productivity

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Several months ago I managed to grab some tickets to Ignite Boise 2 from a friend. It was the most fun I've had watching a live performance in a while. Half of it was the fast-paced, multi-faceted topics and presenters, and the other half was a jam-packed room full of slightly inebriated, vocal participants. It felt like there was no third wall, and that it was more of a sport than a sit-on-your-hands-and-listen gig. So, as my family eagerly awaits the availability of tickets (attendance is free, but you can get tickets to get in early), I decided to go ahead and submit a talk for Ignite Boise 3 in November. I've been on this planet for a while now, and I've gathered enough interesting techniques for getting the most out of living to fill a 5-minute slot.

Life is short, we should be spending more of it doing what makes us happy!

And this talk will summarize just about everything I've learned about how to do just that. In Extreme Productivity, I hope to introduce the uninitiated into a slew of techniques for increasing enthusiasm (the very core of productive living), outline a mindset that attracts opportunity, and lay down some principles - many backed by scientific research - that will help you get more done in the limited waking hours of our life (and maybe even the non-waking ones!). Here's the one-minute bullet-pointed run down of some of the topics I'll be covering:

  • How to fit more in your head without a lobotomy
  • Increase your waking
  • How to make work suck way less
  • The myth of multi-tasking
  • Introducing multi-purposing
  • The body is a truffle - How to use your body to please your mind
  • How the people around you affect your attitude (and how you can affect their affect on you)



I've been on a T-shirt designing kick lately, and put together a simple design for an upcoming talk I might be doing at the next Ignite Boise on Extreme Productivity. In the process of designing the shirt, I wasn't able to find a GPL / Creative Commons licensed flow chart of a GTD-inspired process, so I downloaded OmniGraffle and put together my first flow chart ever! I've packaged up the files (black and white and color versions, both OmniGraffle and a transparent high-resolution PNGs) which you can download below, licensed as Creative Commons.

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I keep running into people who lead more interesting lives than I do. I realize that this is just an elaborate illusion concocted by my mind in an effort to create a useful mental model of another human being who is way to complex too comprehend, but it still gets me down sometimes.

I'm a naturally optimistic person, and there's gears that start spinning whenever I repeatedly run into a source of emotional drainage. Experience has indicated that there's truth to be uncovered in most pain, and that once the truth is found, the pain dissipates to reveal some kind of rich experience.

So, a while back I started thinking about what kind of rich experience envy would leave behind if one found it's real source. I started digging, and found that I could trace envy to very particular things. At different times I've envied genius programmers, beautiful artists, and eloquent speakers. Identifying these qualities is EXTREMELY valuable, because it generates a list of stuff you want to be. I've sat down many a time and tried to make this kind of list off the top of my head, and it's really hard to do. I've also drawn the conclusion that this is a common problem because I know a number of people who are not very satisfied with their current life, but if you ask them what they want instead they can't tell you.

So, experiencing envy gives you some serious clues as to what you might want. The next step is weeding out the parts that only sound good if you don't think about them too much. Consider rock stardom. Sure, all the middle school girls love you, but would you enjoy travelling 8 months out of the year, sacrificing your relationships, practicing hours every day, and playing the same songs over and over to audiences who hate all your new stuff? Knocking down these fuzzy, badly articulated dreams minimizes a lot of the pain associated with envy. What's left is a list of qualities that you genuinely desire.

So, say by doing this sorting we've reduced the pain of envy by about 50%. Dealing with the last 50% requires a little meditation and one very useful piece of information.

Some of the items on your list (like rock stardom for most people) are relatively easy to dismiss. The remaining items require careful weighing of the positives and negatives. The more clear these become, the more you realize how many options you have. We all have lots of options open to us, but most of the time none of it sounds doable or attractive enough to stop what we're doing and switch gears. But if you give it a little thought, they become more tangible. Vacations or camping trips are great for this kind of meditation, I've found.

The bit of information one needs to fully appreciate the qualities one envies in others, and to understand their cost, is the law of 10,000 hours to mastery. Research has shown that for someone to become a master at something, they almost always have to spend 10,000 hours (3 hours a day for 10 years) practicing it. This law holds for Bill Gates and the Beetles. The example that stuck in my mind was that the Beetles performed over a thousand times before that really got the recognition we remember. That's more performances than most bands have in their entire careers. So, when you see a quality in someone else that you want, think about the time it took to obtain that quality. Then, consider what qualities or skills you've been cultivating over the years. Invariably you will have something valuable that the person you envy does not. For me, this completes the deflation of envy. Instead of thinking about the qualities I don't have, I've instead fostered a sense of respect for the work that someone else has dedicated to develop their qualities, as well as recognized what unique qualities I have, and - very important - what qualities I wish to acquire.

I think you can ride this wave of clarity a little further. Now that you know what you want, and you don't have negative feelings associated with your own qualities or the qualities you seek, it's a perfect time to make some decisions about what to do next. Developing skills and qualities takes time, so what do you want to work on? Coming to a decision on this then helps you take advantage of opportunities to develop these.

In my own case, this lead me to leave my job and seek work in a very particular area. I'm now willing to turn down lucrative opportunities for ones that will help me develop the skills and qualities I desire. Being so purposeful means that every time an opportunity presents itself, I have to reflect on how the opportunity might or might not aid in the fulfillment of my goals, which further articulates and evolves them.

This perhaps complex train of thought begins with simple envy. Envy is useful because it's an instinctual - and thus reliable - reaction. I'd encourage anyone who experiences bouts of it to try riding it for a bit and turn it into something positive. And let me know if it works for you too!



At DrupalCamp Colorado, Stephanie Pakrul and Jay Wolf spoke about the new module Skinr and how it relates to Panels for theming, and I left the session with a few pleasant goosebumps. For the uninitiated - as I was - Skinr is a module sponsored by Gravitek Labs which allows themes to expose style presets to blocks. The upshot is that once you create a nice style, you can allow users to apply the styles to virtually any area of a page with a couple clicks. This effectively incorporates several principles that have up until this point been applicable mostly to modules, like reuse of code, config-based changes and ... well ... general modularity. I could immediately see that this was an idea with really big potential. Even in its infancy, the Skinr module can do some pretty neat stuff.

Along these lines, Top Notch Themes did a pre-release of their new Fusion theme which incorporates Skinr functionality. The folks at TNT have really been quite genius with their positioning of the Fusion theme, and I think they have really wrapped their minds around where theming is headed over the next couple of years. Their base message is that Fusion is the only theme you'll ever need - a tall order for any one theme, and an interesting proposition. The theme is grid-based and comes in fluid or fixed 960 variety, and a plethora of styles are made available through Skinr for layout and look and feel.

The main purpose of the Fusion base theme, however, is not to provide a look and feel, but rather to supply a solid foundation for sub-themes and - get this - pluggable, extensible style packs (my term). So, instead of having to cut and paste stylesheets and images from one theme to another, instead you paste these style packs in. I really like this idea. Fusion will ship - I believe - with an example sub-theme that looks pretty decent out of the box. Fusion also exposes some nice configuration options you don't see in a lot of themes, like font settings and setting the default text in several areas of the site.

Fusion will be released into Drupal contrib, and then TNT will be selling sub-themes on their site. The fact that they will be moving their themes to Fusion says something really important about Skinr and Fusion. If a leading Drupal company that needs the support of the community to survive is throwing their weight behind these technologies, it's a good indication that it's something to watch very carefully.

I think the move to create a one-size-fits-all, highly modular theme is inevitable, and comes at an excellent time considering how important it is to the Drupal community to attract more designers and themers. I also think it's a daunting task that can be accelerated if there is a model to drive the development commercially, alongside community development, so I appreciate TNT's and Gravitek's roles in this venture. The ability to create 'style packs' (again, my term), is another way that themers can contribute, and Fusion / Skinr will allow designers to do an awful lot of design without worrying about theming. That's pretty powerful stuff.

I'm really looking forward to seeing how this moves forward. TNT and Gravitek have their work cut out for them, but I hope that quickly it will become a minor movement to change the way we look at theming from here on out.



I like earbuds because they're so compact, but they're kind of annoying to stuff into your pocket. They invariably get tangled, and they often get bent in funky ways, especially if you wrap them around something. I scoured the web looking for some good cases, and didn't really find anything that would fit nicely in my pocket. There are lots of tutorials online for building your own, but after experimenting with a couple Altoids tins I trashed the idea.

Later, in a wave of pure inspiration (probably induced by a sugar binge), I discovered the perfect receptacle: a pill bottle. Below is a picture with instructions. These work perfect for the newest iPhone earbuds without the permanent disfigurement that comes with wrapping wire incorrectly.

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Instructions:

  1. Fold earbuds in half
  2. Fold in half again
  3. Fold in half again
  4. Fold in half one more time
  5. Slip into pill bottle, you shouldn't need to bend anything to get it to fit, though the twisting motion of putting on the lid will help spin any extraneous bits down into the bottle.


My pockets are sacred spaces, but it's taken me a while to give them the gravity they deserve. I've been on this planet nearly 30 years, most of it with pockets. I've lost favorite pants to exploded pens and gum in the washer. I've thrown out important phone numbers and shopping lists with receipts, have reacted strongly to this loss and thus began a regimen of throwing out nothing that was once in my pockets. Over time it has become clear that the pocket is a powerful repository of tools and information, not to be taken lightly.

Like many people, I appreciate the value of being prepared for anything, anytime, with as little on my person as humanly possible. The pockets are a great place to practice this minimalism because there is limited space which varies from pants to pants.

I've established a collection that I'm proud of. It works with all my pants, and I can't strip it down any further without sacrificing a significant utility. For the sake of sharing, here it is, in (1 minute) video and textual format (see here for tagged image).

The stuff:

Wallet with the following:

  • 10 or so business cards
  • 4 blank business cards (for note taking or getting someone's info that forgot their cards)
  • 7 other cards (drivers license, credit card, personal debit, business debit, dental insurance, health insurance, AAA)
  • Floss (shaped like a business card, contains a couple dozen yards of floss for emergencies, ask your dentist!)
  • 2 blank checks
  • House key (for going on walks, and occasionally useful in other situations)

$20 virgin mobile phone - I use this to set vibrate reminders throughout the day for timely stuff (like diaper changing)

iPod touch with the following utilities:

  • Calendar
  • OmniFocus and Evernote (for capturing ideas and journaling)
  • Shopping list app (called ShopShop)
  • Stopwatch (for jogs)
  • A few party games like Catchphrase, Scrabble
  • Photos for showing off fat baby
  • Skype (for tracking work conversations while making lunch, mostly)
  • Music utilities (4-track recorder, metronome, chord chart)
  • Twitterific (for emergency tweeting)
  • Several mp3 books (played when exercising)
  • White noise makers (White noise and Ambiance, for putting the baby to sleep on occasion. Yes, it works!)
  • Dictionary (mostly for looking up words on mp3 books)

Occasionals:

  • Space pen (fits in the wallet, but makes it difficult to get to cards. I lost mine and haven't replaced it yet)
  • Point-and-shoot camera
  • Ear-bud headphones in pill case

Some interesting links regarding people's pockets:

http://www.flickr.com/groups/62886501@N00/pool/ - Flickr "What's in your pocket" grouphttp://www.faceyourpockets.com/index1.html - "Face your pockets" - a collection of scans of people's pockets and faces. Really neat, pretty pictures.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/stompeers/3580633580/ - My tagged Flickr photo



After getting familiar with the GTD (Getting Things Done) ethos a couple years back, I've spent a disturbing amount of time cobbling together systems for capturing, processing and taking action on my stuff. It hurts to think about all the dead end trails, the false starts and the straw men that kept me from fully embracing a system to free up my head once and for all. A huge part of my problem was committing to a system long enough to figure out if it worked. I've been working off of my current system for a couple months now, and feel more confident with it every day, so I feel like I can document it online without inadvertently sending someone else down a frustrating path.

Capturing ideas

I use a few technologies to capture ideas, depending on what I want to do with it.

Ideas the require action = OmniFocus

I've given several GTD programs test drives, and I end up coming back to OmniFocus. After reading many positive reviews on Things, I tried moved everything over to it and tried it for a few weeks. But it just didn't work with the way I think. I think it projects and sub-projects, which is how you structure OmniFocus. Things relies on tagging, which is a simple concept but doesn't map well to my mind. It was also difficult to get the perspectives I wanted on my actions.

I also use OmniFocus on my iPod touch to capture an action when I'm away from my computer.

Ideas that I can flesh out right now = Evernote

In the past, I've used hierarchical lists or individual text files for this. The problem with that is that I have to think about what to name the files and where they should go, or I get one huge file that seems a unwieldy really fast. I tried OmniOutliner for w while for this, and it worked reasonably well, but I ended up spending way to much time structuring it. Evernote lets me start fleshing something out immediately, and I don't think about where it should belong, since the search works so fast. Since it's got some rich text, I can still do some hierarchical lists when I need to, or I can just stream-of-consciousness it.

Like OmniFocus, I use the iPhone version of Evernote when I'm out and about. For example, the other night I went out on a date with my wife and I kept running into little things I wanted to remember. I kept a new note open in Evernote and jotted things down with my one hand. Call me corny, but the iPod touch is perfect because you don't have to kill the mood by withdrawing your hand from your significant other's to take a note.

Stuff that might be useful or entertaining to someone else = Ecto and Twitter

If the item I want to share is quick, I tweet it. If it's going to take some time, I create a placeholder for a blog entry in Ecto. If I have time, I might write the entry immediately, but if I want to put a pin in it for later I'll just add a descriptive title and maybe a little brain-dump for the text. This blog entry is an example of one of those.

Working out stuff on the inside = Journal.txt

While it isn't often mentioned in the genre of productivity, I think it's worth mentioning that sometimes there are things that you need to think through, things that are bugging you and getting in the way of doing what you really want to do but that are also really hard to put a finger on. I find the best way to work this stuff out is to just start writing, stream-of-consciousness style. I've got a text file so I don't even have to think about formatting, and I just start typing. Without fail, a session with journal.txt leaves me more free and ultimately more productive.

Deciding what to do next

After capturing, the next part of GTD is about deciding what to do and doing it. The idea is that you should be able to re-evaluate your actions on a regular basis so you don't end up wasting time on stuff that doesn't get you closer to where you want to be, and that this evaluation process should be painless, even pleasurable.

Evaluation = OmniFocus

The first thing I will normally do switch to OmniFocus, and review my next actions. I have a list of daily activities which trigger stuff like clearing my e-mail, checking my calendar, petting the cat, that kind of thing. As I go through the process, I might flag certain actions or arrange their due dates to accurately reflect what I want to do.

Execution = OmniFocus or Evernote

The most important part of an effective day for me is having a list of prioritized actions to work from. It allows me to stay focused on stuff instead of continually re-evaluating what I should do next. I'll create this list either by flagging items in OmniFocus, or by creating a bulleted list in Evernote. If I need to think through my priorities, I'll do a stream-of-consciousness on Evernote.

Execution of time-sensitive stuff = Cell phone

My $20 cell phone is the most reliable method for reminders because it's always in my pocket and it works on vibrate mode, so it will alert me even in loud areas. When I add something to my calendar I need to be reminded of, I'll also add an entry to my cell phone. Knowing I have a fail-safe method for timely reminders does a lot for my mental well-being, and it's worth the double-entry.



Having worked on a treadmill desk for the last year, I can safely say that it has been the best move I've probably ever made in improving my productivity and overall happiness at work. Because it's had such a tremendous impact on my life, I'm pretty evangelical about it and have been looking forward to writing this blog post for many months.

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My treadmill desk. Not super pretty, but highly functional

I really don't like sitting down all day. I slouch like any other programmer (exceptions noted) and can feel my spine ossifying into the twisted curved shape it takes as I hunch over the keyboard in my 'ergonomic' chair. My arms start sticking to the desk and my lunch rebels at the lack of motion. More than any of this, regardless of how I'd like the world to work, there's something about being stuck in one position for hours that really lets physical stress build up, and that physical stress starts to seep into the mind and really cramps up productivity.

A few years ago I started exploring ways to keep my mind fresh through what I learned later to call 'passive exercise'. My first attempt at adding said activity into my workflow was a miniature stair stepping machine that fit under the desk. As is classically said of chewing gum and walking, I found I could either code or step, but not do both, so it got the boot after a week or so. I also considered getting an under-the-desk exercise bike, but after discovering my multi-tasking limitations, I figured it would be a waste of a hundred bucks.

I let the problem sit for a while (so to speak), and realized that what I really needed was a standing desk. I mean, I should be able to *stand* and work at the same time, right? And apparently when you stand you burn like 50% more calories. If I remember correctly, a search on google lead me to the Lifehacker Coolest workspace contest, where I saw several examples of treadmill desks and it struck me that something like that might work really well. I often take walks to stimulate thought, and thought that maybe if I could code and walk at the same time, I'd be a lot more creative.

I did some research, and found that treadmill desks had been being used for quite some time - even in offices by people in suits. If guys in suits can do it, so can a guy in cargo shorts and a t-shirt. Here's an interview with the guy that might be the inventor of the treadmill desk on Good Morning America, with some good clips from office environments.

I found that there's even a company that sells shiny new "Walkstations" to the tune of $4,499. After a year of having a treadmill desk, I have to say that it would have been worth coughing up five grand for. But luckily, I got some good ideas off of some wiley spendthrifts on the web and started scouring Craigslist for cheap treadmills with horizontal handles. Within a week, I found one for $75, talked it down to $50, and brought it home. Here's what I did to construct mine:

  1. Lugged the treadmill to my office - by far the hardest part since my office is upstairs
  2. Cleaned off a cheap Walmart bookshelf (something like this) and faced it towards the end of the treadmill
  3. Took off a couple of the shelves and taped them onto the handles, using empty cd cases as spacers to get it to the right height
  4. Eventually I took off some hardware from the bottom of the treadmill because I kept hitting my head on the low ceiling.
  5. Put my laptop on the top shelf of the bookshelf
  6. Put my keyboard on the shelf taped to the handlebars

I would say that this $100 or so was my single greatest financial investment of my last year. It's had a tremendous impact on how I feel about my work, and especially how I feel after work, when I'm hanging out with my wife and baby.

Whenever I mention the my treadmill desk to someone who hasn't heard of them before, I get a pat series of questions:

Q: Do you run?

A: I've tried, but without much success. Normally, I walk from between .7 to 1.5 miles an hour. Dr. James Levine (the guy in the Good Morning America) suggests .7, and that's pretty slow. I like a little faster because it makes it feel a little more like exercise.

Q: Isn't it hard to use a computer when you're walking?

A: It's actually surprisingly easy, especially at slower speeds. At about 2mph using the mouse gets more difficult, but I can use Photoshop and Illustrator at 1.5mph just fine.

Q: How much time do you spend walking?

A: I walk about 3 hours a day. Some days I'm a little friskier and work all day on the treadmill.

If you've gotten this far, maybe you're actually thinking about taking the next step (ha ha). I highly, highly recommend it! Here's a few tips I've aggregated after a year of active use:

  • If you have an older treadmill, you might need some lube. I ended up applying this too liberally, and it leaked onto the wheel running the belt, causing the belt to slip if I caused too much friction with my step. I had to wipe the lube off the wheel to get it running right, and still have to do this on occasion.
  • Listening to music and dance-walking is surprisingly fun, just make sure you're in a private office and the windows are obscured in some fashion. Note that you can vary the speed of the treadmill so you can walk to the beat. :)
  • Don't walk without shoes - it will kill you after a week
  • If you have low ceilings, don't have curly hair, otherwise you will have an amazing - but oddly unattractive - 'fro at the end of the day.


When I was considering purchasing a mac and ending (or rather, reducing) Microsoft's reign of terror in my life, I was told my multiple sources that one of the productivity boons of macs is that you never have to restart them due to memory getting eaten up by invisible gnomes in your chassis. The truth is that OSX definitely appears to do a better job, but it seems to leave memory scraps behind, just like windows.

I shelled out twenty bucks the other day for a little app called iFreeMem, which will - on demand - run through your ram and clean out any cruft, leaving you with a bigger green slice in that memory pie. I use it several times a day, and it seems to work really well even though I keep wondering if maybe the program just overrides the graphical display in activity monitor and makes you think you have more than you do.

iFreeMem also adds a nice little menubar icon that shows a monochrome pie-chart display of current memory usage. I find myself glancing up there when I'm using a bunch of programs at once to make sure I'm not going to be surprised by a spinning beach ball of death anytime soon.



Evernote is one of those applications that have subtly changed my life forever. I've become much better at capturing idea and thoughts since grabbing it a couple months ago. It's just so much easier to create a new item than a whole text file you have to name and find a place for. It's fast, searchable, and I have a lot more to say about it, but I'll wait for future blog posts.

One of Evernote's stellar features is the ability to upload photographs, and Evernote will run them through an OCR and will include the images in its search. Through this, I found out that there are hidden words everywhere. When doing a search for "IRA", I found the hidden acronym on my face, my hair and another on my sweater. Oh. My. God. What else is written on my face that I don't know about?

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