Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Website Review:
Boosting Productivity

By Erin Hartshorn
2005,
Erin Hartshorn


(All links also listed at the end of the article)

I do not think I am alone in the struggle to make effective use of my time. I have noticed that productivity is a recurring subject for writers. Rather than a single Website, this review is a round-up of sites with tips and advice that may be helpful to writers or anyone else who works at home. I love blogs, and so many of these references are to blog entries.

First, some background. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine focused on interruption science -- studying how often interruptions happen and when they best fit into the workflow. The office workers in one study were interrupted on average every 11 minutes.  After each interruption, it would take 25 minutes to return to a given task.

The culprits include:

* Our own need to feel connected to the outside world, represented by phone calls, instant messages, and e-mails

* Treating all interruptions as equally important

* The small space available on a computer screen, which leads to many layered windows and a given task disappearing from sight and short-term memory

* What point within a task we are interrupted (later in the task leads to less disruption)

The complete story is available at here.

When you work at home, it is just as easy to become distracted as it is in an office environment. Co-workers may not be stopping by to chat or ask your opinion on a file, but home has its own distractions: laundry, dirty dishes, pets, mail, phone calls, gardening, TV, and errands as well as e-mail, Web surfing, computer games, and all the distractions inherent to the computer and Internet. D. Keith Robinson uses his blog, To-Done, to share tips and processes for productivity and organization. Two good archived posts include tips on working from home that were submitted by his readers here, and his own summary of tips here. These include things like sticking to a schedule, rewarding yourself for accomplishments, and having a weekly plan. One tip that recurs fairly frequently is to get dressed every day; do not work in your pajamas and bunny slippers. This particular tip is also embraced by FlyLady, a decluttering guru and recently was featured in a Romancing the Blog column by Shirley Jump. Another recent entry on To-Done was on prioritizing life and dumping goals and activities that are taking up too much time proportional to their importance. Blog address: http://to-done.com/ .

Productivity Websites have proliferated of late. Two other blogs are 43Folders and the Achieve-It goal-setting blog. 43Folders, by Merlin Mann, was named for the tickler file advocated by David Allen in Getting Things Done -- a system of folders that allows you to set something aside until a particular date in the future, the 43 folders being one for each of the 12 months in a year and 31 individual days in a month.  The blog hosts tools including a Wiki for "life hacks" and short (less than 3 minute) podcasts on such topics as a "to have done" list. Achieve-It has more variety in the blog than its goal-focused title indicates. In October, only a couple of Achieve-It posts actually focused on goals and productivity, but the blog does occasionally have links or tips that are worth checking out.  One such link, posted in mid-September, is to idea generation methods  A mid-August post titled "Disabling Your Distractibility,"  offers good time management tips. The site also serves as a vehicle for the sales of goal-setting software for the PocketPC, but those who are not interested can easily ignore the link.

A non-blog site is OnlineOrganizing.com. This site has everything from tips on organizing your bathroom to dealing with interruptions. I highly recommend checking out their Expert Advice tip sheets,  and scrolling down to "Making the Most of Your Time." Not every tip presented will be helpful to everyone. For example, I do not find time logs and excess scheduling fit very well with the way my mind works. I might keep a time log for a day or two, perhaps even a week, but eventually, it is just one more demand for my time, and so I abandon it.

The great thing about the wealth of ideas out there is that there is something that will help everyone. I find that the best method for me, advocated in many places (including as the productivity dash at  and the kick-start minimal work method) is a short, concentrated burst of work (usually followed by positive reinforcement). If I can focus on a given task for 20 minutes, not getting side-tracked by e-mail or the desire to see if any blogs have been updated, then I reward myself by surfing the Web, grabbing a snack, or taking the dog for a walk. I do not schedule what 20-minute period I will be working, but I have to focus myself completely during that time. I also do not plan how long my breaks are between 20-minute dashes. This means it may take me three hours to get an hour's worth of work done. However, the important thing is that it does get done; I do not arrive at the end of the day wondering why my to-do list is as long as it was at the beginning.

As with all blogs, the links to other related topics are very useful. The blogs I have mentioned have linked to the "not to-do" list, which is a list of distractions to avoid so the work can get done; also available is instructions on installing a new habit and thoughts on discovering work/life balance. While these entries were worth following, they have not turned me into devoted followers of the individual sites.

The not to-do list is primarily amusing. I am not a big fan of TV in the middle of the day (even if I could watch the latest Firefly episode recorded on our TiVo), and I am not likely to go looking for a nail clipper unless I tear a nail on the keyboard. There are some items that I do let interrupt me, however, like washing the dishes. I find a messy kitchen distracts me and prevents me from focusing, so taking a half an hour to make sure it is clean is a good trade-off for me. I also know that it is not going to be the first step in a binge-cleaning marathon. If binge cleaning is one of your weaknesses, you might do well to avoid starting that process.

The habit article mentioned above discusses what a habit is, why we would want to establish one, and how to motivate ourselves to repeat an action. It is a useful article, but falls short of the promise of its title: "Installing a new habit and breaking an old one." (Check here  for a discussion of why bad habits are hard to break.)

The blog entry on work/life balance is less able to generalize. It discusses one person's recognition that his time was out of balance and some of the areas he focused on to return to balance. It might serve as a starting point in thinking about your own use of time, but it is not a tool unto itself to promote productivity.

For focus specifically on productivity and writing, some writers' blogs have excellent posts. Sheila Kelly (a.k.a. Lynn Viehl, S. L. Viehl, Rebecca Kelly, Jessica Hall, and Gena Hale) has had some excellent posts at her Paperback Writer blog about how she writes so much. One clue in her Way of the Cheetah post is the time stamp -- 4:13 a.m. "Write without stopping" is another tip, akin to the productivity dash, where she advocates writing without stopping to reread or edit what you have written. Her follow-up post, Cheetah I, talks about the value of finding your personal rhythm and seeking the time when you are most likely to write "in the zone." These two pages are her discussion of how she writes 10,000 words a day -- the equivalent of a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) every week (not counting weekends). That is productivity we can aspire to.

As writers, we want to make the most of our writing time whether it is snatched in the morning before our families awaken, sneaked in between dealing with customers at work, or given to us as a full day at home alone. The single most recommended method for writers to be productive is "butt in chair" (sometimes followed by "hands on keyboard"). In other words, once we have managed to use all these other techniques to overcome our procrastination, we sit and write. (Or if we feel like imitating Lewis Carroll or Ernest Hemingway, we stand and write. It is a trifle less sedentary.) So we schedule our time, we promise ourselves 20 minutes of nothing but writing, or we reward ourselves with dark chocolate when we finish the scene. We write.

So go check out these sites. Find the tips that you need to make yourself more productive. Remind yourself how to create a new habit -- whether it is getting up at 4 a.m. to write or taking a couple hours each day to edit what you have already written. And then sit down and write. Now, if you will excuse me, I have some short stories that need editing.

Mentioned Websites:

Study of office worker interruptions:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/16/magazine/16guru.html

D. Keith Robinson's productivity tips from http://to-done.com/

http://www.to-done.com/2005/08/tips-for-being-productive-working-at-home/#comments

http://www.to-done.com/2005/08/how-to-be-productive-working-from-home/

FlyLady's decluttering techniques:

http://www.flylady.net

Romancing the Blog entries on productivity:

Shirley Jump -- http://www.romancingtheblog.com/blog/?p=397

Merlin Mann's site, 43Folders:

The productivity dash -- http://www.43folders.com/2005/09/08/kick-procrastinations-ass-run-a-dash/

Kick-start minimal work method -- http://www.self-aggrandizement.com/archives/011705_kick_start.html

Achieve-It

Disabling Your Distractibility -- http://goalsuccess.typepad.com/goaltips/2005/08/disabling_your_.html

Idea generation methods:

http://www.ideagenerationmethods.com/

OnlineOrganizing.com speaks of organization techniques:

http://www.onlineorganizing.com/ExpertAdviceToolbox.asp

"Not to-do" list:

http://www.52projects.com/52_projects/2005/09/a_nottodo_list.html

Stephanie Burns on installing a new habit:

http://www.stephanieburns.com/articles/article06_habit.asp

Discovering work/life balance:

http://www.feld.com/blog/archives/2005/07/discovering_wor.html

Why breaking habits is difficult:

http://news.com.com/MIT+explains+why+bad+habits+are+hard+to+break/2100-11395_3-5902850.html?part=rss&tag=5902850&subj=news

Sheila Kelly on her work habits:

Way of Cheetah -- http://pbackwriter.blogspot.com/2004/11/way-of-cheetah.html

Cheetah I -- http://pbackwriter.blogspot.com/2005/10/cheetah-i.html

NaNoWriMo: http://www.nanowrimo.org/index.php

Bibliography:

"Meet the Life Hackers" by Clive Thompson in New York Times Magazine

October 16, 2005

Getting Things Done by David Allen

Penguin Books trade paperback

ISBN: 0-14-200028-0