Category Archives: Productivity

Getting Back Into Gear

As I’m gearing back up from some downtime, I figured I’d share a few of the ways I get back into the swing. For some, getting back to work is a breeze. Solidifying broken habits is no worry. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. I tend to be momentum driven and gaining momentum can take time. Here’s the process I often use to get things going after finding myself behind at work or at home.

Begin With A Review

Whenever I experience a significant break from my routine, I go into review mode. Even if it is mid-week, I go through the same process that I would during my weekly review (especially considering this is one of the first habits to go when things get dicey). This forces me to take a look at everything, get a feel for what’s missing and creates an opportunity to reassess what’s most important. It forces me to clear my desk and clear my head, both of which tend to be messy after a break.

Make A Plan

After I review, I’ll sit down and plan out the rest of my week. I don’t tend to do this normally. In most cases, I trust in my system to show me the information I need to plan my days. Normally I sit down at my desk each morning, take out one of David Seah’s Emergent Task Planners and use a combination of OmniFocus, my calendar and any notes on my desk to create a rough plan for the day. When getting back from a break in the routine, I trust my trusted system just a little less and want a bit more scaffolding. To achieve this, I plan my day, but go one step further. I don’t lay things out exactly, I just try to determine the “big rocks” for every day of that week. Even determining the projects I plan to work on each day can go a long way towards getting my mind back on doing a single task rather than obsessing over all the tasks I have to do..

Start Smart

There’s a temptation to go as hard as you can as long as you can until you’re caught up. Don’t you worry; plenty of hard work will go into getting back up to speed and back into a routine. It just won’t help you to hit the ground running, at least not right away. One of my favorite takeaways from Crossfit is the concept of a sprint start on an rowing machine. When you’re racing for time, you’re tempted to just start pulling as hard as you can to get going as fast as you can. As those who try this approach quickly learn, it isn’t an effective strategy. Instead you go through a progression of smaller strokes that get the flywheel going. By the time you’re ready for that first pull, things are already in motion. Taking the time to review and plan go a long way toward getting things going, but also give yourself a few lightweight manageable tasks to build some momentum up before you really start pulling.


Last but not least, be ready to suck and for things to suck for a little while. Having just gone back to the aforementioned Crossfit after a nearly two-week absence away, I can tell you that things were not fun and pretty. That said, had I waited any longer, they would only grow less fun and less pretty. I needed to get back in the swing of things and the only way to do that is by going through the motions. I had to get through the initial work before I could get back to doing my best work.

Yesterday wasn’t my best day at work, my best day of writing or my best day at the gym, but taking the time to clarify, structure and ease back into the work along with a willingness to suck at it is going a long way toward making today just a little bit better.

How do you go about getting back into gear when you lose your momentum? I’m still getting mine back, so all tricks and tips are welcome.

An Unclear Kickoff

As an OmniFocus user, I’m always looking out for applications that can bridge the gap between my own task list and the work I do with others. This is especially true with my podcasting partner-in-crime, Mike Vardy. While I still hold out hope for a collaborative aspect to OmniFocus down the road, I needed a collaborative tool that would manage conversations and expectations but that still allowed me to do the heavy lifting on my own. In the past, I’ve experimented with Asana, but it always felt like I was managing two full-fledged task managers rather than a task manager and a collaboration manager. So I was excited when I first heard about Kickoff.

The early implementation of Kickoff seemed to meet my needs. It provided a lightweight environment for managing conversations and expectations. While it didn’t have everything I’d hope for, the execution was well done and the platform had promise. The beta was already mature enough to start using and, after seeing that Apple was featuring the app as an Editor’s Choice, I purchased both the Mac and iOS versions. Based on the early product and the prominent features, I was optimistic that it would continue to gain traction and features. 

Kickoff Featured on the Mac App Store

Except here’s the thing… it wont be gaining any new features. Despite not disclosing this on their site and in their description on the App Store, the team behind Kickoff was acquired by payment platform Stripe on March 11th. While they promise to maintain the app, they have no intention of adding new features. Of course I only realized this after spending my money on the app – and only discovered the acquisition news by accident.

Don’t get me wrong, purchasing an application is a risk. You should always assume that you will never see an update, that you’re only paying for what you initially get. Updates are gravy, not an expectation. That said, it seems dishonest that this isn’t being clearly and prominently disclosed. Yes, they are open about this on Twitter. Yes, the developer blogged about the acquisition, but the average customer will not discover this (hell, I’m a geek and I didn’t realize it).

Much as I’d like to think of this as an oversight, it seems the lack of a clear disclosure appears to be by design. It seems unlikely that Apple would be featuring the application so prominently. It’s also unlikely that people will be as excited by the app with the knowledge that it will not see any new features. While this is purely speculation, there seems to be only one logical reason not to share the good news on their website – it would limit sales. 

I don’t mind that I took a chance on an app that didn’t pan out. That happens. I do mind that it appears that the developer is limiting disclosure. More than anything this is meant to serve as a heads up to anyone who, like me, was optimistic about the potential of Kickoff but would be reticent in light of their acquisition. 

It’s also a question to developers out there: Is this even close to the right way to go about this? Acquisitions happen, but is this even close to how someone should go about handling the aftermath? People may have been frustrated when the popular iOS email client, Sparrow, was acquired, but at least they were clear about it. There’s a good chance that I’m just being entitled here, but this just seems…wrong.

If vs. Which

I received the following comment on ADN from Tully Hansen regarding my post on Inboxes:

Thinking about this very topic yesterday, I’m not sure there’s not an important distinction between the boxes you control completely and those that fill up without any intervention on your part.

It’s a fair callout and for many, it may hold true. If you don’t struggle to get things done, there may be no need to distinguish between the places where you consider and do your work. For me, it’s an important distinction, here’s why…

The Inbox

Whenever you’re dealing with an inbox, I have to ask if this is something I should do. Not should I do this right now, but should I do it at all? It’s a place where anyone can put work for consideration. My email inbox is often filled with things I have no intention or desire to do. The pile in the corner of my desk is a place for people to put things that they’d like me to look over. My RSS reader is full of things that I don’t want to read. My mailbox is a place where I’m never short of amazed by who seems to have somehow gotten ahold of my address. 

An inbox always forces you to question if you should do something. It’s a place to consider and eliminate your work.

The Action Box

When I go into an action box, there’s no if about it. This was something I wanted to read or want to do. The only question I need to ask is which should go first. Yes, sometimes priorities (or even interests) change and something drops off the list, but that’s what a weekly review is for. When I go into OmniFocus, there are only tasks that I need/want to do, when I open Instapaper there are only things I want to read. When I process the pile of papers on my end table at home, there’s only mail that requires a response.

An action box lets you focus on which you should do first. It’s a place to organize and complete your work. 

Inbox vs. Action Box

This distinction between “if” I should do something and “which” thing I should do is the reason I take the time to move anything that takes longer than a few minutes from an inbox to an action box. Trying to handle both at the same time is often too much for my meager mind. It lets me ask the right questions in the right places. It lets me focus on my intentions in an inbox and my priorities in an action box. It creates sacred places for putting the things that matter most, places that only I control and only I can screw up.

As the number of inboxes and the volume of crap in each inbox continues to increase, it has become difficult for me to do any kind of meaningful work there. This is the reason why I embraced the idea of creating a distinction between the two. This may do nothing for you, it may add an additional layer of work, but if if you find that there’s a conflict between your intentions and your priorities, you may find separating one from the other to be a useful tactic.

What do you think? Is there a benefit to this kind of a distinction or is it just moving work around rather than getting work done?

Avoiding Inbox Overload

A conventional aim of productivity is to get you out of the habit of spending time in your email inbox. I’ve always been a fan of this philosophy. It went a long way toward getting me to take a more active and intentional approach to my work. Rather than living my life deciding what to do, I spend more of it doing what I’ve decided.

Lately my concern is moving away from the time spent in any one inbox and toward the overall number of inboxes we allow into our lives.

We tend to take the concept of an inbox literally. We have our email accounts and likely a physical space or two in our homes and at our jobs. But this only scratches the surface of our inboxes which, in my mind, have grown to include anywhere we need to visit regularly to consider or act on potential tasks. Using this definition, you can start to see how our inboxes are growing exponentially.

Each social network is an inbox, especially those with an actual inbox like Facebook. Our text and instant messages are an inbox. Our RSS reader is an inbox. Instapaper is an inbox. Our e-reader of choice is, you guessed it, an inbox. Our task managers even have an inbox. Even apps like Marco Arment’s The Magazine are effectively inboxes.

We’re even starting to see apps like Cloze that even aim to collect our inboxes. This is certainly a solution, but I think there just might be a better one…

Have Less Inboxes

We’ve grown cavalier about what we sign up for, this is especially true in the age of free and affordable services and applications. We’re so excited by new technologies and great sources of content that we take on far too many. We obsess about the message count in our email inbox, but we ignore the fact that our actual inbox count grows daily. This has to stop. When we get ready to pull the trigger on a new service or a new publication we have to recognize that we either have to check it regularly or feel guilty for not. We have to be mindful that we are often allowing yet another inbox into our lives.

Make Action Boxes

Much as Instapaper can be an inbox, if used correctly it can be a place of action. By being selective about what goes in, you can keep things to a minimum. It becomes less a place to consider and more what it’s meant to be: a better place to read. The same is true for your task list. I almost never use the inbox in OmniFocus. When creating tasks, I assign a project (even if it’s just adding it to a single action list), a context and usually a start date. This takes a little bit longer, but eliminates the need to have to check yet another inbox.

As you start to take a realistic look at the number of inboxes that you’ve allowed in your life, see which ones you can eliminate. When looking at what’s left, think of what you can do to turn an inbox to an action box. By separating the places where you consider doing work from the places you do it, you avoid distraction and find yourself better situated to get more done.

Inbox Zero or Zero Inboxes

Okay, no inboxes is an unrealistic idea. But a big misconception of Inbox Zero (or at least a big misconception of those who love to use the hashtag #inboxzero) has always been that emphasis of having no emails vs. spending way less time on email. The goal of inbox zero has always been to spend more of your time doing meaningful work and same should hold true for the actual number if inboxes we allow into our lives. Get rid of what you can, make better use of what remains, but don’t obsess. Spend less time dealing with all of your various inboxes and you’ll find you have far more time for the things that really matter most.

Have you become careless with your inboxes? If so, what do you plan to do about it?

The Best Way To Learn Markdown

David Sparks has launched the latest MacSparky Field Guide. This time he is tackling the subject of Markdown along with Eddie Smith of Practically Efficient.

If you write for the web, you should learn to write in Markdown. It makes it easy to format your work to be converted to HTML for posting to the web. It also allows you to save your files as plain text, ensuring that they are essentially future proof. If you plan to learn Markdown, this is the way to do it.

Markdown itself is very easy to learn and use, yet it isn’t intuitive to decide how best to integrate it into your writing workflows. In this guide David and Eddie show you many of the possibilities that come from using Markdown. They also provide enough of a point of view that you won’t get lost in the possibilities.

The book itself is a blend of text, audio and video. It will help you get your head around the basics, gives you glance at some of the geeky goodness you can accomplish and tells you how some of the smartest people I know are using it to accomplish their work.

As with Paperless and 60 Tips (the two previous books in the series) Markdown is well written, easy to understand and the videos are well done. This time around David also added audio interviews to the mix. While they test the limitations of the iBooks format (I’d occasionally accidentally swipe or rotate the screen, both of which stop the audio. The screen would also time out during longer conversations) the audio interviews with Merlin Mann, Fletcher Penney, Brett Terpstra, Federico Vittici and Gabe Weatherhead are worth the cost of admission alone. As I listened, I found myself wondering if we will see audiobooks under the title MacSparky Field Interviews in the future (this is purely wishful thinking).

Bottom line, if you haven’t taken the time to learn Markdown or aren’t entirely comfortable with it yet, do yourself a favor and buy this book.

Note: David was kind enough to send me an advanced copy. I also used an affiliate link, because I’m shameless. That said, this really is a great book. It’s one that I will be gifting out regularly to anyone I know still using Microsoft Word.

The Three Things #24

The Three Things, is a weekly series where Gini Dietrich from Spin Sucks, Howie Goldfarb and I share the one thing that captured our attention and that we believe to be worthy of yours.

OmniFocus Setup: Do Stuff! — MacSparky

Michael on Productivity: David Sparks changed the way I work. For the longest time, I was overwhelmed by my task list. There was just far too much on it and no effective way to find what mattered. I’d use due dates to highlight what was important, but this only led to everything having a due date (usually when they’re not actually due) and nothing being important. Over time, I learned a few tricks and tactics for finding the right actions, but this was always a struggle, there was always far too much to consider. Then David came along and started evangelizing start dates. This approach hides what you don’t need to think about, shows you what you do and let’s you save due dates for the few times there actually is one.

You’ll often hear geeks, especially OmniFocus geeks such as myself, suggesting a start date centered approach, in this video, David shows you how it’s done.

The Harlem Shake: What’s in a Meme?

Howie on Memes Gone Wild: I find this fascinating. Doing work for a client in the pool industry, it seems many college swim teams have done Harlem Shake videos. The University Minnesota did theirs in speedos in the snow. Ball State did theirs underwater ending with swimmers lunging on bikes into the water. This is a big issue with big media today. People such as Gunther Sonnenfeld evangelize the freedom of content to be changed, retold, and shared as a good thing. But many brands are afraid of their intellectual property going off message even at the cost of more revenues and fans. So glad the owner of that famous Hitler video hasn’t felt the same. Oh and this is a boon for Harlem even if they don’t think so. When was the last time the country went nuts of something with the word Harlem in it?

Mayer Culpa

Gini on Culture: Howie and I are reading the same magazine this week! I know most of you are tired of hearing about Marissa Mayer’s mandate that all Yahoos show up for work in an office, beginning in June. But what I found most interesting about this The Economist story is not that, but the stats from Cisco and J.C. Penney for and against having people work remotely. Did you know a third of Penney employees spend their time watching YouTube videos instead of working? And they’re all in the “office.” It goes to show this isn’t about where you work, but about HR, operations, and your culture.

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A Wish For Mailbox and Dropbox

While on the subject of fantasy apps, Dropbox acquired iPhone email startup Mailbox today. At the moment, all this seems to ensure is that Mailbox will continue to have the resources and talent it needs to continue creating a world class email application.

While I’m tempted to rattle off my wish list for Mailbox, I find myself thinking bigger.

Take the storage capabilities of Dropbox and add in the fact that Mailbox already needs to pull your emails onto their servers. Then combine that with real talent and resources. While you’ll certainly get a better email application, this could also lead to a better email service.

What Mailbox is able to accomplish using the labels in Gmail is impressive, but limiting. A lot more becomes possible when you’re actually building a better inbox, rather than a better app on top of it. While it’s unlikely that this will come to be, it’s enjoyable to imagine what could emerge if both teams decided to push the limits and blend the benefits of their services. We just might find ourselves with a real alternative to Gmail…

Once again, it’s fun to dream.

Check out our Mike on Mics interview with Orchestra CEO Gentry Underwood from earlier in the year to learn more about Mailbox and their future plans for the app. Congrats to Gentry and the team at Orchestra, this acquisition is well deserved.