Archive for January, 2009

Task Timing and Maintaining Focus

stopwatch.jpgSince I’ve been using the preview release of The Hit List (reviewed in my last post) I’ve been taking advantage of its built in task timer. My though was that I would keep track of how long I was spending on each task and get a sense of whether my time was being spent wisely. So far I haven’t done any analysis of where my time is going, nor have I changed my behavior based on what tasks I should be spending more or less time on. Even so, the task timer has been extremely useful because of an unforeseen benefit.

The timer keeps me on task.

Whenever I see the little timer window on my screen I know that there’s on thing I’m supposed to be doing now. If I let myself get caught up in distractions then I’ll be destroying the accuracy of the timer. Of course, I could just stop the timer, do something else, and then start it again (and I have done this) but the mere presence of the timer tends to keep me doing, and completing, one thing at a time. For me this is huge. I’m easily distracted and can easily allow one small task to stretch out over a whole day while I pay attention to something, anything, other than what I’m trying to accomplish.

You don’t need a piece of software to get this benefit; a simple egg timer on your desk and a note saying what you’re timing would accomplish the same thing. I’m sure there are other benefits to task timing (including the aforementioned long range tracking), but if all it did was keep me focused on one thing at a time it would be more than enough.

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Time Management Tool: The Hit List

The folks at The Potion Factory have developed a Time Management application, now in public preview, called The Hit List. I’ve been using the app for a couple of weeks now and am seriously impressed with the design, feature set and overall philosophy behind it.

The Hit List is structured around lists as the basic framework, which works brilliantly with the Getting Things Done approach since David Allen’s program is also list based. Features include quick entry from any app, associating tasks with contexts and tags (contexts are really just a kind of tag), assigning start and due dates, and Today and Upcoming lists which aggregate tasks depending on when they start and end. These features are pretty standard and are shared by other apps like Things and Omnifocus.

The feature that sets The Hit List apart is the way you navigate around the application. Task creation, tag and context association, date setting, switching to different views and lists – all of this can be accessed through the keyboard. As a habitual user of Quicksilver in the past and now Launchbar (both for Mac) I love to be able to keep my hands on the keyboard. Total keyboard control of The Hit List makes it fast and fun for me to use and easy to jam through my workflow.

Another feature usually missing from apps like this that Hit List includes is a timer. Select a task and hit the “b” key and a small timer window pops up, visible on top of other windows, that shows that task and the time elapsed. In concert with Bubbletimer I’m hoping this will make it easy for me to track what I’m spending time on. As I look at the timer now I see that I’m at 13 minutes for this entry so I’ll wrap it up.

The Hit List is already a pleasure to use and should improve with a release version. Further features like upcoming iPhone integration could make it a best of breed app and even worth the $69.95 the Potion Factory is planning to charge.

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What do I mean by work?

When I started this blog I made a commitment to working on it 15 minutes a day; but what does this work consist of? Writing posts? Improving the site? Coming up with ideas for future posts?

All this counts as work, but perhaps “work” is the wrong word since it implies that it’s not fun and is only done out of necessity. Perhaps a better word is “attention”. I am giving this blog my full attention for 15 minutes a day. 15 minutes where nothing else is taking up my time. If that means I’m staring at the blog page for 15 minutes then so be it.

I can’t guarantee quality, in this or anything else. The best I can do is focus on this project for the amount of time I’ve put aside and hope that the results are worthwhile. If nothing else I’ll most likely be better at this tomorrow than I am today. That’s the beauty of habitual action: proficiency increases like compound interest – at least up to a point – if you can maintain focus.

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Bubble Timer

I’ve already mentioned Zen Habits here, which was one of my inspirations to start this blog. Something else I came across which spurred me to do this is Bubble Timer. Bubble Timer is a simple web application which lets you track your time in 15 minute increments. You set up activities you want to track and then fill in “bubbles” that represent 15 minutes spent. The app then tracks all that time which can be viewed in graphic displays or exported to a spreadsheet so you can see where your time is going.

Needless to say, my time spent on this blog is getting tracked with Bubble Timer, as are other activities I want to be sure to do, or not to do. Since you can set maximum, minimum or exact time goals for each activity, the Timer can be helpful in cutting down time spent on some activities as well as increasing or maintaining time spent on others.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Bubble Timer can’t make you spend time on important tasks and activities, but it can help you measure your time so you can act on better information. I haven’t perfectly set up my Bubble Timer yet and am still working (but not too much I hope) on fiddling with the tool so it can be most effective. Thankfully there’s an active forum (via getsatisfaction) where I can look to see how others are grappling with similar issues.

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A Fistful of Ideas

Ideas are cheap, good execution is the tough part. Still, without an idea execution is impossible, so on that basis I’ll lay out some ideas I’ve had for this blog. Who knows, maybe I’ll even follow up on one of them.

  1. A month full of reviews of the same item: I have some favorite songs, books, movies, etc. and thought that it might be interesting to visit the same favorite every day for a month and write about what new or interesting views I had of it every day.
  2. A habit a month: This is one stolen from Zen Habits. I could start a new habit every month and report each day on its progress.
  3. Links: No link list on this blog right now; there’s some sites I really like that would be a good fit to put here somewhere.
  4. Fifteen minutes of fame: There are people I admire who deserve to be mentioned here. Actually they certainly deserve much more than that, but hey, I do what I can.

So there’s a few ideas, so cheap I threw them up here in less than fifteen minutes. If only doing something with them was as easy.

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Losing the Habit

Confession time: it’s been two weeks since I worked on this blog – after I made a commitment to putting in 15 minutes every day.

I Have a Good Excuse

Perhaps the best excuse: my first child, a son, was born 11 days ago. This has pretty much put a stop to life as I have known it so far. My job, social life, recreational activity, exercise: it all came to a halt about two weeks ago. Ths was by design: I knew that my family needed and deserved all my attention all the time.

So What Now?

Clearly things have changed irrevocably, but I’m hoping I’ll regain my equilibrium before too long. I’m hoping to pick back up habits I want to continue, even if I have to approach them differently. I’ll be trying to get back to maintaining this blog on a daily basis. Right now I’m typing this post with one hand so I can rock my boy back to sleep with the other. If that’s what it takes then so be it.

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Missing a Day

Confession time: I totally neglected this blog yesterday.  Not because I was traveling, not because it was New Years Day, not because I was too busy.  I just didn’t make the time and couldn’t be bothered.  I made a commitment to working on this blog every day and I’ve already let myself down.  So what am I going to do about it?

Nothing.

That’s right.  I’m not going to work on the blog for an extra fifteen minutes today.  I’m not going to beat myself up over missing a day.  I’m not even going to think about this slip again if I can help it.  I’ve found that going over past mistakes is unhelpful and destructive.  There is a time for analyzing the past and learning from it, but only if this learning can lead to different behavior and improved action.  Merely feeling badly about prior behavior just reinforces the idea that correct action is difficult and beyond one’s grasp.

The whole point of habitual action is that it gets done without much effort or forethought.  Habit does not require analysis, motivation or rationalization.  Habitual action only needs to be done today…and then tomorrow…and then the day after that.  If I miss today there is no way to correct that.  All I can do is come back tomorrow.  The great thing about a habit is that it provides its own motivation.

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