Motivation Hack: Lock Screen Reminders

One of the classic motivational techniques for achieving a goal is to keep that goal in front of you all the time.

The traditional suggestion is to put post-it notes all over your desk or monitor or whatever. This way, when you space out at your desk, you look at one of these and it reminds you that, oh, hey, you wanted to write a book, get that promotion, etc.

But post-its are a little old-fashioned, aren’t they?

Here’s what I’ve started doing instead:

Pick up your phone. You always have that with you, right? You probably check it a hundred times a day. And every single time you do, for a split second, you stare at that little screen you have to slide to unlock.

Take a picture of your goal, and put it on that screen.

Last week I had a lot to do, so I wrote it down, took a picture of it, and set that as my lock screen. For several days, many, many times per day, I would see that list, realize I have a bunch of stuff to do, put my phone down, and get back to work. Often without even unlocking it.

I’m training for a race (the kind you run with your feet). Right now my lock screen has a picture of my awesome running shoes, so that a few dozen times a day I’m reminded that running is awesome because I have awesome shoes. Guess how much trouble I’ve had motivating myself to train this week?

You can put all kinds of crazy stuff there. Anything that visually reminds you of your goal is fair game:

Want to write a book? Jot down an outline and use that.

Want to spend more time with your family? Use a picture of the wife and kids.

Want to start updating your blog regularly again? Try a screenshot of your traffic stats from the month you stopped.

Constant reminders are a tried and tested technique for boosting motivation. You’ve got a little portable reminder-machine that you carry with you all the time and are constantly looking at.

It only takes a few seconds to change the image on your lock screen. Why not do that right now?

Oh, and let me know what you set it to, because I bet I can learn from your creativity, too.


Dan’s Seven-Step Guide to Being More Productive

Do you ever have trouble focusing?Do you ever wish you could get just a little more done in an afternoon?

Do you ever procrastinate on your next task because you have a meeting in 20 minutes?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then congratulations! You’re human. And like every other human being (even the ones that lied and said no to all three questions above), you aren’t always as productive as you could be.

That’s ok! It’s impossible to be productive all the time. Nobody’s perfect, every day has its natural ups and downs.

But sometimes you just need to be really productive, just for a little while. How do you give yourself that little extra push?

I’m about to share a little routine I’ve been using lately for just that purpose. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it’s worked really well for me so far. If that sounds like something you want to try, here are the steps:

Step 1: Get a second monitor.

A second monitor is useful for all kinds of reasons, and completely necessary for this routine to work. It doesn’t have to be nice, it doesn’t have to be anywhere near as big as your primary monitor, you just need more than one screen.

Step 2: Put all your notifications on your second monitor.

All of them.

Your dock or taskbar, your IM client, your mail client, your calendar, whatever browser you have your Google apps in, your Twitter et al.; if it flashes or has a notification of any kind, that counts. Second monitor.

Step 3: Put the really important thing that you really need to do on your primary monitor.

Thing. Singular.

This is a great trick for doing one thing at a time. It won’t help you multitask, because multitasking is unproductive. If you have several things to do, pick the most important one. If they’re all important, flip a coin.

Step 4: Put on some music.

This is the most important step. You can’t skip it.

You can listen to any kind of music you want, but you have to be able to set a finite limit on the number of songs played. Radio is no good, neither are apps like Pandora. I use Grooveshark, you can use your iTunes library (or open-source equivalent). Anything that lets you queue up an arbitrary number of songs will do.

The number of songs you line up matters a lot. You’ll see why in a second. For now just choose a dozen songs you really like and press Play.

Step 5: Turn off your second monitor.

Completely off. Unplug it if you have to.

Now, here’s the subtle but key rule in this routine: Don’t turn your second monitor back on until the music stops.

No exceptions.

Step 6: Work on the really important thing.

With your distractions completely blocked out, start working. Whatever you do, don’t break the subtle-but-key rule: as long as there’s music playing, that second monitor stays off.

If you’re blocked and you need to check your mail to figure something out, make an assumption and carry on. If you’re bored and you need a break, just sit there and rock out until that gets more boring than working.

Step 7: When the music runs out, or you’ve finished the really important thing, turn on your second monitor.

Read your mail. Answer your IMs. Catch up on Twitter. Whatever little things you need to do that aren’t actual, real work.

When you’re ready to get more done, go back to Step 3.

The fun part: Scaling up or down.

My favourite part of this system is how well it scales.

Need to get more done? Listen to more music. Meeting in 20 minutes? Put on 20 minutes of songs. Lots of email today? Stick to shorter playlists.

Your brain will grow accustomed to the “music on, notifications off” mentality. As soon as that second screen darkens and your ears start picking up sound, it’s go time. When the music stops, you know it’s time to sync up with the rest of the world.

This routine has worked wonders for me for the past few weeks. Do you have a routine to share? Why not try this one and tell me how it goes?

Motivation Software Development

Motivation Hack: Make Annoying Tasks Fun!

Motivation is a tricky thing. Sometimes it can cause us to complete wildly-improbable tasks, other times it can cause us to dread even the simplest of chores.

The software I’m creating at work has one such chore. Our application interacts with a complex, proprietary, and highly-secure server. One of the consequences of this pattern is that we have to deal with security tokens.

Tokens forsaken.

It works like this: Whenever someone logs into the app, the server issues them a security token. From that point on, all communication between the app and the server must use this token. Easy, right?

Tokens purged.

The chore is this: Due to some wonky bug that is beyond our control, the server can only issue a few dozen tokens, and they’re not renewed properly. We’ve never counted it out, but I’d estimate the server can grant tokens for a hundred or so logins before it runs out.

Tokens scrapped.

When this happens, and it happens every couple of hours, someone needs to manually access some web form and click around a few times to reset the tokens. This is a pain for two reasons.

Tokens obliterated.

First, it interrupts whoever is trying to run the app. Maybe it’s QA breaking my stuff, or our PM showing the app to somebody important, or a dev like myself just trying to validate his latest code change. Whoever is unlucky enough to see the login fail must run through all the token-resetting hoops, and then context-switch back into real-work mode.

Tokens repudiated.

Second, nullifying the tokens will kill any and all existing sessions on the server. So if QA got the last token and is in the middle of a test sequence, and I try to log in next, and fail, and reset the tokens, then QA’s session is suddenly invalid and they’ll start seeing errors left and right.

Tokens slain.

So to stop QA from logging a whole whack of bugs that would be impossible to reproduce, we came up with a system. Whoever resets the tokens lets the rest of the team know by sending a message to our project’s group-chat in Skype.

Just murdered the tokens.

See? Like that.

This was really annoying, especially since we had to do it many times per day. There was much complaining, and clamoring about getting a new version of the server that might solve our problem.

Then, something changed.

Tokens punched in the face and had their milk-money stolen.

We made a rule: Every time you clear the tokens, your message to the group must be unique. At first, we saw a lot of synonyms for “killed”. When we grew tired of running to a thesaurus every few hours, we started getting more creative with our phrasing:

Tokens are dead, and their heads have been mounted on pikes to warn future tokens to stay away.

Topical, even. We would hit movie quotes, the latest news, memes… Nothing was off-limits.

Tokens defeated by attacking their weak points for massive damage.

It became a game. Who could come up with the most creative token-killing message? Who could get the most laughs?

Tokens were eaten by a grue.

Our moods did a full 180 from a few weeks prior. Instead of feeling frustration when I see that login failed error, I now feel excitement. “I have just the thing!” I proclaim, and off I go to reset the tokens before anyone else notices and beats me to it.

Down came the rain and washed the tokens out. Then, I shot them.

We successfully turned a real headache into a fun experience. Morale went up. And a happy team is a productive team!

Tokens fed through a detokenizer.

I’m going to look for other places where joy can replace annoyance. Maybe you can do the same?

You maniacs! You blew them tokens up! Damn you! Damn you all to heeeeeell!


Productivity Hack: Killer Mondays

Monday is my new favourite day of the week.

Most people hate Mondays. My commute this past Monday was full of unhappy, sleepy faces. I used to be like them. Barely awake, I’d drag myself on and off the bus, and proceed to have a slow morning followed by a marginally faster afternoon.

Then I woke up. Literally, and figuratively. Monday is the start of my week. My week. Do I really want to kick off my next five days in a groggy, semi-productive state? What does that say about me and my work habits?

When you start a new project, do you half-ass the first few days? Do you promise yourself you’ll make up for it later in the schedule? Of course you don’t. So why is that an acceptable way to start your week?

Next week I want you to absolutely crush Monday. Make it memorable. Make it the best day you’ve had all month. Get your week started off right, and see what soaring heights it brings you to.

Then do the same the next week.

And again, the week after that.

Eventually, those killer Mondays will become your new norm. And when the rest of your week has caught up, and gotten even better? Give this article another read, and start anew.


Productivity Hack: Still Learning Edition

A few weeks ago, I set a goal for myself to finally get around to doing the handful of half-started personal projects I’ve promised various people I would finish. I called it Unbroken Promise Month. As you may have guessed from the lack of exciting posts recently, this hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. However, I’ve learned a lot about motivation and myself over the past few weeks, and I’m ready to make a few corrections and carry on. Let’s have a look at the things I tried to do this month that I thought would help keep me focused:

1. Wake up at sunrise every day.

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that for the first 10 days of March, I posted a picture of the sunrise every morning (like this one). The idea was that I’m not very good at making productive decisions at night, so if I shifted my day by forcing myself to wake up earlier, that would boost my productivity overall. Sounds reasonable, right?

It turns out this sort of helps. I did actually do a few productive things before going to work in the morning some days. This was nice! What happened more often, though, is that I would rush to get to work earlier, and therefore leave work earlier, and have more time in my evenings. This was nice too. It didn’t quite bring in as much extra productivity as I’d hoped, but it did make me more conscious of how I spend my non-work time.

What didn’t work at all was waking up at sunrise on weekends. I’m glad I tried it, but this is simply incompatible with my lifestyle. The sleep deprivation gradually built up, and then I went off on a mini-vacation thinking that I would catch up on sleep and get back to my sunrise mornings upon my return. Of course, that’s not what happened: I actually slept less while out of town, and haven’t hit a sunrise since I left. I need my weekend sleep.

Overall, it looks like I’m going to keep getting up early on weekdays (maybe not at sunrise, but earlier than I woke up for most of 2010), and play it by ear on weekends; I know waking up early doesn’t work, so it’s time to find out what does.

2. No gaming.

I’m not a video game addict by any means, but I did go a bit overboard in February. I played way too much Fallout, and this had a predictably negative effect on me being productive in my spare time. So I figured to help keep me focused for March, I’d cut video games completely.

This sucked.

I don’t know how to say this without sounding pathetic, but I need that time for myself. It calms me down. It makes me a better person (or so the science says). Cutting it completely didn’t help anybody.

This one makes me wonder, though. Normally when I find something that I enjoy a little too much, I set some arbitrary limit and that works just fine. For example, after my job moved to Gatineau, I started eating way too much poutine. Poutine is delicious, but I can feel my heart beat slower while I eat it. A little is okay, but several times per week is absolutely not. So starting in January, I set my limit to one poutine per month, and that’s worked really well so far. I don’t crave it, or struggle to keep myself in line with my limit, and I don’t feel horribly unhealthy for eating a dozen poutines per year.

I don’t know what sort of magic number will work for gaming. It’s a vice. It’s normally not a problem, but every once in a while I decide that I need to cut back, and so I do. I’m still figuring this one out, but zero is definitely not the solution.

3. Dual-boot Linux.

The motivation here is based on that age-old adage re: the separation of work and play. By allowing my PC to boot to Linux in addition to Windows, I can do relaxing, non-productive things in Windows, and exclusively productive things in Linux.

This kind of works. I really do appreciate the separation, but some things have proven difficult to pigeon-hole. Skype is a great example; is that more of a productive tool or more of a slacking-off tool? Well that kind of depends on how you use it. At my day job, we would not be able to function without Skype or something similar. But it can also be a major distraction, interrupting flow and feeding me non-productive links and funny stories.

I’m going to keep it up, but I think I have to start being a bit more lenient on the everything-must-be-productive rule. Skype should be okay. I need to modify my system to allow for it and similar tools.

Carrying On

I knew it was a bit crazy to try to do all of these projects in the same month. I’m still going to try to get many of them done, or at least started, before April. And if I get that far, I’m still marking that down as a win.

Sure, it would have been great to have powered through all of March and caught up on everything I’ve ever wanted to do. But I’m even better off if in exchange for not getting everything done right away, I’ve developed a sustainable set of practices that I can use for the rest of my life.


Productivity Hack: Small Victories

Do you ever wake up late for work?

This happened to me the other day. And I mean late — it was 9:30 when I groggily reached for my clock to check the time.

I went through the usual woke-up-late routine. I took the world’s fastest shower, grabbed some clothes off my floor, brushed my teeth (most of them, anyway) and rushed out the door to catch the next bus.

Then, just as I was slipping on some running shoes that were about to be put to good use, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror… It wasn’t a huge deal, but I looked pretty dishevelled. I hadn’t shaved. In my rush, I’d forgotten to grab a belt, and the shirt I’d picked up off my floor was totally wrinkled. My hair was a disaster, but that’s hardly news.

Here’s where the day got interesting. The easy thing to do would be to keep going and catch that bus, and get to work as soon as possible. I didn’t look great, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I had a whole bus ride to rationalize and justify my less-than-stellar look.

Instead, I stopped. I took off my shoes, I cleaned myself up, I changed into a clean shirt.

Appreciate the small victories.

This took some effort. I was in no mood to waste time getting dressed again, and now I was going to be even more late because I’d have to wait for the next bus. But if I couldn’t even be bothered to wear a clean shirt, what would that say about the rest of my day?

Small victories like this one are important because they put you in a victory-mindset. Instead of feeling a bit off all day, I took the extra time to make sure that when I got to work, I was ready. Ready to succeed. Ready to give 110%.

You don’t go straight from zero to all-star performance. It’s the little victories that get the ball rolling. They prepare you to succeed. The next victory will be a little bigger, and so will the one after that. Your day will go nowhere but up, all you have to do is follow along!

And sometimes, when you’re in a rut, all it takes is one small victory to get you back up on your feet.


Motivation Hack: Be Untouchable

I had a busy summer/fall. I was on a lot of projects at work, plus writing blog posts, working on a whitepaper, speaking more than usual, buying a house… and there was something about a wedding in there, too. At times, this could get completely overwhelming. But I found a neat hack to ensure that I was focused, motivated, and in a good mood every morning when I got to work, and every evening when I got home to my then-fiancée. It helped me survive. One simple trick made my tasks easier, and my day more enjoyable. Here’s what it was:

I took the bus to work.

Yeah, that probably doesn’t sound relaxing or motivating to you, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First let’s read into this a little to see why it worked so well for me.

What makes me untouchable?

My commute to work is about 25 minutes by bus. So in the morning, I have a 25-minute ride to work, and in the afternoon, a 25-minute ride back home. In this 25 minutes, I’m only doing about three things:

  1. Listening to music.
  2. Looking out the window.
  3. Breathing.

…And that’s all. What’s probably more telling is what I’m not doing:

  1. Worrying about traffic.
  2. Checking my mail.
  3. Planning my day/next task.
  4. Writing, or doing any work of any kind.

In fact, I just sit there, headphones in, staring out a window — totally spaced. This is what I call my “untouchable” time, because nothing can get to me in that time. I’m relaxed and not paying any attention to anything important, and that completely loosens me up. It clears my head. And whatever was stressing me out when I got on the bus is forgotten by the time I get off. So when I stroll into work in the morning, and when I arrive home after a long day (ready for a long night), I’m golden. I’m calm, happy, and ready to start on whatever’s up next.

Now I’m willing to accept that most people do not associate taking the bus with a calming, almost meditative experience, so let’s look at some other options.

What makes you untouchable?

Everyone has something that gives them that Zen-like, tuned out feeling. And if you just do whatever gives you that feeling once or twice a day, it will have a big impact on your mood and productivity. Here are some ideas to help you find your untouchable trigger:

  • Read. No news, no tabloids. A real, physical book.
  • Meditate. This isn’t my thing, but it works for plenty of people.
  • Take a nap. Just be sure to set a timer.
  • Lounge out in a comfy chair, with a cold drink. I do this too.

And of course, just as important, here are some things to avoid:

  • Don’t do anything that will trigger dopamine. Internet, games, TV, etc.
  • Try not to strain your eyes. Close them if you’re tired and avoid screens.
  • Resist the urge to plan and organize. You’re on break.

A good rule of thumb is if you’re doing something productive, you’re doing it wrong. You can afford a small chunk of time every day to be non-productive. When you’re not super-busy, this happens naturally. When you are super-busy, it’s your responsibility to make sure you still get that downtime. You need it. Trust me.

Your turn.

Do you already do something like this? Tell me about it. Do you have other ideas for making yourself untouchable? Share them.


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?