2017 Mega Roundup of Productivity Tips, Tools, and Strategies – Guest Post From Mandy Bee Knits!

Hi there! My name is Mandy and I’m a geeky knitwear designer. You’ll typically find me with a cup of coffee while knitting, playing tabletop games (like Dungeons and Dragons), or reading geeky books about fantastical places. Feeling stifled by agency life, I quit a full time job as a web designer to pursue creative endeavours on my own. I found that knitwear design hit a sweet spot of being left and right brained, while allowing me to use both my hands and continue to use my computer skills. I’m now on a mission to create patterns that beg to be customized to every knitter’s personal style with the underlying dream of a world where everyone is unafraid to be their authentic selves!

This was my first full year working on my knitwear design business and I quickly found that I would need some new ways to schedule projects around my other jobs to make sure anything actually moved forward. I needed ways to set goals, stay on task, and stay motivated because it was way too easy to use an extra hour of time I had playing video games instead of brainstorming my next design!

I have tried a lot of tools and systems this year to keep myself on track. Some of them worked short term, some long term. I’m sharing them with you because each of these worked for me at some point in different situations so may help you as well!

Staying Focused

Working from home, it proved fairly difficult to stay focused on what I wanted to work on. I think the biggest help to staying focused has been turning off all notifications while I work, but there are a few other things that have helped

Tracking Time with Timing App for Mac

I found this app when starting the Shadow Technique that Jess recommends. I felt that writing down everything I did would distract me and I wasn’t sure I’d be completely honest every time I stopped to answer a text or read a Facebook comment.

You install Timing and it watches what you do while you’re at your computer. Okay, that sounds really creepy, but don’t worry, it’s not reading your emails! It simply tracks how long you are focused on each app and also notices when you’re idle. At the end of the day, you can drag items to different categories and projects to see how much time you really spent on them. Whenever you come back to your computer after being idle, it asks you what you’ve been doing so you can track that too.

I found this to be really helpful for a few things:

  • I could more accurately know how long tasks are actually taking so I can better estimate future projects.
  • It showed me how much time I was wasting!
  • It gave me positive feedback.

Where it won’t help: Many of us creatives aren’t spending our whole working day at our computers. We may use our phones to post to social media and we step away from our devices to make things with our hands. Timing doesn’t have a phone app and it can’t automatically track what we’re doing while we’re away from the keyboard (and wow, that would be really creepy if it could).  But if you find yourself getting sidetracked on Facebook fairly often, this may be a good way to be more cognizant of it.

Staying Focused with the Pomodoro Technique

I tried this for a month or so with some success, but the success depended on the task and how motivated I was to complete it in the first place. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method that’s been around since the 1980s. The gist of it: use a timer to break your work into intervals separated by breaks.

Pomodoro means tomato in Italian!

Pick a task, set the timer, work for 25 minutes (or your chosen interval), take a 3-5 minute break. Repeat 3x. Take a longer break (15-30 minutes). Repeat the whole process until you’re done for the day!

Having the timer going reminds you that you have a task to complete. Knowing you only have to work for a set period of time is also motivating to stay focused during that time. Knowing there’s a reward of rest afterward makes it doubly motivating!

It worked best for me when I had a timing app that actually ticked the whole time. I know, annoying right? But if I didn’t hear it, it wasn’t there. Because a lot of us creatives are very tactile, it makes me wonder if buying a real egg timer would work much better for us than using an app.

I was also able to stay more motivated when I decided on what I would do during my break before starting the task. The promise of some amorphous ‘rest’ after the task wasn’t enough to keep me motivated, but if I knew there was a fresh cup of coffee to be enjoyed on the back porch afterward, well, that was way better!

Blocking Distractions with Apps and Do Not Disturb Mode

Distractions are the bane of my entrepreneurial existence. I’m trying to write a blog post, but getting notifications on my phone and my computer for email, Facebook, Instagram, text messages, that game I installed 5 weeks ago and never played… You get the idea. I pop over to Facebook just to see what someone posted, it’s okay, it’ll just take a second! And bam, there goes the next half hour.

There are a ton of apps out there that block websites. I tried one and uninstalled it pretty quick. I don’t have time to lock and unlock forbidden sites all day. For most of us, social media marketing is part of our job and we end up on Facebook whether we like it or not! For me, “Do Not Disturb Mode” was a better solution.

I started by setting my phone to DND while sleeping and sometimes into the morning so I could plan without getting interrupted by emails. I then started setting it on my computer while live streaming video so that the noise didn’t interrupt my streams. I’d forget to turn it off and realized I would have really focused afternoons!

Removing Desktop Clutter with Hocus Focus for Mac

Hocus Focus closes windows when they have not been in use after a certain amount of time (you tell it how long per application), clearing up your desktop and allowing you to focus. It’s like those days when you finally clean your desk and you feel fresh and new — but it just keeps happening!

Tracking Tasks and Projects

This is my current process for figuring out what to do on a daily basis: I create yearly/life goals in my Desire Map Workbook and my copy of Map Your Business, I like writing these out by hand so that I connect with those goals. I keep monthly/weekly goals in my planner and I keep all of the individual tasks for those goals in my Things app. I plan out my day in my Best SELF Journal each morning (or the night before) before starting work.

Things for Mac

Things is a to-do list app for Mac and iOS that follows the Getting Things Done (GTD) model of planning. I don’t always follow that but this app is still my favorite for keeping track of my tasks. I tried many to-do list applications before settling on Things. This is what I wanted in a to-do list and Things has them:

  • The ability to create projects with sub-tasks
  • The ability to schedule tasks
  • The ability to sync tasks between my computers and phone
  • The ability to tag tasks

As I think of tasks, I throw them in the “Inbox”, or I create new projects with sub-tasks when I have time to plan. Whenever I’m planning my day (either in the morning or after completing my work the day before), I go through that inbox and organize the tasks by project, date, and tag them.

Weekly To-Do Buckets

One technique that I feel has worked fairly well for me is to create a weekly bucket of to-dos and separate them into three categories:

Minimum = things I HAVE to get done.

Ideal = things that would be great to get to and probably eventually need to be done, but could be done later.

Rockstar = things I want to do but aren’t necessary.

My rules are that I can’t do Ideal/Rockstar tasks until all Minimums are complete. I can do Rockstar tasks before Ideal tasks if I want to, it just depends on my mood. Because Ideals have a bit more weight (and are usually more business related), I’ll often feel more motivated to complete those before Rockstar tasks.  If I just have a few minimums, I will most likely procrastinate. If I don’t have any Rockstar items, I’ll feel like I’m all work and no play and want to rebel. (Darn my rebellious nature.) But the organization of the tasks makes me feel really good when I get to the Ideal/Rockstar tasks because I know I’ve completed everything I need to.

Weekly Action Planner

I use Best SELF’s Weekly Action Planner pages to create my weekly to-do buckets now. Definitely not necessary, but this pad is nicely printed and I enjoy writing out my to-dos and checking them off by hand. I use the rules from “Weekly To-Do Buckets” above with this tool.

Blocking Time

I learned about blocking out time when I got my first Best SELF Journal. The daily planning pages in there are meant to have you block out every hour of your day – work and leisure! I know, it sounds like a bit much, but this technique has helped me have some really productive days. It is especially helpful when I am being pulled in many directions. When I plan out every hour of the day, it helps me stay on task during each block because I know I won’t have any time during any other part of the day to complete the task.

If you’re a procrastinator, this might help you continually create that feeling that you are right upon a deadline. It’s also great for making sure you actually do have time in each day to complete everything you want or need to. Don’t forget to block out time for things like reading email, making lunch, or even free time.

This article goes into much more depth about how to block out your time and some things to think about when doing so: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/time-blocking-secret-weapon-better-focus/

Setting Goals and Staying Motivated

For me, everything changes when I ask myself, “Why?” If I set a goal like, “Make a million dollars” when actualizing that goal becomes difficult, staying motivated to continue with the goal is nearly impossible without a good reason behind it. These are the books and tools that help me figure out and stay cognizant of those reasons!

The Desire Map

This book changed how I think about almost everything I do. I had quit my day job and was sort of floundering to figure out what was next. What I thought I’d wanted to do when I quit my job just wasn’t getting done — I wasn’t that motivated to tackle it. The Desire Map is about figuring out how you want to feel (around 3 feelings to focus on — your Core Desired Feelings) so you can set goals that align with them. Choosing goals with those feelings as the end goal, at least for me, has been insanely motivating. It’s also helped me feel successful in between big goals, since big and little things can align with the feelings that I most want to feel.

Map Your Business

Tara Swiger walks you through creating goals for the next year of your business by figuring out what’s important to you and looking at the big picture. I found this to be really helpful for figuring out what to focus on within the next year.

Being a visual person, the “map making” part of this is great because you draw out a physical map to get you from point A to point B. There are some fun templates in there too, to make making the map more fun!

Best SELF Journal

This thing is awesome! Prompts to create 13 week goals, and monthly, weekly, and daily planning pages. This journal (I’d call it a planner), helped me stay really motivated through the 13 week goal. I love that each daily and weekly planning page reminds you of your long term goals and has you constantly checking in on your own progress.

Morning Planning Template

Before I invested in the SELF journal, I used to fill out a page in Day One each morning. I used prompts from different planners, like the Storyline Productivity Schedule (http://www.storylineblog.com/storyline-productivity-schedule.pdf) and The Desire Map. The prompts helped me get motivated by reminding me how I wanted to feel and why, as well as planning out the top 3 things I needed to get done during the day.

I’m sharing this template as a Google Doc. There is an explanation of each of the prompts in there. You can copy this in Google Docs to use it there, or copy and paste the text into your favorite app!

I hope some of these tools helps you or at least gives you an idea for a new system that you can implement for better productivity! What do you currently use to keep track of your projects and to stay on task? How can you improve those systems?

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