I love efficiency. I like a bit slack here and there too, but generally if I’m not making good use of my time, I feel not just guilty, but sick. What is “good use”, you ask? Contrary to what you may be thinking – working all the time, studying, being productive – good use simply means means I can justify the use of my time. Perhaps the return on investment is not phenomenal or non-existent altogether, but the gist is that I have to feel good about what I’m doing.
Sometimes I want to play video games, so I do. Other times I cook and wash dishes just to not sit at the computer. And then on weekends I go on trips or socialize. By no means am I 100% productive all the time, but the time I am, I make sure that I get as much done as possible. Below, I’d like to share with you some tips which have helped me be an effective, productive and stress-free human being. I hope they can help you too.
1. Organize your life.
I used to just “remember everything.” Whenever I was meant to hang out with someone, or I had a business meeting, or I had to buy milk at the grocery store, I would just remember to do it. With a small load of data I managed, but as I grew busier and added tasks to my plate, I began forgetting to do things. There were just too many things happening all at once, all in one day. I started using a task app on my smart phone to log things, eventually moved to Google Calendar, mixed that with Google Keep, and also kept some things in OneNote, in a special physical binder, and on a tack board. Things were pretty much all over the place.
Today, I pretty much leverage technology to do everything. I have a 100gb SkyDrive account which I use to store pictures, my personal projects, presentations/spreadsheets/documents and PDFs. My phone camera auto-backs up to SkyDrive, I always create new projects on the SkyDrive and Microsoft Office saves to SkyDrive by default. I don’t store any sensitive information in the cloud though… don’t quite trust it just yet!
Once Office Lens came to Android I immediately got it and I use it all the time now when I need to turn a physical diagram into a digital note. Theoretically I could have done this with OneNote and Google Keep in the past, but Office Lens is pretty much what got me into it. So now all my notes, any designs I draw or anything from a whiteboard I need ends up on my SkyDrive as well.
I mentioned Google Keep. I use it all the time. Anything that comes to mind, or something I see that I want to come back to later, phone comes out, text or photo gets added as a note. I also have it as a widget on my main phone desktop with stuff I need memorized on top so that every time I unlock my phone I see it. I used this recently to memorize a new debit card pin and a new license plate number, as well as a locker combination. Google Keep stores all the momentary stuff and stuff I may come back to later, and serves as a braindump for things I come up with while on the move.
Lastly, with Cortana out on PC now and hopefully soon on Android, I may switch to it full time to set up reminders. Right now I use Google Now, which is not bad, but it’s just not as personable. Cortana really is a personal assistant, though with a caveat (more on that in another post maybe). I can say “Hey Cortana remind me to buy milk tomorrow after work” and it knows when work ends and when to remind me. You have to set it up first with some defaults, but once that’s done, it’s actually an incredibly useful tool. You can tell it what kind of food you like, what stocks you’re tracking, what sports teams you care about or what cities you want to see weather in. It will automatically track packages (provided it can read your email) and flights and even automatically generate trip plans depending on your destinations (things to see, places to eat, etc).
Tip: leverage technology, use it to organize your life and use your brain for other more important tasks
2. Delegate Tasks
One of the key modern economic principles is division of labor. By Wikipedia’s definition it’s “… the specialization of cooperating individuals who perform specific tasks and roles.” On a large scale, this means that if United States is great at building airplanes and China is great at making t-shirts, then United States should focus on making airplanes and trading them with China for t-shirts. It’s a bit more complicated than that (and you should watch this video if you want to know more), but applied to a smaller scale like my personal life, it means that if I’m not good at something, I should let someone else do it and focus on what I’m good at instead.
You’ve definitely heard the phrase “time is money” before. As cliche as it sounds, it’s actually an extremely important concept which separates the great from the mediocre. “Time is money” plays well with the term return on investment (or ROI) which is a calculation everybody makes in their many times every day. For example, when you hire someone to remodel your bathroom, you’re paying them because you believe that the time you get to spend doing something else is worth more to you than the time you’d spend remodeling yourself. For instance you may have people come in to remodel during the weekday while you’re at work. You may be making more money than it’s costing you to get the remodeling done, though alternatively if you made less money than the cost of remodeling, you may consider doing it yourself as your ROI would be negative. “Buy time” while you spend your own time more efficiently.
Also, use aggregators whenever possible. I read The Verge, Polygon and listen to weekly podcasts to stay current. I also use FlipBoard both on PC and on my phone to have everything I care about in on place. FlipBoard aggregates aggregators. Super efficient.
Tip: Let others do what you’re not good at and if need be pay them for their time.
This is a quick one. There are times when you should be multitasking, and times when you shouldn’t.
For example, when you’re forced into idle time, do something:
- Standing in line? Use phone to read news, check e-mail.
- Driving? Listen to podcasts, news, practice presentations, speeches
- Commuting via public transit? Burn that phone/tablet battery on something productive.
- On the toilet? See standing in line above.
Here are some other combinations that aren’t necessarily idle time:
- Cooking/washing dishes? Watch something.
- Working out? Watch something or listen to something.
- On an airplane? Do some work, or sleep if you can pull it off. I can’t.
When it’s time to focus, do not multitask. Turn off distractions like toast messages, put your phone on priority-only mode. Close that Facebook tab. I also like to turn off my e-mail client and set my IM to DND. If someone really needs something from me that absolutely cannot wait, they can come to my office and get me. When I’m coding, I get in the zone for 30-45 minutes and become mega productive. Then I take a short 5 minute break, maybe get up and walk around if I’ve been sitting for a while, then sit down and get back to it. Letting your brain rest is important too.
Use tools like Pocket or Instapaper to save things you find online for later, when it’s idle time. See an interesting article? Pocket it. Have to go to the bathroom? Good thing you got something to read now, eh?
Tip: Multitask when it makes sense. Max focus when in productivity mode. Turn off distractions.
4. Set up your environment for success
This is immensely important, and can make a huge impact on productivity. Imagine you’re editing some photos you took at a wedding and want to post them to Facebook. What’s better for this task – a 13″ laptop or a 27″ powerhouse PC? For programmers and visual designers, work space is immensely important, because it increases their productivity by order of magnitudes. Can you imagine writing an application, debugging and previewing with 1 monitor? You’d have to constantly switch between windows which wastes an incredible amount of brain power as you have to constantly find your place. Two monitors improves productivity, and three is simply legendary. Any more is probably overkill unless you’re watching the stock market or something. I only ever needed 3 as a programmer.
A solid work environment is also important in other professions. A spacious kitchen allows chefs to utilize more space to prepare ingredients for meals without having to worry about cleaning up previously used spaces so as to not hose the taste they’re aiming for with residue. Car mechanics carry tools on them so that when they’re under a car, they have easy access to everything they need. I could probably come up with some other examples, but let’s move on.
Tip: Invest in your workspace. Make it as effective as can be, but also inviting and pleasant to improve motivation.
5. Optimize small things you probably don’t think about
This example is a bit eccentric, so your mileage may vary. I recently saw this speech by Mark Zuckerberg (which I recommend you watch in its entirety if you’re an entrepreneur, here’s another good one) where he said that he wears the same t-shirt every day, because then he doesn’t have to think about what to wear, thus sparing brain cycles and saving time. He has multiple “same shirts”. Additionally he generally eats the same thing for breakfast. You’re thinking “that’s a bit extreme.” I think so too, but when you think about it, saving seconds on small things like that throughout the day adds up to minutes which adds up to hours which could then be spent on doing something else.
Some other small things you can optimize that aren’t as eccentric is using Waze on your phone to find the fastest route home so you’re spending less time in traffic. Perhaps you can come into work after rush hour and leave after rush hour (or before). Go to the store on the way back home. Use the dishwasher.
Tip: Find small ways to save time in your life. This adds up very quickly. You will find that you suddenly have a lot of time to be more productive, and remember, time is money, so…
6. Multipurpose everything
You just bought a TV. Maybe you have a Playstation or an Xbox. So now your TV can play games, and you can watch shows and movies. Hell, if you have a Kinect or a Wii you can lose weight too! That’s a very basic example of multipurpose application.
Another example; you like playing piano. You’re really good at it. Set up a YouTube channel and record yourself. Maybe you’re good at singing? Put yourself on YouTube. Isn’t that how Bieber started out?
Yet another example, this time more professional: You’re learning something new at work. Blog about it. This benefits not just others who read your blog, but yourself. You can come back later and review your post, see how you solved this issue, and maybe get inspired on another issue you’re working on. Additionally employers will look you up and find your blog. There, they will see that you actually know what you’re claiming to know. This is powerful, career boosting stuff.
Tip: Build something once, use it for multiple purposes. This can be very powerful when done correctly so spend time thinking about how it can be applied to your own life.
7. Plan ahead
Learn to analyze important choices in your life and anticipating potential pitfalls. Choose only after careful analysis.
This advice is common sense, or should be, but to many people it isn’t. The first example that comes to mind is having children without sound financial footing. Another is not building credit, which hoses your rating and thus spikes your interest rates. Yet another is not investing in retirement (though this one may be pretty difficult for a large chunk of population).
Apparently I could only come up with money-related examples. Nevertheless you can see why these are important. Especially investing, which nobody teaches you about in school. You should be investing the moment you have your first job flipping burgers, but most people don’t. Did you know that if at the age of 20 you invested $1000 and then until the age of 65 invested only $1000 a year, you would at 65 have over $300,000? This doesn’t account for inflation either (though there’s very little inflation at this time). Read about compound interest, and use this calculator.
Tip: Planning ahead is extremely important. Use common sense, and use tools to help you with planning.
8. Start easy, go big
Don’t start on the hardest problem in the queue. By starting small, with things that are easy, maybe things you already know how to do, you can get a running start so that when you finally hit that wall, at least you have a chance to bust through! That’s sort of a terrible analogy… I’m seeing this crash test dummy fly through the windshield of a Civic in my head.
Someone gave me this advice a while ago. It’s golden. I apply this to everything I do and I’ve had great success both at work, at home. Recently I started to learn to cook various things and whenever I start a new recipe, I begin with things I already know just to get running. Once I have the veggies steaming and the rice cooking, I can’t just quit cooking. I gotta continue making the protein! At work, I generally start with the front-end and the app architecture which I’m familiar and comfortable with, and then later dive into the problems I’m hazy on. At this point I already have code in place that does stuff, code I can be proud of, so tackling design or functional problems is simply a matter of typing the right query into Google and praying someone already had this problem on StackOverflow. I joke, I joke. Or do I?
Developers spend most of their time applying other people’s solutions to their own problems.
Tip: Don’t try to do everything all at once. Start small, smart with things you know, then go from there.
I’m sure there’s something I’ve missed, but this is already probably the longest blog post I’ve ever written. I’m really passionate about this so feel free to leave a comment and ask questions about anything I’ve written here. I have a feeling as I grow my own career, I will post more advice here. :-)