Productivity


I read a little something about sharing your struggles to break through creative blocks this morning. The idea is that people need other people to create most effectively.

On the one hand this sounds pretty similar to accepted modern practices that emphasize collaboration and teamwork. I don’t think many people argue with that idea these days, and a lot of companies emphasize facilities and activities that allow for this interaction. That’s all well and good, and it sounds logical to assume that more people together results in better ideas or greater productivity.

Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet makes a counterpoint that many people find working on ideas alone better suited to their personality and working style. The ability to think and work things through on their own limits distraction and allows a more thorough approach, or so the theory goes.

For many of us, the real best way may lie somewhere in between these ideas. Susan Cain’s idea of working in silence and solitude makes sense when there’s something that really requires buckling down and cranking. But too much of that, or the exclusion of everyone else probably isn’t helpful. Every so often, it’s beneficial to take some time to share and connect with others. Fellow humans can help boost us over the walls we built in our own heads.

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distraction-freePeople all over are complaining about their ability to focus and get a lot of things done quickly. What if I told you that the solution to this problem is really very simple? All you have to do to increase your productivity is get rid of the myriad distractions modern technology provides us with. Of course actually making this strategy work requires a bit of self-discipline, and therein lies the rub.

In this age of digital communication, we surround ourselves with all kinds of distractions. Most of them have a useful purpose, but only if used correctly. When our short-term goals are to think or write having a lot of distractions at hand is more harmful than helpful. If you get rid of all the non-essentials when you’re really busy, you’ll be more focused and productive. Even more importantly, you’ll save time and make your day a lot shorter.

For me, going into productive mode means setting my IM status to  invisible, logging off of Facebook and closing Twitterific. That’s enough for some projects, but especially for students, sometimes the best strategy is to leave the computer behind entirely. Just focus on your offline research and do the online stuff later. Don’t forget the power of location either. If you don’t have to be at a specific desk, find a place where you are really comfortable, relaxed and free from interruption.

The precise details of the strategy you implement to escape distraction are up to you, but the important thing is to be disciplined. The very reason that Twitter, IM and Facebook are such big distractions is that we enjoy the time we spend on them. Giving them up requires a bit of effort, but it’s an effort that will pay big dividends in things accomplished and time saved.

Perhaps even more important than the time you will save, your extra productivity will make you feel good about yourself. You won’t have the nagging feeling that you’re wasting time. Instead you’ll feel proud of your new-found self discipline and all the things it helped you to accomplish.

What are your favorite ways to escape distraction and increase your productivity?

Today Lifehacker featured a story suggesting that you set up a system of Gmail filters to forward email to hard-to-remember addresses like your Flickr upload address. There’s nothing wrong with the Lifehacker/Digital Inspiration method, except that it’s too complicated.

As long as I can remember, Gmail and most desktop mail clients feature auto-complete features in their address fields so that you can type the name of the contact rather than having to remember their email address.

If you don’t want to get your hands dirty with Gmail filters, just come up with memorable and descriptive names for your email contacts. That way all you have to do is type in “Remember The Milk” and the address should pop up for you. It’s just as effective as the filter method, and much simpler.

I purchased my first Mac recently and the switch opened up new doors for me because there are many software options that aren’t available for PC. Apple’s default web-browser Safari recently became available for Windows as well, but I didn’t bother to try it out until I switched to OS X. Safari is an interesting browser, and far better than Internet Explorer, but it falls far behind Mozilla Firefox 3 in my opinion.

One important reason I installed Firefox on my Mac is the ability to easily add powerful add-ons that increase browser functionality. A less obvious Firefox feature that I started missing immediately while I was using Safari was the ability to add keywords to bookmarks.

By taking a little extra time to designate your most used bookmarks by a memorable keyword, you can easily pare down the time it takes to open web pages. For some web sites I use frequently, like Gmail and Facebook I use keywords that are only two letters long. I can type “gm” in the address bar, hit enter, and the full address for my gmail inbox is filled in. It’s a huge time-saver.

To add keywords to your own bookmarks in Firefox open the bookmark organizer. With Windows you can right click on a bookmark, select properties, and then enter the desired value in the keyword field. With OS X select the bookmark and then click the arrow next to “more” at the bottom of the organizer window.

Put in a little time up front and you can start launching your favorite web pages with three key strokes.

For those of us who don’t have an iPhone or Blackberry,  being on the road means that we’re away from our internet connection and the vital stream of information that it provides us. That’s always a great excuse to unplug and battle our internet addiction. But if you don’t want to be unplugged, the web app Jott has just started rolling out a new service that allows you to have your RSS feeds read to you over the phone.

You just add the RSS feeds you want to your Jott account and then you’re all set. When you’re on the road all you have to do is call the Jott phone number and say “Jott Feeds”. Then you tell it which feed you want and it starts reading the latest feed items to you. You can navigate and skip feeds by pressing “3” to go to the next feed item, and “1” to return to the previous one. It’s still very new, but it’s another great reason to sign up for Jott if you haven’t already. I’m still wondering out if there’s a convenient way to import and syncronize my Google Reader feeds with Jott.

If you haven’t heard about Jott before, it’s a voice recognition tool for your mobile phone. You can use it to keep track of tasks and make notes while you’re on the road. With Jott you can use your voice to dictate emails or even post to Twitter!

These days productivity and technology seem to be overlapping. If you want to be productive or hip, you have to use the latest technology. While using technology can be very effective, there’s also a lot to be said for going back to the basics. To enlighten us on this topic, we have a guest post from blogger Torbjørn Rive.

Taking a break from technology can not only add to your productivity, but I believe it can make you feel human again. There is Microsoft Outlook, Google calendar, and other applications for alerts, timing, and lists – but for me, lists on paper win out in terms of the “to dos”. Furthermore, making use of old printed emails and other one sided docs extends the life of paper – something I tend to do merely for ethical reasons. I love the rationality of paperless, but it gets to a point when things are just better on paper

Paper Offers:

1. Better Visualization: My handwriting and squiggles are a comforting sight. When I highlight, cross, circle, and arrow – it’s all me, and it’s more visual. Taping up actual calendar-page months besides my desks works really well for me in the visualization category, which leads me to my next point…

2. Versatility: When I make lists in digital format there is still a certain missing trust, I get the double-check syndrome and can even lose precious time. Digital is sendable, readable, editable, and will travel… but paper can go in your back pocket, and paper never fails (as long as you have someone’s back to write up against), and it never runs out of batteries or has ‘no signal’.

3. The break from tech: There is something about using longhand that actually makes me feel original, bucking the trend of how tech tools are marketed to make me feel. When I’m remaking my three-day ‘to do’ list I literally turn off my computer screen. If I don’t, I may end up checking my email again and never actually get my future tasks on paper. How many times have you opened your browser to get somewhere for work related information and found yourself on Facebook, YouTube, or checking your weekly blog stats? Sitting away from your computer for as much work as possible can solve productivity problems. I use our office boardroom for editing, project management and organizing, and for making phone calls that matter…and all I need is paper and pen.

In this digital age, I take comfort in one of the last handwritten things I experience on a daily basis: my to-do list. All else is lost to the keyboard and mouse. If making the move to paper is too radical for you, try going with a mixed-media solution, one medium pointing to the other. We cannot deny that the tech rules in many cases, but you may find an actual freedom in choosing paper over plastic.

Check out Torbjørn’s blog Variable Interest where he blogs about land, forests and environmental issues.

I’m a neat freak. I hate it when things get cluttered up. My desk can sometimes be a contradiction to that fact, but still, I’m a minimalist at heart. I like to keep the distractions limited to exactly what I need for the task at hand.

It drives me nuts when a computer has so many open windows that you can’t find one from another on the taskbar. It really slows me down if I have to click the Windows Explorer button and dig through the pop-up to figure out which of the four open windows is actually the one I’m looking for at the moment. What this means practically is that any time I have more than 6-7 windows open I consider my taskbar cluttered.

There’s been a bit of a buzz around the web recently about how having more and bigger monitors can increase your productivity. It’s certainly true that you can increase your productivity by increasing your screen real estate. Depending on the project it’s almost hard to work without one or more big screens in front of you. The big 22″ widescreens can have a hefty price-tag though, and there is a solution to your screen space problems that is a lot easier on the wallet: Virtual Desktops.

For those of you who haven’t used virtual desktops before, a virtual desktop manager basically gives you multiple desktops on the same computer. You can have multiple screens with separate programs running at the same time. If you switch to a different desktop, you immediately leave all your open programs on the old one behind. This is great for working on separate tasks while still leaving the original task all set up so you can go back to it later on.

In addition to the multi-tasking benefits, it’s also a great clutter reducer. When my screen is all full of various windows I can easily switch gears by hitting a hotkey and I’m suddenly switched to a clean desktop where I can get started on a new task or just open more windows that wouldn’t easily fit on a single desktop.

There are many different programs out there that give you virtual desktop functionality. Dexpot has worked very nicely for me. It’s light on the system resources when it’s running in the background. It supports up to 20 separate desktops, which would seem to be a bit of overkill unless you have a supercomputer to keep all those programs running without filling your RAM to capacity.

Anyone have experience with Dexpot or other virtual desktop programs? Let’s hear how they’ve worked out for you in the comments.

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