Productivity hacking

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I’d like to share some tips along the lines of Matt Might‘s posts, where he shares his insights on topics like travel, weight lifting, productivity, etc. that have helped me quite a bit. I’m well into the last year of my PhD, so I’m trying to optimize my time wherever I can, and have discovered several helpful hacks.*  Some of these are specific to my work environment (OS: Windows 7 through Boot Camp on MacBook Air, OS X 10.9.5 on iMac desktop, browser: Firefox, email: Gmail, phone: iPhone 4) but there are similar ways to do all these things in different environments.

*I started this post in September of 2013, so clearly I am not yet an expert here.

Make it harder to waste time
I used to run a lot of data analysis for work and often ended up with 4-5 minutes free while numbers were crunching in MATLAB.  I would tell myself it was fine to check Facebook, etc. for these minutes, but inevitably my friends would post cute cat videos or interesting articles that took up way more than the 4 minutes I wanted a distraction.  Enter Firefox add-on LeechBlock.  If you didn’t see me on-line much during that period, it’s because I blocked myself from 9-5 every day of the week, including weekends.  Sure I could have changed those settings, but it’s more of a hassle and makes the cost of procrastination much higher.  Instead, when I had a few minutes, I checked my to-do list and email backlog to see if I could check off a quick task.  Lately I’ve gotten out of this habit, but also gotten better at ignoring distractions.

Getting Things Done (GTD) with Remember The Milk (RTM)
A while ago I realized I was not being very efficient with my time, and then read this post that talked about how procrastination might be an evolutionary tool we’ve developed that happens when we don’t have a good plan. That made sense to me, so I set about creating a plan. I read GTD, which I highly recommend, but creating a digital version of the method seemed like quite a chore. Then I surveyed some friends of mine to see what to-do list methods they used. Out of all the responses, RTM rose to the top. And, it turns out it’s easy to implement GTD with RTM. Score. This is the most comprehensive post on how to do it, and also check out this one for additional tips.  ALL of my home and work to-dos go in here, even dumb things like apps I want to check out.  The point is to get everything out of my swarming chaotic brain cloud into lists I can look at when I actually have time to do something about the swarm.  And the iPhone app is the best I’ve seen for this type of thing.
Pro tip: upgrade RTM to pro for $25/year for more frequent syncing and other perks.

Take control of your email
Email is a big part of what was sucking time from my day.  When I started this “get my $hit together” plan, my inbox was at over 30,000 emails.  I’m really not that popular.  I had never noticed the archive function in Gmail before.  Enter Active Inbox.  Active Inbox, which is heavily influenced by GTD, helped me go from 30k+ emails  in my inbox to 0 in minutes.  A few more tips:

  • Unsubscribe from everything. Really.  Use Feedly or the like to aggregate content you like to read so you can browse easily. Don’t mark stuff as spam just to get it to stop showing up, that’s mean. Use the unsubscribe link.
  • Filter aggressively, and make it skip your inbox.  Groupon, Living Social emails? Those go in your “Deals” category.  Facebook and LinkedIn updates? Those go in your “Notifications” category, or turned off altogether.  You’ll never miss any of this stuff and you can always dive into your categories when you want to. Gmail started doing some of this for you but I ignore that service because I prefer having more control.
  • Archive, but don’t delete. Gmail and other providers offer so much storage space now that it rarely makes sense to delete an email. Use your GTD system to deal with everything that comes in: mark it as an action, someday, etc.  If it’s just reference, archive it and trust it will be searchable when you need it.
  • One ring to rule them all.  This might not work for everyone, but I’m a huge fan of using one email service (in my case, gmail) as the catch all for my ~8 different emails.  You can set it to respond with the email someone uses to contact you, and set different signature per email account, so work emails still look like work, personal stuff looks personal, etc.

Time management
I’m still working on this one.  For now, see Kellbot’s excellent post.  I might try that Chronodex thing.