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Blog: #gtd


No, not the headphones. Or plotting. Less exciting than either, it’s a new productivity technique I’ve been using lately and oh my goodness it works well (for me).

Let’s rewind. My problem has been that I work on projects in several different areas (writing, art, coding, design, etc.) and would like to make progress across all of them, but in my mortal frailty I instead tend to spend most of my available project time on whatever is easiest.

A while back I read Andy Matuschak’s reflections on 2020. The “Executing alone” section talks about the costs of context switching, which gave me the idea to spend a week at a time working in any one area (or track, as I called them). A week on writing, a week on art, etc. Advantage: much less context switching than I’m used to. But it also meant long stretches of time between tracks (depending on how I rotated through the tracks), which wasn’t so great.

Next attempt: slicing time into days instead of weeks. I created a new calendar in Google Calendar to track my daily track assignments — one day for art, the next for writing, the next for working on tooling, etc. I also opted to give myself some flexibility to work on a track for more than one day in a row if I was on a roll. Better, definitely. But it didn’t stick. I don’t know why.

Finally, at long last, I found the right thing for me: the beat. The way I’m using it, it’s a flexible unit of time ranging from a minute or two up to however long is needed (so far ten or fifteen minutes). Even with a busy schedule, I almost always have a handful of free beats scattered throughout the day where I could get something small done — a next action, usually.

That’s all well and good, but the part that changed things for me was this: when I have an available beat, rather than having to decide in that moment what to work on, instead I just press a button. It’s a random decision. And it’s amazing (for me).

To get this working, I set up a list (in the iOS Shortcuts app) that has each thing I want to work on. The projects or tracks I want to work on more often are duplicated, so it ends up looking something like this (heavily redacted, ha):

  • Writing — project 1
  • Writing — project 1
  • Writing — project 1
  • Writing — project 2
  • Writing — project 2
  • Writing — project 3
  • Art
  • Art
  • etc.

The shortcut then uses a Get Random Item from List action followed by Show alert: Item from List. Super simple, took about thirty seconds to put together. I have it set up as a widget on my phone and as a complication on my watch, and I find that I use the latter the most by far.

I’m not sure why this works so well for my brain, but moving the choice out of my present and into my past (where I can prioritize better) has worked wonders — most notably for me, I’ve gotten unstuck on several projects I’d been avoiding for months.

Anyway, I have no idea whether it would work for other people, so if you try it out, let me know how it goes.

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Productivity in small slices

Over the past few months I’ve been getting Cal Newport’s newsletter, the focus of which has been largely on deep work (go figure) and the need to block out enough undistracted time to do truly great work.

That’s the ideal situation, of course, but for me — where my creative pursuits aren’t my day job, and where I want to spend time with my wife and kids — I end up having to work mainly with small slivers of time here and there. It’s not perfect, but you can get a surprising amount of work done in small chunks over time.

I find that three of the things that help me be productive in those moments are:

Think. More specifically, I try to spend some of my downtime (shower, walking) thinking about and around and through current projects. This is especially useful in pushing through problem spots. For me, the work goes far more smoothly when I take time to think through things first.

Journal. As a close counterpart to thinking, journaling about projects helps me talk myself through what needs to be done and how to go about it. A month or so ago I started doing a daily brain dump journal entry where I talk to myself about what I’m working on, and it’s been really, really helpful, especially because I now have something external I can look at to remember where I was on a given project (important when I’m not able to work on every project every day) (I tend to work on several projects at a time).

Next actions. One of the main things I took away from David Allen’s GTD methodology, identifying next actions is an integral part of how I work. My available creative time often comes in chunks of two or three minutes, which is just about the right length of time for a concrete next action. My daily journaling has turned into the best time to identify these.

There’s nothing groundbreaking here, of course, but hopefully these are somewhat helpful.

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