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?


Your Three-Step Plan for Getting Out of a Slump

My softball team won our first playoff game last night. It went to extra innings, and we just barely managed to eek out a win against a very strong team. Everyone was excited that we won, but I was a little more thankful than the rest of us…

You see, I’m in a slump.

My hitting has been sub-par the last few weeks. I’ve gone from hitting doubles every at-bat, to struggling just to make it to first base. Yesterday’s game was especially bad. When the team was rocking a two-out rally in the bottom of the seventh, I hit a soft ground ball back to the pitcher to end the inning — killing our momentum, and stranding runners on base.

I feel like I’m letting my team down. I know I’m not playing badly, but I can do better. I’m not my awesome, clutch-hitting self. And that hurts when it starts impacting our score.

Do you ever feel like you’re not as stellar as usual? Do you miss it too? It’s time we dig ourselves out of this. Here’s the plan:

Step 1: Stop psyching yourself out.

Your mental state in a slump is a toxic environment. You start counting your failures, and worrying about everything you might be doing wrong. You sweat the small stuff, and this throws you further off balance.

It’s one part vicious cycle, one part self-fulfilling prophecy.

We have to turn that thinking around. Let’s stop focusing on the negatives. Instead of beating ourselves up, let’s put on a happy face. Celebrate the little victories. Start building some momentum.

The first step towards getting out of a slump is to acknowledge that you’re under-performing, and to look for the positives anyway. Don’t let your nagging voice get in your way; fight back and show that voice who’s boss!

Step 2: Get back on track by tweaking your workflow.

When you’re in a slump, you’re there because something went wrong. Maybe your environment changed, maybe you got a little over-confident, maybe you were trying something wonky with your swing (guilty).

Whatever happened, it’s probably not possible to undo at this point. So it’s time to move on.

Remember that we’re not alone in this. Let’s ask for advice, and genuinely listen to what we get back. It can be a humbling experience, and it will give us a few new tricks to try out.

The second step towards getting out of a slump is to experiment. To gain some insight, and implement any necessary changes. Slowly, little-by-little, you’ll start moving in the right direction — back to your killer former self.

Step 3: Back and better than ever.

I know it probably seems like this is far away right now. It’s not. Despite what your mind might be telling you, you’re closer to your goal-crushing, homerun-hitting prior self than you think.

And you know what will get you that last bit of the way there? Hard work.

We’ve got to keep our heads down, and power through this slump. Sure, we’re not as productive as usual, but that’s the nature of the game; nobody’s a hero on every single play.

The third and final step towards getting out a of a slump is to just keep at it. Don’t let ordinary output slow you down. Instead, generate as much of it as you can! You won’t even notice when the switch happens. One moment you’re mediocre, then all of a sudden you’re kicking ass again — and we can forget this whole slump thing ever happened.

Falling into a slump is totally normal, and an expected part of any long-term endeavour. It’s not the end of the world. The way to beat a slump is to stop making it worse, start making it better, and keep at it until you’re back to your usual, entirely awesome self.

P.S. This applies as well to web development as it does to softball.


Do As Much As You Can (Even When You Can’t Do Very Much)

It’s easy to blow off responsibilities when you’re busy.

It’s easy to care less about something when your attention is constantly in demand.

It’s easy to skip a recurring task — just this one time — and make it up next week.

But by doing any of the above, you’re cheating yourself. And you owe yourself more.

The little things matter a lot.

You know about the little things, right? They’re the ones you consider skipping. The blog posts you don’t bother writing, because you’re tired, and you only have like 34 minutes and really what good are you going to write in such a short period of time?

But 34 minutes is still a whole lot more than no minutes. You owe it to yourself to take advantage of that time. Sure, your 34-minute post isn’t going to be the best one you’ve ever written, but does that automatically mean it’s not worthwhile? You’ll still learn a ton, and it will still be fun to write.

Do it.

And I’m not just talking about blogs.

Party too hard this weekend? Must be tempting to phone it in on Monday. Find some excuses, push a few things to tomorrow, whatever. You have to leave early to take the kids to soccer anyway, so you may as well relax and take it easy.

Don’t let rationalization fool you. You’re better than you give yourself credit for.

You have most of a day. You won’t be working at full strength, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take on a mean-looking todo-list and still win. You’re an underdog, and underdogs don’t give up. They push and use every bit of energy they’ve got to do what they shouldn’t have reasonably been capable of doing.

Be unreasonable.

Yes, I’m talking to you.

I know you have moments where you think of calling it off. You think of caving, of letting this one go. Everybody does.

Just remember: Something is always better than nothing. So go make something of that time, that energy, that everything.

Don’t make nothing.


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.


Focus on the Frisbee

I had my mid-term review at work last week. This is a meeting where I meet with my manager, and we discuss my accomplishments, goals, strengths and weaknesses over the past six months (we have a similar year-end review in the fall).

I won’t brag about the great things I’ve done this year, or how awesome I am at my job, or about the superb goals I’ve set this year. What I want to talk about is my biggest weakness:

I lack focus.

My boss compared me to a puppy.

Tony is great at explaining things. This was a perfect analogy. Here’s how I remember it:

“It’s like bringing a puppy to the park. He’s really excited to be there, full of energy. You throw a frisbee and he’s off and running after it.

Then he catches a whiff of something really interesting, and slows down to figure out what it is.

After following the scent a few steps, he sees a squirrel out of the corner of his eye, and sprints after it…”

You can see where this is going. The puppy takes forever to get to the frisbee, because he got caught up doing other things. Important dog things, maybe. But the goal wasn’t to do great things: the goal was to retrieve a frisbee.

The similarity is striking.

I don’t have a short attention span, and I’m no slouch either. My problem is that I have a lot of energy, and no trouble finding interesting problems to solve.

We need a DAO to retrieve model data? Great! We should probably use Core Data for the model, let me go ahead and set that up. Oh, and this property should be an enumeration! What’s the syntax for that again? What’s the proper way to store enumerations in Core Data, anyway? We’ll want to localize this too, and I’ll need a new function to serialize it for the UI, and…

And all we needed was a DAO.

(Yes, this is a true story.)

Instead of focusing on quickly pumping out the data access classes that we really needed, I wasted time solving interesting sub-problems that weren’t part of my task.

As you might have guessed, this came with consequences. My task was (very) late, and instead of spending that extra energy on other things we really needed that week, I spent it on a deep-dive into enumerations in objective-c.

Lesson learned.

I read a great quote a little while ago. So good that I wrote it down:

“Management is the art of choosing what not to do.”

Turns out the same is true for other disciplines. This was advice I really needed to hear.


(P.S. That last quote is by Michael Lopp, from his book Being Geek. This book is so badass that it has its own trailer. Check it out! It’s a great read.)


Three Ways to Suck at your TODO List

“You should have more images on your site.”
“I know! That’s next.”


Next is a giant TODO list of great ideas. A new design, some WordPress plugins to check out, that brilliant idea for a killer webapp. And you know what? I suck at Next. I have no problem adding things to my TODO list, but I can never seem to get them done fast enough, including whatever’s “Next”.

This is the part where I explain how to fix your productivity problems.

Except I can’t. Because I’m no good at this, remember? So instead, here’s a list of what not to do. What to avoid doing! Bad habits that I just can’t shake, and maybe you can’t either.

1. Don’t book time in your calendar to tackle your TODO list.

You’ll find time eventually, right? After you get back from Vegas, after the move, then you can settle in and finish that guest post.

This will never happen. You won’t just find a pot of free time at the end of the rainbow. If you don’t commit a couple of hours per week to tackling the stuff that normally falls through the cracks, then, well, it’s going to keep falling through the cracks.

This is hard for some people. It’s hard for me. I have a lot going on right now, and I bet you do too. That’s never going to change. Find some time you can commit to every week, even if the only time you can spare is early Saturday morning while your wife is at the gym.

2. Don’t set deadlines for yourself.

Deadlines are for office drones. This is your spare time! You’ll use it as you see fit. You’ll write that ebook when you feel like writing it.

Guess what? If it’s as big as an ebook, and you didn’t start on it right away, you’ll probably never “feel” like doing it. You’ll certainly want to — that’s how it made the list, after all — but that’s not the same as needing to do it more than anything else right now.

Don’t lie to yourself. If you don’t set a deadline, and put something BIG at the end of that deadline to show yourself that you mean business, it’s not going to happen.

There’s a reason offices like deadlines. They work.

3. Don’t let logic overrule emotion.

Of course I want to play softball again this year. Of course I’ll also play soccer. Yes, I promised myself I’d start running this summer, and I still will, dammit; I’ll do all three.

Choosing is hard. It involves making sacrifices. Sometimes you have to give up something you really want to do for something you really want to do. It’s lame. You want to do both, or all three, or all of the above, but the math just doesn’t work out.

This is an easy trap to fall into. Saying “No” is hard. I struggle with it a lot, and unless you’re incredibly self-aware, you probably do sometimes too. The upshot, though, is that there are an infinite number of chances to practice getting this one right. So practice.


I don’t have a magic formula for implementing the advice implied above. Nobody does, there is no such thing. The only solution is hard work, and being judicious about where you choose to spend your time.

If it’s easy, if it’s not a constant struggle, if it doesn’t feel like work: you’re probably doing it wrong.