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Age brings problems; it also brings solutions. For every disadvantage there is an advantage. For every measurable loss there is an immeasurable gain. George Sheehan
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Monday
Aug292016

Please Support Me in This!

On September 17th I’m taking part in a Tough Mudder Half - a five mile obstacle course run - in aid of Help for Heroes with three fantastic (and much younger) team mates, Fiona Campbell, Abigail Sanderson, and Kate Tonizzo.

At 72 years of age I think I’m going to be one of the oldest participants!

Please would you consider sponsoring me? Anything you can give, however little (or large), would be greatly appreciated. It’s for a very good cause.

Last year my team raised over £3,000 for the UCLH Cancer Centre - can we beat that this year?

Click here to donate.

And thank you in advance for your generosity.

Thursday
Aug042016

Reduced Blogging for the Rest of August

It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to do much blogging for the rest of this month as we’re having to move out of our house into temporary accommodation so that the damage done by the flood can be completely repaired. As everything will be thrown out of joint, I’m shedding commitments - and unfortunately this blog is one of them!

I’m hoping I may be able to continue to reply to comments and forum posts and perhaps even make the occasional blog post, but I can’t guarantee anything.

Friday
Jul292016

The Random Hour v. The Next Hour of Your Life

The Random Hour yesterday did not live up to its early promise and by this morning I had had enough of trying to get things to happen in the order I wanted and went back to The Next Hour of Your Life - where I can control the order without any difficulty. Another problem I found with The Random Hour was that I tended to overload it just because it had the random element. I’m not quite sure why that is, but it’s not a problem I’ve had with The Next Hour.

So, what I intend to concentrate on now is working out the best ways of using The Next Hour.

I’ve discovered one important fact about The Next Hour already, and that is that it doesn’t work well when used with paper and pen. It needs an electronic platform.

Why?

I’ve found a great strength of the method is that you can arrange the tasks in exactly the order you want them to be done. But even within a short space of time like an hour circumstances can change, so you need to be able to change the order. This gives the method a good deal of flexibility.

There are some basic principles that you should keep to:

  • You should do tasks in the order they are written
  • You should enter tasks at the end of the list
  • You should not exceed approximately one hour’s worth of tasks
  • The order can be changed if it needs to be, but only if it needs to be

As for the mechanics of it, I use a simple checklist in Evernote. I’m sure there are plenty of other programs and apps which would do the job even better, but for the moment I’m sticking with the one I know. I have to admit that part of the reason is that the Evernote checklist is just a checklist and one is not tempted by all the bells and whistles that some dedicated to-do list apps have. Simplicity is the key here. 

Wednesday
Jul272016

The Random Hour

I said in yesterday’s post that I was left with The Next Hour of Your Life as the best method for getting everything done. Today I’ve been trying to improve it by using it with a randomizer.

The details of what I’m doing are:

  • I’m using a 22 line notebook, specifically a Moleskine Cahier.
  • I’ve set the Randomizer on 11 (i.e. half the page)
  • No sliding - I just count the active tasks
  • The list is a rolling list of approximately one hour’s work.

Although today’s been very fragmented, the system has been pretty successful so far. Tomorrow should be a bit more stable, which will give a better opportunity for it to show its paces.

Tuesday
Jul262016

Failure!

I had great hopes yesterday that speeding up Autofocus would result in being able to do everything - or at the least more of everything. Unfortunately it had exactly the opposite effect. It speeded up the rate at which the list grew and increased the sense of oppression that comes from having a list that is growing faster than you can deal with it. Not good!

Which leaves me with The Next Hour of Your Life as the method which so far gets nearest to enabling one to do everything. I’m going to concentrate on that for a bit to see exactly where it leads. It’s going to be particularly interesting as I’m about to go through quite a rough period of moving out of my house on a so far unknown date to a so far unknown location for a so far unknown period to allow the repairs to be done to the damage caused by flooding. That’s quite a test for a time management system.

Monday
Jul252016

Answer to the Puzzle

The answer to the question I asked in my last post is The Next Hour of Your Life as nuntym correctly guessed in the comments. This is a really good no-list system and I can recommend it to anyone who would like to try one. It has stood me in good stead over some quite trying times recently.

However for those who prefer a “catch-all” system, I am currently working on a system I call FastFocus. This is a speeded-up version of the original Autofocus system (AF1). The big limitation with any catch-all system comes as the list grows faster than you are capable of actioning it.

But since my aim at the moment is to find a system which really will allow you to do everything as well as anything, I’ve got to hit that limitation fair and square. To do that, it’s necessary to focus on removing the sources of friction within the system.

What are the sources of friction in a system like Autofocus?

I’ve identified a few and done what I can to remove them:

  • Procrastination. The original Autofocus (and many of its successors) relied on the threat of dismissal to deal with tasks that were being procrastinated over. This was never really satisfactory and sometimes had the effect of increasing procrastination rather than reducing it.
  • Time spent scanning. In Autofocus you have to read through a page and then circulate round it waiting for the next task to stand out. This is actually quite a slow process.
  • Time spent choosing. Even during one visit to a page, a task can be passed over several times before being chosen. This is also quite a slow process.
  • Excessive fragmentation. Circulating round and round a page encourages very small “bites” at tasks. This results in its taking a long time to complete a task and a danger of leaving tasks half finished. Although “little and often” is good in principle, Autofocus encourages taking it to excess.
  • Loss of momentum. This results from the excessive fragmentation. When a task makes little progress each time it is visited, there is a lack of finished work, leading to a loss of forward movement.

FastFocus improves all of these factors, but I haven’t been using it long enough to know if it improves it enough to achieve my aim of doing everything. I’ll keep you posted!

Thursday
Jul212016

So Can I Do Everything Yet?

Can I do everything yet? (That is everything I actually want to do)

Not quite but I’m getting there!

I enjoyed the Random Method, and it certainly produced a high volume of work from me. But in the end I found it is too much of a scatter-gun approach. I need something more targeted - though ideally producing no greater an amount of procrastination.

So, a method that’s closely focused but with minimum procrastination… where would I find that?

Well, I found one that fitted the bill among the many systems we’ve discussed recently. If you’re a regular reader, see if you can identify it.

A few clues:

  • It’s one of the no-list systems
  • It is much more targeted than the Random System
  • It is very time sensitive
  • It was the only way I succeeded in overcoming a particularly bad bout of resistance (to everything) this week.
  • So it actually produces less procrastination than the random method.
  • It provides a sense of direction.
  • It’s very flexible
  • You can quickly react to changes of circumstance or location
Sunday
Jul172016

More Thoughts on the Random Method

After experimenting with various methods of working the Random Method I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  • The random method is best taken neat without any attempts to prioritize. The reason is that whatever method you use for prioritizing will slow down the rest of the system.
  • For the best results the list needs to be kept well-weeded. I am finding it works best with 35-40 items on the list - much above that and its effectiveness starts to fall off.
  • You can use the list for time-sensitive stuff, subject to my final point, which is:
  • When something needs doing now, do it now.
Saturday
Jul162016

A Refinement on "Dot and Do"

In yesterday’s post I suggested that the “dot and do” approach could be done anytime

However I think a more structured approach would be helpful and so I suggest something on these lines.

When moving to a new task, use the Randomizer to select the task as usual

Review any tasks marked as time-sensitive which lie between the task you have just finished and the task which the Randomizer has just landed on.

For example your Randomizer throws an 18. You have two time-sensitive tasks marked, one at 5 and one at 13. What do you do?

  1. Dot the task at 18.
  2. Examine the task at 5 and decide whether it should be done now.
  3. If yes, do it. If no, leave it where it is.
  4. Examine the task at 13 and decide whether it should be done now
  5. If yes, do it. If no, leave it where it is.
  6. Do the task at 18.
  7. Throw the Randomizer for the next task.

One word of caution. Mark tasks in this way very sparingly. Remember that whenever you increase the priority of a task, you are at the same time reducing the priority of everything else. So keep it for when it’s really needed. Don’t do it as a matter of routine. The basic rule is that the Randomizer should select the next task to be done whenever possible.

Friday
Jul152016

A Simple Amendment to the Random Method

The major problem with the Random Method is that as the list gets longer so the maximum time it takes to get to a particular task gets longer too. The result is that some tasks don’t get dealt with as quickly as we need them to be.

However this can be dealt with simply and easily by making one amendment to the rules. I call it “dot and do”.

The amendment allows any task on the list to be done at any time by dotting it and doing it. The dotted task is treated just as if it had been selected by the Randomizer, i.e. the next scan starts from it.

Since tasks treated in this way are normally ones which are coming under time pressure and therefore are forcing themselves on your attention, selecting them does not involve rejecting any other tasks. As a result procrastination is not increased.

I find it useful to mark up in advance the tasks which may come under time pressure. Then at any time I can easily see at a glance if any tasks need to be “dotted and done”. However as far as possible selection should be done by the Randomizer.

The way I mark up these tasks is to mark them with an empty dot, i.e. a small circle. But you of course can use whatever way of marking you prefer.

I’ve been trying this out for the last couple of days and it’s been amazingly successful. I’ve only needed to use “dot and do” a few times, but the ability to do it within the rules removes all the anxiety felt when a task gets overdue.

Thursday
Jul142016

The Random Method with Day List

I found that the idea of a day list didn’t work with the Random Method. The reason was quite simply that I found myself feeling pressurized to get all the tasks done by the end of the day. Since one of the great advantages of the Random Method is how little pressure one feels, I thought that was throwing away one of the best features.

However I think I have discovered a simple amendment to the rules that solves all the Random Method problems and allows you to have as long a list as you like!

I’ll describe it tomorrow if it’s still working for me.

Wednesday
Jul132016

Statistics for the Unmodified Random Method

Over the last two days I’ve been testing to see how well the Random Method would perform before I tried any of the possible modifications described in yesterday’s post.

Day 1

Using a notebook with 21 lines to the page

6 pages used

Page 1 - 21 tasks done, 0 not done

Page 2 - 21 tasks done, 0 not done

page 3 - 18 tasks done, 3 not done

page 4 - 10 tasks done, 11 not done

page 5 - 2 tasks done, 19 not done

page 6 - 0 tasks done, 5 not done

Total tasks: 110

Total done: 72

Total not done: 38

Day 2

Page 3 - 3 tasks done, 0 not done

Page 4 - 11 tasks done, 0 not done

Page 5 - 12 tasks done, 7 not done

Page 6 - 9 tasks done, 12 not done

Page 7 - 7 tasks done, 14 not done

Page 8 - 0 tasks done, 13 not done

Total Tasks over 2 days: 160

Total Done in 2 Days: 114

Total Not Done: 46

Not so bad!

Tomorrow (Wednesday) I’m going to try it as a day list, with the aim of ending the day with zero tasks undone.

Tuesday
Jul122016

Random Amendments for the Random Method

Here are some possible ways in which the Random Method could be improved.

The main problem with it is that the longer the list gets the longer the average time before individual tasks gets actioned.

To counteract this there needs to be either a restriction on the number of tasks entered, or some sort of prioritizing system to ensure that the tasks that need dealing with frequently get despatched quickly.

The easiest way to restrict the number of tasks on the list is to start a new list at the beginning of each day. The aim should be to finish all the tasks each day.

The alternative approach, as I’ve just said, is to allow the list to grow but to develop some sort of prioritizing system.

Here’s a possible one, which is automatic and adjusts to the nature of the random process itself:

  1. When you finish working on a task and there is still work left to do, re-enter the task in the normal way at the end of the list, but add another copy of the task.
  2.  When you finish working on a task and no work is left to do, cross it out - and if it is a recurrent task re-enter it. Do not delete any extra copies added under rule 1.
  3. When you are directed to a task by the Randomizer and the task is “empty”, i.e. there is no work to do, delete it. If it is a recurrent task and there are no other copies of the task in the list, re-enter it. If there are other copies then don’t re-enter it.

Using these rules the speed at which the Random Method picks tasks will automatically adjust to the amount of work that is needed to keep the tasks up-to-date.

At least that’s what I hope will happen. I haven’t tested it out yet!

Anyone want to give it a try?

Monday
Jul112016

Random Thoughts on the Random Method

Since we have been discussing the Random Method of time management in yesterday’s post and its comments, I thought I’d say a little bit about it in today’s blog post.

First of all here’s the link to the original post about the method.

Re-reading it as I am now after an interval of two and a half years, here’s a few remarks about it:

  • Setting the range of the Randomizer for the number of lines on the page is more important than I thought at the time.
    • If you set the Randomizer for a lower number you may not be able to jump the crossed out tasks on a page, which means you will be stuck on the page until every task has been done on it.
    • Setting the Randomizer for a higher number on the other hand means you may miss out a page altogether, which may upset the weighting towards earlier tasks.
  • Don’t let your list get too long. I recommend a maximum of the number of tasks you can work on during an average day. (Notice I say “work on”, not “do”). If you have more than that number the gap between writing a task on the list and working on it gets too long.
  • Remember that a random system is just that - random. It is not in any way taking your needs and priorities into account. There is no guarantee that any particular task will be worked on during a day, while some may be worked on several times.
  • For these reasons don’t use the system for very time-sensitive tasks. It is brilliant for despatching a lot of work in a very short time, but you can’t guarantee exactly how long that “short time” will be. Use a schedule instead for this type of task.
  • Remember the longer your list the longer the average time to reach any given task.
  • The list is weighted so that the longer a task has been on the list the more likely it is to get picked during a pass. Conversely the shorter the time a task has been on the list the less likely it is to get picked.
  • Don’t put tasks on the list that you aren’t fully committed to doing. If the system picks a task and you don’t do it, you are undermining the effectiveness of the system and you will start to experience procrastination with a vengeance.

Tomorrow I’m going to discuss some possible amendments to the system to make it even more effective.

Sunday
Jul102016

A Thought About Procrastination

Over the last months I’ve been doing a whole load of experimentation with no-list methods. More recently I’ve been re-visiting the idea of randomness in time management. And I’ve realised that the two methods have something in common.

The common factor is that they both have a reputation for reducing procrastination.

I started wondering about why this was and I realised that both methods do not involve rejecting tasks.

What do I mean by that?

In most list-based time management systems, whether mine or other people’s, the process of selecting the next task for action involves scanning the list and selecting the task from it. But you’re not just selecting a task; you are also rejecting every task that you scanned before selecting that task. If you have a long to-do list some tasks may end up being rejected scores or even hundreds of times.

My theory is that every time you reject doing a task you increase the amount you are resisting doing that task.

By contrast the selection process in both no-list systems and random systems does not involve rejecting any tasks.

In most no-list systems you make a short list (usually 1-5 items) of what you are going to do and then do them in order. You don’t at any stage scan over any of the tasks and reject them.

In a random system you are simply told what to do by the randomizer. You don’t have to reject anything. The randomizer selects the next task from the list for you.

So the converse of my theory is that the less often you reject a task the less you build up resistance to doing it.

So what sort of system can we design round this? We need a system in which we know what to do next without having to reject any tasks during a selection process.

Here are four ways of achieving this:

  1. By having a boss who tells you what to do all the time
  2. By doing everything on your list in the order you wrote it down
  3. By not having a list but instead just writing down a few tasks at a time and doing them
  4. By having a randomizer select tasks from a list for you

Can you think of other ways of achieving this?

Monday
Jul042016

Monthly Newsletter Delayed

My monthly newsletter was due to be published at 11 a.m. UK time today. Unfortunately last night we had a major flood at home when a pipe burst and we were unable to turn off the mains water supply. Dealing with the aftermath of this means that it may be a few days before I can publish the newsletter.

Monday
Jul042016

Some Ways I Use Evernote's Features - Part 2

Yesterday I started off with the intention of describing some of the ways I use Evernote’s features, but ended up writing a list of the ways that Evernote frustrates or annoys me. So today I promise to do better!

This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to Evernote, nor a description of everything I do with it. It’s just a short selection of methods which you may not have thought of already. Several of them will work with other apps too. I’m sure you have methods I haven’t thought of too.

First of all my layout. I keep Shortcuts in the Toolbar across the top of the page, with the left panel minimized. The Note List is set to card view and I keep it wide enough to show two cards per line, which is a total of eight cards visible at full screeen. The Note Panel takes up the rest of the page.

The Star Tag

I have a tag entitled *. This tag is permanently in my Shortcuts so that it appears at the top of the screen. The number of notes that can be tagged with the * is strictly limited to eight. That means that at full screen all their Note Cards are visible at once. That is the whole point of the tag, because the idea of the star tag is to have eight notes which I want accessible immediately. They can be anything I like. At the moment they are my training schedule, my spark file, my reading list, a long letter from a correspondent, a list of possible blog subjects, the next quote for my “To Think About…” feature, an estimate for a new fence for which I’m waiting for a date, and a family picture.

I find this extremely useful, both for immediate access to important notes and as a reminder of what the important notes are.

The Spark File

I got this idea from the article linked in the title to this paragraph. I have already found it very useful, even though I’ve only got a month’s worth of sparks so far. I keep it all in one Note with each day’s entries dated (latest at the top). As I mentioned earlier it is one of the Notes marked with the * tag.

Shortcuts

As I mentioned above I keep Shortcuts displayed across the top of the screen. Apart from anything else that stops me having too many. You can shortcut to anything in Evernote, whether it’s a individual Note, a Tag, or a Notebook. This is one of the best features of Evernote because you can make a subject instantly findable across all your devices.

My own Shortcuts include Inbox, * tag, Phone Numbers, and a list of Nudgemail commands.

Full Screen of Notes

As of this moment I have 6,737 notes in Evernote. My oldest note goes back to May 2008. There’s no way in which I can leaf through the individual notes in the way I would leaf through a book.

Or is there?

If from my normal layout (see above) I close the Note Panel, I am left with a full screen of Note Cards. On my screen that’s 32 notes. I can page through the screens very rapidly using the Page Down key, or go back to a specific date or period. I can then just click on any note that looks interesting and it will come up in a separate window - you can have as many of these open as you like. Looking back through old notes is similar to the Spark File - it helps you to make connections that you otherwise wouldn’t have made.

Table of Contents

This is an amazing feature. Basically you can take any number of notes in Evernote and produce a Table of Contents from them. If you haven’t come across this before, here’s how you do it. Make sure the Note Panel is open. Then highlight the notes you want indexed in the Note List and press the button that appears in the Note Panel called “Create Table of Contents Note”.

Using this you can index a tag, a search, a notebook, or just a collection of random notes and the Table of Contents goes into a separate Note with links to all the notes you highlighted. You can even index all your Table of Contents Notes.

Table Feature

This should not be confused with the Table of Contents Note.

Tables can be inserted into Notes in much the same way they can be inserted into Word files. It’s a fairly basic feature, but is none the less very useful. Some of the things you can put into the boxes in a Table are:

  • Text
  • Weblinks
  • Pictures
  • Links to other Notes
  • Other Notes
  • Full text of a Table of Contents Note
  • Documents

So for instance if you were planning to go on holiday, you could put all the information relating to that holiday into one Note arranged so you have an instant overview of all the contents.

——————————————

Well, the above are some of the ways in which I use Evernote. What are your favourite ways of doing things in that immensely versatile program?

Sunday
Jul032016

Some Ways I Use Evernote's Features - Part 1

Evernote has been a staple of my on-line life (and often my real life too) very nearly from the time it first started up. Everyone has their own favourite ways of using it and I expect that among its millions of users there’s scarcely two identical set-ups.

I thought that today I’d just share a few of the ways I use it, in the hope that some of you might find one or more of them useful. I’ve thrown in a few general remarks about the app as well.

1. I use Evernote in three versions - the Android app, the online website and the Windows desktop. They each have their good points and bad points, but the most annoying thing about them is that there is no uniform interface so you basically have to learn how to do everything three different ways. I think they are working on this.

2. The one which works best is the Android app, and if wasn’t for the fact that I can’t type anything like as fast on a SmartPhone as I can on a desktop, I’d probably use it most of the time.

3. The Windows desktop version has the fullest feature set and makes the best use of the display qualities of Evernote, but suffers from being very slow. To keep any sort of speed up at all, you need to re-index at regular intervals, which is a long and tricky process. If you get it wrong you will delete all your notes over all your devices!

4. The Web version used to be unusably slow, but is now fast - much faster than the desktop. However inexplicably it doesn’t have a full feature set and has a completely different user interface. Or maybe it does have a full feature set and I just haven’t found where they keep the missing bits!

5. Another beef with Evernote is that they have a habit of removing some of the existing functionality whenever they do a major update. If they ever get round to putting back the function by which items which you’ve ticked on a to-do list can be hidden, then I would go out of my way to recommend Evernote as a time management app. As it is I don’t feel I can do that.

Well, this was going to be about how I use Evernote, but it seems to have changed more into a review of its bad points. I’ll keep my selection of the ways I use it for tomorrow.

But one thing you can do with Evernote is share a live list. Click here to see my live to-do list today (Sunday) as I use the Next Hour of My Life method.

Saturday
Jul022016

The Next Hour of Your Life

When we think about managing our time we tend to think in terms of what we are going to do in a day or a week or a month.

But in fact one of the most useful units of time for time management purposes is the hour. If you focus on what you are going to achieve during the next hour you will have a much closer focus.

Hence one of the simplest of all task management systems is to write down what you intend to do over the next hour, and then to do it. There’s no need to time this exactly to the minute. We’re talking about a period of time in the region of an hour.

Over the last few days I’ve been experimenting with some ways of doing this and it’s been working really well for me. The rules I’ve standardised on have been:

  1. Start the day by writing a list of what you intend to do over the next hour
  2. Do the tasks in order
  3. Top up the list at intervals as you go along so it always contains about one hour’s work (there’s no need to be too exact about this).
  4. There’s no specific provision for re-entering unfinished or recurring tasks. You can just add them as and when you want to, remembering to keep within the limit of an hour’s work.
  5. Non-discretionary work such as appointments and meetings do not count towards the hour, e.g. if you’re going to a two-hour meeting you can put tasks on your list for when it finishes.
  6. Finish the day by completing every task remaining.
  7. Basically aim to do the tasks in the order you’ve written them down, but if you have a good reason to adjust the order or add or remove tasks out of sequence feel free to do so.

Contrary to my normal preference, this is best done electronically. I’m currently using putting each day’s list on a note in Evernote with tick boxes. Evernote has the advantage that I can access the list on the web, on my desktop and on my SmartPhone, whichever is most convenient at the time.

You can really get a lot of work done with this. Here is my actual list for today (Friday) - not a copy, it’s the actual list I am using. (I’ve disguised some items for reasons of privacy). As I write this the list is still incomplete, but it will update automatically as I work on it so you will be seeing the complete version. “Prepare Box Hill” includes a three hours absence in the afternoon doing hill running and walking. By the way “Box Hill” is the name of some local hilly country, not some new-fangled form of exercise! This is the country I grew up in.

If I’d been presented with a list 49 items long at the beginning of the day I wouldn’t have had a hope of finishing it. But writing a few tasks at a time and doing a few tasks at a time gradually adds up to what you see.

Friday
Jul012016

How to Set Up Routines

Alan Baljeu asks in the comments to Wednesday’s post:

Before a new routine becomes habit, how do you manage it? Do you write out a separate list that you consult? Do you write these steps into no-list FVP in reverse order them so [you can do] them 1 by 1?

Basically there are three ways of setting up a routine:

  1. Examine what you are doing at the moment, write the steps down and then work out how to improve them. This is how I worked out the Blogging routine in The Same Old Routine. It is particularly important to do this when you find that your existing routine is not producing the intended result.
  2. Get into a routine by using a consistent time management system. As you work day by day so you will tend to follow the same path. If you examine what you have done each day, you can take steps to consciously improve the sequence. Although any time management system will work as far as this is concerned, No-List systems are particularly good at it because you have to recreate the sequence out of your own mind each time.
  3. Design a new routine from scratch. If you are about to start a new activity it is worthwhile to design a sequence of action.

Remember that by the very nature of routines, they are activities which are going to be repeated over and over again. The more often you repeat one the more it is going to get carved in stone in your head. Therefore it’s important to examine your routines regularly to ensure that they are in fact producing the desired result efficiently and effectively.