productivity

Time Tracking with Timeular

Click to enlarge.

Lately, I’ve been trying a new time tracking gizmo, a Timeular device. It’s a polygon-shaped piece of plastic and electronics that connects to my iPhone. I can assign a different task to each side, and when I switch modes, say going from screencasting to legal clients, I just flip the gizmo to put the briefcase icon (legal) sunny side up, and the iPhone app starts tracking time toward the new task.

It’s simple, easy to set up, and an excellent way to track time, particularly, if you find yourself doing a lot of work away from your computer, where a software solution (like Timing) can track time for you. Indeed, I find it a nice compliment to Timing and use the Timeular primarily to track moving the needle time.

I’m only a week in, but I haven’t thrown it out the window yet. The Timeular gizmo works great and is entirely accurate, provided I remember to spin it to the next task before switching gears. Of course, it is in that human-based step that things usually fall off the rails. I haven’t turned it into a habit yet, but I can see the benefit of this device and its simplicity. For me, the trick is keeping it in sight. I need to move it between my two desks and always have it just within sight at least, until a habit kicks in.

Regardless, I think I like the Timeular device, and I want to keep at it to see how much it can help me keep track of that ever-elusive moving the needle time. I bought mine on sale from Timeular directly. Mine is the basic package with no monthly subscription. They have a summer sale going on right now so if you’re interested …



 

Recovery Day

One of the oldest (and best) pieces of productivity advice is to always plan on a recovery day after a trip. It is such an obvious idea that I hesitate to even post about it. Nevertheless, it is advice that I seldom followed … until now.

The problem for me wasn’t that I didn’t acknowledge the importance of having time after a trip to catch up. Indeed, I so often crash in terms of my workload after trips that it seems like a running bit on the Focused podcast.

The problem is that I never thought about recovery day early enough. It always seemed to slip my mind right up until the night I’d return home from a conference or vacation and realize that my calendar for the next day was an impossible concoction of items that cropped up in my absence mixed in with a full schedule of meetings and other deadlines I’d scheduled before I left. Past Sparky screwed over present Sparky ... yet again.

The hallelujah moment for me came with this most recent trip where I, for the first time in my life, scheduled an honest to goodness recovery day. Indeed, I spent all day yesterday with no appointments and no scheduled meetings or calls. Instead, I just caught up with the backlog and brush fires that cropped up over the last few days as I have been traveling and making a little time to spend with my wife.

The trick, for me, was to schedule the recovery day months ago. I have a checklist when I’m planning a trip. It has lots of things like” buy airplane tickets” and” reserve a hotel room”. After my most recent post-trip scheduling debacle, I added a new entry, “schedule recovery day”. 

So several months ago when I was making my initial pass at the list for the Relay 5th anniversary trip, I scheduled August 26, 2019, as my recovery day following that trip. It was a full-day event, and with it sitting there, squatting on my precious calendar real estate, I was constantly reminded of it in the weeks leading up to the trip. When folks would ask me to schedule some time for a meeting or take on a new commitment, past Sparky actually started looking out for future Sparky. Unlike virtually every other trip in my life, I treated yesterday, the day after, as untouchable. Of course, it worked. Without any commitments or unnecessary deadlines, I was able to catch up with those items that generally plague me for days (and sometimes weeks) after a trip.

Today normal programming resumes and I’m back to deadlines and meetings, but I’m doing it without the emotional baggage of feeling behind from the trip. My little experiment about the recovery day worked exactly as well as anybody who’s ever tried a recovery day could (and did) tell me it would… brilliantly.

If all goes according to plan, I have only one trip left this year, which is, thankfully, vacation. Nevertheless, I have already scheduled my recovery day for when I return.

Moving the Needle

Do you ever have one of those days where it feels like you worked all day and yet got nothing done? It happens to us all, and it can be frustrating. We all have things we’d rather do than be working and there can be nothing more frustrating than realizing you’ve squandered a day on nonsense. One of the most important questions to ask yourself at the end of each day is, “How much time did I spend doing my most important work?” If we’re not mindful of that question, too often, we fall short.

I experience this all too often, and I got thinking about the problem. Hyper-scheduling helps but just because I’ve set aside time, doesn’t always mean that time gets spent wisely. How do I become more mindful of the work that matters when I’m in the trenches?

Lately, I’ve been doing a different sort of time tracking experiment that’s been helping me out. 

We’ve talked a lot lately about meaningful work on the Focused podcast and the phrase “moving the needle” has come up. I like that phrase, and it got me thinking about what moves the needle for me. What are the things that, at the end of the day, I want to know I accomplished? I’ve come up with a practice that helps me get better at that.

Identify What Moves the Needle

For everyone it’s different, but for me, the work that moves the needle was pretty easy to identify:

  1. Work on a Field Guide

  2. Writing for MacSparky

  3. Producing a Podcast

  4. Doing Client Legal Work

I’ve probably got more needle-movers than most people because my work is so diverse. The exercise of identifying this was important because it was the first step to putting this work at the front of my mind. I’m not sure determining what moves the needle for you will be as easy as it was for me. I’m at a stage of my career where I’ve been doing this long enough that I already had a pretty good idea. Nevertheless, you need to start by identifying what it is for you.

The obvious criteria for work that moves the needle is that it earns you money. While that is important, I don’t think it is the only, or even necessarily the most important criteria. I’m lucky enough to have work in my life that I enjoy doing and, at the same time, helps others and lets me earn a living. That didn’t happen overnight. If you are in a time of transition, what moves the needle for you may not be what pays you the most but instead pushes you forward to the next thing. The important thing at this first step is that you need to have that conversation with yourself and figure it out.

Also, what moves the needle today isn’t necessarily what will move the needle for you in one (or ten) years. This is an ongoing discussion with yourself.

Regardless, once you figure out what moves the needle, you need to keep yourself honest.

Track Your Work that Moves the Needle

At the beginning of the week, I lay out out a page in my notebook with a series of lines for each activity that moves the needle for me. Here’s my page from a few weeks ago. (PFG is a secret project. Grin.)

IMG_2027.jpeg

I do this with pen and paper, but you could do this digitally with a spreadsheet, or a text file, or just about any application where you can write things down. 

At the beginning of the week, I just put a series of hash marks on a grid page. There are for grids between each hash (representing 15 minutes) and 6 hours on a line. I fill in the line as I get work done. Here is this week’s page, as of Tuesday afternoon.

As I go through each day and spend time on work that moves the needle, I log it on this page. Consider it time-tracking light. I’m not keeping track of how much time I spend doing everything. I’m just keeping track of the time I spend moving the needle. This has several benefits.

First, I can see how much I’m getting done on the work that matters. That feels good, particularly when you end a day and know that you spent a substantial portion of your day doing this type of work.

Second, you have a mechanism to hold yourself accountable, not just at the end of the day but throughout the day. The process of finishing a few hours of client work and then logging it on this page comes with its own unique blend of happy chemicals in my brain. Likewise, when I get to mid-morning and realize I haven’t logged any work for the day that moves the needle, I get a kick in the pants to fix that.

I just started doing this in April, and I’m admittedly still in the honeymoon phase of this practice, but I can tell you it is working. It helps me stay focused throughout the day, and my enthusiasm for the idea is even higher now than when I first started doing it. The question of getting my most important work done is much more present in my mind now, and that has obvious benefits for me both mentally and in terms of actual production.

This practice is not meant as a substitute for time tracking. You can do this whether or not you time track. The point, at least to me, is to give myself an easy accountability measure for the work I want to get done every work day. I think the trick is to keep it simple so you can stick with it.

One of the effects on me is that I’m more vigilant about asking myself the question, “Does this move the needle” throughout the day and even before agreeing to additional projects. 

But Not All Work Moves the Needle

There still is some work that both must get done and doesn’t move the needle. I think plenty about that work as well every time I set time aside to do it. This is work that gets in the way and, with this practice, I’m more motivated than ever to throw it overboard. I’ve got a series of questions I ask myself every time I pick up this type of work:

  1. Does this need to be done at all?

  2. If it must be done, can I automate/delegate it?

  3. If I must do it, what is the least intrusive way for me to accomplish it?

There are a couple of insights I’ve had on those category three jobs. First, I’ve been intentionally scheduling time for that stuff when I’m the least productive. For me, that’s after 3 pm on most days. Also, I find I get that type of work done faster if I pile it all together and set aside a few hours to do it, rather than picking it up piecemeal throughout the day and week. I’m currently experimenting with ganging all that work into one block in the week (currently Wednesday afternoon). I’m not sure if that is going to work or not, but it sure feels better knowing I have set aside a place for that work during the rest of the week.

Being deliberate about my work that moves the needle and tracking that daily has had immediate consequences for me. I’m doing better at getting client work done while at the same time, I shipped a new field guide. It’s working for me. I hope it works for you as well.

This whole system of moving the needle isn’t some stroke of inspiration from nowhere but instead results from me reading and talking to others about my own challenges and obstacles to getting my work done. Significant influences on me in coming up with this include Mike Schmitz, Shawn Blanc, Matt Ragland, and Michael Hyatt, but those are only the tip of the iceberg. Also, Mike and I speak about this at length in Focused 74.



Intentionality

Earlier this month I celebrated my birthday. For a while now I've treated my birthday like my own personal New Year's Day. What I mean by that is I often reflect on what's working, what's not working and things I'd like to change going forward. Since going to work for myself, I've even expanded on this idea and made a point of taking my birthday off for a bit of introspection. Every year I find it's a precious day and every year I take it a little bit more seriously.

Working with my pal Mike Schmitz over at the Focused podcast, inspired me to go even deeper this year with my "Birthday retreat". In the past, I've gone to the beach or somewhere unfamiliar to get myself off the grid. This year I had some family plans in the late afternoon and didn’t want to spend the day driving so instead I went to my familiar Starbucks in the early morning along with a paper notebook, a fancy pen, and no technology. I unplugged myself from the Internet, turned my notebook to a clean page and just started writing.

I didn't have a plan as I got started. Initially I intended to be there an hour or two, but in the end, the process (including a long walk and a nice lunch) was six hours.

The first thing I did was write down at the top of the page,"How am I doing?" I then wrote a small essay in answer to that question concerning each of the various areas of my life. In my case, that was MacSparky, the law practice, relationships, self-care, and overall. Like I said earlier, I didn't have a plan.

I started with the intention of a sentence or two on each subject and, in my head at least, get all of those areas covered with one page of my notebook. However, when I started writing, things just began to pour out of me, and I quickly realized my arbitrary ideas out page count had to go out the window. Paper is cheap! I wrote for pages and pages. Apparently, I had a lot to get off my chest.

After that, I took a walk.

Then I turned to a new page in wrote a new question, "Where can I get better at this?"

By then I was wise to the fact that this process was going to take a while, so I settled into it. I then took on the same five categories discussed above and wrote at length about areas that I could to improve. I tried to take a growth mindset to the process. Again, I had a lot to say. Having just spent time reflecting on areas I can improve upon, I tried to figure out, constructively, how to turn thoughts into actions (and some new habits).

As I continued using up ink and pages, I noticed a word that kept showing up.

Intentionality

I didn't start this little retreat with the idea of coming up with a theme for the next year, although I must admit I do like the idea. (Myke Hurley and CGP Grey’s yearly themes make a lot of sense to me.) Regardless, as I continued to write, I realized that I did have a recurring theme relating to things I can improve upon. I need to be more intentional.

Looking back over the last few years, the place I seem to fall down most often is when I dive into a project without thinking or ramble through days (and sometimes weeks) without clear intention. The things I want to fix quite often require me to bring more intention when both making and executing commitments.

I have always considered myself good at avoiding emotional whirlwinds. Partly as a result of lifelong meditation practice but also partly because I don't get frazzled easily. What surprised me during this little retreat, however, was, upon reflection, the realization of how easily I can let life waylay my intentions.

There is a lot of personal thoughts in my notebook from that day, but here’s one paragraph I'm willing to share:

“Too often, I let the storm of life carry me away. The smallest client thing or smallest distraction will appear and needlessly lay waste to my plans, my focus, and my day."

That sentence was the big take away for me from my small birthday retreat. Going into this next year, I intended to work on that. I'm not even sure at this point what that means, but I’ve already taken some small steps. I'm trying to give more respect to my carefully laid plans. If I care enough to make a plan, I need an excellent reason to upset it (or something needs to be truly on fire). Also, I've decided I am going to be much more intentional about that ever-so-dangerous word, “yes” and not use it going forward without some real reflection and a few night’s sleep.

I'm still figuring out what intentionality means to me. I've left some pages in my notebook and am continuing to reflect on this routinely.

Regardless, I find the birthday retreat one of the best things I do every year. Maybe with a little intentionality, I can spend even more time on these types of reflections and getting myself sorted out.

Hyper-Scheduling Feedback 

I’ve had a lot of feedback about my prior posts about the hyper-scheduling experiment and implementation details. Here are the prior links:

The Hyper-Scheduling Experiment

Hyper-Scheduling Mechanics

This whole thing has turned into a short series here at MacSparky.com. There may be another post or two about this, but today I'd like to share some of the feedback. I’ve received a surprising amount of email/tweets/feedback on these posts. They fall into several categories:

Hyper-Scheduling is Insane

I recently spoke at the ABA Techshow, and at some point an old lawyer-nerd friend cornered me. “David, are you really doing all that crazy stuff with your schedule?” (That quote is nearly perfect. He didn’t use the word “stuff”.)

This sentiment boils down to a lot of people who have never tried something like this marvelling at what an extraordinary investment of time hyper-scheduling appears to be.

I agree putting something like this in place takes time, particularly when getting the habit started. However, having been doing it now for awhile, the time investment is not nearly high as someone who has never tried it would think. I schedule each day and the end of the day prior. Using the mechanics I explained in the last post, most of the scheduling is simply selecting prior instances in the calendar week view, duplicating the item, and then moving it into place. For me, most days start with some Field Guide Work for two or three hours and most days end with shutting things down and planning the next day and in between comes a whole lot of legal work and podcasting that varies on a daily basis.

A key competent of all of this is having a task management system that can help you keep track of all of your tasks (so you don’t have to) and unearth those priority tasks out of the database on a daily basis. I’m pretty adept at OmniFocus so it usually doesn’t take me long to find those tasks that will get checked off the day before and assign appropriate time blocks to get the job done.

For me, the trickiest part about setting it up is being realistic about how much can be accomplished in the next day and not biting off more than I can chew. The practice of hyper-scheduling however, has provided an excellent tool for me to get better at that skill. At this point, hyper-scheduling takes me about 20 minutes. As explained throughout this series of posts, a 20-minute daily investment for all of these benefits is a no-brainer.

Hyper-Scheduling is Unrealistic

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

–Helmuth von Moltke

This second category of criticism boils down to the above quote. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend scheduling if you walk into the office to find it on fire. I’d generally agree with that criticism. Several times since I’ve started hyper-scheduling, I’ve had days where a true client or family emergency appeared requiring me to sweep aside my carefully laid plans and spend the day manning the fire hose.

I guess the real question for these critics is exactly how often do they find that the office is actually on fire. If that’s a routine thing, I think that is more of a problem with the office than hyper-scheduling. The lawyer equivalent of a fireman is a litigation attorney. I was in that racket for 20 years and can tell you at the time I experienced a lot more fires than I do these days. If you have a job that requires you to put out fires on a daily basis (and you’re okay with that), I don’t think hyper-scheduling is for you.

Conversely, however, I’d ask you to make sure the there truly is a fire. As my law practice has transitioned to a transaction-heavy practice and away from the sausage factory that is modern litigation, before hyper-scheduling I was acting like there were daily wild fires where, in hindsight, there were very few. Too often I’d let the smallest problems derail me. Hyper-scheduling has given me more perspective so that a lot of things that I was earlier treating as four-alarm fires now just gets blocked into some time in the next few days and I’m able to stick with the original plan.

Hyper-Scheduling is Nothing More than Sophisticated Procrastination

One reader wrote me and opined that my hyper-scheduling seemed like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The argument is that Hyper-scheduling is a way to fiddle, instead of doing work. I think this could be true if you were too precious with your scheduling. The minimum block of time for me to deal with a specific problem is usually no less than an hour. I don’t Hyper-Schedule by making a dozen 15-minute project blocks that I then carefully arrange like a jigsaw puzzle. That would be a waste of time. All of the little, important things I do every day get OmniFocus flags and lumped together in the “Capture Flags” block. I agree someone could implement hyper-scheduling in a way that gets too fiddly. However, I think someone that gives it the smallest amount of thought and deliberation could avoid that trap.

Hyper-Scheduling Doesn’t Actually Give You any Additional Time

Yup.

This was my own biggest source of resistance to the experiment in the first place. Scheduling myself for ten hours a day does not magically give me 20 hours of work. It’s still just 10 hours. While that is true, adding the planning and deliberation to the day has allowed me to get a lot closer to 10 hours of work done in a 10 hour day where before I was getting more like five or six hours of work done in a 10 hour day because I spent so much time blowing in the wind.

For me, Hyper-Scheduling adds a sense of purpose to the day and lets me be much more deliberate with my time and the projects I spend my time on. Either way, while it’s true this technique doesn’t magically give you additional time, it lets you use the time you do spend on important work much more efficiently.

Hyper-Scheduling is Nothing New

These are my favorite emails. I’ve received lots of affirmation from readers that have been doing this in some form or another for years and ask me, in one way or another, “What took you so long?” Some folks call it block scheduling, others call it fancier things like value-based time management. I'm certainly not the first guy to this party, and I find that comforting.

On Focus

Last year I noticed my priorities were out of whack and I spent several months woodshedding the latest productivity books and websites as I sorted myself out. One prevalent theme throughout the productivity world as of late is how to keep yourself focused. Keeping yourself on target is an important skill. Cal Newport wrote a good book about it and Shawn Blanc developed an entire online course around it. 

Luckily, this is one of the few things I’m good at. I’m not sure if I’m a focus savant or it’s just a side benefit of having a regular meditation practice for over 25 years but I’m good at locking in on one thing to the exclusion of the rest of the world. There are actually some pretty funny stories about me growing up and being completely oblivious to the world around me as I read a book or was dialed in on something else. 

Regardless, people are having a lot of trouble keeping their attention on a single task with all of these digital devices surrounding us. There is a whole cottage industry of apps that can do things like dim sections of your screen, hide your social media apps, and even turn off your internet connection requiring heroic efforts to get it back up and running all in effort to avoid distractions. My daughter routinely deletes social media apps entirely from her phone when she is working on a deadline. 

A lot of people are going to some extreme measures in the name of focus and I’m not sure that is necessary or, in the long term, sustainable. It’s like trying to lose weight by not eating. It may work for a day or two but after that, it’s all downhill. Getting better at focus is difficult and it takes time to master. Here’s my list of suggestions for some help along the way. 

Set Your Non-Essential Technology Aside

If you’re working on your Mac or iPad, just put your phone down with the glass on the table. When you get tempted to pick it up, you’ll see it is face down and remind yourself how much more fun Alto’s Odyssey will be after you finish your sales report/spreadsheet/term paper/whatever. Alternatively, put you tech in another room.

Banish Notifications

Nearly everyone, myself included, has let notification bloat creep into their lives. The first time you launch just about any new app, it asks for permission to tap you on the shoulder at will and you, in a fit of optimism, will think to yourself that “This garbage truck simulator app is the one. This is the app that will change my life and of course it should get notification privileges”. You’ll tap the button and then put up with needless notifications from that app forever. I made a video about notifications that show you how to fix that. 

I suggest a notification purge. Why not try turning off all notifications on your phone? It’s not that hard (although I wish Apple would make it easier). Just turn off all notifications and live like that for a day or two and then only add back notifications for the apps from which you absolutely must get notifications. This clean slate approach is exactly the way I reduced the number of daily notifications from about 40 to about 5.

Use Calendars and Timers

The whole hyper-scheduling thing I’ve been writing about is in part my own effort to keep focused on the important stuff. In my case, it is more about the areas of focus than the ability to focus but it’s a similar problem. Blocking time on your calendar or setting a timer is a great way to focus in bite-sized increments. It’s the entire idea behind the Pomodoro Technique. I do think giving yourself a timed focus period is a good way into tricking your brain into getting better at this. Telling yourself to just focus for X minutes makes the lure of all those shiny technology interruptions bearable. Start with as short of an interval you need to succeed and then start moving it up slowly.

The “Not Now” Folder

Make a folder on your iPhone called “Not Now”. Put apps in there that are your frequent temptations. For some people, it will be Facebook. For others, it may be Twitter or even Email. Make opening the “Not Now” a deliberate act that you do only when you are not focused in on getting some work done. If you really want to go nuts, put the “Not Now” folder on page three of your home screen to really keep it out of mind.

Consider Trying a Little Meditation

It’s really not hippie nonsense. A mindfulness meditation practice is not a religion. It’s just a way to help you tame that wild organ between your ears and anyone can do it. You can learn more with an app, like Headspace or through a good podcast. It’s a great way to work on your focus muscles. And speaking of focus muscles ...

Think About Developing your Focus like Developing Muscles

It does take practice and time. Even if you take a pass on meditation, try to focus on what you are doing other times during the day. It’s easy to do that while you are mountain climbing or surfing but what about when you are driving, or eating an apple? Can you keep your brain on target then? You need to wear new grooves into your brain and that doesn’t happen overnight.

Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself

There are so many articles on the Internet by people dealing with the focus problem that are beating themselves up about it. That just gets in the way. We have more distractions thrown at us these days than any time before in human history. We’ve all got to come to grips with it and it’s hard. Don’t be so hard on yourself. If you occasionally fall off the wagon, don’t get angry. Just get back on the wagon and keep trying.

Task Management Pain Points – Orphans

One area of trouble for anyone with a lot of projects is orphans. Those are those projects or tasks that somehow fall off the radar and fall apart not because you are actively ignoring them or prioritizing them as “on hold” but instead because you forget about them. An orphan may be unimportant but it may also be mission critical. Ignore them at your peril.

If you follow GTD, you should not have many orphans because the system requires you to review all your projects on a weekly basis. While I use elements of GTD in my planning, I don’t adopt the system entirely and I don’t review all my projects weekly. Instead, I use the OmniFocus review feature to set custom review times depending on a project’s priority. If I’m working with a client on a big contract, I’ll get a review reminder every week. If I’m just maintaining a corporate book for a client, I’ll only get a review reminder every six months. Although my longer delayed project reviews could cause me a problem, I’m pretty good about starting new projects for anything that requires a more frequent review frequency. Another thing I do while reviewing projects in OmniFocus is assessing the project’s current review frequency and consider whether it needs adjusting.

OmniFocus is the only task app I’m aware of that includes a review mechanism but you could put something similar together yourself in other apps. Just add a task inside projects called something like “Review Status” and set it to repeat at some reasonable frequency.

There also isn’t anything wrong with just taking a few hours every month or two and doing a top-to-bottom audit of your task system. This even works for the paper and pencil crowd. Every time I do one of those audits, I feel better afterward. Moreover, during audits I sometimes do find an orphan lurking in my system and, even better, a few projects I can kill. 

Hyper-Scheduling Mechanics

Last week I wrote about my anal-retentive hyper-scheduling method and got a lot of surprisingly positive feedback. One of the most popular questions was how exactly do I implement it. It's not that difficult. The night before, I take a look at my appointments and essential tasks are for the next day and start laying things out. Whether I am on my iPad or my Mac, I do this in Fantastical. A lot of times I'm using blocks that I recently used in the past few days, so I set it up in a week view, select the applicable block, such as "Email and Social" (which is the 45 minutes or so where I deal with all of my email and check in on social media), hit the keyboard shortcut command (Command + D) to duplicate, and then drag the block into the appropriate space. You can do the same thing on an iPad with a long press, but it feels like it takes longer and setting the duplicated block to the next day with your fingers is less precise than doing so with the mouse.

Here is yesterday's calendar in Fantastical. I usualy include more detail, like client names, but those were removed for this screenshot. Click to enlarge.

I treat the blocks of time more like versatile soup ingredients than a rigid jigsaw puzzle, so I am happy to move them around as I'm planning the next day. The only things that are locked in are the specific appointments I have made with other people. I know some folks who have done this by creating repeating events where they have the same block of time for the same event every day. My life isn't that simple, and these blocks nearly always move around depending on what I have on deck for the next day. Setting these as repeating events won't work for me, but maybe they can work for you.

I map days out the afternoon before and it is an organic process because the whole time I'm also looking at my pile of tasks in OmniFocus and trying to make big boy decisions about what exactly gets my attention the next day. At the end of this process, I have a pretty solid looking calendar for the next day. I set alarms for the block events that start at the time of the event, so I get a little kick as I go through the day and need to change into the next block. The Siri watch face on my Apple Watch helps with this.

The last part of my process, and this is new in 2018, is writing it down with a fancy pen in my Baron Fig Confidant dot grid plus-sized notebook. I have a page for every day, and at the top is a list of events and big rock tasks to finish for the next day. I keep it open on my desk as I work. Writing it down takes additional time but only a few minutes, and there is something about having it written down in ink in front of me as I work through the day that keeps me rolling. I received some very satisfying affirmation on this last bit when I saw that Shawn Blanc does the same thing.

Underneath this section of the page I draw a line and below that I take notes and summarize progress at the end of the day. Like I said in the last post. The whole shutdown thing is a post for another day. Here's a picture of my list for yesterday. At the time I took the picture, I still had one event and one task left to complete. Sorry about my terrible printing. If I'd thought about it when I set up this day, I would have tried to make it neater. Click to enlarge.  

My Blogging Workflow

I have received a lot of questions asking precisely what my workflow is for getting blog posts up. The whole process is a bit more complicated than it probably should be but here goes:

 

Step 1 — Choose a Topic

The first thing I need to do for a significant post is choose a topic. For a long time, I kept a list of topics in OmniFocus, but at the end of the day, that's not the best place for them. Then, for a while, I kept the list in Apple Notes, but ultimately I added a category in Ulysses under the "Blog" project called “Ideas". There is a series of very short notes in that folder that could be a single word or a few sentences about an idea for a blog post that I may want to write someday. This one was called “Explain a Post” and had been sitting in the Ideas folder for about four months. Once a week, usually Saturdays, I look through the list and pick two or three notes with the same strategy used when buying cheese: pick something interesting and different but not too smelly or old. 

 

Step 2 — Mind Map

If the idea is going to need some planning, which in my mind is any post of four paragraphs or more, I start a MindNode mind map on the post. It will start with just a few nodes, but I will let the idea cook over a week or so, occasionally stepping into MindNode and adding things that my subconscious comes up with. (I thought of that clever part in the previous paragraph concerning cheese while actually buying cheese.) After about a week, I'm usually ready to start writing. 

 

Step 3 — Move the Cursor from Left to Right

Now comes the hard part of moving the cursor across the page. If I'm typing the article, I will go ahead and do that right in Ulysses, but I move the Ulysses note from “Ideas” to “Cooking”. I usually block a few hours every Saturday afternoon to do some writing for the blog, and in those cases, I will do most of the writing with dictation. For dictation, I use Dragon for Mac or Dragon Anywhere on iOS, which I'm doing right now. As an aside, when using Dragon for Mac to write stories, I do it in TextEdit, which works swimmingly with Dragon’s voice commands. When I dictate, I just dictate the first draft. I don’t do a lot of edits with my voice but instead move the text to the Ulysses “Cooking” folder where I review and edit it via the keyboard.

Either way, I continue banging away at it until I'm more or less happy.

 

Step 4 — Grammarly To the Rescue

Last year I bought a subscription to Grammarly. I was never a fan of computer-based grammar checkers until I signed up for a trial with Grammarly. The service works better than I expected. I was hesitant to pay the annual subscription fee, but when I considered the fact that I pay for my shoes with words, it made the cost easier to digest. All significant posts get run through Grammarly after I finish writing them. If you ever want to know which posts don't go to Grammarly, they are the ones with typos.

 

Step 5 — Rest

After I finish this process, I put the corrected text out of Grammarly and back in Ulysses, and I give it a day. Waiting 24 hours to come back and do an additional reading of the post always makes it better.

 

Step 6 — Add Links

Towards the end of the process, I go ahead and add links to the post. I usually do this using this clever Keyboard Maestro script if I'm on the Mac. It isn’t much more difficult with Ulysses on iOS. If there are links to products, I use Affiliate on Mac or Blink on iOS to add affiliate links.

 

Step 7 — Send to Editor

I have a good friend who reviews my more significant posts for me, makes any corrections that I missed, and then sets up the post for publication in Squarespace. To pull this off, I export the document from Ulysses in rich text format and send the file through a card in Trello. I have a template project in Trello for just this purpose, so if there is anything unique with the tags or the images, I can add it to the Trello checklist. It's only in the last year that I asked someone to make this last pass and handle the Squarespace setup. Now that I see how useful it is, I wish I had done it sooner.

Step 8 — Publication

Once my editor finishes the review and sets up the post, I go through and read it one last time in Squarespace and set the publication dates. If I'm really on my game, I will even get a link to Twitter once the post publishes. We have this big group for the Mac Power Users on Facebook, but I rarely have the guts to post a link there.

Obviously, not every post goes through all eight steps, but my best posts do.

The Hyper-Scheduling Experiment

For the last month, I have been conducting an experiment with more deliberate scheduling of my time. For lack of a better word, I have been calling it hyper-scheduling. 

Historically, I have kept two things in my calendar: 1.) appointments and 2.) big rock-style projects. For example, if I've been meaning to write a certain complicated client contract for a few days and it wasn’t getting done, I would set aside several hours in my calendar specifically for that project.

With this hyper-scheduling project, I have taken that to a different level. For instance, here is my schedule from a few days ago:

6:00 – Shower, shave, and meditate

7:00 – Bicycle to Starbucks

7:20 – Write Smith contract

9:20 – Review email and social media

10:00 – Write Field Guide

11:00 – Bicycle to bank, market, and home

11:45 – Lunch

12:15 – Capture “Flags”

13:00 – Legal Work

15:00 – Field Guide screencasting

17:00 – End of day email audit

17:30 – Daily shutdown 

21:00 – Jones call 

A few of these require further explanation. 

  • I have a cool bike that I use for most of my local transportation. Anywhere within five miles of my house, I am probably biking. (Hooray for California!) I have to build that time into the schedule. All the pedaling also helps me fill my rings.
  • Flag capture is the process of knocking down flagged tasks in OmniFocus. Every day I have 5-10 tasks that I have flagged to make sure I get done.
  • “Legal Work” is me working through OmniFocus tasks in my legal perspective that are not flagged. I don’t truly hyper-schedule time in that block of time for each specific task I'll work on. When I set up the day, I am not even sure what I will be doing during that time except that it will be legal work. I just have a block set aside to make calls and get non-critical client work done.
  • One of the biggest advantages of this practice is the commitment I am making to spending time on the next MacSparky Field Guide. Before I started this experiment, there never seemed to be time to work on my books. Now it is built into the schedule.
  • Shutdown is a whole thing I do (which I will write about another day). Relevant to this post is that as part of that shutdown, I hyper-schedule the next day so I can wake up and hit the ground running.
  • Normally after I do the shutdown, I am done for the day. On this particular day, I had a conference call with a client in India so I had to get back on my horse later in the evening.
  • Not all of my days are this ideal. Some days I spend driving all over Southern California meeting clients or going to the dentist. The system still works on those days too.

After doing this for a month, I am sold. The extra work involved with planning the day gets paid off with interest in productivity the next day. 

A couple of things I have learned along the way with this experiment is to make sure and set up my schedule the night before. I am pretty sharp in the mornings, so I want to spend that time on client or creative work, not scheduling. Also, there is nothing wrong with setting a block of time as a commitment to types of work as opposed to a specific task, such as generally getting client work done as opposed to a specific client project.

Another thing is to accept that despite my planning, none of this is carved in stone. If a client calls in with a true emergency or I find out a friend is in the hospital, I can blow the daily plan up fairly easily. Because of the planning, on this day I knew I had about 45 minutes of flagged must-do tasks. If something came up, I would know that I need to find 45 minutes in the day to deal with the flags, and the rest could be scratched.

Most people who have thought a lot about calendars and planning preach that you must put space between events on a highly scheduled day. That is probably good advice, but a month in, I still haven’t done that and I am not feeling particularly bad about it. 

Digging Out

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The Sparks family had an amazing vacation in January. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips to London and Paris. My kids are at the perfect age, and my wife and I both agreed that we don’t know how many years we have left with both of them around to vacation with us.

My point is, I didn’t want to spend the entire vacation working. So I spent some time deliberately thinking about work before I left. As a business lawyer, I often have clients dealing with one sort of emergency or another, and that is unavoidable if I want to continue in this racket. Non-emergencies, however, are a different story. My plan was to get up a few hours early every day and deal with whatever emergencies were thrown my way and then close the computer and spend the rest of the day with my family. It was a ten-day trip and how much day-to-day stuff could really pile up, right?

For once, I stuck to the plan. Partly thanks to jet lag, getting up early wasn’t a problem and the several emergencies that appeared all got handled.

The surprising part for me was precisely how much non-emergency stuff piled up in my absence. I spent the plane ride home reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work, and I had this grand plan about how I was going incorporate a bunch of his ideas into getting more work done on my next book starting the day after I returned. 

That didn’t happen.

Instead, I took stock of the backed-up legal and podcasting work and smacked my forehead. I had to dig out. For a day or two, I kept thinking I could get my fresh start on writing more for the book while digging out but eventually I worked through the four stages of grief and arrived at “acceptance”. My deep work on the book was going to have to wait a little bit longer.

So instead I resolved that I would just focus on digging out. I made a list and (for a few weeks) largely cut myself off from social media, television, and other diversions. It turns out I needed two weeks to get caught up with work. It’s probably obvious to most people, but the biggest revelation for me in this process was where I stopped and just accepted that, despite my efforts, nothing new could happen until I dug out. Once my brain wrapped around the idea, it was a lot easier to put my head down and get the work done. It probably sounds silly, but I'm quite pleased with myself having survived the deluge and enjoyed the big vacation.

As I write this, I'm finally back in a place where I can put time into the book. This morning I put several hours into writing, and it feels great. Chapters are showing up in the iBooks Author file, and boxes are getting checked. Stay tuned.

Being Productive from Kourosh Dini

My friend Kourosh Dini is a smart guy, and I’ve always thought of him as a kindred spirit. He spends his days working as a practicing psychiatrist, but he also makes music and writes books. His latest book, Being Productive: Simple Steps to Calm Focus, is a good one. This book follows Kourosh’s prior productivity book, Zen & The Art of Work

Before telling you why I like this new book, I should come clean about my relationship with productivity books. I have always had a negative reaction to self-help/productivity books. I have friends who read piles of these books, but they never really seem to get anything out of them.

My attitudes on the subject are changing, however. I'm now reading a few productivity-type books, but slowly. I have been going through the books and incorporating a few good ideas into my life and not moving on until they stick.

The reason I'm telling you this is because Being Productive is an excellent jumping off point for just that experience. The book not only includes theory and advice, but also exercises and techniques to apply what you are learning in your life. I'm currently only halfway through the book. I'm taking it slow and learning as I go, but I'm far enough in the book now to easily recommend it if you are looking for a little help.

Subscription Database

Several months ago we did an episode on Mac Power Users about managing subscriptions. During the show I explained that I have an Apple Numbers spreadsheet where I keep track of all of that information. I've finally gotten around to posting it. Below is a screenshot and at the bottom of this post is a download link.

The spreadsheet allows you to enter the name of the service and then whatever fee you’re paying. When you click the checkbox as to whether or not it's an annual subscription, the spreadsheet does some conditional computations to figure out the monthly cost and annual cost in the following two columns. Those are the key locations that you're going to be getting information about how much you’re spending. At the bottom of those columns you'll see how much you're spending per month and per year.

After that it’s just further information concerning the specific service like website, account number, contact information, and email. The point is you want to keep whatever you need in this database so you can cancel a subscription whenever you feel like it. The one thing I don't keep in this database is passwords. For that I go to 1Password.

Feel free to download, use, and modify. Let me know how it works for you.

Download the Subscription Database.

Tasks vs. Calendar Events

I get a lot of emails from readers asking me exactly how I distinguish between tasks and calendar items. In a perfect world, a task is an item you need to do and a calendar item represents a place you need to be. However, the way I work makes things a little muddier. 

For example, I like to schedule appointments with myself. This helps me manage big projects. I will often schedule a block of time on the calendar for a big project. Something like, Thursday 10 AM-12 PM, ACME contract review.

So now that calendar event shows up in my calendar but I’ve also got a collection of tasks related to that contract review in OmniFocus. So how do I resolve that? It really isn’t that hard. I will go into the project view in OmniFocus and select all related tasks to the contract review and set their deferred date to Thursday at 10 AM. Then the tasks disappear from my active OmniFocus list until that time and I don’t think about them anymore.

The trick to all of this is being honest with yourself. If you set these appointments with yourself to manage big projects but don’t keep them, you lose faith in your system and the wheels start falling off. Treat those task-related appointments just as sacredly as you would an appointment with your boss. If something comes up that requires you to move that appointment, go ahead and move it but follow all the necessary steps. Reset the appointment in your calendar and move the tasks in your task manager.

Another advantage of setting aside blocks of time for big projects is that it gives you a more realistic view of how much you can actually get done in the day. If suddenly you see yourself completely blocked and there are still significant tasks left on your list, that should be a warning sign that you’ve got a problem.

So to answer the question, I generally am a purist and keep tasks in my task list and calendar events in my calendar. When I do use the calendar to block time for an extensive set of tasks, I will simultaneously move all of those tasks to the designated time and date.