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Productivity fix list

4/01/2009

There is a fairly limited amount to say about productivity (or any other topic for that matter) without (i) start repeating oneself and/or (ii) becoming a generator of time wasting posts. A perfunctory visit to sites like ‘43 folders’ or ‘Zen habits’ will show that—after reading a core of good posts—one should avoid them like the pest.

I think that one could summarize productivity tips as follows:

  • Procrastination: Figure out your biggest time wasters; likely culprits: internet, therapy TV, video games. Make an effort to reduce your reliance on them (doh!). We procrastinate with our time wasters to avoid either success (and its attached responsibilities) or failure (ah, the pain). Grow up and accept success. Split project in to small, manageable pieces to avoid failure. Avoid perfect, learn to live with good enough. Perfectionism is a slow death.
  • Email: Figure out your most productive time of the day (mine is from 9 to 11 am) and block it for doing your most relevant work. Avoid email and internet at that time. Adjust your email program to check for new email every hour (not every 30 seconds). Even better, manually check email only a couple of times a day. Unsubscribe from all email lists. There is no point for a complex email folder system. A single ‘old’ folder will work well. Use the search function if needed. Be ruthless with email: delete irrelevant messages, act immediately on simple/short tasks, write down longer tasks. Now you should be in ‘inbox zero’ or ‘email zen’.
  • GTD: Avoid complex—and expensive—setups to Getting Things Done. We are in a recession. You don’t need an iPhone, a Moleskine or Backpack to keep track of stuff. A piece of paper, text file or a simple web system will do.
  • Present in present: What is the best use of my time right now? Remember, multitasking is a myth, so the previous question uses ‘is’ as in singular and it requires undivided attention.

You can read this list and go back to work. Or you could read Getting Things Done, The Now Habit and Time Management for Unmanageable People, test a huge number of GTD software and end up with something similar to this list. So, why are you following these links? Remember the productivity p0rn paradox (aka P cubed): ‘productivity’ sites induce a non-productive life style. A fad is a fad and it will not make a difference in your output or stress level.

Where should one start? Go for something simple first: do not check your email and enjoy the extra time. After that, avoid thinking of perfection when planning what to do. Finally, beware of hyperlinks: they are the route to distraction.

Filed in books, productivity 1 Comment

Small enough

6/12/2008

A friend of mine decided to move on from his job in a large research organization. There are many reasons behind that decision but, resuscitation at least from the outside, prostate one of them seems to be his unwillingness to cope anymore with management’s stupidity. Another one is the difficulty of working with other members of his ‘team’.

I currently work in a very small department, visit web in a small university. I am the only breeder (of anything) working in the university. On one hand that could be seen as a serious disadvantage: there is a sense of isolation attached to the situation. On the other, it means that ‘we are (I am) small enough to change the world’. I can’t afford wasting time with territorial disputes, I don’t have to agree or disagree with other people. As Herman Hesse said ’solitude is independence’. Another plus, if I want to work with someone else I have to collaborate with people outside my discipline, who are not constrained by tree breeders’ mythologies and superstitions.

There is no replication for this ‘experiment’, so it is hard to generalize any conclusions. Nevertheless, this year that is closing to an end has been one of the most–if not the most– productive of my professional career.

By this time I need a rest, but I am hoping to have an even more productive year in 2009.

Filed in productivity, research No Comments

Recording Google Earth video

23/02/2008

Today I received an email from an old colleague. Well, traumatologist it was not a personal email but one of those hideous PowerPoint chain letters. It was not the first time receiving such time wasters so I promptly replied with something along the line of ‘please send me strictly necessary email, physician no chain letters or such’. This person got really offended and stated that I was a ’stuck-up social climber with a Ph.D.’ for not enjoying his email.

Why do some people feel they have the right to invade my main route of communication? Would they make the same phone call to their list of contacts and expect to be well received? It seems that any idiot feels entitled to special attention when the cost barriers for communication get close to zero.

Where was Merlin Mann when I needed him? I was looking for a while for a page for which I could not remember the name so I simply told my ex-colleague to get stuffed. Hours later I remembered the name of Merlin’s Thanks No site, which is what one could use when wants to be more polite… Well, this guy would have got offended anyway.

I decided to use a Google Earth flyover video in my first FORE111 lecture (Trees, information pills
Forests and Environment) this coming Monday. When I first read that this was possible I did it without paying much attention. After preparing the route for the fly over different types of forests I realised that recording movies was a feature of the professional (meaning US$400) version of Google Earth.

After the initial shock, and immediate decision not to fork out US$400 for three minutes of lecture, I had a quick look at the options. Of course I tried a freebie (Copernicus), but did not get anywhere in terms of results (the program kept on crashing). I then tried and bought iShowU — made by a New Zealand company — which showed to be easy to use, created reasonable sized video files and cheap (US$20 + GST).

If the flyover works on Monday I am hoping to create a few more for later during the semester.

Filed in productivity, software No Comments

My flow for refereeing papers

18/02/2008

For some bizarre reason, decease in the last week I have become very popular as referee for journals, medicine Ph.D. theses and industry reports. I am in need of seriously streamlining my workflow these ‘for the good of science’ type of activities, viagra because I can allocate only a fairly limited time to them. Thus, I need:

  1. Something that reads PDF documents (all documents that I am receiving come as PDF).
  2. Hopefully no printing involved, because there is no much point on keeping around copies of draft documents.
  3. Full screen, so it is easy to read documents and avoids distraction.
  4. An easy way to keep track of annotations.
  5. Cheap, remember that this is for the good of humanity.

A quick web search pointed to Skim, which fits the bill in all points (including the last point: free). There are more powerful applications (like the full version of Adobe Acrobat), but I can not see the point of the expense. A nice (30 euros) alternative is Papers, which in addition of facilitating ’studying’ or reading from PDFs, it is quite good at organising PDFs. Last time I checked the program it could only search and import documents from PubMed (in addition to local documents). However, it seems that now it also works with Web of Science (that I use the most), Google Scholar (which I rarely use) and a few others.

So, the way things work now when I am refereeing is:

  1. PDF is read in Skim.
  2. Notes are directly inserted in Skim.
  3. Type my comments to the journal in TextEdit in rich text format (RTF). This is to avoid wasting time tweaking the document. I still used Word for writing papers and reports.
  4. Print and mail a PDF version to the journal.

And that’s it. It certainly makes things a lot less painful for me.

Filed in productivity, software, writing No Comments

Bad banana

31/01/2008

From the Bad banana blog why-I-chose-this-name page:

Bad bananas. Sour milk. Mix them together and you’re well on your way to banana bread, epidemic my friend. The same principle works with ideas. A seemingly worthless chunk of information here. An old, bad idea there. Mix them up and you just might end up with something tasty.

Amen.

Filed in productivity, quotes No Comments

Writing without distractions

6/10/2007

Spotty posting is a clear symptom of either being sick with internet or just too busy in real life. In my case is mostly the second; this is the time when I have overlapping teaching of regression modelling and introduction to tree breeding. The other thing I have been doing is completing project reports (two gone!) and playing with some data for a journal manuscript. Overall, esophagitis I have written more this month than at any other time that I can remember.

On the contrary, I have been posting very little to this site and a few posts to http://trendecarga.com. Stating the obvious, the more I write offline the less I write online; and I have been feeling the urge to complete a series of pending writing projects.

A few weeks ago I submitted a paper that has been in that limbo-like close-to-finish for three years. As soon as I finish teaching in three weeks time, I will complete a second paper and start writing a third one. This will take a toll on this site, but one does not get brownie points for blogging or playing with HTML.

There will certainly be some updates to this site (although most likely not in the blog part) as well as a new design for http://plustree.com. On the latter I have been slowly working in a new template and CSS file, aiming for a cleaner and simpler look.

Re-stating the obvious, real life has much wider significance, it is richer and more meaningful than any web site. Do not let anybody convince you of the opposite.
There has been a proliferation of writing software, approved
with many of the packages striving for recapturing simplicity lost long ago. We complain about distractions, pfizer
but use tools that are designed to do many different (and non-essential) things at the same time. If I go back at my DOS times (second half of the 1980s), cardiology
a computer would do one thing at the time: if I needed to write a document I would use Wordperfect, for a spreadsheet Quattro Pro, etc. It was not possible to use both simultaneously. There was no email, internet connection or music at the same time.

We are now like spoiled children: there are too many things claiming for our attention, but we can not turn them off. We are hooked into a permanent attention deficit disorder because we choose so. Then, we long for a tool that will fix our distraction but, maybe, we could just use programs maximising the windows (to fully occupy the screen) and, to avoid temptation, turn off our network connection.

On writing software

A big component of my work is writing documents. In my mind there is a clear distinction between the solitary endeavour (where I can use whatever software I like) and the shared document (with a large number of compromises). I do not have problems with Word as bloated software, because I use many of the non-basic (aka bloat) features: equations, footnotes, crossreferences, citing using referencing software (like Endnote), table of contents, tables, indexing, tracking changes, etc. However, I do have issues with stability (or lack of it), particularly when dealing with long documents.

I have had a look at several alternative programs, but none of them have enough mind share as to make it a reasonably popular alternative. Using something like LaTeX would probably cover most (if not all) of my needs. However, I do not work with anybody that has a clue about using LaTeX, and nobody has the time and inclination to learn about it. Yes, it has the advantage of working with plain text files, but it is huge (larger than Word) and there is no standard way of dealing with the revision process, short of installing a versioning system.

Other wordprocessing systems that do what I need are equally ‘bloated’: OpenOffice and Mellel have all the ‘distractions’ and, again, they are not perfectly compatible with the standard. Then, their only advantage is that they are cheaper than Word. Nevertheless, most people already paid for Word, so it is a sunk cost. Thus, the sad reality is that Word is a de facto standard.

At the end of the day, Word is good enough and there are no compelling alternatives. However, I do use other tools for writing early drafts to get the ball rolling. Once I have the basics I move the text to Word. So, what are the basic tools? Some times I use TextWrangler (free) or Journler, depending if I want to store the information in an individual file or don’t worry about that and leave it in a database.

I guess that if one is motivated enough, one can find nirvana even in Word — granted, with some work involved.

Filed in productivity, software, writing 1 Comment

Stating the obvious

25/09/2007

Spotty posting is a clear symptom of either being sick with internet or just too busy in real life. In my case is mostly the second; this is the time when I have overlapping teaching of regression modelling and introduction to tree breeding. The other thing I have been doing is completing project reports (two gone!) and playing with some data for a journal manuscript. Overall, esophagitis I have written more this month than at any other time that I can remember.

On the contrary, I have been posting very little to this site and a few posts to http://trendecarga.com. Stating the obvious, the more I write offline the less I write online; and I have been feeling the urge to complete a series of pending writing projects.

A few weeks ago I submitted a paper that has been in that limbo-like close-to-finish for three years. As soon as I finish teaching in three weeks time, I will complete a second paper and start writing a third one. This will take a toll on this site, but one does not get brownie points for blogging or playing with HTML.

There will certainly be some updates to this site (although most likely not in the blog part) as well as a new design for http://plustree.com. On the latter I have been slowly working in a new template and CSS file, aiming for a cleaner and simpler look.

Re-stating the obvious, real life has much wider significance, it is richer and more meaningful than any web site. Do not let anybody convince you of the opposite.

Filed in productivity, web, writing No Comments

After a month with no posts

8/09/2007

I am coming back to my always unpredictable posting pattern. Well, hair I have written nine posts in Spanish at Tren de Carga, illness but they treat other topics that do not quite fit in this blog.

Maybe I am trying to tackle the issue pointed by Khoi Vinh: by posting short posts with quick, short term benefits one is avoiding writing long-haul pieces, which have an unknown pay off in what appears o be a distant future. This time I went for finishing two confidential reports and submitting a paper for publication. I discovered that I have material for about three or four more papers; it is just a matter of putting the time and finishing things. Or, as The now habit puts it, it is a matter of starting, starting and keep starting.

I have also been following a large number of design news through Monoscope and linked sites. It is a nice change and it helps to think from a diferent point of view: it adds perspective. Sort of coming back to the quote often attributed to Marshall McLuhan:

‘We don’t know who it was that discovered water, but we’re pretty sure that it wasn’t a fish.’

Coming back to writing in Spanish, it is fraught with danger of living in the past. I realised that I have been emphasising writing ‘old memories’ because it is what I remember the most in Spanish. That is certainly a route to stagnation. Thus, I am switching now to cover more recent —as in today’s — events and see how do they fit with the rest of the blog.

Thinking about contrasts

Today: Weather was great today in Christchurch. Went to downtown, had a trip in tram (some months ago I bought a year pass), went to the beach, mowed the lawn, went for a ride in scooter, had an excellent meal, visited a friend that just had a baby.

Yesterday: started at 5:45 am, took a taxi to the airport, my flight was cancelled. There was no point on flying later and arriving after my meeting. Wasted $35 on taxis and endured 2 hours of phone conference. They are so hard to follow!

Overall a good week.

Filed in language, miscellanea, productivity No Comments

Be Unsociable on the Net

31/07/2007

In my experience, anabolics people with the richest social life and level of satisfaction in real life practically ignore the net. Not long ago, one of my friends was asking me ‘What is a blog?’ For most people exploring the net that would be an unthinkable question, but he was quite honest. His perception of the net is absolutely utilitarian; there is email, access to research data bases (ISI web of science) and information on finance (his passion). Blogs, wikis, and other ‘strange names’ were absolutely a non-entity for him.

Unless one lives in places like Dannevirke (New Zealand), there should be plenty of opportunities to find ways of interacting in real life with people that share one’s interests. Then, why do so many people seem to reduce their social life to the web? Shyness, loneliness, feelings of not fitting anywhere else? How many times have you caught yourself starting an argument with a guy calling himself neo or another equally creative name? I know, some times is tempting to ‘pick up a fight’ in Slashdot telling people that Linux sucks, but shouldn’t one have something better to do?

May be one step to reduce time browsing — which I have to say is probably my greatest time waster — is to share real life with other people. It sounds corny, but if I look back at my most productive times they coincide with having my best friends. Simple: if I can spend time with great people why would I be arguing with neo? I am now trying to be as unsociable as possible; forget about comments, flame wars and the temptation to score cheap points in an internet forum. Point scoring is too costly: better spending time with people I really care about.

Then, what happens with all that web 2.0, social sites out there? We are still welcome to use them, but I doubt that our lives are much more productive or richer because we are sharing bookmarks using an AJAX interface. That is a nice solution to the wrong problem*.

(*)Maybe I am too old to ‘get it’ concerning online social networks. But, maybe, they are just tacky time wasters.

Filed in productivity No Comments

A Better Paper Clip

5/06/2007

Obsession with details — looking for a better paper clip — is one of the characteristics often leading to procrastination. Some times I am going to start working in something but I need to spend ‘only five minutes’ thinking about a small problem. One day later…

I use Apple’s Mail as my primary email client. It is simple, surgeon does not crash too much and — in general — does the job. But, and many searches for a better paper clip start with a but, IMAP support is not great and messages are saved in a non-open format rather than mbox. So one starts looking for options and Thunderbird sorts out some of the issues, but it does not integrate well with Address Book. Have you heard that there is Correo, which is related to Thunderbird and Camino, and that integrates with Address Book, but it is still alpha and there are quite a few missing features? Inevitably, the end of the road meets the beginning and there is an awful lot of wasted time, because:

  1. The ‘better’ solution introduces a new set of buts.
  2. Some of the original problems are inconsequential — at least for me. Who cares that the format for Mail is not mbox? Yes, there are legacy issues, but I do not ever go back to email that is older than two years. Anything important has either been filed or, if it is not confidential, put in to a web server.

Another example: I wanted to buy a new mobile phone. My current phone works fine, but I can not synchronise it using iSync (Apple’s synchronisation system), because it is a bloody Samsung. Then I decided to look for a cheap phone that does what I want: normal and video calls, address book and a simple calendar. I do not care about mp3s, taking pictures or any other multimedia features. I then found a Motorola RAZR V3x, for a very reasonable price. However (and here comes the obsession), I checked the page of supported iSync devices and discovered that Motorolas do not support ‘to dos’, only calendar and address book. I then learned that Sony Ericsson phones support ‘to dos’ as well, but there is a huge number of Sony Ericsson models, and I needed to find the appropriate (perfect, that is) one and balance that with price. Of course, I have never owned a Sony Ericsson, so I had to look for reviews and I was stuck in a loop. I could not make a decision and I struggled to stop looking for information.

In cases like this, I have to remind myself to step back and look at the start of the problem again. Why did I need a new mobile? To make phone calls and keep basic information (names, phone numbers and appointments) with me. Do I need ‘to do’ lists? Thinking again, working with lists in a phone is highly inconvenient and typing anything is torture. No, better I have a piece of paper with the lists. Couldn’t I have everything in a piece of paper and keep my current phone? Yes, I could. And life is good again.

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