Three Things I Ignore Too Often

One of the greatest tools in life is the ability to learn from our our mistakes and the mistakes of others. They don't have to be huge mistakes either, it can be something as simple as learning that cooking pasta for 20 minutes is not a good idea or that eating nothing but cream crackers will not make you big and strong.

One of the things I wanted to create with this site was a place where I could share what I've learnt, so here are three mistakes I make, some more often than others. They're all centred around a lack of focus, which can be a real productivity killer.

1) Ignoring plans I make

Planning isn't one of my favourite activities, but I find that once I've started to create a plan it's not too difficult to finish it all. Plans can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours to create, and the level of detail depends on the task being planned. The real problem isn't in creating the plan, but in sticking to it.

Once the initial enthusiasm has waned, it becomes very difficult to stick to any kind of schedule. More interesting tasks appear all the time, unexpected events occur that throw off schedules and there are days when you just don't want to see a particular project.

So far the best solutions I've found to this problem has been the following:

  1. Make the plan as simple as possible - This goes against my natural urge to plan for everything and to make things as detailed as possible. Instead, I find a more agile approach works best. This starts by making one very general plan, and making smaller ones as each large milestone is completed. See Agile Achievement for more information on this.
  2. Put the plan somewhere visible - It gets very hard to ignore a plan when it's constantly in your face. It might feel a bit silly writing out your plan on a huge sheet of paper and sticking it to your ceiling, but it does have an affect!
  3. Make your plans small - No matter what you plan for, something will appear and mess it up. The smaller (and simpler) your plans, the easier it is to cope with these interruptions. This isn't to say you shouldn't set big goals, but rather you should aim to get there in lots of little steps rather than a few giant strides.

Planning takes work, but if done well it can save hours of time and a lot of frustration. Learn what your limits are and set yourself reasonable targets to avoid any problems.

2) Ignoring priorities

This is related to the first point, and in some ways it's probably the biggest mistake that anybody can make when it comes to productivity. It's an unfortunate fact that there will never, ever be enough hours in the day to complete everything. This is where priorities come in, and when they're followed they can make a huge difference.

The hard part is accepting that in order to do something, you will have to not do something else. Once you understand and accept this, it makes it a little simpler to prioritise your actions. To further encourage sticking to priorities, any rewards should be given for tasks that were marked as "high priority".

3) Ignoring the clock

After a certain amount of work, your productivity will take a steep decline. This is nature's way of telling you to stop and do something else. Once of the worst habits I picked up at university was working until 5 or 6am in the morning, getting a few hours sleep and then working through the day again. Although I got my work finished, the quality suffered as I made more mistakes and felt far more frustrated.

I've found the root cause of this problem is not trusting myself to resume work the next day. Although I know I'll be more effective in the morning, I've had too many days of slacking until the afternoon that put me off this approach. It often seems like working through the night is the only way I'll get something completed.

I found the best way to beat this problem is to wake up an hour earlier and dive straight into whatever task I set the night before. Even if I don't get a huge amount done in this first hour, it sets up a more productive mood for the rest of the day.

Bonus - Not ignoring other people's standards

It seems every list needs a bonus item at the end, so here's one thing that I don't ignore that would probably be a good idea. Everybody has different standards, and it's often hard enough meeting your own, let alone somebody else's.

Don't get too hung up on trying to be somebody else. Improve yourself in your own way, and you'll be far more satisfied than you ever could be by living someone else's life.

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Getting Yourself Organised

What does it mean to be "organised"? It's a term that can crop up quite often, but outside of the workplace it has a rather negative image. Organised people are seen as boring and dull. They'd rather spend Friday night arranging their CD's chronologically rather than socialising with friends. Their lives are meticulously planned, and they're "missing out" on the joys that spontaneous living brings.

The truth of the matter is that organised people enjoy just as much fun as everyone else. More importantly, they experience less stress and and more efficient simply by sticking to a few habits. Whilst most people would agree that it's beneficial to be more organised, it can sometimes be difficult to get started.

Why should you get organised?

Being organised isn't about obsessing over small details, but about being effective and efficient. There are plenty of benefits to be gained from creating a consistent system:

  • Reduces Stress – You won't get stressed looking for things, such as reports or documents. You'll also be less likely to forget important tasks and have to deal with the consequences.
  • Saves time – Similar to the above. You won't waste time worrying about things, because they will already be done. You also won't waste time repeating the same task you've done before and either forgotten or mislaid the results.
  • Increases personal effectiveness – You won't repeat tasks, mislay important jobs or items. There's also the benefit of prioritising your work so important things get done, and you'll have a complete list of tasks and projects so you'll alsways know where you stand on important jobs.
  • Improves your self esteem – As strange as it sounds, being organised increases your self esteem. We often feel better the more in control of our lives we are. When things are going wrong, items are getting lost and we feel lost in our work environment it can seem like we're just being dragged along. By getting organised you take control of your life, which improves self-esteem.
  • Improves your relationships – This is another "side effect" of being organised. Having a system in place makes you more reliable, and reliable people are often seen as more trustworthy. Plus keeping things somewhere safe means you're less likely to forget birthdays and anniversaries - although if you do forget them you won't have an excuse ;)

There are plenty more advantages, but they'll appear in different areas of your life in subtle ways. You'll probably find that the quality of your life is improved in many areas, which is perhaps the biggest advantage of all.

The Anatomy of Organisation

You can split your system into three distinct areas:

  • Physical layout – This concerns all the "stuff" that you use. Things like lists, folders and stationary. Each of these items should have its own place to be stored, which saves you from looking for them when they're required. It also keeps work surfaces free of clutter, which can aid concentration.
  • A processing system – The system used is down to personal preference, but you should have a consistent approach to dealing with everything that comes into your life. This includes creating a place to put all of your inputs, as well as how they are recorded so they won't be forgotten.
  • Habits – A set of good habits will ensure your system runs smoothly. Examples of good habits to learn include handling each piece of paper once, and regularly reviewing goals and task lists. It takes time to build up these habits, but they will make a huge difference to your personal effectiveness.

It's important to note that the entire system is only as strong as the weakest link. For example, if you have good habits but a poor physical layout, you'll struggle with finding things which can lead to frustration. Similarly, if you have a good system and methodology but you're not in the habit of using it, you won't gain the full benefit.

Creating a Simple System

There are dozens of different systems out there, and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. I've found that it's best to start with a barebones system, which can be modified once you've got into the habit of using it. A very simple system would consist of the following elements:

  • An inbox – This is a central place where all of your incoming stuff is put, so it can be processed at a later date. The important thing is to make sure nothing is getting left out of the processing stage. You can think of it as a funnel that makes sure everything is going into your organising "machine".
  • To-do lists – These lists can either be contextual or project based, whichever fits you best. If you're using contextual lists, you'll need several such as "@Desk", "@Computer" and "@Internet". I put "Computer" and "Internet" into two different lists as I usually disconnect my modem when I'm working so I don't get distracted.

    Even if you decide to use entirely project based lists, it's still useful to have a list of phone calls that need to be made, emails that need to be written and people to follow up with.

  • A calendar – If a task has to be carried out on or by a certain date, you'll want to put a reminder of this on your calendar. You should resist the temptation to organize your days using a calendar, as it dilutes the effectiveness of it.
  • A list of all ongoing projects – This is a central list that lets you keep track on all of your current projects. It's not meant to be detailed, and all project material and task lists should have their own folder(s). The main purpose is to give you something to review to make sure nothing gets forgotten.
  • A filing system – Unless you're an extreme minimalist, you'll need a central place to store project and reference materials. Every project should have its own folder, even if it will only contain a single piece of paper. When organising these folders, simplicity is the key. Storing them alphabetically is much easier than arranging them by importance or any other criteria.

    Most of my projects have their own folder, but in some cases they will be split up. For example, I have two folders for this website: one to store general information such as design ideas, and one to store draft blog articles.

    If you think storing a single piece of paper in a folder is wasteful, you can place a piece of tape on the folder before putting a label over it. This makes it easy to peel the label off so you can reuse the folder.

  • A someday/maybe list – This isn't really essential, but if you get a lot of crazy ideas about new projects it's a good place to keep note of them. During your reviews you can see if any of the ideas are worth pursuing, or if they're worth giving to someone else.

The main purpose of having all these things in place is that it gives your brain a break. You're effectively delegating the responsibility of remembering things to paper, which gives you chance to concentrate on more important things.

Additional Items

Once you've got your basic system up and running for a few weeks, you may want to add more to it. A little experimentation can go a long way, so don't be afraid to mess around with different things. Here's a few ideas to get you started:

  • Goals, affirmations and purpose – Having clearly written goals is one of the biggest steps you can take to being a more effective person. By setting goals, you give yourself an idea of where you want to be in life. More importantly, you can use your goals to assess which tasks will take you closer and which will waste your time. It can be tough to get started with goal setting, but the benefits far outweigh the initial difficulty.
  • Today's tasks – This is a list of all the tasks that you want to complete in a single day. There are plenty of different ways to do this too. It can be a simple list of tasks, a prioritised list, or a "top 3" task list. Take some time the night before to write your list, and think carefully about how much you put on it. There's only so much you can do in a day, and having tasks left undone at the end of the day can have an adverse effect on morale.
  • Today's stuff – This is another tray, but it contains all the reference material for the current task. It's useful for keeping everything in one place so it doesn't take over your entire desk.
  • A schedule – This can either compliment the "today's tasks" list or replace it completely. Start by breaking your working day into chunks of at least 30 minutes and then fill it up with what you want to get done. The article "How to create an effective schedule" covers this subject in more detail.
  • Individual lists and schedules – Large projects will need their own task lists, and may also require their own schedules. It can also be useful to keep schedules for recurring tasks, such as blog posting or weekly reviews.
  • A progress tracker – If you often end the day feeling like you've wasted your time, you may benefit from using a progress tracker. It doesn't have to be complex, and a simple system may just involve writing down what you've done during the day and what went right and wrong. A slightly more thorough version involves giving yourself "points" for completing tasks, and ticking boxes when performing activities in different areas of your life. I wrote about my experiences with progress trackers in "keeping a progress log".
  • A journal or diary – Journals can have several uses. The most common way is as a book to write down personal thoughts and feelings, as well as detailing personal problems. Sometimes the act of writing down a problem can give you many ideas about how to solve it.

    Another use is to keep track of what changes have been made in your life and why. This information can be used to see if they had a positive or negative impact on your life, and writing down why you did them can stop you from repeating the same mistakes.

  • "To Read" pile – Yet another tray, this time containing material you wish to read. This could be printed articles from a blog (such as this one ;)), magazines or newsletters. By giving these items their own place you have somewhere to refer to should you get any "dead time". It's also a great place to go if you're going to be taking a bus or train and what to get something done.

There are hundreds of tweaks and changes you can make, and not all of them work for everyone. Very few systems will ever remain the same for very long, and it's beneficial to try many different things over time to see what improvements can be made.

PC vs Paper

PDAs and Pocket PCs have become more affordable in recent years, but will they replace pen and paper? Like most things, it's really down to personal preference.

Most modern handhelds are powerful enough to run just about any task. They can also be synchronised with your main PC to keep things stored in a central location. They're also much quicker when it comes to searching and sorting, and you won't get leaky ink in your pockets. However, paper is far more versatile in most areas. You can quickly scribble down notes, stick it in your back pocket without breaking it and the battery will never go flat.

I've used both systems, and both had their strengths and weaknesses. I initially struggled to get a pen and paper system working, and buying a Pocket PC made a huge difference to my overall productivity. Perhaps it was the excitement of getting to use a shiny new toy to keep myself organised, or perhaps the fact I'd spent a lot of money on it. Either way, it had the desired effect and was one of the best purchases I made.

The main problem I had is that electronics can be very distracting. I often spent too much time trying to tweak the system to perfection instead of just using it to get things done. There was also the distraction of trying out all the new features and getting it to run games. I still use an electronic system, but I prefer to have paper copies of calendars and task lists handy.

Keeping it all working

Once your system is set up, you'll need to keep it maintained so it doesn't grind to a complete stop. This is done by developing habits that will keep your system running:

  • Discipline with the inbox – This is quite difficult to begin with, but it's vitally important that you don't use your inbox as a storage folder. If you find yourself leafing through it looking for papers, then it's not being used properly. Everything that goes IN should only be touched once before being stored, completed or binned. This is really just a habit of repetition, but ingraining it will save you hours of time.
  • Carry a capturing device – Ideas will come to you whenever they feel like it. Our brain is a wonderful organ, in that it'll come up with some splendid idea at 2am but will steadfastly refuse to remember it in the morning. Get in the habit of carrying something around that you can use to record these ideas. Make sure it's small enough to comfortably fit in a pocket or bag, otherwise you'll resist taking it around with you which really defeats the purpose. One more tip: keep it by your bed!
  • Constantly Review Your Items – Constantly look over everything on your goals and to-do lists to make sure you're going in the right direction and that nothing has changed. The more often you review, the quicker you can adapt to changes in circumstances. Check everything is moving forward, and review your "crazy ideas" list every few weeks to see if it any ideas have become more relevant.
  • Keep your work areas clean – As soon as you've finished with something, put it away. This simple habit alone can help keep your workspaces clean from debris and other clutter which will distract you.

So there we have it. Organising yourself can be a daunting task, but breaking it into small chunks and slowly developing the habits necessary will help you to create a system that improves just about every area of your life. All of this might seem excessive, but just one day of being organised will let you know it's all worth it.

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