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?