Yet Another Productivity Post

Recently I have found myself giving a few talks to young researchers and faculty on how I manage my time to get things done. During these talks I have described some of the tools and techniques that I use to manage my time – something I thought was obvious – only to receive a barrage of questions and requests for more information. So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts on this topic. This post covers the basics at a high-level and in future posts I will take a deeper dive into email, tasks and calendars.

Where to begin? I’m busy. I am a Professor of Computer Science with teaching (admittedly not so much any more), research, and administrative duties. I lead a large Data Analytics research centre of 200+ researchers spread across a half dozen locations. I am an entrepreneur with one exit, a currently funded start-up, and another in pre-commercialisation. And I also sit on a couple of boards as a non-executive director and advise a few early-stage start-ups. Let’s just say that out of necessity I have spent a lot of time looking for a productivity system that works. I feel like I have tried them all, some with more success than others, but in the end I have landed on my own particular approach by combining ideas from a few different systems. My approach needed to satisfy a few key criteria for me:
  1. It needed to be lightweight and integrate with my style of working while being flexible enough to bend without breaking; in the past I have spent a lot of time learning and adapting other systems, which are often at odds with my style of working, forcing me to introduce new tasks into an already complex workflow.
  2. It needed to make minimal assumptions about the tools and apps required; if there were tools and apps to use they they needed to be available on my laptop, tablet, and phone so that I can be productive anywhere.
  3. It needed to allow me to be genuinely more productive, rather than just create the impression of my being more productive by adding “productivity tasks” to my daily duties; I have tried many systems in the past and all to often they have visited more work on me (classifying, filtering, labelling, tagging etc) thereby diluting any productivity gains they might offer.
I think I now have a system that meets all of these requirements and that works for me. It has three main parts: email, tasks, and calendar.
Managing Email
The vast majority of my work begins or ends with email communication. This makes email a good place to start when it comes to fine-tuning my productivity. It is all too easy to develop a dysfunctional relationship with email and my approach to dealing with this is to redefine how I use email by cleaning up my inbox, scheduling my email time, and implementing a simple email processing workflow.
I have made great strides in cleaning up my inbox. First, I have consolidated a number of email accounts into one, by autoforwarding from secondary accounts to my primary account. Now all my email arrives in one place and I only need to worry about configuring a single account across my devices. Second, I have actively unsubscribed from every mailing list I seem to be registered wit. The change in in my email volume has been dramatic and the average emails per day that I receive is down by at least 50%.
I schedule two one-hour blocks of time to email and task management every day, one at the beginning of the day and one at the end of the day. For the rest of the day I will only dip into email during the gaps in my schedule (eg. waiting in line for coffee) and only with a view to archiving/actioning emails, rarely answering emails.
My approach to processing email is simple: there are only 3 possible actions for me to carry out: I archive messages that require no further action; I answer messages that can be dealt with on the spot within a minute or two; or I action messages for further attention by transferring them out of my inbox and into my task management system.
Managing Tasks
For task management I use Evernote. It is available across all of my devices and provides the core functionality that I need: the ability to capture email as notes from any device; the ability to organise and tag notes into meaningful collections; strong search capabilities; and simple task management including timings and notifications.
My time is divided up in to a few categories, for example, UCD (my institution), Insight (the research centre I lead), HeyStaks (the startup I am involved with), Personal (personal projects), and Travel (all my trips and related expenses). Each of these maps to a single Evernote notebook. As new notes and tasks arrive in my Evernote inbox I allocated each to a category (notebook), assigning tasks a deadline, and scheduling sufficient time in my calendar for their completion.
In this way, every morning and evening, I have a current task list in Evernote that is mapped on to my calendar. Evernote provides me with a simple but powerful task manager and provides me with access to all of the information that I need to complete these tasks on any device at any time.
Scheduling Time

Producing a task list is not the same as schedule time to complete a task. Surpise! Well it took me a long time to figure this out. Now I am much more careful and deliberate about my calendar; take a look at this post which speaks this idea very well. It is no longer filled only with meetings it also includes blocks of time assigned to my tasks. This has been a live-saver of late. I have figured out that I am at my most creative in the mornings so these times are held back for research and writing, with the afternoons available for meetings. I can usually stick to this reasonably well and while I do slip up from time to time I know exactly what I need to do to get back on track.

I have also tweaked my calendar to create a simple system to effortlessly produce a time-ordered list of free slots when I need to assign tasks or schedule meetings. This is not rocket science – it just requires a sensible approach to labelling and the use of my calendar’s in-built search feature – but it is very effective. By using my calendar in this way I have a much more faithful picture of my current and future workload, which makes managing my time much more reliable and prevents me from signing up to new projects that I cannot hope to complete.

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One thought on “Yet Another Productivity Post

  1. Pingback: A 10-Steps Plan for Productive Email | Barry Smyth

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