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9 + 7 creative constipation cures

constipation It was a sunny Wednesday morning about 9 years ago and I had just been hired. I was sitting at my desk waiting for a kiss of a muse. I knew I had to come up with a creative solution in order to organize a plan B outing for the weekend of the boarding school with over a hundred students. Plan A only worked if the weather remained beautiful, but the forecast was for rain, and in Ireland you don’t make plans without checking the forecast. After 30 minutes of creative constipation I gave it up. There was no way I could make progress that morning and there was an important meeting I had to attend later on. Little did I suspect that sitting down to finish the same task later on that day I would eat my frog within less than 5 minutes. Yes, less than 5 minutes! That was the fraction of what I had spent on it earlier, and it was now done.

In a way it was a devastating experience, because I thought all the company needed was me in order to solve all of their problems when it came to organizing events for teenage schoolboys. Week after week coming across that same creative constipation problem soon made me realize that I probably wasn’t a wild card after all. Not only that. I also realized that even to do the bare minimum I often needed advice and help from others.

Everybody knows what a relief it is when you complete a task or finish a project a within minutes where progress seemed impossible at first.

no-ideas-300x300A few months after that first experience I started analyzing what I did between those before and the after moments, and what triggered my brain to get into creative mode. I realized that in the moments of “creative diarrhea” not only did I work faster, but also enjoyed being involved. In fact, it was the enjoyment of being involved that made even big tasks seem like a piece of cake. I found out that there are ways that can help get in the zone and be creative.

I’ve found that there are some immediate and some long-term cures for creative constipation. The immediate ones will help you here and now (that is when you’re stuck), while the long-term ones either prevent those moments from happening, reduce the occurrence of those moments, or just help you get in the zone.

Immediate cures

Focus on the problem, not the solution. As one famous author said:

the definition of the problem is three-quarters of its solution.

If you can formulate the problem you will often find that the solution becomes so obvious that it doesn’t require much creative input. If after several weeks you’re still looking for a solution you probably didn’t understand the problem you’re trying to solve in the first place.

Just do it. Sometimes you wait for the perfect idea to come because you’re not happy with the one you have. You may think it’s not good enough or outright horrible. Often you will find though that something you came up with in one of those moments are actually far better than you thought at the time, and turns out to be the final idea or very close to it. Procrastination sometimes comes in the form of “I know I could do this better later when I have a more creative idea”.

Revisit work you did in the past. Old ideas often inspire new ones. Adapting old solutions to new situations doesn’t necessarily mean you’re regurgitating the same thing; it can actually be very interesting and creative. Think about an architect, for example, who wants to make the best use of the available space and keeping in mind the customer’s wishes. He can go back and take a look at the work he had done in the past and see if anything moves his imagination. Since he was so intimately involved with the thinking process of his work, he will know exactly how solutions can be implemented in new projects.

Check out other peoples’ works. Don’t just copy-paste or plagiarize, but tap into great minds to find great ideas. In fact, you shouldn’t use this only as an immediate cure. If you manage to turn keeping an eye open for interesting ideas into a habit, you will find that it has a long-term effect as well.

Go out for a walk or do some exercise. This will get your circulation going, which in turn may lead to enhanced creativity. If you work at a computer don’t just take a Facebook break. It may distract you from the problem, but it won’t actually help you make progress when you get back to the project.

child-eureka

Work on an unrelated project or perform a task, which is of a different nature than the problem you’re trying to solve: make a phone call, talk to one of your collaborators, etc. This activity switches your brain into a different mode, all the while your brain subconsciously works on the problem, and quite often comes up with solutions.

Take a nap. You will be amazed what a 10-20 minutes slumber is capable of when you need to recharge. Just make sure it stays within that range. If it’s shorter than 10 minutes you won’t be able to rest; if it’s longer than 20 you will take too long to boot up.

Use pen and paper. This is especially useful if you’re trying to figure out how to fit things together in either time or space. Draw a timeline or a map and use your hand to visualize what’s on your mind.

Change location if your creative constipation is caused by either a lack of or too much stimuli (e.g. you work from home and your office is your wardrobe, or you share office with others and there is a constant flow of people).

Long-term cures

Jot down your ideas/inspirations. Every brilliant solution and product started with an idea. A study suggests that for every brilliant idea written down and acted upon 87 equally brilliant ideas are lost. You don’t need to act on every single idea that strikes you, but why not incubate them in a notebook? They could be the perfect solution for a future problem you may encounter.

Interact with real people. Virtual interaction is not real interaction. Healthy discussions with real people keep your brain stimulated and broaden your horizons in surprising ways.

Read in order to nourish your mind and soul, and stimulate your imagination. Why is every novel more interesting than the movie made based on it? Because when you read you are the director; you co-create the story with the author. People who read find more creative solutions than those who don’t.

Listen to instrumental music, knit, tinker, etc. Pick an activity that doesn’t absorb you completely and lets your mind wander off. Eureka moments often happen in the midst of those activities.

Sleep properly. This is different from taking a nap, which can only help you if you’re habitually well-rested. Coffee, tea and energy drinks will only lend you some energy from later on in the day. Nothing can substitute a proper 7-8 hour long sleep.

Hydrate yourself. 80% of people confuse thirst for hunger and start to snack when they should reach for a glass of water. Keep a bottle at your desk and make it your business to finish it by the end of the day.

Exercise regularly. Your physical fitness should go hand-in-hand with your mental and spiritual fitness. If you’re capable, challenge yourself and push yourself to the limit at times. If you can’t, then commit to what you’re able for. Don’t neglect your body.

And finally, two bonus tips, which aren’t properly speaking cures.

Always put yourself under pressure, but never finish under pressure. We’re wired to procrastinate until the last moment, which is not a bad thing as long as you procrastinate on purpose. Chronic and uncontrolled procrastinators tend to produce lousy results when it comes to work. If you don’t have time to review what you’ve done mistakes are inevitable. Give yourself a deadline prior to when the project is due. This will give you the opportunity to review and make amendments if necessary.

Don’t multitask. You can’t focus on more than one thing at the same time. Multitasking is quickly switching between two tasks, neither of which receives your full attention.

Have you found other cures for creative constipation? I’d be delighted to hear them.

Mistake by mistake you will succceed

mistake-960x540It is said that the wise man learns from others’ mistakes, the smart man learns from his own, and the stupid man never learns.

The truth about mistakes is that they are always relative to a desired outcome or a goal. Erasing a file from the computer is not a mistake in itself, but deleting the draft of a book you’re writing is definitely one. Turning left is not a mistake in itself, but turning left when your destination is to the right is a mistake. When you set goals you immediately define some of the potential mistakes you can make. Of course, you don’t need to make all possible mistakes in order to learn. If you’re smart your mistakes will always teach you something; keep a backup of your important files, check the map or have a GPS in your car when you’re somewhere you haven’t been before etc.

At the time they are made, mistakes are a setbacks, but on the long run they can be productivity enhancers, because they have the potential to teach you for the future. It could seem like a vicious circle: the more mistakes you make the more productive you can get. In a sense it is true. What you can do is avoid making the same mistake over and over again, because that is the definition of insanity: doing the same over and over again while hoping for a different outcome.

Thankfully, by keeping a few things in mind you can reduce the possibility of mistakes.

  • Set both smart goals and SMART goals. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound, while smart goals are long-term goals, often not specific and appear as horizons that you want to move towards. Losing 10lbs by the end of the month, passing a history exam with merit at the end of the term or making 1 million dollars by this time next year are SMART goals, but at the same time stupid goals if they’re the only ones you have. If they’re the only goals you have you will be without a goal as soon as you reach them. Smart goals are to live a healthy lifestyle, be one of the best minds in your field or building a business that can sustain your family. SMART goals are medium term goals that function as a stepping stone toward your bigger goals.
  • Plan out how you want to reach your goal, and see how others have done it before. In this step you can be the wise man and learn from the success and the failure of others in the past in order to learn from them.
  • Your primary commitment is to the systems you put in place and not to your goals, because they’re bound to help you reach your goals. Make micro-commitments to your systems, which will turn into habits. These are exercise routines, morning rituals in order to enhance your productivity or new study habits, such as mind-mapping or word-dumping. Goals are for the planning stage, and systems are for the stage where you make progress.
  • Listen to others who have done it before. Often an external opinion is all you need to realize the little you need to make for a huge gain. Don’t listen to any opinion, but to advice from someone who has been successful in the field you want to conquer.
  • Build feedback loops to revise if your system is working and evaluate your progress against the desired medium and long-term outcome. If you’re making progress, congratulations, otherwise it is time to tweak the system or to commit again.

How to pick the best productivity app

Apps vs habits3I love productivity apps; they help me capture ideas, remind me to do certain tasks, help me focus on my projects, manage my time and prioritize, etc. I’m also a big fan of Google Chrome with its plugins and extensions, which can help boost my productivity. No wonder they’ve become so popular in recent years. But which one is the most useful?

As each app, extension and plugin serves a specific need there isn’t one to rule them all. In fact, even within a specific area of productivity it is hard to find the best one. For example, some to-do apps are better at helping you prioritize, while others make it a breeze to capture ideas with one click. It usually comes down to what your needs are, and even your needs may change over time. Isn’t this the reason why it’s so hard to stick to one app for a specific need without being on the look for something that may suit us better?

Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed and unable to decide which app, extension or plugin to install. When it comes to picking one, you should keep in mind four things:

Apps are only as good as your habits are. People have been productive since Adam and Eve. Houses, cars, airplanes had been built well before Steve Jobs first announced the App Store. You can have the fanciest collaborating tools, but little will you benefit from them if you’re not a team player. You can have the best time management tool and yet be completely out of control when it comes to managing your time if you’re not self-disciplined. Keep in mind that apps don’t make choices; you do, and therefore you must build solid habits.

The app has been made for man, and not man for the app. They’re only as good as they simplify our lives. Sometimes they can become an obstacle to our productivity. I once installed a to-do list on my iPhone, which had so many features that I couldn’t even figure out 20% of them, and I didn’t need more than 10%. However, just to make a simple entry required going through a multiple-step process, which soon became a pain in the neck. Needless to say that it was quickly made redundant.

The better you can define your specific problem and needs the easier it is to pick one. This usually means that you need to think of the features you need and then compare different possible apps that serve similar needs. There are two “features” I usually look for in an app besides for the purpose that it must serve: it should be simple and free. I don’t mind paying for something that is worth its money, but more often than not you’ll find free tools, even for very specific needs.

App vs service. Many apps come in the form of services. They’re free to download and can be used for free with limited features. When you start getting used to them and want more robust features you will need to pay a recurring fee. If you have two or three service subscriptions you can end up paying a nice sum, which you may have been able to save if you had done your research properly. Again, as frugal as I am, I’m not saying paying for a useful service is bad, but it’s definitely silly if you can get it for free.

Are there other aspects you consider when it comes to choosing a new app? Fire off in the comments. I’d love to hear them. In the meantime remember: stay productive!

Paralysis by analysis

The most crucial part of any project is taking the first Analysisstep after planning. Those projects where the first steps are taken have a good chance to be successful; those that are analyzed over and over again will remain ideas and plans. Analysis is often a form of procrastination and it is perceived as the first step of a certain undertaking: writing a book, doing a weight-loss program, going on a journey, starting a new business, applying for a new job, learning a new language or a new skill, acquiring a new habit or changing a bad one, etc. Everyone is a victim of their own analysis paralysis to a certain extent.

While it is true that if you fail to prepare then you can prepare to fail, over-analysis in the form of preparation is the perfect project killer before its launch.

The good news is that overcoming this problem is quite easy.

First, you must ask and answer honestly: do you really want to do it? If the answer is no, don’t even go any further. Spend your time and energy doing something more productive, or at least something that you enjoy doing. Being able to decide what you don’t want to do is an integral part of productivity.

If the answer is yes, follow these few simple steps:

  • Identify the absolute necessary steps that must be taken to make the project a success;
  • Identify the actions that cannot wait until later in order to get started and write them down as action-items in your inbox or on your to-do list with deadlines;
  • Identify the items that you cannot get wrong from the outset without having to spend an awful lot of time to fix it in the future (these are usually less than you would think).

Once you have these key elements you’re ready to take action. Depending on the volume of the project this can take from a couple of minutes to a couple of days. If you’re still stuck in the planning phase after weeks or months, then you didn’t answer the question honestly and you should quit daydreaming.

Don’t strive to get it perfect immediately. Many aspects can be tweaked later on and you will always need to adapt your plans to circumstances anyway. Done now is better than done perfectly someday.

Unsubscribe from all your junk mail in under 5 minutes

4558105863_d91ff156bc_zUnless you’ve just created your email account yesterday, chances are that in the past 24 hours alone you’ve received between 5 and 40 messages in your inbox from different sources, most of which you will never read. If you’re like most people (or at least like me), you probably don’t even remember signing up to half of those mails. Being swamped with undesired mail can get so bad that you don’t even notice some of the important stuff you receive.

I recently realized this as I was going through my emails and noticed that a friend of mine had asked me a favor three months earlier, but I missed his email because of all the junk that had filled up my inbox. Thankfully he didn’t text me from the bottom of a pit waiting to be rescued, and I was able to help him. Needless to say that I felt embarrassed.

I had spent hours unsubscribing from different mail lists about a year before this happened, but apparently I didn’t do a great job, and I also registered at some new websites, which happily bombarded me with their latest deals.

Listening to one of the Asian Efficiency Podcasts (which rolls out one interesting podcast after another), I heard about Unroll.Me; an elegant solution, which helped me to unsubscribe from any list I’d ever subscribed to in less than 5 minutes. Not only that: I was able to choose the subscriptions I was still interested in, and combine them into one single email per day.

Unroll.Me is free and is available for Outlook.com (including Hotmail, MSN, & Windows Live), Gmail, Google Apps, Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail, and iCloud.

Important emails no longer go unnoticed! Check it out! You’ll love it.

The #1 trick for not forgetting anything ever again

elephantIf you think about the past 24 hours and analyze all the information that your brain has had to process you will be amazed. Your day is a constant flow of information, which comes in various forms: news, conversation with friends and family, emails, radio, music, phone calls and text messages among many others, and one of the most important sources of information is yourself. You have thoughts, ideas, opinions and dreams.

Only about 1% of the information that arrives to your brain is potentially useful, and even less than that should be acted upon. But how can you be sure that under such load you will remember what is worth remembering? All the sources of information are vying for your attention and desperately want to become part of that 1% worth retaining. As brilliant as your brain is, it can only keep so much information, and unless you carefully select what you want to keep, chances are that you will remember the unnecessary.

The only way to make sure that all that is worth keeping is recorded is by

writing things down.

The Latin proverb “verba volant scripta manent” (spoken words fly away, written words remain) is true even in your personal life, even if originally it was not intended as a productivity advice.

Pen and paperIf you haven’t done so yet, grab a pen and a paper, a smartphone, or a computer and start recording everything you want to remember in one place: appointments, errands, promises, goals etc. Don’t strive to have the perfect system set before starting to jot down things you want to retain. The important thing is to write everything in the same place and not to scribble each thing on a different piece of paper or a different smart phone app. You can work on implementing a system later. Don’t get disappointed if you end up with a mile-long to-do list. Most people don’t have one at all. The sheer fact that you have written down what you consider important is the first and most important step toward productivity.