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Getting Things Done!

A new contract where I work 6 hours a day has me thinking about productivity.

I recently landed a new contract. I set my own hours, show up when I want, and leave when I want. I'm also more productive than I've been in years. I literally turned around the company's 4 major web sites from miserable and not working to in perfect working condition in 3 or 4 days. Here are some of the factors I think are helping me here.

Leave When The Work Is Done

I got so much done in the past 2 weeks that I'm actually taking a day off so they can regroup and prepare for the next major project. Knowing I can leave when the work is done, and not some arbitrarily chosen hour (who decided on 9 - 5 anyway?) motivates me to get the work done faster.

The other workers in the office sit around waiting for work, or putting off work they have to do. I work the whole time I'm there, and hate moments when I have nothing to do, but they seem to live in this mode, springing in to action every once in a while, and otherwise socializing, or trying to fill their time.

Of course, there's a reason these people are there so many hours, their work depends on someone else - a phone call, an order that needs to be fulfilled, a delivery that comes in - all these can happen at any time of day, and someone needs to be there to make sure it happens. My work is more project based, and as long as everything works when I leave, I'm happy.

Strangely, the work always seems to be done exactly when it's time to go. I have a semi-arbitrary 6 hour work day. I show up when I want and leave when I want, some days I'm there 5 hours, others I'm there 7, but normally it's 6, and when the 6th hour rolls around, whatever project I set myself to that morning tends to be finished, as well as a half dozen other mini projects.

When I was young there were a few blizzards. Real snow storms with 3 or more feet of snow. I didn't go to school, and I played in the snow occasionally, but mostly I stayed in. There was no where to go. It was bliss. It's hard to describe the feeling, but the joy of knowing that you're exactly where you should be is very soothing.

Normally at work we're distracted, fidgeting and looking for something to do. You could go to the snack machine, bathroom, for a cigarette, talk to your coworker, etc. It's these infinite little possibilities that strangle our productivity. Our sense of place gives us purpose. Knowing that you are where you're supposed to be, and there's nowhere else to be is a powerful thing.

Write Everything Down. In One Notebook.

This is a practice I picked up at my first job. I was responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars of production at the factory that made industrial lighting fixtures, and making sure everything was there in time to install in major building projects. Needless to say, I had to keep meticulous notes, and I had to be sure everything I said would be done actually got done.

At the time I used a small, spiral bound notebook, and now I'm using a yellow legal pad. I prefer the notebook because pages keep falling out of the legal pad. Make sure it has a margin. I keep a list of everything I need to do, along with any relevant notes. Any time I get a phone call, or my boss requests something, it goes in the notebook. Any time I notice something that needs to be done, it goes in the notebook.

In the margin, I draw a small box. It serves as a bullet point, separating items, and I can check it off when I'm done. That box serves as a constant reminder of what I need to do. I can quickly scan the page and see what needs to be done.

At the end of the day, I write down TOMORROW and list things I need to do. It focuses my energies as soon as I walk through the door. If I can knock them all out of the way quickly, I check them off and flip to the new page, sometimes carrying them over & re-writing them just for the sake of consistency, to have the whole day one one page. Otherwise, anything I can't do quickly gets put on the new page with a fresh box.

I think digital lists are too malleable, and if I have a moment to look away from my computer screen, I'm not going to look at my PDA, but I will look at my notebook. And if I have a moment to look away from my computer screen when I'm waiting for my computer to do something, it's not going to be at the computer screen again to find my to-do list there. I also think the act of writing something down helps commit you to doing something.

Perhaps that same pressure causes you to focus only on things you can do, and not make the task some sort of pie in the sky item that you may eventually cross off. There's a big difference between "Redesign Main Site" and "Download All Files For Main Site" in terms of which is an action I can take now, and which is a goal that has quite a few steps that need to be taken to finish. Somehow, writing it down makes me distinguish between the two more than typing it out. Probably because I know I can't add sub-bullets or edit it. What I write down I have to be able to check off.

You also can't carry your computer to the meeting, and re-typing notes from the meeting is just a waste. Data entry into a PDA is too limited, you're always trying to find shortcuts to writing things and that's just not right, you need to be verbose at times. You can also draw pictures as needed to clarify things, using your notebook for things other than just to-do list.

I also write things down that I did and immediately check them off. So at the end of the day, I have a complete list of things I did, even notes from meetings. Everything in one place. It feels good at the end of the day to know what you did, nothing slips through the cracks. At the end of the day you know just how productive you were, and you're not distorting the work one way or the other. Unlike the guy who's always going for coffee and complaining he has too much work to do, or the guy who does all the work but doesn't know how to speak confidently about his work, you know exactly what you did and when.

Keep Everything In One Place

You'd be surprised how many people just put things down anywhere, or plop things in a new folder on the desktop and expect to find it later. It's even worse when you're sharing resources with other people. I've seen lots of offices where everything was kept in people's heads "Hey, do you know where the folder for the Anderson account is?" "Where is the Photoshop install CD?" "Hey, what's the login information to for email?"

You must create 1 authoritative location for everything of a particular type. 1 locking cabinet for all software. 1 filing system for all documents, with a manilla folder for each thing you have papers for. 1 shelf for all archival CD's, and they should be clearly labelled.

On your computer too you should have 1 place for each kind of information.

I see computer after computer with install files everywhere, randomly downloaded to any location, or the desktop, and then randomly left behind or deleted. Even worse, I see computers with work files in folders, zip disks, email, CD-ROM, floppies, and people searching for them constantly. I see people with Yahoo email going in to find critical information because it was never copied after it was emailed to them.

"Yeah, I have the password, it's in my Yahoo." Just how many things are in your Yahoo? It's always nice to see mission critical information stored in one of 33 emails from the vendor in a public email account that's straining to the breaking point and may stop accepting emails because he's reached his quota.

On my computer I have a folder called Downloads, and everything I download goes into this folder. E:\Downloads\Editors, E:\Downloads\Design, E:\Downloads\Internet, E:\Downloads\Hardware, etc. There are subcategories there too. Now I know anything I downloaded is in 1 place. The subcategories limit the possible locations something can be. I know an FTP program or a Telnet program will be in Internet.

I create a Work folder (in my line of work it's actually "Inetpub" or "www_root") where all my project related files go, with 2 folders for each project. 1 for the finished product, and 1 for any files used to create the finished product. So I have an exact working mirror of the site on one folder, and the Photoshop files used to create the graphics in another.

I also have a D:\www_root\www_logs folder for log files so I can run them through a stats program. I keep it seperate from the NonSite folder because I didn't actually use the log files to create the sites, and I don't want to go hunting around for log files - all the log files are in one place.

I have a Treepad file that has notes on everything. It has everything from my passwords to people's addresses to articles I copied for later reference to links to websites I'm interested in to bits of code I need, or notes on how to do things in Unix, etc. Even at 3 megabytes of just text, search is instantaneous. This is my knowledge base. Any piece of information that I get online that I need goes in here. The free version is great, it's my favorite, but I have the encrypted & password protected version because I have sensitive stuff in there.

A good alternative to Treepad is Tranglos Keynote. It has encryption, and handles rich text, and it's free (and open source).

Lastly, I have a WikiWiki, a website where I can easily edit files from the web. I keep here mostly lists of links - websites I want to know about, software I want to remember, etc. You can also easily share this information base with everyone in your office and know that it's one place everyone goes for information. This is great because I can access it from anywhere.

There's a lot of overlap between what you'd put in a Treepad file and what you'd put in a Wiki, and you may need to play with them both to see which one works for you, you may only need one, or you may decide to use both for different things like I do. There is one important difference, though. I keep passwords and anything else I don't want online in my Treepad file because it's encrypted and easy to back up.

Whenever I need something, I know exactly where to look for it, and I know how to tell anyone where anything is. There are 6 basic places I keep things.

  1. A notebook - for my to do list, notes on who I called when, etc.
  2. A well-orgnanized filing cabinet, shelf, etc. - paper, physical media such as CD's with software, files, etc.
  3. A Download folder - for software install files, or something else I need like clipart.
  4. A Project folder - where I keep any files needed for a project (Word Docs, requirements, etc.)
  5. A Treepad file - with any miscelaneous notes I need, passwords, code snippets, etc.
  6. A WikiWiki - I keep mostly links here, but you can also use it as a semi-public knowledge base.

Don't "Live" At The Office

When I was doing the 9 - 5 thing, I installed Instant Messenger on my computer because I was looking for a distraction from work. I surfed the web and browsed forums. Now that I leave when I want to, I don't bother with this stuff. I have my cell phone, and it has Instant Messenger & SMS/Text Messaging on it, so you can reach me if you want to just about any way you choose - IM or phone - but I'm not encouraged to sit there and chat away all day. The faster I work, the sooner I get to go home, or see my friends, so I don't want to be distracted from work.

I live at home, and tried to work from home, but guess what. It didn't work out. My home computer is my recreation computer, and all my chat buddies, bookmarks, and MP3's are there. My computer even faces the television (it just happened that way, I swear).

When I have to do any work from home - laundry, cleaning, paying bills, etc. it's a chore. Sure by keeping organized this stuff gets easier, but it's never fun because I can always be doing something more interesting. I have no motivation to do any of these things now because there's always something better to do now, and I can always do it later.

If you create an environment at work where you stick around when there is no work to do, you're also creating an relaxed attitude towards work. When I show up to work, I know I'm there to work. If I stayed around after the work was done, I wouldn't be as motivated to get it done. It becomes a coin toss - do it now, or do it later. It doesn't matter because I'll be here either way, and laziness will win out.

In fact, staying after the work is done becomes a deterrent to doing work. After all, once the work is done, what do you have to look foward to? Hours of boredom, mindlessly chattering with co-workers, or surfing the web trying to find something to let the time pass, or make you look busy.

On Goal Setting

Some of you (probably very few) are wondering about goal setting, which is the focus of a lot of management & time management systems. I think writing down what you have to do sort of sets your goals for you. Arbitrary goals like "Get through 50 pages today" are useful when you're easily distracted, or there's a mountain of tedious work ahead of you. I hate tedious work & try to automate it as much as possible. If that's not possible, I'd suggest you set a goal for the day, and make it a contest with yourself to beat your personal best within a certian number of hours.

Even better, tell your boss to give you a certain amount to do each day, and let you go home when they're done. Try to convince him that you really won't be any more productive if you just work all day chipping away at the mountain. If you have someone working with you, make it a contest with them. Just don't give up if they're too far ahead or behind you, handicap them to even the odds. Then make whoever loses buy lunch or drinks after so the contest has real world implications.

The more arbitrary the goals become, the more you have to trick yourself into caring about the goal. After a while, chasing arbitrary goals in a never-ending sea of work dehumanizes us, and we become like slave laborers or robots chained to our sewing machine, or computer, working only because we're told to. Avoid this kind of work at all possible costs.

That isn't to say that there isn't dignity to factory work. There can be something very zen like and rhythmic to certain kinds of repetitive work. Though, I suspect the most successful factories focus on the human element more, and don't rely too heavily on artificial incentives, like paying for productivity.

Think of work as the gym. When you go to the gym there's a prescribed way of doing things, you go to an aerobics class, or work out using a well defined system: 8 to 12 reps, and increase the weight if you can do more than 12. It's not then how many pushups you can do, it's a matter of getting to the gym. When the workout is over, you go home. If you do this, the goals begin to set themselves.

Choose A System And Stick To It

I've been using the system outlined in Getting Things Done by David Allen for a long time. I like it because it's an easy to implement and follow system. It's logical, and it focuses on what you can do right now, without all the "defining categories" or even "defining the meaning of your life" recommended by other systems. When I first saw the book I wanted to buy it because it's subtitle "The Art of Stress Free Productivity" seemed perfect for the stressful work life I had. I passed it up because I thought it was too good to be true, but I can tell you, the system really works.

The only real danger here is, as the book says, you'll be so productive and reliable that you'll be known as "the guy to go to to get things done" and your boss will start to give you more responsibility.

By keeping things organized and simple, it allows you to respond quickly to things, without worrying about distractions. You always know where everything is, and know you aren't forgetting to do anything because it's all written down. The system espoused in Getting Things Done by David Allen involves thinking for a second before you act, because you're going to have to do it anyway. Think about how you're organizing things, think about what you really need to do to get something done.

I know this all seems vague now, and if you don't have a system in place, you'll have to implement one, but once you do, you'll never go back. Oh, and when something arrives and you have to figure out where to put it is not the time to try to implement a system - it should be in place already. Once you read the book, it only takes a day or two to do it, and for the rest of your life you'll be organized, efficient, and you'll Get Things Done.

On the second day at the new office my boss came over to me and said "I'm really impressed that you were able to pull all that together in one day, you might really have a future here." I get paid by the hour and leave early - he knows I mean business, and I don't try to puff up my accomplishments. I do what I need to do and I leave.

Whatever system you choose, it's important that you implement it and stick to it. Using a PDA one week, a computer based to do list the next, and paper the week after that isn't very productive. Using one filing system one week and a different one the next is even worse, or if one person has chosen one filing system, and someone you work with is using another, it could be disastrous. Create one system and implement it authoritatively especially when more than one person must use it.

Just like going to the gym, the way to get real results is to choose one system and stick to it. Good luck!

I'm not the only one Throwing away my PDA.

page first created on Thursday, June 10, 2004

© Mark Wieczorek