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Trying to Get Organized (Again) [en]

Trying to Get Organized (Again) [en]

[fr] Je m'organise: pas de nouveaux mandats de formation ou de conférences avant mi-mars 2012 (priorité à mes engagements existants, l'agenda est plein!), utiliser la Technique Pomodoro sur la semaine pour mieux évaluer la charge de travail que représente les affaires courantes et mes mandats existants, et travaillers sur des conférences et formations "standard" plutôt que de tout faire à partir de zéro à chaque fois!

I’m trying to figure out how to get organized over the next six months to do everything I need/want to do without working myself into the ground. Or behind the sofa, cowering.

This is part of the ongoing “how to improve the way I run my business” thinking.

One thing I have clearly pinpointed is the following:

  • almost all the work I do (including training and talks) is bespoke
  • when the financial means of my clients are limited (e.g. many schools and small companies) I need to find a more rational way of using my time

This means I need to get to work on the dirty little secret of successful businesses and freelancers: reduce, recycle, reuse (thanks for that one, Suw). I need to work on preparing a certain number of “standard” talks and training sessions, rather than doing everything from scratch each time.

Until the end of the year, I already have a significant amount of commitments (or commitments-in-the-making, because we’re still hashing out details or agreeing on a formal proposal). The good news around this is that I’m not too worried about paying my bills (I still have a way to go before I can relax completely about finances, though… but who can?). The bad news is that looking at my calendar for September/October/November is already making me feel stressed. (That’s the calendar including future and probable gigs, though, it’s not that bad.)

The other thing is that (probably overcompensating for too many years with almost no holidays) I am actually taking a large number of weeks off this year. I’ve counted, and I will not release the number, because it is somewhat indecent. It makes me feel a little better about being overworked when I’m here, though. And it does bring to my attention the fact I probably need to seek a little more balance between my “working time” and “holiday time”.

Holidays play two roles for me:

  1. allow me time off from work to recuperate
  2. allow me to see people I love and who don’t live in Lausanne or nearby

The first type of holiday clearly requires no working while I’m away. The second doesn’t. There’s no reason I can’t go and spend a week in London with Suw and Steph, work while I’m there and hang out with them. This would also have the advantage of giving me a week clear of meetings and phone calls and visits, where I can concentrate on “office work”. So, I’m going to plan some of those for 2012.

So, all that considered, if I look at my calendar now it’s pretty clear to me I don’t really have space for new speaking/training engagements until mid-March 2012 (except if they’re paid well enough to make me happy to sacrifice my week-ends — never say never).

That’s the wide-angle view for the year ahead.

On a more micro level, I’ve mentioned elsewhere (and in another language) that I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique recently and it’s really helping me. Here’s how it helps:

  • it gives me a clear amount of time to put my head down (like my “dashes” do)
  • it makes me take breaks
  • as I write down my Pomodoros, it helps me plan what I’m going to get done in the day/morning and adjust my expectations

The last bit is crucial. Specially when I have lots to do that is not deadly urgent, I have trouble setting priorities and get frustrated at how slowly I make progress. Now, if I know that during a 9-12 morning session I can do 5 pomodoros (= 5 times 25 minutes of actual work), it allows me to plan what I’m going to use them for. I might use one to make progress in my accounting backlog, one to make progress in a report I really don’t want to write, two to write a blog post, and one to deal with some e-mail, get back to people, and plan the next day.

Used this way, the Pomodoro Technique is a very simple planning tool that takes a lot of stress away from me and allows me to put my energy in actually working.

There is less overhead than Getting Things Done, too: even if you want to do things well, reading the free ebook that explains the Pomodoro Technique takes about an hour. And you can dive right in: just get a timer, set it on 25 minutes, work non-stop on something, then take a five-minute break, and start again. It’s deadly simple and is designed to be implemented in progressive steps (instead of degrading gracefully it upgrades gracefully). Check out the cheat sheet if you’re impatient.

I should be able to fit 12 Pomodoros in a full day of work, but to play it safe, I’m counting on 10 right now. That means I have 50 Pomodoros available on a five-day week. The Pomodoro is a unit of time that my brain can work with, specially after a few days of working in Pomodoro-length bursts. It’s much simpler than the hour, which is (a) longer and (b) divisible. (There is a rule that says “The Pomodoro is indivisible.”)

This is helping me see what I can get done in a day, and therefore, a week. For example, I might estimate that I need on average one Pomodoro a day to get organized, do my accounting/invoicing, pay bills, sort through e-mails. Not the same mix every day, but roughly one a day. Right, five a week.

Then, I estimate that on one of the projects I’m working on, I need 3 Pomodoros a week. On another, two. Another might take up a day of my time each week, which means my weeks actually have closer to 40 Pomodoros than 50.

If you do project planning, you’re familiar with this. It’s nothing new. But in my case, the ability to think “in Pomodoros” has been the key to allowing my brain to do this kind of exercise. As I write down my Pomodoros in advance and check them off as they’re done, within a few weeks I’ll be easily able to see if my estimates are off and adjust them.

One thing I’ve been terribly bad at this last year is protecting a sufficient number of “office days” where I’m not interrupted by errands and meetings.

So, in summary, what’s the plan?

  • plan “working abroad” visits for 2012 to reduce the number of non-working holidays while still seeing non-local friends and family
  • moratorium on new speaking/training engagements until mid-March 2012
  • continue working in Pomodoros and gain a better sense of how much time I need for my regular “ongoing” tasks and projects so that I have a “weekly framework of Pomodoros” to get organized from
  • work on standard talks and training offers (which will in the long run allow me to be more proactive and less reactive about finding clients)
  • block an “office day” per week (monthly average)

Off I go!

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Prune Your To-Do Lists, Mercilessly [en]

Prune Your To-Do Lists, Mercilessly [en]

[fr] Plus tôt on admet que l'on ne fera pas une tâche, mieux c'est (avant qu'elle nous pourrisse la vie durant des mois avant de mourir de sa belle mort). Soyez donc sans merci en révisant vos listes de tâches. Posez-vous honnêtement la question: vais-je vraiment faire ça?

Yesterday, I opened Things for the first time in… a year, maybe, to see if the link to a video I wanted to watch was still in my old lists there. It wasn’t, but trawling through the state of my to-do lists from Going Solo times made me realize just how much stuff was in there that I never did. And I’m still alive.

I’ve known this for some time: a good way to make our lives miserable is to stack our to-do lists (or next action lists, if we’re GTD-enabled) with piles of tasks that we will end up not doing. Seeing all those old tasks I never got around to doing reminded me, once again, of how important it is to realize as early as possible if I am not going to do something.

I think the first time I really heard somebody talk about this explicitly was at the Going Solo conference in Lausanne, when Martin Roell gave his talk on “Self-Organisation for Effectiveness” (watch the whole video, but the moment in question is about 10 minutes in). He told us that, contrarily to some understanding of GTD (who is to say what’s right or wrong?), he recommended throwing out as much as possible from action lists. YANGTDI: You Are Not Going To Do It.

It’s a bit the same frame of mind as when you come back to your e-mail inbox after a holiday. You can usually safely ignore the stuff that’s marked URGENT in all caps, because chances are if it was urgent a week ago, it’s simply not relevant anymore.

I think that this is where lies the trap in GTD’s “Someday/Maybe” list. Also because we quickly forget one important step in the GTD process, which is that when we put a task on a next action list, it means we are fully committed to doing it. That, I have found, is simply just not the case most of the time for mere mortals like us struggling around with imperfect implementations of GTD in our lives.

So, here are some ideas. They’re not perfect, but they might help.

If you’ve been ignoring an item on your list for a long time, take a moment to look at it. First, make sure it’s a real next action and not a project in disguise, because that could be why you’re not getting around to doing it. Then, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, honestly, deep down inside in your heart of hearts, if you are really going to do it, or if you’re going to keep on procrastinating it until it disappears into a little puff of smoke, in which case you’d have been better off removing it from your list straight away and preventing it from adding to your stress.

How do you know you’ve been ignoring a task for too long? Some systems have that built-in. For example, when I was in my notebook phase, once a page was filled with tasks-done-and-still-to-do, I’d copy over to the next page all the tasks that still needed doing. Once you’ve copied over a task to the new page five times, you start to realize that you’re not doing it.

Yesterday, somebody told me of another method: at the beginning of the week, make a list of tasks you want to accomplish. Opposite that list, draw columns — one per day. Each day, ask yourself if you are committed enough to spend (say) an hour and a half on that task. If you are, draw a green dot on that task’s line. If you aren’t a red dot. At the end of the week, look at what you haven’t done, and look at the amount of red vs. green. The decisions to make are probably made, by that time.

Another trick I have is that I have a sub-heading, in my lists, which is called “Obviously I’m not doing this”. That’s where I send tasks off to die, when I’m clearly not doing them but don’t have the courage to get rid of them completely. A bit like the “Should throw away but can’t yet” box in your cellar.

A corollary to this “task pruning” attitude is to extract subsets of tasks for given time periods, like I started doing (and still am doing) when I plan my week. Or on a stressful day, when you feel swamped, select three things (or five!) and forget about all the rest.

But the main point here is: show no mercy for those idle tasks that just sit there, make your life miserable, and never get done.

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Doing Things Now [en]

My Journey Out of Procrastination: Doing Things Now [en]

[fr] Une clé pour procrastiner moins: faire les choses à mesure. Evident, bien sûr, mais important. Pour pouvoir faire les choses à mesure, ralentir, prendre le temps. Comprendre au fond de soi et pas juste dans sa tête qu'une tâche effectuée maintenant ne sera pas à faire plus tard.

This is the fifth post in my ongoing series about procrastination. Check out the previous ones: Five Principles, Perfectionism, Starting, and Stopping, Getting Thrown Off and Getting Unstuck, and Not Running (Firewalls and iPhone alarms).

Obviously, doing things now (as opposed to later) is the remedy against procrastination. If you do things now, then you can’t procrastinate them, right?

Now that the obvious is out of the way, let’s dig a little. Doing things now is both the result of not procrastinating and part of the cure against procrastination. This means that if we understand what’s going on, and manage to make a habit of doing certain things immediately, we have a key to easing the accumulation of incoming tasks on the procrastination list.

At one point in my life (the “when” is a little fuzzy here) I really understood (deep down inside) that if I did something now, then it meant that I wouldn’t have to do it afterwards. I’m sorry for stating the obvious. Everybody knows this. But between knowing it in your head and knowing it in your gut, there is a difference. The procrastinator’s gut believes that if you don’t do it now, with a bit of luck you’ll be able to continue ignoring it safely until the end of time.

So read this again: if you do something you need to do now, you will not have to do it later.

I know that one decisive “aha!” moment in that respect was when I reached the “2-minute rule” part of GTD. Here’s what this rule is about: when you’re in the “processing” phase of GTD, going systematically through a pile of stuff and deciding what you need to do about each item — but not actually doing it, just making decisions and putting tasks in the system for later — well, there is one situation where you do what needs to be done instead of putting your next action in the system, and that’s when it takes less than 2 minutes to deal with the task. The logic behind this is that putting a task in the system and retrieving it later is going to take two minutes or so — so you’ll actually spend less time if you just do it now. Also, a 2-minute interruption in your processing is not the end of the world.

The trick here is to use a timer — if the timer goes off and you haven’t finished what you thought would be done in 2 minutes, then you stop, put the task on the right list, and continue processing.

Now, I’m not saying that this is where I got the “do it now” revelation, but it’s definitely one blow of the hammer that helped drive that particular nail in.

Another moment I remember is when clicking around on a few links on the FlyLady site brought me to Bratland. I like this metaphor of the “inner brat”, the part of you who finishes the toilet roll but doesn’t put a new one on for the next person (who, if you live alone, is going to be you). The brat who spills the milk and doesn’t clean up, so it ends up caking the kitchen counter and it takes you 5 minutes to get rid of it instead of 30 seconds. I started keeping a kind but firm parental eye open for my inner brat, and that is something that helped me not create more work for myself by letting things drag along.

One area I managed to put this in practice rather well is e-mail. If an e-mail comes in my inbox, and I answer and/or archive it straight away, it won’t be sitting there looking at me next time I go into my inbox. I know this goes against the “deal with your e-mail only twice a day” (or whatever) rules — I’ll write more about why I think my way of dealing with e-mail works, though.

But clearly, if you are the kind of people for whom tasks tend to go onto todo lists to die or weigh on your conscience for months, there is a decisive advantage to not letting them get on the list in the first place.

Related, but not exactly in the “doing things now” department: I have a trick I use when people ask me if I can do something for them (I’m usually tempted to say yes, because I want to be helpful and I want people to like me, and then I feel horrible because I let things drag along and don’t do them). I ask the person to send me an e-mail to remind me about it. This has three advantages:

  • if the person doesn’t really need me to do this for them, they won’t e-mail
  • I don’t have to answer right away
  • I have a “physical” reminder already in my system (I know that I am going to deal with stuff that reaches my inbox), that I will answer when I have the brain space to do so, and if necessary, can politely steer to “sorry, have other commitments” or “this is stuff I get paid for” or even “so sorry, I know I said yes, but actually, to be honest, I just can’t because xyz”.

One important element to be able to start doing things that need it “right away” (you do not want to be putting things like cleaning up spilled milk on your to-do list) is to slow down, run less. If you’re trying to run out the door because you’re late for an appointment, you’re not going to clean up the spilled milk. You’re not going to do the washing up right after your meal. You’re not going to put the laundry away today if you haven’t planned that you need time for that. Yes, household chores, but it’s the same thing with work-related stuff: accounting, invoicing, getting back to prospective clients. You need wiggle space in your days, and that will not happen if you’re running from morning to evening.

I had forgotten about this when I wrote my previous post in this procrastination series, but one thing that helped me break out of the vicious running cycle was heading up into the mountains with no internet for a few days, in summer 2008. Up in the mountains, with nothing to do but eat, sleep, walk, and read a bit, I slowed down. I started taking the time to do things. And I kept a taste of this when I came back to my work-life.

I’ve found that, in the spirit of incremental changes, it’s no use deciding “from now on, I’m going to do all the regular stuff I should be doing as it comes in, à mesure“. Picking an area or two where you stick to it, on the other hand, is helpful. It’s helpful because it means one area where you will be accumulating less procrastinable material, and one area where you can experience the change, the slowing down, the “less backlog”, and get a taste of what it can be like to encourage yourself to make these changes in other areas of your life too.

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Weekly Planning: Weekly Routine? [en]

Weekly Planning: Weekly Routine? [en]

[fr] Je réfléchis à un rythme pour mes semaines. Même si elles se suivent sans se ressembler, certaines choses se répètent de semaine en semaine. J'en suis ici: lundi, courte journée consacrée essentiellement à m'organiser et à planifier la semaine, et à faire un sort à autant de tâches routinières que possible. Mardi, journée bureau. Mercredi, journée bureau ou meetings suivant les besoins. Jeudi après-midi, workshops ou meetings. Vendredi pour m'occuper de ce qui a passé entre les gouttes durant la semaine et faire des tâches "légères" (annoncer et promouvoir Bloggy Fridays et autres p'tits déjs, mettre le blog de l'eclau à jour, compta, paperasse, socialiser en ligne, mettre à jour ma présence sur les réseaux sociaux, etc...)

Attempting to plan my weeks has left me wondering if I should try to settle into some kind of weekly routine — especially when a week like last week comes up, where I realize that I have only one office day planned for the whole week, and on a Friday.

One thing I need to do in advance is plan my office and meeting days. Sometimes they are decided for me: a client wants me to come and give a talk on this or that day — well, that makes it a meeting day. But most of the time, I get to choose. So, which choice is best? What are the best days of the week for me to stay in the office, and what are the best days for me to be running around or seeing people all day?

Though my professional activities vary a lot for week to week, my personal ones are pretty regular. I finish early on Mondays and Fridays to go to judo. My Monday mornings and Thursday mornings are usually booked. I sing on Wednesday nights, or go sailing in summer. People from the coworking space often go out to eat together on Wednesdays.

There are also professional activities that I do or want to do each week: plan my week, for one. I’m the editor for a couple of blogs, and I have the choice between scheduling publications for the whole week at one moment, or publishing day-by-day. I write my column every week (on Sunday, so far). I want to write a few blogs posts every work, do some research, work on my business development, keep up with administrivia, and of course do my client work.

So, with all these different activities, and different types of days, maybe there is an optimal way of organizing my week.

Here’s my thinking so far (and many thanks to Suw who patiently listened to me thinking all this out loud over IM).

Planning my week is something, I realized, which can take upto half a day (scary!) because I’m still learning how to do it. It often involves rethinking priorities, doing a mind sweep (or an inbox sweep) to capture stray tasks that have slipped through the cracks, and sometimes dealing with actual emergencies. As I write this, I realise that my “plan my week” moments have a little “GTD weekly review” ring to them. They aren’t the weekly review, I’m aware of that, but there is some kinship.

I guess in an ideal world I would plan the next week on Friday afternoon, and make that a proper weekly review too. Unfortunately things do tend to crop up during the week-end, and I’m usually pretty tired by my week on Fridays, so I’m not in an optimal state of mind to be doing something new and a bit challenging.

As my Monday mornings are spent out of the office, and my Monday afternoons are pretty short, “Monday” actually turns out to be a good day for me to plan and get organized. Of course, if it doesn’t take the whole afternoon (which I hope!) I will get other things done — but I’ve learned it’s better to plan larger time slots than tight ones.

So, there goes my Monday.

Friday is another interesting day in the week: business is slow on that day, and meetings tend to happen earlier in the week. I’m tired (everybody is). Traditionally for me it’s an office day, and a rather quiet one: not many phone calls, not many incoming e-mails. If my brain is still functional it’s a good day to get things done, but most of the time it’s just not that productive. It’s useful to have it as an office day rather than a day full of meetings or errands, though, because it serves as a safety net to catch any emergencies that might not have been dealt with during the week. When I plan my week, I don’t usually *plan* to do much on Friday, apart from do the stuff I didn’t manage to do during the week.

Ten days ago, I was thinking about the type of activity that would be suitable for a low-energy day like Friday, and actually came up with quite a few ideas:

  • announcing events and promoting them (Bloggy Friday, eclau breakfasts and apéros, etc…)
  • updating blogs, mailing-lists, Facebook presence for my various projects
  • social media gardening: LinkedIn, Facebook, and all the rest
  • uploading photos
  • updating WordPress and plugins
  • trying out new toys or services (light research)
  • pruning my task lists (another hint of “weekly review”)
  • dealing with administrivia and filing paperwork
  • catching up with the week’s invoicing, accounting, and payments
  • getting back to people and socializing online.

A lot of these activities are actually more important than they might seem at first glance, and therefore they tend to slip through the cracks, grow hair and legs, and turn into scary emergency-monsters after a few weeks or months.

So, let’s say I declare Friday a “casual office” day, to catch up on the leftovers of the week and do the above. That leaves me with Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

Tuesday is a great office day. I have nothing planned in the evening, so it really gives me a clear day to just get on with work. Wednesday is also a good office day when I’m singing, as I can hang around until 7pm, though not so great when I’m sailing, as I’m likely to head out around 4pm. Thursday is usually only half a day, but will turn into a complete day similar to Tuesday in a few months’ time.

So, for the moment, it looks like I’m going to declare Tuesday a regular office day, Thursday afternoon a regular meeting/workshop time, and Wednesday will be office or meetings, depending on whether I have more “office” client work or more “meetings” client work.

Mondays are there to plan the week and get as much of my regular tasks out of the way. Friday is there to catch up on the “overflow”, deal with emergencies, and “casual” stuff. I’ll continue writing my column on Sundays.

What’s important to note though is that this is the framework. Many of my weeks will not work out like this — just like my days don’t always follow my daily routine. But having this framework is going to allow me to plan ahead better, I think.

Do you have some kind of weekly routine, or do you just go from week to week and deal with them as they show up?

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Getting Daily Business Out of the Way [en]

Getting Daily Business Out of the Way [en]

[fr] Je ressens généralement le besoin d'être à jour avec les "affaires courantes" avant d'attaquer le travail "proprement dit", comme lorsque j'avais besoin de ranger ma chambre ou mon appart avant de commencer à étudier pour mes examens, lorsque j'étais étudiante. Je ne suis pas sûre si c'est une bonne ou une mauvaise chose.

Over the last months, I’ve noticed how important it is for me to keep more or less up-to-date with daily business before dealing with “proper work”. Like when I was a student, and I needed to clean the flat before getting to work on my exams.

Non-done daily business floats about in your brain and distracts you. It’s the stuff you might forget to add to your next action lists because you do them pretty regularly all the time, like checking e-mail, responding to the easy ones, writing down expenses, keeping your desk clean, getting back to people who leave voicemail, writing a blog post.

This is the stuff that I’ve got in the habit of dealing with pretty much as soon as it comes in.

Maybe it should go on my lists too (in pure GTD terms, it should probably).

I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing.

It is linked, in a way I don’t quite grasp yet, to what I’m going to talk about in the next post of my procrastination series: getting into the habit of doing certain things immediately.

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Getting Thrown Off and Getting Unstuck [en]

My Journey Out of Procrastination: Getting Thrown Off and Getting Unstuck [en]

[fr] Je continue ma série d'articles sur mon voyage pour me libérer de la procrastination. Deux méchanismes importants que j'ai compris: premièrement, que j'ai tendance à me décourager dès que je fais une petite entorse à une "bonne résolution" ou une nouvelle "bonne habitude" que je me suis fixée. Du coup, je m'entraine à faire de petites entorses et à reprendre l'habitude en question, pour ne pas me retrouver démunie quand la vie me bombarde d'imprévus comme elle a tendance à le faire. Deuxièmement, j'ai identifié que quand je suis bloquée, c'est souvent que je suis stressée, et souvent par une chose précise que j'ai à faire. Identifier cette chose (et identifier que je suis bloquée parce que je suis stressée) suffit en général à me "débloquer" (quand je fais la chose en question).

In this third post about my journey out of procrastination (you might want to read part 1, “Five Principles” and part 2, “Perfectionism, Starting, and Stopping”) I’m going to talk about two things that I noticed happened to me regularly, and which are clearly expressions of the perfectionism and starting/stopping components of procrastination discussed in my last post.

Both are pretty straightforward to understand but it’s worth keeping an eye open for them. I think change is a lot about paying attention to things that didn’t seem all that important in the first place.

When I was a teenager, I switched from using exercise books at school to individual sheets of paper. I did that because I had noticed that as soon as I had an “off” day and was a bit sloppy in my exercise book, I would lose all motivation to continue making the effort to take clean notes (I was a pretty sloppy kid in general). The link to perfectionism is obvious here, right?

Now, way past my teenager years, I still get thrown off easily when I’m on a roll. For example, if I decide to do something every day and I skip a day, I tend to give up. I try to keep my flat clean, but as soon as it starts becoming a little messy, I stop making any efforts. I keep track of what I spend, but if I forget for a few days, then it’s “not worth it” anymore. Perfectionism. All-or-nothing.

I hope you can see that this way of functioning is just not viable, as it puts a huge strain on never making any mistakes or skipping a class. You end up either not trying because you know you won’t be able to live up to the “no fault” standards, or trying and failing, which just proves once more how hopeless you are. And you procrastinate. You don’t put in place habits which will help you stop procrastinating the changes you want to make in your life.

One way I’ve found around this is to do things imperfectly on purpose. For example, I got an exercise bike this summer and I do 30 minutes on it every morning. “Every morning” is the rule, but in practice, I skip a day every now and again. Once a week, on average. Maybe twice. Sometimes I go for four days without touching the bike. I also have a little routine I’ve built up over time which I do after my cycling: sit-ups, stretching, etc. Most of the time I do it, but not always. Sometimes I only do part of it. Sometimes I skip it entirely and only do the bike.

The dangerous and difficult test was the first time I skipped a day. I’d been using the bike daily for 10 days and was very happy with myself. What would happen if I skipped a day? Would I never touch the bike again? Would I continue like before after my day off? Well, I continued. Then I went on vacation for a week. I didn’t use the bike on the first day (I was too tired), but I did on the second day.

Now, this might sound in contradiction with my enthusiasm about putting habits into place and having morning/evening routines that you stick to. But habits and routines, in my opinion, are fragile if they are not resilient to disruption. If you have an exercise habit that you stick to every day no matter what, what’s going to happen to it when you end up in bed with the flu, and it takes you two weeks to be functional again? Will you really pick it up again? Or will you drop it?

It’s not because I skip a day (or two, or three, or a week) that I’m going to give up.

I know that I’m not good at coping with unexpected stuff, and changes. I’ll be in a phase where I have a good life rythm, a good balance, and then something happens that stresses me out and forces me to change my schedule completely for two days, and it’ll take me weeks (if not months) to get back on my feet again to where I was before.

So I want to make sure that my life habits, my “processes”, those that keep me from accumulating a backlog of procrastination-friendly material, are disruption-proof. I think I first got this idea from Merlin Mann’s “Back to GTD” series: yes, you’ll fall off the wagon, but you can climb back on. It’s one of the things I like with GTD (and my partial implementation of it): it’s not very difficult to start doing it again once you’ve stopped.

Maybe exercising is not the best example to use, as nothing “piles up” (except guilt, breathlessness, and a waistline) if you don’t exercise — but it’s a very good case study for me of how, six months later, I am still doing something I decided to do regularly, even if I am prevented from doing so every now and again.

This is actually an excercise in starting and stopping. You learn to interrupt your habit, and pick it up again. Interrupt, start again. At first, you make the interruption easy: on purpose, just once. You become good at starting again. That means that if for some reason you have to stop, then you can start again. (Am I repeating myself?)

For example, I learned that with my exercise bike, if I’m feeling tired or haven’t done it for a few days, I just aim to pedal for 30 minutes. Never mind if I’m below my usual heart-rate. Never mind if I don’t perform well. I just spend 30 minutes on the bike, and I’m off the hook. And although I have now (gradually!) built this wonderful post-bike routine, well, I’m not going to let the size of it discourage me: if I feel a bit under the weather or lazy, I remember that the important thing here is the bike, and it’s ok if that’s all I do. The rest is optional.

The second thing I noticed I was often faced with was the fact that I fall into this “rut” of not-doing, and at some point “manage” to do something, and I become unstuck. Once that first thing was done, the rest followed. For a very long time the process seemed a little magical, because as you know if you suffer from procrastination, when you’re stuck in there, it can really seem (and be) impossible to simply do something. At some point I started figuring out how to get unstuck — and more importantly, how I got stuck.

One of the important things I understood was that when I’m stressed, I get depressed. When you’re depressed, by definition, you have no energy to do things. So, once I’d understood that, I very quickly started asking myself, when I felt in the rut, “what is stressing me?” — and often, the answer was “something I need to do”. One trick I sometimes use is the “cringe list”: write down a list of all the things that are on my conscience and that make me cringe so much when I think about them that I do everything I can not to think about them.

The next step, after identifying the source of my stress, is to actually do something about it, which in many cases (gasp!) means doing the thing I dread the most. But knowing it’s going to get me unstuck often helps — and if it’s not enough, I have a few tricks up my sleeve (like buddy-working or 15 minute timer dashes) to help me. Sometimes the “thing I need to do” seems unrelated to the other things stuck in the procrastination queue. For example, I have a whole lot of work to do, but what’s blocking me is that I need to clean the flat or go shopping before. You’ve probably been there already ;-).

“How do I get stuck” is a trickier question. Usually, it’s because when things are going well, I relax, and stop paying as much attention to how I manage my life (and things, and todos). This allows weeds to start growing in the backyard. Put clearly, I start letting things slip a little, and only “do something about it” once it gets bad enough and I’m stuck. This means that when things are going well, I still need to stay focused on keeping up with what I need to do: it doesn’t work magically, it requires effort all the time.

I have noticed that taking a moment at the beginning of each day to look at what I need to do and make sure I can do the most urgent things helps me not have these “OMG I’d forgotten this really important thing I must do!” moments. Weekly planning helps even more, and my ambition for 2010 is to go beyond that: less fire fighting, being more proactive. I’m aware we’re soaring above simple procrastination issues here, but it’s important to see all the ramifications and how “procrastination” as an identified problem sits with all sorts of other “life organisation” topics.

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Five Principles [en]

My Journey Out of Procrastination: Five Principles [en]

When you’re trapped in the procrastination rut, solutions coming from those who are out of it just seem inapplicable. “Just do it,” for example.

I think I’ve recently pulled myself out of the rut for good (fingers crossed), and before I forget what it is like to live with the heavy black cloud of “things I should have taken care of last week/month/year” over my head, here are a few thoughts on what helped me build a life for myself where my invoices are sent, my bills are paid, my deadlines are met, and I actually have guilt-free week-ends and evenings.

It wasn’t always like that. Actually, for most of my life, it wasn’t like that.

Changing, like most changes, has been a gradual process. I know that (for me, at least) one of the thick roots of my procrastination lies in a very archaic urge of mine to not be alone, to not do things alone. I rarely found it hard to do things (even the washing-up) if I had company, and I understood at some point that putting things off until I got myself in an unmanageable mess was in a way something I did to either force myself to ask others for help, or manipulate them into helping me out.

I think it was really important for me to understand this, because unfortunately, freeing oneself of life-threatening procrastination is not just a question of tricks and methods, but also about understanding what role such a behaviour plays in one’s “life ecosystem”, and what can be done to replace it. In my case, it included being proactive about asking for assistance or company, making sure I was having enough of a social life, and sorting out a few personal issue I’m not going to dive in here.

That being said, I learned five important principles throughout my journey that are worth sharing.

The first is that radical change will not work. If you tend to live in a messy home, it’s not spring-cleaning once every three years which will change that. Going from living in a messy home to living in a more or less ordered home is a lifestyle change. It’s like quitting smoking or starting to exercise regularly, or eating more healthily. Reading GTD, spending two days setting up your system, and “sticking to it”, will not be enough (though I’m a great fan of GTD). Be aware that you’re in for a long process, which will probably take years (it took years for me, in any case — maybe even half my lifetime). This means that you need to start by making small changes to the way you do things, instead of aiming for a revollution.

The second is to not do it alone. By that, I mean involve others to support you. Things I’ve done include buddy working, asking a friend to come over to help me clean the flat, or having my brother literally hold my hand during three months whilst I started getting my finances back in order. If it’s easier to do with somebody just sitting next to you, then ask somebody to do just that. I remember one of my first experiences of this was being on the phone with a friend, and we both had a horrible awful pile of dirty dishes to deal with. We both decided to hang up, do it now, and call again an hour later when it was done. Somehow, it felt easier to be doing the dishes when I knew my friend was doing the same thing in another country.

The third is that backlog and process both need to be dealt with. When you procrastinate, you start off in the worst of places: not only do you not have a healthy “lifestyle” process in place for dealing with things (you let them wait until it’s so urgent the only thing left to do is to call in the firemen), but you also have a (sometimes huge) backlog of “stuff” that needs dealing with. Be patient with yourself. Also, understand that there’s no point in just dealing with the backlog if you’re not fixing the process. GTD is mainly about the process. “Do it now” is also just about the process.

The fourth is to find pleasure in the doing. One component in my procrastination is that I’m overly goal-focused. One thing I had to learn to do was to enjoy doing things, and not just enjoy having done them. Life is now, even when you’re doing the dishes or cleaning the flat or paying bills. What can be done to make the process more pleasant? Well, there are things like listening to music or focusing on the task at hand in a zen-like way, but it’s also possible to keep in mind that by paying my bills now, I’m being kind to myself and treating myself well (by keeping myself out of future trouble). It helped me to realise that I really didn’t mind doing the dishes for friends when I was invited — it was doing them for myself that sucked. It wasn’t about the dishes: it was about doing stuff for myself. (Which opens a whole new can of worms: is it easy to treat yourself kindly?) When I started doing my dishes as if I were my own best friend that I loved, things started changing.

The fifth is to know your boundaries and enforce them (aka “say no”). When there is too much to do that you can’t keep up, it means that you’ve been accepting or taking on too much. This is a major chapter in itself (and as I’m getting increasingly better at setting limits and saying no when needed, I’m starting to realize how hopelessly bad most people are at this). If you catch up on the backlog, set up a good process, but keep on piling up your plate with more than you can eat, there’s no way out. Again, this principle opens up potential cans of worms: why is it difficult to say no? Fear of rejection or angering the other are not to be taken lightly. “Just understanding” this is often not enough, as the root of such behaviour is often emotional and needs to be treated with respect. (You’ll probably have noticed: you won’t get much out of yourself — or anyone — if you don’t treat emotional components of problems with respect.)

I think that before diving into any “method” to change one’s procrastinative habits, it’s worth pondering on all five of these principles and trying to keep them in mind whilst going on with one’s life: change will be successful only if you pay attention to them all. This is, in my opinion, where GTD on its own fails at “solving the problem”: it’s mainly about the process (part of the third principle here). You can get started implementing GTD, but if the deeper roots of your procrastination are not dealt with, you will simply fail at implementing GTD properly enough for it to be “the solution”, just like I did. Not that implementing GTD isn’t useful: it was a very important step for me, and helped me a lot (it changed my life, clearly), but it was not enough to free me from procrastination.

Another element I’d like to add, in case it comes handy to somebody, is that I noticed at some point that when I am under stress, I tend to feel down, and when I feel down, I tend to find it difficult to do things, and therefore procrastinate. Figuring out this vicious circle was a really important milestone for me. Of course, it then took many months of careful observation of myself to reach the point where I could go “Oh! I’m feeling down and crappy, am I stressed? What’s stressing me? Oh, let me deal with that now so I can climb out of the pit!” — and now, it never even gets to that stage (or very rarely) because I catch it even earlier and nip it in the bud.

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La règle des deux minutes [fr]

La règle des deux minutes [fr]

[en] I write a weekly column for Les Quotidiennes, which I republish here on CTTS for safekeeping.

Chroniques du monde connecté: cet article a été initialement publié dans Les Quotidiennes (voir l’original).

Après deux chroniques un peu méditatives, je me permets de vous servir cette semaine un petit truc pratique: la règle des deux minutes.

Elle est très simple: si quelque chose prend moins de deux minutes à faire, faites-le tout de suite.

Puis, pour égayer votre journée, je vais vous donner un peu de contexte et des recommandations de lecture (anglophones, donc sortez vos dictionnaires ou filez vite faire un petit séjour outre-Manche pour rafraîchir votre anglais!)

Chez les geeks et les gens bien connectés d’aujourd’hui, il y a un grand amour pour les méthodes dites “de productivité”. Allez savoir si c’est à force de vivre dans un monde numérique où le temps ne se déroule pas à la même vitesse que dans le monde extérieur (“Quoi? Ça fait trois heures déjà que je suis devant l’ordi?!”), ce qui ne manque pas d’avoir des conséquences parfois désastreuses sur la gestion du temps, ou bien parce que le cerveau cyber-compatible est excité à l’idée de systématiser la gestion de sa vie, mais toujours est-il que la productivité ainsi que la lutte contre la procrastination et la désorganisation sont des thèmes récurrants dans le monde connecté.

A coups de blog ou de Twitter, on se refile en effet les adresses de sites comme 43folders ou FlyLady, et les livres tels que “The Now Habit“, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People“, et surtout “Getting Things Done” (abrégé GTD, disponible en français sous le titre “S’organiser pour réussir“) finissent immanquablement par se retrouver dans nos bibliothèques, ou du moins sur nos listes de lecture.

La règle des deux minutes est tirée directement de GTD. En très très résumé, un des éléments importants de GTD est de séparer la réception d’une tâche à faire ou d’une demande (on la met dans la “boîte de réception”), la décision quant à ce qu’on va en faire (jeter, classer, déléguer, mettre sur une liste la prochaine action concrète pour avancer), et le moment où l’on fait les choses.

La seule exception à ce processus, ce sont justement les tâches très courtes. S’il me faut moins de deux minutes pour accomplir une tâche, la mettre dans mon “système” et l’en ressortir le moment venu prendra en fait plus de temps que ça. Autant donc s’épargner du travail en évitant tout simplement que la petite tâche en question se retrouve sur une des ces maudites listes de choses à faire!

Une remarque toutefois: l’utilisation de la minuterie s’impose, afin de ne pas se retrouver encore à la tâche trente minutes plus tard…

Quatre points de départ en français sur GTD pour creuser un petit peu:

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Weekly Planning: Third Week (Learning Steps) [en]

Weekly Planning: Third Week (Learning Steps) [en]

Here we are — I’ve completed my third “planned” week since I started looking a bit further ahead than the current day (first week, second week, passing thoughts). Gosh, it was a busy week. I had only two office days, and I realize that it is not quite enough.

Around me, I’m faced either with people who are used to planning their weeks and find it normal, or people who could never dream of doing it, so busy are they putting out fires day after day.

I was like that for a long time. How did I get where I am now? I’ve been thinking a lot about which were the “first steps” on the road from chaos to “planning”.

Oh, before I forget: when I say I plan my week, I mean that I have a rough outline of what I am going to accomplish during the week, and on what day. It doesn’t go any further than that. Like when I “plan” my day, I don’t decide “I’m going to spend between 9 and 9.30 doing this, then do that for 20 minutes”. I know what I want to accomplish in the day, and go from there.

So, back to what brought me here, let me mention a few landmarks or “important steps” you might want to meditate upon if you are currently too busy putting out fires to even dream of planning your week. They’re in no particular order, because I think I haven’t quite finished figuring this out yet. If you spot one that seems doable, then start with that one.

  • Protect yourself. Set a very high priority on keeping “downtime” aside for yourself. Of course there are very busy periods where you won’t get much, but this shouldn’t be your “normal” week. Don’t answer the phone during lunch break, for example. Book an evening a week for yourself, and tell people who want to see you then that you “already have something planned”. Learn to become more comfortable about making people wait. If you always put others first you’ll just burn in the fire.
  • Set maker days and manager days. Yesterday evening, Claude pointed out to me that this was one of my first obvious steps towards weekly planning, back in April. It’s obvious: once you start having a clearer plan of how much actual time you’re going to have in the office to work on projects, it helps you not overcommit.
  • Under-promise, over-deliver. I can’t remember who recommended this, but it stuck with me. It helps me fight against my natural tendancy to underestimate the amount of time I need to deliver something. So I figure out a reasonable estimate, and then add a lot of security padding to give myself space for bad planning and other emergencies.
  • Everything takes more time than you think. I think David Allen says this somewhere in Getting Things Done, but I could be misquoting. It could be Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan, too. Or Merlin Mann. Anyway: the unexpected almost always adds time to things. And in the cases where it doesn’t and actually reduces the time you need for something, it’s no big disaster (OMG! I have too much time to do this! I’m going to die!). So, add a lot of padding to any estimation of how much time something is going to take you. It’s always more than you think. Try doubling your initial estimate, for starters, and see if that improves things.
  • End your day by looking at tomorrow. This is something I got from FlyLady when I realised it was important for me to have a “getting started” (=morning) and a “winding down” (=evening) routine. She recommends including 10 minutes in your evening routine to prepare the next day: check the train timetable, know what appointments you have, etc. It’s easy to do, and it means you’re not diving blind into tomorrow anymore.
  • Learn to say no. This is the really hard one for most people. I’ve become pretty good at saying no, but I’ve come a long way: initially, I was somebody who said yes to almost everything. I was both enthusiastic about all sorts of things and terrified of hurting people by refusing their requests. So I didn’t say no. I’ll probably blog about this more extensively at some point (I already did in French), but the important thing to remember is that as long as you have trouble saying no, you will not escape fire fighting. One thing that really helped me learn to say no was to start by never immediately accepting anything. Say you’ll answer in 24 hours. Then I used that time to have a long hard think about how I keep saying yes to stuff I want to do to help out, and then end up procrastinating, not doing it, feeling horrible because deadlines slip, etc. That usually gave me enough courage to say no.
  • Have a list. You can go all GTD or only part-way, like I have, but you need some kind of system or list to capture the things you need to take care of. Learn the difference between a project and a next action, and list only the latter. To start your list, just write/type down all the stuff that’s bubbling at the top of your brain and stressing you out. If you think of something you need to do while you’re working, add it to the list. Ask a friend to hold your hand (it can be through IM) if your list gets too scary. Trust me, it’ll be better when it’s written down — anything is better than being an ostrich.
  • Learn to prioritize. I have huge problems with this (in other areas of my life too). When it comes to work-related stuff, here are a few rules of thumb I use. Invoicing is high priority, because it’s what brings in the money and it’s not very long to do. Anything really time-sensitive is also high priority (if I don’t announce tomorrow’s meetup today, it won’t be any use, will it?) Responding to potential clients. Paid work for clients with deadlines, of course. Asking questions like “what is the worst thing that will happen if I don’t do this today?” or “on this list, is there any item which is going to cause somebody to die if I don’t do it?” (start with “to die” and then work down on the ladder of bad things — thanks Delphine for that tip) also helps. This doesn’t mean you need to order your lists. It’s just to help you figure out where to start.
  • Admit when you’re in over your head. If you over-promised, said yes when you really should have said no, and basically find yourself incapable of keeping up with your commitments, tell the people involved. And use that safety padding again. If you told the client it would be done by Wednesday, and on Monday you already have that sinking feeling that it won’t be possible, tell the client. Apologize. Say you messed up if you have. If you’re pretty certain you can get it done by Friday, tell them that it’ll be done Monday. See? Safety padding. Under-promising. Of course this doesn’t work in all situations, but you might simply not have a choice — and it’s better to be upfront about a deadline slipping than keeping it silent. Not just for the relationship with the client, but for your learning and growing process. Same with money: if you need invoices paid earlier than you initially asked because you have cashflow issues, ask. If you can’t pay the bill, ask for a payment plan. Somebody might say yes.
  • You can only do so much in a day. At some point, you reach the end of the day. Either it’s time, or you’re tired, but at some point, the day is done. Pack up and go home. Watch TV. Eat. (Maybe not in that order.) Do something nice. Take a bath. First of all, it’s no use working yourself silly until ungodly hours, you just won’t get up the next morning, or if you do, you won’t be productive. Second, doing this will help you “grow” a feel for what can be done in a day.
  • Plan your day. At the beginning of the day, look at your list, and think about the 2-3 important things that you want to accomplish today. Rocks and pebbles might help. Forget all the rest and get cracking on those. You’ll be interrupted, you’ll have emergencies, of course. That’s why it’s important not to plan to do too much — or you’re setting yourself up for failure. I started doing this regularly this spring, first with index cards, then with a list in Evernote. At the beginning you’ll be crap at it, but after months of practice, you get better. And this is one of the building stones you’ll need to be able to plan your weeks at some point.
  • Save time for the unexpected. When I was teaching, I did quite a bit of time planning — I knew when I was in class and when I had “downtime” to prepare courses and mark tests. Doing that, I realized that I could not perfectly plan my time. There was always “unexpected” stuff coming up. So I started making sure I had empty time slots of “surprises”. At some point during the last year, I calculated that roughly half my time was taken up by “unexpected” things and “emergencies”. Now, it’s less, because I’m better at planning. So, depending on how deep in chaos you are, you want to make sure you leave enough “free time” in whatever planning you’re doing to accomodate everything you didn’t know about or hadn’t thought about. As organisation increases and stress goes down, the “things to do” will get more under control and there will be less and less emergencies — but it’s still important to leave “breathing space”.

This is more or less all I can think of for the moment. Is it useful to anybody? I like to think it would have been useful to me, but one can never know… would I have listened?

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Weekly Planning, Two Weeks [en]

Weekly Planning, Two Weeks [en]

[fr] Après deux semaines de planning hebdomadaire, je vois que j'ai été un peu trop ambitieuse cette semaine. Ça va s'arranger!

So here I am, at the end of my second “planned” week. As I suspected, I was a little ambitious this time around. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • writing a blog post for a client takes up the better part of half a day; sometimes it’s way less, but I mustn’t count on it
  • sorting through 300+ photos also takes up the better part of half a day
  • I need to remember that days with judo are short, as I need to leave the office around 5pm

As I planned “too much”, I ended up giving priority to client work and things others were expecting from me over my personal projects. It sucks, but it’s kind of normal. If I have too much stuff to do “for others” in a week, it means that

  • either I have been saying “yes” too easily
  • or I have not done enough of it over the previous weeks (lack of foresight).

Learning to say “no” more (when necessary) is an ongoing process, and I’m pretty proud at how far I’ve come. It is just not a viable option to say yes to everyone and everything, or you disappear in the process. (Merlin’s time and attention talk, which I’ve started watching, touches upon this.)

As for foresight, it requires longer term planning. Having a view of one’s month, or of the two weeks to come. However, I’m not there yet. It’s no use trying to plan further ahead until I’m at least a brown belt in weekly planning — just as it would have made little sense for me to try and plan my weeks when I was still struggling with the idea of planning my days somewhat. It’s an incremental process, step-by-step.

The fact that I’m not planning beyond the week right now also allows me to relax a bit about the stuff I haven’t got done this week. It’s not like I already have a plan for next week and it’s going to be all disrupted by what I didn’t do this week. I’m going to put the “undone” things back in my master lists, and reevaluate if I’m doing them next week or not.

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