How I Stay Productive (while failing to blog)

About a month ago, in light of the recent rise of the popular GTD (Getting Things Done) movement, I carried out a massive overhaul of how I “get things done.” I’ve been pretty intrigued by the idea of becoming a more productive person ever since I knew I wanted to be in graduate school. I had, over time, become fully-aware that the habits that allowed me to coast as an undergraduate would just cause me to sink in grad school (e.g. cramming, partying, slacking, and the list goes on). I also didn’t want to wait until Day 1 of my program to decide to make changes to my work/play ethics (the balance is important)! I subscribed to and began reading productivity blogs like Zen Habits and LifeHack.org and learned of lots of ways to save time, money, and attention (not only in my work, but other ways as well). The following are a few techniques I’ve used or still do use to spare myself a life of procrastination and poor effort.

Pomodoro Technique – This time-management strategy involves working (really working) in 25-minute increments (called “pomodoros”), with 5-minute breaks after each pomodoro. After 4 pomodoros, you take a longer break (~20 minutes). I’ve found that this has really worked best with projects that I know will take several hours (a long paper, for example). Instead of writing a bit, pacing around, and writing a bit more, this technique adds structure to work. With a schedule like this, I’m more committed to do some hardcore work during those 25 minutes, using each 5-minute break as a motivator. There are several free web apps that are designed to time the various phases of the Pomodoro Technique, my favorite is Tomatoi.st.

To-Do List – I always keep 2 To-Do lists (hey, I never said I was a minimalist). I make the 1st list at the end of every day. Before I head to bed, I write down (on a Post-It note) the three most important things that need to be completed the following day. I carry it with me, and until these three things are done, I don’t even look at my 2nd list. The second list contains tasks that are less urgent or need to be completed over a period of time, and it’s constantly changing . Because it’s always being added to or crossed off, I find that online task managers work best for this type of list (GTasks, Remember the Milk, etc). I make the two lists because it highlights my priorities a bit better; rather than picking out three important things among a list of 15 tasks, the three important ones are the only ones I see until they’re complete. When working on multiple big projects, I find that it helps to use a more versatile task list, like Nirvana.

Long-term Goal Tracking -Every now and then I read or hear of something, and I think “I’d really like to do that one day.” A week later, the thought is lost in the abyss that is my memory (no, seriously, my memory is awful). Luckily, goal-tracking tools like 43things.com allow you to record these goals as you think of them, and you can look back on them to remind yourself of the trip to New Zealand you’re working so hard for, or the skydiving outing. Though I’ve used 43things, I find that because there’s no pressure to complete the goals, I do less to move towards them. For 2011, I made the switch to 101in365.com, which forces you to list 101 goals (however small or large) and gives you 365 days to complete them. Some examples from my list include memorizing a poem, paying off one of my student loans, and changing my own oil (you can see the rest of my list here). The time constraint makes me more excited about pursuing and completing these goals. Number 101 on my list? “Make another 101in365 list.”

Saving Money – While these do not quite help me pay off my loans, every little bit helps.

  • Pay for gas in cash. Gas stations, unless explicitly stating otherwise, often tack several cents onto the price of gas for credit card charges. Around me, the average is +10 cents, but I’ve seen as high as +12-15 cents. So when you complain about gas being $4.20 a gallon as you swipe your credit card, you could actually be paying between $4.30 and $4.35 per gallon. That certainly adds up over time! And don’t be fooled by rewards points, those 50 or so rewards points per tank amount to literally just $0.50 in most rewards programs (even 1% cashback doesn’t balance out the extra that you pay).
  • Use coupons. But only for things you needed anyway. I’ve saved a load of money using coupons properly (for example stacking manufacturer and store coupons). Research some serious coupon strategies (it may be worth it for you). If you’d rather watch couponing in action, turn the TV to TLC, they made a show out of it (“Extreme Couponing”).
  • Downgrade to a cheaper cable package. Nowadays, an internet-enabled computer can get virtually any TV show or movie, and with the right hook-up it can be connected directly to your TV. You’ll have all you need to see your shows, and you’ll never miss the channels you never watched anyway. Additionally, if it results in less TV-watching, well, I don’t need to explain how that’ll help your productivity and save you money.
How do you stay productive?
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12 responses to “How I Stay Productive (while failing to blog)

  • Teacher Girl

    I love your 101in365 list! A goal of mine is to make a 101 list too. I also love your ideas for getting tasks done. I find that my biggest issue is that I just don’t have time to do everything each day and then, like you said, memory takes hold and I loose track of what I am supposed to do. I’ve heard good things about “ToDoist” as well. I need to get better at it in anycase.

    The pomodoro technique is something I use with my students. I keep lessons and activities to 25-30 minute increments since our class periods are 90 minutes long. It keeps the kids motivated and engaged.

    • Eric

      Well if you do make a list, follow me!

      I had never really considered the classroom application of pomodoro, but that sounds like an awesome use of it! Considering I may be an adjunct professor some day (albeit for college students and not high-schoolers), I may have to break out the ole pomodoro technique for a smooth 55 minute class. It works out perfectly: 25+5+25=55mins. =) Of course, something tells me teaching a college class may not allow for a 5 minute break in the middle, =P. Sounds like you’ve got the right idea with your kids, though!

  • Deidre

    I am a total morning person. So when I have stuff to do I wake up early, (5 am sometimes) and work straight until 3 or 4. And then I do anything I need to do to get my mind to relax and go to sleep at about 9. I was not popular in college – it’s no wonder I didn’t have time for my boyfriend eh?…

    Love your 101 list! Although as an environmentalist, I’d encourage not throwing plastic or glass into the ocean. As a romantic, I love the message in a bottle idea.

    • Eric

      Lol I’ve heard this environmental opposition against the message-in-a-bottle idea before and it doesn’t quite sway me =P (but only if it’s a corked glass bottle). I just think the potential value of the experience and/or results far outweigh and environmental hazards. How would you feel if you found a message in a bottle? When the world comes together to clean up the Pacific Trash Vortex, I’ll worry about littering with a glass bottle, though I admire your environmental values (more of a cause than I’ve ever had)! =)

  • Daniella

    I feel as though you are very wise. I would never be able to follow any of these things, because I am a bum, but … sage.

  • Amanda Abella

    Ha I’m still working on finding out ways to be productive. I find myself doing the same thing I did in college, get on a roll and just GO. lol. I’ve also noticed that I get distracted if I take breaks.

    • Eric

      Haha well I believe this works for most people as well. I just felt grad school was a great opportunity for me to overhaul my work ethic!

  • Robin @ our semi organic life

    I find myself very unproductive when I’m at home. If I need to get somthing accomplished I have to leave the house. I’ll go to a coffee shop, library etc. Also I find that when I get properly dressed in the morning then I’m more likely to not bum around. When I do my hair, makeup and actually put on real shoes I get more done.

  • Bill Chance

    Found your blog entry looking for the “Pomodoro” tag (found a few hints on productivity and a lot of good recipes). I like your 101 in 365 link – I’ll have to give that a try.

    Though I’m at a very different place in life, it’s surprising how many of the same 101’s I’ll have. Though one of mine might be “get rid of all the Apple stuff” – I’m an enthusiastic Linux user.

    Keep up the great work.

  • Nick

    I just got an idea to do a “done” list from a blog (can’t find which one now, but I’ll try). I thought it was a great idea to keep me motivated by seeing the things I’ve accomplished. So instead of just crossing stuff out, I plan on getting either a calendar and writing down at least 3 things I accomplish on each day or just starting one long list. We’ll see….

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