Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

Deciding Who To Be Today

There was a night a few weeks ago where I got home late after another 11 hours at the office. I felt like a wrung wet rag hung off an oven handle. I'd been run ragged for weeks on end during a bumpy data migration, and I didn't feel like doing anything but pouring a short strong one and clocking out of life until sunrise.

Still, because I'm a glutton for guilt, out of sheer force of habit I pulled up my @home task list. I scanned it, trying to measure how I felt against the things on the list. Maybe i could respond to this e-mail. Maybe I could review that software documentation. But damn, after the amount of time I'd spent working today, did I really have the energy to finish laying out my book? Sure, it's creeping up on the end of the year already, but can't I just pull up a movie and zone out tonight? I'm so tired.

I sat there, spinning my bourbon on the table, when a question came into focus in my mind--"is this who you want to be today?"

I groaned like you might at the angel showing up on your shoulder.

"Hey. You call yourself a poet. You call yourself an activist. You call yourself a constant learner. Are you one of those today? Or today are you the guy who turns on the TV and tunes out of the things you say you care about?"

Life is composed of experience and memory. Aristotle had it: you are what you do. It doesn't matter who you say you are, which values you claim to hold--what matters is how you spend your time. We build our lives, brick by brick, by answering one question every day: who do you want to be today?

We all deserve self care. We all deserve time to rebuild ourselves and reflect. Sometimes the answer to "who do i want too be today" is "someone who knows their own limits." But the balance between self care and lost momentum can be tough to navigate. The best way I've found to keep my laziness balanced against my busyness is to reflect on that question as often as I can. Is this who I want to be today? Better still, if this is who I choose to be today, will I be happy about it tomorrow?

So that goddamn hard, goddamn useful question landed on me that exhausted evening. I blinked at the computer and considered whether it was more important to me to be a Guy Who Spends His Life at the Office, or a guy who's got a poetry book out. I took a sip of Buffalo Trace, blinked hard, and got to work on the book.

putting out fires doesn't work forever

This is a kinda deep dive into some tactical GTD stuff. If you're new to this stuff, Lifehacker put up a great crash summary last year and if you've got a little more time to get into it I always point people to the classic Back to Work introduction episodes. Recently I've been using The Secret Weapon, an approach that maps GTD structure onto the feature-rich app Evernote.

In keeping with the Secret Weapon approach, and to avoid being overwhelmed by a single @work list of "next actions," I'd been breaking next actions down into 1-Now 2-Next 3-Soon 4-Later, then 5-Someday/Maybe. It turns out this was dumb.

The idea, ostensibly, was to build in something to deal with time sensitivity--but I found it meant stuff was falling through the cracks. Items marked "Soon" would wind up just living on the Soon list as I'd move other items to "Next," while also adding other items to "Soon."

I liked the idea of time sensitivity markers at first, thinking it'd help me make sure the "most important" stuff was getting done before moving on to "less important" stuff. I found instead that I was dealing with the "most urgent" every day, which in retrospect seems like an obvious outcome.

So now I'm back to simply @work | 1-Next Action, and get this--having run things relatively smoothly overall for the last month, my @work action list is actually shorter than its ever been. It was a comforting shock, after moving to my new tags, to see that I actually have been tearing through things with more control.

Next Actions: Don't Get Caught In the Nonsense

Where Getting Things Done's "next physical action" idea really becomes useful is in the things you're stuck on.

If you make coffee as part of your morning routine, that doesn't mean you need to put "spoon grounds into filter" on your next actions list--you know how to make coffee. You know how to do lots of things, maybe even some very complicated things, in your personal and work life--the object of all this stuff is not to overwhelm you with hypergranulizing everything you do.

But if there's something that's been stuck on your to-do list for days, or maybe weeks or months? Poke at it. Why haven't you done it yet? Is there some dependency hidden inside of "- replace broken coffee maker" that you haven't thought about, or that you're avoiding thinking about out of some kind of anxiety or fear?

Have you not bought the new coffeemaker because if you pick one without your SO's input you're gonna start an argument, cause one time a Keurig made him some really bad coffee? Or is it just that you haven't comparison shopped on Amazon yet? Maybe your next action for "replace broken coffeemaker" is "talk to SO about what kind of coffeemaker they want." Or maybe it's "look into Keurigs on Amazon." (Don't get a Keurig.)

But the point is--next actions are about breaking big nouns into useful verbs to move you forward. Don't get caught up in the nonsense of crossing things off your list that might not even need to be there to begin with.

the consequence of doing a million things

"You've got this project, and you're really excited so you write down a bunch of ideas to work on when you get home at 7.

So you get home at 7, you rush through dinner, you actually wind up worknig til 1, cause you wanted to get this thing working. Then it's the next morning and you feel like crap at work, and you have a drag of a day, and you get home and can't actually do the work you were planning to do at 7 cause now it's 8:30 and you're exhausted, and you don't wanna drink coffee cause then you'll be up til 2 again and it'll be worse than the night before. Tonight you'll just get a good night's sleep.

And you go to work the next day refreshed and think about the work you're gonna do on this project when you get home, but then it turns out your girlfriend says her mom is in town and you have to go out to dinner, so you can't do the work. Then you go to dinner and instead of talking with your girlfriend's mom you spend the whole dinner thinking about your project, and it just goes and goes.

This is the consequence of trying to do a million different things, but never really dedicating the right kind of time and committment on anything in particular--you suck at work, you suck at your social life, and now you suck at your project too. Congratulations."

-- Dan Benjamin, approximately, in B2W #23

the paintbrush isn't the painting

The response this week's lengthy post "How I Run My Day From the Keyboard" has been great. It had been a while since I sat down to dig into my workflows, and it felt good to walk through it and find the squeaky wheels. (Yes, that a mixed metaphor. I'm a metaphor mixologist. It's an overpriced mixed metaphor.)

To that end, there's been lots of terrific feedback on Twitter, it got picked up in How-To Geek's daily e-mail newsletter, and I've gotten some nice notes elsewhere about the principles I tried to lay out, and the tools I use to implement them. Big up /r/productivity for sending a lot of folks to the post, too.

Tools matter. Even though we should never lose sight of the fact that tools are instrumental--not essential--to our work, it's good to be reminded from time to time that opening up your toolbox can be fun. The paintbrush isn't the painting, but it sure is nice to enjoy using your paintbrush.

Thanks for the support, guys.

How I Run My Day from the Keyboard

Every day, when I sit down at my computer monkey job, I log into my workstation and click a single button. Within about 5 seconds, all my necessary programs are running and I'm ready to get to work with single-minded focus, freed-up brainpower, and confidence that all my tools are at my fingertips. Here's how.

And stick with me, will ya?

I've spent a lot of time here, between tumbls, discussing the bigger picture view. The reason for that is simple: if you're not approaching the work you do from the right angle, no matter the details in the weeds, you're going to have a more difficult time recognizing and solving your problems.

On the other hand, if you understand why you're doing the work you do, it's easier to decide what is--and isn't--worth your time. And it's that much easier to decide what belongs at the top of your to-do list. When you know which work matters to your sanity, you know what your next action ought to be.

With all that out of the way: I do think it can be worthwhile to zoom in and look at the finer points: looking at how other people get things done can help you learn how to smooth the rough edges off your own workflows, and keep your momentum when you need it most. I do a whole podcast about it, for crying out loud.

What I've learned from those great discussions with Robin is that when you've got a solid set of processes in place, even if your energy is flagging, you can trust your process to carry you through. So--let me tell you a little something about my tools, and my rationale.

As I use Windows in my work environment, I'll be discussing the software I use in that context--but the open source & Mac alternatives I'll point you to, coupled with the principles I'll be laying out along with the tips, should allow you to implement the ideas you like without any trouble.

The Quicklaunch Workspace

A batch file is a simple program--don't let that word scare you. All we're talking about here is a few lines of text that your computer--and you!--can understand.

I've created a small batch file--artisanal, if you will--that's linked to shortcuts for all 8 of the programs I need to get my work done. Then, I've created a shortcut to the batch file itself, and added it to my quicklaunch bar--this lets me launch all 8 programs I need just by clicking the icon. To walk you through this, briefly:

  1. Create shortcuts to each of the programs you intend to include in your batch file, and move the shortcuts to a single folder.
  2. Rename your program shortcuts to simple, one-word names. (I use the boring abbreviations RE, Exc, proj, ffx, genjourn, lny, apx, otk, and RPT)
  3. Open a text editor. On one line each, for each of your necessary programs, write:

    start [your program name]

  4. Save your text file as something like 'workspace.bat' in the directory where you've saved your shortcuts. Be sure to select 'all files' from the file type dropdown menu when saving.

Et voila: clicking on your new batch file should launch your little workspace suite. As I mentioned, to bring friction even closer to zero I like to create a shortcut to the workspace file and drop it in the Quicklaunch bar, just to the right of the Start button. Because double-clicking is for chumps.

There's a lot more you can do with batch scripts, from the simple to the advanced.

Why does this work for me?

As goofy as it might sound, going straight from login to having all my necessary programs running with the click of a button is indispensible to my productivity. Clicking that workspace button amounts to a moment of undivided intention, a decision that I'm diving into my day in earnest and without distraction or hestitation.

Though (as you know) I'm not a Merlin, the Mann himself might say that approaching your work in this kind of self-conscious fighting stance is transitive--it's a decision that prepares you to put the verb back into work.

The Keyboard Launcher [Launchy]

A keyboard launcher is an app that lets you do work with just a couple of taps on the keyb. Ostensibly they're there to help you quickly start programs, but once you know your way around a powerful launcher you'll be able to do much more robust work within your launcher--open documents, modulate preferences, alter & append to files, and more.

I use Launchy. If you're a Mac person maybe you like Quicksilver, or maybe you're a weirdo who uses Ubuntu, in which case I'd point you to Gnome-Do the wonderful keyboard launcher I use on my home computer.

With a quick Alt+space and Launchy's rapidly learning autocomplete, I can easily navigate to files nested deep in network folders that would be a drag to click and scan for once, let alone the dozens of times a day I need to call on buried documents.

Together with batch scripts to tweak Launchy, it easily becomes a competitor with the best keyboard launchers out there. And when you pair it with the last tool in my toolbox--Auspex--it's a golden ticket to faster work with smooth & unbroken focus.

Why does this work for me?

If the quicklaunch workspace is all about the decision to get down to work, then the keyboard launcher is about the decision to keep your focus tight. When you're using alt+space to move between programs and files there's no space available for the distraction of "ok start menu...oh look Firefox...I wonder what's on Twitter?"

It's about decreasing friction between your work tasks, and increasing the friction to your distracting timesucks--so you can make it easier to do what you need to, and harder to waste your time.

The Text Expansion App [Auspex]

I use Auspex, an open-source text expansion app for Windows. If you're not familiar with this sorta thing, essentially what it does is recognize a custom (short) string (say, 'sig') and replaces it with your custom (longer) string (say, 'Cordially Yours Now and Forever, Englebert Humperdink VIII'). When you start thinking about the possibilities here for essentially automating a lot of the text you write, this starts to get compelling.

Rather than resting your eyes while you autopilot through yet another customer e-mail answering the same question for the 20th time today, you can tap in "thx;", hit tab, and watch with glee as Auspex does the work for you.

One of my secret geeky joys is using Auspex snippets within Launchy. For example, I keep "gtfm" (or "Google That For Me") as a snippet that expands to the url for Google search results for [xyz]. Alt+space brings up Launchy, gtfm-->tab drops in the url with the cursor in position for my search terms, and a tap of my search terms takes me straight to my search results. It's 4 seconds typing time vs. a lot of cursoring and opportunity for distraction.

There are other options out there--maybe you've already heard of TextExpander. Lifehacker likes PhraseExpress. Fair warning: stay away from Lifehacker's own Texter which is great in some respects, but full of issues that the terrific writer/coder Adam Pash doesn't appear to have the time to address alone. He's helpfully passed it on to folks at Github, but at last run it still didn't do great things for me. Auspex gets my reco.

Why does this work for me?

Ultimately text expansion is a useful tool for me because it lets me save brain cycles for the work that matters instead of the work I can rely on a simple program to do for me.

What's especially wonderful about text replacement apps is that they dramatically decrease the cognitive load of repetitive tasks. Rather than wasting your time or your brain power, letting the expansion app handle it for you helps keep you free of stress & ego depletion a little longer, so that you can use that brainpower on decisions instead of another piece of reporting markup.

And so,

I'm hoping, if you've made it this far into the weeds with me, that you can still see the principles underlying the particular suggestions I'm making. These are the tools I use to get things done at my desk--but maybe you need different tools. The tools, as I suspect you know, matter far less than how you use them. Michaelangelo might have had to work at it, but I have a feeling he coulda done the Sistine Chapel with some uncooked spaghetti if the Medicis had gotten stingy on him.

Do you use these tools too? Something else--better? How do you approach your day?

do a little bit of jazz

It's a great way to work because what happens is, you have what really is a rock-solid structure because we spend a lot of time making sure that each scene has a reason for being. But then, after that, you get to kind of ride it and you get to do a little bit of jazz while you're writing it and really try to bring something of yourself to it, and try to bring the emotion to it.

-- Peter Gould, one of the lead writers of Breaking Bad, on Fresh Air

give it a minute

It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this — and by “new at it,” I mean 15 years in, or even 20 — you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.

-- Louis CK, in the NYT