Category Archives: Productivity

Getting things done includes deciding what not to do.

Getting things done includes deciding what not to do. In my case, it’s a matter of going through my todo list and striking off the well-intentioned tasks from two or three months ago that took a moment to write and that would take hours to complete.

I’m better off at accomplishing things when there are fewer undone things to choose from.

Janet Choi writes about the done list for 99u.

When you do anything you consider useful, however small a win it may be, write it down on your done list.

This can lead to the purposeful behavior of writing something on your todo list just to cross it off and mark it done. The system I’m using doesn’t easily distinguish between the three states of “did and then wrote it down”, “wrote it down and did it later”, or “wrote it down and decided not to do it later”. But that’s a quibble.


Slack, first impressions


I’m trying out Slack. Here are some first impressions.

The system has many familiar components. It feels like an IRC network, complete with a set of well thought out bots and useful integrations with development tools. Unlike most IRC nets, it comes with a rich set of web and native clients that make it feel like something that ordinary people could use and not just the ubergeeks. For the ubergeeks, it also has a very competent IRC client support.

The experience of the system varies tremendously depending on who you have on your team. If they have somewhere else to talk, then you might never get the critical mass you need to have a real conversation online. About a third of the people I’m inviting actually start to use the system, and most of those have some IRC channel time in their background.

The web client and the Android client for Slack are both very capably executed and feel like sound, solid pieces of engineering. It adds a lot of confidence to using the system to have such nice tools to work with.

I have integrations configured for RSS feeds, for Github (issues and commits), and for Google Hangouts. There’s a rich API, or so it seems, and lots of other systems that have had integrations built for them. I have ambitions but no infrastructure yet to write my own code or better yet borrow other people’s code to extend the system. I’m not much more advanced yet than getting the “hello world” style post-to-Slack-from-the-command-line capability going, but it did work, so I have high hopes.

The slack server I have set up is running on their free trial, which has a limited number of integration slots. I think that by cleverly enabling and disabling services that I can try enough of them to build up some experience with the system, but not necessarily run everything in production. I get 5 for free, and Github, Hangouts, RSS, Twitter, and the incoming webhook make up that 5.

If you’d like to see what I’ve built and join in, drop me a line and I can send you an invite.

Limiting work in progress vs. the endless todo list


I’ve been using a todo system based on Github issues for the better part of a year. It’s been an interesting exercise in trying to corral the things that aren’t done yet but that need to be.

When I started out, I dumped every last thing that I might do into the system, everything from major tasks to “do laundry” (which can seem like a major task at times). The count of undone things oscillated from 60 to 100 things to be done, which made it seem like an infinite list because it took too long to review the whole list and it was on 3 or 4 screens.

After some reflection, I decided that the only way to make progress on this list was to dramatically prune it. That means taking some items off the list that I really do want to do eventually, it’s just that I’m not focusing on them now because every time I look at them on the list I say “no”. Crossing them off the list doesn’t completely delete them, and when I need to revisit them I can reopen the issue.

The list is down to 30 now, and I’m careful not to add more than that without crossing something else off the list. It still has a few lingering things that haven’t been done for a long time, but I have had my teeth cleaned, and what’s more I can read through the whole thing in one sitting and usually say “yes” to some next task.

More reading: Why limit your work in progress, Jim Benson.

Still answering yesterday’s email; also doing yesterday’s todos

I’m a big fan of finite lists of things to do. It’s hard to keep up with things that require an answer, and sometimes you need to let things slide until the next day. When you combine those two, you get yesterbox. The basic idea is that you answer today’s email tomorrow, so that you know when you get to the bottom of yesterday’s mail you are really done.

The slight complication for this system for me is that I’m also using a todo list which is supposed to capture everything I need to do. Alas, things go onto this list and stay there forever. How to reconcile the two?

What I’m going to try, as best I can, is to deal with today’s bright ideas about what I need to do but don’t have time to do right now tomorrow. There will be a finite number of things to look at, and I can probably deal with some of them right away. I don’t mean to kick the can down the road, but I also don’t want to try to tackle everything I’ve ever thought of doing all at once.

Inspired in part by the Wall of Voodoo song “Tomorrow”.

I’ll do it tomorrow / that seems like a pretty good idea to me

Overtaken by events

I’m thinning out my todo list for the new year to delete some of the oldest items, the ones that aren’t particularly hard but they also haven’t been done this past year.

I figure that if I need to do them, the opportunity will arise again, and it might be easier to get them done if they show up fresh at the top of the list rather than buried at the bottom.

What’s humorous (or sad) is the items marked “urgent” that are more than a week old; clearly, simply marking something as urgent does not stand in for actually doing the work.

Ah, new year’s productivity !

UPDATE: Yup, thinning out the list is now a perpetual activity; I’m trying to keep work in progress under about 30 tasks. There may be more to do in the world, you think? I can only keep track of so much of it.

Mindfulness about what you’re doing with OneTab

I use OneTab (see: previously) to manage the tabs on my Chrome browser. It does a great job of sweeping a bunch of current state for open tabs onto a page, so that you can get a fresh start when a new project comes up and then restore the state of the old one. It also means that I have a lot more working memory on my old MacBook. All in all a big win.

Every once in a while the projects pile up, and I forget what I was doing but still don’t know what to focus on. The mindfulness project then is to go methodically through each of the tabs, dealing with whatever is on that page and then closing the tab instead of saving it. This has been a good way to feel like I don’t have an infinite set of half-done efforts.

How many publishable words can you write in a day?

Here’s a thought experiment. Sit down in the morning with a cup of coffee and a list of topics. Work through them, one at a time, coming up with and writing down 500 words or so on each topic. How many topics do you get to over the course of the day, and how long does it take you to write 500 words that make sense? Assume for the sake of argument that there’s a typical number of distracting email, Twitter, and Facebook posts that you have to deal with. Each of the pieces that you are writing will need to contemplate a part of the net that might lead to its own distractions.

I am always impressed by people who have the ability to sit down and crank out clean copy that is ready for publication. It’s not by any means easy to do this, and certainly every written work can be improved by judicious editing. I’m thinking more of the remarkable skill where you can type as fast as you can for a short burst and have the resulting words make sense, flow nicely, and be worth posting to the world.

The practice I get doing this has a lot to do with blogging, where I want to capture the moment and some momentarily interesting topic and put my mark on it. This is not writing a novel, and not writing a little piece of a 20-page or 400-page non-fiction work; rather, it’s somewhere between journalism and blogging. The work you are composing is temporarily interesting to a number of people in part because it has a good headline for Twitter and a body full of words that search engines like. You’ve written news, but it’s within the context of a blog, and because of that it’s perfectly acceptable to leave questions unanswered and stories unresolved. It’s what musician Michelle Shocked called the “incomplete image”, and perhaps you are waiting for someone with a longer deadline to write up the full story.

I know from experience that I can put together 500 words in a sitting on one topic without taking a break and without needing to consult an outline. The much more challenging part is making a long, coherent single narrative out of these intermediate pieces parts. The skill of impromptu essay writing is by no means the same as the skill of book writing, and the task of challenging yourself to come up with a story that moves the current understanding a bit forward is a challenge.

To some degree, I’m willing to pad out those words with ample quotations from other sources, a sort of journalistic cut-and-paste that sifts through less well known sources to string together a story. (Of course the excerpts are carefully hyperlinked to avoid any suggestion of use without attribution.) Careful reuse of existing copy is one of the qualities that blogging can take advantage of that isn’t generally OK in journalism circles.

If all you wrote were impromptu essays for the net, you’d quickly find out what was a keeper by the traffic you were able to draw in. On a good day, I’m happy to write three or four blog posts that either satisfy my own interest in preserving a bit of news or that advance some larger story or that answer a question that’s on more than one person’s mind right now. That would translate into 2000 words on a good day, and that doesn’t sound like a lot. I think you’d have to work hard to keep the hopper full of article ideas and to keep up the research that fed a constant stream of ideas to work from, and to work doubly hard to collect the sort of essay-sized chunks that would eventually tell a story that’s longer and more carefully planned.

(Inspired by #writechat on Sunday, 8 December 2013.)