Tips on working smarter

The year was 2016. I had recently returned from studying abroad in China into a very rough economy and was translating driver’s licenses for coffee money while I looked for a real job. I started the day with an hour (or more) of looking at nothing on the internet, had worn a path to the fridge with the frequency I took snack breaks, and had watched everything on Netflix. It was rare to see me out of my pajamas. On this particular morning, as I sat down to make two hours of license translations take eight hours, I wondered why, exactly it took so long for me to get things done.

That morning was the beginning of a productivity revolution. I decided to figure out what my bad habits were and how I could improve. Sitting at my parent’s dining room table, I counted 21 interruptions in an hour from my parents, my younger sister, family pets, and the mailman. I realized I was sitting in the main highway of the house, and, moved my office (okay, my laptop and a dictionary) to the disused television room.

I also wondered why I felt like I had needed to stop work for every interruption. I decided to prioritize my own time and work on ignoring requests from my family during my work time. If there were too many interruptions, I would leave and go to a coffee shop. I don’t live with my family anymore, but I continue to give myself permission to make sure my day works for me.

Safe from my loving family, I had no one to blame for my lack of productivity but myself. My next challenge was addressing the way I sometimes procrastinated on starting difficult tasks in the morning. I decided to challenge myself to work for just five minutes on my highest priority task when I first sat down at my computer, an idea I stole from a book about how to go to the gym more. Safe in the knowledge I could stop something boring, I would usually work until it was done.

The next thing I noticed was that my email and cellphone could often derail me, so I tried using the Pomodoro Technique, which required me to work for 25 minutes straight without checking my phone or email with a 5 minute break after. It worked well for me as a translator, and I still use it to help me focus when I have a long, complicated task as an RM.

Now flush with free time, I started reading up on productivity. David Allen’s Getting Things Done helps me every day. Allen’s two-minute rule says that if a task takes it two minutes or less, do it immediately. If I’m reading an email that needs a quick response, I write it then (even if I want to put it off). If someone calls while I’m driving and I know that it’ll be a two-minute conversation, I call them back before I get out of the car. If an email with something to add to FM comes in, I open a new window and add it right then rather than coming back to it.

Allen also insists that you write everything down. Perhaps you, like me, have been standing in the shower and thought “shouldn’t I go to the notary?” Until someone creates a waterproof laptop, the thought goes down the drain. Now I track all my waiting-for items in Filemaker by sending myself a quick FUN, or in To-Doist, which lets me create tasks from my phone, desktop, calendar and personal email. My Filemaker tasks are usually host or student-specific, while my To-Doist tasks are bigger picture (for example “remind Sally about CRC” versus “School Visit Schedule for 19-20 to Mel.”) Writing everything down means I can see when I’m avoiding something and lets me know what to do next. I also do a review once a week to make sure I’m getting everything done.

I also enjoyed Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours, which has been helpful for me in conceptualizing how I spend my time. She suggests tracking how you spend all the hours in a day for a week, which I’ve never managed to do, but this book was helpful in getting me to take another look at my regular repetitive tasks, and before CHN, was the catalyst for upgrading my laptop when I realized how long I spent waiting for it to load.

Becoming more efficient at repetitive tasks is an ongoing battle. In Edmonton, we’re lucky to have Crystal, a Filemaker wizard who often has a solution to a problem I didn’t realize existed, and has taught me to batch-add FUNs and click buttons, to use Boolean operators for searches, and when I was really new, how to open a second window in Filemaker, among many other ‘who knew’ moments. Like it says in the Learning Centre, if I’m lost, I ask for help. If I’m about to start an unfamiliar task, I often take a quick look in the Filemaker Session wiki to see if there’s a video on what I’m trying to do. Often there is and it saves me time and stress. If there’s a task I know I’m going to be doing repeatedly but infrequently, sometimes I email myself instructions for the next time I do it, and I have a folder of relevant informational emails to refer back to.

I also keep files of important documents (like meeting agendas) near my desk, and make sure that I’m regularly filing or shredding the documents I collect in the course of my day-to-day. My system is just chronological by client, but again, it helps me keep track of documents that don’t necessarily have a logical home in Filemaker, plus it’s nice to see my desk. As my mother always says, everything in its place, and a place for every thing!