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Hello my fellow crustaceans,

I’ve been feeling very unproductive lately, and I’ve reached the conclusion that I don’t have the best personal time management skills and it might be high time to learn some.

Can my fellow crustaceans suggest methods or books that have worked well for them to organize personal and professional lives?

I’m thinking about trying to implement a basic pomodoro system, any suggestions?

Technology wise I use an Android and Linux on both my laptop and home PC. I like solutions that are portable yet simple.

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    I finally found what works for me after years of being unproductive and waiting for that flash of inspiration to strike. Most systems worked for ~2 days and then I’d slack off or drop the system. Pomodoro was the best one, but in the end I just couldn’t stick to it.

    My system now has one simple rule: If you catch your brain/attention cycling then make a list.

    Bored, not prepared, overwhelmed, distracted, tired…they all manifest in me the same way when I’m trying to get stuff done: I cycle. I stare at an empty vim buffer restarting the same thought over and over lazily, while just moving the cursor up or down, or I cycle between tabs of content quickly. All of a sudden 4 hours have past. I’ve become hyper aware of when this happens now.

    If I feel my brain cycle, I stop and go “Ok, I don’t know how to progress (for whatever reason). Time for a list.” I open a new vim buffer / notebook (paper vs screen doesn’t matter except for my mood), and I break down the steps of that problem. It doesn’t matter how big it is or how small it is or how trivial…if you’re cycling make a list. Then start from the top and do the list.

    This is a recursive process. If I make a list and I start cycling trying to do the first bullet point, I make a list on how to do that bullet point. This is fine…it means you haven’t thought through the steps OR don’t have the motivation/attention span to break it down in your head…just break it down again. Lists don’t take long, and they don’t stick around forever like they do in other systems.

    It doesn’t require a master list, it doesn’t require real planning, it doesn’t require much structure, and if I’m in a flow moment or just “on” that day my brain just won’t cycle so I won’t have to make a list. It kind of scales to how much I need it. I also find the first 2 or 3 lists usually jumpstart my interest because I’m making progress and I don’t cycle much after as long as I’m honest with myself about when I’m cycling.

    This is probably super personal to how my brain works, but it worked wonders for me and has helped my self-esteem like you wouldn’t imagine. Give it a shot just for shiggles, maybe it’ll work for you too :)

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      This works for me too. It’s a pretty common ADHD mitigation strategy. For me it’s the only thing that reliably works.

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      I was just getting into GTD with Emacs org mode when I discovered Bullet Journals: http://bulletjournal.com/

      With bullet journals, you keep everything in a small notebook in your pocket. It’s satisfyingly analogue, and less complex than GTD. I don’t do any of the fancy colouring or artistry. My journals are raw and scrawly, and don’t require batteries or a screen.

      For everyday tech notes and writing, I still use org mode. But my personal and work stuff is now all tracked through bullet journals: a small pocket-sized Leuchturm 1917 for personal stuff, and a lined Blueline record book for work. I’ve been doing it for four months now, and it’s pretty decent. I think it’s worth a look-in if you would like an easy system to start with.

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        I can’t enough good things about tracking my work with a bullet journal. I’ve been at it for almost three years and really appreciate the monthly (or weekly, as desired/needed) culling of unnecessary tasks.

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          I love the bullet journal approach, especially how it is specifically intended to be customized and improved upon. I discovered it about 3 months ago, and it’s the only productivity system I’ve ever used that I’ve managed to keep using for more than a couple of weeks.

          I personally use a dotted Moleskine notebook that is just small enough to stick in my back pocket so I can keep it with me everywhere I go.

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            I use org-mode very heavily, but I don’t really like being tied to a computer 24/7. Given that you have experience with both, do you think there is a way to integrate Bullet Journals with org-mode? For now I have a pocket notebook that I will sometimes use to write lists of things that eventually just get transcribed to org-mode.

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              After about a week of using a bullet journal I think org-mode serves a different but complimentary purpose. I’m using bullet journal for daily life tasks like dentist appointment and weekend plans with friends; org-mode for software, anything I do on the computer etc.

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              Those who like bullet journals, but dislike the daily rewriting ritual / table of contents focus, should check out “final version perfected” by Mark Forster.

              http://markforster.squarespace.com/blog/2015/5/21/the-final-version-perfected-fvp.html

              This really helped me get out of a rut, and reboot my GTD workflow. Mind you, that happened in ~2012 or so, and only for a short period. I’m a full-time GTD person, and have been for a while. And i use org-mode and emacs to manage it.

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                Been using a bullet journal here now for about 5 months, and absolutely agree! Mine’s not pocket sized, and I’ve recently teetered between using it for only work, or for work and other personal things. Seems to work best for just work, and I hadn’t thought of just getting another yet. Might give that a go!

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                When I am unproductive I assume that I’m not fully congruent with my todo list. I forgive myself, take some time to think/sleep on it, and find something new to do. (Some people call this a “pivot”.)

                I don’t necessarily recommend this approach. I’ve had a good life, and I’m spoiled by it. As a result I’m now pretty much incapable of making myself do anything I don’t find interesting. It’s probably not sustainable. One of these days I’m going to have to start GTD-ing and pomodoro-ing. The longer I wait the harder it’s going to be to unlearn bad habits.

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                  Remove distractions, it mostly that simple. Don’t answer emails, calls, make it harder to watch youtube or read lobste.rs. Put friction in front of distracting things, like a password on your phone, and automatically logout of distracting sites when the tab closes.

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                    These 7 things works for me. I call it “The Lobster Roll Method”:

                    • Always get out of the house in the morning and into “work clothes”. This helps reset and prepare the brain for the day. Go for a short walk. Some fresh air and movement is healthy and makes it easier to think clearly for the rest of the day.
                    • Edit /etc/hosts and add a long list of all URLs you would type without thinking, setting the IP to 127.0.0.1. Remember to add both with and out “www”. Example: “youtube.com 127.0.0.1” and then also “www.youtube.com 127.0.0.1”. The idea is to add just enough threshold for not visiting webpages without thinking.
                    • Have “time-hooks”, fixed times during a day (or week) where you have to meet someone or do something specific. It helps the wheels go round. No time-hooks makes all time meaningless and nothing gets done.
                    • Write a very short TODO-list (3 items is enough, write more if you need to clear the head), then pick one item. Starting with a tiny item just to get the feeling of completing something, then focusing on a larger item, is a good strategy.
                    • Shrink the importance of tasks. If a task feels overwhelming, whatever you do, don’t make it feel imporant or large. Shrink it, and make it feel tiny and not so important. This does the opposite of building up inhibiting pressure.
                    • Don’t listen to distracting music or videos while working. If possible, remove all distractions.
                    • Then just work. Stick to it. Have short lunches.

                    Also, it is an advantage to actually want to do the work. If demotivated, spend 3 months thinking about your life situation then make fundamental changes. Every life is ultimately a large experiment, testing stuff and then changing direction is okay. Being motivated makes performing work so much easier.

                    Now complete those tasks, be free and productive, roll like a lobster roll, with the Lobster Roll Method!

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                      So IMO there are two problems you’re citing here: 1) Motivation and 2) Organization.

                      The Pomodoro system is fantastic for organization and even for motivation in that it helps you focus and rewards completion.

                      However, it cannot motivate you to set out upon the path to begin with. For cases like this I find gamification rather effective. Pomodoro can be viewed that way too, I know, but in this case I tend to pull out tools like Exercism or CheckIO

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                        falsetto voice naaaaaailed it

                        Motivation and Organization are the primary stumbling blocks here. Thanks for the gamification stuff, I’m not a gamer* at all really so I don’t know if I will get the same satisfaction as someone else might but I do like the idea of tracking if a day is a net positive or net negative.

                        *love me some Cribbage

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                        If you catch your brain/attention cycling then make a list […] and I break down the steps of that problem.

                        Very, very, very good advice. I have been given much the same advice in a course in ADD coping strategies I took, and in Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it has helped me a lot – so much, in fact, that it masked my ADD for a while.

                        Here is the theory GTD and my ADD course gave on why listmaking helps. When the mind baulks at an otherwise-acceptable task, it is because you don’t know what your next action is -> you want to progress but you can’t see how -> frustration -> avoidance or mental cycling or both. By taking a moment (for GTD when processing incoming items; for listmaking as you break down the task that has you cycling) to plan the next action, you ensure each item on your TODO-list has an obvious way forward, which removes one source of psychological distress.

                        Nota bene (quoted from hamberg.no’s GTD summary):

                        The next action needs to be a physical and visible action. In other words, not “plan cake lottery”, but “e-mail Arthur and Camille and remind them to bake their cakes”.

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                          I’ve found routine to be really important. Wake up, use restroom, shower, brush teeth, is the complete checklist for “I am an awake and functioning human being”. If I don’t do those things in that order, I will feel “off” all day even with eight hours of sleep. If I do them in order, I can be fine (if somewhat groggy and fatigued) with as little as three hours sleep.

                          Having a few fixed social activities and chore days during the week to look forward to also helps. Dinner with friends Monday, Pathfinder game Thursday, movie night with friends Friday, laundry and household errands Sunday. This helps add a bit of motivation when a given day just isn’t going very well to power through and do something.

                          As for daily time management, I don’t really care. If a project is interesting, I’ll bang on it for as many hours as I can justify and usually make great progress. If it’s for work, the work gets done as it gets done, modulo things on fire in prod or shifting business priorities. My general view of people that try to schedule every waking moment is neatly summed up by this excerpt from Red Dwarf.

                          One thing that others here have mentioned that helps me a great deal is creating short lists (not schedules, as our dear Mr. Rimmer discovered) of things to do to make sure that I don’t forget something. I usually re-evaluate that list as time goes on, and pluck things out at random (again, modulo task dependencies) to work on. More detailed planning is time better spent doing the thing.

                          I often find that detailed planning is fake work, giving the sense of accomplishment without any of difficulty of actually solving problems that we subconciously find loathesome or intimidating. By my reasoning, if I’m going to go do not-work, there are more interesting ways of doing it than fiddling with a timetable or to-do list.

                          Towards that end, when I decide to stop working, I stop working. I try to put the thing down and out of my mind, and go do completely unrelated or frivolous things (cleaning, dog walking, naps, IRC, gaming) and recharge. Part of the reason I believe many people have trouble being productive is that they’re never truly unproductive–e.g., they never get the full recharge of just fucking off and doing something else, and instead ruin that time by dressing it up to appear to others (or themselves) as work.

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                            Instead of answers, I’ll pose some questions:

                            • What are you looking to accomplish? How would you get there? Can you project this into the near (3mos) and farther (~3yrs) future?
                            • What makes you feel in the zone?
                            • What drives you to procrastinate? What do your methods of procrastination offer you?
                            • What do you that is restful? This is not the same as being entertained.

                            You can reply with answers if you want, or just contemplate these as you see fit. The reason I posed questions is I suspect habits of productivity are extremely idiosyncratic and a yak shave in and of themselves (albeit, a worthwhile one)!

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                              I mentioned the Getting Things Done system in this comment (https://lobste.rs/s/jkmwer/what_are_you_working_on_this_week#c_ylb3cs). I’ve only just started doing this myself, so I can’t speak for its long-term efficacy, but having one central list that I can consult of everything that I thought I might want to do, that I can go to whenever I want to work on something, has already proven useful at getting me to use my time more efficiently. My specific strategy for keeping track of the Getting Things Done lists right now is just having several text files on a server that I have pretty reliable ssh access to, and writing them with an ordinary text editor.

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                                I work out of my diary/calendar: I block off time for each thing I want to do in a day, whether it is “do email” or “add email link feature” or “debug 💩”

                                This forces me to estimate how much time something takes in real-time, rather than some idealised “productive time” – some tasks take 30 minutes in the morning but 3 hours in the afternoon just because of what i was doing right before the task, and to prioritise things that I want to do next to other things that I want to do. Real-time helps keep me honest.

                                I do my meetings at the end of the day. Sometimes I have so many meetings they start at 11am! I don’t get much programming done those days, but meetings are important too!

                                I typically turn my wifi off while I’m programming. This is because most of my programming is on a plane or the underground train, but this also keeps me thinking about the problem rather than thinking about solutions. It’s very easy to ask google things and accidentally see someone else’s code/solution. Mine is usually faster, but I’m also very lazy so if having me program is important I want to make sure I’m doing my best work. Plus there’s a risk I’ll get email or a calendar invite.

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                                  I got a research notebook and am spending more time away from computers, either outdoors (weather permitting) or in the library (with physical books and journals). It’s been good. Obviously for only one kind of productivity, though; you’re not going to write code very fast this way.

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                                    Think of something you’re terrible at and tackle it head on. Look for the awesome list for it on GitHub (search for “awesome ”). Look up YouTube videos. Read research papers. Study. Study. Study. Ask questions. Stupid questions. Seek a community to participate in for it.

                                    Once you’ve mastered your weaknesses, your baseline will be much higher.

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                                      Most of the time if I’m being unproductive it’s because I don’t know what my next steps should be. I’ve worked myself either into a corner or got to a point where I can go multiple different ways and my programmer brain becomes indecisive. First step is to recognise that that’s what you’re doing. After a while it becomes easier to recognise that you’re stalling making a decision, then write down or create a list of tasks to get you going again, usually I’ll create a sub list of easy fix jobs to get some small wins and that will get me at pace again.

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                                        professional life:

                                        when i have only one or two tasks to do, i tend not to have an issue working in an uninterrupted train of thought. I’m a terrible multi-tasker, and some days microtasks just pile in from all over the place at work… i start thrashing. My solution has been to have daily to-do lists for days where this happens with all the high-level things i have to do, even if they’re a duplicate of stuff on the team’s kanban board or whatever.

                                        If a sales/support/marketing/etc person comes in and asks me to check something real quick, I’ll add a todo note and get back to them later in the day or whenever I’m waiting for something like a deploy or whatnot.

                                        Whatever’s not done at the end of the day - which I rarely allow (usually happens if it’s a collection of small tasks with one or two of the big stuff i was supposed to do that day) - I’ll roll the tasks over to a new to-do list on the next day… that way i’m also extremely aware of what’s NOT getting done. If this rollover happens too often I may reconsider the task that was at hand and talk to my team lead or whatnot about it taking too long to see what we can do.

                                        personal life:

                                        leave tabs open to bother you to action and have high-level “forever running todo” list that you can look at when you find yourself slacking and want to do something.

                                        edit: the point is, as many others have pointed out: catch yourself not paying attention and make an effort to work on what you’re supposed to. For me having some prioritised-ish list as a source of truth helps me when i’m ‘wandering’

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                                          I’ve tried a bunch of stuff, some things stick for longer than others. I find that at the core, a short list of specific next steps works best for me. I don’t hold to a particular order, and I don’t accrue tasks that I’m going to avoid anyway.

                                          Right now I’m tracking this with a flat text file that I format something like:

                                          [plan YYYY-MM-DD]
                                          do w
                                          - do x
                                          + do y
                                          * do z
                                          

                                          one task per line. if the line starts with ‘-’, it’s not getting done. if the line starts with ‘+’ I didn’t do it that day, but it is done. And if a line starts with ‘*’ the task is done.

                                          every so often I’ll go and delete old days and get rid of any tasks that I’ve avoided – possibly breaking the task into a smaller next-step action if it’s something that I do actually need to get done.

                                          that’s for when I’m sitting in front of a computer and able to use it effectively. I’ve found that I hate syncing those tasks with some sort of mobile app or task book because they often have different contexts anyway and are just clutter when I’m mobile or away from the computer.

                                          SO if I find myself with a day off that I want to be productive on, I simply write down a list of things I want to do on a piece of paper or in a note app on my phone, then pick and choose to get those things done as I can. I don’t beat myself up if I don’t complete the list, and just throw it away at the end of the day.

                                          Fundamentally, the list, whether on my computer or on a piece of paper, is just a reminder for things that I need to do when my brain can’t remember all the things it thought of.

                                          If the thing is time sensitive, I’ll put it in a calendar app and set reminders.

                                          I guess another aspect of what I’ve discovered about myself is that searching for a perfect solution that can be universally used everywhere and tracks everything is a futile effort that doesn’t accomplish anything but wasting time for me. An app, a system, a special tool, this technique, that technique – all of it doesn’t produce the motivation to do anything in and of itself.

                                          I produce the motivation and the productivity, the list is just how I help myself remember what to do.