Tag Archives: Productivity

Four Items to Exclude from Your Work Emails

Fast Company has a good article detailing four items to exclude from your work emails. This is work focused, but the idea behind excluding these is relevant to personal emails as well.

These are good rules of thumb. This is largely about retaining your humanity in the bustle of work life. We need to see the people we’re communicating with as individuals, not communications endpoints. This is sometimes important individually, always important in the aggregate.

I sometimes send or respond to 50+ emails a day as tech lead of a ~15 person agile team, with a number of core members and an equal number of temporary staff, with all the logistical and technical setup, expectations setting, and insecurity that goes with that. It’s more than a handful, and the only way to keep the team productive and keep everyone engaged and reasonably happy with their work is to treat them individually as human beings, not just collectively as a team.

For a long time, I had a sticky note on one of my monitors reminding me to “Slow Down. Be Kind.” I brought the note home during an office move. I need to put the original back up at work and make a copy for home. I’m often better at following the note at work than home and I need to fix that.

Source: 4 Types Of Useless Phrases You Need To Eliminate From Your Emails

Do the most unpleasant tasks first

Start your day by doing the most unpleasant tasks first.


Most of us have a task or two on that we really don’t want to do, and we procrastinate by doing other, less difficult or unpleasant tasks, often reasoning that we need to do those first. This goes for work and non-work life. The scientific literature on self-control suggests that willpower, our ability to make ourselves do things, is a very limited resource, and is at its peak early in our day. Given that, it’s best to do the most unpleasant tasks first and move from those to progressively more pleasant tasks as the day goes on. This approach will maximize our productivity.


The Research We’ve Ignored About Happiness at Work

shovel to dig on the farm

This is a good read, with plenty of sources for further exploration. I think the very term happiness invites failure. We can’t reliably pursue something so poorly defined, and so dependent on the individual and her environment.

Most of us understand we cannot pursue joy, that transient gift we experience as a sort of gift from the cosmos. Why do we pursue something as grand and insubstantial as happiness, when we can approach more measurable phenomena, productivity for example, and the many aspects of productivity that can be independently measured to some degree?

Do we want people to be happy? Sure we do, despite our inability to define what that means. But we have a lot of evidence for what helps people want to come to work, across personality and other categories. People want to feel challenged, to feel that their efforts matter in the pursuit of some worthy goal, and to feel they’re a respected part of a team. These are fairly well defined and universal aspects of work that good companies can and do pursue.

What People Are Really Doing When They’re on a Conference Call

I try to avoid formal meetings and telecons whenever practical. I’m not sure which is worst for productivity. I prefer conference calls because I tend to think pretty fast about familiar ideas and a telecon allows me to work on something while I’m waiting for someone on the phone to say something that matters to me.

Here’s an HBR post on what people tend to do when they’re on conference calls.

Using a “Done List” Instead of a ToDo List

I submit a weekly report of my major activities each week and this report serves both to show what I’ve accomplished and the status of pending and other unfinished activities. It’s a combination ToDo and Done List.

I’ve played with dozens of ToDo list apps over the years and none have fully satisfied me. The problem isn’t the ToDo list app, but the fact that I am overly busy. I live in a perpetual state of having more work than I can reasonably do in the time available. This is most true at work but (partly because I work too much) is also true at home to some extent. Thus, any ToDo list I create is almost always growing, because I think up new tasks or have tasks added (due to my role as father and man of the house) faster than I can hope to work them. This tends to be stressful and de-motivating, as you can imagine.

I think a Done List is a potential solution to this situation. Of course I’ll continue to write down all the tasks that I’m assigned (and that I create and assign myself), but the Done List will serve each day to remind me what I’ve accomplished.

Here’s an excellent article on the Done List. Here’s a short LifeHacker post on this technique.

The second link above also mentions an alternative technique that involves creating a small list of tasks to focus on each day. My work involves supporting a larger team with technical and other assistance as well as my own tasks and I’m a Go-To guy at work, so this would likely be frustrating for me, but it’s worth a try for those of you who have more time to focus during your work day.

Diagrams are our friends

Simple Flowchart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowchart

Simple Flowchart: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowchart

The linked article is not a particularly strong one, but I agree with the basic premise that making diagrams can be a fantastic way to communicate your ideas. Also, it got me thinking of how I use diagrams at work and home.

I deal a lot with complex systems, most of which don’t exist when I’m dealing with them because I’m helping someone design them, translating their system requirements into sets of software (and often hardware) components that will not only fulfill their requirements but function as an optimal system to fulfill their mission goals. Those of you who’ve worked with customers designing systems, especially complex and expensive ones, know that considering only written requirements is a recipe for a very suboptimal system and often a disaster. IBM is now infamous for this practice. See http://www.cringely.com/2013/08/07/fulfilling-customer-requirements-is-a-weapon-at-ibm/ for high level details.

Many humans can only grasp complex relationships (i.e. systems) when they’re presented in a visual format. Even for those of us capable of wading through a huge mass of documents and discerning the purpose and critical requirements of a system, it’s usually very helpful to create diagrams of what we think the system’s properties are, so we can communicate this to both colleagues and the customers, to be reasonably sure that we all end up agreeing on the same architecture.

A mistake in understanding here can be costly in time, money, and reputation, since it’s often easier for a customer to blame the engineers than accept responsibility for a mistake. It’s just human nature to point fingers when something big goes wrong.

Okay, I really just wanted to say here that it’s worth the time to draw a diagram, structural, flowchart, whatever is appropriate, to help you understand and follow through on tasks, especially if you need to coordinate with others on a project. I often put off making architectural diagrams because it’s a pain in the ass, with Visio at least (thanks Microsoft), but I never regret putting in the time to create a diagram once it’s done.

There are advantages to creating diagrams even apart from communicating with others. Creating a clear representation of an idea or set of related structures (i.e. the diagram) forces you to clarify and often refine or substantially change your proposed architecture as you see things that sounded good in your mind but on “paper” are obviously suboptimal or unworkable.

Finally, you’re already using diagrams. A task or shopping list is a simple diagram, as is an itinerary or schedule. These tend to more text based than visual, but as you’ve probably experienced, even these simple diagrams can increase your understanding when you add order, time, and spatial (e.g. a map) relations to them.

I hope this was helpful. I started out to write a much simpler article but a lot of new thoughts jumped out and demanded to be included.

Windows Clipboard Enhancement Tools

This is a fairly comprehensive article on the available Windows Clipboard enhancement tools. I use Ditto because it’s open source and has lots of functionality, but it’s not the best looking one by far.

Microsoft should include a much better clipboard that they do, but since they don’t. there’s no reason for you not to benefit from one of these third party tools. There should be something here for everyone.