Notes with Checkboxes – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

Ah, the humble checkbox. How ticking you fills me with joy, a sense of completion, a small bit of the chaos locked away.

Or at least, that’s how I’ve heard some people describe them.

No, I’m not really going to wax poetic on the nature of notetaking apps, but I am going to talk about one of the easiest tools to use to get started on improving personal productivity if you’ve never used anything in the past: the checkbox or list.

How to Use

To me, list making seems a nearly universal approach to remembering to do something, a way to have a plan (albiet a very simple one) to deal with something we must do. We use lists for grocery trips, chores, errannds, packing, and just about anything we want to quickly jot down to do later. But lists on paper and checkboxes within digital notetaking apps (like Evernot, Google Keep, and OneNote) can be extremely powerful. I find I use them all the time, even within other productivity systems because of how useful they can be. 

At the simplest, grab a sheet of paper and list out all the things you want to do. You don’t even have to separate them into categories. Put your oil change right after your character motivation you just realized you needed to add to your current scene. 

Using them within a dedicated environment can be even more powereful. Some entire systems are built around them – Bullet Journals,  HipsterPDA, Todoist, TickTick, Wunderlist, AnyDo. Even the prioritized daily task list that was part of the Franklin Day Planner system I mentioned in the first article of this series is just a list of things to be checked off during the day.

Of course, things might start to get a little jumbled after a while so a strategy is useful in applying this to your fiction writing. And that’s the big problem with them – lists can spiral out of control. Often, when you start listing out everything you need to do, you get overwhelmed by actually seeing HOW MUCH you have to do. And then you can’t find the item you need or it doesn’t remind you to do it at the appropriate time.

So, how do I use them?

My Usage in Writing Fiction

Lists and checkboxes are a tool within the much larger system I have developed for myself (and that is the topic I’ll be talking through next time). I use them sparingly.

Inside my project management system, I will create lists of thing associated with that project and only that project. And I try to limit that to only specific tasks.

“Revise draft” is not an appropriate checklist item – too broad and too encompassing. “Revise scene for redundant emotional beats as part of 10% cut” is a lot more useful. It reminds me what specific task I should be doing in enough detail and focus to make sure I get that ONE thing done.

I use them for research to create a list of exact sources I want to review. My next book about rogue AIs and teenage girls getting caught up in a crime syndicate’s plans has a lot to do with pets, so I have a list of movies and books that feature the important relationship between owner and pet, alongside requirements to research neural networks and machine learning.

I have a list of exact topics for this blog post series. 

I have a list of buisness and personal branding changes I need to make with my website. 

For me, the biggest asset in list making is knowing the context of where that list would be useful and making sure that the list surfaces when I need to work on that topic. I make sure I am checking my system for these things on a weekly basis to ensure I’m getting things back into my head that need my focus now.

Applications and Apps

I already listed out several applications and apps above, but without giving any opinion on them. Mostly that’s because each of the apps has a devout following and I have found they all have things that make them good fits and bad fits for me. Most of them become their own systems if you use them long enough. Also, fair warning, I don’t use a MacOS or iOS device, so there’s likely a whole bunch of appse out there that I’m not aware of, so take the below with that in mind.

If you prefer living in a paper and pen world, give Bullet Journaling a look. It doesn’t work for me, but the flexibility is very good. 

Digitally, I think Evernote is the most useful notetaking tool and it has some decent list making and reminder resources, though it can be overkill. 

For a simpler digital note system, Google Keep is very clean and ties in nicely with the Google environment if you are already a Gmail lover. 

And if you just want a digital checklist, I recommend TickTick as a starting point as it has all the features that you’d likely want in the free version.

Finale

How do you use lists in your current work? Do they help you or do you find them superfluous? 

Comment and engage below.

Don’t Break the Chain – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

I did say that I got a lot of my productivity tips while reading Lifehacker, right?

This technique goes back to 2007 I read the article there writing by developer Brad Isaac, where he related some some productivity advice he received from comedian Jerry Seinfeld. It’s a good read, and  I recommend it if you want to see another application of this technique.

But I’m going to talk about it a little differently. It’s called Don’t Break the Chain and I’ve seen it make several reappearances as people re-popularize it.

How to Use

Don’t Break the Chain is about setting up a routine that you repeat everyday, and the focus really is on EVERY DAY.

Here’s how it works. You take a year calendar, one with a whole year on a single page, and place it on the wall with a big red marker next to it. For each day that you complete your task (whatever that might be, though for Jerry, Brad, and myself, that’s writing), you put a big red X through that day. And once you’ve done this for a few days, you have a chain of day. And the goal is don’t break the chain. Don’t miss.

That’s it. The idea is that as the chain grows, the pressure of having all those days chained together pushes you through the days when you don’t want to do the task, even if the only reason for that day is just to prevent yourself from breaking the chain.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

Here’s where I get to reveal my deep, dark secret. I HATE this technique. I’ve tried several times to implement it over the 10 years since I first read about it and each time it was an abject, miserable failure that left me feeling worthless and useless with each attempt. So why share it with you?

Because it maybe the technique that works best for you.

The thing that I have loved most about learning about personal productivity is that it is, indeed, personal. Something that doesn’t work for me may be the best thing ever for you. And with time management, the changing times might make a once-failed technique into you most prized bit of knowledge.

Even though I don’t like this approach, I think you should know about it and try it for yourself.

So, I don’t use this technique at all in writing fiction. Or in any other facet of life.

Why Didn’t I Like It

For me, it became a metaphorical chain weighing me down – the constant nagging feeling that I was eventually going to screw up and break it became self-fulfilling prophecy. Children would get sick, work would go long, church obligations would rear up, friends would need help – inevitably something more important than my writing that one day would come up and I would end up breaking the chain.

I played with all sorts of “rules” that would still allow me to meet my goal while not actually getting anything done and that was where it really got to me.

If the chain became more important than the actual content of what I was producing, what good was the chain? Why bother keeping up a fake goal if I wasn’t actually making any progress on what I had set out to do.

In the time since trying it, I’ve learned that my particular style of work doesn’t benefit from having an outward scoring system. There are lots of new tools and apps out there which “gamify” life – giving points for making habits, dropping “life” if you screw up, leveling up with awards, etc. Turns out, those don’t make me want to do better in my actual daily life because they become too much to keep up with.

But maybe your life might benefit.

Applications and Apps

Because I haven’t been actively using it, I can’t say what phone or computer apps a would be useful for tracking a “Don’t Break the Chain” calendar if you wanted digital over paper. I know there is a website of that name that appears to let you track things over time, but I haven’t used it.

As for applications, I can think of tons. NaNoWriMo is a similar implementation of the same idea – though only over the course of 30 days. Write every day. That’s the basic idea.

Most habits are formed the same way – work on the item in question 30-60 days and eventually, a new habit will start to be formed.

Drafting, revision, character sketches, sending queries, pitching, personal branding and marketing, blogging – any of these could benefit from Don’t Break the Chain as a tool for encouraging work, to keep going through moments of lower motivation.

The other big way that something like Don’t Break the Chain can help is that by forcing yourself to work on something everyday, you clear away the low hanging fruit fast. It’s easy to keep reworking the same scene over and over if you only touch it once every two weeks because you’ve had all that time to think it over. But when you have to draft a new scene each day? You have to work smarter and develop better focus during the rest of the day so that your well is full when you sit down to create. That intentional focus, day after day, can be even more useful than the resultant product that you make.

Finale

So, am I wrong to hate Don’t Break the Chain? Have you used it or something similar? Do I need to take another look?

Also, I moving up my posting day for this series from Friday to Thursday. Let me know if you like the change.

I’d love to hear your comments.

How I Use the Pomodoro Technique® – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

At heart, Pomodoro® is nothing more than timed focus. But in a world filled with constant  distractions – from phone calls to notification to people randomly asking you stuff – being able to deeply focus on a task can feel like a superpower.
Like many of the techniques and tools I’ve been exposed to over the years, I first heard about the Pomodoro Technique® , created by Francesco Cirillo, through an article on Lifehacker. Follow the links for more info if you’d like more background.

(Disclaimer: Note that this blog post is not affiliated with, associated with, or endorsed by the Pomodoro Technique® or Francesco Cirillo and the Pomodoro Technique® is a registered trademark of Francesco Cirillo.)

How to Use

The Pomodoro Technique® is quite straightforward. At its most basic:

  • Choose a task on which to you’d like to make progress
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes
  • Work on that task for the 25 minutes without distraction, interruption, or breaks
  • Then repeat

There is definitely more to it than what I’ve described and if you’re interested in seeing how to use it in a more complete fashion, I recommend you can visit the creator’s site at https://cirillocompany.de/pages/pomodoro-technique.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

Where I really find the Pomodoro Technique® useful is in helping me remind myself that I have a superpower – the ability to focus deeply in a single task. When I find resistance cropping up in the form of tiredness, apathy, boredom, impostor syndrome, or whatever, this – more than almost anything else – gets me through it or past it to the creation on the other side.

If I’ve scheduled time to write, but the day has been buzzy and distracting, it can be hard to get traction to start creating. If I can’t get going on my own, out comes the timer and I try to do at least two rounds of Pomodoro®. Amazingly, once I get into the project again, the creative juices take over. This goes hand in hand with that other “mind trick” I use and Just Open the File. If I can just get started, the engine catches and I can keep it going.

The other scenario I find it helpful to use this technique is when I’ve run into a block. Something about knowing that if I can get some words down during one of these sprints gives me the confidences to break through to the other side.

Applications and Apps

All of the above applies to drafting prose for me particularly, and to editing and revision work.  Since I work in the realm of novels, that’s usually working on scenes or parts of scenes.

Consequently, I have also found that I can’t use it when I’m outlining or for other pre-writing activities. For those, once I get going I don’t want any artificial clock stopping me. Further, motivation isn’t an issue because a new project is by definition new and shiny. So less useful a technique in those cases.

As for apps, any timer is works. I’ve used Google’s built-in countdown timer (just do a search for those terms) and my watch timer. The original used a kitchen timer. Simplicity is a big part of why this technique works, so no need to overthink it. Get a timer, use it.

If you want to use an app for continuous sessions, I can also recommend the ClearFocus for Android. I like the layout, colors, and the way the app automates rest periods and longer bouts (stringing multiple sessions together over a couple of hours).

Who It Might Not Work For

If you deal with anxiety or if timed anythings set your teeth on edge, then the Pomodoro Technique® likely won’t make creating easier. I know a lot of people can’t stand the idea of creating to a clock; since that’s the whole point of this technique, it will likely not work for you.

Additionally, some types of creation just don’t fit well into 25 minute chunks, nor with the idea of deep focus. Some people can create just fine flitting from flower to flower in their garden of ideas. If you work 10 minutes on one scene, then 15 more on a character bio, then 5 minutes searching for a good inspirational background image, and then back to writing a scene, you might get annoyed when the timer goes “bing” right in the middle of your flow.

If you work in those kind of chunks, you could try it, but I really think 25 minutes is a nice sweet spot for getting deeply focused and then letting yourself have a break. If that isn’t how you work, you could modifying, but I’m not sure this style of technique would work.

Finale

If you’d like to learn more about the technique, and there is more to it than just what I’ve talked about, you can visit https://cirillocompany.de/pages/pomodoro-technique. Check it out there.

So, what questions do you have? Have any of you had good success with this technique? Please share in the comments below.

Achieving Flow – Series “Personal Productivity and Time Management”

Have you ever found yourself so invested in an activity that you forgot to eat? Hours passed in what seemed like minutes and during that time you find that you’ve completed a whole lot of whatever it was you were working on? According to my university choral conductor where I first learned about it, and to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who has done the research on the topic, you’ve experienced a bout of flow.  And I’m convinced it’s a trainable mindset that can be invoked when needed.

For a bit more clarity Wikipedia defines it thus:

In positive psychologyflow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

History (a new section I’m adding for this article)

At Brigham Young University, I had the chance to join the BYU Men’s Chorus, an auditioned choir that – during my first year – was being newly directed by Rosalind Hall; a 200+ male voice choir with a wispy, effervescent Welsh woman as conductor whose accent took me completely off guard the first time I heard it. She quickly became one of my favorite people in the world.

That was the first of 6 years in the various choirs at BYU, many of them directed by Sister Hall. But it was during that first year that she started talking to us about flow. The way she described it, she wanted us to focus on the music, on our production of it, on her direction, on blending with our neighbor, on finding the right emotional connection, on anticipating tempo changes, and on and on.

And all that was too much she would say – too much to try to be actively focusing on if you were constantly hoping from thing to thing in your mind – am I blending? did I stick out too much on that note? did I cut off on time?

Instead, she encouraged us to work towards getting into flow, where the business of life and the business of creation both fell away and left you in a state of deep, satisfying engagement. You weren’t worried about what the final song was going to sound like or or if you were going to have it memorized. Rather you just rehearsed, in the moment, fixing what needed fixed right there.

She’d have us take a moment at the beginning of rehearsal and clear our minds, setting aside anything that was distracting – an upcoming test, anxiety about a date, homework problems still undone – and for that hour let ourselves be subsumed by the music.

After 6 years of practice, it’s a state I can drop into at will, especially for performing music, but anywhere else I want as well.

How to Use

The Wikipedia entry states that Csikszentmihályi’s Flow theory has three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.

The first item to me seems self explanatory.

As a solo writer, #2 is an interesting one because that immediate feedback seems to indicate that another party must be involved. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. For me, this means that whatever I am working on has visible results that I can critique or modify – words actually appearing on page. That’s part of why I prefer to type my fiction instead of hand write – the length of time required to write by hand means that my brain is already off to the next sentence while I’m working on the current one, or visa versa in that I have to spend so long on the current sentence I don’t remember where I’m going next.

I’ve heard that some poets prefer type writers or hand writing their work for specifically this reason – it slows them down so that they can choose the right word.

The last condition is also an interesting idea – being able to do something and being able to be confident to do it. I have found this to be true as well in order to be able to get into flow.

I I believe learning some meditation techniques could be useful in training your brain to mitigate distractions which can help you get into flow. But this one is harder to give a lot of counsel on without actually knowing you and your situation.

My Usage in Writing Fiction

I find I can get into flow do most things related to writing unless I’m just really tired or distracted. Drafting is where I use it the most as it can be very easy to sit down and draft without breaking concentration. Fiction writing or blog posts are places where I find myself really falling into flow.

And revision – especially polish edits. I get caught up in the flow of my own story and find myself tweaking words here and there while I read along. I really like using it here because I can definitely tell when something in my writing pulls me out of the narrative. I suspect that readers are most annoyed with a story when it pushes them out of the flow they get when reading a good book.

Applications and Apps

Applications can be just about anywhere as I stated before. Any activity that could benefit from deep focus could benefit from achieving flow. But for me, I would say the best application is learning to make it a habitual mindset. The more often I can drop into flow, the more I can get done while also enjoying the process. And this is a lot of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about – that flow promote happiness.

I don’t necessarily agree with some of his assertions about how to achieve happiness in life, but I will confirm that I find myself happier when I finish a flow session. And I do think artists and creators who are able to be more productive and more creative by getting in flow will have more to be excited about in their work.

For apps or programs, I think it’s the opposite. Turn off notifications on your phone, close the email tab, and let people know not to disturb you. Flow can be hard to maintain if you constantly have things clamoring for your attention.

Who It Might Not Work For

If you deal with anxiety or if timed anythings set your teeth on edge, then the Pomodoro Technique® likely won’t make creating easier. I know a lot of people can’t stand the idea of creating to a clock; since that’s the whole point of this technique, it will likely not work for you.

Further, some types of creation just don’t fit well into 25 minute chunks, nor with the idea of deep focus. Some people can create just fine flitting from flower to flower in their garden of ideas. If you work 10 minutes on one scene, then 15 more on a character bio, then 5 minutes searching for a good inspirational background image, and then back to writing a scene, you might get annoyed when the timer goes “bing” right in the middle of your flow.

If you work in those kind of chunks, you could try it, but I really think 25 minutes is a nice sweet spot for getting deeply focused and then letting yourself have a break. If that isn’t how you work, you could modifying, but I’m not sure this style of technique would work.

Finale

If you’d like to learn more about the technique, and there is more to it than just what I’ve talked about, you can visit https://cirillocompany.de/pages/pomodoro-technique. Check it out there along.

So, what questions do you have? Have any of you had good success with it? Please share in the comments below.

Personal Productivity and Time Management for Writers – Series Introduction

When I was 17 or 18 years old, I attended a evening seminar with my dad presented by Franklin Day Planners (now Franklin-Covey). In it, the speaker, Hyrum W. Smith, gave a lecture about time management concepts and demonstrated the use of the Franklin Day Planner system.

It was engaging and intriguing and I immediately turned to my dad after it was over and we decided to invest in a day planner system for me to use my senior year of high school in prep for college.

Since that time, I have gravitated towards lifehacks, techniques, tricks, and systems all with the goal of improving my work and my life and reducing the amount of stress that those inevitably cause. I’m not passionate about it or only live thinking about how I can squeeze one second more out of my day, but I do find the idea and application useful for reducing stress and improving balance between all the various things that pull at my time. So, I’ve done a lot of reading, experimenting, and research into the various time management and project management choices that are out there.

I’m no expert, but I have used and do use many of these in my daily routine.

In this series, I want to discuss these several options in relation to being an author and novelist. I won’t make a ton of recommendations because personal productivity and time management can be very individualized. But I can at talk about how they might be incorporated and where they might be useful for a writer.

Quick Disclaimer: None of the items in this series are endorsements for any product, software, or system. I’m not getting paid to promote or write about any of them. These are just reflections on my own personal use and suggestions for how others might be able to use them.

Subscribe, follow along, engage in the comments, and share your thoughts and experiences. I’m always on the lookout for new things to try.