Productivity Hack: Find Yourself a Canary

Back when mining was in its heyday, workers would bring a canary down into the mine with them. They did this because air quality within the mine could degrade and become poisonous, and this was an obvious risk to the health of the workers. So the canary was brought down to breath that same possibly-pernicious air, and if the canary ever died, that was a sign that the workers had to instantly drop everything and get out of the mine.

At work, I sit next to Seb. While the hours I work vary slightly from one day to the next, Seb always works the same general shift and leaves the office shortly after 4pm every day. While I’m not as consistent in my hours, I always work until at least 5pm and often an hour or two later than that. So, Seb always leaves the office when I have an hour or three left in my day. Do you see where this is going?

Seb is my canary.

When Seb leaves for the day, that’s a reminder that my day is coming to a close. If I wanted to get four things done today and I’m only on my second task, it’s a reminder that I have to drop everything and sort out the rest of my todo-list. And much like the workers rushing to grab their belongings and get out of the mine, if I’m really far behind I really have to get my ass in gear.

I’ve had decent results with this so far. I’ve only been sitting next to Seb for a month or so, and it took a little while for me to catch on that when he leaves is a good time to review my day’s tasks. But I’ve already had a couple of days where I probably would have forgotten about a task, or at least not recalled it in time to get it done, were it not for my canary reminding me that I was running out of clean air time.

Find your canary.

You may not sit next to a coworker with a fixed schedule, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a canary for yourself. Try setting a daily reminder on your phone or calendar software that will ping you when you have a couple of hours left in your day (I’ve started doing this when Seb works from home or takes a day off). Even if this doesn’t help you remember a task you would have otherwise forgotten, it saves you the trouble of keeping your eye on the clock to see how much time is left in your day.

And best of all, since this isn’t very intrusive or difficult to maintain, what do you have to lose?