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How to Paper-proof Your Office

What does your office look like?  Is it neat and clean?  Is it messy and disorganized?  

Each of us has a few habits associated with our offices that we might not want others to know about.  You know what I mean: the pile of papers by your credenza, the extra pair of shoes under your desk, the batch of receipts near your phone.  

I have a few of these too... except that I'm not going to share them with you!

What I can share is one simple habit that works for me.  It's so easy that you might overlook it but trust me, it works every time.  

So here's the tip: don't put any papers on the floor.  This won't paper-proof your whole office but it will put a dent in things.

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When you put papers on the floor that belong on a desk (or in a drawer), their value decreases.  When things find their way on the floor, you have to step over them.  When you have to step over things in your office, you slow down and so does your work.  

Not good.

Do you want to know the biggest reason why papers shouldn't go on the floor? In my experience, when I put papers on the floor, I never end up tackling them.  Despite all of my good intentions, the papers just never get touched.

Will power isn't as easy to activate as we'd like. 

If you have a habit of letting papers get on the floor, you have three options:

1. Toss it.
2. Deal with it.
3. Get comfortable with clutter and therefore decreased productivity.  

With all of that said, what's in your office?

6 Lessons From Working at Home

It's been, more or less, six months since I began working from home.  

In full disclosure, I do have another office that I use occasionally during the week; that is five minutes away.  I also use a local Panera and the town library. All of these locations make up my "office".

Before I started working from home, I would read about people who just loved it.  They raved about the flexibility, the personalization, and the deep productivity it afforded.  It seemed like the way to go.  As an introvert, I've always enjoyed time in quiet spaces so I figured I would give it a try.

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The lessons have been many.  Here are six that stand out:

  1. It's unglamorous.  When no one is around and no one does the old  "got a minute" interruption, it's just you and your work.  At the end of the day, you need to crank work and get things done.  There's nothing sexy about that and you won't get bonus points for wearing a nicer tie.  That's not to say that it's bad, just different.  It's you and your work.
  2. Being able to change your location is magical.  For me, working for three hour blocks of time works well.  I can get in a morning block of work, take lunch, and then get another three hour block of time before dinner.  I suspect that six strong hours of work is way more than I ever got in a traditional office layout.  
  3. You begin to appreciate time.  I track my hours each day.  Even a 15 minute block of time gets put down in the book.  I've realized that, when you work from home, you appreciate what you can get done in a small (or large) block of time.  Before, the parts of the day just blended together.
  4. You realize how much junk fills the day of the average office worker.  I don't have a commute which means that I don't have to  wake up early (although I still do but now it's by choice).  I don't have to add forty minutes to my morning and forty minutes home.  I don't have to spend 15-30 minutes each day with chit-chat.  There are very few interruptions.  As I think back to work in a traditional office space, I realize just how much "stuff" fills the average day and it's not very productive.  
  5. Themed days are a must.  Each of my days is "built" around a particular theme.  Monday is for content creation.  Friday is for administrative tasks.  The days in the middle have their own themes.  Theming is important because it gives structure to your week and gives you a roadmap of what you want to accomplish.  
  6. Most meetings are useless.  I still have meetings but now they are via Skype, Zoom or a conference call.  They have a set time to begin and often end early.  They are pleasant and typically quite effective.  

I'm still figuring this out.  For those who have worked from home for years, I admire your wisdom and hope to keep learning from your experience.  

How about you?  Where do you work best?  Of the six lessons above, do any strike a chord with you?  

What to do When You Are Distracted at Work

It's one thing if you work in a distraction-rich environment and it has to be that way.  I’m thinking of an emergency room, a grocery store, or a trading floor.  

My wife works in an office like this- she's the go-to person for  the rest of the staff.  Without her being available to help the team around her, they can't do their jobs.

I suppose some workplaces have to be that way.  When I was managing a large team, at least a third of my day was reserved for the team, ready to assist with whatever they needed.

It’s the other work environments that I’d like to discuss in this post.  These workplaces are filled with people who are expected to get things done.  Their supervisors want results and they expect top performers to figure out how to get their work done.

The only catch is that most workplaces make it near impossible to focus.  

Focus… it’s the new gold of the modern workforce.  Capture it often enough and you’ll become truly productive. 

Did I mention that your boss will love you?  At the end of the day, it's not about how big your heart is or how high you scored on your SAT.  

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It's about producing results.   

My wife and I talk often about how workplaces can be counterintuitive to those people who want to produce results.  Let that sink in- the places we go to work are often the least productive places.  We spend a lot of money to furnish offices and they become the last place we actually want to work.

It's stunning when you think about it.  The modern day workplace is broken.  Jason Fried of 37 Signals has been talking about this for years.  Cal Newport  is preaching the new currency for top performers- the ability to focus.  Same with Shawn Blanc who even has a course called, wait for it, The Focus Course.

I think you see where we are going with this...

If you’ve ever savored the quiet of a Saturday morning at work when no one else is around, you know what I’m talking about.  There's something magical about getting into the zone for an hour or two.  When you pick your head up from your work, you smile because you just kicked ass and drop-kicked your work.  

Being in the zone feels like that.  Time goes quickly. Nothing else matters.  It's just you and your work.  

So let's presume that you want to get into this state more often than you currently experience... I know that I do.

This of course is hindered by distractions and interruptions.

Distractions are evident if:

  • you wonder at the end of the day if you got any work done
  • you’re more tired than you ought to be
  • your boss is giving you a hard time because your projects aren’t getting done
  • you dread going to meetings because you know that they pull you away from the work that you already have

And on and on…

It’s one thing to acknowledge that you have distractions at work- we all do.  As I see it, there are two follow up questions that are critical in order to get over this problem:

1. Does my workplace have an inordinate amount of interruptions and senseless meetings?
2. If it does, what can I do about it?

The second question is really important because here is where true agency occurs.  In other words, dealing with distractions just might become your personal superpower.  

I wrote about this in How to Reset Your Day.  The ninja skill is to sense that you’re distracted in the moment and then respond accordingly.

If you’re familiar with Getting Things Done, this is similar to having a “mind like water”, or acting appropriately to what your day is presenting.  

How can you respond when you recognize a lack of focus?  Here are just a few ways to get back on the horse:

1. Get up from your desk and take a brief five minute break.
2. Drink some water.
3. Close all windows on your computer except for the one that you’re working on.
4. Clean everything off your desk that is not related to what you are doing right now.
5. Change your working space.  
This is a trick I’ve been using lately, alternating between my home desk and my office desk in another building five minutes away.  It will feel odd at first but trust me, this works like gold.

You probably can’t control every distraction at work.  You probably can respond accordingly and then reset your focus.  That little act might change your day, your week and the trajectory of your career.

7 Signs That Your Workplace is Broken

Just recently, another article was published touting the negative consequences of the famed "open door" policy at work. One feels sort of nostalgic reading this piece as the author defends the return of the traditional door at the entrance to traditional offices.  

Imagine that!

Cal Newport surely believes in the concept of a closed door office as it is more likely a contributor to focused work.  In his book Deep Work, Newport states, 

Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction.
— Cal Newport

All of this is to defend the commodity of clear thinking and focused labor.  Safe to say, most of us have forgotten how luxurious those states can be since much of the modern workplace is broken. 

There, I said it- broken as in busted and messed up.

I should know and I'm partly guilty of promoting a broken workplace.  Until recently, I spent much of my career in schedules that were chopped up into bits of time that no human could actually enjoy.  The meetings alone were enough to make you insane.  The open spaces?  Mostly a distraction.

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Open spaces don't promote more collaboration.  They promote a lack of focus and more small talk than you can shake a stick at.  

How do you know if your workplace is broken and in need of fixing?  Here are seven telltale signs: 

  1. The open door policy is king.  Getting work done should be king, not access to talk your ear off.  Yes, we should be cordial but most things don't require that you interrupt someone else.
  2. Meetings abound.  Meetings are necessary but probably fewer than most workplaces allow.  Most meetings can be substituted with an email, memo or brief Skype chat.
  3. People come in on the weekend because that's the only time when you can actually get things done.  You know what I'm talking about with this one and it's got to stop.
  4. The most common phrase is, "You got a minute?"  This implies that whatever you were doing is not as important as the conversation that's about to happen. Not a good sign.
  5. No one around reads your verbal cues that you need to get work done.  A closed door, a head bowed in concentration, a focused look on your face- each should tell someone else that you are trying to work.  Sadly, too many people do not read these important physical cues.
  6. Others walk in on you when you're on a call and expect that you talk to them, right then and there.  This may be the most egregious violation of them all.  
  7. People are tired all of the time.  This is where the real danger shows up as your physical health starts to deteriorate as a result of what may be a broken workplace.  This can't be an acceptable outcome of a distraction-rich environment.

This post is not meant to provide seven simple solutions to the signs listed above.  Rather, it's meant to help you take an inventory of what's around you.

Is your workplace totally broken?

Is it partially broken?

Do you have some colleagues who need to be reminded that you actually have work that needs to get done?

The good news is that you can change each of these signs.  In my experience, I was unable to change my entire workplace culture on my own.  I needed allies around me who bought into the idea of focused work.  Only when people got fed up with interruptions and senseless meetings did they realize that deep work was the holy grail of their productivity.

How to Save 30 Minutes Before Your Next Trip

Travel can be stressful.  Book your flights, arrange for the hotel, schedule the Uber to the airport, hope that things are on time, try to look nice for TSA staff so that they pass you through the gate faster... the list goes on and on.

I used to hate work-related travel.  

My chest would tighten in the days leading up to a trip and the day of- forget it.  I was a bear and my family knew to stay away lest I get even more grumpy.

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Then, not surprisingly, I tried an experiment.  If I created a "template" for packing, maybe that would not only save time but also cut down on the stress leading up to a trip.

It worked.

My current practice is to use a template in Nozbe.  On the day before a trip, I'll have my laptop on the bed next to my carry-on luggage.  It's now saved me, conservatively I would say, at least 30 minutes before every trip.  The use of the template also cuts way down on the stress as I think of the template as a recipe: a little of this and a pinch of that.

Here's what my current template looks like for work-related travel:

I figure that I travel for work about once a month.  If using the template saves just 30 minutes each time x 12 trips a year, that's 360 minutes saved or a full six hours.  That doesn't even take into account the stress that it fends off with each trip.  Factor that in and who knows how much time I'm really saving by using a template!

The pre-loaded list (template) works really well for me.  What tricks work for you when it comes to travel?

If you liked this post, why not download my free PDF worksheet called "Getting Started with Nozbe"?  It will walk you through the six steps you'll need to begin creating templates like the one I've included in this blog post.  Just fill out the form called "Getting Started with Nozbe" and you'll have the PDF in seconds.

A Realistic Approach for Setting Goals

In full disclosure, I've only set one goal in my life that actually worked.  It was a few years ago and I began a doctoral program in eduction.  On my wall, in my office at home, I wrote on a lined piece of paper, 'Finish Doctorate by 42nd Birthday'.

The only problem was that I failed.

The doctorate wasn't completed by my 42nd birthday.  I needed another month or so to finalize all of the edits and then ship it out the door.  I had failed but my goal had not. Do I feel like it was a failure?  Not at all- I had just missed the deadline by a month.  

Writing my goal down on paper turned out to be, as science confirms, very helpful.  There was something magical about that simple piece of paper, staring at me day after day as I plugged away at my keyboard.  Don't take my word for it- check this article out to support the art of writing down goals.

If you're familiar with the Enneagram personality profile, you know that some of us are hardwired to be goal-driven and others are not.  I am somewhere in between- a keen list maker but not always defaulting to goals.  

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How about you?  Where do you fit into things?

With all of that said, I realized shortly after the doctorate was done that goal setting needed to expand in my life.  "If it could work with one goal, maybe it could work with another," I told myself.

The "big" approaches to goals didn't appeal to me (think, Michael Hyatt's 5 Days program).  I didn't want to spend the money and typically don't like manufactured frameworks towards life change.  They feel fake to me.

Similarly, the "three words" approach didn't strike a chord (think, Chris Brogan's New Year's approach to themes for the year) as it felt like someone else's gig.  I had to find something else and something that could work for me. 

It finally appeared in an obscure blog post by Laura Vanderkam.  Her approach fit perfectly into how I think and the things I want to do in 2017. 

Here's Laura's way of setting goals:

1. Three simple categories: career / self / relationships.
2. Quarterly lists: Q1 (Jan, Feb, Mar), Q2 (Apr, May, Jun), Q3 (Jul, Aug, Sep), and Q4 (Oct, Nov, Dec.)
3. Super simple and briefly stated goals: write 30% of my next book, run twice a week at a 9 minute clip, etc.

It turns out that this approach, while I've tweaked it slightly, is very effective for at least three reasons:

1. It gives you permission to delay a goal.  For example, one of my goals is to create a second digital product for my website but I don't have the bandwidth to do this until Q2.  Since it's on my list for the year, I don't feel any pressure to tackle it until then.  
2. It enables you to potentially tackle 12 goals for the year.  That's a lot! Even if only 8-9 get done, that will still be considered to be a productive year.  
3. It lets you look at a balanced menu of goals.  Instead of just going with all fitness goals, you get to canvas all of your life, adding other areas to your set of goals.

I've adapted Laura's approach and so far, two weeks in, it's really working well.  One of my goals was to get serious about reading traditional books.  I'm currently tackling Growing Young and it feels good to sit down and read more than I had been towards the end of 2016.

So that's it.  A very simple approach to goal setting.  Try it for yourself in order to see if it works.

The Productivity Awards 2016

The beginning of a new year provides each of us with a great opportunity to look back, take stock and prepare for the new year.  I have a particular approach for this outlined here.

This year I'm publishing The Productivity Awards, a brief summary of the top productivity apps that I've used in the past year.  A few caveats on this list:

1. I acknowledge that I'm a Mac user. As such, many of these will reflect a "Mac-centric" perspective.  Still, nearly all of the apps mentioned are cross-platform so to my Windows friends, do not despair!
2. This is not meant to be exhaustive by any means.  Many excellent products are available that didn't make the list.  What I have included are simply the most outstanding apps from my point of view.

3. None of the links are affiliates.  The Productivity Awards are a sincere way to express gratitude to the developers and productivity enthusiasts who make our work easier and more fun.  If you like the list and want a PDF version, use the form below.

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1st Place.png

Best All Around Todo App: Nozbe
Nozbe is available on Mac, Windows and online.  Their customer service is exceptional.  They update the app regularly.  They have a companion podcast.  With a GTD-framework behind the app, Nozbe is fast and reliable.  Now with both teamwork and collaborative features, it stands above the crowd.  Their CEO, Michael Sliwinski, is always pushing the envelope when it comes to rethinking how we work. 

Runner up: Todoist
Todoist is a phenomenal app.  It's light, feeling like a sleek sports-car with just enough to tackle all of your projects but without a high barrier of entry.  Their new shared-projects feature is awesome and the many colors allow for plenty of customization.  You can't go wrong with Todoist.

Best GTD-Specific App: Omnifocus
Sure, the UI may feel dated and it's still pricey, but Omnifocus is tops when it comes to a rigorous GTD-approach to productivity.  Think of it as a BMW of apps- not the prettiest but will stand the test of time and be user-reliable along the way.  That may be why OF is the app of choice for many GTD enthusiasts.  

Runner up: NirvanaHQ
Nirvana what?  This app may surprise you since it doesn't have a desktop app.  Still, you can use it within FluidApp if you really need to have a desktop version.  Nirvana is super-fast and has perhaps the best quick-key shortcuts of any app on the list.  Their team is really hustling to move this app into the upper levels of GTD software.

Best Project Management App: Asana
I first used Asana a few years ago and felt that it had too many features. Now, a few years later, it's simpler, more intuitive and very fast.  Their team-approach to shared projects is excellent and Asana truly allows your team to tackle projects with ease.  Asana can also serve as a personal todo-list manager in a pinch.

Runner up: Basecamp
Basecamp is sort of the grandfather of this category, owning it for nearly a decade. Basecamp still allows for some wonderful features (the daily check-in, chat) and their team (i.e. Jason Fried) is among the best in the business.  

Best Graphic Design App for Beginners: Canva
If you need something to look beautiful online, Canva is the app of choice.  From social media posts to your personal resume, Canva is a Swiss Army knife of online graphic design. It's simply the best and it's free for almost all of its templates.  Try Canva and you'll likely never need another design app again.

Runner up: Pablo by Buffer
Similar to Canva and with healthy Buffer integration, Pablo offers some nice templates that are very easy to use.  It may not be as full-featured as Canva but Pablo is a reliable app with enough bells and whistles to get the job done on your next Instagram or Twitter graphic.

Best Productivity Podcast: This is Your Life by Michael Hyatt
It's hard to find a podcast with better production, quality and frequency than Michael Hyatt.  His team consistently puts out thought-provoking content and reinvents the way we think about productivity and life.  Michael is quickly becoming this generation's Stephen Covey.

Runner up - Tie: Beyond the Todo List & Productivityist Podcast
Both Mike Vardy (Productivityist) and Eric Fisher (Beyond the Todo List) do a great job with the consistency and quality of their casts.  Each host is honest and slightly unscripted which makes for a more compelling show.  Too close to declare a winner!



The Smartest Way to Greet the New Year

The top business books of the past year.
The top ways to keep a New Year's resolution.
The top habits for losing weight in the New Year.

I'm overwhelmed already!

With all of these "top things", what's a regular person to do?  If you are a "3" on the Enneagram (more of that here) then setting goals is like a best friend to you.  On the other hand, if you are more relational, more free-spirited or just plain hate goal setting, all of these "top things" can be ignored quickly.

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Perhaps a more measured, and I propose more fruitful approach to ending one year and then beginning the next is to take a half day to yourself.  

Get somewhere quiet and it should be a place you enjoy.  This can be as simple as your favorite coffee shop or an out-of-the-way nature spot.  Bring something to write with and maybe your laptop.  

Look back over the past year and ask:

1. What was awesome this past year?
2. Any regrets?
3. Which relationships are healthy right now?
4. How did I grow spiritually?

Next, look forward to the next year and ask:

1. Business: what needs attention?
2. Physical: how can I be even more healthy?
3. Spiritual: what can I read daily to keep me growing closer to God?
4. Emotional/social: which relationship needs some love?

The results of this half-day-away experiment may surprise you.  Who knows- maybe your findings will even coincide with some of the "top things" that are trending on the internet as we speak!

Christmas is Over: Now What?

I was driving around our neighborhood a few days before Christmas.  The kids and I were admiring the many different ways that folks decorated their houses: lights, blow-up cartoon figures on the front lawn, and many of (apparently this year's hot product) the new-fangled spotlights that put faux holly leaves on your house.  Weird and cool at the same time.

Then, it hit us- all of it would go away in the days after Christmas.  Sadly, things don't last forever.  The decorations would come down.  The songs on the radio would end.  The Salvation Army bell would stop ringing at the grocery store.

Christmas is like that.  You get pumped up and the anticipation almost kills you.  The day happens and everything is great.  And then you wake up the next day and everything is so "regular" and ordinary and normal.  The party is over.  It's easy to feel blue as a result.

So I'm thinking that you have two options when it comes to Christmas:

1. You can celebrate the day over and over again.  This would be difficult.  You can't afford to buy gifts for every day of the year.  The wrapping paper bill alone would put you over the edge.  Imagine a ham or turkey day after day!  You get the point- this option isn't tenable.



2. You can tap into an ancient practice of what is called the "octave" of Christmas.  Let's look at this option as much more realistic and actually far more satisfying than if you were to celebrate December 25 over and over again.

An octave is something that is celebrated for eight days.  In the Christian tradition, the octave comes after Christmas and people of faith, theoretically at least, celebrate Christmas for eight days.  I admit that I've known very little about this for almost my entire life.  And then I did some digging for research.

From what we know, octaves began somewhere in the 4th century. Circumcisions were typically performed on the 8th day after birth. Baptisms have been associated with octagonal "fonts" or spaces in which the water is placed with the baby's head is dipped in water.

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There's something special about eights apparently...

Knowing the history, how could you celebrate Christmas for eight consecutive days?  Again, this is not about gift-giving for eight days.  

Octave celebration is something that is much more spiritual than commercial.  It can also boost your productivity because you're acting intentionally rather than reactively.  Here are some easy ways that you can celebrate Christmas for eight consecutive days:

1. Take time off from work.  Resist the urge to get back into the fray of work.
2. Do not do any gift returns for a week.  Avoid the crowds.  It's ok to wait.
3. Watch a Christmas movie after Christmas.  If nothing is on tv, rent something.
4. Begin a gratitude journal.  Online, in a paper notebook, whatever.
5. Sleep in.
6. Do something special with friends.  Go out to eat.  See a movie.  Be with those you love.
7. Go somewhere memorable.  Into the city.  Into the country.  Somewhere you can make a memory.
8. Read.  Anything for pleasure.
9. Get outside in nature.  Think of that place that you absolutely love and go there.
10. Do not take down your Christmas decorations.  Ignore everyone else in your neighborhood.  Be countercultural by keeping your decorations up.

For bonus points, you can also make an investment in your spiritual life in the days after Christmas.  Many churches have extra services and they would love to see you.  If there is a very holy person that you've been wanting to talk with, why not give him/her a call just to talk?  If you can't do that, you could probably send an email.

So that's it!  You don't need to be glum in the days after Christmas.  Sure, the holiday is over but that doesn't mean that your celebration needs to end.  By participating in an octave-approach to Christmas, you'll become more contemplative, happier and less stressed.  

The Easiest Way to Shrink Your Todo List

We've all been there.  The day starts with a ton of positive energy and good intentions.  I will have a day like none-other.  I will conquer my todo list.

And then the day ends and you've still got things left on your list.

Not a good feeling but one we can all relate to.

There are probably two reasons why we go through this hamster-wheel process over and over again:
1. We are so eager to get things out of our head and onto a list.
2. We don't think in a block of a week and instead live day to day.

The first cause is actually pretty good.  After all, it IS good to get things out of your brain and onto paper or into a trusted system.  

The second cause is where most of us fall short.  I can fall into the temptation to think of my work as five distinct days all strung together.  That's where I go off the track.  What's better is to think of your workweek as one whole unit.

Thinking along this line then impacts your todo list.  Let me show you what I mean:

Let's say you do your Weekly Review on Sunday night. You have around 10-15 things that absolutely have to be accomplished by Friday.  You could:

a. park everything on your Monday list.  

or, better to go with another option

b. distribute your todo items throughout the week.

By doing this, you'll keep each day's list manageable and you won't feel like a loser.  I suggest putting no more than 3-5 items on your list each day.  This may sound like a small list but if you add in all of the meetings, interruptions, and other things in the day, getting 3-5 high-value things done is actually pretty good. 

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Add that up, day after day and you'll have accomplished the following:

  • 3 high-value tasks x 5 days per week: 15 tasks 
  • 15 weekly tasks x 4 weeks in a month: 60 high-value tasks

That's awesome productivity and an easy way to "shrink" your todo list and still manage to get a lot of things done.