I’m not productive on weekends—no matter how I try, various social commitments distract me. And it’s tough for me to be productive mid-week if I have an engagement in the evening.
To put it simply, I get scared. I’m terrified of being late. (Lateness being a Major Sin according to my mother, may she rest in peace.) So I dare not do anything that might put me into an ADHD hyperfocused state… which means I get almost nothing done.
This isn’t an unfounded fear. Before I set up systems to bombard myself with visible and audible alarms, I’d miss about a third of my appointments. I still miss some.
So, having fallen behind—again—in Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m cranking myself up to an unhealthy level of paranoia, which of itself will make it more likely that either I’ll fall behind further, or miss an engagement.
So starting today, I’m going to schedule anything I need to schedule as early as possible. If I have an evening commitment, I’ll arrange for pickup by someone prompt so that if I become hyperfocused, it’s not a disaster. And I’ll avoid evening engagements as much as possible. Not just for the duration of Camp NaNoWriMo, but in future, period. I’m tired of this crap.
A heavily modified version of Getting Things Done is still my go-to system, and I still have it tied to Habitica, the gamified to-do system I’ve been using for several years.
GTD principles I ignore or simplify:
From my point of view many of GTD’s classifications are complications that I avoid or simplify lest I stop using the system. The ones I either don’t use or simplify greatly are related to categorisation and prioritisation, which ADHD folks are notoriously bad at (I am no exception):
Roles: Classifying things to do by the “role I play” while doing them. I don’t bother. The details of why I have to do a thing are things that are too nitpicky to record. Because I’m a writer? A wife? A housemate? Because I damn well please? It doesn’t matter.
Contexts: Classifying things to do by the location in which I do them. Again, I don’t bother.
Projects: Classifying things to do by the project of which they’re a part. If I have more than two projects going at once, I’m in trouble anyway. So I have essentially two projects: Writing-Related and Not Writing-Related. That’s fine enough categorisation for this ADHD person.
Priorities: GTD has four of these: Now, Next, Later, and Someday. For me, it’s either Now or Later. I can’t cut this any finer.
GTD principles I retain:
But there are things that are core to GTD that I’ve taken to heart and have heavily automated:
Collecting: I’ve set up automations via IFTTT and Zapier for this. Whether I add reminders in Evernote, in Siri, in the iOS Reminders app directly, in a (rarely-used) iOS app called Daily Notes, or by forwarding emails to Evernote as to-dos, they all get funnelled to a Google calendar I call “Unprocessed”, as all-day events due the next Monday after the events are added.
Processing: The hard part. I have it scheduled for every Monday; about half the time I actually do it. This is where having the tasks disguised as all-day events becomes useful. “Unprocessed”, “Processed”, “Scheduled” and “Appointments” are the four Google calendars I have on the same account—so that they all appear on my week’s calendar in neat little day-based columns.
How I process things to do:
I look at the unprocessed events, and delete those that I, upon reflection, don’t need to do. I then transfer the remainder to the Processed calendar.
On the Processed calendar, I start looking for places to put the most important to-dos on my calendar. My rule is that I never schedule more than five items on a single day. Writing is always scheduled, as is exercise. Appointments count as items. As I schedule to-dos, I move them to the Scheduled calendar. Left over items get moved to the next Monday’s Processed calendar. (Or possibly deleted if I decide that Later has become Never.)
From here my automation takes over. Via Zapier, all the Scheduled calendar items and the Appointments calendar items get inserted into my Habitica to-do list on the appropriate date. I either do them, or my fellow Habitica party members will chew me out.
Finally, a GTD user is to regularly review whether a thing-to-do is needful, and if the categorisation and prioritisation is appropriate. I don’t do this regularly; instead I do this when I feel like chucking it all. Usually this means either I need to prune my daily checklist (which isn’t tracked through GTD) or I’ve over-complicated my GTD variant. Again.
But still, the GTD paradigm remains useful so long as my automations still work—heaven help me if IFTTT or Zapier goes out of business!
Certain things just slip off my brain, like a raw egg off a greased Teflon griddle.
Now, one of the stated goals of GTD is “mind like water.” To quote,
In karate, there is an image that’s used to define the position of perfect readiness: “mind like water.” Imagine throwing a pebble into a still pond. How does the water respond? The answer is, totally appropriately to the force and mass of the input; then it returns to calm. It doesn’t overreact or underreact.
—David Allen, Getting Things Done
I wish. I’m not calm like a still pond. Unlike his ideal GTD practitioner (or the karate student of his analogy), I am unable to control my level of attention. The result? I can build a habit (such as flossing my teeth), do it three months in a row, and have one day where I’m distracted—and it’s gone. I may as well give up on habits; I will always need a checklist for the simple things I need to do daily.
Right now, I’m struggling with simple things to do that aren’t getting done in a timely fashion—for the reason that I have serious trouble remembering them. Example: make a call to cancel an appointment during business hours. Whether I am able to do this is entirely dependent on
Looking at Habitica or my calendar before end of business.
Making the call right that moment.
If for any reason I can’t make the call exactly then (need to gather materials, need to keep the phone line open for an incoming call, need to keep lunch from burning—anything) it will slip off my Mind Like Teflon and I will be very lucky to remember it before end of business. Most often, I don’t.
Put an alarm on my phone, iPad, or Mac? (or all three at once—I’ve done that, too) That might work for a very rare event, but if I’m hyperfocused I’ve been known to not hear a Star Trek-like klaxon alarm going off at 90 decibels. If you think I’m exaggerating—well, I’m not. I nearly died as a teenager because I was hyperfocused on reading a book—in a car that was on fire. People were yelling and pounding on the windows—I didn’t hear.
Further, if I have a loud alarm going off every day, it shortly becomes background noise. I will turn it off and go right on with whatever I’m hyperfocused on, without ever registering that the alarm went off. I know, because I have.
Beeminder, like the alarm that goes off every day, is beginning to merge into the background.
This is a long, rather negative post, I’m afraid. This is something I’ve struggled with for a long time, and it’s not getting better as I’m getting older. If anything, it’s getting worse as I add “senior moments” to all the other things that keep me from getting… stuff… done.
Habitica at least has the virtue of being free (though I choose to subscribe.) And there is a certain flurry of activity every night at about ten PM as I look at my Habitica lists and say, “Oh, s__t.” I’m therefore not about to abandon it, as I may well do with Beeminder. But I need to find a better way to get time-sensitive things that are not appointments—done.
Of course, GTD itself is just a discipline for gathering stuff to do, prioritising stuff to do, and getting it done in decent order. Implementation method is optional—and I’ve gone through several iterations (as shown above) on how to make it work for me.
My problem with my implementation up until this week was that I’d stopped using it. I was using automation to stuff everything into Trello, using it as my collector. But I’d stopped looking there on a regular basis, and had started using Habitica’s To-dos as my collection point—not by intentional design, but by, well, laziness.
Habitica has many virtues. Being a collector for possible things to do is not one of them. The least productive (things that I should just decide Not To Do), the hardest (high-value things to do that need to be broken down more), and medium value but non-urgent things to do all end up at the bottom of my Habitica list, getting redder and redder, their experience points getting higher, and breaking the game by providing experience points, gold, and mana all out of proportion to their true value if and when I finally get them done. I find this horribly demotivating in terms of getting the high-value items (like finishing my novel draft or making an appointment for a physical) done in a timely fashion.
I’m not the only Habitican who’s noticed this problem—and the Habitica developers are considering several different approaches to making this more motivating for prompt attention to to-dos and working better with outside to-do systems. In the meantime…
I’ve cut out the middleman. In order to do my weekly GTD review, I once had to open Trello, and open Google Calendar, and consider where to put my Trello cards on the calendar once I’d decided to do them this week. I then had a rather elaborate and failure-prone protocol for putting the lucky Trello cards into a special column so that Zapier would automatically place them on the Google calendar on the chosen day. Then I had another Zapier automation which would stuff them into Habitica just before they were due.
Now I collect things to do on my calendar. I actually have four calendars in my Google account—one for real, timed “Appointments,” one for “Scheduled” to-dos , one for raw, “Unprocessed” to-dos, and one for “Processed”, prioritised to-dos that have not been scheduled (this is also where I put time blocks so I’m sure to leave enough time for writing and exercise.)
Note that I don’t use the Google Tasks thing. They show up off to one side. I need to see my things-to-do stacked up on the day I plan to do them, as in my illustration. The to-dos are the all-day items.
I’ve convinced IFTTT to dump raw to-dos from iOS Reminders and Evernote into that “Unprocessed” to-dos calendar and make them nominally due on the next Monday. On Monday I do my GTD review. I take anything undone from the last week, delete its to-do from Habitica and stuff its calendar item back into Processed and re-prioritise it. All the Unprocessed to-dos are either deleted or given a priority. Anything that is priority 3 or above is moved to an appropriate day in the “Scheduled” calendar. (I never put more than six items/appointments due on any one day, including writing and exercise—if I don’t have room for something, then either it or something else goes back into the Processed calendar.) I then move leftover Processed to-dos to the following Monday. Zapier then takes all the items added to Scheduled and stuffs them into Habitica at 00:01 am on their due dates.
This way, no to-do hangs around in Habitica for more than a week, growing more and more evil. Monday morning I don’t have to open both Trello and my calendar, because everything lives in my calendar now. Zapier doesn’t have to try to parse Trello cards and stuff them into the calendar, just stuff the scheduled calendar items into Habitica later.
Okay, I admit it. Programming all the automation is—dare I say it?—fun. And eliminating the Trello collection step makes it a lot simpler. So, onward to Getting Things (like more writing) Done.
Beeminder has undergone a few changes in the past year—they’ve cut back on their free options (though it’s still usable free—just not as generously as in the past.) As a result, I’ve started a $4/month subscription. It’s worth it to me, just to be able to run more than three goals at once.
As you can see above, I’ve actually got seven Beeminder goals active. I’ve stated previously that I know I can’t handle more than three or four—what’s changed?
First, I’ve gotten myself a Bluetooth blood pressure monitor (Withings) as well as a WiFi-connected scale (also Withings). With these in place, a lot of data entry has gone poof. Instead, I can look at the tracking in Beeminder and say, “Oh, [Deity of choice], have mercy! WTF caused THAT spike?” and do something about it, without doing anything more than actually taking the readings. As long as all I have to do to get data into Beeminder is take readings, wear my fitness tracker, and work on my Mac (RescueTime), I’m good.
In fact, all is good except my word count. Lately my word count, to use the old Saturday Night Live line, “really bites the big one.”
I can’t get my word count into Beeminder directly. Scrivener remains stubbornly unconnected to things like IFTTT and Zapier. While I can track the amount of time I use Scrivener in RescueTime, I consider it highly unlikely that anything more sophisticated than tweeting word count automatically will appear in Scrivener 3.0. (Prove me wrong, Keith! Please!) Still, tracking word count in Beeminder is pretty hopeless if I have to have the discipline to do data entry every. Single. Freaking. Day. Even if Beeminder reminds me. Pleads with me. Flat-out nags me…
BUT—I’ve realised that I’ve stopped tracking only activities directly related to writing (Scrivener use, iThoughts use, Wikipedia (maybe), Evernote in my Writing notebook (maybe)). I started broadening what I had RescueTime consider “writing” back in October when I started the publishing push for The Bully Trap. That information is valuable, but it’s not writing time.
So I’m splitting “writing” into two goals—“Writing” and “Business_Hours”. Business hours will retain a goal of 22 hours per week. Writing hours will cut back drastically to 3.5 hours per week (included in the business hours goal) to make it easier to get started again. If it looks like I might derail, I’ll scale back the writing hours goal further, until I can succeed—and then start increasing it again. As I do this, I’ll adjust the activities (websites, apps, etc.) which are allocated to each category—on a daily basis at first, until they’re mostly right again.
I have to fight off feeling discouraged. It feels like starting over again—but it’s not. It’s cleaning up my act.
Besides, I have some True Fans out there. I have to keep on keeping on—for them. I’ve promised.
I did not manage to write 50K words on my new manuscript.
I need to learn how to plan my novel before drafting. Seriously. I know that other people can plan without completely hosing their enthusiasm for a project. I still haven’t figured out how to work it for myself. OK, I commit to reading three more eye-rolling “how to plan a novel” books before March. Blech.
Next, the Good News:
I managed to write more than 43K words on my new manuscript. Better than 86% of goal—I’m not at all displeased, even if I don’t get NaNoWriMo Winner Goodies this year.
I learned that planning recreational travel during NaNoWriMo is contraindicated. Yes, in the past I’ve managed to keep on track in Camp NaNoWriMo despite going to family funerals. But if I’m trying to have fun by traveling somewhere, I find that I can’t really enjoy my trip because my word count is suffering, and I can’t really focus on writing because I’m on a trip. All that really saved my word count on my San Jose trip was the fact that I traveled north by train. I can get a lot of words written on a nine-hour train ride.
For My Own Information:
It’s easier to focus in my dining room, even with the fridge and television handy, than it is in the nice office area I set up in my bedroom. This is counter-intuitive to me. I have a lovely standing desk, a beautiful large monitor, a chair if I want to sit down, reference books, supplies, etc. on hand in my bedroom. If I work in the dining room I have to go upstairs to get references, or a notebook to draw a plot or a map in, or a pen to draw the map or plot with, ad infinitum. Yet I clock more words in the dining room. Go figure.
It’s easier to focus in Starbucks than it is in a nice office I’ve rented for a day. Even if I have to tell the guy next to me in Starbucks that hockey is fun to talk about but I have to work now, I still get more done in Starbucks.
It’s almost impossible to focus when I’m in the same place as Hubby. OK, maybe not as surprising as the others, but still, he is a walking distraction… I suppose after many years of marriage, that’s a good thing.
I am ADHD. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean simply that I am noticeably more distraction-prone than most people — although that is certainly true.
What it means is that I can’t control my level of focus.
Think about that for a moment. It means that I can’t control whether my mind flits like a butterfly from — Oh, look! A squirrel! — subject to subject. Nor can I control whether I become “hyperfocused” and unable to break my focus on an activity. (Please note that hyperfocus is not the creative “flow” state that people talk about. I wish.)
There is no “medium-focus” state wherein I can choose what to focus on. This means that trying to protect myself from distraction is like a pig trying to sing. It wastes my time, and only results in me getting depressed when I compare my results to expected results.
Take a look at the Figure 1 above. Scrivener has its “distraction-free” Composition mode. Ulysses is ALL distraction-free mode. The theory of such a display is that all the “displacement” activities the author uses to avoid writing disappear and she has no other choice except to write.
I’ve tried it. My results:
My brain throws a distraction. With no bright colors or flashing lights to hold me, I wander away and do something else. (90% probability.)
I hyperfocus on my text so that I forget where I am, whether I need to go to the bathroom, and how this text is supposed to fit into my novel. (10% probability.)
Just looking at either screen induces panic. I’ll forget what I’m supposed to be doing, one way or the other — I know this as surely as I know the sun rises in the east. Hyperfocus is as deadly to my productivity as lack of focus.
What I do is surround myself with distractions — positive distractions. A timer goes off to remind me — not to take a break, but to reassess what I’m doing — every twenty-five to thirty minutes. I surround myself with as much temptingly cluttered screen real estate as possible that’s related to my work in progress, so that when (not if) my brain throws a distraction, I am at least likely to be drawn to something writing-related. (See Figure 2.) I think of this not as distraction-filled but as target-rich. Then when the timer goes off, I can get back to writing. I never, never hide clocks or battery indicators — if I’m lucky I might notice them when I’m hyperfocused and they’ll bring me out of my trance.
Not that the timer always works. When I become hyperfocused sound seems to slide off my brain. If that happens, my only hope is that I notice that I need to go to the bathroom before my chair gets soggy…
My last few posts have all related to productivity in various aspects of my life — quantifying it and improving it. How’s that working for me?
So far, in January, I’ve written 21,465 words. That’s as opposed to my total word count for NaNoWriMo in November, which was 18,771 words. On the 25th of November, I had only written 14,327 words. That’s a 31% increase. I’m doing something right.
One thing I’ve found, is that when I have material consequences, such as having to pay Beeminder, I’m more motivated to find some way to continue writing even when I’ve “hit a wall.” I’ll find some other portion of the story to work on, or write on another story, or even stop and do some story structure work and then go back to typing out words.
Not that I’ve transformed into a writing machine! No, you can see that I derailed on January 19, and I’ve had a tough couple of days. I may not make my 30K in January goal. But — not only will I have written more in a month than I have in a long time, but I will also have learned a lot about what I need in order to be productive.
Days when I’m in pain from arthritis — well, it’s hard to want to sit at a keyboard when my neck and shoulders feel like they’re being squeezed in a vise. It’s a steady dull ache that gets worse until I’m in tears. The same applies to my knees. Days when the pain is out of control — they lead to derailment.
Equally devastating are days when I have too many other things to do scheduled, and put them as a priority over writing. If I don’t get out of the house to write before about four in the afternoon, my word count for the day is probably zero.
So. Keeping my pain in control, means keeping my food and exercise in control. It’s no accident that my derailment on the 19th happened when it did. I had a re-injury of an old knee problem on about the 12th. I stayed in denial until I was in agony. I admitted my problem on the 16th, got some mercy from the good folks at Beeminder on a goal (Misfit points) that had become unrealistic, but the knee responded to rest slowly for a while. I note that I had a superbly bad sleep week between the 12th and the 19th. Small wonder; it’s hard to sleep with that kind of pain. I’m pleased to see that I didn’t overeat or make poor food choices that week — it would have been easy to use the pain as an excuse.
I don’t yet have this kind of insight into why I don’t get out the door to go writing, other than if I haven’t gotten to bed at a decent hour, why then I don’t wake up until later, and by the time I’m ready to depart — it’s easy to use the excuse that the schoolkids will have mobbed Starbucks, it will be loud and I won’t be able to find a comfortable chair, so why bother?
Not a good enough excuse. I’ll have to see what improvements I can make here.
I have a regrettable tendency to over-complicate my productivity systems. Generally, this takes the form of adding new tools, in some cases better tools, to my system by “integrating” them, which means not abandoning superceded systems. Net result — I spend so much time updating my systems that I get nothing actually done unless I completely blow off said system. Sometimes, I dig into detail — so much detail that, as before, I spend a ridiculous amount of time maintaining the system, and get nothing actually productive done unless I abandon the system.
Take the UNESCO World Heritage site to the left, for example. I no longer remember which site, or even in which city it was (I’m reasonably sure it was in Germany, though) — at this point, a week or more into my river cruise of central Europe in 2014, I was so burned out on eighteenth century architecture that I didn’t even bother to take a photo of the interior. When you’ve seen one palace with every available surface decorated, painted, carved, or gilded, you’ve seen ’em all. (By the way, a lot of them were done by the same architect. Popular dude.)
My productivity systems are just about at that level of baroque-osity. Damn.
Right now, I am dying on the hill of my Google calendars. They exist primarily so that a) I don’t try to do everything at once, and b) stuff to do gets automatically fed to Trello. I do not need to tag every single thing in them as done, cancelled or whatever; that record exists in Trello. It possibly also exists in Evernote if the thing to do came in that way. But nonetheless, I mark them, and take a screenshot of my mostly-completed weekly calendar to put into Evernote, as if it were a Franklin Planner page.
But I no longer take notes on my calendar, not really. I type them directly in Evernote, or handwrite them in a Noteshelf notebook which is automatically uploaded to Evernote. In extremity I will scribble on a Post-it which gets photographed and uploaded to — you guessed it — Evernote. There they are all searchable by the date I uploaded them, the calendar item that was going at the time, the location I was in when I made them, any other tags I care to add, and the digitized, scanned, and interpreted content gleaned from the scrawled handwriting within.
I don’t NEED those weekly calendar screenshots, and in fact could dig back through my Google calendars if I needed to see them in a week-calendar format. But in thiry-plus years keeping the stupid things in various formats, I’ve had to dig back farther than last month maybe once or twice a year. I don’t need those screenshots; they are the last remnant of the Franklin Way, and I need to drop them.
Then, too, there are the charts I keep in the Hacker’s Diet Online. I am reluctant to stop updating them because of years of weight history charts (mostly up) and exercise charts (mostly blank.) But Beeminder will keep that data for me, automatically, and even spank me when I have a tantrum about watching what I eat and getting exercise in. I need to drop that rock, too.
Now that I’ve set up my Beeminder goals, I’m looking for ways to simplify data entry. There are a lot of automatic data sources listed on the Beeminder website, but many of them won’t work for me. For example, I could track words automatically if I only wrote via Draft, but I’m not about to give up Scrivener.
On the other hand, there was the tempting possibility of purchasing a fitness tracker. Beeminder supports several. After much digging on Amazon, I settled on Misfit’s Flash Link, for its — let’s face it — astonishingly low entry price of $15 for the tracker sensor, and $8 for a third-party wristband, as purchased on Amazon.
Not that cheapness is without its costs. The reviews on Amazon universally excoriate the durability of Misfit’s wristbands and shoe clips — basically, they have no durability. (Hence the third-party wristband.) And if the tracker goes wonky, Misfit support is reputed to be remarkably unhelpful.
The tracker arrived Monday, January 4. I looked carefully through the minimal manual and the packaging. The word “warranty” never appeared. Eventually I found a warranty page on their website, but the weaseling language and user comments on Amazon made me realize that my only allies in this purchase are those on Amazon and the Apple App Store who bother to publish their reviews.
With those review pages open, I started connecting my Misfit to my iPhone and to Beeminder. Since I use IFTTT heavily and it supports Misfit, I wanted maximum connectivity — and the Flash Link in particular is advertised as being able to connect to many wonderful things, as well as being a wizard fitness tracker.
Well, I got it working. Yes, I now have two Beeminder goals being automatically tracked from my Misfit — Misfit points (Misfit to IFTTT to Beeminder) and bedtime (Misfit to IFTTT to Beeminder.) I’ve convinced the little devil to send signals to IFTTT when I double-click or triple-click it. That’s covering a third goal, my range-of-motion exercise sets. I can set up a direct Beeminder goal for sleep hours or steps, if I want, and yet more data automation is possible via IFTTT. The tracker itself is set up to automatically flick on when I raise my wrist (like the thirty-times more expensive Apple Watch!) and show me its little LED clock and progress display.
This did not come easily. Below is my review for the App Store and for Amazon, republished below for anyone who wants a cheap tracker to do marvelous things.
Now to see if it actually lasts so long that I need to change the battery.
MISFIT FLASH LINK AND LINK APP (**** ) (four of five stars)
I bought this for a fraction of the cost of other fitness trackers, and my expectations are in proportion to price. Nonetheless, I have deducted one star for the challenge level of setting it up correctly.
Firstly, if you only want an activity tracker, the simplest thing is to just use it with the Misfit app, and forget about the Link app. If, however, you’d like to double-click or triple-click the tracker to control some function while still using it as a tracker, read on.
Any one Flash can ONLY be used as an activity tracker OR a music remote OR a selfie button OR a Preso clicker OR a Bolt switch OR a “custom button” at a time. It can’t do them all at once, despite advertising implication. If you set up your activity tracker via Link you can have extra functions, but it’s not going to do them all at the same time. First, disconnect your Flash from the Misfit app if you’ve already connected it (disconnect it from within the app.) After that, go to your phone’s Bluetooth settings and disconnect the Flash there, too.
Be sure you’ve downloaded both the Misfit app and the Misfit Link app. Now open the Link app. Go ahead and connect your Flash to it, and select Activity Tracker. The Link app will automatically connect your Flash to the Misfit app as well as to itself. Yay! You now have the function you probably bought the Flash Link for. Now you can set up the double-press or triple-press functions to a) send a “Yo;” b) connect to IFTTT.com for a recipe you can program; c) Connect to a Harmony home control system; or d) ring your phone. I use IFTTT extensively — so I have IFTTT recipes connected both to double-press and to triple-press.
Finally, you will get the opportunity to set up your Flash to automatically turn on and show you your progress and the time when you raise your wrist (like an Apple Watch.) Think carefully before you turn this on; you can’t turn it off, and it will run down your battery a bit faster.
Now you can edit the tracker in Link to do one of those other functions (selfie button, etc.). It will still track your activity, and you can still sync it with the Misfit app, but you won’t be able to see your progress or the time on the tracker itself (unless you turned on the wrist flick thing) until you edit the tracker back to the Activity Tracker function in the Link App. Also, you won’t be able to tag activities unless your Flash is in Activity Tracker mode in the Link app.
All this is horribly confusing, and not well explained in the apps as you’re doing what you’re doing. Worse, the Misfit app offers you an opportunity to set up your tracker with the Link app from the Device page within the Misfit app itself. Don’t believe it! It lies! Disconnect your Flash from the Misfit app before you start in with the Link app, as I described above.