Procrastinating to Get Things Done

Ironically, I’m writing a blog post about getting things done, yet my blog has languished in purgatory since early summer. If it wasn’t for the three dozen or more daily spam comments crashing my database and clogging my inbox, I’d probably still be thinking, “man, I really should start blogging again…”. I do have a new design working in my head, so perhaps writing new content is a subliminal way of moving the design from within my head onto the screen.

So not only in my personal web space is getting things done a struggle, like a lot of web workers, I endeavor to be better organized and consistently productive. Lately, I’ve been working on a concept that I’ve been calling (in my head) procrastinating to get things done. Today, Merlin Mann posted a video touching on attention and creativity, which helped me solidify some of the core tenets of my theory.

When I first started working from home, I started collecting RSS feeds for my reader. Aside from ones that were obviously informational in nature, like the National Hurricane Center, most everything else I thought was vital to being a modern web worker. 43 folders was one, along with several dozen other “Getting Things Done™”/productivity sites. I hung on every list. Likewise, I subscribed to every buzz word worthy site that was announcing the next great startup. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these sites taken at face value, but my problem was that I hung on their every post, telling myself that I needed to read these sites, as soon as they published. That somehow by being up on who had posted the latest Moleskine hack, or which Google Map mashup was freshly released (along with signing up for the ubiquitous beta account!) , I was going to be a realweb worker. That these things some how validated me, made me cool. Truth was, I had no idea what the hell I was doing jumping into this profession, other than I was completely burned out by cooking, and needed a new home.

It has taken me a long time to shed all of these sites (some more than others), and accept who I am and where I fit into the web’s ecosystem. It has also taken a fair dose of following Merlin around the web hammering the mantra, “make shit.” OR maybe I paraphrased that, but isn’t that the essence of the message? Or is it “make great shit”? Anyway, I no longer try to validate myself by knowing who’s who and doing what. I’ve moved beyond the guy lying on the couch watching the golf tournament, and am out there hitting balls, playing rounds of golf. I’ve relegated to the fact I’m not going to be Tiger Woods, but I’m damn sure going to be club champ, or get on the Nationwide Tour, or, yeah, enough metaphors.

Too belabor the metaphor, sure, I’m not lying on the couch anymore, but when I go to the range, I’m don’t always wind up hitting all the balls in the bucket, or it might take all day, I still allow myself to find timesinks. Twitter is one that comes to mind. Just as I had begun to cure myself of the feed reader ailment, Twitter came along, and I suffered a similar ailment. I’ve since pruned my follow list, however it’s still easy to get caught in just monitoring Nambu,waiting for the next 140 character nugget of wisdom.

Which brings me to the point of this post, and my latest theory. Allow myself to procrastinate for a period of time. (For the two people who’ve read this far, you’re starting to wonder how you’ve made it, huh?) My thinking is that if I just let go and allow myself to go read TechCrunch, or spend a half hour reading tweets and following links, then I’ll run out of potential distractions and be able to really focus for a block of time. As simple and obvious as it may sound, for me, excepting this has really worked. I’m no longer trying to steal time to check anything when it’s time to get down to what ever it is I need to do that day. I also don’t try to schedule my procrastination time. I’ve read of people who try to do “rewards”, or work 45 minutes, do what ever for 15. That concept doesn’t work for me. When I want to just read and click sites and links, I don’t want to be under a timer. I also do always have the right mindset to do it. For me, I allow it to happen fairly naturally. If I wake up and sit down at the desk, but don’t feel like starting to code out that design, as long as it’s not due that afternoon, and maybe even if so, I’ll allow myself to read through all my feeds, and open any of the really interesting ones into tabs on the browser. By the time I’m done skimming through, I often find myself excited about something I’ve seen, and will actually want to get down to marking up a design. The next lull, rather than force may way through , I might then read the really interesting posts from the morning skim that are now in tabs, which again, chances are I’m inspired to take things to the next level.

What all of this means to me at the end of the day when I get up from my desk is that I’ve made some shit without feeling like I’ve had to chain myself to the desk. Much as I used to love working in the kitchen, and it was nothing to work 16 hours a day without it feeling like work.

My procrastination isn’t simply relegated to things I can do at my desk either. Depending on the week, I may tell myself that I can go fishing one morning, or leave early during the afternoon to go, without guilt. I’ve also recently forayed back into keep a fresh water fish aquarium. I may take a long lunch and drive to the local fish store to grab a piece of equipment and just browse the fish and plants. When I come back, since I had given myself permission to go, I’m not wrought with guilt, which just induces stress, which in turn leads to lack of productivity. Rather, I’m fresh and chomping at the bit to tackle the next task.10gal 10-17-09

As I’ve gotten further along in my experiment, I’m finding that I can actually stay focused for longer periods of time to deal with tasks that used to prompt spontaneous anxiety attacks which used to result in complete meltdowns.

Merlin’s video touches on these down times, and explains them as necessary distractions for the creative worker. They allow to be mentally occupied just enough, but not so much as to prevent some higher thinking to go on, which can very well be a bigger part of the process of thinking about the stuff you are going to make.

And indeed, if I were to classify writing a post that probably no one is going to read, but is something I wanted to do, it could be seen a positive form of procrastination as it free me up to start updating the code on the site, and wireframing the new design stuck in my head.

Late to the Party—My 99 Dollar iPhone

Though the fact that most who know me consider me to be a “Mac fan boy”, over the years I’ve become quite the hesitant buyer due to the common malady of being always afraid of a new and better version being right around the corner. Add to that my disdain for the requirement of signing a long term contract with cell phone carriers, I have been living with antiquated mobile technology. That is, until AT&T offered $99 refurbished 8 gig 3G iPhones in a post Christmas promotion (the offer was only good through 12/31/08). I figured at that price, no matter what might come around the corner, I wouldn’t feel bitten if a new model came out 3 months after buying. Couple that with the fact that the non-contract plan I had with AT&T was creeping up close to the lowest iPhone plan, I took the plunge. The phone arrived already set up, much to my surprise. I didn’t have to go through any registration to speak of, I plugged it in, named it, updated the software, and it was ready to go. The phone came with the standard headphones, the USB connector, the wall charger attachment, and I would have never known it was a refurbished item aesthetically. The refurbished phone even has the same 1 year warranty that a new iPhone comes with. I haven’t checked on extending the warranty with Apple Care; I’m not even sure if it’s an option.

Primary Hurdle

hurdleAs I’ve blogged about recently, , I have been using Thunderbird 3.0 and the nightly build of Lightning calendar extension, and didn’t want to change that system. The same issues that I had with the Nokia are present with the iPhone. However, goosync wasn’t an option for the iPhone. Something to do with Apple not allowing access to the built in calendar. Some extensive Googling didn’t turn up many options, save using NuevaSync, yet another 3rd party “beta” service. Some of the initial concerns people had with NuevaSync were sharing their Google username and password, however that’s long since been remedied, as they use Google account authentication. Meaning, once you register with Nuevasync, you only provide your Google user name, and Google will authenticate your account with the Nuevasync account, no password is ever passed to Nuevasync. The only downside is if you are already using an Exchange account (for email for instance), you will not be able to also use Nuevasync, as the iPhone only supports one Exchange server synchronization. Set up for Nuevasync is well documented on their site, straight forward and very simple. I did have a bit of trouble actually getting the iPhone calendar to sync with my Google calendar, and quite honestly, I’m not sure what I did to finally get it to sync. Disabling, then re-enabling the account might have been the trick, but as I’ve been suffering a cold, it could have been user error, however, within their documentation, they have several troubleshooting tips and nothing I did was outside their suggestions.. Needless to say, my iPhone calendar is synced to my Google Apps calendar, desktop iCal, and Thunderbird 3.0/Lighting 1.0pre. Unlike with goosync and my Nokia, there is no need to manually sync the calendars. Nuevsnyc also supports sync contacts within your Google account, but I have no need to use that service, as I also believe iSync supports Google contact syncing (something I’ve kvetched about previously in that you have to have an iPhone/iPod to enable that feature).

Moving from calendar, next was email. I had previously used Apple with my Google Apps IMAP accounts, so they synced directly to the phone on first sync. I did need to modify some advanced settings regarding mailboxes for things like drafts and sent mail, but that’s common when setting up IMAP accounts and email clients. Google has well documented the settings, so I won’t rehash the obvious. Previously I was using Google’s mobile mail app on the Nokia, and was a bit hesitant about using the native mail client, but so far I’ve been quite pleased with it, and have no qualms.

Syncing my contacts, along with email addresses in my Google Apps account was also a seamless process. It also the catalyst I needed to do a much needed cleaning of my address book. I’ve been a user of the (neglected) Google service Grand Central for some time now, and though it’s a handy one, it’s support for mobile devices leaves more than something to be desired. My only attempt to play a voice message via their mobile site failed to play the .mp3, and from previous use on the Nokia, is all but useless. However, I found a handy iPhone app, Grand Dialer, which allows you to call a contact directly from your address book with your Grand Central number, so for the occasion you need to call a client and do not want to expose your personal cell number, you’re covered. (Google, if you are listening, please, no, make that pretty please give Grand Central some love, even if that means a nominal monthly fee).

LIke any new iPhone user, I spent a fair amount of time perusing the App Store. Again, I won’t rehash the obvious and common popular apps. I didn’t really test any of the alternatives to the mobile versions of the desktop apps I knew I wanted. As I use NetNewsWire on the desktop, it was an obvious choice for the iPhone. My unread feeds are synced with my desktop, so I’m never reading feeds I’ve already read. Also, for Twitter, I simply chose the ad supported version of Twitterific, same as on the desktop.

The Camera

I’d become accustomed to being one of the few people left on the planet to not have a camera on their cell phone, and didn’t think it would be something I’d take much interest in now that I did, but I did explore some of the apps available. Merlin Mann blogged abouttaking pictures with his iphoneright about the time I ordered my phone, so I booked marked the app he mentioned, Camera Bag. It was actually the first app I purchased. My next search for was for an app that would allow me to upload my camera shots to Flickr. Flickr does have the native ability to email photos directly, however the combination of the email client and Flickr (not sure which does it), the images are resized to 640×480. Granted if you get a really good shot and want to post the bigger one, you’ve got the image on the camera, could snyc it to iPhoto, and then upload it, but if an app could save that step, why not give it a shot? So far, the free Klick app seems to fit the bill. Due to the aforementioned cold, I’ve not really explored the Klick too extensively, but I was able to upload a full size image via the 3G network with no problems, though I haven’t figured out if I can add an image to a set via the app. The other app I’ve download is Dark Room (App Store link). This app uses the accelerometer for a “steady cam”. Basically it waits until the camera isn’t moving to snap the pic, which is handy for low light situations. A case I’m curious about is the Griffin Clarifi, which has a built in macro like lens for taking close up shots. Apparently the iPhone lens doesn’t do well at focusing below twelve inches. This would be handy as the technology and apps evolve on snapping UPC codes and doing info/price comparison queries. Also for going paperless, and just snapping business cards, receipts, etc.

The Final Frontier

Like most people, I struggle with being organized and actually productive, and often fall into the trap of perpetually tweaking a system, rather than actually getting things done. I’ve yet to find the right piece of software that just fits, seemingly having tried them all, Actiontastic, Omni Focus, Things, the list goes on. However, I’m leaning towards Remember the Milk, and am testing a combination of using to run RTM on the desktop, and the iPhone app. I’m not sold yet. One iPhone app I found is CheckOff, a relatively simple list app. What is nice about it is something I’ve not really seen in another list type app. You can create templates for often repeated tasks. So each time you want the list, you do not have to recreate it. I’d actually love to have a desktop app that does the same thing. I’m still searching for the set of tools that fit like that favorite pair of jeans, and would sincerely love for any and all suggestions. I’d even entertain scrapping my use of Thunderbird and Lightning if the shoe fit.

Twitter Productivity

Twitter Productivity. Sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? Well, with the recent announcement of i want sandy’s demise, I came across a Twitter bot that actually seems like a productive tool for the Twitterer. Timer allows you to simply follow it, in which it then follows you. Then you simply send Timer a direct message to remind you of something upcoming, ie, d Timer 60 call client X. You’ll then get a direct message 60 minutes later reminding you to call client X. Seems it only recognizes minutes, so I’m not sure how efficient it is for reminding you of something past the short term, but it’s still an interesting tool. Couple the concept with the fact that the developers of i want sandy are now working for Twitter, we might see similar type tools integrated into Twitter.

Managing Projects

Much has been written the last few years about project management, GTD (getting things done) and productivity on the web, I personally subscribe to probably a dozen feeds that are specifically geared towards the subject, and have tried probably every conceivable idea, all to little success.

For my paying work, I work with a company that exclusively uses Basecamp, and have come to be quite familiar with the system, but can’t rationalize paying for the service for my own needs. I do have a backpack account, but never quite have gotten a system in place there to do basic project management. Now that I have 2 themes released for Habari, and several other small projects I’m working on, mulling over, I went looking last night for something that resembles Basecamp, but was under my own control, and if I ever wanted to collaborate with someone, could easily add them in. I then remembered, Active Collab, an open-source clone of Basecamp. (Active Collab is now closed source, and a commercial product. Their old, .7.1 release is still available for download. If you want an interesting read about how open source goes bad, read the blog post and comments regarding the new structure.)

Realizing it was now commercial, and priced completely towards businesses, I read through some comments and saw reference to Project Pier, a fork of Active Collab. A new .8 release fixing some bugs and adding a few features to the .7.1 release of AC was out, so I snagged a copy and installed locally. Very easy to install (assuming you meet the server requirements), and after a quick read of how to change the god awful default theme, I was up and running, in a familiar PM environment. I set up projects for my two themes, added some milestones, todo lists, poked around and decided that though I’m the only one using it, I could easily use the messages for personal notes. And if I ever decide to put it on my own domain for others to collaborate with, I can easily migrate the database, and keep my current work intact. It also seems powerful enough that a small design house or programming team could use it for real projects, as it supports file uploads and RSS feed for recent activity. I haven’t explored email notification, however I believe it handles that ala Basecamp as well. (Like Basecamp, I don’t think you can reply to a message via email however)

All in all, a very useful tool, and I’d like to applaud the team behind Project Pier for picking up and forking in light of the changes in the development of Active Collab. I’ll be keeping an eye on it’s progress, and am looking for good things to come.

Tracking Time Spent on Email

So I work with a company that uses BaseCamp, which is great. Each project is easily separated, has it’s own todos, writeboards, etc. But as someone who works with all of the projects, I get cc’ed on every message posted. Some require my attention immediately, some will require me to be familiar with the project at some point. I’ve never been able to manage my time recording for this internal activity, and I know I’ve lost a few dollars because of this. SO today, I’m testing out a new system. I’ve set my mail app (Apple Mail), to only check mail once an hour. I then set up a mailbox just for these emails, got a timer on the dashboard, that can be started and stopped, and will start the timer, read the emails, follow up on BaseCamp on any immediate issues, pause the timer, and wash, rinse, repeat the rest of the business day. At some point I’m going to have to decide that this company has business hours, (I work from home), and not read anymore messages until the next morning, where I can track the time. I figure after a week or so, I’ll have a pretty good idea of how much time I’m spending on this, and might actually be more productive, as I’m not constantly logging into BaseCamp to see what new has been posted, and reading messages that have already been sent to my inbox. I also hope that after a week or two, it will be a habit, and I’ll have a pretty good average of the time spent, so I can simply log those hours either weekly based on the experiment.

I read a ton of productivity blogs, (which can be counter-productive, go figure), and it seems little issues like this always trip people up. I know that the GTD ethos is if you can do it in under 2 minutes, then do it, but that’s assuming you’re not getting 10 messages an hour, each with their own 2 minutes.

Hopefully in a week or two I can report back on how the little experiment went.

edit:Funny one of those blogs I mentioned has a little post about email and procrastination, certainly appropriate.

Speaking of BaseCamp and GTD…

My previous post mentions BaseCamp and GTD, what I’d really, really, (no, really) like is a way to export my todo’s from BaseCamp. Most specifically, to the new Omni Focus, or even better, iCal, which then could be exported to some other format, be it Google Calendar, which supports Remember the Milk, or, as I mentioned, Omni Focus. (Which reminds me, I haven’t been using it as much as I’d like, due to the the subject of this post). Perhaps if my new system works out, I can use the quick add from to OF as part of the system…hmm, might just work.

More About Email

So quickly I’ve discovered (or been reminded), that using a rule to move right out of the Inbox removes the notice in the dock. Not a big deal, but if I’m away from the computer when the hour is up, I might not see that I have new work email, so I’ve employed Mail Badger, so that I can create a custom icon notice in the Mail icon in the dock just for that work’s email. So far so good though with the system.

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I just got my invite for the alpha testing (yes, alpha, not beta) of OmniFocus, and I can say with certainty that I love it, and am ready to buy it now. It just seems to be intuitive enough with just the right amount of features (and it’s not done). I certainly hope that the main interface doesn’t get clogged up like many other GTD apps have done trying to be too many things to too many people. I especially like that you can group projects. I’ll blog more once I’ve really had a chance to dig into it a bit more, but if you are Mac using GTD’er, you really should sign up for the beta-announcement list, especially if you are not happy with the other options out there.