Productivity Technique: The Obsessive Calendar

So, among other productivity methods I’ve been trying this month, I also tried the Hipster PDA method, where essentially you use a small stack of index cards with a big clip to keep track of what you need to get done. (Optionally also with the Getting Things Done and 43 Folders philosophies.)

Most people react to this by saying something like, “Seriously? Index cards.” Yes, seriously. You should probably try it out. And I know several people for whom this PDA works very well!

Dispense justice tomorrow at 3:21am. It's like they say, if someone's going to kill you, wake up early and kill them instead. Just like they say.

Like this.

But I’m not one of them.

Here’s the thing — after literally years trying to get myself to use paper calendars/planners/notebooks/etc., I finally discovered that if my calendar / organizer can’t beep at me, it effectively doesn’t exist.

While trying out the Hipster PDA, I thought I’d finally give it one more shot. See if that was still true. It is.

Sure, I can carefully put everything I want to do today into a planner. I can schedule that appointment for 12:00. And then life will happen, the dean will have a critical project he needs done by tomorrow, I get deep into the zone working on that, and don’t realize until 5:32 pm that we had an appointment at 12:00. That’s pretty much how my life and my brain work.

Furthermore, when you ask me to bring you a document tonight, I’m filing that away in my memory with 32 other things I’m supposed to remember to do by then. 1-17 more are guaranteed to come along before then. Odds are, I’m not bringing your document tonight. Yes, the hPDA is supposed to remind me — if I’m not so absorbed in thinking about the next problem to give it a few minutes. Throughout my test, I only rarely managed to consult my stack of cards effectively. I’m both an easily distract-able and highly focused individual. (Yes, you can be both.)

My solution, the one I’ve been working on for a few years now since I got my first PDA, is to put everything into my digital calendar(s). Events and appointments are obvious, but I also add everything I need to remember later but probably won’t, like “Start walking to class now or you’ll be late”, “Look over the document that Sarah just handed you”, “Respond to Dana’s email”, etc. For things like that, I take my best guess as to when would be a good time to address that matter. 50% of the time I’m wrong, but the reminder brings it back into my consciousness when it would otherwise be lost. Also, it’s easy to tell the reminders to try again later.

Easy Calendar in Action!

I have two calendars: a Google Calendar for more personal and school things, and an Exchange calendar for work-related things. The beauty here is that both calendars live in the cloud — meaning they’re not saved on something I can drop into the sink and destroy forever. And both my phone and computer connect to them, so I’ll always be reminded.

To make things even easier, this month I started using Easy Calendar for the iPhone. I find it much quicker than the default calendar app to add new items, and to see what’s coming up in the next week. Easy Calendar lets you set a default alert for every new item you add, which is good since I add an alert to every single one.

On my computer, I use the aptly named Remind Me Later app (free), which lets me type in natural language, like “Turn in that awesome assignment tonight at 6” The app is smart enough to know that by “tonight” I mean October 25th, and that “6” means 6 p.m., and it automatically puts it into my calendar with a reminder.

Like I mentioned earlier, sometimes it’s enough only that the system bring an item back into my working memory after it’s been pushed out by any number of a dozen things.

Will this system work for you? Quite possibly. Is it the right one for you? Maybe. Hard to say. Could be that the Hipster PDA works better for you, for example. If my experiments with productivity techniques have done anything (besides give me some great ideas and tools), they’ve reminded me that I’m a cognitive bird of a somewhat different color. But then, aren’t we all in our own ways?

The Pomodoro Technique: A Review

It’s been a month since I busted out with the Pomodoro Technique in a productivity boosting experiment. While I think it has improved thing somewhat, there are still some areas I find it a little lacking.

A quick overview in the (quite possible) event you haven’t heard of it. Basically, you:

  • Choose a task to be accomplished
  • Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer)
  • Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your task list. (You can have a lot of checks on a single item.)
  • Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)
  • If you get interrupted during a Pomodoro, put a different mark, like an “I”
  • Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break
  • Walk like an Egyptian*

* Not actually part of the Pomodoro Technique

The Good

RECORDS

There’s a lot that’s great about the Pomodoro Technique, one of the main things being the record you end up having of your day. It’s easy to get to the end of a typical day and think or feel that you haven’t actually accomplished much. The PT leaves you with a record of what you’ve accomplished so you can feel, well, accomplished. For every Pomodoro you do (or 25-minute activity block) you write it down. Every check feels like giving yourself points for getting something done, even if it’s your 16th check on, say, “Update the Natural History Museum Observation Module.”

For my task list (or “activity inventory”), I use a text file in Dropbox, which I have easy access to on my phone via an app called Plaintext. That way I can keep it handy on any computer I have, or when I’m lacking one. I also sometimes list how many pomodoros I think something is going to take. If you’re like me, having time frames on unpleasant tasks of any magnitude help a lot.

My list. On my laptop (left) and on my phone (right). X means a completed pomodoro, U means I was interrupted or it wasn’t finished, and # means the task is complete.

FOCUS

This is a great aspect. When tempted to deviate to email or IMs, it’s helpful to remember that I’m on the clock here — I can get to that after this pomodoro is done. I have a simple timer in my menubar, so I can easily see how much time is left. While most Pomodoro apps will set you back a few bucks, there are a bunch of free ones. I use Menubar Countdown.

Menubar Countdown (near the left)

PLANNING

Another great thing about this method is the way it can help you challenge yourself. When starting a day, you can set a goal for yourself to beat your average pomodoros done in a day. That average is also a good indicator of how much you’re likely going to accomplish on a given a day, so you can gauge how much to take on.

The Less Good

Pomodoro isn’t perfect, but then, what is? That said, here are some possible drawbacks.

ALL OR NOTHING
Either you work for 25 minutes and get to mark an X, or you don’t get to complete it. I use a different mark than X, but it doesn’t feel the same. Also, sure you can ignore emails for half-an-hour, but when people drop by in person, you can’t really tell them to come back in 9.5 minutes. You also can’t show up late to meetings or train stops because you’re in the middle of one.

SOMETHING ELSE TO DO
As great as all the things I listed above are, sometimes creating a task list and checking it off is just one more thing to do, and when you already have forty-six-dozen deadlines coming, you don’t really want to have yet another thing to manage. Sure, managing it helps you manage other things, but if that logic always applied, our dentists would never be on our cases about flossing.

In a nutshell

Pomodoro is great stuff. Will I keep using it? Probably. But my implementation will likely morph into something else along the way as I adjust it for my own needs. I just can’t see myself managing an activity inventory, a to-do list, a chart sheet and an extended log like the book tells you to. If I’ve learned one thing about both interface design and myself, it’s that things have to be simple, or they won’t be sustainable.

313-Word Springpad Review

If you’re like me, your Internet connection is your life — meaning it’s central to your work, education, and entertainment. The only problem with this situation is that it can be easy to get overwhelmed and not be able to keep track of anything anymore! In an effort to improve my online organization, I decided to give Springpad a try.

Springpad is billed as a personal assistant on the go that will help you become more organized and remember things. It has a Chrome browser extention, a web app, and an iPhone app. Also, it’s free (aways one of my favorite price points).

So, how does it work? Let’s say, like me, you find about a dozen interesting bits of stuff on the Internet that you don’t have time to get to right then. You can make bookmarks, but you probably won’t ever get to them. Or, you could use Springpad to save it. Then it’s not only automatically organized into a notebook or category (or you can organize it manually if you wish), it’s accessible from any browser, anywhere or on your phone. Nice.

I found it was pretty smart about organizing stuff for me. For example, for stores it gave me directions, price comparisons, and online links to alternatives without me even asking.

I’ve been using the iPhone app in moments of boredom to look up all the things I’ve saved and finally get around to reading/purchasing/reading/scheduling/and reading things I otherwise would have completely forgotten.

When signing up, you of course have to create a new account — but the good news is that you can link it up to your Google, Yahoo, Twitter, or Facebook accounts. Meaning you won’t have yet another username/password combination to forget. Over and over again.

Overall, I found the service pretty well polished. Smooth experiences all around. I’ll probably keep using it.