Personal Productivity Revisited

Update: This article was written in 2011. An updated description of OmniFocus’s role in my Getting Things Done system can be found here.

Recently getting access to the alpha version of OmniFocus (which, by the way, is going to be the ultimate GTD application) provided a good opportunity to re-assess my personal productivity.

Over the past months, without being able to pinpoint a precise cause, I’d begun to sense myself becoming less and less productive. Although somehow there never seemed to be enough time in the day to get everything done, the actual amount of useful output I’d been producing seemed to diminish.

Reflecting carefully on the situation, I concluded that the first step towards a higher level of real productivity begins with a reduction in the number of interruptions I have during the day. And I’m referring to both externally- and self-sourced interruptions.

A number of things about interruptions are becoming generally understood. First, if you are working in a concentrated mode, a single interruption can require 15- to 20 minutes to return to the same concentrated state of mind. Secondly, interruptions (in particular the self-sourced ones I’ll describe below), leads to multi-tasking, which is absolutely a productivity killer. (I’ve been reading Peter Drucker’s, “The Effective Executive”, and he points out that a common characteristic of effective executives he’s known over his 65 year consulting career, is that they focus, and work on maximum two, but usually one single, important task at a time. They avoid multi-tasking like the plague.)

External Interruptions

Reducing the external interruptions has been the easiest:

  • First, I have installed Phlink on the office phone, and I simply don’t answer the phone any more, unless I am expecting a call. Phlink greets the caller with a message I’ve recorded in English and Spanish, and emails me the recorded voicemail message as a compressed AAC file.

  • Second, I don’t answer Skype calls any longer, unless I’m expecting the call. I have Skype configured to forward unanswered calls to my office phone, which is then processed by Phlink as per the above. (If I’m very concentrated, I’ll set Skype to “Invisible”, so that calls are auto-forwarded directly.)

  • Finally, I have my IM client set to Away/Busy, with an auto-reply message stating, “Hi. I have my IM client set to silent, and check messages irregularly. Email is preferred.” Furthermore, I have all IM client notifications disabled. It’s silent, and I don’t even see messages coming across.

In this way, the only way to interrupt me now, is calling my cell/mobile phone.

Self-sourced Interruptions

This class of interruptions is, I now realize, the most interesting, and the biggest detriment to productivity. First, I’ll list what I’ve done to reduce these interruptions, and then mention some amazing observations since implementing these.

  • First, I disabled the auto-checking of my email program, and have decided to only check mail twice per day. I check one hour before lunch, so that I will only process mails for a maximum of one hour, and then again about an hour before quitting time. When checking mail, I keep the inbox empty by doing one of the following:

    • Reply immediately, and archive the message.
    • Delete if it’s not actionable
    • Create a task in OmniFocus, put the message’s URL (via MailTags) in the tasks’ description field, and archive the message.
  • Second, I keep my RSS reader turned off, and only read RSS feeds now at some specific time, like during lunch (whenever I have lunch in the office).

Results

Quite simply, my productivity since implementing the above three days ago, has simply sky-rocketed. I’m focused on important tasks, don’t multi-task, and am really Getting Things Done. Apart from always planning the following day the evening before, I’ll write more later about how I’m specifically using OmniFocus to decide what gets done when.

Observations

The change in email habits has had nothing short of a profound effect. Here are some things I’ve noticed.

  • I’m able to focus much more effectively at work, without application icons containing red tagged numbers of unread emails pulling my attention away.

  • I had developed some sort of psychological need to check email constantly. I now find myself in the morning and evening at home being pulled like a magnet to my laptop to check mail. So far, I’m doing a good job resisting.

  • During the first day at work, and part of the second, I, get this, ACCIDENTALLY checked mail a couple of times. My hand subconsciously moved the mouse to the Mail icon in the Dock, and clicked “Check Mail Now”. I tended to do this at times when I was waiting on something, like on a phone call, or having asked somebody something in IM. It’s almost like I wasn’t comfortable with that momentary pause of doing nothing.

  • Not checking email first thing in the morning, somehow has resulted in much higher productivity during my morning hours. It’s as if not flooding the mind with a load of information first thing in the morning allows one to be much more productive. I think this simple fact has been the most impressive.

  • Not related to email, but an interesting observation nonetheless, having also considerably reduced the number of RSS feeds I subscribe to, I’m beginning to suspect that large volumes of information input is also detrimental to productivity. (Maybe it’s just the fewer number of pieces of information the mind processes in the background. Who knows.)

One thing is for sure, I’ve seen the light, and will be sticking to these habits for the long haul. Not everyone works in a situation where they can implement these habits (our system administrator, and operational maintenance staff, for example, must monitor mail each 15 minutes), but for those that can, it pays off.

After using OmniFocus a bit more, I plan to blog about how to focus on getting the right things done.

Agree? Disagree? What do you think?