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

Filtering by Tag: project management

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

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?

Being Committed Is Not A Straitjacket: 3 Steps To Smarter Scheduling

This is the second part in a series of posts intended to lay out my basic thinking on getting your work done more effectively and sustainably, in a way that leaves you room to have a healthy life of your own alongside the building of your best work.

Today I wanted to talk at a slightly higher level about understanding how and why it can be so challenging to schedule things accurately, and how to avoid overcommitment so that the things we say we care about don't become straitjackets.

Don't Be This Guy

Being intelligent about your commitments is really a three part process--as with most worthwhile things, it's simple, but not easy. You have to make real commitments, you have to keep your commitments, and you have to guard your commitments. Stay with me here.

1. Make Real Commitments

Some years ago I realized something about myself: in my day-to-day speech I'd been doing a lot of bet-hedging.

If I was given the opportunity to join a campaign group planning a direct action, I would say "yeah, I can probably help with that." Who likes to say no to their friends and comrades, especially when we're doing work we believe in? But here's the problem--I'd say "yeah, I can probably help."

I wouldn't:

  • check my calendar to get a sense of my availability
  • try to get a bigger picture sense of whether I had room for a whole new set of commitments
  • take the time to map out what my role would be
  • figure out what my involvement would demand from my time and energy.

What started as a People Pleasing tendency--"yeah, I can help"--would end with exhaustion, work undone, and comrades in a lurch. Don't blow smoke. If you don't think you can realistically handle the demands of something new in your life, if a real peek into your availability shows that you're in fact really busy, be honest with yourself and the people you work with: say no.

Make real commitments. Figure out what you can really devote to a project by looking at your calendar in context before you jump on the next project bandwagon. Don't say yes to earn a smile. Say yes because you know you can make it happen, and you can look at a calendar and say "this is when it is gonna go down."

2. Keep Your Commitments

Here's the other side: all your best-laid plans (god, that calendar is pretty) earn you nothing if you don't keep your commitments. This is the real key, and though it might sound obvious, if you're used to making Mumbly-Mouthed Maybes all the time then you might be a litle out of practice with making sure you hold to your promises too.

I'm just sayin.

If you're hitting the end of your calendared time for Item 1 and it's time to start Item 2, stop item 1. Make a note of where you are if you need to, and then move on to item 2.

Thanks to Hofstatder's Law you'll probably quickly discover that you aren't budgeting yourself enough time to do the work you need to do. That's ok. You're making progress, and you're getting a better sense of the true time costs of what you do. Once you have that, you'll know how to plan even more effectively going forward. On top of that, you're strengthening your discipline at moving from one kind of focused work to another kind of focused work on your own terms.

3. Guard Your Commitments

This is all great advice if you work by yourself in a cave on a mountain in Tibet, but the reality is that you work with people--and people. will. walk. all. over. you. If you let them.

That means that to whatever extent you can, you have to guard the commitments you make to yourself. Obviously if somebody with a fancier tie and a longer title than yours comes in and drops something heavy on your desk and says "I need it a week ago," you have to make allowances and tradeoffs, and maybe shift the commitments you make to yourself. The key is that you make people--even Manager Fancy Tie--aware of the relevant tradeoffs: "Sure, I can get on this--I'm workin on the TPS reports now, so those will have to be a little late while I handle this here hot potato. Is that ok?"

If you start building a pattern of behavior this way, people might even come to see you differently. You'll no longer be Captain Overcommitment, the guy who says yes to everything and winds up with 30 broken spinner plates and a buncha hurt feelings.

You'll be the guy that knows when to say no--and the guy whose Yes really means things will get done.