Keeping Track Of The World

Research Methods for Regular People

Archive for the category “Productivity”

You have missed World Backup Day

As March 31st was World Backup Day (who decides these things?) I thought that now was as good a time as any to talk about backups. Computers, hard drives and other storage media can and do fail. Thus, it is essential that you have a viable backup plan. Here are some recommendations:
1. Set up an automated backup system with an external hard drive or other storage device (both Windows and Mac come with rudimentary backup programs that will do the job)
2. Ideally you will use multiple hard drives and rotate between them so you do not have a single point of failure. Keep one of those hard drives in a different physical location than your main backup. In my case I keep one hard drive at home and one at the office.
3. Keep both incremental backups (which allow you to return to multiple previous versions) and a clone of your hard drive (which allows you to return to work very quickly).
4. I also use cloud based storage for crucial files. I use Dropbox but there are many different options out there. If you would like to try Dropbox you can sign up and get a small amount of space for free with the use of this link. You will get a small amount of extra space when you sign up. FULL DISCLOSURE: I will also get extra space if you use this link so you may want to consider asking for a referral link from family and friends.

Use which ever system works for you, but for your own sake, please don’t rely on a single copy of your data. Backup. Backup. Backup.

Time Management

Given how long it has been since I have posted anything I thought I should talk about time management strategies.

Very few of us are sitting around looking out the window. Nor are we spending most of our time in casual conversation and reading good books. Most of us are busy. Timothy Ferriss’ oft quoted “Being busy is a form of laziness . . .” is an overstatement but it does have a seed of truth. Busy is not necessarily a bad thing but many of us find constant busyness stressful and wonder if we are accomplishing what is really important.

I was thinking about this recently as I observed my in-laws prepare for their daughter’s wedding. We arrived at their country property the day before the wedding. There was much to done and nobody appeared to be in charge. However, nobody appeared to be anxious about it. My brother-in-law was methodically fixing the oven that would be used to cook some of the food for the next day. My sister-in-law was making much of the food. And the chairs for the wedding sat quietly in a truck. People came and went over the day and everything got done. The day of the wedding was much the same. Ten minutes before the ceremony neither the mother nor the father of the bride were dressed for the ceremony. At the reception there was nobody organized to set out the food, direct people where to go or clean up afterwards. Everything got done and nobody appeared to be worried about what had been left unplanned.

What was going on here? I don’t want to advocate a lack of advance planning or preparation and there were some missing pieces to the planning (e.g., no drinks). However, on the whole I think my in-laws had their priorities right. They spent time with family, with friends and with each other. They concentrated on ongoing relationships between people not the accomplishment of short-term tasks. They came out the other end of the wedding neither stressed nor in debt. I don’t want to push this analogy any further but I think an emphasis on identifying and concentrating on core priorities is the key factor in time management.

Some elements of a core priority approach to time management include knowing what those priorities are, scheduling them, developing a trusted system to track everything you need to do, finding efficient ways to accomplish the necessary small goals of life (e.g., email), and making sure that you do things you enjoy.

Me? I prioritize contact with students and one-on-one relationships over mass online communication. Thus, this blog has been a bit ignored. I hope to do better in the future.

Links to resources I have found helpful in this journey:

Be More Productive
David Allan’s Getting Things Done
Keeping Focus
Time Management Reminders that Boost Efficiency, Peace of Mind

World Backup Day

As March 31st is World Backup Day (who decides these things?) it is time for my annual post about backups.

Computers, hard drives and other storage media can and do fail. It is more a question of when they will fail than if they will fail. Thus, it is essential that you have a viable backup plan.

Here are some recommendations:

  1. Set up an automated backup system with an external hard drive or other storage device (both Windows and Mac come with rudimentary backup programs that will do the job)
  1. Ideally you will use multiple hard drives and rotate between them so you do not have a single point of failure. Keep one of those hard drives in a different physical location than your main backup. In my case I keep one hard drive at home and one at the office.
  2. Keep both incremental backups (which allow you to return to multiple previous versions) and a clone of your hard drive (which allows you to return to work very quickly).
  3. I also use cloud based storage for crucial files. I use Dropbox but there are many different options out there. I also use box and iCloud but have found Dropbox to be the most seamless and robust of the solutions. If you would like to try Dropbox you can sign up and get a small amount of space for FREE with the use of this link. FULL DISCLOSURE: I will also get extra space if you use this link so you may want to consider asking for a referral link from family and friends.
  4. The World Backup Day site has a variety of deals on software and hardware for your backup needs.

Use which ever system works for you, but for your own sake, please don’t rely on a single copy of your data. Backup. Backup. Backup.

Improving your Internal Clock

If you do not have a good sense of how long it takes to accomplish your work you will soon be frustrated by either not having enough time to get things done or having more time than you need without the resources to move on to other tasks.

For this reason in is important to develop one’s sense of time. I accomplish this in a number of different ways:

  • I Track the time I spend working. This gives me a general sense of how much time I spend on my regular tasks. Using a time tracker I discovered how little of my day was actually on task and what I spend my time on.
  • I set a specific time period to work on one task. The evidence is that we don’t multitask very well. Focusing on one task at a time concentrates our energy and often leads to greater productivity. One system that aims to help you with this is the Pomodoro Technique.
  • I turn off my email. As soon as a message flashes across my screen my first urge is to answer it. Even if I choose not to, my focus has been broken and I need to spend time returning my attention to what I was working on. There are times when you need to be instantly accessible but most of the time an email can wait an hour or two before you answer it. It is hard to estimate how long a task takes if you are constantly being interrupted.

This ideas are only scratching the surface. For much more information I recommended taking a look at How to Hone the Accuracy of Your Internal Clock and Better Understand Your Time on Lifehacker.

Keeping Focus

I follow a number of blogs whose objective is to help people become more productive in their work. Despite its strange name and rather unattractive website I have found that Dumb Little Man: Tips for Life consistently has useful articles that provide quick tips for becoming more effective in work and in life.

Most recently a post on 5 Steps to Laser-Sharp Focus caught my attention because I have been struggling with distraction lately. Check it out and let me know in the comments any suggestions you have for improving focus.

Getting Things Done

There are many different ways of organizing one’s life so you actually accomplish something. The method that has worked best for me is David Allen’s Getting Things Done system. It is only one of many options but if you don’t have a current system it is worth a look.

On his website Allen sells all manner  of paraphernalia to help people learn and implement his system but if you can discipline yourself to read a short book I recommend you just read his first book: Getting Things Done.

Allen also produces a blog that provides helpful tips on how to work his system. Here is the latest edition: Productive Living.

Do you have another system that works for you or experiences with Getting Things Done? Let me know in the comments.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

Anyone that does any kind of writing encounters writer’s block at one time or another. This could be because you are overwhelmed with information, because the project is unfamiliar, because your passion for writing does not match your passion for what you are writing about or any number of other issues.

Here is a list of a few strategies for addressing this problem from my own experience and from what I have observed in others:

  1. Start Writing. Just write down anything. It does not have to be coherent at this stage. Write down titles of books that come to mind, book or journal passages that seem relevant (cited carefully), snippets of ideas, bits of conversations—anything at all that is in some way related to the topic at hand.
  2. Ignore the Rules. There is a time for editing but when you are first writing concentrate on getting things down. Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, flow or bad ideas. Just write.
  3. Start in the middle. There is no rule that you have to write in the order that you intend the document to be read. If you are feeling passionate about outcomes today write about outcomes. If you are excited about a particular source write about that.
  4. Simplify. It is hard to keep all the elements of a large project in our heads at the same time. Break the project into smaller pieces that you can easily conceptualize. NOTE: sometimes the problem is that the project itself is too big or too complicated. A conversation with a trusted advisor can help you figure out if that is the case and what to do about it.
  5. Talk about it. Some people are verbal thinkers. They cant figure out what they think without talking. Buy somebody a nice drink in return for using them as a sounding board.
  6. Take a long time. It is very hard to write something long on 15 minutes a day. Try to find blocks of at least a couple of hours to work on your writing. If possible set aside an entire day or several days.
  7. Be disciplined. Having a regular, protected time for writing helps to develop writing into a habit. If you expect to be interrupted at any time it is hard to concentrate on what you are writing.
  8. Read more. Find something to read and read it to get ideas percolating in your head. React to other‘s ideas. Let your mind wander to your own project as you read. NOTE: carefully record what you are reading and make sure you cite any ideas that find their way into your own work.
  9. Take care of yourself. It is hard to write if you are exhausted, sick, or depressed. Take time to sleep, recover and get the help you need.
  10. Exercise. Exercise is just as good for the brain as it is for the body. Exercise can clear brain fog, promote the production of ideas, and promotes restful sleep among many other benefits.
  11. Be Prepared. Ideas come at strange times. Keep a notepad within arms reach at all times. A phone, tablet or computer will also do.
  12. Diagram. Put your individual ideas in boxes and draw lines showing how they are connected. Here is an example from one of my papers:

wpid-clarifyingmythesis-2012-11-16-17-15.jpg
This is not an exhaustive list—a quick Google search will find much more (here is a fun article on the topic from science and science fiction blog io9). However, it should be enough to get you writing again.

Getting Motivated

We all struggle with motivation once in a while. One of the blogs I follow, Lifehacker, just posted some helpful hints. There is a fair bit of dross on Lifehacker but I find something useful a couple times a week. Todays post contains a helpful list of ways to give yourself a boost in motivation:

How to Give Yourself a Quick Motivational Boost

I have tried most of these suggestions and found them helpful.

What helps with your motivation?

No, You Can’t Multitask

We all want to get more things done. The temptation is to try to do multiple things at once. Unfortunately, research doesn’t work like that. Data analysis and communication requires intense, sustained and focused attention.

Here is an article that provides the evidence that you can’t multitask:

Students Think They Can Multitask. Here’s Proof They Can’t | Faculty Focus

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