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Is a Notebook Your Best Productivity Investment?

Everywhere you look, people are using old-fashioned notebooks.  It's not that they've given up their smartphones but that they are using notebooks to bring some analogue into their daily lives.

A smartphone, complemented by a portable notebook is a powerful combo for everyday productivity.  

I have been a hybrid paper-digital user for years.  While Google Calendar keeps my "hard landscape" events in place, I find there's nothing like paper and pen to navigate the nitty-gritty details of my daily work.  This includes meeting notes, doodles and notes from phone calls. 

David Sax, in his best-selling book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, details the rise in popularity of such notebooks like Moleskine and Baron Fig:

“Numerous studies have shown that handwriting notes is simply better for engagement, information retention, and mental health than is writing on digital devices.” 

When you write things down, your brain activates on a deeper level than if you just think something or type it into your computer.

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Moleskine isn't the only popular brand of notebook.  There's also the Bullet Journal which has given folks a clever way to stay organized.  Consider it "stylized productivity".

The bottom line- notebooks are back and they're cool once again.

There's one catch: what if you want all of the benefits of a fancy notebook but would rather save the $15 that often goes with it?  

After all, consider the costs of the most popular "in" notebooks:

  • Bullet Journal: $24.95
  • Baron Fig: $15-65

There are some other options.  You can use an inexpensive notebook.  You can create your own system as David Seah has done.  Or, you can use a whiteboard to get your creative, handwriting juices flowing.

The most important idea is this- connecting paper with digital is a smart move.  You just need to find an expression of this marriage that works for your style and your budget.


Why Is It So Hard to Work ... at Work?

Working at work is hard.  

The distractions, interruptions, poor lighting, climate control, and constant meeting schedule make it hard to work when you're at work.

I'm mindful of Jason Fried's Ted Talk from 2010 which first caught my eye.  In the years since it went viral, it became a reality for me.  Here's the video in case you haven't seen it in a while:

There are likely two options for people with whom Jason's talk strikes a chord:

a) Fix what you can of your current working environment.
b) Find another situation that allows you to work remotely, even if it's only for a portion of your week.

Which can you choose?  Which will you have the courage to choose?

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Why You Need an Evening Routine

This is a guest post by Hank Geng from Min-Max Your Life.  Hank writes about productivity and organization, helping readers overcome overwhelm and procrastination.

When was the last time you looked at your phone? Checked your email?  10 minutes ago?  Less?

In this day and age, we’re addicted to our screens, and we get barraged from every direction. So many things demand our time, and in the process of managing it all, it’s easy to lose sight of what really matters to you. 

It’s incredibly helpful to make a habit of unplugging on a daily basis so you can stop this constant flow of information and have a chance to recharge. 

This works best in the context of an evening routine that prepares you for the next day, allows you to reflect on what you are grateful for, puts you in a relaxed mood, and lets you get a good night’s sleep to wake up refreshed and energized. 

There’s no one size fits all approach, but you can get started on creating your own evening routine by following this four-step simple formula: 

The Four Steps

  • Review tomorrow’s schedule and tasks to make sure you don’t have any surprises. You may want to:
  1. Plan out what you’re going to wear in the morning
  2. Set your alarm for when you need to wake up
  3. Decide how you’re getting to your first destination tomorrow
  • Reflect on today by asking yourself a few essential questions:
  1. What are you grateful for?
  2. What made this day unique?
  3. Did you learn something new? 
  • Relax by putting your screens away and starting to wind down. You could try one of the following:
  1. Read a physical book or your Kindle
  2. Yoga
  3. Meditate
  • Rest by turning off your lights, drawing the curtains, and going to sleep. 
  1. People require different amounts of sleep, but start with allotting yourself 8 hours for sleep and go from there.

By creating your own evening routine that includes these four factors, you’ll start waking up the next morning refreshed and energized, ready to face the day. 

Do you have an evening routine?

If not, try reserving an hour before your bedtime tonight to try creating your own using the framework above.

Four Reasons Against Working From Home

There was this guy.  He wore casual clothing and seemed to be present at 100% of his kids' school events.  

I secretly wondered what he did for a living but never had the guts to go over and ask him.  

As it turns out, he worked from home.  Doing something related to software (that's usually enough of a response at the neighborhood cocktail party as in "yeah, I'm in software"), he managed to support his family and live to talk about it.  Even more, he seemed quite happy with his life.  

His name was Kevin.

There are a lot of Kevins out there- people who work either occasionally or often from a home office.  This seems odd, as something luxurious and novel but not as something that "normal people" do.

The modern workplace, broken and dysfunctional as it typically is, wants us to think that a long commute is normal.  Add in frequent interruptions, bad lighting and boring meetings.

I was that guy and those were normal things for me.  While I wondered what Kevin did for a living, I secretly envied him.  

Fast forward five years and I now work from home about half of every day.  My wardrobe, unless I'm at a meeting, is business casual.  You don't want to come between me and my kids' basketball games.  It's a new normal for me and it feels very good.

Still, it's not for everyone.

In fact, there are four reasons why you should not consider working from home:

  1. You crave people contact on a daily basis.  If this is a big deal for you, don't work from home.  When you work from home, you can have as much contact as you like or need but it will be contact that you make happen.  There are no "drop-ins", etc.
  2. You can't see technology as a viable replacement for face-to-face contact.  For me, a Zoom or Skype call "counts" as real communication.  If you can't see yourself ever making that substitution, working from home isn't for you.
  3. You don't have a dedicated space.  This is big.  I don't think you necessarily need an entire room (although that helps) but you do need some space that is only used for work. If no desk/room/nook exists at your home for you to work in, working from home might not be for you.
  4. You worry too much about what others will think.  Your neighbors will wonder what you do.  Other parents at your kids' school will do the same (as I did with Kevin).  If you can't handle that level of scrutiny, working from home might not be for you.

Here's an experiment that you might want to try: work from home for two hours one day and see how you like it.  It doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing affair.  Being honest with the four conditions above can go a long way towards determining if home-working is for you.

BONUS: while no longer an active podcast, the best one I've found related to working from home is called Home Work.

One Clever Way to Chart Your Personal Growth

Productivity expert Carson Tate uses a wonderful tool to categorize folks according to their personal style of working.  

The Arranger

The Planner

The Visualizer

The Prioritizer

You can take the test here.  The book is even better as each chapter lets you just zoom in on the strategies that match your particular style.  As an avid book scanner, it was nice to be able to breeze through each chapter, not feeling guilty about it.

I'm a Planner first and a Visualizer second. My wife is an Arranger to the max.

Typically, when you take any assessment like Tate's (or Disc or Myers Briggs, etc.) it just gets filed and you move on.  I decided to do something different this time around.  I wanted to savor the assessment and link it to other measurements like Disc, Meyers Briggs and Enneagram.  

What if I could design a personal growth "tool" of sorts?  And, what if I could make it look nice?

The latter part was important to me.  Yes, I've written (in the past) my goals and posted them on my office wall.  Yes, it's worked.  What didn't work was the utilitarian vibe- I needed something stylish, something with some class.  

Enter Canva.com.  

I use Canva daily (yes, daily) for reports, flyers, brochures, social media graphics and anything else in between.  It's nearly free and makes even the most basic designer look like a pro.  What if I could take my productivity style, along with a few other growth metrics, and create something out of it for my office?  Using Canva, I finally could.

Step two was to find a template in Canva that matched my office's aesthetic.  I chose a "resume" design- very simple and easy to manipulate.

Step three became more difficult as I had to limit the information to one page. The temptation in these things is to make it complicated.  Not this time, I told myself...

The final product included the following:  

  • Mission statement
  • Productivity style
  • Myers Briggs indicator
  • Disc rating
  • Enneagram rating
  • Quarterly goals
  • Spiritual growth target
  • Audacious career goal

Here's what the final product looks like in my office:


The value of this process was twofold.  First, it memorialized what I'm working on right now.  Second, it made personal growth much more than just a few ideas on a scrap of paper.  When you make something look nice, it gives it dignity and a proper place.  

Think- Baron Fig notebook as opposed to a cheap $1 version.

You can do this too.  It's that easy.  I've created a template for you to use for yourself.  It will save you about 15 minutes.  If you're familiar with Canva and want to do it on your own, that's ok too.  

Here's the download:

Free Personal Growth Template

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The real question is this: how are you capturing and honoring your own growth goals?  

Sometimes, Productivity Isn't Enough

About two weeks ago, something weird happened.  After a very productive week, I went home on a Friday afternoon feeling somehow unfulfilled.

My todo list was solid.  I had used my Daily Plan day after day as I have for years.  (You can grab a copy using the form below.)

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My quarterly goals, inspired by other practitioners, were in place.

Why was the weekend, ordinarily a delight, seemingly ominous as my week wrapped up?  

My life coach was very helpful after we talked about it.  His point was simple enough- you need more than productivity to feel happy.

I turned to Patrick Lencioni's book The Advantage, for some perspective.  Alignment is about "connecting with your why".  Patrick puts it this way, "Great leaders see themselves as Chief Reminding Officers as much as anything else.”

A great leader reminds the team why they do what they do.  

This affirms why the best companies are truly mission-driven.  Millennials more than any other group remind us of this.  Younger workers crave purpose more than just the hacks to shave a few minutes off their next meeting or the keys to getting to inbox zero.  

My own "hmpf" on that Friday was fairly normal after all.  After I had made sense of it, I decided to revisit my quarterly goals and my own mission statement.  These would, no matter what, inform my productivity.  I was resolute.

The weeks afterwards were markedly different.  The productivity remained but this time was animated by something deeper.  

When you feel fragmented or empty and you've been producing solid work, there are a few things you can do to reconnect with your own mission and purpose:

  1. Spend some time alone.  Get with your thoughts and write.  Why were you feeling shallow?  What is it about your work that you enjoy?  What part of it bothers you?
  2. Get away.  It may be time for a day off or a vacation.  If you've been running on empty, you just may be tired.  If so, stop working and recharge your batteries.
  3. Seek the advice of someone you trust.  Maybe you just need to talk to someone without being judged.  For me, seeing my life coach is invaluable and encourages me to reconnect my work with my mission.

Productivity isn't enough.  Connecting your work with your why, now that's where the magic happens. 

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.