Girl Geek Sydney – August 2013
Most of my week has been taken up with being deathly ill – an evil cold virus is going around the office – but on Tuesday I honoured my commitment to speak at the August meeting of Girl Geek Sydney. It went really well! My topic was:
Read on if you’d like to see my slides and read my talk. Hi everyone! My name is Kris, and I’m here to talk to you about PRODUCTIVITY. Now, I don’t mean this in some vague, macro-economic way. I’m talking about your personal productivity. I’m talking about GETTING STUFF DONE. I’m talking about being GROWN-UP, and taking control of the barrage of stuff that you know you need to do and just aren’t doing. Do you ever get to Sunday night and just feel this pit of dread because of the pile of things you meant to do on the weekend that you just didn’t do? This talk is for you. And I want to be clear: the end goal of productivity is to spend less time doing the things you have to do so you have more time to do the things you WANT to do.
Okay, so let’s get into my qualifications. I do a lot of stuff. If you’re a regular attendee to these events, you’ve probably seen me speak before. I’ve held a number of offices in volunteer groups and I’ve spent the last two years organising a convention that’s coming up next month. My job as an Iteration Manager – which is basically an Agile Project Manager – means I pretty much get paid to organise things and make sure they get done. So what does that make me?
It makes me a FAKER.
I’m a really good faker, though. I think that’s why people keep asking me to do things. I’ve somehow gotten this reputation as somebody who gets things done. And it’s because I made the conscious effort a few years ago to make some changes to the way I do things. I wouldn’t say I’m there yet – as Peggy can tell you, I only sent her these slides this morning – but I spend fewer Sunday nights awake from stress. And tonight I’m going to walk you through five of the hacks that have really helped me.
So here’s our agenda…
Let’s start with Inbox Zero, which was a term coined by Merlin Mann in 2006. You know how on the Biggest Loser they make them jump off a cliff to prove how dedicated they are to their new lives? This is pretty much the equivalent. It’s tough. Okay, how many of you have more than 20 emails in your Inbox right now? Yikes. Can’t you just feel the weight of that? That much psychic energy just clogging the tubes. So what we’re going to do is…
WHOA. Crazy, right? And let’s be honest, you’re going to have to deal with any urgent issues in those messages at some point. Really, this is about drawing a line in the sand and saying FROM THIS MINUTE I stop letting being behind stop me from moving forward. And if you go to nerdmeritbadges.com, you can even buy an actual merit badge to wear!
There are also a number of new email apps that specialise in helping you stay at Inbox Zero: Mailbox, Mailstrom, Mail Ninja. Or you can just do it manually. Me, I start to get anxious whenever my Inbox gets over 25 messages. At least once every couple of days, I take five minutes and give it a prune. It’s massively liberating!
Okay, that was Getting Absolved. Now it’s time to Get Organised. In my past, this step always ruined me because I’d get bogged down in trying to find the perfect day planner or Moleskine or app that would magically do everything. And then I’d lug it around and never use it. The key is to find the simplest system that you actually WILL use. If that’s a planner or notebook, go for it. If it’s just a stack of notecards, that’s okay too. In fact, it’s actually a thing. It’s called a Hipster PDA, and if you google it, you’ll find a lot of blog posts where people talk about their custom modifications. But really, it’s just a pile of notecards with a binder clip!
Or maybe you’re more of an online person. That’s okay; I am too. Have you ever browsed the productivity apps on the App or Android stores? There are ZILLIONS. Don’t get bogged down; just pick one and give it a try. Personally I use one called Toodledo, because it syncs between my phone and a website so I can have my To Do list handy everywhere. And it lets me do cool stuff like organise my list in folders and set recurring tasks. My other main productivity app is simply a Google Calendar. I have my work and personal calendars synced to my phone, and the personal calendar is shared with my partner. The best thing about this approach is the ability to set RECURRING EVENTS and REMINDERS. Put all your birthdays on there. Put your dentist appointments. And set the thing to email you when stuff is due! It’s all about OUTSOURCING YOUR MEMORY.
Now we come to the heart of things. Getting stuff done. This guy David Allen actually wrote a book about his method, and the Internet went nuts over it a few years ago. I bought his book. The thing that really appealed to me was his explanation of stuff and how it blocks us from accomplishing our goals. In a nutshell, stuff is something that’s not where it’s supposed to be. It might be a physical thing in your house that’s not in the right spot. It might be a project you know you need to tackle that’s still rolling around your head. You haven’t worked out what you need to do with this stuff, and it builds up in your head taking away your focus. So he pretty much spends the whole book outlining a system for overcoming that.
The first step is to collect the stuff. I got so excited about this part when I read the book. My husband and I literally went through every room in the house and picked up anything we needed to deal with or that wasn’t in the right spot and piled it all up on the dining room table. For the mental stuff, grab a piece of paper, write down the thing, and add it to the pile. Get everything out of your head! This feels so good, just collecting it all into one place. And yeah, it was a huge mountain of stuff.
Next you go through each item in order, and for each thing, you ask yourself: What’s the next action?
– If the next action is clear and it can be dealt with in under 2 minutes, DO IT
– If it’s a project where you need to identify the next action, set this aside for Project Planning.
– If it’s something you don’t need to do right now, you can DEFER it. Set a calendar item or add it to your Tickler File. (Basically, he suggests you set up a system of 43 folders labelled for each month and then 1-31 days, and review it every so often. Me, I just set a calendar event or a To Do list item with a due date.)
– If you’re waiting for somebody else to do something, that goes in the DELEGATE pile or folder to be reviewed.
– And best of all you, can trash it!
You are not allowed to put something down. When you pick it up, you have to decide what to do with it. Obviously this is going to take you some time. I think we spent a few hours going through it. But then it’s DONE, and you’re left with a pile of achievable next actions. These are what you put on your To Do list or in your Hipster PDA.
There are a few other parts of GTD worth highlighting: Allen talks about tracking the “context” of each task. A contact might be “phone” or “computer” or “shopping”. You can then use this to sort and prioritise your tasks more efficiently. He also suggests that you track larger projects separately and review them regularly to identify the next actions. And you should schedule in a regular review of everything once a week. Personally, I process my Inbox items as they come in and then do a review once a week to make sure I haven’t missed anything.
Obviously this is just a really short intro the technique, and the book is a lot longer. If you’re interested, I suggest you Google “Getting Things Done” and do some research. There are even specific apps and add-ons that you can use to make your email program more conducive to GTD.
Now things are hopefully coming together. This next hack is actually my favourite. It’s like being in a secret club. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 80’s. It’s named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Francesco used as a student. (Pomodoro means tomato in Italian.) You can actually download a free ebook about this technique, but really the steps are incredibly simple…
Whenever I need to put my head down and power through a big task, I use this technique. It’s great for us computer people because it reminds us to stand up, focus our eyes away from the screen, and take a break. It also gives you a real feeling of accomplishment to be able to measure a completed task in pomodoros. For the actual timer, you can use a physical device if you like. (I’m on the hunt for one of the tomatoes myself.) I also recommend the tomatoi.st website, which is a very simple free webapp you can use to time and track your pomodoros.
The last hack I want to talk about is about forming habits, and oddly enough, this one is from Jerry Seinfeld. This was the system he used to motivate himself to write jokes every day. Basically, you… Obviously a big wall calendar is going to be the most visible for this, but there are also apps that allow you to visualise your “chains” as well. You can use this to track specific goal tasks, or even just the process of handling your Inbox stuff each day.
And that’s it! Just to recap, we talked about…
Now I fully expect you all to go home, blast your Inboxes, put together a Hipster PDA, and start processing your Stuff on the dining room table. LIKE A DAMN GROWNUP, RIGHT?
That’s all from me. If you have questions or want recommendations of specific websites and apps, come find me during one of the breaks. You can also find me on Twitter at web_goddess.