Our first guest post from friend and colleague, Adrian Phillips.
This list is by no means the be all and end all of how to stay productive. Throughout my time developing web projects, managing digital brands and living with three cats, here are a few things I've learnt along the way that have helped me execute every time. Although this is primarily geared towards app / web development and planning (it's what I know), take what you will, there's definitely something for everyone here.
1. Write down your to-dos
As a Project / Product Manager, I've tried every digital to-do list software / app imaginable. Clear, Workflowy, Things, Wunderlist, Asana and many more. Now all these solutions are great in their own right and have their place in greater project management and workflows. However when it comes to managing day-to-day tasks I find the best way to get all your stuff done is to write it down at the start of every day, with little checkboxes on a good old fashioned piece of pen and paper.
By doing this, you force yourself to remember what the most important tasks are for the day. If you don't remember that you were supposed to do something, then it probably wasn't that important. I like to get really granular with my tasks so that I have more things to check off. There's nothing more satisfying than bringing pen to paper and checking items off. At the end of the day you feel a great sense of accomplishment looking at a piece of paper that has everything checked off. Finally if you find you aren't able to get stuff done the day before, no worries, you can always look back at your previous list and re-add them to today's current list. By doing this you evaluate if the item you're writing down again was that important in the first place.
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to writing materials, have to say I am a big fan of Whitelines line of products. I've become accustomed to sketching and writing on the light gray paper with white lines and haven't gone back since.
My writing implement of choice are usually Uni-Ball like pens as they are really inky and feel really great when I put pen to paper.
2. Have a plan for every meeting
There's nothing worse than walking into a meeting and the meeting organizer says something to the effect of, "Um, so today we're going to be discussing Feature X, so let's talk about it. Who has some thoughts they'd like to share?" There really is nothing worse than a meeting with no direction. You're almost guaranteed to not make any meaningful decisions and waste a good hour of your life you're never going to get back. Using the above example, there should be some discussion points prepared around what the issues or questions were surrounding "Feature X".
Now I'm not saying you have a detailed agenda that you distribute to everyone breaking down absolutely everything that's going to be discussed (though in large meetings this can be helpful). What I like to do is knock up a high level list of what is being discussed and throw it up on a whiteboard or in a shareable Google Doc for everyone to consume. I then assign my own personal timeline to each of the items in the list so I know when it's time to move the discussion forward. Stick to that timeline and stop people from waffling on. Remember, it's your meeting, take control of it.
Stick to that timeline and stop people from waffling on.
3. Don't get hung up on the tools, work with what you know
I've fallen into this trap many, many times when it comes to planning or developing web projects. Most recently I was looking for a new way to "mind map" out an idea I had. Wanting to map this idea out in a "really cool way" I went on the hunt for some nifty mind mapping software. Before I knew it I had tested 3 different products and gotten absolutely nothing done. After a couple of hours of dicking about I eventually decided to just drop into Adobe Illustrator and put the mind map down in an easy to understand format in less than 30 minutes. I'll be the first to admit that Illustrator is absolutely the wrong tool for the job when it comes to doing user flows and mind maps. Yet because I knew all the shortcuts, had years of experience in it, I was able to complete what I needed to in no time at all.
Now some of you might say it's great to grow and learn new tools and extend one's skill set. However when it comes to staying productive and knocking things out it's best to use whatever you're familiar with to get the task done.
As an aside, during my time wasting I found this great read from LifeHacker about what its users thought were the best tools for mind mapping.
...when it comes to staying productive and knocking things out it's best to use whatever you're familiar with to get the task done...
4. "No Distraction" time
On my work adventures I've found that most people really love meetings, especially unproductive ones. Everyday I would find myself getting invited to meetings nearl leaving sad 30 minute to 1 hour gaps in my calendar to get any "actual" work done. This is a productivity no-no. If you want to actually get any work done, in any job I'd highly suggest carving out "No Distraction" time. If you're in a large organization, you can do a bunch of different things, my favorite, and simplest is to go into your calendar and block out a few hours of "Actual Work" time. That way assistants, managers see you as unavailable on their calendars when they try to invite you to their meetings. Now this may seem obnoxious but folks have seen me using this practice and begun to adopt it themselves.
If you're working in a small company or start up, this is much easier. You simply communicate to one another and say "I'm going to crank out this feature for the next few hours, let me know if something urgent comes up." Then throw on some headphones and get to it. Of course, this becomes much trickier when you're working from home and you have a cat sit directly on your keyboard. In the event of animals I would also apply a closed door policy so the little buggers cannot surprise you when you're in the middle of a breakthrough.
When it comes to writing / coding, I'm a big fan of apps that have a full screen mode. By going full screen, you really do minimize the temptation to click on that "Chrome" icon in your dock or jump to that tempting browser window peeking off to the side. Now that I think of it, there's probably a whole other post here about how to optimize your OS X environment to get writing / coding done… To be continued.
5. You are not alone
One of the most obvious steps on this list is also the hardest, having the foresight to step away from what you're doing and ask for help. If you're like me, you'll more than often find yourself grueling over details and stubbornly not giving up until you finish what you're trying to do. The result is a lot of wasted time, getting pissed off and never actually finishing what you set out to do. Rather than sit there and stew, I highly recommend, getting up, grabbing a coffee (or tea) and reaching out to someone. The internet has somewhat advanced since it first began so reach out to the online community or whoever you think can help you with your issue.
If you're a developer, there are tons of IRC communities on Freenode.net to help answer questions about tools and software. Stackoverflow is a great resource when it comes to asking questions from your peers (do a search first as someone may have already asked it). Twitter, Facebook, Internet Messaging, can also be an extremely helpful source for advice. Of course nothing else tops having a discussion with a real live human being, so don't be shy, get up and grab a coffee with a friend or colleague and get his / her perspective.
Of course nothing else tops having a discussion with a real live human being