Benefiting from the Constraints of Pen and Paper to Tame Tasks

In the last 18 months, I’ve moved from using a task manager application to using pen and notebook and a technique called bullet journaling. The transition to this method hasn’t been without its challenges, but there’s one thing that it provides that I don’t get with any task manager application that I’ve used. And that is constraints.

Task management applications like to sell lots of benefits like being able to go with me wherever I go, work wherever I am and manage anything I throw at it. That last advantage is quite interesting because it’s here that I find that task management applications work quite well for me for a while, but I usually end up over-committing with a crazy list of tasks sometimes running into hundreds.

Thanks to improvements in technology, we have these little portable devices in our pockets that can potentially hold thousands (perhaps even millions) of tasks. These same devices also make it simple to add more tasks with the ability to type, speak or automate the process of creating new tasks. There are very few constraints in creating new tasks other than perhaps losing the wi-fi signal or running out of battery. These are not big constraints given that the world is more connected than ever and we have portable chargers to keep our devices topped up.

I keep all my tasks together at the back of my notebook. Written by hand and double-spaced. Sounds labourious right? Bear with me.

With each new task added, I often find myself questioning the value of the task and whether it is even worth writing down. I also look at the number of tasks I have decided if I need to focus on those first before adding anything else.

When it comes to moving tasks from one page to another, again I question the value of the task and whether it is worth moving.

My master list of tasks is usually about three pages long. Take into account that the notebook is smaller than A4 and my writing is double-spaced, that’s not a lot of tasks to do. The constraints of time to write a task and the effort in maintaining it when using paper mean that my complete list of tasks is manageable.

You can enforce these constraints on your favourite task management application, but I’ve often found that this is difficult to do given how easy to use these types of applications are.

Now, I’m not saying that bullet journaling is the silver bullet solution to all productivity hacks; it isn’t. However, the constraints of notebooks are why I find that bullet journaling works so well. It allows me to manage a smaller and more focused list of tasks and that in turns stops me from over-committing.

My Three Words for 2018

I’ve already written about how I use habits rather than resolutions for the year. Resolutions are doomed to fail, but practices can be iteratively built on over the year and eventually form a set of good habits.

How do you stay focused on these habits though?

Well, one way I’ve been able to build on these habits over the last couple of years is using Chris Brogan’s three words. It’s a simple idea.

You pick three words for that will guide your actions through the year. Through the course of the year, your efforts should align with these three words so that anything that you do is working towards them. The words themselves are goals, but not specific ones. Just parts of your life that you want to make better.

Last year my words were habit, health and hustle. I’m chuffed to say that at the end of 2017 I had lost a bit of weight and I’m now more active through the work week to stop myself getting any more back pain.

This year’s words are less of a focus on health and work and more about content and delivery.

Bootstrap - For too long I’ve had a little email product running that has been running quietly in the background. It’s time to bring it to the masses and bootstrap it from being merely just a product that people use to one that people rave about. Of course, I’m talking about DailyMuse. I want to expand this product so that it becomes more of a featured revenue stream than something I merely allow to run. DailyMuse isn’t the only product in the pipeline though. I’m intrigued about a numberless analytics idea, and I’m interested in exploring a niche market for my web development skills that could help end the feast and famine cycle that is always at the back of my mind as a freelancer.

Blog - I remember the great days of blogging every day. It didn’t matter what day it was. I punted something out anyway. This single word over the last two weeks has prompted me to write and publish more often already this month and look set to complete one week with a post a day.

Budget - When it comes to time, we only have so much of it. For 2018 I want to budget my time and energy through the week so that I’m not idling away my time in front of the television or on my phone. This isn’t a call to budget every minute of every day. Scheduling my day in this way doesn’t work for me. The plan is to spread my time, focus and energy over the week, rather than blitz everything in the one day. One way of doing this is to theme each day around a particular product or project.

I wouldn’t say that 2017 was a significant success using this technique, but I did make some gains. I’m aiming to do better with my three words for 2018.

No Resolutions, Just Good Habits

I’m not making any resolutions for the year ahead.

In my experience, it’s a self-defeating exercise that always ends up with me not seeing it through to the end of the year.

If you’re thinking along the same lines, then what’s the alternative to making improvements without failing?

Have you ever noticed how bad habits stick like watching television, sitting on the couch, and mindlessly thumbing through timelines on social media? These are not good habits to get into, but the thing about them is that they’re easy to do. They just don’t require any thought whatsoever.

What if we could just as quickly get into good habits rather than bad habits?

Well, this is what worked for me when I first started building good habits.

I started with just one habit.

I started getting into the habit of writing every day. To help remind myself to write, I set the alarm on my phone to give me the nudge to start writing. When my phone went off, I would then start writing. That’s all I did for a whole month. A habit built up every day. And it worked. It’s still working. I’m writing this, aren’t I?

The following month I added another alarm on my phone to do something else the next month and kept it going through the year. By the end of the year, I had built up some good habits that helped me through the day.

The problem many people face with new year resolutions is that they try to do too much at once. It’s like trying to lift weights at the gym. You just can’t bench press 100kg unless you’ve trained your body to get into the habit of being able to bench press 100kg. To achieve such a weight, you need to start with a smaller load and then gradually build up to the target weight.

Habits are the same.

You start small (ideally with one) and then build them up.

Tracking your habits is a great way to build them up. I’ve tried some habit tracking apps over the last year, but the one that works for me is Productive. It was the first habit tracking app that I tried, and nothing else I’ve tried has been as easy to use.

The good thing about tracking apps is that they give you a sense of success when you’ve reached a significant milestone like completing the habit for a week or even a month. Productive and other habit tracking apps have reminders built in as well, so it keeps all your habit building needs in the one place.

So, forget the new year resolutions and set yourself a short-term habit to achieve for the next few days. Once you’ve completed a few days with it, extend the practice for a few more days and keep at it. In no time you’ll find that you’ve been able to get into your intended habit daily and by the end of a period of a few weeks it will become more of something that you just do.

Features I would love to see in Safari iOS

I’ve been using an iPad Pro as a web development device for a few months now. Overall I’ve been surprised at the ability of the device to handle this type of work. Apps like Working Copy, Textastic and GoCoEdit have certainly helped as has the split view on iOS and more recently the ability to drag and drop between apps.

One drawback amongst all this though is the browser I use. Safari has been my browser of choice for iOS for a long time. I’ve had brief dealings with Google Chrome and Firefox, but they’ve never lasted in terms of use. I keep coming back to Safari.

As browser’s go, there’s little to fault about Safari on all the devices it supports. It works well on my iPhone and the smaller iPads I’ve used over the years. With the iPad Pro though, it feels that Safari is short-changing me.

Pinned tabs

Right okay. Pinned tabs aren’t on everybody’s list of priority features for a browser but I’ve been using them for so long on other browsers it seems that they’ve been around forever. That’s not true in the case of Safari for macOS though. Pinned tabs have only been around for a couple of years with Safari which seems like a very short amount of time given that they have been available in other browsers for years.

So why pinned tabs on Safari for iOS?

Well, largely it’s an organisational thing. There’s a number of tabs that I keep open through the day and pinning these tabs in the browser allows me to quickly jump to them through the day.

Given the screen space on the iPad Pro models and even on the iPad Mini models, I’m surprised that the pinning of tabs hasn’t already been done.

Web inspector

I was surprised to find that the Web Inspector on Safari for iOS is only available when you connect your iPad to another Apple computer.

Screenshot of Safari Web Inspecter preferences

Now while a web inspector is probably a big ask on a device that probably wasn’t intended to be a web development device, I think it’s a fair request. People are turning to the iPad Pro and looking for a device that replaces their laptop or even their desktop. The inability to run the Web Inspector without connecting the iPad Pro to a MacBook or iMac doesn’t exactly

However, while you might not be able to use the Web Inspector for Safari iOS without connecting to another Mac, there is an app called Web Tools that replicates this need feature rather nicely.

Support for pinned extensions

I toyed with the idea of calling these starred extensions but pinned extensions might be a better idea, but first I have to explain what this is.

At the top right of the Safari app on the iPad is the share button. This button allows you to share the current URL with a number of other apps on your iPad or iPhone. I use it a number of times every day, mostly for sharing links to my Instapaper, Pinboard and Bear apps. I also use it quite a lot for opening 1Password. The share button on the iPad Pro is a quick and convenient way for me to share a link. It’s also one more press on the screen than I care to do.

If you take a look at the Safari interface on my iPad Pro, you’ll notice that there is some whitespace on either side of the address bar. What if this space could be utilised in a better way rather than just leaving it blank. What if (and only if your screen size can support it) you could pin a couple of your favourite share extensions to the Safari toolbar?

By pinning your share extensions to either the left or right of the address bar, you’re putting your share extensions in a more convenient place.

There are obvious restrictions to this like screen size and even the orientation of the device which governs how much space you have, but surely the developers at Apple could make this happen?

The expectations of a Pro device

When you name your device as ‘Pro’ there is a certain level of expectation of it. I must admit I eye-rolled when I first heard that the new iPad would be called an iPad Pro, but as I heard more about it and watched the first couple of iterations of the device, I could see where Apple was going with this.

To support this new family of devices I think that there needs to another level up of apps that are targeted at the Pro line of devices only or at least variations of the apps that support Pro features.

These apps might be specialised and target a specific market of people, but given that the iPad Pro is already being seen as a viable option to a laptop and even a desktop, I think it’s important for Apple to offer that extra bit of functionality that users may look for in an app.

These features that I’m looking for in Safari for iOS might not be a priority for the Safari team or even on the list of new features for Safari, but I’m sure that if Apple is looking to push the iPad Pro device to more professionals then there should be some distinction between the normal apps for iOS and those for Pro devices.

A spreadsheet will do

Over the weekend I closed my Highrise account.

In case your not familiar with the name, Highrise is a CRM product for small businesses. It started life as part of the 37signals range of products, but has since branched out onto it’s own.

The initial pull to using a CRM tool like Highrise is that I wanted to a tool that allowed me to store important emails from clients as well as track projects and work I was chasing with prospective clients. Highrise has great email integration that allows you to forward emails from clients to Highrise and it will store them for you. It also allows you to track deals which in my case represented prospective work with clients and creating proposals to win work.

I should mention that while Highrise is a great product, my decision to cancel my account with it isn’t anything to do with the performance and features of Highrise. It is a great product and under the right circumstances it is worth looking at if you need a CRM for your small business.

My main reason for moving away from Highrise was more to do with how I wasn’t using it to it’s full potential.

In the time that I’ve had to use Highrise, I’ve used the deals section rarely. It’s nothing to do with Highrise, it’s just that in the time that I have been freelancing, most correspondence takes place over email and I’ve rarely had to pitch for work. Most prospective clients like to discuss the work that they would like me to do and discuss my background and experience. After a few emails, most of these prospective clients then decide to exchange contracts to begin the work. I’ve rarely had to pitch for work and so the deals feature of Highrise has been left untouched.

The email integration with Highrise on the other hand though was used on a daily basis. Client emails went straight to Highrise as well as my replies to them. Although I used this feature daily, there were only a handful of different clients to deal with at anyone time so while the archiving of these emails in Highrise was nice to have, most of the emails involved discussions before work began. My email provider already offers a large amount of space to store emails and they’re filed away in a folder. I was starting to wonder if I needed Highrise to manage the storage of emails.

Finally there was the managing of contacts. Yes I do have all my clients contact details, but I rarely have to refer to them. I speak with clients daily when working with them, I use email to send weekly updates and invoices and for all other daily correspondence with clients I recommend Slack. All my clients details are saved on the appropriate devices I need to have them on and aside from that there’s no other special requirement to managing this data.

It was starting to look like I didn’t need Highrise at all.

After deliberating for a few days I finally decided to export all my data from Highrise and delete my account. Without a CRM though I needed something else. All my client details are already stored in my address book but I needed something else that acted as a more detailed version of their details and allowed me to find and filter contacts based on information I have recorded against each of them.

The answer lay in a document type that I rarely use. The spreadsheet.

After getting the contact columns in the spreadsheet in the right order, I imported the contact details in and started adding the necessary changes I need so that I could filter those contacts.

Right, so the spreadsheet doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Highrise, but for the moment it will do. I’ve got all my contacts in one place. I can filter them based on the next date with which I need to contact them for a catch up and there’s enough flexibility in Numbers in that I can add more information if I need for each client.

If my client base was to increase over the next 12 months and work started to change on a monthly basis then I would definitely consider Highrise again. It is a great product, but I couldn’t justify it’s use as a simple address book and email archive.

For the moment though, the spreadsheet is enough for me.

The Deep Productivity Seminar

Yesterday I attended the Nicholas Bate’s Deep Productivity seminar in Oxford. It was a great chance to meet a fellow and much respected blogger and at the same use the course to gather up all the important bits about productivity.

The venue of the seminar was in the Magdalen College School. It was unlike any school I’ve ever visited and is also the oldest school that I’ve ever been in. If you like Harry Potter you will love this place.

I arrived a bit early being just around the corner for accommodation. I got speaking to Nicholas and a few other attendees to the seminar and then the hard work began at 9am.

The seminar was extremely valuable and it was a good opportunity to re-visit some strategies to help stay focused and productive. I also walked away with a number of books from Nicholas that have been added to the top of the reading list.

So what did I get from this seminar then?

Well, the whole point of this wasn’t to learn something new. I’m a big fan of Nicholas Bate’s blog and his material so I was already familiar with a number of strategies, but where I previously got this information over a long period of time, the seminar provided the opportunity to consolidate all of this information into a single form that I could digest more easily and refresh my brain.

It was also a great opportunity to meet Nicholas and other attendees.

All in it was a great investment of my time and I hope that it can yield some great results in the weeks, months and years to come.

Thank you Nicholas for putting on a superb event and it was great to finally meet you good sir!

For the attendees, I’ve managed to go my first 24 hours without bread as my first actionable item. Started yesterday during the seminar (thanks for the nudge NB) and made it to this morning by having cereal and a smoothie rather than toast. Yay!

Scaling Back

For a long time I’ve wrestled with a number of different terminal apps and tools in the hope of improving my productivity at the command line. Initially I used iTerm2, a terminal emulator for macOS, as my preferred terminal app. Then I also started using tmux, a terminal multiplexer, on top of that. Then came along Vim, the open source text editor, and I started using that as well.

This was the first time in a long time that I had started using all three again. The benefit of using this combination of tools is that I could run both my command line and text editor within a single app and very rarely have to switch away from it.

One huge pain point I couldn’t get round though was the simple act of copying and pasting text between Vim and other apps. Despite a number of attempts to get it working I’ve decided to call it a day on this trio of tools.

  • Vim is a great text editor, but to be honest I’m faster coding with Sublime Text or even Atom for that fact. Yes, I use the mouse and yes I want to have features and plugins that don’t require me to mess about with command line.
  • tmux is great for managing different command line sessions within a single terminal emulator but I don’t think it’s a necessity. Lately I’ve been doing away with split panes and using multiple tabs.
  • Which brings me to iTerm2. As great an application as it is, there’s nothing that it offers that I can’t get from Apple’s own terminal emulator, Terminal.

So I stopped using Vim, tmux and iTerm2 and fell back to using Terminal and Sublime Text.

I’ve went full circle from starting with the basics, adding more tools to the stack, before reducing the tools I need for the terminal right down to the absolute basics. One app for the terminal and one app for editing source code.

I can see the case for using tools like tmux and Vim. Maybe you spend most of your day in a terminal as a system administrator and you’re faster with Vim. Maybe you need to manage multiple servers on a daily basis so splitting panes in tmux suits your line of work. I get it. I understand why these tools exist and why you would use them.

Sometimes though scaling back is just as much a benefit.

A lesson in building habits

It’s that time of year where people are starting to tail off on their new year resolutions. Let’s face it, for most of us new year resolutions are nothing more than pipe dream. I don’t do new year resolutions but what I do believe in are habits.

Habits are easier to build than new year resolutions and once they’re part of your routine, you’ll find that don’t need to spend as much time building that habit again if you break it. This also makes your goals (or resolutions) much more achievable.

Ethan’s golf has been progressing nicely over the past year. He’s comfortable with his new clubs, he’s familiar with his local course and he’s getting to know more and more people through different levels of coaching and playing. His handicap didn’t fall much last year, but he’s adamant that this year it will come down and he’s set himself the target of being at a handicap of 20 or less by the end of this year.

Rather than getting him to focus on the long term goal of reducing his handicap though I started him on something more manageable.

Building the habit of practicing every day for 20 minutes.

It doesn’t matter what part of his game he practices on, it could be his swing, chipping, putting or playing out on the course.

He started off well. He needed reminders to practice in the first week, but he managed to get there. After a couple of weeks, his calendar now looks like this:

16 days of daily practice and all without a break in the chain.

I don’t need to remind him to practice anymore. He just does it. He takes a look at his calendar and puts in the practice so that he can keep put the next ‘X’ in and keep the chain going.

The habit is now part of his daily routine but Ethan is still a long way away from that goal. Once the golf season starts in earnest he should see better scores on his scored cards and start to see that handicap fall.

Level up

There comes a point in your career when you can no longer coast along just punching in and out and doing a day’s work. Nobody tell’s when that time will come. It can be in the first few days of your job or after years of working for yourself.

When that time comes to level up, you can do two things.

  1. Ignore the opportunity and keep coasting along doing the same thing you do every day. Eventually though the opportunity will reveal itself again.
  2. Use the opportunity to level up and start making improvements in your career and your prospects.

While I’ve been doing client work for five days a week for the last two years, the chance to level up has presented itself on a number of occasions. Each time though I’ve used the excuse that I don’t have the time to make improvements or start learning something new, and while that is a poor excuse, it’s what I did.

I’m paying the price for it now though. I’m still busy working for clients and next year’s schedule is looking great. I can’t always bank on having the same clients though in the next five years. They may no longer be using the web frameworks that I specialise in, they be looking for alternatives that I am not well versed in. They might even want to take a look at something completely new.

When clients want to level up, you need to be ready to level up with them. Whether it’s technology, tools or processes, you need to be able to have enough knowledge to level up with them. To make this transition as easy as possible it helps if you can be the one that levels up first. Then your party of clients can follow.

So when the opportunity presents itself to learn something new, do yourself a favour. Don’t ignore it.

Why Notebooks Work For Me

This week I’ve highlighted the three notebooks I am using to replace my task manager app.

The reason that I find that notebooks work so well is because while notebooks are more versatile, they also need input and I don’t mean of the mouse and keyboard kind.

Digital task managers have a number of features that allow you to take shortcuts. I took these shortcuts as a way of avoiding planning and reviewing my next block of work. I simply let my task manager do it for me using features like lists and tags.

I can’t take shortcuts with a notebook. I can’t quickly filter out a subset of tasks. I can’t move a group of tasks in a few seconds. Given time I could do these but just not quickly. And that’s the reason I find that notebooks work so well.

Managing your tasks using notebooks means that you need to spend more time planning, reviewing and making decisions about what’s important.

They need that little bit of extra work. Work that I think is worth putting in.

So far, everything is going well. The only significant change was the introduction of the bullet journal, but I’ve already have plenty of use through my other notebooks to make the switch to the bullet journal easy.

To find out more follow Patrick Rhone and Belle Beth Cooper who are real notebook aficionados. Both update their blogs on a regular basis and feature posts around notebooks and how to use them. Patrick also has a website called The Cramped that you might revolves around analog writing.