposed to a new and principled way of thinking.Adopt principled ideas and tools for change.Form habits via practice and support, using experiences of improvement and relief to build inertia. Both come down to transparency, limits, and choiceBoth methods help to address the problems in (at least) three ways.First, they provide information about what we let into our lives, and concrete mechanisms for tracking. For WW, this is around "points" (a combination of calories and fiber content, as I understand it). Practitioners learn about the foods they eat and the associated points, which leads to making better choices. They're tracked using various tools. For example, I was surprised by the high impact of oils in cooking (including dressings). For GTD, we decide the work involved in everything entering our lives, and track it all in lists and our calendar.By making this information explicit, there's a kind of transparency to our world: It's all up front, and allows our bein[...]

I promise I will...


...not try to sell you
I will look for ways to help you, esp. before we work together (if ever)

...not work with you if I don't think I can help
and I'll be very clear about it, even if we disagree

...not worry about "giving away the farm" to you
I know that sharing genuinely useful information always pays off genuinely curious about your work
and have fun getting to know you

...continually absorb and synthesize the best ideas from my field
and share them freely with you

...respect you, your work, your organization
no exceptions

...treat our relationship as confidential
no exceptions attuned to where we are in the process
and we'll change gears or take a short walk

...notice anything that may hamper our project
and tell you immediately

...give you every reason to trust me
and no reasons not to

...take responsibility for my mistakes
and apologize with humility

...see opportunities to apply my skills, knowledge, and experience to help you
regardless of where that ends up being and encourage you during our project
and long after

...not judge where your self management skills currently are
hey - we've none of us been taught this stuff

...push back when needed
but tactfully and within reason

...sometimes send bulky bumpy delightful packages

A conversation with Mark Hurst, web usability expert and author of "Bit literacy"


Recently I had a nice conversation with Mark Hurst, a leader of the online "customer experience" movement, and author of Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload (see the book's site and sample chapter). Additionally, he's contributed to the web usability field in many other ways. For more, see his bio, his company, his newsletter, and his blog. (You might also enjoy his 2008 Gift Guide & Almanac, which is fun has a few more good tips.)Bit literacy is a good, short book that I've mentioned before [1]. It has helpful ideas around managing email, documents, file naming, photos, and more. I particularly like his file naming scheme [2], which I shared with client who found it helpful as a kind of simple version control convention.Mark stresses that the book is not just about email and getting the inbox to zero (a major change for most of us). It's about managing effectively all the bitstreams coming into our lives. Mark says the world has changed, but most people haven't caught up yet - the always-on lifestyle, urgency, and haste make us neither effective nor sustainable. Here's how he puts it:Five, ten or twenty years from now, the bits will increase exponentially: email, web, phones and PDAs. Without proper training, users everywhere will face an increasingly urgent problem of overload. Now is the moment to learn bit literacy. It's like getting in shape on a slow-moving treadmill before it speeds up to a sprinting pace.I hope you enjoy it.On getting startedFrom early on, Mark noticed we aren't being served well by current technology, and found that there is a more fundamental and insidious problem with it today: people do not have the skills they need in order to do practically anything. Beyond using the web, we lack the skills to survive in a world dominated by email and other digital communications.Over the years, these observations about technology (plus an admitted "obsessive interest in being efficient") led to his perspective on the process and cost of creating bits, and his eventual development of what Hurst calls "a simple, fast, and easy to learn system for being bit literate." He says it took him about ten years to develop that system.InfluencesMark lists Richard Saul Wurman's Information Anxiety as a tremendous influence, a book he says is still pertinent. They met through a mutual friend, after which Mark wrote an essay for the 2000 edition. He then spoke at TED in 2001, which Wurman founded. He says the experience of speaking at TED was a big influence in his later starting Good Experience Live (Gel) conference.He says the culture of "UNIX Geeks" was extremely influential, especially its design principles, how it is built, and the pervasive use a simple file format.Definition of productivityOn what productivity means, Mark says people have a certain amount of stuff they need to get done, so the faster they get it done, the more time we get to spend on our personal lives - playing games or spending time with friends and family. He says there's a reason they call it work :-) Because of its contribution to quality of life, Mark says there's a bit of paradox; if you want to focus on things outside of work, then you really need to first focus on work itself - how effectively you're doing it. This leads to important feelings of liberation, his readers claim, from the "shackles of email," endless to-do lists, or whatever was dragging them down. This being able to be free to live life in a more meaningful way is ultimately what Bit Literacy is aiming at.Mark points out that many current productivity systems are based on previous systems that were built for managing the flow of paper, and to apply systems for paper productivity to our new digital world is not appropriate. He thinks the systems still have value for the paper aspects of our lives, but new tools and perspect[...]

Extreme GTD: How low can you go (or: Can we 80-20 GTD?)


I had a great question from one of my coaching clients who happens to be familiar with GTD [1]. He wondered whether a simpler version of Allen's work was possible, say one that fits the spirit of the 80/20 Principle, maybe even something like 90-20 [2]. The reasoning is that the system can seem overly complex, with a significant barrier to entry.So in IdeaMatt fashion I took this as a challenge and spent some time on an exercise of to figure out what's possible, given the various systems I've studied [3]. My goal was to stay true to my understanding of the the essential GTD habits, including workflow phases, processing and organizing (e.g., two minute rule, "sticky" inputs, and front-end decision making), and effective reminder systems. I wanted to look at as radical change as possible within these confines, rather than incremental adoption or simpler tools. (Note: A search for "GTD lite" and the like turned up some nice thinking on the topic, but a good number addressed adoption/tools, and not necessarily a shift in the method itself [4].) See below [5] for others who have looked at this.My conclusion: An 80-20 version just ain't possible. This is both a testament to Allen's crisp system, as well as to the necessary rigor to back up the goal of a clear and focused mind. Following is a summary - you can read some background detail below. but I wanted to share the resulting simplified approach. I'd really love to hear your thoughts on this...A simplified GTD-compatible system (~70-80)This is the best I could figure out without incorporating more (relatively) radical ideas [3]. As in any simplification, there are serious trade-offs, with the biggest risk being keeping things out of your head. Note: I've thrown in some percentages estimating amount of simplification:Collection: No change (capture everything, fixed # collecting points). Maybe maintain a single inbox for everything that you carry with you.Processing: Use the 5Ds: DELETE, DEPOSIT (file), DELEGATE, DO (two minute rule), DEFER. ~20% simplerProjects list: No change (master list of work requiring two or more steps).Calendar: No change. BUT:Actions: Schedule all actions on the calendar. No actions list, no contexts. 40%Waiting For: None; use the calendar. This means you do hard scheduling of all follow-ups. 20%Tickler: None; use the calendar. 0-30%Filing [6]: No labeler (gasp!) No change in reference and project files. 10%Someday/Maybe: None. 20%Checklists: None; schedule as recurring reminders in calendar (daily, weekly, etc.) 10%Agendas: None; keep with project materials (but OK to have "projects" for on-going meetings). 10%Weekly review: None (!); do incrementally via daily review, say the night before (a common best practice). Review daily: calendar ~one week out (gets actions, waiting for, reminders), mind sweep. Opportunistically: projects. 30%Importantly, to make this work you'll have to have an electronic calendar. Otherwise there's too much work moving actions around. Also, using it for ticklers and waiting for items probably requires electronic reminding.What I like about this: 1) Simple. The calendar does most everything, with support by the projects list (which I really wanted to get rid of - thoughts?). 2) Implements what Mark Forster calls closed lists, which help to define limits on our work, a common complaint about GTD.What I dislike: 1) Potentially too much forwarding of unfinished items. David Allen makes a strong argument for separate action lists. 2) Risk of cluttering up the mind, esp. from removing the weekly review, Someday/Maybe, and checklists.Interestingly, once this emerged I recognized similarity to other calendar-centric systems like Bit Literacy (with its scheduling of all actions) and Do It Tomorrow (with its closed lists).What do you think? Are you using anything similar? Should we create a [...]

How to help people


As I continue building my personal productivity practice, one of the biggest shifts in my thinking is around networking [1]. I've moved from the common "palm down" perspective [2] to the "palm up" variety, in which I work to learn what people care about, and think about afterwards how I can be of service, i.e., how I can help them. I'm reminded of this idea, from my self help formulary: Life = The people you meet + What you create together What's hit me recently is that I needed to make changes in the way I interact with people in order to better help them. The question is, how do we create an environment that fosters this kind of giving?Here's a straightforward process that's helped me:1. When meeting someone, come with an attitude of genuine curiosity.Think of yourself as a detective. Your job is to listen and ask good questions about what she cares about, loves, is challenged by, and is excited about. Learning to do this may take some work (it did for me) because many of us want to talk about ourselves, show how smart we are, and feel like we're contributing to the conversation. Another risk is, giving unsolicited advice [3].It helps to have rapport-establishing skills, and I've found Nicholas Boothman's How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less very helpful - see my review here. You might also enjoy Questions that Work.This leads to a test: After meeting someone, do you now know enough to spot ways to help him? (Note: I recommend against the "Is there any way I can help you?" finish to a conversation. It sounds contrived to me, and might really be sending the message "Look how willing I am to help you." Often the answer is "hmmm." Much better to use my approach. Arguments to the contrary are welcome.)Remember, when meeting with someone the only things you should be asking about are ones dedicated to providing value. Avoid the instinct to focus on the short-term and your benefit; it's about relationship-building and long term connections.2. Maintain a steady, reliable, and valuable atom/bitstreamNow that you know what's potentially valuable to people in your network, you have to find corresponding artifacts. You'll want to select sources that provide this potential. These will be in the form of articles (HBR has some great ones), books (reading-related posts here), blogs (learn how to read them quickly here), and your experiences working, learning, and living.Because these sources are often digital, you'll need an effective way of managing them. I like Mark Hurst's [4] concise little book Bit Literacy. Mark has a lot to say about the topic - highly recommended. For example, one idea is to create a media diet portfolio with two main components: The Lineup and Tryouts. The lineup contains the sources you are most likely to stick with. He breaks them down further into three types: stars (consistently valuable), scans (give some relevant information via a quick read), and targets (special-purpose sources). Tryouts are sources you're thinking of adding to your diet. Mark says to be discerning, intentional, and remember you have to limit the total.This step's corresponding test: Is my media diet consistently valuable to me and my network? Ask this regularly, and prune/adjust as needed.3. When you come across something of potential value, share itThis is self explanatory, but will depend on your having a free enough mind [5] to put together mentally the two parts.That said, here are a few tips: Instead of emailing, print and send information with a note. It's personal, fun, and after all - who gets excited about receiving an email? "Oh boy - I got an email from Matt! What a unique and memorable way to communicate." :-)Point out why you thought she'd be interested.Provide contact information. After all, starting a conversation around the topics is [...]

A conversation with Marilyn Paul, author of "It's hard to make a difference when you can't find your keys"


Another treat in my interview series (kickoff post, all posts), I'm very pleased to share highlights from an hour with Dr. Marilyn Paul, author of the best-selling It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys (The Seven-Step Path to Becoming Truly Organized) (personal and consulting sites). Not only is her book one of the top 10 in Amazon's self-help/time management category, it's also the first time management book recommended to me when starting my practice (the world repository of all knowledge says I read it read on 2005-10-01).Like her book, our conversation covered a lot of topics, and I came away highly impressed. I hope you enjoy it! (If you'd like to hear more from Marilyn, check out this NPR interview from a while back: Overcoming E-Mail Overload at Work. I've pulled out her tips below [1].)Getting started, and the book's originsLike many of the leaders I've met in my field, Marilyn's story is rather non-traditional [2]. She has a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the School of Management at Yale University, and got started in the work of time management, organizing, and productivity because she struggled with these issues and realized she needed help. Having read a ton of organizing books and finding they didn't work, she decided to apply the principles of organizational Change Management - her speciality [3] - to herself. This came about after she sought out existing information and advice, but didn't get the help she needed.As she evolved a new process and started sharing it via local workshops around the Boston area. In a lovely example of wild success, those workshops were overflowing (requiring her to turn people away), and she was inundated with requests for more events, and for the material. She kept doing the work, teaching and applying it to herself (in areas like clearing up the clutter and learning more about running on time), and over time collected lots of material. Then a friend looked at her workbook (fifty pages at the time) workbook and workshop, and said "This is a book." In a great example of Synchronicity, the next week after she bumped into three people were literary agents, one of them said she would work with her, and one thing went to another. Neat!I asked Marilyn the total time from start to finish for this process, which she figured ("good question") to be about ten years.Definition of productivityPaul said she had worked with people on issues of productivity, but had not been considering it to be her issue. However, she pointed out that productivity is not really her focus either. She elaborated that she thinks of productivity as part of the "equation of living a good life," along with other important factors such as creating sanity in your home, having good relationships and connections, etc.Paul said she's not sure the word "productivity" applies to life as a whole - it's part of the question how do we make work meaningful and valuable, and how do we do what we care about - Ready, Aim, Fire, rather than Ready, Fire, Aim [4]. As she puts it, it is not productivity so much that drives her as how do we live the best life that we can, given how different we each are. For GTD practitioners, this will seem a bit controversial - Allen's work is intentionally bottom-up (first get your life together, which makes room for uncovering what your life should be about). More on this below.(An aside: I asked Marilyn the differences between "Organizing," "Productivity," and "Time management." I like her answer: Basically we don't need to make them distinct because there's lots of overlap. This makes my marketing a bit more challenging though!)InfluencesWhen asked about her influences, Paul said that, in terms of how she thinks of her work - organizational change - one great influenc[...]

Happy end-of-year, and a short collection of ideas, both serious and trivial


(A relatively short post, as I'm in recovery.)Five things that are easier with crutchesI broke a leg bone in half a week ago[1], so I have some tips for you should you need crutches. Palm calluses useful for chandelier-swinging.Improved ability to re-slip on ice. Advantage: Already have crutches.Like some kinds of work (e.g., writing), slow and steady is often more productive than fast and reckless.Can use to point and press buttons.Hyper-developed right leg more impressive than pre-accident, and draws attention away from shrunken chicken-stick broken leg.Increases pan handling donations, esp. when combined with weary slouch.And finally, children just love to play with them! Three things you didn't know about meOne of my teeth is rotated 90 degrees from normalI was raised by a family of wild cats. While they treated me with love and like one of their own, I have some residual bad habits like using my tongue to clean myself, and an aversion to toilets - I prefer a litter box. Thank god for my portable litter box!Ezra Cornell, the founder of Cornell University, is my great-great uncle. Sadly, family scholarships were dropped before I graduated high school. (This one's actually true.) How to actually take time off during your holidayIn Holiday Hacks: 12 Radical (and Slightly Naughty) Ways to Stay Productive the author suggests ways to work during time off. Here's what I said: The real question is how you want to use your time "off" from work. Without a recharge, it's arguable that you've squandered an important opportunity to make your brain work better.I recommend treating it like a vacation: Don't work! Like taking a vacation, prepare before it starts by getting caught up, verifying projects are in a happy state, and dealing with anything that you know will come up during the break, e.g., bills, party planning, buying gifts, etc.Also, I want to acknowledge the people who have to work while many of us take breaks, e.g., people who work in hospitals and provide health care, fire and police workers, 24/7 customer support reps, etc. (Please add yourself in the comments - I know I'm skipping lots of other important work.) You might also enjoy A few thoughts on vacations & GTD, used time management books, a few productivity tips, and heroes - both super *and* real.(BTW, I've been on a superhero kick, and enjoyed reading Soon I Will Be Invincible: A Novel and Hero. Guilty pleasure, but while laid up I've not been up to reading one book, each day, one hour each.)Places where our cat throws up (with solutions)While I am concerned about genetically modified foods (apparently tomatoes are common), there's one creature I'd be perfectly happy seeing modified: felis domesticus. Why? Because the thing's digestive system ain't there yet. I love our 15 year old animal, but it pukes on everything. Examples: The floor - most common. Best choice: Wood floors. Worst choice: Carpet. Disadvantage: Usually found when stepped on in bare feet. Solution: Daily hosing-down of all walking surfaces with bleach/fluorohydric acid mixture.Beds - also common. Best choice: None. Advantage: Usually caught in the act, allowing prompt action. Solution: Sleep on floor.And finally, a new one: The vacuum cleaner! A twisty, somewhat self-referential target that gave me a chuckle. Left in place for holiday humor. Finally, even if you don't celebrate the arbitrary point in our planet's orbit around the sun, I'd like to wish you a good new year. Thanks to you all for reading - I'm humbled and grateful.References [1] Prognosis: 6-8 weeks to start walking on it, 3-4 months before it's healed and I'm mountain biking again. Thank goodness I have tele-coaching and local consulting during the next month or so! I'd be very unhappy leading one of my[...]

Bloke redux, the 15 minute emergency office, and a short automation experiment


A little grab-bag post today.First, yesterday in Western MA, USA, we had a beautiful, exciting, and hazardous ice storm. The latter I experienced first hand (first foot, actually) when I slipped on a near-frictionless driveway and broke my leg (fibular fracture). This is three months on the heels of a broken thumb, so I feel a bit like warmed-over poo. And yes, there's some self-judgment involved as well.So this week some short, but hopefully high-value mini entries [1].Moving officesBecause my office is upstairs, I needed to set up one on our first floor. (What - Matt stop working!?) With my dear wife's help, we got it done in 15 minutes. I think this is remarkable. All it took was moving down: Action system (already portable; and remember, it's only a calendar and three lists - Projects, Actions, and Waiting For)Laptop computer and headsetPortable phoneStacking shelves (inbox, action support, working project folders [2])Desktop supplies (many in one place - my spinning organizer)Mail-related items (envelopes, stamps, and thank you cards)PrinterLegal pad (supports my collection habit) (For how much such a system simplifies moving the entire office, see Another GTD Plus - Moving offices made much easier.)Windows text automation tools experimentOver the last month I've been trying a few tools to automate my computer workflow on Windows [3]. In the productivity blogosphere, reviewing and using tools like text expansion and auto-completion is common, so I thought I'd give some a whirl. I looked at two categories: Text auto-completion (in which the program figures out the word/phrase you're typing and types it for you), and text expansion (in which you tell the program which word/phrase it should type). In other words, programs where it decides vs. when you decide. (Note: This separation is fuzzy - there's crossover between the two.)The verdict: The latter class is much more useful and flexible, and For auto-completion I tried these programs: LetMeType, IntelliComplete Professional, As-U-Type, and AutoTyping. My conclusion: Increasing typing speed would provide more benefit, due to completion not being 100% (which is probably impossible). Put another way, it was slower cycling through completions searching for the correct one. That said, of the ones I tried, LetMeType was the most usable.(Side note: Interestingly, I had trouble finding one that was under active development. Makes me think either a) it's a dead end, or b) no one's created a great tool yet. Opportunity?)For text expansion I looked researched a bunch of them [4], and ended up trying AutoHotkey first. It is free, powerful, under active development, and has a supportive user community. My conclusion: It's pretty darn neat, passed the "I'll keep using it" test, and was good enough to not try any others. And its scripting library can do about anything. I haven't integrated it deeply with Firefox yet, but I hope it will replace CoScripter (I like tool consolidation if possible). It supports UI macros as well (click here, etc.) There's a nice introduction at lifehacker: Hack Attack: Knock down repetitive email with AutoHotKey.Note that I used the geeky edit-a-text-file approach, and did find the syntax to be a bit confusing at first. I believe there's a graphical front end, though. If you want a friendlier UI, definitely check out ActiveWords - it is pretty, but still has a large scripting library.Mac users may want to check out this Spell Catcher vs. TextExpander vs. Typinator vs. TypeIt4Me, etc..So tell me: What's your experience around this been? Got a favorite you can't live with? Do tell!Resources[1] Yes, I realize that most blogs are only entries like this. I look at it a competitive advantage - more depth, but f[...]

A nice surprise: A short email interview with UK productivity expert Nicholas Bate


One of the great things about my series of interviews with top productivity consultants [1] (along with lots of new ideas) is discovering thinkers I've not previously heard of. I'm pleased to share a short email interview with Nicholas Bate (site, blog), who came to my attention when I received a surprise box of books and playing cards [2] from London, including Being the Best: The A-Z of Personal Success, JfDI! Just Do It: The Definitive Guide to Realising Your Dreams, and Get a Life: Setting your 'Life Compass' for Success.For a taste of his thinking, check out his free ebooks (I found the first, Boost Your Productivity, stimulating):Boost Your ProductivityLife BalanceRainmakerThe Rules of LifeTwo things about Nicholas: First, his knowledge seems both deep and wide, something I admire. Second, his blog is in the category of brief, frequent, and high-value, something I also admire. (I'm regularly tempted to switch to that approach to free up time for other projects. Not yet, though.) His post How to Think Like Albert Einstein is one of the funniest and shortest ones I've come across in a while, with You were there: invention of the light bulb, 125 years ago.. running a close second. :-)Here's another characteristic post, this one on productivity: 6 Ways to be More on Top of Things: Have a definitive list of what 'things' are: the master list.Review that list once per day. (Re-) prioritise.Prioritise by pay-off. Not who's shouting, what's easy nor what's urgent.Say no to low value tasks otherwise you say no to high value stuff (such as your Life).Take time out every day to think. It's the unique distinction of humans.Regularly scan the diary for what is coming up.I'm continuing to line up interviews, including some big names you'll definitely know. Now on to Nicholas's interview.How did you get your start?I just started. I had no guaranteed clients, but I did know this was something I really wanted to do. If you have a strong passion within you to do something, I encourage you to do it. It may not be easy, but it will work out eventually. Passion leads to ability. Ability leads to competence. And people want and will pay for competence.What were the biggest factors in your success?Becoming special. Identify a few things you are really, really good at and then become awesome at those. Don’t try and do everything. Don’t be too concerned about your competitors and be careful about responding to the customer; lead the customer!How did you build your clientele?I really believe there is only one way: word of mouth. You can accelerate that of course in many ways, but essentially you must have a product which people tell others about with sufficient enthusiasm that they wish to buy it.How do you to ensure (as much as possible) that clients "get it," i.e., that it sticks?Two main approaches: on seminars and in my books I do a lot of "pattern-breaking." Secondly I help maintain momentum through my blog.What's your market focus/niche?Business/commercial. Work/life balance. Productivity.How do you summarize your method, and how did you develop it?A concept called "personal compass." The metaphor being of course to decide your direction, etc. Most productivity methods I believe are too tactical; without a big enough why, people cannot keep their motivation. I encourage people to discover and set their compass; that then keeps them motivated.How do you stay on top of the field (reading, tools, assistants, outsourcing)?I read books and increasingly blogs. I used to go on workshops, and have attended those of the many thought leaders I respect.How did your books come about? What's your muse?The desire to capture my teachings and ideas so that students who [...]

Genius, purpose, and cool job descriptions - What are *you* built to do?


Over the past year or so I've been collecting job descriptions I think are tres cool, i.e., stimulating to me. I'm sure this started when I was planting the seeds of my career change - when I was actively thinking about finding my "thing," what Dick Richards calls our genius (see Is Your Genius at Work?: 4 Key Questions to Ask Before Your Next Career Move - Dwayne's got a nice article on it here).I worked through that book a while ago, but I'll admit it was difficult and I didn't get it down to two words. (What I love about Richards' approach is he has you get it down to one gerund - a verb that ends with the suffix ing - and one noun, e.g., Digging Deeper.)Reflecting on this process after some time, I've realized two things. First, my primary motivation for doing personal productivity consulting is to help people free up their minds so their genius can come through - either by making space to hear what it is, or by turning their smart ideas into action [1]. This is the big picture, and the main reason to get on top of everything.The second realization is that my personal one (Richards says you only have one - I disagree) is something like this (apologies for the dry language): Read tons of books.Discover ideas that can potentially change personal world views - radically.Experiment with them on myself.Teach the most valuable ones to others.Provide terrific value to others, add money, and repeat. (Haven't got it down to two words, obviously ;-)So - here are some of the more interesting job descriptions. Do any of them give you ideas about your genius? Please share!Attention Management Consultant (from Fatigue from information overload has a remedy, expert says)Balance Expert (from The Oracle of Organization)Brain Calisthenics Coach (from As Minds Age, What.s Next? Brain Calisthenics)Brain Trainer (from Brain TrainingContinuous Self-Improvement Guru (from Continuously Increase Productivity by Embracing the Optimization Mentality)Culture Coach (from NPR: Intercultural Relationships: Can They Work?)Defective Systems Detective (from Do it tomorrow)Director of Insights & Innovation (from the IdeaFlow blog)Doctor of Invention (from this blog)Experience Designer (from Top Jobs 2007)Flexibility Consultant (from A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder - a stimulating read, but ask me about its flaws)Freak (from #49: FREAKS RULE! in 100 Ways to Help You Succeed/Make Money, Part 1)Joyologist (from A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future)Knowledge Champion (from Wikis Are Alive and Kicking in the Enterprise)Labyrinth Designer (from Labyrinth Society)Master Craftsman of Value (from The Fred Factor: How passion in your work and life can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary)Member, [Technology] Simplicity Advisory Board (from Thinking Simple At Philips)Passion Catalyst (from Curt Rosengren)Professional Amateur (from Marcel Wanders Studio)Wooden Roller Coaster Designer (from Marketplace: Day in the Work Life: Building quite a ride) References [1] I'm leading a marketing study group using Middleton's Action Plan Marketing workbook, and we just did the meme section. I'm still working on mine, but they alll have to do with smart people, and helping turn their ideas/inspiration into action.[...]

A conversation with Sally McGhee, productivity pioneer and author of "Take Back Your Life"


Continuing my interview series with the top experts in personal productivity comes another deep and wide-ranging conversation, this time with Sally McGhee, CEO of McGhee Productivity Solutions and author of Take Back Your Life!: Using Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 to Get Organized and Stay Organized.If her name sounds familiar, that's no surprise. Her book is one of Amazon's best sellers in categories like Outlook and E-mail. And her experience and knowledge in the field go back twenty years - she was a partner in a company with David Allen, where she helped formulate the essential ideas of modern productivity practices like GTD (which she's taken in significant new directions - more below), and has worked with luminaries like Tony Buzan [1]. She's also an active Microsoft partner and contributor [2].I'm very happy to share highlights from our delightful conversation. Enjoy!Getting started in the fieldSally started out in her early teens in London, working with inspiring people like Buckminster Fuller, Tony Buzan [1], and Michael Wolf, who ran a corporate identity company. It was Michael who suggested that she was so organized, she ought to get into the business. She took this to heart and in her early 20s created a company that produced a paper-based time management system, one that she says was futuristic and included features like mind-mapping pages.She sold that company, did coaching work with Jinny Ditzler [3] at a company called Results Unlimited (prior to its becomming Best Year Yet), and started a similar company in the US. She sold that company to work with Russell Bishop [4], who hired her and David Allen to work as a team [5]. Finally, they closed the company, with David and her parting ways. He created Getting Things Done, and Sally went on to found McGhee Productivity Solutions. (Check out their workflow model - it has some surprises, esp. around integrating goals. More on this below.)Sally said working with these people (esp. Fuller) crafted what she calls her "psychological aspects in becoming a global citizen." This led to an early and continuing urge to make an impact, which she wanted to do in the corporate world, where she saw a need for education (it's where most people continue on-going learning after leaving school). I respect that she's taken many steps to move her closer to her goal.Personal productivity and its larger implicationsAs I continue getting to know leaders like Sally, and as I get deeper into the field, I'm struck that it quickly explodes into every part of life [6]. Sally agreed, and says she's as much a student of life today than she's ever been. She continues to explore how to improve the quality of life for herself, her neighbors, her community, and the people her company interacts with in the corporate world.She says this helps her in leading the field by redefining the meaning of productivity in the corporate world. It has to do with sustainability and values, starts with their Take Back Your Life training, but expands into programs that deal with how to create what she calls "sustainable cultures that combine increased performance with and work/life balance." This involves determining what processes need to be changed, and creating objectives that cascade down and up. It all connects to the four values she teaches - alignment, focus, integrity and accountability. (She cites Megatrends 2010: The Rise of Conscious Capitalism as a good source around this topic.)The progression of clients from workflow to valuesI asked Sally about whether clients come to her seeking these higher levels, or just dealing with the daily overload. She says that initially he[...]

Some tasty morsels from the Ideamatt self help formulary


A light post this week, I wanted to share a few select formulas for productivity and self help I've been collecting. Hopefully some will resonate. Let's hear yours! -- mattEvent + Response = OutcomeFrom The Success Principles [1]Flow = Work + PlayFrom Psychologists now know what makes people happyProductivity = What x WhenFrom Nicholas Bate On being productiveEffectiveness = Creativity x OrderFrom Do it tomorrowEffectiveness = Knowledge x FocusFrom Nick Duffill via Eric MackLuck = Preparation + OpportunityFrom To Do Doing DoneProductivity = Clarity - Interruptions + RestedFrom My Productivity Equation is C - I + R = P. What's Yours?Productivity = Value / Time (where Value = Impact x Endurance x Essence x Volume)From What Is Productivity?Intention + Commitment = RealityFrom The Instant Productivity ToolkitThe "Worth It" factor = Effort * Fulfillment * "Necessity/right-thing-to-do factor"From CrazyBusySuccess = Work + Play + "Keep your mouth shut"From Albert EinsteinTalent x Relationships = Productivity ("the success formula that never fails")From Time PowerLife = The people you meet + What you create togetherA gem from Networking Tips from the White HouseAnd finally (and appropriately) - from The End:And, in the end, the love you takeIs equal to the love you make.References [1] See E + R = O (Event + Response = Outcome) - dealing appropriately with "cringe" Inbox items.[...]

An interview with Chris Crouch, creator of the GO System


Continuing my interview series [1] with the top experts in personal productivity, I'm very pleased to share highlights from my conversation with Chris Crouch, creator of the GO System and author of Getting Organized: Learning How to Focus, Organize and Prioritize. Chris's company runs a certification program and sells products like an implementation kit. You can find some of his articles here.I wrote about Chris's book a few months ago (see Some thoughts from the book "Getting Organized" by Chris Crouch), and I'm grateful he took time to share from his deep and wide-ranging knowledge and interests. So if you like big ideas and lots of great book references, enjoy!Getting started in the fieldChris got his start somewhat by accident. He was a CPA in a big eight firm, which had a rigorous working environment and required employees to handle a lot in order to survive (sound familiar?) He soon realized he needed to change his old way of doing things, which wasn't working. That lead to his studying the field of personal productivity, which he naturally took to.This eventually brought him to the attention of the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, who asked him to teach others. They made him an executive in the company, with carte blanche to go anywhere, do anything, and get any resources needed (books, or tapes, or new hires) to sift out the ideas that made the most sense.He says it's been a long journey, but it stared with a passion, rather than being a job or hobby. I love how he put it: It was something that I couldn't stop studying if I wanted to. Exactly!Influences and modelsSome influential thinkers of Chris's:Robert Fritz, author of The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life. He calls it an organic way of looking at creating desired results in your life.Jonathan Livingston Seagull, due to the lessons between the lines.As a Man ThinkethHyrum Smith's book 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management. (Note: Smith eventually merged with Stephen Covey to create Franklin Planning.)Karen Kingston's book Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui You'll note there aren't many traditional organizing books here. Chris owns books like those too, but points out that people who need help aren't likely to read a 300 page book on organizing.Challenges to getting organizedChris talked a lot about personal issues standing in the way of being productive, what he likens to a Gordian knot. He claims you have to untie it one piece at a time. Some tools he recommends to deal with psychological issues are Transactional analysis and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.In his book he writes about six reasons people get disorganized [2], and points out that dealing incoming items (e.g., paper, calls, emails) is the one most books address, though it's not the real issue. He says getting down into personality issues is where you can really do some good. Chris gives procrastination as a good example, with at least a dozen causes. (One of the primary ones is perfectionism, which he claims usually goes back to childhood experiences of trying to get it too right, where the price of a making mistakes is too high.)To balance the seriousness of these big issues, Chris encourages an attitude of having fun unravelling them - of understand ourselves better.Top-down vs. bottom-up approachesI asked Chris about the idea that some advocates promote - that most of us are too overloaded with the day-to-day influx and commitments to think about bigger issues. David Allen is best known for this, and compares it to more "top-down" philosophies like[...]

A conversation with Chris Crouch, author and creator of the GO System - Part I


Update: There was some confusion about the format for Chris's interview, so I had to pull this older version.

The final one is here: An interview with Chris Crouch, creator of the GO System.

Thanks to Chris and you for understanding.


Reading gone wild! How to read five books a week (or why Scott Ginsberg is my hero)


One of the most popular topics here is reading efficiently, including How to read a lot of books in a short time and A reading workflow based on Leveen's "Little Guide". Using Leveen's terminology, I have a candidates library of at least 50 books (i.e., purchased and in my bookcase), and a pre-candidates list of around 600 (kept on Amazon, but it's not perfect). So I really want to read a lot (actually, to learn a lot), but the problem is my eyes are bigger than my stomach, and I've fallen behind. This is in spite of outsourcing voice note transcription [1].Thankfully, I came across Scott Ginsberg's post [2] Before we make our move, let’s call... where he writes in passing: (FYI, I read five books a week.)This was just the whack to the head [3] I needed! The essential idea I forgot? I don't need to read the whole book. D'oh! He elaborates in How to read a book (part two here):You don’t need to read every word.You don’t need to devour every page.You don’t need to understand every concept.Just get the key ideas.(See his post for details.) I have to say, it's great to reminded of the basics, but humbling as well.So in true Ideamatt fashion I decided to try an experiment: I would read five books, one hour per book, for five days straight to test and cement the idea. (This is really just a straightforward application of Parkinson's law, commonly "Work expands to fill the time available," a principle I've avoided before now.)Guess what? It works. The one hour limit really focuses the mind, and makes it a challenging kind of race. To be honest I've only tried it for three days, but so far I've read: Time Management is an Oxymoron (thanks to reader Frank M. for the birthday present!)Organizing Your Home Office For Success: Expert Strategies That Can Work for YouHello, My Name is Scott :-)Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (a book I've been meaning to read for a while, but which - frankly - seemed too long for the ideas involved. Very useful book [4], though.I hope to keep this pace up.Does it apply equally to every book? No; some clearly are worth further study. But can it be applied to every book? Sure! An hour will still give you a good sense of the concepts, and whether the work warrants more time. (Note that this philosophy is an nice application of The 80/20 Principle, which says not all books are of the vital few. Many books - esp. time time management books at this time - are in the trivial many.)Up for a challenge? Try it for a week and share your results! Here's a summary of the steps:Choose a nice reading spot.Block out an hour of uninterrupted time.Calculate briefly how fast you'll need to go. A simple baseline is average time/page. For example, a 250 page book means you can only spend about 15 seconds/page! Clearly skimming skills are crucial.Gather your supplies - timer/watch, water, book, note-taking tool.Start your timer and dig in using your favorite reading method. I had good luck with SQ3R, though a teacher friend of mine was able to rattle off six from the top of his head.As you read, keep focused! You are a machine, enjoying pushing as fast as necessary.References[1] Matt's Idea Blog: The 4-hour workweek applied: How I spent $100, saved hours, and boosted my reading workflow[2] And yes, he's apparently been blogging since January, 2003![3] Check out A WHACK ON THE SIDE OF THE HEAD: How You Can Be More Creative, the Ball of Whacks (I've been having fun with them), and Von Oech's Creative Whack Pack. (Hey - how can I resist someone who uses educat[...]

Got the email blues? Only three things you can do: Get fewer, Get faster, Get control


Email is a huge problem for most of us, and there are tons of ideas for dealing with it. As I continue to work with clients, I've come to believe there are really only three things you can do to master email:Get Fewer,Get Faster, andGet ControlLet's break them down:Get FewerFirst, manage your incoming volume. A few suggestions: Send less - not every message requires a response (yes, this means not sending thank-you-only). Ask others to send less, including reducing CC, Forward, and "Reply All" messages.Educate (kindly) frequent senders on best practices.Get off low-value distribution lists, and move email-based subscriptions to RSS (see Move email-based subscriptions to RSS).Use other forms of communication when relevant (see When To Use Email & When Not To).Get FasterSecond, get more efficient at your processing. And I do mean processing, not "checking." I give clients a chainsaw analogy: Your program is a powerful, but somewhat dangerous tool, and - like a chainsaw - you shouldn't fire it up just to "check" the trees. You're doing work here, not testing ones and zeros.My main recommendation is to learn and apply a methodology like Getting Things Done. I've found these types of approaches are the most effective way to rapidly process your inbox. You learn to be decisive, spend two minutes or less per message (that means getting briefer), manage action and delegation, and get every message out of "IN" once you've dealt with it. It ain't easy, but it's crucial.In addition take steps like learning your program's keystrokes and shortcuts (esp. Delete and Move to Folder), keeping your SPAM filter up-to-date, and setting up templates for common responses.Get ControlFinally, you must break the habit of near-continuous checking. Most of us check email far more often than necessary, and this impacts our focus. A study by Microsoft (see Slow Down, Brave Multitasker - paper here) examined the habits of employees over two weeks, and found it took people more than nine minutes, on average, to return to primary tasks after being diverted. And they spent 10-15 minutes before returning!Some tips to move from reactive to proactive:Turn off the new mail alarm. Otherwise, it’ll rip your attention away every time.Reduce the "get new mail" setting to ~once/hour.Block out specific time for processing. Depending on your job, you might be able to limit it to a few times a day (10 am, 1 pm, and 4 pm?)Consider not checking it first thing in the morning.What do you think? Do these three cover it? And do you have any favorite tips that fit into this (or not)?ResourcesThe Hamster Revolution: How to Manage Your Email Before It Manages YouHacking Email: 99 Email Security and Productivity TipsNever Check E-Mail In the Morning: And Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life WorkProcess and organize your e-mail to increase productivity[...]

What the heck *is* productivity all about?


A few things got me thinking about why we try to be more productive. The first was a stimulating (and emotional) discussion of value, fees, and life purpose in my recent post A conversation with Laura Stack, the Productivity Pro. Toward the end a reader brings up the important of "Why?"The second thing was Laura Stack's post How to Be More Productive: Have you become more productive or just learned how? She's clearly given it some deep thought.Finally, early on I wrote It's not about productivity..., and I'd like to revisit the idea. So what follows are a few "Is it all about..." thoughts. No answers here, just a some starter possibilities. Your thoughts on this are very welcome.Time?I use the term "self management" in my work (instead of the traditional "time management") because there's a limited supply of it and it can't be saved, so how can you manage it? ("Saving time" doesn't make sense either.) However, our time is extremely precious (we've been allocated a fixed amount of it, though we don't know the number) so how we spend it is crucial. (Hmmm - maybe we should talk in terms of a time budget?)My friend Pascal Venier called me on this a while back. His response to my post Is GTD the "Extreme Programming" of Time Management? is worth a look: Now ... is GTD really about time management?Action?OK, so if it's not about time, how about action? A central tenet of Getting Things Done is managing action. "You can't do projects, only actions" is a key concept. This relates to the psychological stress of what Allen calls incompletes or open loops - your mind only relaxes when it trusts they're being tracked and dispatched, so that they feel as if they are complete.But this leads to asking which actions are important. I believe strongly that getting on top of everything in our lives is a critical first step, but just because we have lots of lists doesn't mean we're living our lives like we want to.Proactive vs. reactive?In the article Getting Things Done Guru David Allen and His Cult of Hyperefficiency (which my friend Bob Walsh did not like) the author says:Scientology says that the static in our heads is caused by "engrams." In GTD the problem is stuff.And stuff is an important piece of Allen's thinking - it's the start of much of what we need to take care of, including problems, ideas, and opportunities.However, this seems to frame the issue in reactive terms - things coming at us. In The Instant Productivity Toolkit Len Merson talks about "being proactive in a reactive world." To him being proactive means:meeting new challenges head-on, not procrastinating until they become crises. Being proactive means diving into your tasks knowing you are going to accomplish them well and on time. ... thinking "That's what I'm going to do *next*," not obsessing about a stack of folders on your desk and falling into despair over what you haven't done. (You can find related thoughts here.)Goals?That's getting there, but how do we know what to be proactive about? Goals! Yes, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a blog post on goals. (Believe me - I have over 200 goal-related references). But knowing your goals can be difficult - that's why I wrote Where are you going? Use your actions and projects to reverse engineer your goals. The reason I do this work (coming at it bottom-up) is because it enables listening to ourselves, and getting at what's important. As I commented on Jason Womack's post What would you do if...?It might come down to l[...]

A conversation with Laura Stack, the Productivity Pro


As I announced last week [1], I'll be interviewing the top experts in the field of personal productivity, and I'm pleased to start out with a bang - I had the pleasure of talking with Laura Stack, AKA the Productivity Pro, last week.Laura (site, blog), a very well known expert in productivity, has created a highly recognized brand, is a top rated speaker, and is the author of Leave the Office Earlier, Find More Time, and and her forthcoming The Exhaustion Cure: Up Your Energy from Low to Go in 21 Days (available May, 2008).We talked about her business, productivity, her love of speaking, and her thoughts on starting a new practice. I hope you enjoy it!Who to say your biggest influences were or your models, and why?Probably Covey. I started off years ago studying Franklin Covey, of course back then it was Franklin Quest, started off with a Franklin Quest planner, but had done a lot of reading of Stephen Covey's, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, etc, and have had a Franklin Covey Planner for years, now I use Day-Timer, so I've done some shifting over the years. Early influences were the Priority Manager seminars that were popular back in 80s, when I first started the study in this seriously.Are you using a Paper Planner still?I use a Paper Planner and a handheld; I am a hybrid organizer. I find the handheld extremely ineffective as a tool to capture notes and ideas, so I do still use a Day-Timer.Who do you say your peers are?David Allen, Julie Morgenstern. There are a few people out there who do what I do; I consider myself a professional speaker. There are people who are organizers, people who are productivity consultants, who go in and do more organizational work, people who are, such as yourself doing blogging. I have always been a speaker, started off as a speaker. So, my main emphasis is getting the message out via the spoken word. I speak about a hundred times a year, half of them corporate work and half conferences doing keynotes, breakout sessions, etc. So, I am a speaker first and an author second.Do you still do the one-on-one coaching and consulting?I don't do that myself, our company offers it. I offer that through other contract organizers who teach like the Paper Tiger method, who are certified in some of those others. I do it occasionally, unfortunately I am usually too expensive, I don't charge differently to do one-on-one organizing as I would for a group of a thousand in a conference, I charge for my time and my fees don't vary. So, typically an organization cannot afford to bring me in to do one-on-one work. I have still done that on occasion, I just was hired to do that for an exec at Sunoco, for example, it just depends how much is being paid and whether they have the authority to come in and have me sit by them and hold their hand.How much do you charge?I charge for 90 minutes $7,500, I charge $10,000 for half-a-day and I charge $12,500 for a day.How you get clients?I don't have to go get clients anymore.How did you get clients when were getting started?Oh, when I started in '92 (my book didn't come out until 2004), I just like anybody had to build the momentum in my company. I did a lot of free speaking, I spoke pretty much to whomever would listen to me, wherever they had a speech, so I did a lot of looking in the business journal, looking in the calendar section in the back and see who is having meetings, local chapters of the national associations. I wo[...]

Where are you going? Use your actions and projects to reverse engineer your goals


OK, a confession: Like almost everything I've done to create and build my productivity practice, I'm doing goals wrong unconventionally :-) Almost every time management book and blog I've read recommends having written goals, reviewed regularly. For example, Zenhabits' Top 20 Motivation Hacks - An Overview lists (among others): #17: Post a picture of your goal someplace visible -- near your desk or on your refrigerator, for example.#16: Get a workout partner or goal buddy.#5: Visualize your goal clearly, on a daily basis, for at least 5-10 minutes.#4: Keep a daily journal of your goal. And The Ten Part Mental Fitness Program has extensive goal-setting tips. These are great ideas.The confession? I have no written goals. They're not on my office wall, they're not on stickies posted around my house (a fine suggestion from Order from Chaos), and I don't reflect on them during my weekly review (see Seven Questions That Will Change Your Life for a useful list [1] of questions). I have a love/hate relationship with them: I'd love to have the list (I'm sure it's helpful), but it just doesn't work for me.Last week (Small steps to big results) I suggested that completing one tiny high-value task a day can lead to steady progress on what's important, and provides built-in end-of-the-day satisfaction. But what's important? I'm convinced that modern "bottom-up" approaches like GTD are the best way to get our lives together. But they are just the start [2].So here's an idea to discover your goals, bottom-up: Use your self-management system to let your goals emerge from the things you've decided to spend time on. Some examples of places to look:Collection: The stuff entering your life says a lot about what you care about. For me, I get: many books (from readers as well as my wish list), book notes, blog ideas, many thoughts and ideas from blogs I read, as well as the personal stuff: bills, insurance, school notes, etc.Projects and Actions: This is where the rubber meets the road, and tells you most about your priorities.Delegation/Agendas: Who you spend time with is also telling. There's a saying: "You are who you spend time with," which as absolutely true. It also impacts your health and well-being [3]. (A recent revelation: I've started applying rigorously Koch's radical ideas on relationships. He really makes you think about them.)Someday/Maybe: Listen to your dreams. In The 4-Hour Workweek Tim Ferriss says "'What are your goals' is a bad question. It's not a useful one. It's hard to answer." Instead it's better to ask "What would excite me?" I love it. A few of mine: chocolate cafe, bat house, backyard habitat.Calendar & Tickler: Where have you scheduled time? This is big commitment, and worth looking at. (Your time maps [4] will tell you something, if you use them).Reading/TV: What are you letting into your brain? Reading [5] is crucial for continued mental stimulation and development, and most TV just plain sucks.Trash: This is your first line of not doing. Nuke the non-essentials. Here are a few goals I discovered from these:Establishing myself as a top personal productivity consultant. Subgoals include: establishing repute (writing this blog is an on-going project), a crash course in the field (I love this word: Autodidacticism).Being a great parent. Subgoals: Staying involved in my daughter's school, reading, discussing issues with my wife, and spending a ton of time with her.Spendi[...]