Make Something Awesome Happen. You’re Ready Right Now.

 

I often wonder what the world would look like if we spent less time in thinking or planning mode, and more time making stuff we really want to do actually happen. 

On a personal level, I wonder how much more proud of myself and the life I lead if I spent less time worrying or preparing, and more time doing.

I think I’d be more joyful and more accomplished, in both the short- and long-term. So that’s what I’m going to do…ACT more, over-think less. 

What are you over-thinking, over-worrying about, or over-planning for right now? What would it look like if you just DID that thing without worrying about “getting your ducks in a row”?

I challenge you to ship before you’re ready. 

Because the truth is, you’re ready. 

We all are. 

So let’s not wait anymore. Let’s go make something awesome happen. 

If “Plan A” Doesn’t Work, Don’t Worry. The Alphabet Has 25 More Letters.

We have this idea that if our plans don’t work out, we’ve failed. And over time, it becomes not just about situations and plans failing—we start to label ourselves as failuresWhen we do that, we develop a mentality that disables us from progressing forward because we want to avoid the pain of feeling like a failure, and we automatically begin to assume we’re likely to fail at any big goal we set. 

This is why the word “failure” sucks. It is the starting point of a spiral of negative thinking that gets you absolutely nowhere. 

Here’s the thing. 

What you’re excited about most isn’t achieving some far-off end goal. It’s the idea of progress and growth that you’re after. It’s that feeling you get after a day of hard and focused work—the feeling that your day mattered, that you progressed, that you grew and helped others grow. 

Sometimes, getting so caught up in your “plan” does the opposite of what it was intended to do. You’re so busy trying to follow a specific plan in one corner, that you miss the bigger possibilities in another corner. 

Planning is important. But, equally so is flexibility. Stuff is always going to come up. You’re going to have lazy days. You’re going to get sick occassionally. There will be family and friend and work emergencies. Sometimes, you’ll just need a day off to chill out and play in the sun. 

It’s less about being set on one plan, one way of things being possible—and more about how your head, heart and gut are all working together within yourself. 

Each of those three “places” out of which you make decisions come with their own set of strengths and challenges:

  • Your head will try to be rational and safe when you should be taking big leaps and defying odds instead. But it will also keep you grounded and focused so you can implement whatever big plans you develop.
  • Your heart (i.e. crazy-ass feelings) will create strong urges in you to make impulsive decisions based on how you’re feeling in the moment (otherwise known as short-term gratification). But, it’s also the part of you that will help you connect authentically with yourself and those around you. It’s the source of giving and receiving love.
  • Your gut is just awesome. It will never lead you the wrong way. It takes practice to get really in-tune with your gut, so as not to mistake it with thoughts that stem from your head and/or heart. But once you tune in and understand what is gut and what isn’t, you’ll know exactly what you should do whenever you get a “gut feeling.” The downside to listening to your gut is that you can come across as irrational, impulsive, inconsiderate, and non-PC to others. Just remember that the reason you’re coming across that way to them is because they’re struggling with their own dramas and aren’t quite in-tune yet with their own guts. Be gentle with them and yourself. Follow your gut always anyway.

Your job is to make sure you maximize the strengths of all three, while consciously mitigating the challenges of each. 

When you are aligned within yourself, you’ll have a very different perspective on your plans—you’ll be far less attached to them, and as a result, better able to get to where you want to go regardless of what the plan ultimately looks like. 

Because the truth is, if Plan A doesn’t work, there are 25 other letters in the alphabet. 

Worry less about your plan, and more about how you’re thinking through it.

Life is Simple, But We Insist On Making it Complicated

I’ve been feeling this way a lot lately. Humans do a fantastic job of making things more complicated than they really are: relationships, work, love, organization, productivity, faith, losing weight, etc.

We like complexity because it gives us something to do, but I think also because we’re addicted to effort. 

Effort, however, is not what drives results. 

This is something I’ve noticed about myself over the last 6 months—I’m working really hard. But is the work I’m working really hard at the best use of my work time? Not always. 

It’s easy to create complexity—buying more stuff, building systems that take a lot of effort to use, staying in the wrong relationships/friendships, and generally building things up to be bigger issues or obstacles in our mind then they really are. 

If you’re feeling bogged down by life’s complexity lately, it’s probably because you’re making things more complex than they need to be. 

Take a step back, take 3 really big deep breaths, figure out how you can simplify, and then implement the simpler solution. 

Life is really, truly simple, and beautifully so. 

Don’t make it unnecessarily complicated and messy.

The Real Reason We’re Addicted to Social Media

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Yesterday, this is the number of times I checked the following applications, whether on my phone, tablet, or laptop:

  • Facebook: 9
  • LinkedIn: 5
  • TweetDeck: 17
  • Instagram: 4

Now, let’s say I spent an average of 4 minutes on site every time I checked one of these social media platforms:

35 x 4 minutes = 140 minutes = 2.3 hours

Unbelievable.

Now, let’s say, on average, I can produce $1,000 in revenue with an hour of my time if I’m working on the right project.

That means I lost $2,300 in revenue in a single day in order to check social media platforms that generated a return of exactly $0 for me. This does not even begin to account for the time I waste click on the link bait I find via Twitter and LinkedIn, or the time it takes to switch tasks and move in and out of a flow state (which is when all of us do our best work). 

I’m willing to bet that if you’re reading this, you struggle with a very similar issue. Even if you aren’t tracking the time you spend on social media, you probably suspect that it’s too much. I’m guessing you feel like it’s wasted time, too. 

But, even intuitively knowing that, most of us don’t do anything differently. And I think it’s because we aren’t addressing the reason why we are so addicted to social media in the first place. 

We don’t constantly check these platforms because it’s a purpose-driven activity. And often, we aren’t really checking them to see what else is going on in the world and with our friends, even if that’s the excuse we dole out.

We check them because they fulfill a core human drive for connection and meaning. 

When we go on these sites, our underlying drive is to satisfy that innate need to connect to others. It comforts us and fulfills us to know that we are not alone. Unintentionally (but unavoidably), we also use what’s going on in other people’s lives to create context and meaning for what’s going on in our own. Social comparison is a real and dangerous thing.

That’s why so many research scholars are reporting on the correlations between social media usage and low self-esteem or depression. We all want people to see the best sides of us, rather than all sides of us. It’s like an ongoing, inaccurate first impression of how perfect we all are that just isn’t aligned with reality. So there we are, all looking at each other’s highly curated snapshot lives, and judging our own realities accordingly (usually as “less than”). 

We’re also addicted to social media because we crave meaning—feeling like we matter to those around us. To be totally honest, ever since I started writing daily blog posts and sharing it with the world on Twitter and Facebook, I check both platforms more frequently. It gives me internal comfort and satisfaction to know that what I say matters; that I’ve had a positive impact on those who read my writing.

In some weird, twisted way, we associate “likes,” comments and shares with self-worth. 

This is not good. 

It’s not good for a host of reasons:

1.) Everything we process and put out into the digital ether is merely a perception. 

We enable people to create mental constructs about who we are that aren’t fully accurate or representative of our hearts, souls, triumphs, and struggles. They aren’t representative of our humanness.  And it surely distorts our reality—not just about others, or others about us, but also how we view ourselves.

2.) It distracts us from real work. 

The math above says is all. Wasting literally hours on an activity that has been shown to decrease self-esteem, cultivate gross feelings like jealousy and envy, and generate an ROI of $0 for us personally? That’s outrageous. And it distracts us from doing the really incredible work we’re all capable of producing and shipping every day. We are able to create incredible stuff to make other people’s lives and the world at large better…and instead, we squander our time to feel some short-term, shallow variation of connectedness and meaning. 

3.) We start to believe it’s all about us. 

But here’s what I think is the biggest problem of all: the overuse of social media perpetuates our focus on self. It trains us to make snap judgments about others, as well as our own self-worth in context of who we paint others to be. 

It’s time for us to step back—physically, emotionally, intellectually—and realize that no matter what our minds are thinking or feelings are feeling, we’re not on this planet for self-validation.

Honestly, think about that:

You’re greatest purpose on this planet is not simply to validate yourself.

And if you believe it is, you are grossly underestimating your potential and limiting your capacity for genuine joy. 

I truly believe that those who lead the richest, most meaningful lives spend the least amount of time focusing on or worrying about themselves and what everyone else thinks of them. Basically, they engage in behaviors opposite of the behaviors we engage in when we’re processing the world via a social media platform.

Obviously, we’re human. None of us are perfectly efficient or rational. I’m not going to turn around ban social media from my life, and I know you probably won’t either. There is true value in it—these platforms can be a source of genuine offline connection and understanding if used appropriately. But deriving value from these platforms doesn’t require 2.3 hours (or more) of my day. Spending that much time immersed in an illusory world is simply not healthy. 

What I will suggest is that we take a lot of the time we’ve been spending on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, you name it—and instead, use that time to connect to the real reason we’re all here:

  • To love people as best as we possibly can. 
  • To honestly and vulnerably share our entire story with others, complete with triumph and tragedy, knowing that’ll give others the courage to do the same.
  • To show others and ourselves enormous amounts of grace in times of hardship and fallibility. 
  • To give a ton of love to situations and people, even and especially when it’s truly difficult to do so.
  • To understand that forgiveness is the profound capacity to recognize the innocence in everyone. 
  • And to be deeply compassionate and invested in the highest well-being of those around us, above and before the desire for our own self-validation.

If we did all of these things at least 2.3 hours a day, I can only imagine how exponentially more incredible the world—and the quality of our own lives—would become. 

How to Keep Track of Everything in Your Head

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I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time keeping track of everything in my head. And I’m pretty sure that’s because my head isn’t built to keep track of everything.

We attempt to file away every thought, idea, memory, etc. in our brains, which explains why we feel so overwhelmed sometimes. Unrecorded thoughts are like mental clutter, keeping us unfocused and anxious.

So we need to put everything resting in our brains somewhere. 

As I noted yesterday, though, to-do lists don’t work for most people. They don’t work because 1.) we try to accomplish too much in a given day, 2.) we usually underestimate how long something will take us to do, and 3.) we don’t review the lists we create often enough. 

So, what to do?

My solution is Wunderlist

After exploring the design and functionality of countless to-do list apps, Wunderlist is by far my favorite. Wunderlist is basically whatever you want it to be. You can create lists for absolutely anything. How you use it is highly personal. So, instead of telling you how to use it, I’m just going to show you how I use mine so you know how to think about using it as a tool for organization. 

Here’s what my Wunderlist looks like:

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You can see all of my “lists” on the left-hand side, the contents of each list in the middle, and the notes from each piece of content on the right-hand side. You can take extensive notes on whatever you’d like (which I find myself doing often). You can also star something to mark it as important, as well as set a due date, a reminder date, and a subtask. For simplicity’s sake, I don’s use those functions very often. Instead, I use my weekly daily review to remind me of what I need to do and when. 

Let me take you through my lists: 

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The four folders at the top are the ones I access most frequently. The rest are reference folders.

  • Technori Tasks: work-related tasks/small projects to work on
  • Technori Content: work-related content ideas to pursue/assign
  • Melissa’s Tasks: personal tasks/small projects to work on
  • Melissa’s Content: personal blog content ideas to pursue/assign
  • 2013 Goals: my list of sub-goals (related to my big goal) I want to accomplish this year. I also include one-off goals unrelated to my 1-2 big goals (i.e. run a half marathon, travel to a new country, etc.)
  • Do Daily: all reoccurring tasks I must do on a daily basis
  • Do Weekly: all reoccurring tasks I must do on a weekly basis
  • Do Monthly: all reoccurring tasks I must do on a monthly basis
  • The rest of the folders are batch tasks I’ve assigned to each day of the week. More about batch tasks tomorrow. 

My two “Tasks” lists serve as traditional to-do lists, but I don’t reference them every day. I use them as a place to dump my ideas/to-dos/follow-ups and get them out of my head, but I only review them during my weekly review (unless it’s urgent—in which case, I put it on my calendar for that week immediately or I Boomerang it if I get a request via email). 

I broke out “content” because I think about content a lot, so it makes sense for me to keep them separate from my primary to-accomplish lists. 

The rest of the folders help me mentally wrap my head around everything that needs to get done, and when. 

Essentially, my Wunderlist is optimized for brain dumping my ideas and prepping for a weekly review. I do not believe that reading off an endless list of to-dos every single day and trying to pluck a bunch of things out of it is effective. It’s just overwhelming and a time waster. 

Instead, what I do is use my weekly review to go through all of my to-do lists and:

  1. Choose the next 10 tasks/small projects I want to set into motion or finish during the upcoming week. These are separate from the tasks related to my big goals, which are in a separate goals worksheet (I also reference this during my weekly review). 
  2. Review list of all batch tasks I need to process during the upcoming week. I then review my calendar to make sure I will have time to get everything done during its allotted batch task day. If I have to schedule a meeting or something urgent comes up during a designated batch task time, I leave a chunk of time at the end of the week to play catch-up (this is almost always necessary, and setting time aside to catch-up is a great way to not overpack my schedule each week). 
  3. Review annual goals weekly. I review my annual goals each week to make sure I feel like I’m on track. If I’m not, I come up with a solution based on the roadblocks and/or procrastination triggers I’m facing to help autocorrect the situation and inch toward accomplishing my goals. 

That’s pretty much it. I find that the simpler a system you have, the more likely you are to stick to it. Knowing I have a place to jot down to-dos keeps me from feeling mentally scattered. But, only checking it once a week during my weekly review keeps me from feeling overwhelmed by a growing list of to-dos.

 

Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work (and What to Do Instead)

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It’s extremely easy to lose track of your goals without even realizing it.
 
Earlier this week, I talked about:
Even if you implement the to-dos in the above articles—even if your system is perfect—you’ll still falter along the way if you don’t take the time to review how you’re performing. I recently stumbled upon the daily schedule Benjamin Franklin kept:
 
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Woah! Dude was super reflective. 
 
He started the day by asking himself, “What good will I do today?,” and ended the day by asking, “What good have I done today?”. He also took time at the beginning, middle, and end of each day for examining and reflecting on his work. One of the most prolific and accomplished people ever took the time to reflect, plan, and organize at least three times a day. 
 
This astounds me. 
 
I don’t know anyone who reflects this much. Honestly, no one. And I’m starting to think that’s a big part of the reason so few of us are feeling like we’re living lives at the perfect level of productivity and achievement we desire. We aren’t measuring success. We aren’t reviewing results or assessing the data. 
 
Every moment is a data point—and yet, none of us take time to track and reflect on those data points. Reviewing and goal setting are things people do at the very beginning and end of a year, and not so much in the bulk of the middle. The problem is we’re missing incredible opportunities to learn, iterate, and grow. 
 
So, even if you’ve got a perfect system and you know exactly what you want to achieve, none of it really matters if you’re not reviewing your successes, failures, triggers, and habits frequently.
 
The remedy for that is the very powerful and important weekly review. I do my weekly review every Sunday, late in the afternoon (before I get too tired). Leo Babauta wrote a few fantastic (and simple) articles on weekly reviews:
 
 
 
Those two links above give you a pretty good overview of how to conduct a weekly review. The basic steps for my personal weekly review are as follows:
 
  1. Find a one-hour time block you can commit to each week. Babauta suggests a Monday or Friday, but I think weekends work best. Less stressful.
  2. Plan to not miss a single weekly review. It’ll throw you off for the week ahead, and before you know it, your goals will be a hot mess. 
  3.  Fill out my weekly review form. Here’s the one I created for myself:

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In case you have a hard time reading the categories above…

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The lines in grey comprise the bulk of the weekly review. Most of them are self-explanatory, but I’ll get into how I use Wunderlist tomorrow, because it’s important (a to-do list manager, but I utilize mine very differently than a normal to-do list). 

The reflection questions are also great. They are a way for you to stop and soak in how the past week was for you—along with setting intentions for the week ahead. You can tailor this weekly review to work for you, but this is a comprehensive template for you to work off of if you need a place to start. 

The weekly review is one of my favorite times of the week. I haven’t been doing it for too long, but I’ve seen a huge difference in how I spend my time when I actually review what I’ve done and plan for what I want to accomplish in the week ahead. 

Happy weekly reviewing!

The Most Effective Goal-Setting Plan You’ll Ever Find.

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A few days ago, I taked about the #1 reason why people don’t accomplish their goals: lack of genuine connection and commitment to them. 

But once you’ve figured out what you really want to do, you still need a strategy for accomplishing it. Your goals are not going to get you anywhere if you don’t actually do something about them. And not just anything—but the right things.

So here’s a very straightforward, fail-proof plan for achieving your goals. I say it’s fail-proof not because error isn’t possible (no one can predict the future or control all circumstances), but because if you follow this plan, you’ll accomplish more than you would under any other plan you’ve been testing out. 

1.) Focus on only 1-2 BIG goals. Seriously.

Now that you’ve figured out how you’re spending time each week, let’s switch gears for a moment. Figure out what your one major goal is this year. I have two major goals—one personal, one career-driven—but wouldn’t advise choosing more than 1-2. 

This is the hardest part for most people because choosing just one BIG goal to pursue requires extreme focus and connection to purpose.

But, it’s really important that you stick to just 1-2 major goals. Goals to me are different than habit changes, which I talk more about here. Your 1-2 goals should be so big, that it would take an entire year to accomplish. If you were to accomplish only these 1-2 things, you’d feel like you had a very successful year.

Examples: 

  • Lose 40 pounds
  • Successfully launch a startup and drive $100k in revenue
  • Get into a top graduate school
  • Learn how to code and land a job as a front-end developer
  • Save for and take a month-long trip to backpack through Southeast Asia

Based on what you really want to accomplish—where your deepest values, passions, and skills intersect—choose 1-2 goals to focus on for the rest of the year. Do not aim for “reasonable.” Be a bit unreasonable. What do you really want to accomplish this year? That’s what you should make your goal.

2.) Create monthly sub-goals. 

Once you’ve created your 1-2 Big Goals, create 9 monthly sub-goals (April - December 2013) for each one. The idea is that the 9 monthly sub-goals would very clearly lead to you accomplishing your 1-2 Big Goals for the year. You can obviously plan for more than 9 months. I just set 9 months as a goal in case you’re reading this now and want to set goals for 2013 specifically. Feel free to plan into 2014 if your Big Goals are going to take you longer than 9 months to accomplish.

Example:

Big Goal: Learn how to code and land a job as a front-end developer.

Sub-Goals:

  • April - Apply and get into the Starter League Beginner HTML/CSS class
  • May - Take Starter League (SL) class & code my own personal blog for practice
  • June - Continue taking SL class, finish coding the blog, and work on a Demo Day project
  • July - Finish SL class & find a company to let me do front-end coding for free to help them redesign a website
  • August - Apply and get into the Starter League Advanced HTML/CSS class
  • September - Continue taking SL class, finish up coding for the company side project
  • October - Finish SL class and take on one more front-end freelance project for another company
  • November - Finish freelance project #2 and apply to a minimum of 8 front-end developer jobs
  • December - Interview with companies, apply to 5 more jobs if necessary…and land a full-time developer job by 12/31!

When you break your Big Goal down this way, you can see the natural progression of your goal and exactly what would need to be done each month in order for you to get a job as a front-end developer by December 31st. Breaking it down this way makes the end goal seem even more tangible. It will get you super excited about the idea of taking on your plan and tackling that one big, amazing goal of yours.

3.) Create weekly mini-goals. 

If you put my post from earlier this week into action, you’ve figured out the 20% of your work that’s driving 80% of your results. Now, the question is: what systems can you put in place to do less of the 80% of activity that isn’t generating results, and more of the 20% activity that is?  

Example:

80% of work that isn’t driving a ton of results:

  1. Checking email for 4 hours a day
  2. Using social media too often throughout the day
  3. Taking too many meetings during the week

Strategies to eradicate the issues above:

  1. Check email for only 2 hours a day—one hour between 11-12pm, and one hour between 4-5pm. Use Inbox Zero techniques to answer, archive, and delete more emails in half the time.
  2. Block social media websites between the hours of 9am-12pm and 1pm-4pm using one of these distraction blocking apps.
  3. Only take meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12-3pm. If it doesn’t fit into the other person’s schedule, the meeting gets pushed to the following week. Exceptions can be made, but only if the meeting is of extremely high importance and/or urgency.

Once you create a list of strategies, use those—in addition to your set of monthly sub-goals—as a guide, and create 32 mini goals (this translates into 4 mini goals per month—one for each week). Each mini-goal should take no longer than a week to accomplish. Essentially, the mini goals are a way to further break down your monthly goals into highly manageable weekly chunks. 

Example:

April sub-goal - Apply and get into the Starter League Beginner HTML/CSS class

April weekly mini-goals - 

  • Week 1: Do research on Starter League program
  • Week 2: Submit formal application for Starter League
  • Week 3: Send hand-written notes to the founders to let them know how excited I am about taking the SL class
  • Week 4: Get accepted into SL and set up coffee meetings with 3 alums to get advice on making the most of the class

When you break your monthly sub-goals down like this, you basically create a detailed road map for making shit happen. It seems so obvious, but no one plans like this. That’s why most people fail (in addition to not creating strategies to eradicate triggers that lead to wasting time). 

4.) Do your weekly planning.

Based on the weekly goals you outlined for the current month you’re in, you need to set aside 30 minutes to create a weekly “plan of attack” for accomplishing your mini-goal for the week ahead. I created this template  of what your weekly planning sheet could look like:

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It’s a good idea to add in your Big Goal, monthly sub-goal, and weekly mini-goal at the top of your weekly sheet to remind you of what the whole point is with all this planning business and hard work. At the beginning of every week, you should know exactly what you’re looking to accomplish every day to achieve your weekly mini-goal—so that you can move on to your next mini-goal, in order to move on to your next sub-goal, in order to accomplish your one Big Goal.

Fun to look at it like this, right?

You’ll see that I listed “additional projects and tasks” on the weekly planning template I created above. That’s because none of us have just one responsibility. We’re all juggling multiple things at any given point in time. I’ll explain how to best fit these additional projects and tasks in later this week. The point of this sheet is to help you make the tasks that are directly related to your Big Goal a priority over the other stuff you have to do. This is a huge part of goal accomplishment—you need to be willing to get your goal-related tasks done first, even when you’ve got other important things going on. If you don’t get into the habit of doing this, you’ll fail because there’s simply too much other stuff out there to distract you from your longer-term goal. 

5.) Do your daily planning.

Once you’ve done your weekly planning, you need to set aside time to plan every single day for the upcoming day. I’ve soaked up a ton of productivity advice over the last several years, and this is something I hear from every productivity guru and successful person out there: 

You have to plan on your own success.

If you don’t break it down to what you’ll do every day, then there’s no way you’ll accomplish your weekly, monthly, or annual goals. Basically, if you don’t plan daily, you’re screwed. Either you’re going to own your day, or your day is going to own you. I see an enormous difference in my own productivity when I plan it out thoroughly vs. just wing it. Of course, your daily plan needs to go hand-in-hand with the strategies you implement to actively avoid time-wasting triggers and activities. 

Here’s an example of what your daily planning sheet can look like:

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Obviously, I like colors. You can tailor your weekly and daily sheets to look however you want them to look, but these sheets work really well for me. 

You’ll notice a few new sections on this daily sheet. The first is “Today’s Top Tasks”—these are the top three things you must get done for the day. If you accomplish these three things only, your day will have been a success. At least one task should be related to your weekly mini goal. This is really important: make sure you get this task done before you do anything else on your daily task list. Do your top 3 tasks in order before you do anything else, and get them out of the way. Each task should take no longer than 90 minutes (…And yes, it’s possible to get your taxes done in under 90 minutes, depending on complexity—I’ve timed it). 

You’ll also notice a “Batch Tasks” section. This is a list of all the basic operational stuff you need to do your job, like coffee meetings to build new relationships, checking and answering email, getting organized, sending out email newsletters, etc. Basically, they are the tasks you need to do to keep things going, but aren’t really going to equate directly to “success” at the end of the year. 

For example, I need to publish content daily for Technori.com, but if I just focus on that, we’ll have a lot of content, but not that much growth. For me, a major sub-goal would be focusing on growth hacking strategies. Therefore, while very important, editing and publishing articles is actually not a top task for me—it’s a batch task. 

I’ll talk more about batch tasks this coming week, but I wanted to show them to you on the daily sheet for now, because it’s important to make note of and label them as such. 

As a note, I learned a lot of the above techniques from reading I’ve done over the years. My favorite thought leaders in this space are Steven CoveyLeo Babauta, and Brian Tracy. I would highly recommend reading any of the books these three guys have written, particularly Leo’s Power of Less. That being said, I’ve learned about and tested the psychology behind why we achieve and don’t achieve what we set out to do. So, I tailored the plan above based on what I’ve seen actually work and not work through my various productivity testing. I believe the plan above is the absolute best aggregated, tailored plan for making your goals a reality. 

So there you have it! An easy-as-they-come, fail-proof goal-setting (and achieving) method. Four steps. A lot of happiness and accomplished goals. Boom. Later this week, I’ll talk in depth about batch tasking and weekly reviews to keep you in check, streamline your time management processes, and stick to your goals. 

Hope you’ll pass this along to any one else who might find it useful!

If You’re Not Succeeding at Accomplishing Your Goals, This is the #1 Reason Why.

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Yesterday, we talked about how to plan and analyze the current way you spend your time. Once you know exactly what work and ongoing tasks you’re doing that generate the greatest return on investment (the 20% of work generating 80% of your results), it’s time to figure out how to do more of the stuff that’s making a difference through goal setting.

Goal-setting is a hotly and widely talked about topic. It sounds pretty straightforward: Figure out what you want to accomplish choose a specific goal, and then create some benchmarks so you can assess how you’re performing. Right?

Except that plan doesn’t work. How many times have you set a goal, and it just didn’t materialize? So, you’re sitting there wondering, “Is it me? Am I not smart enough? Motivated enough? Skilled enough? Do I need a bigger network? Do I need more money?” When you don’t hit your goals, you start to feel like it’s you that’s lacking something. 

And that’s because you are. 

But it’s not smarts, skills, or motivation you’re lacking. You’re lacking a roadmap. You’re lacking a list of extremely simple habits you can adopt every single day, one or two at a time, that will actually allow you to turn a dream into something real.

But more than any of that, you’re lacking authentic connection to what it is you really want to accomplish.

I can’t stand all the crappy advice out there. It’s like listening to a broken record on repeat. The same advice gets doled out over and over again:

  • Create a “big picture” of what you want to accomplish in life
  • Create a personal mission statement
  • Break down your big goals with smaller goals on a to-do list
  • Make sure your goal is specific
  • Make sure your goal is attainable
  • Give yourself a deadline
  • Make your goal public 
  • Ask someone to help keep you accountable

Maybe those are all useful components of goal-setting, but having tried all of them myself, I can tell you that no matter how smart, skilled, and motivated you are to achieve, this is not a comprehensive list—or even the right list—of what you need to do to achieve goals. 

I’m going to start in this post with the hardest part of goal setting. 

You need to have goals you’re truly connected to. Not things you kinda sorta want to do. Not things your parents or friends or bosses think you should do. Your goals need to be so close to your heart and spirit. People forget that “motivation” is not why people succeed. It’s not that successful people have more motivation than others. We all have incredibly lazy days. We’re human beings, not robots. 

The #1 reason people don’t accomplish their goals is because the goals are not tied close enough to that person’s sense of self—they don’t make someone think, “I was put on this planet to accomplish this goal.” If you don’t feel that connected to what you’re doing, you’re simply not going to thrive. Period. End of story. 

This applies to every single area of your life: relationships, work, hobbies, skills you want to acquire, health, etc. If you’re not super connected in the right ways to your goals, you may get by. You may even “do well.” But you’re not going to thrive. Thriving happens when you’re super-aligned with your personal purpose. You could make a mediocre relationship work. You could lose some weight. You could check off a bunch of to-dos at a job you don’t really enjoy. 

Why why? What’s the point in that? 

I can attribute every single goal I’ve accomplished or area I’ve thrived in to one simple reality: those things were all absolutely at the core of who I am and who I want to be.

Some of you may be reading this now thinking to yourself, “Well, that’s really easy for you to say that, Melissa. You’re single, and you don’t have kids, a car payment, or a mortgage to worry about. You can take risks that I can’t take.” 

Let me tell it to you straight: I think you’re lying to yourself. 

I still have my fair share of challenges—financial and otherwise—to work through. But honestly, what’s the point in being stuck there? Nothing good comes from telling yourself repeatedly about all of the things you can’t do. That’s a made up idea in your head. Plenty of people have found a way to thrive in various different areas of their lives even with kids, a spouse, a car payment, a mortgage, a lack of education, and a low-paying job. Trust me, you can find numerous people out there who worked through a more dire set of circumstances to accomplish huge, huge things. If they can do it, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t do it. 

We’ll do whatever we can to find an excuse, because that’s the easier thing to do. It takes a ton of hard work and reflection to decide what your goals are in the first place. We all want quick fixes. But here’s what happens: we rush to set a goal that doesn’t really matter to us, then scramble to try somehow to make it happen, and then we end up upset and demoralized when it doesn’t work out. 

Let me give you an example: dieting.

A lot of people diet. Some lose weight, most gain it back. Why does this happen? Obviously, it’s not for lack of information and diet plans, and psychological techniques out there. And it’s certainly not because of your circumstances. There are really wealthy people who want to get healthy and can afford a private chef, personal trainer, at-home gym, etc. And yet, that’s still not enough. And then there are others who have no resources at all and still bust their butts, get up every morning to run outside, and buy cheap produce and canned veggies. They make it work. 

If you notice, the people who lose weight and keep it off…there’s something different about them. And it’s that they are deeply connected to why they want to get healthy. If your sole motivation for getting healthy is losing weight so you can look good because you think that’s what it’s going to take to get people to fall in love with you, respect you at work, etc., you’re honestly probably going to fail. You’re going to fail because that “purpose” isn’t driven by your core internal desire for change; it’s driven by (1) doing something because that’s what friends, family, society expects, and (2) by a false belief about your self-worth. Your self-worth doesn’t come from your weight, and if you keep thinking that as you attempt to lose weight, even if you do, you’ll just be a thinner version of yourself left with nothing but the real problem that was lurking beneath your weight-gain: irrational and totally made-up self-esteem struggles. 

If, however, you decide you want to lose weight because you are in love with the feeling you get from going on a long run (no matter how hard it is in the middle of one), or you want to live a long and healthy life for your spouse and children, or you’ve learned that eating animal products and heavily processed food, no matter how delicious, is really bad for you and makes you feel nasty and you’re sick and tired of it (literally)…now we’re talking a totally different ballgame. 

Because now, you’re deeply connected to your reason for wanting to lose weight. When you have that connectedness, you elevate yourself above the normal stopping points for people (i.e. having unhealthy food in the house, being too tired to work out in the morning, not having a gym membership, etc.)

If you’re really connected, you’ll find a way.

You’ve literally got everything you need in that head and heart of yours to make your goals work.

So here’s the exercise I want to ask you to do today:

First, find a pocket of silence. Take one day this weekend to completely disconnect and just allow yourself the breathing room to think and reflect. 

Next, answer the question, “What do I feel like I was put on this planet to do?” Just freestyle write. Don’t worry about it making sense or being realistic. Just write everything down that comes to mind. What sorts of things have you always been drawn to? What are your most favorite activities? If you could do anything—no limitations—what would it be? What are your gifts? Strengths? Skills? What do you do better than everyone else you know? Write down absolutely everything that comes to mind. 

Finally, pretend this year was your last year. What one big thing would you want to accomplish? Just choose one thing. What’s the biggest thing you’d want to accomplish in the next year of your life? In 12 months, what would bring you utter joy to say you’d done? What would have made it a year worth living?

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to chase after that one big, amazing goal of yours. 

Why You’re Not As Productive As You Want to Be (and What to Do About It)

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I seriously geek out about life hacking. I am all about discovering and implementing ways to save time and optimize life so that I’ve got as much time as possible to pursue what really matters. 

If you’re struggling right now with time management and are looking for a simpler, more effective system, I’ve got one for you.

This week, I’m going to take you through some of the best, most effective life hacking tips I’ve learned over the past year. I’ll cover:

  • Tuesday: The fail-proof goal-setting method
  • Wednesday:  Why to-do lists don’t work (and the better alternative)
  • Thursday: The magic of batch tasking
  • Friday: Creating a schedule that reflects your values
  • Saturday: Identifying un-productivity triggers—and how to eradicate them
But before I dive into any of the topics above, let’s lay some more groundwork. I’m convinced there are two major reasons why people don’t create and follow systems that work:
Problem #1: Most people have no idea how they’re spending their time.
 
It’s the same thing with a diet. A ton of people track their diets. Why? Because you’re a lot more likely to intake fewer calories and eat less crap if you’re tracking exactly what you’re eating.
 
Well, the same is true for tracking how you spend your time…except pretty much nobody does it. And everyone really should—at least quarterly. We all have a sense of how and why we’re being unproductive (i.e.too much time on social media, in email, getting ready in the morning, browsing the web, in meetings, etc.). But, I promise you, unless you’re already super productive (in which case, I don’t know why you’re still reading this), you will be shocked by how much time you’re actually wasting on stuff that isn’t really important. So, here’s the first thing I want you to do:
 
Solution #1: For the next 7 days, assess how you’re spending your time.
 
Here’s the sheet I use to keep track of my schedule. I like this one, mostly because it’s colorful. :-) You can find the original PDF here. Print out 7 copies—one for each day.
 
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A few tweaks I make to the spreadsheet:
  • I don’t really use the “I must do” or “I must contact” sections on the left-hand side, but feel free to use them if they’re helpful to you.
  • I turn the “Notes” section into a “Triggers” section.

So, what are “triggers”?

Triggers are basically anything that causes you to switch from doing something productive (and single-tasking), to doing something less productive or off-task. Examples: If I’m editing an article and a thought pops into my head that I need to look for a new iPad cover, that thought bubble is a trigger for me. If I’m batch-tasking my emails and a colleague leans over to start a conversation, that colleague is a trigger.
 
Triggers can range from a thought to a phone call, an email to a link in an article you’re reading. As you record your days for one week, get in the habit of recognizing triggers, and be as specific as possible when you record what they are. We’ll get back to your triggers on Saturday and help you figure out how to eradicate them. 
As you record your week, here are a few good tools for keeping you focused and energized:
  • Pomodoro Technique - helps you work in bursts of 25 minutes, with a mandatory 5 minute break. You can adjust the timeframes, but this technique is essentially supposed to help you sustain your energy all day. 
  • Rescue Time - everyone from Neil Patel to Tim Ferriss raves about this, but the really useful version costs money. If you’re willing to invest, it’s a great tool.
  • Task Timer - This is a Chrome plug-in. I use it to help me determine how long it’s really taking me to do batch tasks and MITs (more on these later in the week).

WARNING:A quick word of warning about tracking your time. It’s very easy to forget to track things in detail. I’d set a recurring reminder on your calendar every hour so you can take 2-3 minutes to track what you’ve done for the past hour. Otherwise, you’ll get lost in a task, not record what you did for 3-4 hours at a time, and your data won’t be that detailed or useful.

So use a calendar reminder every hour for the next week! I promise, it’s not as annoying as it sounds.

Problem #2: We don’t take enough time to assess results and figure out how to do more of what’s working. 

Obviously, if we’re not even taking time to track how we’re spending our time, we’re certainly not maximizing the learnings we could get from analyzing our results and figuring out what’s driving them. So that’s the next thing I want you to do:

Solution #2: Assess your schedule for the week. 
Once you’ve got an entire week’s worth of data on how you spent your time, put your tasks into different activity buckets (i.e. social media, checking work email, checking personal email, writing, planning, meetings, calls, travel, relaxation time, web surfing, news reading, sales calls, getting ready for work, preparing meals, etc.). Then, come up with a percentage of time spent on each activity given the number of hours you are “at work” per week. Here’s what my work assessment looked like, so you get a sense of how to put your own together: 
 
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Though it was a slightly atypical week, quite frankly, I was still shocked by how much of my week I spent in meetings and in my inbox. Once I put this analysis together, I could very clearly see my problem areas, and then know exactly where I needed to develop more efficient systems for myself.

Finally, answer this question:
What 20% is driving 80% of your results? 
This question is based on the Pareto Principle, which states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
 
So, determine what 20% of your work is driving 80% of your results, and what 80% of your work is driving 20% of the results. Create a two-column chart for the highest and lowest results-driven behaviors.
The tasks under my “Most Productive” tab generated a high return on investment for me. Those are my “20%” tasks (you can tweak this number for whatever works…could be 10/90 or 30/70 for you). Later this week, we’ll talk about how to spend more time fitting your high productivity tasks into your schedule so that you have more time to do those things instead of the time-wasters that suck up 70-90% of your time.
 
As an aside, I know we all spend a lot of time browsing the web and consuming news, which I am going to guess is a bit of a time suck for everyone reading this. Here’s a great mini e-book from Tim Ferriss about putting yourself on a low-information diet.
 
Based on everything I outlined above, tomorrow, I’ll take you through a fail-proof goal-setting method.
 
Hope you’ll share this with anyone who could get use out of it!

Why I’m Spending Much Less Time in My Inbox Going Forward

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I’m a fan of the Pareto principle—the concept that 20% of what we do drives 80% of the results we get. 

That means 80% of the work we do is, at best, of minimal importance. In my opinion, email almost always falls into this bucket. 

Almost all of us have a vague sense that we spend too much time in email. If we were to actually calculate it, I bet we’d find that we check our inboxes 1-2 dozen times throughout any given day. Some of us check it literally every five minutes. But here’s what that translates into:

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(Note: The calculation above assumes you’re checking email every 5 minutes during 8 hours of work per day, 5 days per week, for 50 weeks out of every year—and not checking email during your standard two weeks of annual vacation.)

Can you imagine the kind of amazing work we could churn out in the time we spend thinking about, checking, deleting, filing, and answering emails? A lot. We could do a lot of amazing work. 

More and more, I believe life’s best work is done outside of the inbox, so I’m actively working to spend less time in mine these days.

For those who email me, it may take me a while to get back to you—please know it’s not for lack of love! If something is time sensitive, you can always send me a note here.

For those of you who feel the same way (i.e. you want to spend less time in your inbox and more time working on rad stuff that makes a true long-term difference), here’s a list of the 15 best articles to help you become super awesome at email management:
  1. Email is Taking Over & Only You Can Stop It <— my thoughts exactly.
  2. Stop Checking Email (the results of the experiment in the link above)
  3. The Low-Information Diet: Eliminate Email Overload & Triple Productivity in 24 Hours <—fantastic free ebook by Tim Ferriss
  4. How Batch Processing Makes You 10 Times More Productive
  5. Why Email is Addictive (and What to Do About it) <— great read for the highly analytical/academic minds out there
  6. Your Emails Are Too Long so use…
  7. Five Sentences (I need to work on this!)
  8. Best Guide Ever to Inbox Zero
  9. Inbox Minimalism
  10. Why You Suck at Email
  11. Managing Email Effectively
  12. 10 Steps to Becoming an Email Ninja
  13. Email Sanity: How to Clear Your Inbox When You’re Drowning
  14. 5 Stellar Apps to Manage Your Crazy-Ass Inbox (from yours truly)
  15. Three Fantastic Email Auto Responders to Break Email Addiction
And to remind you of what truly matters, check out this ebook Seth Godin put together: What Matters Now.
 
Here’s to a well-lived life outside of the inbox,

Melissa

Feeling Overwhelmed By Your Inbox, Calendar, To-Do List, etc.? Read This.

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Life is a crazy, crazy balancing act, isn’t it?

There is just so much going on in the world. Every day is filled with work and new projects and blogs and news and errands and relationships to manage and bills to pay and calls to make and fires to put out. And EMAILS. Gosh—nothing stresses me out quite like an overflowing inbox.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve been feeling a lot like this lately:

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Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not getting on the “I’m soooo busy” bandwagon. I read articles like this one about the “busy trap”, some part of me nods in agreement.

In his article about “The Busy Trap” in the link above, Tim Kreider writes, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

The first time I read that, I thought, “That’s so spot on.” But in thinking more about it, I’m realizing that addiction to busyness is only small part of the problem.

Yes, we’ve created a culture where we’re expected to work 50+ hours a week (which, by the way, very few of us do. We tend to drastically overestimate the number of hours we work each week). But then, we all begin talking about bestselling books like the 4-Hour-Workweek, and swing in the totally opposite direction. One day, we feel guilty for leaving work at 5pm; and the next day, we feel guilty about staying up until 2am to answer our emails. 

I’m just so tired of the noise— the constant stream of information and advice about all the productivity tools we need, how many hours a week we should be working, what we should be doing with our time.

Why is it so hard for us to be truly productive while we’re in work mode, and then just give ourselves the physical and mental break to really chill out? Why is it so hard for us to not be stressed and anxious about everything on our plates?

I was telling my friend Liz last night about everything that’s been going on in my life over the last few months, and everything I’m balancing on my plate now. And she said, “Are you taking time to just…BE?”

Shit. No. I’m not. 

So, I got off the phone with Liz and really thought about what this was all about—that constant, subtle, nagging feeling of anxiousness that I need to go edit something, tackle another project, answer my missed calls, clean out my inbox.

And that’s when it hit me. I don’t think the large majority of us choose to feel overwhelmed about all of the things we have to or want to do because we’re addicted to the idea of having a full schedule just so we can feel important. That’s really not the heart of the problem at all. 

The heart of the problem is that so few of us take time to figure out what really matters to us. We forget to eliminate all but the essential.

As a result, it’s so much harder for us to say “no” to the coffee meetings and dinners and events that won’t add a lot of value. It’s so much easier for us to get swept up in trying to be perfect by answering every email and phone call. So, we get overwhelmed by the need to do it all. And then we wonder why we spend too much time reading a never-ending stream of news articles, spending hours watching YouTube videos, and constantly checking our social media streams. When you’re disconnected from your purpose, it’s easy to fill the time with the pointless-but-instantly-gratifying stuff. 

Well, I’ve had enough.

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I’m tired of feeling like I need to answer every email, read every interesting news article, see every tweet, check social media 10+ times a day. I just don’t. It’s not the stuff that makes me happy. It’s not the stuff I’ll look back on in 50 years and think, “I really wish I had spent more time watching television, or tweeting, or going to tech events.”

My personality is an overwhelming flavor of ambitious. Sometimes, I want to stay up until 3am to work, because I love my work. But you know what? Sometimes, I just want to drink a glass of wine and go to bed. Sometimes, I want to go to a tech event; other times, I want to grab non-vegan ice cream with someone I love and wander around Chicago aimlessly. 

The problem we face with being anxious, overwhelmed, and busy with all of the wrong things isn’t new. Steven Covey got it exactly right decades ago—the real problem is that we don’t put our big rocks first.

The only difference between now and the 80’s is that it’s so much easier now for “small rocks” to get in the way—email, social media, meetings, news streams, bottomless RSS feeds, etc.  

I think my friend Jenny Blake hits the nail on the head with her post about the 5 Timeless Productivity Habits

It’s not about how much we get done. It’s about deciding what really matters most to us, making sure we make time for those things, and then not worrying about the rest. 

Going forward, I’m going to remind myself, moment by moment, of what really matters to me. I’m plugging all of it into my calendar to make sure I’m making the time for my big rocks (learn more about big rocks here):

  • Nurturing relationships w/ family and close friends
  • Exercise & eating well
  • Growing Technori
  • Writing every day
  • Adventuring
  • Inspired Learning
  • Church/Exploring Faith
  • Time for gratitude and giving back

If the small rocks don’t fit into the time I have left, they don’t fit. If I don’t get to every email or can’t take every coffee meeting, so be it. It’s time to be okay with not having the time to do everything, and getting over the need to explain why I can’t to others. 

It’s time to stop trying to be in control, and just savor this life.

Let’s all do more of what brings us and others joy. If that sounds like a plan to you, what you have to do next is quite simple: 

  1. Make a short list of what truly matters most to you (i.e. your big rocks).
  2. Plug time into your calendar every week/month to spend time on those things.
  3. Do not let any small rocks get in the way of the big rocks. If someone tries to schedule a meeting or a call or whatever during a “big rock” block of time, the answer is NO
  4. Have the courage to let go of being perfect when life gets insane.

That’s really all there is to it. 

Here’s to putting our big rocks first, and enjoying the sweetness of life we’ll experience as a result.

You Don’t Need 8 Hours of Sleep. Or 3 Square Meals. Or 8 Cups of Water. Here’s Why.

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You need exactly 8 hours of sleep every night!

Eat 10 servings of vegetables a day!

Low-fat dairy strengthens your bones!

Drink 8 or more cups of water each day!

Don’t ever skip breakfast! 

Cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis! 

It’s bad to sit all day!

It’s bad to stand all day!

BLAH. BLAH. BLAH. 

I’m calling bullshit. 

I am so sick of the rigid, crappy advice out there. I stumbled upon this LifeHacker article recently, and had an “A HA!” moment:

How Much Sleep Do You Really Need to Work Productively?

Here’s my favorite part:

One of the most acclaimed sleep researchers, Daniel Kripke, said there’s never been any evidence to back the 8-hour rule. In his most recent study, Kripke found that “people who sleep between 6.5 hours and 7.5 hours a night live the longest, are happier, and are most productive. What’s even more interesting here is that sleeping longer than that might actually be worse for your health.”

Umm. YEAH. Obviously, I’m thrilled about this because there’s no way I sleep 8 hours a night, ever. And I’ve spent way too long being seriously stressed out because EVERYONE out there is constantly yapping away that because I don’t sleep 8 hours a night, I’m more prone to having heart attacks, gaining weight, being unproductive…and the list goes on. 

But honestly, the one question I’ve begun to ask lately after reading any article that tells me I need to implement some sort of behavior change is this:

…Says who? 

I was a psychology major in undergrad (and yes, I do live up to the over-analyzer stereotype, whatever that means). I don’t remember a lot from those classes, but one of the few I do remember was my least favorite: Psychological Statistics. You know what big lesson I took out of that class? 

You can manipulate data to tell any story you want. 

Yeah, that probably wasn’t the lesson I was supposed to take out of it. But I’m just calling a spade, a spade here. That’s the thing about data, results, and findings. You can spin all of it to tell whatever story you want to tell. We all have biases, so half of the time, we’re testing the wrong factors, populations, and hypotheses, anyway. 

Everyone is going to tell you different things all of the time. We have to parse through conflicting health advice every single day. We buy business self-help books that give us “success strategies” that often contradict one another. One day, something is great for us. The next day, we discover that the opposite is true.

Exhausting, right?

If you want the perfect advice on how many hours of sleep you should get, what you should eat, how often you should eat, when you should drink, how you should grow your business…the answer is simple. 

Stop listening to all of the crappy advice out there, and start listening to yourself.

I am willing to bet that half the reason you feel “tired” after only sleeping 8 hours is because you think you’re supposed to sleep 8 hours. 

Don’t get me wrong—I think there’s a range with everything. With sleep, for instance, I know that I feel really great on 6-6.5 hours of sleep. When I get 8 hours or 4 hours, I feel really crappy. I know this about myself because I stopped listening to other people tell me what I should do and how I should feel and when I should feel it. 

I just got exhausted from the barrage of contradictory advice, so I decided to simplify. Instead of listening to all of the noise, how about just focusing on how different decisions make me feel? 

That’s really all it comes down to: getting in tune with what your body wants and needs. We’re all so different. We all function differently on various amounts of food. work. sleep. exercise. water. alcohol. You name it. 

So why on earth would we ever assume that one rule applied to all of us? Are we insane? 

Listen to your body. Listen to yourself. When you’re tired, sleep. When you’re hungry, eat. If you don’t want to finish the food on your plate, don’t. If you seriously aren’t hungry first thing in the morning, don’t eat until you are. If you feel like you need water when everyone else at a party is having beer, drink the water. 

I’d bet that everything you wish was different in your life—losing weight, feeling energized, making more money, saving more money, getting a promotion…whatever—is directly tied to you not listening to yourself. It has nothing to do with you not being able to perfectly apply all of the crappy advice out there.

Just stop lying to yourself. Don’t overcomplicate decision making. You know when you’re making decisions that suit you, and also when you’re making decisions that wreck you. Don’t be so short-sighted that you’re just looking for instant gratification. 

Once you’re in tune with yourself and what you need (and what you don’t), then: test, test, test. Test everything. Figure out what works best for you. 

Then go do what works best for you. Forget about what everyone else is saying. It’s that simple.

I am willing to bet that the more in tune you are with yourself about the little decisions—like how much to sleep, when to eat, what to drink, how to work—the better you’ll be at making smarter decisions with the bigger things, too. 

Can you imagine being so in tune with yourself that you make fantastic decisions about your career, finances, work, friendships, romantic relationships?

Mmmm. Fantastic decision making. A happy, tuned in life.

I think that’s worth throwing away all of the shitty advice in the world. 

5 Stellar Apps to Manage Your Crazy-Ass Inbox. I Promise, These Will Make Your Life Better.

I’m just going to preface this post by saying I honestly can’t stand email. While I think it’s a great way to connect and convey important information, it gets used inefficiently and borderline inappropriately far too often.

There isn’t a single part of our tech lives that gives us more anxiety and stress than email, other than maybe privacy concerns. Seriously, do we really need a back-and-forth chain of a dozen emails just to decide on a date for coffee? Just call me, please. Or a gazillion emails between a team to make a business decision? Basecamp that shit. It drives me nutty when email moves from important information sharing to blatant inefficiency. 

Anyway, I digress. We all have to live with it, so I’m basically building a fort of cool add-ons to make the whole process less laborious. Why? So I can spend time doing more of what I love, like creating actual stuff and building relationships offline.  

Here are the 5 apps I use to manage my crazy-ass inbox. 

1. Sparrow

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I’m addicted to Sparrow, which gives you a beautifully simple, streamlined version of your inbox. It’s super lightweight and fast, there is a “quick reply” feature that streamlines the whole process of responding to emails, and I’m so much more likely to get to inbox zero while using this app. Not gonna lie, I also really like that I can color code my mail folders. It makes for a much more aesthetically pleasing email experience. It’s completely integrated with Gmail—and while you can hack the Gmail experience to hyper-optimize it, there’s something awesome and non-distracting to me about Sparrow that just makes me feel better about spending time in my inbox.

The one thing I love most about Sparrow is that I can seamlessly unify all of my inboxes, which is absolutely ideal for the sake of efficiency. It’s a lot harder to do that in Gmail unless you have two windows open or forward all of your mail to one account. 

However, I am vacillating back and forth between Sparrow and Gmail now. To be honest, I’m having a hard time deciding if I should start transitioning back to the Gmail interface completely. For one thing, Sparrow just got acquired by Gmail…so I have a feeling the product will cease to improve in the long-term future. For another, some of the apps on the market now integrate beautifully with Gmail - namely, the next two below on this list, which are incredible.

2. Rapportive

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These are like contact profiles built right into your inbox - pretty rad. When you’re emailing with someone you just met, Rapportive will often show you that person’s picture, title, location, tweet stream, and social media profile links so you can connect with him or her seamlessly on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Skype, Tumblr, etc. You can also add your own personal notes so you’ll always remember how you met people on the fringes of your personal and business networks. 

3. INBOX PAUSE

Holy game changer!

You know why it’s so easy to get sucked into your inbox for five hours? Because once you get rid of an email, two more pop up. So, it’s hard not to pay attention to all of the new emails coming in. Enter: INBOX PAUSE, my new hero and possibly the best Gmail-integrated app, like, ever. 

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Essentially, when you integrate INBOX PAUSE, a button appears in your inbox that allows you to pause incoming mail from showing up in your inbox for as long as you’d like. It even sends an email to people while your inbox is paused letting people know it is—so if something is urgent, they should reach you another way. Kinda like a super short, daily version of an official “Out of Office” message. You can focus on getting the emails answered that are already in your inbox without being distracted by the new ones coming in. Talk about efficiency and reducing anxiety! I’m a happier girl because of this app.  

4. Captio

So, you’re standing at a party and someone reminds you to check out a new song or movie. Or, you’re on line at the grocery store and you suddenly remember that you need to follow up on a work project. You don’t want to forget about it, so you email a note to yourself. You have to: (1) open up your mail app, (2) type in your email address, (3) type in a subject line so it doesn’t give you that annoying “but you don’t have a subjeccccct” message, and then (4) send the email. 

Four steps, really? Why is it such a pain in the ass?! 

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Not anymore. Captio saves your email address, and all you have to do is open up the app, type your note, and hit “send.” Ta-da! Your note will appear in your inbox automatically so that you won’t forget and can process it later. Saves you two annoying, pointless steps and about half the time. Yes, please!

5. MailChimp

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When I’m meeting new people and talking about my work, they’ll sometimes ask to be added to one of our mailing lists. That’s the kind of simple thing that’s very easy to lose track of if you just “make a note” to add that person later. A missed opportunity for conversion. We use MailChimp, and the iPhone app allows me to add people to any of our different mailing lists on the spot. It gets done right away, and you avoid having to add one more thing to your to-do list. 

I’d highly recommend using MailChimp if you send out emails and newsletters to groups of people often - whether for business or personal. Plus, the monkey icon is adorable and reminds me of Curious George. A small reminder to always approach life like a curious, happy little kid. :-)

The 5 Best Productivity Tools I Use (and Why You Should, Too)

1. Evernote 

I’m in love with this notetaking and archiving software. Yes, you can take notes on it. But I didn’t really start optimizing Evernote until I began using the Web Clipper. Essentially, this tool allows you to “clip” and save various different web pages. Before I started using this, one of the biggest time wasters for me was browsing the web. I mean, there are soooo many good articles, blogs, websites, etc.! How can I not read them?! I used to either (a) read the articles on the spot, which interrupted my state of flow or (b) wait until my browser looked like this: 

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Talk about cluttered and inefficient. Now, I have an “Articles to Read” folder. Whenever I stumble upon something I want to read while in the middle of something else, I just clip it, save it to this folder, and batch process my reading all at once. By the way, batch processing is one of the most effective ways you can save time and energy with your tasks; here’s a detailed example of how this technique can help you become super productive. 

You can also store pretty much anything you want to keep track of in one place: quotes, contacts, favorite sites, wish lists, recipes, inspiring people, restaurants to check out, movies to watch, places to visit…you get the point. It’s a great way to keep track of everything that inspires, informs, and supports you. You can even read your scanned in handwritten notes. And there’s a special Evernote Smart Notebook by Moleskine. Oh, I am SO serious. 

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Evernote is like the Photoshop of productivity tools: a million different ways to optimize it that few people know about. If you want to make the most out of this tool, I’d highly recommend this “how to” Evernote Essentials book. 100 pages of organization happiness. 

Bonus: Evernote 5 is one of the most beautiful iPhone apps I’ve ever seen in my life. 

2. Wunderlist

Damn, Wunderlist is beautiful. I think it is hands down the best “to-do list” tool out there. It’s simple and intuitive without being ugly or useless. Wunderlist 2 just came out, so it’s even more beautiful than before. Clearly, these guys know a thing or two about UX design

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Now, to-do lists are controversial. People say that they are pointless and no one ever actually becomes more productive by using to-do lists. That’s a load of crap and you should ignore anyone who tries to convince you that being intentional by writing down what you most want to accomplish is useless. They are lying. 

There are three big reasons to-do lists don’t work: (1) We dump everything we think we need or want to do onto them without much consideration of the value those tasks will add; (2) we don’t take time to process what’s actually on our to-do lists—so a lot of those pesky tasks just sit there for months and never get done; and (3) we add far too much to our daily lists of things to accomplish. In Leo Babauta’s book, The Power of Less, he recommends choosing just three “Most Important Tasks (MITs)” each day—the three things that take an hour or less to do and would make you feel like you had a great, productive day if you could accomplish them—and working on those without distraction as soon as possible in the day until all three things are done. 

While I’m certainly not perfect, I’ve found that setting three daily MITs and completing them right away in the morning really works for me. The rest of your day feels like a breeze and you don’t have to deal with that crappy “I-just-wasted-5-hours-of-my-day-reading-articles-and-answering-emails-and-checking-facebook” feeling. 

If you can tackle the other two problems by becoming more selective about what you put on your to-do list in the first place, and then setting up time for a weekly review to process everything on your master list, then to-do lists are absolutely the way to go. And there’s no better tool than Wunderlist for keeping track of them. 

3. Stickies

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I use stickies on my desktop to keep track of random thoughts I have while in the middle of one of my MITs. If I remember a website I’ve been wanting to check out, instead of actually going to the site, I’ll just jot down a note about it in stickies. If I realize I need to email someone back, I make a note about that, too, instead of going into my inbox (home of the biggest time suck in the world, in my opinion). Then, when I’m done with my MITs, I process those notes accordingly—either by adding them to my to-do list, putting them in one of my Evernote folders, or getting it done right away if it will take me less than a few minutes. 

4. Ecosystem Journals

I still love taking handwritten notes. There’s something about the process of putting pen to paper that is just the best thing ever. 

I don’t know why everyone loves Moleskine notebooks so much, though. I mean, I guess they’re nice, but they only come in black and red unless you buy one of those useless 30-page notebooks in baby pink or something. I’d much rather use Ecosystem journals. They are pretty much exactly the same as Moleskins, but come in a bunch of different sizes, styles (hardcover, flexi,ruled, grid, blank), and most importantly, COLORS. A watermelon- or kiwi-colored notebook? Yes, please. 

And the final thing that makes this the best journal ever…THIS:

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5. Basecamp

Stellar project management software from the guys at 37signals. I love that this team has an intense focus on simplifying, simplifying, simplifying. They say no to a ton of customer requests for features, not because they want to be horrible at customer service, but because they want to stay focused on creating the best, most simple product for people to use. Perfect example: they actively discontinue profitable services if they don’t feel they’re giving them enough attention. Respect. 

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I don’t really use Basecamp for personal stuff, but it’s fantastic for work and any other projects that more than one person is working on. It gets rid of the time-consuming back-and-forth of email—and the added sanity pretty much pays for the cost of the service in and of itself. 

Coming tomorrow: The next 5 best productivity tools and apps I use

The Best Productivity Books You’ll Ever Read

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Yesterday, I wrote about why most productivity advice is useless

I don’t want you to waste any more time consuming useless content about personal productivity. As promised, here are the beginnings of what will be the best, most comprehensive resource list ever for stellar and genuinely useful productivity, optimization, and life hacking advice. I’ll blog about updates as they occur, but you can always find the most up-to-date master productivity list under the “Most Awesome Lists” here on my blog.

The goal of this list is to make it as simple and intuitive as possible to create a productivity plan that works for you. The resources in this guide tend to emphasize meaningful minimalism (no, I’m not asking you to throw away everything you own), simplicity, clarity, and focus. It shouldn’t feel like a job to create and implement a personal productivity process that works for you - after all, that would kind of totally defeat the purpose. 

If you’ve got any content suggestions that you want me to personally review and formally add to my productivity resource guide, share it with me.

The Absolute Best Books on Productivity and Time Management

I’ve read countless productivity and time management books, blogs, articles, podcasts, etc. This is a list of the absolute best, most useful books I’ve come across:

1. The Power of Less.

This book is the foundation of my entire personal productivity system. If you could only read any one book, this is the one I’d recommend. Leo Babauta is all about simple productivity that actually makes sense and feels manageable - fun, even. This book goes beyond productivity tips. Babauta encourages you to reflect and fully understand what matters most to you, and why. It’s truly an amazing productivity system because it’s simple. You won’t get caught up in trying to implement an overly-complicated set of processes. If I have any one criticism of the book, it’s that some parts of it are too simplified. He encourages you to only focus on one major goal at a time, which doesn’t fly for Type A “I-can-take-on-the-world” personalities. Heed his advice about not setting too many goals or trying to change too many habits at once, though. He’s spot on about that, regardless of how ambitious you are.

2. Zen to Done.

This is the other Leo Babauta book I’d recommend. He wrote this one before he wrote The Power of Less. In his own words:

Zen To Done takes some of the best aspects of a few popular productivity systems (GTD, Stephen Covey and others) and combines them with the mandate of simplicity. It makes things as simple as possible, and no more.

And he’s not kidding. If you’ve ever tried to read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, that thing is dense with information. It makes productivity feel like a highly stressful and laborious process. Save your time, and read this e-book instead. Ten simple, straightforward habits to change. One at a time. A very good read. 

3. Eat That Frog!

This book is a classic. Brian Tracy has spent his career studying the development of human potential and personal effectiveness. In spite of how brilliant the dude is, he’s managed to whittle this book down to 21 of his top tips for getting more accomplished in less time. All in 117 short pages. #Miracle. If you treat this book like the workbook it was meant to be (there are reflection questions and exercises practically on every page), you’ll get a ton out of it.

4. The 4-Hour Workweek

I think a lot of people initially approach this book with skepticism because, really, who works only 4 hours a week? I certainly don’t. I’m still pretty convinced that Tim Ferriss works harder, smarter, and also longer than most people out there. Nonetheless, once I finally picked it up, it quickly became one of my favorite books. Ferriss truly is the king of life hacking. His area of expertise isn’t so much productivity or weight loss or cooking. Rather,  he knows everything there is to know about learning - quickly. He is big on measuring and analyzing everything, so his advice has been thoroughly tested. The whole book is worth reading, but about half of it is related to lifestyle design and probably not totally applicable, unless you’re about completely re-hauling your lifestyle. If you want to save time and stick to the chapters on productivity, they are:

Chapter 5: The End of Time Management

Chapter 6: The Low-Information Diet

Chapter 7: Interrupting Interruption & The Art of Refusal

Bonus!: Annual Review Guides

Since it’s the start of the new year and everyone is in goal-setting mode, I thought I’d share two of my absolute favorite “annual review” guides. Spend a few days creating your own annual review — and use these guides as reference. You’ll feel so much more prepared for 2013. Promise. 

1. How to Conduct Your Own Annual Review by Chris Guillebeau

…and if you want some more, here is Guillebeau’s annual review archive.

2. Why Wait? A Bullshit-Free Guide to Jump-Starting Your Goals for the New Year by Nicole  Antoinette Ross

Coming up next this week: I’ll share lists of the best productivity and time management blogs, articles, and tools out there.