Productivity – Litemind Exploring ways to use our minds efficiently. Mon, 01 Jan 2018 20:43:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 6 New Productivity Principles to Live By Mon, 07 Jun 2010 16:33:58 +0000 A while ago I laid out a small set of productivity principles that work exceptionally well. From that time on, I discovered 6 new principles that are as awesome as those. Check them out!

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6 New Productivity Principles to Live By

A while ago I laid out a small set of productivity principles that sum up what makes me really productive. Distilled from a million tips I read online on a daily basis, they’re the gems that make the most difference in my everyday life.

From the time I wrote that article, I had the chance to try many new principles that are probably as effective as those. So, there you go: the six tried and tested new productivity principles that have been working exceptionally well for me — and which can make you feel at your best too.

Principle 6: Goals are for today, not for the future.

I got this insight from Steve Pavlina‘s book Personal Development for Smart People, and it’s as simple as it’s powerful:

The point of goal-setting is to improve the quality of the present.

For a long time, I was setting goals that were like punishments: their only purpose was to serve as whips to get me to work. “Sacrifice yourself now to reap the benefits later” was the rationale. No wonder I have had a hate relationship with goals for a long time — I’m glad things have changed now.

Set goals that make you feel powerful, motivated, and driven when you focus on them, long before the final outcome is actually realized. So the debate about setting your goals on a daily, weekly or yearly basis doesn’t really matter much. What matters is that your goals create not only a better tomorrow but above all a better today for you.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Ask “Will committing to this goal improve my present reality?” If you can’t find a good answer, either refine the goal or throw it away. For example: Suppose your goal is to ‘save money’. The goal is just not worth it if it makes you feel miserable. But if ‘saving money’ makes you feel more confident about what you could do tomorrow, empowered and in control, that’s a keeper.

Principle 5: Do you want to improve? Track it!

Do you want to exercise every day? Then track the days when you exercise on a calendar. Do you want to write the best book ever? Track how many words a day you actually write.

You can improve anything you do if you pay attention to it on a regular basis. When you track, you get cold, brutally honest data. That means, for example, realizing that you’re writing zero words for your novel, day in and day out, exactly as your blank calendar makes painfully clear. Nothing is more revealing (and shocking!) than real-world data — real data about your actual world.

And guess what: once you start tracking, you may not even need to do any conscious effort to improve. There’s a phenomenon called the Hawthorne effect: we change our behavior just by being aware that we’re being watched. This means that tracking, by itself, can set in motion the changes that you need without any further conscious effort!

How to Apply this Principle

  • Use (simple) tracking systems. Take anything you want to improve and create a simple spreadsheet or table in your notebook. And since you may need to record data often, tracking should be fast and easy, otherwise it won’t work.

  • Keep a journal. Writing regularly is a great way to track your thoughts in a more informal way; it helps clarify what you think about any topic you choose. An effective way to track the topics that matter to you is by using the Topics du Jour technique.

Principle 4: Treat upcoming decisions as regular tasks.

I firmly believe that taking commitments seriously is paramount for leading a productive life (as I’ve outlined in one of the principles in the original manifesto — “Honor Thy Commitments”). However, that raises a big issue: when we aim at honoring all our commitments, we tend to hesitate a lot before accepting any new ones into our lives to begin with.

And avoiding new commitments usually manifests itself as delayed decisions. After all, for every decision we make, it means that all tasks associated with it have been officially ‘welcomed into’ our lives, like it or not.

Those pending decisions are big energy drains and a major source of procrastination: we can’t afford to let them hang around for too long. They not only deplete our energy but, most importantly, delay meaningful, important action in our lives. And, perversely, decisions with the greatest payoffs are the ones that we tend to put off the most.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Make upcoming decisions explicit. Don’t let important decisions drift aimlessly in your head: treat them exactly like any other of your tasks. Write them down and deal with them. Put them in your to-do list and allocate the amount of time necessary to make the decision.

  • Set a time limit for making decisions. Oftentimes we have the illusion that if we just wait a bit longer, it will become easier to make the decision — but in fact that usually simply compounds the problem. Most of the time, it’s better to just decide (imperfectly), adjusting to the results of our choices as we go. Set a timer and commit to having the decision made by the time the alarm goes off.

Principle 3: Keep it simple, sweetie.

When creating to-do lists, setting goals and the like, I always assume that these things will be used by the dumbest person I can think of — me. And I’m right: although I usually feel very smart when setting goals and planning, the “doer” in me is indeed the dumbest person I know…

This “other me” (which is in control most of the time) is a procrastinator. He looks for any excuse to escape work. He wants things to be complicated — because it’s in complexity that he finds ways to avoid work without feeling guilty — while pretending to be very busy indeed.

So yes, we still want to plan, set goals, review; but let’s keep things simple — otherwise the doer in us will find ways to avoid the important stuff. Simple tasks lists, simple goals, simple reminders.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Use simple tools and systems. Don’t make it complicated. Use pen and paper or other simple tools. Remember: your goals and plans are only support tools for action, and you shouldn’t spend any more time or effort than necessary on these things.

  • Always look for ways to simplify things. This is more than an isolated act — it’s a mindset. Constantly look for opportunities to simplify routines and put time and effort streamlining them. To make things simple is one of the most difficult things there is, but it pays off!

Principle 2: Fresh starts, every day.

It’s impossible to be productive every single day. There will be setbacks. There will be times when you will succumb to distractions. It’s a fact of life, and that’s OK.

Don’t fret over lost time; don’t try to catch up with yesterday’s unfinished tasks. If yesterday was bad, just start afresh today. I like to think about this as a “productivity meditation”: if something sidetracks me, all I care about is getting focused again. Don’t analyze, don’t criticize, just focus on getting back on track again. Be forgiving with yourself and move on.

The flip side of the coin is that if you’re having many good days in a row this is no guarantee that you’ll have a good day next. So, treat each new day as a new personal mini-challenge: forget past successes and failures. Now is all that matters.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Treat each day as “day zero”: Let go of sunk costs: act like all you have is today. Forget tomorrow and yesterday: focus on doing your best just for today.

  • Don’t fail twice in a row. This is a technique I’ve been trying lately with success. It’s simply an ‘escape clause’: if you fail one time, make it your top priority not to fail for the second time at this task. So, if you missed today’s practice, no big deal. But tomorrow, make that your topmost priority. This guarantees you will get back on track quickly and make you feel terrific again in no time.

Principle 1: You already know what to do.

Let’s face it: most of the time you don’t need a “productivity system” to get stuff done. Although I believe that tools like task lists, goals and tracking sheets can be really useful, the fact is that they’re only that — tools. Just like any other tool, though, they can be misused or become an end in themselves.

Easy goals can distract us from what really matters. Long task lists can be merely a way to show how busy we are, when in fact we’re not sure what to do next. We like spinning our wheels and will go to great lengths to avoid tasks we find unpleasant.

It turns out that, most of the time — right in our guts — we already know what to do. And that’s usually not in our to-do lists or calendars.

No system can force you to do anything. You can “set priorities” and “get organized” but in the end, no matter how sophisticated your lists are, you’ll still need the courage to act on what matters.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Listen to your fears. What are you avoiding? If you’re spending energy avoiding something, you should pay closer attention to it. Learn to identify your tendency to procrastinate and then act on what matters, even if you feel uncomfortable at first.

  • Keep important things in front of you. What is the most important thing you need to do? Write it on a piece of paper and keep it in front of you. Make it hard to escape from it. Get used to making it go away by means of action, not by running away from it.

How do these principles apply to you?

Do these principles resonate with you? Do you have anything to add? What works and what doesn’t for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Also, if you haven’t yet, make sure you check part I of this article, which I pompously called my “Personal Productivity Manifesto” (though, as you can see, is not a fixed set of values by any means…) Thanks!

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50 Ways to Get Your Life in Order Tue, 12 Jan 2010 12:20:13 +0000 Unexpected challenges are what make us stronger, so don’t avoid them. Keep in mind the following 50 tips and you’ll be able to streamline your life and get back on track with your life whenever you need.

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50 Ways to Get Your Life in Order

This is an article by guest writer Mark Foo, author of The 77 Traits of Highly Successful People.

There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of chaos in your life. As Albert Einstein once stated, “Three rules of work: out of clutter find simplicity, from discord find harmony, in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Unexpected challenges are what make us stronger, so don’t avoid them. Keep in mind the following 50 tips and you’ll be able to streamline your life and get back on track in the New Year.

  1. Recycle old papers that are filling drawers in your house. If you’re anything like me, you have drawers overflowing with old receipts, junk mail, records, and notes to myself. Get rid of all of this. Invest in a paper shredder to reduce clutter and maintain privacy.
  2. Mentally prepare yourself for change by visualizing your ideal self. Who do you admire the most? How do you envision yourself in the future? Who do you want to be? Visualize yourself to be that person.
  3. Realize that unexpected events can be a good thing. As the Dalai Lama once said, “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”
  4. Ask people you admire how they got where they are today. I’ve always admired my grandfather. Learning more about how he started up his business, dealt with difficulty throughout his life, and maintained grace throughout it all has helped me in my personal endeavors.
  5. Cut back on alcohol, cigarettes and other vices. These can be crutches that cloud judgment. The money saved by not purchasing or cutting back on this type of material can then be put into something rewarding such as a vacation.
  6. Remove elements of negativity from your life, be they people or a job you don’t want to do. If you have friends who are bringing you down, there’s no need to keep hanging out with them out of obligation. Cut your ties and cut your losses.
  7. Start each day with a clear to-do list along with your cup of morning coffee. Knowing what you need to do in the day ahead helps keep you on track.
  8. Clean your house from top to bottom and throw away anything outdated. Not only receipts, as mentioned above, but any old junk that should be donated to charity or sold in a garage sale.
  9. Institute a clear filing system for your personal records. Investing in a simple filing cabinet and folders with labels is something you don’t need a personal secretary for and makes your life much easier when you are looking for a specific item.
  10. Do your grocery shopping for the week on the day it’s most convenient. Make a list, budget, and get only what you need to save time and money.
  11. Take a career test that will help you identify your strengths. If you are unhappy with your career but don’t even know where to begin in the process of moving on, this can be a good way to identify strengths and new possibilities.
  12. Meet with a professional counselor if there are issues you need to discuss. Many people are struggling with dead weight from the past or emotional baggage that is holding them back. Deal with them and move on with professional assistance.
  13. Go through cabinets and throw out expired medications or food items. The last time I did this, I found everything from 3-year-old curry powder to 5-year-old aspirin. Throw them out.
  14. Make a clear diet plan with an emphasis on whole grains, fruits and vegetables. A healthy diet plan has a tremendous effect on your overall energy levels.
  15. Add vitamin pills to your daily diet. Vitamin supplements can help reduce the possibility of cancer and osteoporosis, among other disorders.
  16. Work out a clear exercise plan with an activity that you enjoy such as dancing or biking. My girlfriend loves yoga, and I am a soccer enthusiast. As long as it’s active, it counts.
  17. Set appointments you’ve been putting off. It’s easy to put off going to the doctor or dentist until we are sick, but preventive care is extremely important in overall health levels.
  18. Take up a mental exercise. Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, or other word games along these lines are more than just a good way to pass time. They have been shown in studies to help improve overall mental capabilities.
  19. Publish your own book. This is easier than ever before with Internet publishing. You can get your ideas out there and start making money from them. I’ve published my own eBook, The 77 Traits of Highly Successful People, check it out.
  20. Make a reading list and join a book club. Most people state that they want to read more, but without an actual plan you may not make the time to do this. Joining a book club not only serves as a social activity but also keeps you up to date with your own reading list.
  21. Spend time with yourself each day. Susan Taylor states that “spending quiet time alone gives your mind an opportunity to renew itself and create order.”
  22. Practice breathing exercises or meditation. Stress can have an overarching effect on our overall productivity levels. When stressed, I personally forget to breathe at times. Take the time to take deep breaths and improve oxygen flow to the brain.
  23. Speak and act with honesty. Are you able to stand by what you do and say? If not, it may be time to reexamine your own words and learn to articulate your thoughts in an open, honest way. This helps eliminate mistakes down the road.
  24. Learn from past mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Usually, we make a lot of them during our lifetime. As long as they aren’t repeated too many times, and are looked at as a learning experience, they can in fact be a good thing in the long run.
  25. Volunteer to help others in your community. Helping others is a rewarding way to get your own life together.
  26. Take up a new language or hobby.
  27. Read inspirational biographies. For new ideas, find out how others got their lives in order.
  28. Talk to a stranger. Unplanned conversations can be surprisingly inspiring.
  29. Reconnect with friends and relatives who live far away. Call those people you miss but keep putting off calling. With the Internet and Skype at your disposal, even an online chat can help you reconnect.
  30. Change your toothbrush. It can be a hotbed of bacteria.
  31. Take more naps. Sleep is often sadly underrated in its ability to boost energy, mood, and keep reaction times sharp.
  32. Drink at least 6 cups of water per day. Staying hydrated helps keep energy levels up.
  33. Organize your photo collection. Get both digital files and physical printouts in albums. If you’re anything like my family, your photographs could be sadly sitting tucked away in shoeboxes in the closet, taking up space.
  34. Take an interest in art in your community. Visiting galleries can help introduce you to the artists in your community and help stimulate thinking.
  35. Join a hobbyist club. My friend decided to learn more about building model airplanes and was so deeply into it that he recently obtained his commercial pilot’s license. You never know where a simple hobby can lead you in life.
  36. Keep a calendar with commitments. Having a visual reminder in front of you can be extremely helpful. We are all different types of learners.
  37. Don’t put off difficult conversations. Deal with problems directly and immediately. This will result in a much lower level of anxiety for all involved.
  38. Make a list of priorities and do what makes you happy. If you have lost touch with your own priorities lately, it can be beneficial to take the time to sit and think about what actually makes you happy. Work toward achieving this as much as possible.
  39. Spend more time outdoors. Nature has an ability to help soothe a troubled mind and clear your thoughts. Taking a walk in the woods or climbing a mountain, at any level of difficulty, gives a sense of pride and accomplishment.
  40. Attend lectures. These could be science lectures or other types, but it’s helpful to keep up-to-date on what’s going on in the world and plan accordingly. Keeping the mind active helps you in all aspects of your daily life.
  41. Take the time to stretch muscles. Get a massage to improve muscle tone and circulation, then use this new energy and apply it to your work routine.
  42. Make laughter a priority. Hang out with some of your most entertaining friends for a good laugh, or simply sit back with some favorite old comedies. Laughter counts as exercise and has been shown to expand your life span.
  43. Clear some time each day to do nothing. As a child, I remember that we had “free time” scheduled into our school activities every day. This could be used for reading, drawing, or simply staring into space if that’s what we felt like doing. What a novel idea, and one that keeps the brain at ease.
  44. Schedule a much-needed vacation.
  45. Learn new tips for entertaining. You don’t have to be Martha Stewart to throw a great dinner party, and learning how to be a host or hostess with minimal effort can give a big boost to your confidence levels.
  46. Throw out old clothing that doesn’t fit. Too many of us are squeezing into outdated clothes that are doing us no favors. Look and feel your best with clothes that are tailored to fit.
  47. Live in the present, not the past. The past is over. Move on and enjoy every moment as it occurs. Take stock of what needs to be accomplished and move forward with this information.
  48. Learn from past mistakes and move forward with your life. Get your life in order by looking forward, not back.
  49. Get your car checked up. You go to the doctor to have your body checked up. Don’t wait until it is too late to perform maintenance on your car. I once got stuck on a road trip to Ipoh (Malaysia) as a result of this oversight, and it wasn’t pleasant.
  50. Budget for possible home repairs. Set aside some money in the proverbial cookie jar to keep home maintenance within the realm of possibility in this coming year.

Do you have a tip to help us get our lives in order? Please share in the comment section below!

About Mark Foo

Mark has brought together 48 personal development bloggers and writers to co-author The 77 Traits of Highly Successful People eBook that spells out all the secrets of very successful people. This eBook is available to you FREE. Grab your copy now at

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Beat Parkinson’s Law and Supercharge Your Productivity Mon, 16 Nov 2009 12:20:37 +0000 Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Even if you are not familiar with its name, I’m sure you’ve fallen prey to Parkinson’s Law countless times… what can we do to escape it? Do You Recognize These Symptoms? We all know the drill: when we have too much time to […]

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Beating Parkinson's Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Even if you are not familiar with its name, I’m sure you’ve fallen prey to Parkinson’s Law countless times… what can we do to escape it?

Do You Recognize These Symptoms?

We all know the drill: when we have too much time to complete a task, we tend to slack off until the task becomes urgent. Then, when meeting the deadline gets nigh impossible, we become super-productive and miraculously pull it off — getting the job done just in time.

The quintessential example of Parkinson’s Law in action is school assignments: even with a full month to complete an assignment, most people work very unproductively (if at all) until the last few days — when they pull one or two all-nighters and manage to get it done right at the last minute.

If you are like one of those students, you know that ‘working’ on the assignment filled up the whole time available — even if only psychologically — despite the fact that you spent little time in actual, productive work. Had you invested this short amount of time right after the assignment was handed to you, you would have completed it much sooner and could have spent the remaining time much more joyfully (either truly resting or working more productively on other stuff).

Does that mean we’re doomed to work at our peak only when we’re faced with looming deadlines? How can we get rid of this unproductive behavior and beat Parkinson’s Law? It turns out there are a few things you can do. Read on.

6 Surefire Ways to Beat Parkinson’s Law

1. Break Down Your Tasks and Deadlines

Parkinson’s Law always strikes the hardest when you have enormous tasks with far-away deadlines. The best way to fix this is, of course, breaking those big, monolithic tasks into many smaller, bite-sized tasks, along with several intermediate deadlines to complete them.

In addition to showing how you are progressing, frequent, achievable deadlines create a mild sense of urgency during the whole duration of your work, keeping you naturally engaged and focused on what needs to be done.

This method works great indeed, but note that you still need to take those intermediate deadlines seriously — which is not always easy!

2. Know What ‘Done’ Means

It’s not always easy to know for sure when a task is finished. The more of a perfectionist you are, the most likely you’re a victim of Parkinson’s Law: there’s always one more little thing to add, one little refinement to be made, isn’t there?

Sure, I am all for aiming for greater quality: the hard part is knowing where to draw the line so we don’t spend a lot of time overdoing it.

If you suffer from this same problem, one thing that helps a lot is to precisely define the output of your tasks. The trick is to be as specific as you can about them — and then simply stop when you complete them.

For example, ‘write white paper draft’ allows too much room for interpretation by your inner perfectionist. ‘Write a 1000-word unedited stream-of-consciousness-style text’ works much better, doesn’t it? Being specific upfront helps keep our perfectionism in check.

3. Set Clear Boundaries

Most of the time, Parkinson’s Law kicks in when we’re doing too much stuff at the same time: our days become a jumble of tasks when hardly any ever gets completely finished. And, with the huge amount of distractions that tend to creep in, it only gets worse.

To avoid Parkinson’s Law’s effects and finish tasks sooner, we must work on them one at a time, focused and with as few distractions as possible.

The best way I know to do that is by corralling your tasks using time boxes. Get a countdown timer and set a time limit to work on them — a contiguous block without distractions to finish or at least make progress on those tasks.

Another great way of setting boundaries is by clearly separating between work and leisure. If you restrict the time available for work (and honor it, of course), you’ll learn to fit all your work into these boundaries. My favorite technique to keep work boundaries well-defined is the time budget (where you define how much time you spend on each area of your life).

4. Challenge Yourself

When you have a tight time limit or deadline, it forces your brain to figure out ways to get it done in the time available.

So, it’s time to stop adding hidden “safety buffers” when you estimate and allocate time for your tasks: if you pad your estimates, they will be wasted as a result of Parkinson’s Law kicking in.

What works here instead is to set challenging deadlines for yourself. Not too challenging — mildly challenging, I’d say. The trick here is that they must still be believable — otherwise you’ll just disregard them.

Take those time boxes you set for yourself (in item #3 above) and now shrink them! Can you do the same task 10% faster? Maybe 20%? A litttle more, perhaps? As soon as you set an expectation — an estimate for the duration of a task — the estimate becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The task will take the expected time, so take advantage of that!

The good thing about regularly challenging yourself that way is that you’ll improve your estimation skills very quickly, in addition to having fun finding creative ways to win these self-imposed challenges. If you practice (and your tasks are well-defined and small enough), it becomes increasingly easier to effectively set challenges for yourself.

5. Create Incentives to Finish Early

One reason Parkinson’s Law is so prevalent — especially in corporations — is that people rarely have the right incentives to finish early:

  • —“Finished already? Here’s more work for you.”
  • —“You’re fast! Guess we can bring the deadline forward next time!”

Even without pointy-haired bosses around, sticking to the current task as long as possible is often desirable, as it can act as a security blanket: maybe you’re avoiding your next task because it is too daunting, for example.

So if you finish early, give yourself mini-rewards: take a quick break, browse the web, go for a walk — do whatever takes your fancy — and enjoy the feeling of having deserved it. The key here is to associate rewards with results, not with time spent — so don’t fool yourself.

Of course, incentives for finishing early only work if the task is well-defined (i.e., you know exactly what ‘done’ means), otherwise most of us will just cheat (by doing a sloppy or incomplete job) in order to get the reward sooner.

6. Know What’s Next

Lastly, something that happens too often is hanging on too long to a task solely because we don’t know exactly what to do next.

Most of the time, the cognitive effort in planning tasks is much higher than that required to actually carry them out. That means that if we don’t have anything ready to be acted on, we may not have the required energy to stop, plan on-the-fly, and then get back to work. The easy way out is to stick to the current task for as long as we safely can.

One thing that I always strive to do is separate planning from doing, and make sure to always have a few next actions in the pipeline so you can keep the momentum going and avoid having to stop to reassess what you should be doing.

Over to You

Are you a victim of Parkinson’s Law? What works best for you in beating it? Share in the comments!

…and, while we’re still at it, writing this article reminded me of an oldie (but goodie) short video I enjoy. It’s not exactly about Parkinson’s Law, but it’s somewhat related and always makes me chuckle… 🙂

(If you can’t see the video, watch it on Youtube)

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6 Productivity Principles to Live By (My Personal Productivity Manifesto) Tue, 27 Oct 2009 15:48:13 +0000 This is my own “personal productivity manifesto”: it summarizes what works for me about personal productivity. Since these principles work so well for me, I figured they might work for you, too. Here they are…

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6 Productivity Principles to Live By

Here are six principles I strive to live by. This is my own “personal productivity manifesto”: it summarizes what works for me about personal productivity.

Whenever I follow these guidelines, I am at my very best, feeling productive and joyful. If I feel that I am doing things outside these guidelines, I know I can refer to them and quickly get back on track.

Since these principles work so well for me, I figured they might work for you, too. Here they are:

Principle 6: Devote Time

No matter how capable or gifted we may be, it’s an illusion to think we can do it all. As my favorite productivity adage goes, we can do anything, but not everything. At every moment, we’re presented with infinite possibilities — we really could be doing anything! But freedom to do whatever we set our sights on comes at a price, and the price is that we need to constantly make choices about what really matters to us.

These choices, at the most fundamental level, always boil down to how we allocate and spend our time.
The value of our achievements is primarily determined by what we consistently invest our time in. We need to be aware of that every day, diligently investing the time in what matters and having the courage to let the unimportant stuff go.

How to Apply this Principle

Principle 5: Focus Your Attention

If the previous principle was about allocating time for the things that matter, this one is about how well you’re able to spend that time.

Very often it seems we just can’t concentrate, even though we know what we should be doing, right? Resistance, procrastination, allowing ourselves to get sidetracked by distractions: these are formidable obstacles even for the most resolute people. Developing a strategy for overcoming resistance and dealing with distractions, then, is essential for maximum productivity.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Use time boxing. Time boxing is a technique I use every day to overcome procrastination, conquer perfectionism and maximize overall efficiency. The concept is really simple: delimit blocks of time to work on tasks. But don’t let the simplicity of the concept deceive you: you really got to try it to see how effective it is in overcoming resistance, focusing your attention and actually doing what needs to get done.
    To learn more about time boxing, check out 15 Time Boxing Strategies to Get Things Done.

Principle 4: Honor Thy Commitments

Personal productivity is not about cramming as much stuff as we possibly can in our days. Here is a situation that sometimes happens to me, and I am sure it must have happened to you too: in a given day we write down a gazillion tasks to do, cross a lot of them off but, at the end of the day, still feel anxious about the tasks we didn’t do. Why is that?

The feeling of being productive comes not from the quantity of tasks we do, but from honoring the commitments we set for ourselves. Doing what we said we would do is what we should primarily strive for.
Tasks that keep being left undone in our to do lists are broken promises to ourselves, and are a sure recipe for frustration: no matter how much we do in our days, we’ll always look at them and feel bad about ourselves.

Before trying to get more stuff done, make sure you honor your current promises (to yourself and to others): Be clear about them, drop those that you know you won’t be able to honor and then ensure that you really complete the ones that remain.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Use will-do lists. ‘Will do’ lists replace a bunch of intentions (the traditional to do’s) with a small set of commitments. It’s not only much shorter than a to-do list, but also doesn’t grow as your day progresses — and you feel just terrific when you cross off 100% of it day after day.
    To learn more about ‘will do’ lists, check out Overwhelmed by Your To-Do List? Go With a ‘Will-Do’ List Instead.

Principle 3: Develop a Sustainable Pace

We need to strike a balance between work and play — between engagement and rest, between creation and recreation. In the productivity game we should take our leisure time as seriously as our work time. Even if we feel energetic and motivated to work long hours, the most effective long-term strategy is to hold ourselves back when feeling too enthusiastic and follow a sustainable pace instead.

Also, defining clear boundaries between work and rest is very important: “Work when you’re working, rest when you’re resting”, I often say. Whenever I forget this, I end up in a very ineffective ‘not-quite-working/not-quite-resting’ zombie-like state.

How to Apply this Principle

The two tools I use for the previous principles also work wonders here:

  • Will-do lists. As soon as I’m done with the will-do list for the day, I’m done: I must resist the urge to work longer. I admit that sometimes — especially when I’m feeling highly energetic — I still stretch and go “get the most out of the day”. However, I always regret it the day after, as I can’t sustain the pace for too long and end up much worse than if I had just stopped working at the right time instead.

  • Time boxes. also help keep work activities together. That helps a lot in making the boundaries between work and recreation very clear.

Principle 2: Keep Moving On

More important than setting big goals is to just keep going. I know this goes against most of the “set bold goals for yourself” advice you see everywhere, but it’s what works for me. Going after a “big vision” is something that always felt awkward, and it always made me more anxious than it helped.

Now, what does work for me is to constantly think about how to improve my life and define little steps to make it happen. Think continuous improvement. Take small steps and see how things change. Experiment.
Sure, it’s perfectly fine to have a general direction, but don’t get too obsessed about it: circumstances will change — you will change. It’s in each step that you learn and adjust your direction.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Daily and Weekly Reviews. Assess your projects and tasks every day and make sure that you define next steps for all your projects. Make them small, but ensure you make progress every single day. Forget New Year’s Resolutions. Plan, review and adjust your steps every day and every week.

  • Ask “How can I take a step so small that it is impossible to fail?” This is one of my favorite questions ever (I got it from the book One Small Step Can Change Your Lifesummary here). I ask it every single day when reviewing my projects and task lists. It melts resistance away and, when asked frequently, keeps you on track and energetic to keep going.

Principle 1: Feel Good. Now.

“Being productive” only makes sense if you’re enjoying yourself as you work on the stuff that’s relevant. If you’re not, none of the things we discussed here really matters. Personal productivity is a state of mind: a feeling that you’re doing what you believe is important and that you’re happy about it — not that you’re making sacrifices day in, day out.

For me, a good rule of thumb is that we should feel tired at the end of the day. Yes, tired, but in a good way: that’s very different from feeling spent or drained: it’s feeling that we poured our energy into the stuff we care the most. The feeling that our energy was put to good use. Going to sleep looking forward to the next day is, in my opinion, the ultimate measure of personal productivity.

How to Apply this Principle

  • Take a one-minute self-assessment at the end of the day. How was your day? Did you invest your time and energy doing what really matters? Forget for a minute about your goals, focus on your journey. After all, if you’re only making sacrifices and not enjoying your days, what’s the point of being productive?

What about You?

What do you think of these principles? Anything missing? Do you have your own productivity principles? Please share in the comments! I’m eager to know about what works for you!

(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: 6 Productivity Principles to Live By (My Personal Productivity Manifesto).

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Lifehacks vs. Lifestyle Design (And the Winner Is…) Wed, 27 May 2009 12:55:20 +0000 Lifestyle design and lifehacks are both important… but which one should come first? After all, lifestyle design is about setting priorities, but lifehacks can help you get in control and gain more clarity. What to do?

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Lifehacks vs Lifestyle Design

This is a guest post by Adrian Koh of Whakate.

The tussle between lifehacking and living the perfect life is as old as personal development itself. “Lifehacking” — a recently-coined word to refer to tips and tricks that lead to productivity boosts — focuses on a bottom-up approach of managing the input of work rather than goals and priorities.

To be clear, this tussle between hacking and living is not one of importance – when it comes to success, we would all agree that making sense of our priorities is far more important than being able to type 200 words a minute. 

The real decision people face is which one should come first: lifestyle design or lifehacks? After all, lifehacks can help you gain control of work so that you can start making sense of higher priorities. But have lifehackers got it all backwards?

The Thing About Lifehacks (The Bottom-Up Perspective)

I have been a serial lifehacker for years. I must admit to having had tons of fun fiddling with gadgets to enhance my productivity. All those years of tweaking my system have not been frivolous, though. I’m proud to say that I’ve mastered the art of email management, task list management and how to get my head “clear” to focus on the issue at hand. Skills like these are terribly useful and have served me well at life and work.

Lifehacks made work a little more fun for me – and still do, to this day. I don’t think I would have been able to handle a promotion and a new family as well as I did with a good hack or two. However, once the excitement of increased efficiency wore off, there was a nagging suspicion that I didn’t really save the world with the hacks I had used. In fact, being at my productive best might have been a distraction from the more important issues in my life.

That’s when life design caught my attention.

The Thing About Lifestyle Design (The Top-down, All-round Perspective)

Whether you call it lifestyle design, life design, work-life balance, or enlightened self-management, the central idea is this: life should be lived consciously and deliberately, and not left to chance.

I first heard about the concept of designing your life in its entirety when speaking to the editors at Whakate. The essence of it struck me as a holistic approach to balancing your life. Starting with an understanding of my personality, responsibilities, roles and tasks, it set me on a discovery of “who” I was and “why” I did what I did.

The intention, of course, was to help me chart out a life designed with meaning defined by me – this is the “what” and “how” of life – and to get me to balance all my goals with the finite time that I had.

If that struck a chord with you, I’d like to show you how you could get started on life design too:

Lifestyle Design

  1. Know who you are. Get an objective perspective of your personality with tests like MBTI. There are free versions available (here’s an example) and there’s significant research backing them. It’s unlikely you’ll get many surprises from the tests, but it’s always eye-opening to see how people with similar traits succeed in fields that you have always been interested in.
  2. Make use of your time. Monitor yourself and how you spend your time, identify and eliminate your time wasters, and start zeroing in on the things that you choose to be done. I can guarantee serious revelations into how you organize your day if you’ve never done this before.
  3. Get organised. At this point, tweak, hack or get a bottom-up perspective if you must, but the focus of life design is to get moving. In truth, the only time management or productivity system that works is the one that actually makes sense to you and gets you to move forward. The difference is that now you’re armed with knowledge of your personality and your priorities (the top-down perspective) giving you a good platform to do what matters most.
  4. Embrace your roles. Knowing what your roles are – whether in your career, family, or social circle – gives you a basis to set goals and develop the values you need to make your life work. Don’t worry if you don’t feel like you’re getting it right the first time around. Our lives are a constant work in progress, with shifting goals and values as we go through life. The idea is to have an intimate knowledge of everything present in our life, and then start designing it for the desired outcome.

Closing Thoughts

While there’s a logical flow to how life design should be approached, there’s no one formula or set of values that will make life successful. The emphasis of life design is to create a life that you consciously construct for yourself. This makes your achievements and outcomes unique and personally satisfying.

The question to ask, then, is not whether one should exclusively choose life design or lifehacking, or bottom-up versus a top-down approach. Used in combination, they are two parts of a powerful personal strategy to balance and gain control of life and work.

About Adrian Koh

Adrian Koh is a writer, blogger, life designer, and budding life coach. He writes for Whakate , and loves no-nonsense, down-to-earth personal development tools that get people working at their peak.  Above all, Adrian loves spending time with his family, who he believes makes life worth living for. More about Life Design the Whakate Way.

(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: Lifehacks vs. Lifestyle Design (And the Winner Is…).

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Do It Tomorrow: An Interview with Mark Forster Wed, 24 Sep 2008 12:17:43 +0000 Today I have a special treat for Litemind readers. I am honored to interview Mark Forster, one of the foremost thinkers in the field of time management. He is the author of three books on time management, including the innovative (and intriguing) Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management. Unlike many other experts, […]

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Mark Forster

Today I have a special treat for Litemind readers. I am honored to interview Mark Forster, one of the foremost thinkers in the field of time management. He is the author of three books on time management, including the innovative (and intriguing) Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management.

Unlike many other experts, Mark goes way beyond the ‘getting organized’ approach, and acknowledges that very human problems — such as procrastination and resistance — are the main roadblocks to higher creativity and productivity.

Mark, like most of us, struggled for many years with unproductive behavior. He was only able to create his methods out of direct experimentation and learning along the way. In fact, Mark is not afraid of keeping experimenting and sharing both successes and failures in his website in a very authentic and open way.

Today, a lot of people had their lives transformed and use Mark’s methods on a daily basis (yes, that includes me). That’s why I’m really excited about this conversation: in the same way Mark has had a daily impact on my life with his work, I’m sure you can also learn a lot from him.


1. Your most popular book Do It Tomorrow has a completely different approach to that of other books on time management. The main idea of leaving tasks undone for the day is rather intriguing at first, but one that is liberating after you understand and apply it. Can you explain how this can be such a life-transforming concept?

Do It Tomorrow Book

It’s actually a very similar concept to the queuing systems which are springing up in places like shops, post offices and railway booking offices.

Instead of having a scrum of people turning up and trying to find the shortest queue, they are put into one orderly queue and dealt with in a methodical manner – which is much quicker than the old multi-queue system.

What these systems do is put a buffer between the customers (who arrive in a completely random way) so that they can be dealt with in an orderly manner.

So what I am suggesting is that in a similar way we impose a buffer on all the bits of work which arrive in a random way over the course of a day. That means we can deal with them in an orderly fashion instead of rushing from one thing to another. The default buffer is to “do it tomorrow”, which means we can deal with things like email, paperwork and tasks by batching up similar items. Dealing with similar items in batches is far faster and more efficient than dealing with them piecemeal.

Of course if you have something that really has to be done today, then you do it today. The key is to resist the temptation to do things immediately which really don’t merit that degree of urgency.


2. Litemind readers may already be familiar with one of the cornerstone concepts of the Do It Tomorrow, the ‘Will-do List’. In a previous article, I focused on how it frees us from the tyrannical rule of the never-ending task list. Can you elaborate on the importance of the ‘Will Do List’ in the grand scheme of the Do It Tomorrow productivity system?

I called it the “Will Do” list in contrast to the traditional “To Do” list.
A To Do list comes in many shapes and forms, but generally speaking it is a list of possible items from which you select your work for the day. Mine usually ended up longer at the end of the day than at the start because I kept adding to it!

By contrast, a Will Do list is a statement of intent about what you really mean to get done that day. The aim is to finish it every day. If you don’t finish it, then you should look at why and do something about it. It’s very simple to construct a Will Do list if you are “doing it tomorrow” because yesterday’s incoming work can be easily batched up to form the list.

Because there’s a tie-in between one day’s incoming work and one day’s outgoing work it’s much easier to diagnose what the problem is if you can’t do all your work than with convention time management systems.


3. I know many people who steer clear from productivity systems claiming that adopting them would hurt their creativity. Many of them — especially the ‘artistic types’ — tend to see these two concepts almost as diametrically opposed. How do these two variables — creativity and productivity — relate to each other?

I’ve coached lots of artistic people over the years, singers, musicians, painters, architects and so on, and what I’ve found is that their artistic ability is often held back because they are so disorganized. It’s very difficult to be creative if you are worrying constantly about unpaid bills, the income tax return which you haven’t filled in, the fact that you haven’t done anything about publicizing your new show, etc., etc.

It’s not a case of either/or. It should be both/and, so that order complements and assists creativity.


4. I love how you honestly proclaim that resistance and procrastination are the biggest life-management problems, not just getting ‘tidy’ or ‘organized’. How are your methods different from others when it comes to dealing with these problems?

What I’ve found is that being on top of a task or project gives an immense amount of energy, even if one doesn’t particularly enjoy the subject.
Contrast washing up immediately after each meal, and only washing up when dirty dishes have filled the sink and are heading towards the ceiling!

As “Do It Tomorrow” is designed to keep you on top of your work at all times, resistance and procrastination tend to fade away of their own accord.


5. You mention the concept of the rational and reactive brain. I am sure many readers can relate to the fact that we seem to show utterly different behaviors when planning and when actually trying to do the tasks. We may be fired up with enthusiasm and have the best of intentions when planning, and still dread and procrastinate when it comes to the actual doing. Could you explain how this ‘dual-brain’ principle works?

This is a very oversimplified model of how the brain works of course, but for time management purposes we live in tension between the “reptile brain”, which reacts to anything it perceives as a threat or a pleasure, and the “rational brain” which makes plans and intentions. The thing to realize is that the reptile brain is stronger than the rational brain. So when your rational brain has made a brilliant plan about how you are going to lose weight, and your reptile brain is confronted with a delicious chocolate cake, the rational plans tend to go out of the window. That’s an example of reacting to a pleasure. In the same way whenever the reptile brain perceives something as a threat, like a difficult piece of work or confronting a superior, we will tend to experience paralysis however much our rational brains are telling us the task needs to be done.

The rational brain has one great advantage over the reptile brain. It’s capable of outwitting the reptile brain. Much of what I teach is about how it can do that.


6. In the book Get Everything Done, you mention that the secret to good life-management is to do what you are resisting the most at any one time. Can you provide further insight on that concept for those not familiar with the book?

Get Everything Done

Our natural way of working is to follow the path of least resistance. If we are given a list of tasks, we will tend to do the easy ones first. The problem with this is that when we get to a certain level of difficulty, there is a tendency to invent more easy tasks to avoid having to do the more difficult tasks. That is one of the reasons people get submerged in a sea of trivia. If we reverse this and do the tasks we least want to first, then our day will get progressively easier and there will be no need to invent any more “busy work”.

I don’t though think that it’s necessary to follow this principle when using the DIT system, as any new “busy work” you invent will not affect what you have to do today.


7. In your books you slay the sacred cow of time management: prioritizing. Many systems have complex schemes of organizing tasks by urgency, importance or by a myriad of other factors. Your approach is to avoid prioritizing altogether. With the ever-increasing amount of work in our lives, is this possible?

It’s not really possible to avoid prioritizing by urgency, though I distinguish between tasks that are really urgent from tasks that are only urgent because I didn’t get round to doing them earlier. It’s prioritizing by importance that I have issues with. I strongly believe that if you have taken on a commitment then you have committed yourself to doing all the work associated with that commitment. For example, if you are building a car, which is more important – the engine or the rear windscreen wiper? Obviously the engine is, but customers are not going to be very pleased if you deliver cars without the rear windscreen wiper if that’s what they ordered. So it really doesn’t matter which is more important – you have to do the lot!

So the level at which you decide what you are going to do and what you are not going to do must be at the level of commitments. It’s no good identifying which tasks are important – that’s too late. You have to keep your commitments well audited.


8. Well, you not only talk about avoiding prioritization, but you also suggest that many times doing the least urgent project first is the way to go. Can you please elaborate on that?

I need to stress here that this is a way of dealing with projects not tasks.
What tends to happen is that we leave a project until the very last moment and then have to rush to get it done. What I am suggesting here is that we start working on a project as soon as we receive it. That means that we can take advantage of all the time available to do it and will not find ourselves running up against the deadline.


9. Mark, your books Do It Tomorrow and Get Everything Done are permanent references in my shelf when it comes to time management. I haven’t had the chance to read your book How to Make Your Dreams Come True as it’s currently out of print. Can we expect to see a reprint? Are there any plans for a brand new book?

I’m actively considering whether to make Dreams into an e-book or possibly even to put the text onto my website for free. I do have various ideas for a new book but nothing has coalesced enough yet!


10. If you had to highlight one advantage of Do It Tomorrow over other time management systems, what would that be?

Its simplicity. And also the fact that you can go to bed at night knowing that you have completed your work for the day.

(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: Do It Tomorrow: An Interview with Mark Forster.

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Time Budget: An Easy Way to Avoid Prioritization Dilemmas and Keep Your Life Balanced Wed, 23 Apr 2008 11:31:50 +0000 The time budget is a practical method you can use every day to keep your life always in balance. As a bonus, the time budget also helps you effectively deal with many productivity killers such as lack of focus, procrastination and perfectionism — all in one fell swoop.

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Time Budget

The time budget is a practical method you can use every day to keep your life always in balance. It closes the gap between the high-level world of areas of responsibility and major goals, and the down-to-earth world of tasks and external demands.

As a bonus, the time budget also helps you effectively deal with many productivity killers such as lack of focus, procrastination and perfectionism — all in one fell swoop.

Neglect-Based Prioritizing

Consider the following question. What’s more important to you: health or family?

All right, we know that that question doesn’t make any sense. Its silliness lies in the fact that we know that both health and family are important and that both need attention. The usual notion of prioritizingchoosing one thing over another — doesn’t make much sense here. It’s obvious we need to pay attention to both, and so it is with all key areas of our lives.

But here lies the conundrum: although we can’t properly choose between health and family, in any given moment we may need to choose between their tangible equivalents ‘go to gym’ and ‘call mom’. When we break down these high-level areas into discrete tasks, it’s too easy to forget what they’re really about and make bad prioritization decisions as a result.

The easiest — and unfortunately the most common — way to make these decisions is by what I call neglect-based prioritizing.

It goes like this: You unconsciously start paying too much attention to one aspect of your life, say, your work. After a while, you notice that you’ve been neglecting another area, say, your family. You take some action and then put the family affairs back on track. While you’re doing that, another area gets neglected. You tackle that one area. And so on.

The problem with this cycle is that you’re always in reactive mode — always lagging behind on most areas. We all use neglect-based prioritizing to some extent in our lives, but we can substitute a much better strategy.

The Time Budget

The best method I found to fight neglect-based prioritizing and achieve better life balance is to create a time budget.

Setting a time budget means proactively allocating shares of time for the things that matter to you. Similarly to a financial budget, you define the ideal amount of time to invest in each of your important life areas, and then stick to that budget for the duration of its allocated time.

And, just like in a regular financial budget, the benefits are many. Following a budget prevents you from wasting time on non-critical activities, as it helps you allocate time for the things that are most important to you. And — this is for sure — you’ll gain many insights about how you spend your time! But there’s much more to it than just that…

As simple as it may sound, on any given moment, your time budget is an easy and practical guide to high-level decisions on how you should invest your time. That gives you peace of mind and frees mental energy for you to focus on any task to which you allocated a time period.

Let me show you the 4 steps to making a time budget for you and you’ll also understand along the way the many nuances that make time budgeting so powerful.

How to Create Your Time Budget

1. Organize Yourself Around Key Result Areas

Forget for a minute about tasks. Focus instead on the high-level ‘compartments’ of your life: those can be big goals, areas of responsibility or major roles — whatever suits you best. Think of these as the “big buckets” of your life — the areas that should get your regular attention. Be as broad or as specific as you want. Brainstorm and list these areas.

As for me, I use loosely-structured categories of activities I consider important: some examples are reading, socializing, exercising and self knowledge.

2. Allocate Time for Each Area

Now that you have your key result areas outlined, you need to allocate time to spend on each of these areas. This is of course a very personal decision, but here are some tips that can help you:

  • Don’t pay (much) attention to current tasks. Remember that budgeting means allotting your time in one way you consider ideal. Of course, you need to add extra time for contingencies and other unforeseen circumstances, but consider that they are temporary. Think long-term and mentally isolate yourself from current pressures as much as you can.
  • Be conservative with your overall budgeted time. You should never commit all of your available time to your budget, as you can never predict the inevitable external demands and random tasks that pop up. Budgeting 50% of your available time is a good start (you can be even more conservative in the beginning and adjust it as you gain more confidence in the process).
  • Use a short time horizon for your time budget. If you want to make time budgeting work, you’ll need to review your budget regularly. To make it practical, don’t wait too long to evaluate how you’re doing with your budget. One week is a great time frame for planning and reviewing in general, and that also holds true for your time budget.

3. Spend and Track Your Time

As is the case with any budget, you’ll need to track your spending to make sure it comes as close as possible to what you’ve planned.

There are many ways to track your time as well as many tools you can use, but let me suggest one approach. This is what I consider to be the cherry on top of time budgeting. For me, it’s what makes all the difference, what considerably increases the effectiveness of time budgeting: Since we’re already allocating our time to our budgets, why not make use of time boxing?

Time boxing is the best stand-alone productivity technique I know, hands down. But when used as a companion to time budgeting, you really have the best of both worlds: high-level life balance taken care of, and low-level productivity soaring.

By dividing your time in discrete units of, say, one hour each, you also make it easier to track your time. Instead of tracking running time, you track the number of completed time boxes instead. Even more important than that, you also add all time boxing benefits to the mix, such as overcoming procrastination, conquering perfectionism, increased focus, among many others.

4. Review your Spending

If you’re human, your actual time spending will not match 100% of what you defined in your budget — that’s OK. As important as tracking your time is reviewing your progress and adjusting your budget accordingly. This is what keeps your system dynamic and flexible, as priorities change and as you learn more about yourself and how you spend your time.

If you perform some kind of weekly review — such as in David Allen’s Getting Things Done system — that is the perfect opportunity to review your budget, too. Here are some examples of questions to consider when evaluating your past week’s performance and creating or updating the budget for next week:

  • Did you overspend/underspend time on any particular category?
  • Did you allocate too much time overall for your budget?
  • How do you feel about the amount of time you allocated for each area? Do you feel your life is balanced?
  • Are there any key result areas you initially overlooked?


By budgeting your time, you have an objective framework to assess your life balance and adjust it accordingly, instead of waiting for a crisis in a life area to do something about it.

That’s the best way so far I found to seamlessly integrate high-level prioritization into my everyday life. It really has been working wonders for me.

Do you use a different approach? I would love to read about it in the comments!

(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: Time Budget: An Easy Way to Avoid Prioritization Dilemmas and Keep Your Life Balanced.

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Overwhelmed by Your To-Do List? Go With a ‘Will-Do’ List Instead. Mon, 25 Feb 2008 12:22:28 +0000 If you have been using to-do lists for a while, you know how stressful and overwhelming they can become: instead of shrinking, these lists usually only get longer and longer, no matter how fast you knock your tasks down. What to do?

The post Overwhelmed by Your To-Do List? Go With a ‘Will-Do’ List Instead. appeared first on Litemind.

Time Boxing

Creating task lists can give you an immediate sense of control and productivity.

However, if you have been using them for a while, you may also feel how stressful and overwhelming they can become: instead of shrinking, these lists usually only get longer and longer, no matter how fast you knock your tasks down. What to do?

Every now and then I think about abandoning my task lists altogether. I miss the feeling of freedom I once had when I didn’t use them. But then I must concede that they really help manage my life, and I end up deciding to keep using them.

Luckily, a while ago I came across the idea of ‘will-do’ lists. It’s a great concept from the book Do It Tomorrow by Mark Forster, and it was exactly what I needed to resolve my task management dilemma.

What’s Wrong With Task Lists?

Especially if you use a productivity system such as Getting Things Done (GTD), your task list is meant to be an inventory of all your current pending tasks. More often than not, that means that you’ll have many more tasks in it than you can possibly imagine doing in the foreseeable future.

Your master task list ends up working as a “task menu”: like candies in a delicatessen shelf, the tasks just sit there waiting to be picked as soon as you have the chance. This idea is seducing, and I guess that there’s nothing particularly wrong or stressful about it — if you keep the right frame of mind, that is…

As this master to-do list gets increasingly larger, something goes wrong: instead of that pleasant sight of the delicatessen, I start seeing the list as a giant blob of threatening commitments. There is just too much to do. External demands keep piling up in this list much faster than I can handle them, and I feel like I lost control.

Even knowing that the original purpose of the list was to serve just as an inventory, I feel burnt out. Using a ‘Someday/Maybe’ list helps, but the fact is that just the active tasks alone seem unbearably overwhelming.

Things only go downhill from there.

I get anxious to get rid of tasks: my ‘to-do list management’ suddenly becomes just a race between adding items and crossing off old ones. I subconsciously start tackling the easy items in an attempt to shrink the list. The most important and challenging tasks — exactly those that make us move forward in our lives — are left behind.

It’s the GTD busyness trap: despite the amount of items you cross off from your list, you never have that feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day.

Don’t get me wrong: the GTD-style task list is very useful — but mostly as an inventory of open loops. It gives you the reassurance that nothing has been left behind, but it is way too open to external factors to be used all the time — it seems that the more you do to cut the list down, the more it grows. How’s that for motivation?

Enter the Will-Do List

To overcome the shortcomings of the traditional task list, consider creating a will-do list instead.

Take your to-do list and pick a few tasks that you will do the next day: not tasks that you want to do, or tasks that you think you might do — but tasks that you wholeheartedly commit to do. Replace your long list of intentions with a short list of commitments.

There are two important principles to keep in mind about this new list:

1. It’s a list of commitments

Your goal should be to complete 100% of your daily will-do list, every day. Remember that these tasks are commitments: if you’re not serious about crossing off each and every item from your will-do list, there’s no point in creating one. Therefore, you need to be extremely careful in putting just a few items there: when in doubt, be conservative.

(I usually don’t book more than 2 hours’ worth of daily will-do tasks, or I am unable to sustain the 100% completion rate for too long. I also usually tackle my daily will-do list as soon as I can, using highly-focused time boxes.)

2. Once set, don’t add any more items to it

The will-do list is intended to be a closed list: once created, don’t add anything to it during the day.

That means that the only possible thing that can happen to your list is that it will get smaller. And that is the big trick: your list is not a moving target, but a finite and measurable workload that you can actually finish. That is much better for your motivation than the sight of endless to-do lists. Can you still remember the feeling of crossing off the very last item of your task list?

Of course, you should still add items to your master task list as usual. But unless the new items are extremely urgent (and they usually aren’t), you must avoid as much as possible adding them to today’s will-do list.

Extra Benefits

After using will-do lists for several months, I found them to be powerful in yet more ways than I initially expected:

  1. You do the things that really matter: By choosing beforehand what tasks you’ll definitely do in the coming day, you’re much more likely to choose tasks that matter. By leaving the decisions to be made in the heat of the moment, we end up tackling easy tasks, or those that seem urgent, but are not really important.
  2. You develop your estimation skills: Knowing that we need to finish 100% of our daily list — and nothing less — helps dampen our overly optimistic expectations. The fact is that we cram too much stuff in our lives: the will-do list puts us back in perspective in understanding what our limits are.
  3. You have an objective metric of accomplishment: Completing the will-do list is a great goal we can use on a daily basis. It’s a simple, easy to track metric; and it conveys a powerful message: that we are consistently keeping our promises to ourselves. I found that this feeling is essential for my inner peace. As a suggestion, try to keep track of how many days in a row you are able to keep up with your daily will-do lists, as in Jerry Seinfeld’s “task chain” tip.

Get the Full Scoop

Do It Tomorrow Book This article is intended to be a quick intro to will-do lists. Mark Forster does an excellent job presenting the concept much more thoroughly (as well as the much broader concept of closed lists) in his book Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Managementhighly recommended! What I really like about Mark is that he always makes it clear that he’s just one of us — someone exploring and learning from his own mistakes; and not a self-proclaimed ‘productivity guru’ that pretends to have all the answers.

Will-do lists, when used alone or on top of Getting Things Done, can give you back the sense of control you once had, without foregoing the benefits of regular task lists.

If you already use a similar concept to manage your tasks, or are just trying will-do lists for the first time, please share your experiences in the comments!

(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: Overwhelmed by Your To-Do List? Go With a ‘Will-Do’ List Instead..

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6 Productivity Tips to a Stress-Free Life Wed, 06 Feb 2008 12:36:27 +0000 The following are some common sense tips based on Getting Things Done to help you increase your productivity and have a stress-free life.

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6 Productivity Tips to a Stress-Free Life

This is an article by guest writer Lawrence Cheok of A Long Long Road.

I remember those nights when I tossed about in bed, unable to sleep because I couldn’t get my mind off my work. Work-related stress is increasingly affecting more knowledge workers as we get overwhelmed in trying to cope with huge amount of work demands.

According to David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, one of the reasons that so much “stuff” is on your mind is because you have not processed and organized these loose ends in a manner that you trust. As such, they continue to occupy your mind, bugging you.

In my opinion, with too much of these loose ends in your head and no way to offload them, it gets overwhelming and stress kicks in — the same cause of my insomnia. I feel like there are a lot of open items that require my attention, but I haven’t really gotten around to them yet.

From experience, practicing David’s Getting Things Done method facilitates clarity of thought, which directs my daily actions to getting things done. The increase in productivity alleviates stress, helps me in focusing on key issues and enables me to live in the moment.

The following are some common sense tips based on Getting Things Done to help you increase your productivity and have a stress-free life:

1. Think About Your “Stuff”

A knowledge worker is paid to think. However, thinking actually takes conscious effort. How often have you opened a piece of mail, read it and left it on the desk, piling up — simply because you didn’t take the effort to think about the specific required follow-up actions?

When I say ‘think’, it’s a literal and conscious effort to define the “stuff” at hand. Do you need to act on it? If yes, do it now or later? If later, how can you be reminded? Do you want to keep it for reference? If yes, where to file it?

You see, that’s quite a bit of thinking required just to handle a simple item. The fact is that many people don’t have the habit of thinking about incoming items right away. As such, they leave stuff lying around and accumulate clutter.

Develop the good habit of consciously thinking about each item or issue that comes into your life. Determine there and then what is the desired outcome and action that is required. Once a decision is made, record the required action as a to-do item or calendar appointment so that you offload it externally.

Offloading allows you to temporarily forget about it until the point in time when you have a chance to act on it. This clears your mind to focus on new upcoming “stuff”.

2. Remove Clutter

To be productive, you must be able to focus on the task at hand without distractions. At the same time, you must have easy access to the required tools and information. The way to achieve this is to create a clean and clear working environment so that only information relevant to the task at hand is present.

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed some information to complete a task but you simply couldn’t find it because it was lost in the stack of clutter lying on your desk? Instead of focusing on the task at hand, your attention and energy are diverted into finding the information you need. Sometimes, because you can’t find the needed information, you put off the task — unnecessarily adding to your to-do list. This is a great waste of time and energy and encourages further buildup of clutter.

I have learned that the best way to reduce clutter is not to let it build up in the first place:

  • Make it a point to keep your work environment clear of unnecessary things.
  • Use the act-file-delete principle (see below); clear your e-mail inbox and physical inbox every day.
  • Maintain a physical and electronic filing system. This applies to things that you don’t immediately need, but have future reference value. The filing system ensures you can easily retrieve information when you need it.

3. Handle Mail by Act-File-Delete

How often have you read an incoming e-mail message and left it in the inbox, thinking that you would come back to it later but never did? Such approach is one common cause of clutter buildup. The best way to clear your inbox is to follow the principle of Act-File-Delete. It’s a conscious decision-making process for each message that you open:

  • If you can act on it immediately and it will not take you more than a few minutes, do it now. It can be something as simple as looking up some information and typing a few sentences as a reply. Those few minutes will allow you to quickly cross one item off your to-do list. Rather than allowing these minor tasks to accumulate and weigh on your mind, you finish them quickly and never have to bother about them anymore. The sense of clarity and freedom that this simple strategy brings is often understated.
  • Another common scenario I face is coming across an article or paper that I find interesting, but it is too long to read at the moment of clearing my inbox. As such, I leave it there and forget to come back to it. Over time, these “to-read” materials accumulate and become clutter. If the mail doesn’t require your action but you still want to refer to it in the future, file it immediately so you can easily find it later (see point on filing system).
  • If the mail is purely for information and no action is required on your part, simply read it and delete it. Some people hate to delete or throw away stuff; they think “what if I need this later?” If you’re not sure, just make sure you file it. Don’t leave it there and accumulate clutter.

4. Develop A "Done It Once" Mentality

A common challenge I face with implementing the act-file-delete principle is that I have a tendency to procrastinate. Having to act or file immediately on each mail is quite daunting sometimes. There’s this nagging thought that says that I can always do it later. Yet, from my own experience, I know that ‘later’ often means ‘never’.

Some productivity gurus advocate the “done it once” mentality. It simply means processing each incoming item only once so that you never have to waste time handling it again. When you procrastinate and don’t act-file-delete immediately, you’ll have to read the mail a second time before you can act on it: waste of time. In addition, more often than not, there’s a chance that you will forget about it, adding additional clutter to your inboxes.

Nowadays, when my tendency to procrastinate kicks in, I summon up the slogan "done it once". At first, I drag myself to act on the task, but once the action gets started, things just continue easily from there. When it comes to fighting procrastination, getting started is usually the toughest part: once you do it, the rest becomes very easy.

5. Use a Filing System

Another key to productivity is to have a systematic way of filing so that you can easily retrieve information when you need it. I remember I once had to fill in some credit application forms that required my income tax details: because I couldn’t find my income tax statements, I procrastinated and the forms were left there in my inbox for months.

Set up a filing system by having folders and storage for different types of information:

  • Decide upfront the types of information that you want to file and reference back later.
  • Label the folders clearly so that there’s no ambiguity.
  • Stock up on filing stationery so that it is easy to file your documents.

6. Focus on One Task at a Time

In this age when multi-tasking is the buzzword at work, many are tricked into believing that we are more effective when we try to do many things at once. From my experience, that’s bunk.

The fact is that the brain works best when it’s focused on one task at a time. To perform a task, the brain has to retrieve relevant knowledge; information to help you act. When you switch between tasks, it introduces “processing overhead”, as it has to adjust to different contexts required by different tasks.

For example, I think that the e-mail alert is one of the worst enemies of personal productivity: it’s that little box that pops up in the corner of your desktop whenever a new incoming e-mail arrives. It’s surely an attention-grabber: I used to stop whatever I was doing and switch to reading the new e-mails. In doing so, my train of thought was broken. After reading the e-mail and acting on it, I needed some time to switch my context back into the previous task.

I have disabled the e-mail alert. Nowadays, I have learned to focus all my attention on the task at hand. Consciously, I refuse to get distracted by other thoughts or external events until the task at hand is completed.

Believe it or not, this single-minded concentration alone has increased my productivity a whole lot.

Closing Remarks

I have experienced first hand the differences that increased productivity can make in leading a balanced and stress-free life.

Getting things done eliminates worries. These simple tips help you act on things that need to be done, file away things that need to be addressed later and removes clutter that only serves to overwhelm you.

These are small daily actions that add up to make a whole lot of difference to your life. From my experience, it takes a while to develop these habits and attitude, but it’s not hard. Try these tips out for 2 to 3 days and feel the difference yourself — it’s a very rewarding feeling that once experienced will provide a very strong impetus for you to try it further and develop into a habit.

I wish you luck in developing these good habits and leading a stress-free life.

About Lawrence Cheok:

Lawrence Cheok writes about living a balanced life and provides tips to improve your career, relationships and money at A Long Long Road. Other than writing, Lawrence does business development and project management in his day job.

(cc) Litemind, some rights reserved. Original post: 6 Productivity Tips to a Stress-Free Life.

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15 Time Boxing Strategies to Get Things Done Thu, 17 Jan 2008 11:30:26 +0000 Putting it simply, time boxing is the most effective time management tool that I know of. Even if you already know and use it to some extent, there is a good chance that you can make it even better with some of the tips that follow. For those new to it, time boxing is simply […]

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Time Boxing

Putting it simply, time boxing is the most effective time management tool that I know of. Even if you already know and use it to some extent, there is a good chance that you can make it even better with some of the tips that follow.

For those new to it, time boxing is simply fixing a time period to work on a task or group of tasks. Instead of working on a task until it’s done, you commit to work on it for a specific amount of time instead.

But don’t let the simplicity of the concept deceive you — there’s much more to this tool than meets the eye.

Many people already wrote about it (check Dave Cheong for a great start, as well as J.D Meier and Steve Pavlina). Although these guys made a great job presenting it, time boxing has helped me so much that I decided to share 15 specific ways that it can help you too be more productive. Here they are:

1. Make a Dent in Big Tasks

The most obvious use of a time box is to make progress on big tasks. On the one hand, it enables you to continuously make progress on these intimidating tasks. On the other hand, it makes sure working on these tasks won’t overrun the rest of your day.

2. Get Rid of ‘Mosquito Tasks’

Time boxes are a great way to tackle those annoying, tiny tasks that keep bugging you (pun intended). The problem with these pesky little tasks is that each of them, alone, may be regarded as insignificant enough to be postponed. After a while, however, there are enough of them to drain a significant amount of your mental energy. A good strategy to claim back that energy is to create a time box and tackle all of them at one sitting.

3. Overcome Procrastination

If you’re procrastinating on a task, forget about completing it: just put it in a time box instead. You overcome your resistance towards the task and chances are that when the time is up you’ll have built enough momentum to continue working on it much longer.

That’s right, if procrastination is your problem, feel free to ignore the timer when it buzzes. That’s what I call an ‘open time box’: you set a minimum period of work, which you may extend as you like. For such type of time boxes, I like to configure my timer with a round of applause sound as a little incentive to keep me going.

4. Conquer Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the flip side of procrastination. Instead of avoiding a task, you dwell on it for so long that when you notice, all your time is gone. To avoid perfectionism and the effects of diminishing returns, having a definite cut-off time for a task is one of the best strategies you can use.

Dealing with perfectionism demands what I call a ‘closed time box’: setting a maximum period of work. When dealing with these time boxes, I like to configure my timer with a disruptive, annoying buzz sound to remind me drop the task immediately.

5. Sharpen Your Focus

Time boxing a particular task helps excluding other tasks and unrelated thoughts from your radar during that particular time window. Reducing mental clutter is essential if you want to be fully productive.

Also, by organizing your work in time boxes you have the structure you need to properly prepare for your tasks. By taking care of potential distractions beforehand you maximize your chances of getting fully in flow.

6. Increase Efficiency

Isn’t it true that you get much more accomplished in one of those pre-vacation Fridays than on any other normal workday? For some reason, it seems that our most efficient work is usually done at the end of a time period when there’s a very well-defined cut-off point.

Time boxes give you just enough of this healthy time pressure, enabling you to take full advantage of this ‘end effect’, so make sure that timer is visible and you can see the time going by as you work on your task.

7. Boost Motivation

Big tasks, no matter how important, can be demotivating: you simply need to work for too long to see their outcomes. We may prefer deferring important tasks so we plow through many quick and easy tasks, just for the sake of the false perception of accomplishment.

But just like the simple act of crossing off items from your to-do list can be motivating, so is successfully completing a time box. Completing a time box works as a visible sign of progress.

Another idea on how to use time boxes to boost motivation is to make a game or challenge out of them: How many prospects can you call during one hour? Why not trying to beat your own record?

8. Work on ‘Fuzzy’ Goals

Although some people may want to stone me for this, I don’t agree that we should have SMART goals for everything (SMART meaning ‘specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and timely’).

Sometimes I enjoy the freedom of an open outcome. Sometimes I just want to improve something — no specific, precise goal in mind. This has been especially the case since I started experimenting with smaller, gradual goals). I think it’s healthy not being 100% objective all the time.

That said, you can’t afford these “relaxed goals” to overrun your daily plan — you know, when you actually need to be fully focused on things such as deadlines and SMART goals. Corner your fuzzy goals with a time box and get the best of both worlds.

9. Kick-Off Creative Explorations

Projects that require a high amount of creativity are not best tackled start-to-finish. The most effective way to deal with a project like this is to have an initial phase of immersion — a period when you generate a burst of ideas — and then forget about them for a while. By letting it go, you give time for the subconscious mind to work on the problem.

This initial brainstorming phase is a perfect candidate for time boxing since there’s usually no precise outcome for it. (Unless you define a precise outcome for the creative process, such as in a List of 100 or Idea Quota).

10. Raise Time Awareness

How many times have you wondered at the end of the day where did all your time go? As reader Iain Hamp suggested in a comment, performing time audits is an extremely valuable activity to diagnose your time, as well as aligning your time and values. Structuring your day in time boxes makes these audits super-easy to do.

Also, being more aware of how much you can really fit in your time is liberating, as it helps you saying ‘no’ to unimportant things more often.

11. Create a Work Rhythm

You only get maximum effectiveness if you properly balance periods of work and rest. Time boxes provide a great framework to allow this balance to happen. The key is to find your own rhythm.

Alternating between different types of time boxes (such as work/rest, or hard/easy tasks) maximizes your use of energy and enables you to accomplish much more.
My favorite work rhythm is alternating between blocks of 50 minutes of work and 10 minutes of rest. For quick sprints, Merlin Mann’s remarkably effective (10+2)*5 hack is also a great option.

If you’re interested in a more in-depth discussion about different patterns of time bursts, I recommend Mark Forster’s book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play.

12. Get Meaningful Work Done First

Working on your most important projects first thing in the morning is a classic tip to guarantee that you do meaningful work in your day. Create a time box to work on your dreams every day — before the world out there has a chance to disrupt your plans.

If you don’t plan to use time boxes for anything else, please consider applying just this one tip. This is perhaps the single, most effective thing you can do in pursuit of your dreams.

13. Balance Your Life

It’s common to become too focused on a specific area of our lives at the expense of others.

Remember, you don’t need to use time boxing only for work-related tasks: you can block time for anything that matters to you: leisure, family, hobbies — anything.

Pre-allocating time boxes for the things that matter most is an excellent strategy to help you live a balanced life. In fact, planned time boxes are at the heart of the prioritization system I use. I plan to explore it more deeply in a new article.

14. Plug Time Sinks

You know what I am talking about: channel-surfing, web-surfing, games, feeds, e-mail — everybody seems to have a time drain in their lives. StumbleUpon, anyone? 🙂

Stop kicking yourself; all you need to do is to put a time box around them to reclaim the time back.

15. Reward Yourself

If you tie your rewards to the completion of tasks, you may find yourself doing only quick and easy tasks, and avoiding the important ones. Why not get yourself a little reward after you complete a time box instead?

A personal example: Checking e-mail multiple times a day is an old addiction I haven’t yet managed to cure. While the ideal solution would be to the task of checking for e-mail in a time box, I now use it as a reward for completing time boxes — an extra incentive that works wonders!

Rewards can be as tiny as a glass of water or a deep breath at the window (for more about tiny rewards and their powerful effect, I recommend the chapter ‘Bestow Small Rewards’ in One Small Step Can Change Your Lifecheck the full book summary).

What about You?

If you are not using time boxing yet, please give it a try.

If you don’t have a timer, I can recommend a few: Since I spend most of my day at the computer, I primarily use the tiny and super-functional application on my desktop Egg and Timekeeper on my PDA when I’m away from the computer. For a free, cross-platform, browser-based solution, you can use Virtual StopWatch. You can also of course use regular kitchen timers — I’ve seen the Ultrak T-2 model being recommended somewhere.

And what about you folks who already use time boxing? What’s your experience with it? Do you have any other specific uses? Do you have any specific timers to recommend? Are you as excited about time boxing as I am? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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