How to organize yourself, find time to work and be happy in the process


This article belongs to the telecommuting and geographical independence series.

It doesn’t matter what your job is about, the routine is the same every day and it starts early in the morning: emails, news, events, requests… and if you use a computer to work, the situation is even worse: Twitter, Facebook and other hundreds of sites that demand your attention.

In the midst of all this noise, is your head, lost under an avalanche of thoughts about the past, to-do tasks, worries about the future and other distractions that pull you and prevent you from moving forward.

 

When walking, walk. When eating, eat.
-Zen Proberb

There’s nothing better than being completely absorbed in the task you’re doing, in total control of your faculties, in the zone. Focused.

But the reality is that life’s demands have turned us into multitasking beings. If we want to take the time to focus and be productive, we need help. We need tools.

An inbox

A to-do list is fundamental to provide some structure to our day-to-day and free us from what the productivity expert David Allen calls mental clutter. What Allen proposes with his Getting Things Done methodology is that we clear everything that’s in our heads, break down the work into two-minute tasks and then place them in an “inbox”.

This inbox can be a piece of paper, an email, a text file from notepad in the computer, a cellphone reminder, or a web tool. The most important thing is that, whichever tool we choose to represent our inbox, it needs to be available at all times. Remember: the goal is for you to write everything you can think of that you need to do.

At first, it takes some effort. The hardest part of this process is to separate the projects in actionable blocks. In other words, not to write generic tasks such as “Work a little on project X” or “Go grocery shopping”. The idea –and this is the key for making this work– is to break down the tasks into doable pieces. You can do this while writing them down, or later, when you have time to organize the to-do list (no, I’m not missing the irony here).

For instance, instead of writing “Create client YXZ’s website”, I would write:

  • Register the YXZ.com domain
  • Hire the hosting for YXZ.com
  • Install wordpress on YXZ.com
  • Ask YXZ client which sections he wants for his website
  • Selecting a wordpress template for YXZ.com
  • Talk to the designer to create logo and image for YXZ.com
  • Follow-up on YXZ.com design
  • Incorporate design to YXZ.com
  • Create sections on YXZ.com
  • Install SEO widget on YXZ.com
  • Ask client if he wants other widgets on YXZ.com
  • Deliver YXZ.com site to client

See? Non-ambiguos doable tasks. Some can be performed in 2 minutes, others in less than 10.

What happens if you can’t perform a task because you lack data, or because you don’t know where to start? Well, that question has two doable tasks: “Find A, B and C data for the project” and “Plan project”.

After some time following this routine, the task breakdown will come out naturally. You’ll develop the skill to focus on projects from the top and to prevent certain tasks that would take place unnoticeably and would delay the entire execution.

How to rule your to-do list

When I decided to take charge of my days, I made a list on Windows notepad. In it, I wrote all that it came to mind, from work to personal errands. I was constantly reordering the tasks in accordance to importance.

Clearing my head was a great exercise. Every morning I arrived to work and the list would tell me what to do. I stopped feeling anxious over the possibility of forgetting something important. I was happy.

But then I realized that the list couldn’t be done in the way that it was written. There are tasks that can’t be performed everywhere. For instance, “organizing the bedroom’s closet” is something that can’t be done in the office, obviously.

So, I divided the list in 3 areas: Home, Office, Outside. The last one was done in a notepad that I’d always carry with me. In it, I wrote down tasks to do outside: grocery shopping, errands, phone calls in traffic.

With time, I started to cheat and left the less pleasant tasks in the bottom of the list. The solution was to set deadlines to each activity, so that the list would force me to perform each task at a specific day.

As you can imagine, this list started taking a life of its own and I was risking that it’d become unmanageable. I needed a tool that’d help me manage everything. And that’s how I discovered Toodledo. A web application which I wrote about on 4 tools to organize your life.

Toodledo allows you to input tasks, assign them a project, a context (where you’ll be performing them) a ranking and an execution date. Being a web app, the list can be accessed from any device with an internet connection. Regardless of where you are, you’ll always have the list at hand. If you own an iPhone, you can even manage your to-do list offline and the tasks will sync up when you have a connection.

On your way to productivity and happiness

One last detail is missing. How many tasks do you schedule per day?

Sometimes we lie to ourselves and swear that we’ll do 20 tasks in one day. Then, as time goes by, we spend the rest of the day rescheduling.

Leo Babauta, from Zenhabits, proposes the idea of the Most Important Task (MIT) – That task that absolutely must be completed on a set date.

In the article where he presents the idea, Leo talks about the 3 MITs. Two of them are work related and one is related to one of our life’s goals (that’s a powerful idea!). Following this advice, I’ve been scheduling my days around 3 MITs. It’s worth trying it just as an honesty exercise.

I think many of the work related blues are due to the overwhelming sensation that is caused by to-do tasks and that perennial feeling that you’re forgetting something. Without knowing it, our time runs out just thinking on what’s our next task or putting out fires over things that we forgot to do. Having a clear mind allows you to focus and at the same time have the certainty that you’re not forgetting anything, it’s a unique experience. Go ahead! Get organized; change your life and the lives of those around you.

 

4 Tools to organize your life

modern-working-desk-2

Very few people manage to establish a fundamentalist separation between their work spaces and their homes. Normally our work follows us home; our shores chase us to work and they both follow us outside.

How many times – for instance– have we arrived at the office only to find that the file we worked on all night was left on the computer at home? How many times have we asked ourselves where’s that little paper where we wrote down that address?  And what about those times when we’re outside and need to send or deliver a copy of some ID document?

Has this happened to you? Do you want to fix it?

1. Access another computer remotely

Imagine you’ve just left an important file at home or that you want to check from a distance an old email you’ve got at the office.

Today, you don’t need to be in front of a machine to access it. You can simply install LogMeIn on the computer you’ll be needing access to and then, by using a password protected account, you can control it from any other computer using a browser.

I use LogMeIn all the time to provide technical support to my family and reply in just three minutes questions like “how do I set double space in Word?” or “I received an email and can’t open it”.

LogMeIn

2. Store your documents in the cloud

What do you do when you need to take a file with you to keep working on it? Do you send it via email? Do you copy it on a pen drive? What if you forget to send or copy the last version?

Dropbox is a free service to store and share documents between several devices, in real time. You get 2GB for free and you can get more for free if you invite your friends!

You only need to install a small application in the computers you regularly use. This application creates a special folder in your hard drive. Everything you copy there is automatically copied through the internet and then back to all the computers in which you’ve installed Dropbox. Do you need to take a file or a photo? You can copy it in the folder and you’re all set.

Or better yet, you keep it on that folder all the time and each modification is automatically updated in every one of your machines.

It’s worth noting that after sync up, you can access the Dropbox content even without being online.

Would you like to access your folder in a different machine, for instance, at a cyber café or another person’s computer without installing the application? No problem. You can log in to your account from the Dropbox website and load and upload files.

I have all my personal documents in a password protected Dropbox folder: driver’s license, ID card, passport, copies of my credit cards, plane tickets, hotel reservations. If I lose something, I know I’ve got access to a copy from any place with an internet connection.

Dropbox also allows you to share a subfolder with other Dropbox users. I use these shared folders all the time to manage work projects with other people. At the office we have a shared folder for each client and in it we add and edit files together and we always have the latest version. No confusion and no problems of misplaced files.
Dropbox

3. Centralize your notes and check them anywhere

Do you have post-its on your desk, notes on a pad or spread around your laptop and mobile? I used to have a notebook where I kept all my work notes, but always left it somewhere. Afterwards, I started taking notes on my phone, but the process of passing those notes to the laptop or converting those notes into an email, was a hassle. Until I discovered  Evernote.

The magic of Evernote is that no matter where you take these notes, they sync up in all the devices where you’ve installed Evernote. Whether it’s a Mac, PC, Palm, Blackberry, iPhone, Android or Windows Mobile or even, if the machine is not yours, you can create and check your notes on a browser.

I use it constantly, not only to take notes, but to work on current documents, write and edit posts like this one that I might have started on using a laptop and am now completing in my phone, underground (and once I have signal again, the note will sync up automagically).

Evernote also allows you to upload photos, voice notes or websites. The free version provides you with 40MB for monthly uploads, which is about 2000 notes, 400 cellphone pictures or 40 audio clips a month, which is more than enough.
Evernote

4. Keep a universal to-do list

For a long time, I carried a long to-do list in the notebook I previously mentioned. But every time I forgot the notebook, I’d find myself doing irrelevant tasks at the worst times. So I decided to find a tool that would allow me to manage a to-do list that was accessible anywhere, and that’s how I discovered Toodledo.

Toodledo is a web application that allows you to input activities, assign them a project, a context (where you’ll be performing them), a ranking and an execution date. This way, you can truly empty your brain of all your to-do’s and focus on what needs to be done each day while providing some structure to your life.

By being a web app, the list can be accessed from any device with an internet connection. If you have an iPhone, you can even manage your to-do list offline and the tasks will sync up once you go online.

The service offers a free version and two others where you have to pay. But the paying ones are ridiculously inexpensive ($30/year is the most expensive one). I recommend you start with the free version and see how that goes.

The main problem with to-do lists is that we need something on those to-do lists that reminds us to check our to-do list. It’s a matter of discipline. Having a list of things we need to do and knowing how to manage it are one of the key concepts to a healthy life and if you don’t stop me, I could go on for hours on things like GTD, MIT and other techniques.

Toodledo
Another alternative:

Since early 2011, Wunderlist is the darling of personal organizers. This web application is a multiplatform and allows the lists that you create in the computer to automatically sync up with the ones you carry on your mobile and vice versa. Its super easy to use and a delight for your sight.

Wunderlist.

4 Tools for Working Remotely

Or how to telecommute without disappearing

This article belongs to the telecommuting and geographical independence series.

Empty desk with laptop in modern office

If there’s an aspect of the digital revolution that I’m passionate about, is the possibility we have to be omnipresent through technology. Thanks to mobile computing and the drop in telecommunication costs, everyday there’re fewer reasons to work in an unpleasant office, set in a particular location.

Surely, not all jobs can be performed remotely, but it’s also true that most of the times your job is the result of a personal decision.

Regardless whether you decide to work from home, or go to the other side of world, the key is to create the feeling that you are still there in the office, just as available.

So, let’s say that you decided to try this working remotely thing and you convinced your boss to let you do it. In order to virtualize yourself, you need to rely on certain technologies that you’re already familiar with; but I want to invite you to explore the possibility of optimizing their use:

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The Difference: Living Well vs. Doing Well

Rolf Potts, author of the essential Vagabonding, offers some pointers to release yourself from the endless production-consumption cycle and get the time to roam the world.

This notion — that material investment is somehow more important to life than personal investment — is exactly what leads so many of us to believe we could never afford to go vagabonding. The more our life options get paraded around as consumer options, the more we forget that there’s a difference between the two. Thus, having convinced ourselves that buying things is the only way to play an active role in the world, we fatalistically conclude that we’ll never be rich enough to purchase a long-term travel experience.

Fortunately, the world need not be a consumer product. As with environmental integrity, long-term travel isn’t something you buy into: it’s something you give to yourself.

Continue reading The Difference: Living Well vs. Doing Well.

Post-Capitalist Society

Fifteen years ago, Peter Drucker’s Post-Capitalist Society (1993) changed my life forever.

The main idea behind Post-Capitalist Society is that the economic rules that governed the world up to the 1980’s are (or were?) obsolete; that the land, labor and capital, and other capitalism engines had seized to be. And that the most important thing for the survival of a company and, transitionally, the entire economical system of the post-modern society, was the worker’s ability to analyze data, establish connections, causal relationships, and making decisions about it. So, Drucker argued that the working class would be displaced in rank for what he called the knowledge workers.

Think about it: the emergence of a global market and the price standardization forced the states to introduce protectionist measures to avoid massive bankruptcies in their heavy-weight industries. If all the companies of the same industry use the same technology and manufacture equivalent products with the same raw materials, then it becomes evident that the only way to survive is by reaching new levels of sophistication through the data analysis of production and product distribution. Applying knowledge to knowledge. In this scenario, the workers –qualified or not– lose relevance.

If you’re in an office while reading this, it’s very likely that your position may be freely defined as adding value to a series of data that you collect or that’s supplied to you by other colleagues. You’re an accountant, analyst, communicator, supervisor, manager. Your job is to generate information. The company you work for and our society are shaped that way partly due to the ideas that Peter Drucker developed in the 60’s.

If you received any type of formal training to perform your job, then Drucker probably had something to do with it. If you feel that without you there are parts of the company that wouldn’t run properly, that was Drucker. If you work in a company that has the know-how to offer outsourced services to other larger companies, that was Drucker too.

And when you soon quit your job and enter once again this high-rotation labor market in which companies seek knowledge pieces or assets: that was Drucker too.

If you haven’t read Post-Capitalist Society, this interview from back in the day is particularly illuminating. Funny how back then, so long ago, certain things like the digital revolution didn’t seem as obvious as they do now.

So, what do you think? Are you a knowledge worker? Let me know in the comments.