GTD with Todoist, Evernote and Google Calendar (Part 2)

Getting Things Done with Todoist and Evernote | https://www.veronikach.com

This is the second post about how I get things done (GTD) with Todoist, Evernote and Google Calendar. Now that everything is safely captured in Todoist and Evernote, what do I do? It’s time for the organize step – sorting through everything you captured and getting the important things into your agenda – Google Calendar in my case.

I do this during a weekly review, usually on Friday (at work) or Saturday (at home). I am quite strict with not doing personal projects at work and not working during the weekend, but the weekly review – which covers both types of projects – is something I can’t get around. Since my inboxes (Todoist and Evernote) are combined, it’s not logical to go through the process I describe below twice.

Evernote Inbox Zero

The first thing I do is sort through everything in the Evernote inbox, where all notes were captured. The whole structure of my notebooks looks roughly like this:

  • Inbox – notebook where everything goes by default and which will get emptied out in this section
  • Ideas  – “maybe/later” notebook
  • Work – notebook stack
  • Blog – notebook stack
  • Personal – notebook stack
  • Snooze – notebook stack
A few of my Evernote notebooks. I use numbers and dots to make sure the notebooks are sorted the way I want.

Main notebooks

Inbox and Ideas are single notebooks, while all others are are notebook stacks, containing several notebooks related to a context or area of responsibility. In Work, I have notebooks for papers and classes I’m teaching (current projects), but also a reference notebook with checklists and templates. In Blog, I have the notebooks “Drafts”, “Published posts” and “Shared content”. The “Drafts” is the only notebook where I actively create notes. The other two are reference notebooks, where I drag and drop other notes to, and which I review if I’m searching for something.

In Work, I have notebooks for papers and classes I’m teaching (current projects), but also a reference notebook with checklists and templates. In Blog, I have the notebooks “Drafts”, “Published posts” and “Shared content”. The “Drafts” is the only notebook where I actually create notes. The other two are reference notebooks, where I drag and drop other notes to, and which I review if I’m searching for something. In Personal, I have a “Mean plan” notebook and notebooks for different types of recipes, with drag-and-drop in between.

The Snooze stack if for notebooks that I don’t use very often. For example long-term projects, such as assembling a portfolio for my teaching qualification. This is something I need to pay attention to, but not every week.  I also have a true Reference notebook, with things like manuals for appliances.

Ideas notebook

All other notes (“maybe”) go into the giant Ideas notebook. Since this is a single notebook, I add as many tags as possible, to maximize the chance of finding the note when I might need it. A recent revelation was that I shouldn’t use only topics (academia, health, AI) but also the type of note (article, Twitter thread, website) and what I would use it for (advice to share on Twitter, example to use as inspiration). I fail to do this consistently, but I try not to think about it too much, and use too many tags rather than too few. Over time, patterns in which tags I’m using more are starting to emerge, so I can merge and delete tags as needed.

What this accomplishes is that the things I might want to, but don’t have to do, are out of sight in the Ideas notebook, and I can focus my attention on current projects. But these ideas are not lost forever! For example, if for a blog post I’m looking for content to include, I will search through the Ideas notebook, and process the relevant notes, which I will afterwards move to “Blog: shared content”.

Verdict

I’ve reorganized my Evernote structure a couple of times now and am still not entirely happy with it. Here are a few other ones I tried and why I changed things again:

  • An identical structure to Todoist. But an Incubator stack in Evernote became too complicated because I wanted to already categorize all notes I might need one day. And of course, a Reference project doesn’t really make sense in Todoist.
  • Single notebook for area of responsibility (for example just “Blog”) and using tags more. But, I quite like seeing at a glance how many posts I still want to write vs how any posts I’ve written. Also, it is faster to drag and drop posts between notebooks, rather than updating a tag from “draft” to “published”.
  • Organizing my notebook stacks into “Current” (where the drafts go) and “Reference” (where the published posts go), but this wasn’t as convenient for my drag-and-drop process. I also found myself too distracted by all the other, not-blog-related, current projects.

But, I have also decided I have already spent too much time on this, which is not productive. The idea is to use this structure, and update it as I go.

Todoist Inbox Zero

Next I move on to the Todoist inbox. Here the structure looks like this:

  • Inbox
  • Incubator (Work and Personal)
  • Current (Work and Personal)
  • Snooze (Work and Personal)

The inbox is a single task list, and all others have task lists related to different projects. Since I tried to capture only actions that fit into my projects, achieving inbox zero should be simple. For each todo, I first review whether that is indeed the case, and if not, the todo goes to Evernote. For all remaining todos, I do the following:

  • Use an action verb if it doesn’t already have one (to be a better collaborator to my future self)
  • Move it to a project in Incubator, Current or Snooze
  • Add an (approximate) date
  • (Optional) Add labels

In GTD the idea of labels is to provide context, for example, where you need to be, who you need to talk to, or how much energy you need. Then you can batch tasks from different projects by context, such as doing all low energy tasks at the end of the day. I don’t use this feature a lot, probably because I don’t have a lot of different contexts, but I’m planning to experiment with this more. The label I do use is “waiting for”, since it involves sending reminders, which lends itself well to batch processing.

Next 7 days

Now I look at what Todoist has scheduled for me in the next 7 days. I use this to decide what really needs to be done next week, and what I could postpone. The meetings I already have in Google Calendar, also influence this. I don’t want to divide my attention between too many different projects, so identify clusters / projects of focus for next week, and postpone other todos.

In Todoist, for the projects of focus (usually Current – Work projects), I go through their individual task lists and break up the tasks that I want to work on into smaller, actionable tasks. I then give these smaller tasks  a specific day and hour. I usually schedule high energy tasks like writing in the morning, and everything else in the afternoon.

My calendar after giving a few of my Todoist tasks a specific hour. Not a lot of meetings – it’s summer!

With the recent two-way integration between Todoist and Google Calendar  these tasks now appear as 1-hour events on my calendar. Now I can change the length of the tasks, drag and drop the tasks between days, etc, as I would with calendar events. Tasks which only have a day, but not an hour in Todoist, appear as all-day events in Google Calendar. I try to convert these into scheduled-by-hour tasks as much as possible, as this helps me to get a better overview of how much time I spend and how many things I actually work on.

Verdict

The integration is very recent, and it’s missing a couple of features I think would be very helpful. Ideally I would like to sync events based on the projects and tags they have. Scheduling a 5-minute task isn’t logical either as an all-day event, or as an hour-event, so I would prefer to have a label (@5min) which is excluded from syncing.

Another functionality I’m missing is the amount of information provided in the task when synced to Calendar. For example, I have a project for a class I’m teaching with high-level tasks for each lecture, like “Lecture Segmentation”, and actionable subtasks like “Outline lecture”. Google Calendar right now only shows “Outline lecture”, which could get confusing if you are responsible for several courses. It would also be helpful to be able to click on the calendar event, and directly go to the corresponding project in Todoist.

Get things done!

If I did all the steps above properly, my next week is already planned. On Monday I can just go to the office, and start on the tasks I’ve queued up for myself, without spending energy on making decisions. And now, it is time for the weekend!

If you have any examples how you or other people set up their organization system, please share below!

GTD with Todoist, Evernote and Google Calendar

Getting Things Done with Todoist and Evernote | https://www.veronikach.com

Getting Things Done with Todoist and Evernote | http://www.veronikach.com

I’ve talked about the planning system I’ve recently adopted in a few of my progress reports, but I realized there wasn’t a single place I could refer people to if I wanted to explain it to somebody. Since the system is still evolving, I thought it would be helpful for myself to summarize it, as a way of figuring out where I might still need to tweak things. A lot of these ideas are based on Getting Things Done (if you haven’t read the book, see a short explanation by LifeHacker) with additional inspiration from podcasts, blog posts and conversations with others like Felienne and Noeska.

Goals

The goals of the system are to

  • keep me focused on important projects, but not forget everything else
  • give me insight into how much I’ve already done
  • not overschedule my time / say no more often
  • not get overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done
  • eliminate decisions on what to do next

Ultimately, get more important things done in less time and with less stress! A rather ambitious goal, and the system is definitely not doing all of these things for me yet, but it’s a start. Rather than the five steps of GTD, I see my system as just two steps: capture and organize. As I was writing this post I realized it’s a bit more information than I thought, so today I present only step one: capture everything!

Capture everything

I have never really had problems with forgetting to do something I promised, failing to start a project on time, or missing a deadline. So when I read GTD, the “capture everything” idea seemed a bit unnecessary. But it has been a life changer!

My rule is: as soon as I think of something I (might) need or want to do in the future, no matter how vague it is, I have to capture it in Todoist or Evernote immediately. I tend to use Todoist for actions I’m quite sure I will do, like:

  • send a reminder to a collaborator
  • upload my recent paper to arXiV
  • buy printer paper

Evernote, on the other hand, is for ideas and “maybe” actions:

  • idea for a project around the house
  • an article I want to read
  • a piece of advice I want to remember

The most important thing, however, is to just choose one of the two and not spend too long thinking about it. The capturing must happen as soon as possible, so I tend to only add a keyword or two, and then organize later (this is what part 2 of this post is about).  The capturing happens in several ways below.

Quick access widgets on my phone

Both Todoist and Evernote have awesome widgets for your phone (Android in my case, but I’m sure there are other versions too). When I drag the top bar which houses all the tiny icons like battery downwards, I see the following:

So within two clicks (dragging the bar downwards and then tapping the “Add task” or “Add note” widgets), I can start capturing!

I use these widgets extensively when I’m walking somewhere, doing things around the house, and in conversations where I wouldn’t normally be taking notes. For example, I’ve started doing this with all sorts of recommendations from others, for example for podcasts. In work meetings I actually tend to use pen and paper because I write faster and I don’t want to use my phone the whole time. Then I transfer everything into Todoist/Evernote as soon as I’m in my office again.

Todoist plugin for Gmail

A trap that’s easy to fall into is to let your email dictate your day. Most emails have some todos associated with them, and it’s tempting to handle these first, before starting “real work”. Not anymore with Todoist plugin for Gmail. This plugin adds a button which lets you create a todo from an email. I do this for two types of emails – emails that will need time to respond to, and emails I need to follow up on.

As an example of emails that need time to respond to, I’m using a reminder email to complete my reviews for a conference (I had returned the reviews already at that point). Since I wouldn’t necessarily be able to do this when I received the email, I would create a todo out of it by clicking the Todoist button (right of the Labels button).

This opens up a Todoist window, which already has the email’s subject (as description) filled in, and possibly dates that might be involved. For example, here is  reminder email (I returned my reviews already, but as an example) about returning reviews where I have already pressed the Todoist button:

The subject is automatically used as a description, and July 16th is highlighted, because Todoist extracted this from the email’s subject. Since this date is now in the past, Todoist suggests today – July 22th, instead. From here, you can edit the date and description, add any projects or labels associated with the todo, and click “Add Task”. I tend to only adjust the date to when I intend to do the task,  and the description.

This description is quite good already, but I would still probably adjust it to something with an action verb, like “Complete last NIPS review”. Once I add the todo, I archive the email! This way the email is out of my inbox (inbox zero is awesome!) and I don’t have to worry about it until later when Todoist will remind me about it. In the meanwhile, I can focus on important projects. This archiving was scary at first, but this goes away with time.

Another way I use this plugin is for emails I need to follow-up on.  These are typically emails where somebody promises to do something I need by a certain date, or emails where I’m asking for something I need first.  Then I add it to Todoist with a “Send reminder about X” description, and a date at which the reminder feels appropriate.

This part of the system isn’t as smooth, since it can only be done on existing emails. If you are sending the first email of a thread, you will have to go to “Sent” and add the email to Todoist from there. Another issue is what to do after an unsuccessful reminder. Now I just reschedule the todo, so I can send another reminder later, but it’s not an accurate reflection of what I actually did. Any ideas on how to handle this are welcome!

Email forwarding to Evernote

If an email contains some information I might want to use, but I’m not sure exactly when I will need it, I forward it to Evernote. Some examples:

  • Procedures on how to do something, e.g. filling in reimbursement forms
  • Newsletters with great content which I might want to use as inspiration someday
  • Happy emails, e.g. “thank you” emails or papers getting accepted.

Share to Evernote

Evernote offers more ways to save to it, such as the Evernote Web Clipper for Chrome desktop, and “Share via” option that many Android apps have, and where Evernote comes up as an option if you have it installed. Some examples:

  • A website I like the layout or structure of and want to use as inspiration
  • A website of a person I might want to contact
  • An article I might want to read
  • An article I already read, but want to share with others
  • A Twitter thread with good advice or opinions
  • Opening times of a store I always forget the name of
  • A picture of an item I might want to buy
  • A picture of an event poster, that I might want to attend

Perhaps I should mention here that another rule I have for capturing is that I HAVE to use Todoist or Evernote. Not “leave it on the table where I will see it”, “I’ll just write it down over here” or “I’ll just add it to my favorites”. This part isn’t always perfect, but I’m improving, and writing this post actually helped me identify problem areas (leaving things on the table).  Thanks! 🙂

What’s next?

Phew! Now all the thoughts that might bother me when I should be writing, are safely stored in Todoist or Evernote. But, it’s all bit messy at the moment – two inboxes full of random todos, ideas, articles and whatnot. In the next post  I will about the organizing part of the story, and where Google Calendar finally comes into play.

Why playing computer games is easy but writing a paper is hard

This post contains some thoughts about a recent conversation I’ve had with my fellow Habitica group members @AidanBudd and Valerie about why it’s enjoyable to play computer games, but not so enjoyable to write a paper.

Games

I think many games are engineered to be enjoyable in a way that it’s easy to lose track of time. This is a function of several features that many games have a common:

  • receiving an immediate reward
  • continuous feedback that allows to adjust actions
  • being able to see improvement over time

For example, many games start out with an level where it’s easy to learn how the game works and earn points or collect items, so the activity starts out with a reward. During the game you are continuously aware of how well you are doing, for example based on a score, or because you can predict the outcome of your actions based on previous experience with the game. Lastly, the game continuously gets more difficult, but as you are often practicing by playing it, you can handle more and more challenging situations.

[The above is more true of recent games like Candy Crush than for example the quest games I’ve played in the 90’s. These often gave you zero direction where to start or could end up in a “dead end” situation where you can never solve the game due to an earlier decision. While this could be a very frustrating game for a beginner, I think with more experience it’s still enjoyable to solve these type of challenges.]

 

Flow

In other words, games have a good “challenge-skill” balance that contributes to the feeling that time is going so quickly. In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience“,  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, people with more complicated last names than mine exist) calls this balance one of the components of “flow” – being completely immersed in an activity or “in the zone”.


You can probably think of other enjoyable activities you call hobbies which fit this definition. I’m always fascinated by people for whom running is a hobby – you get to do something fun AND become healthier at the same time! But if you are like me, you can’t “just” take up running is a hobby because of the challenge-skill balance. The immediate feedback is discomfort. Then you are likely to avoid going running because of this discomfort, and once you do get to it again, you probably won’t see enough improvement that will motivate you to continue. And that’s not a way to develop a hobby!

Writing a paper, in many cases, also doesn’t have this balance. You might already fear that the task is too big, so if you sit down to start writing, but nothing comes out, you get demotivated, so there is no immediate reward. The task becomes only more daunting, and every time you get stuck you feel like you have not improved at all. Since you are not enjoying the task, it will be easy to get distracted and procrastinate, making it even less likely that you will produce a result you are happy with.

The features will be there, but over a longer scale of time, for example, if your paper gets published, or you start noticing that after several papers, it takes you less time to finish one. But since this reward/feedback/improvement is not immediate, so you might not be too excited to start, or to continue writing.

 

Flow through habits?

If you want an activity you SHOULD be doing, be it running or writing, to be easier, you need to find ways to:

  • get a reward for the activity
  • get feedback
  • do it long enough until you see improvement

This will help to improve the challenge-skill balance, and hopefully help in turning the activity from an “ugh” to something you genuinely look forward to.

 

Habitica

For me this is where Habitica comes in. First, I define habits – activities that I know are relatively easy to accomplish, such as writing for 1 pomodoro (rather than finishing a paper), or just going out for a run (regardless of how quickly I do it). I get an immediate reward in Habitica each time I accomplish one of these items.

Habitica also keeps track of how often I do each habits – habits I’m keeping up with are shown in green, OK habits in yellow and poor habits in red. For habits, there is a counter which tracks how often you did a habit, which resets every day, week or month. This shows at a glance how well I’m doing. If there is too much red, maybe I need to reduce the number of goals I’m trying to accomplish and/or make it easier for myself to earn a reward. If everything is green, maybe it’s time to adjust the difficulty level!

For dailies (habit that you set to do every X days), Habitica keeps track of streaks – how many times in a row you have successfully completed your habit. Longer streaks are quite encouraging, and motivating not to break Together with the immediate reward, this encourages me to keep up with the habit, even if I’m not yet noticing results “in real life”.

 

A few of my avatars, November 2016 to June 2017

 

Results!

Maybe it sounds a bit magical, but after using Habitica for a few months I AM noticing results in real life. For writing this post, I even checked my Fitbit, and decided to share some results with running, from early May and end of June. The round is the same, but I can run it without stopping and a few minutes faster (although I wasn’t specifically targeting either of these things, just showing up).

Heart rate recorded by Fitbit
My usual round, early May

 

Heart rate recorded by Fitbit
Same round, end of June

With writing, I’m noticing that it happens more and more often that I don’t realize the Pomodoro is over, and just continue – which is great for moving projects along.

But it’s not just writing or running. I’m enjoying the overall challenge of translating a goal into habits, thinking of different parallels between activities like writing and running, and thinking of how I can improve further.

An extra benefit is, although your goals may not seem related, tackling several problems this way exercises the same muscles of not forgetting what you *should* be doing, focusing more, and getting things done even if you don’t have the motivation. For example, stretching every morning motivates me to work on an important writing project every day.

And now that this blog post is finished… I’m afraid I have no excuse for going on that run! 🙂

5 more apps to improve your productivity

Just a quick post today – I share 5 more apps that I recently discovered that are helping me be more productive.

Twilight

Twilight reduces the blue light from your phone that keeps you awake at night, and turns it into red light, while dimming the screen. You can control when you want this to happen (following the sunset and sunrise at your location, or at a fixed time) and how strong the effect is. I have mine set pretty high, so I immediately notice it’s time to put the phone away and wind down.

Bonus: An alternative is f.lux, which exists for multiple platforms including your desktop (thanks to @rebeccalinnett for the tip!)

 

Fitbit

I recently bought a Fitbit Alta HR with the goal of improving my step count (exercise is great for your productivity!). But an expected benefit of the Fitbit and the related app was that it gave me more insight into my sleep. I thought I was doing pretty well by going to bed around 22:00 and waking up at 6:00 – that’s 8 hours, right? Fitbit knows better, because it tracks your sleep stages, including the time you spend awake when just going to bed, or when waking up during the night. Here’s one of my reports:

Turns out I might be sleeping a whole hour less than I thought (and waking up 34 times apparently?). Oops! Now that I know this I try to go to bed earlier to get at least 7.5 hours of actual sleep, which feels awesome the next day.

 

Coffitivity

Ever feel very productive in a cafe? Well, Coffitivity now brings the cafe to your desk! It’s just a radio channel with cafe background sounds. It is a bit similar to focus@will, which I wrote about in my previous post, but focus@will has different channels and costs around $10 after 1 month – unlike Coffitivity, which is free.

Side note: although I was previously promoting focus@will, I recently unsubscribed. First, the pricing wasn’t very transparent – I had to log out of my account to see what plans cost. Once logged out, I saw that the plans have been lowered in price with respect to what I was still paying – with no notification to me. Not endorsed.

 

Forest

Forest is based on the idea of the Pomodoro technique – working without distractions for a period of time (say, 25 minutes) and then taking a break. Only now, while you are working, the app is growing a virtual tree. However, if you get distracted (for example if you pick up your phone and use a different app), the tree dies. The app also exists for Chrome and can help to block websites you find distracting. If you buy the app for EUR 2.19, you can link your phone and browser and sync your progress. Here’s my tiny forest so far:

 

 

Bonus: Forest is also growing real trees

 

Rescuetime

Rescuetime gives you insight into where you are spending the time you are using your computer and phone and whether it’s productive or not. It works out of the box, with default settings for what is considered productive or not, but you can adjust these if you like. Each week, you get a productivity like this:

For example, I can see that I managed to spend 7 hours in total using Twitter, which is more than I spent on using email. You can also set goals for how much (or how little) you use different apps or categories. Above you see I have a goal of “Geography Time”, which is a quiz app I’m using to improve my geography trivia.

Rescuetime has both a free and a paid version, which offers extra features like notifications about your progress. For me, the free version already feel sufficient because of other habits I have in place (such as uninstalling Twitter from my phone unless I’m at a conference) are helping me to stay focused.

For an in-depth review of the possibilities of Rescuetime, check out this blog post. It’s written by TimeDoctor – another app to track your time, which I haven’t had the chance to try yet – but maybe that’s something for my next post about apps!

 

Do you have any apps that you use and that are helping you to be productive during the day? 

 

How I use Habitica to improve my diet

In this post I discuss how I use Habitica for health – specifically, to improve my diet. See also an earlier post how I use Habitica to improve my exercise.

I don’t follow a special diet, but I already eat relatively healthy – an inheritance from some earlier dieting years. But a side effect is that food is often my mind, because I’m always busy with optimizing between satisfying a craving, eating on time (so I don’t get too hungry), eating healthy, not wasting food etc.

Here is a typical example. I decide what I feel like for dinner while coming home from work. Already a bit hungry, I stop by the store, and look through their recipe suggestions or what’s on sale. In my mind I match what I feel like having and what’s available to a recipe that I know. I start collecting the groceries. Then I see something interesting in the store, and consider changing my plan. Or I remember I still have this ingredient at home. During this process, I get hungrier and hungrier… In the end, I might give up and get a pizza instead – and probably feel bad afterwards.

This is all way too much unproductive thinking – therefore perfect for building habits and eliminating decision fatigue! I achieve this by just two habits: meal planning and bringing lunch to work.

Meal plan

I have a daily that repeats only on Saturday, that involves selecting 4 dinner recipes and doing groceries. This seemed like a big change to implement for me, but the benefits were so obvious that I didn’t have to wait long for this to become a habit. The catalyst was probably Evernote – as I was clipping recipes, I realized I finally had ONE place with all my recipe ideas. It was easy to see a recipe and say “oh, I haven’t had this in a while – I should get the ingredients next time I’m at the store!”. Multiply that times 4, and you have a meal plan! Here are some of my favorites:
I move the selected recipes to a different notebook, so it’s easy for me to find them once I’m cooking. I then add all the ingredients I don’t have yet to Todoist. In the store, I actually check off the ingredients I put in my basket as I collect them. Perhaps there are specialized apps that streamline this process (i.e. add the ingredients once you select a recipe), but for me this works because I already use Evernote and Todoist often.

Home-made lunch

This is a daily that repeats on all work days. Since I leave the house pretty early, to achieve this I need to prepare my lunch the day before. To simplify things, I just double the amount I prepare for dinner, and bring it with me the next day. Hooray for microwaves!
Notice that I have 4 dinners, but 5 lunches. This is because from time to time dinners with friends, lunches at work, etc come up.  Some leftovers therefore get postponed to other days.

Result

By batching my decision-making into one day, I have 5 days worth of (relatively) healthy meals, that use ingredients I already have at home, and that save me money. During the week, I still have to cook, but since I often prepare the same dishes, this becomes less demanding. All of this frees up my brain to do more interesting things 🙂

Are you considering trying out a meal plan, or maybe you are already an expert at this and have some advice for others? Leave a comment below!

 

How I use Habitica to improve my exercise

In this post I discuss how I use Habitica for health – and specifically, to improve my exercise habits!

Procrastination

I am one of many people who find food and exercise important and have goals related to them (often weight loss), but procrastinate too much to achieve those goals. But since I’ve been using this new habit-building approach, I feel that things are starting to change a little bit and it’s not just the goal that motivates me, but the process.

The scenario I sketched with procrastinating on exercise is as follows:

  • Have a vague goal of “exercising more”
  • Be convinced you still need to do something (e.g. buy exercise equipment find the time) to start
  • Delay it until tomorrow, the day after, next week…

Or maybe like this:

  • Have a clear goal of what you want to do (e.g. go running three times a week)
  • Start enthusiastically and push yourself in the beginning to meet the target
  • Quit when you slip up too many times

I’ve had more variations on these in the past but I won’t go through all of them 🙂

First exercise habit

With Habitica and the idea of building habits, I decided to do things differently. I would start with something very simple and concrete, that I could do already, and that I wouldn’t have an excuse not to do: stretching in the morning.

I gave my yoga mat a permanent place in the living room, where I would see it in the morning. Before I have breakfast, I roll it out and do a few yoga-type stretches. The whole process takes about 5 minutes. Then I get a reward: checking off the daily in Habitica and having breakfast. Sometimes I have a lazy morning, but then I usually still stretch later in the day to complete the daily. All in all, I think I have missed less than 5 days since November.

Adding more exercise

Once the stretching became a habit, the yoga mat was joined by a kettlebell. I started with doing 10 kettlebell swings in addition to the stretching, and have now built it up to three different exercises. This was a bit more difficult to adopt, so I created a habit, which I can do as often as I want, and thus get extra rewards.

The last thing on my exercise list is walking. I set my goal to 10K steps a day. I don’t always complete this one, but to motivate me to do as much as possible, I set it up as a checklist where each 2K counts. And on days when I’m doing a lot of walking, I get extra rewards for each additional 2K steps I walk.

This is how all of this looks in Habitica (left are the habits, right are the dailies):

Now walking definitely became a habit. Before, I would sometimes have days where I barely get 1K steps in. But now I feel like I need to get moving, and I’m motivated to go for a walk to make sure I check off at least some steps off the list.

The verdict

None of this is particularly impressive compared to e.g. going running three times a week. But it’s something that I can do consistently, so for me it’s better than a too enthusiastic goal I can’t keep up with. I also really like the process of building up the habits and updating them in Habitica, so perhaps one of these days I will introduce a running habit as well.

I would be happy to hear how all of you are keeping up with exercise – is it something you do routinely, or something that you don’t usually get to? Do you keep track of what you’ve done and your progress over time? Any other tips others should hear about?

 

 

How to avoid decision fatigue

Procrastination

I have to admit that for the first time since my good blogging streak started last November, I procrastinated with writing a blog post. I briefly thought about not posting anything – we’re all allowed to have an off day after all! But the accountability I’ve built up, both to myself and (hopefully) a couple of readers who are used weekly posts, removed the choice for me. Posting weekly just became a habit.

[As I wrote that sentence, my brain made a connection with the number 21. I quickly checked the calendar and to my amusement discovered that last November was approximately 21 weeks ago! But then I realized that the popular saying is that it takes 21 days to build a habit, which is actually false].

I thought about why I was procrastinating more than the other times. I still had an Evernote notebook with lots of ideas on what to write about. Perhaps the problem was the opposite – I had too many ideas and I couldn’t choose between them!

Decision fatigue

I learnt recently that not being able to choose, procrastinating and being unproductive is a result, is something called “decision fatigue” (Wikipedia). This applies to several other areas of my life as well, for example:

  • Handling email and trivial tasks first, and procrastinating on big projects, because I can’t decide where to start
  • Having a vague goal of “exercising more”, but having too many choices (weights? run? in the morning? in the evening? tomorrow? … )
  • Deciding what’s for dinner when it’s dinner time, being unable to choose due to already being too hungry and getting take-out in the end

Habits

To reverse this process and be more productive, the secret seems to be to eliminate decisions. Then you can spend less time deciding, and more time doing! Or, as Doctor_PMS recommends, “set up your personal habits and goals in a way that prevents you from having to take a decision on a daily basis“.

That is essentially what me, @Doctor_PMS,  @TheNewPI, @rebeccalinnett, @AidanBudd and a few others are doing on Habitica – eliminating decisions. I briefly wrote about Habitica before, but to summarize, it’s a habit tracker with game elements. Here is how I’m trying to tackle procrastination on important projects:

  • I have a “daily” (a habit you can complete at most once a day) called “Add most important task (MIT) of the day as a to-do to Habitica”. My MITs are tasks that move big projects forward, like writing papers or blog posts. Of course, adding a task as a to-do is trivial, but I get a little reward from it, so I complete it every day. But what makes it more effective, is that having to define task forces me to break up projects into parts that I can actually get done.
  • I have another daily, with a bigger reward, called “Spend 1 Pomodoro on MIT”. I put my headphones on, set focus@will to 25 minutes, and start working.
  • Often once I get this first Pomodoro done, I don’t want to stop there, and continue. To encourage this behavior more, I have a “habit” (something you can do multiple times per day) called “Extra Pomodoro”.
  • To top it off, I have the MIT to-do I added in the first place! The to-dos give me the most rewards and are very satisfying to check off. Here’s how this looks in Habitica:

Since I enjoy the in-game rewards, I use this system on most days, gaining gold and experience, and levelling up! This is me, in one of the many outfits you can collect in the game:

Conclusion

Once I decided my post would be about decision fatigue, the post practically wrote itself. To avoid procrastination on future posts, the solution seems simple. I need to have specific blog posts on my to-do list, rather than a “blog weekly” to-do with a long list of ideas.

For extra accountability, I’ll share the two upcoming blog posts! Next week, of course, will feature another “How I Fail” guest post! And in two weeks time, since I quite enjoyed writing this post, I will write more about how I’m using Habitica to improve other areas of life, such as food and exercise.

5 apps that improved my productivity in 2016

Less than a year ago, my “How I work” setup only included Gmail, Google Calendar and Wunderlist. After reading Getting Things Done, I started listening to podcasts that focus on productivity, like The 5 AM Miracle and Beyond the To Do List. In the process, I started discovering apps and trying them out. In this post I present the 5 apps that improved my productivity and that are staying in my “How I work” process.

1. Podcast Addict

Of course I used Podcast Addict to listen to the podcasts above. This helped me not only by teaching me things about productivity, but by motivating me to walk more (so that I could listen to the podcasts). Although I was spending more time on getting to places, the exercise + fresh air helped me to focus afterwards.

2. Evernote

OK, I had Evernote before listening to the podcasts, but I didn’t know how to organize it and therefore didn’t use it. One example of how I use it now is for writing these blog posts! I have a stack of five notebooks for this:

My Evernote notebooks for writing blog posts

In “Online: pin or tweet” and “Online: write about” I keep all the articles, threads on Twitter etc that I saved with the Evernote web clipper, and I think might be interesting to share with others. Once I pin, tweet or write, I move the note to “Online: done”. In “Writing: drafts” I keep blog posts ideas, which eventually grow into blog posts. Then I move these to the “Writing: done” notebook.

Given my difficult relationship with blogging and weekly posts for the last two months – a personal record – I’d say it’s working!

3. Streak

Streak is an app that integrates seamlessly with Gmail and has lots of awesome functionality. I use it to (1) achieve inbox zero (2) keep track of your contacts.

For (1), I use Streak to “snooze” emails. This means that I archive the email, but it’s moved to the inbox again at a later date. For example, I snooze emails to register for events. If it’s December, but the event is March, and the deadline to register is in February, I will snooze the email to late January.

For (2), I use Streak to keep track of people I have contacted, or might want to contact at some point. Currently I do this for people who have emailed me with questions about my papers. If I have an important update on the project (for example an error in my code), I can simply send an email to the whole group.

4. Focus @ Will

Focus @ will is a radio you can listen to, but with music (or sounds) that are supposed to help you focus. There are a few channels with different types of music/sound, and you can just press play and pause, or set a timer so that it stops playing after X minutes. I usually use it with the timer, Pomodoro-style. I can’t say if it’s really doing something to my brain or if it’s the placebo effect, but it’s been pretty effective so far!

5. Habitica

Habitica is a habit-tracking app, a bit like a todo list for things you’d like to do regularly, like exercising every day. I tried to create daily tasks for these activities in Wunderlist, but I didn’t like this approach. The main reason was that I didn’t know how to deal with doing the activity more, or less than I am supposed to.

For example, if I missed a day or two of exercising, I had two choices. The first is leaving the tasks unchecked, i.e. doing doubling/tripling the amount of exercise on another day, which is not very realistic. The second is checking the skipped tasks off, which is incorrect. The same goes for doing extra exercise: did that mean I could skip exercise the day after? Not great if you are trying to develop an “exercise every day” habit.

In Habitica, instead of done/not done, you have a character with overall statistics like health. Here’s mine:

And here are some of the habits I’m tracking:

They are all green, because I did them today! By doing habits, the character gains experience and coins. If you don’t do a habit for too long, the character’s health goes down. To be honest I don’t know the details of how this works yet, but I like the layout and the habit-tracking part!

Any other apps?

I like trying out apps, so if you have some that have helped you out, please let me know!

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