This is part 3 of the Flake-Friendly Productivity series
If your digital environment is like mine, you run across a ton of tools and tricks to make yourself more productive.
Apps, systems, planners, and an endless stream of surefire hacks.
Because diving down rabbit holes is one of my favorite hobbies, I’ve tried a whole bunch of these. Today, I’ll share a few that I’ve found actually useful.
First things first
I’ve been talking this month about “flake-friendly” productivity, but for a lot of us, that actually means “ADHD-friendly,” or just “inconvenient-brain-wiring-friendly.”
If you think ADHD is playing a role in your focus issues, do yourself the great favor of pursuing a real diagnosis.
Trying to DIY your recovery makes everything about a skillion times harder than it needs to be. (Ask me how I know.)
Depending on where you live, I know that getting a diagnosis of ADHD (or any mental health issue) can be tough. But don’t give up on it. Consider getting a friend to help you stick with the project and get any help you may need.
OK, now let’s move to some productivity tools that I’ve found useful for ultra-distracted brains.
The Internet is, of course, the most efficient machine ever devised for shattering our focus and obliterating executive function.
It’s 1000 cheap dopamine hits in your pocket — available any time, anywhere.
But sometimes, the best way to fight digital distraction fire is with fire — with tools you can insert into your digital environment to give your poor brain a fighting chance.
Distraction blockers and focus tools
Unless you are effortlessly getting to everything on your “Really Important” list, you’ll want to install a distraction blocker on your devices.
My favorite one is Freedom. It’s highly flexible, without being complicated to figure out. It lets me choose what I want to block and in what context (so I can block different things on different devices).
It’s also hard to “cheat” on. (I can’t just turn it off because I feel like a Twitter fix.)
It’s not free, but it very quickly pays for itself in letting me set clear boundaries around my focused time.
Start small with your blocks, because it’s a bummer to lock yourself out of an important work resource when you’re under a tight deadline.
But once you know your own habits, you can use your blocker to preserve juicy chunks of time to get work done.
I love habit streaks, which means I like to have a habit tracker.
These are great for tasks you want to build into a regular practice. My preference actually tends to be for non-digital versions, but there are times when I want something on my phone as well.
I prefer ultra simple tools for these — features are fun, but the last thing I need is a new rabbit hole of habit streak analysis.
I’m getting good use of Habit Tracker (for iOS) for tracking tasks like reaching out to my network and making time for professional education. The same developer also has a nicely minimal to-do list.
If you do want a few more bells and whistles, here’s a list of some chunkier options.
For distractible brains, often staying off your devices is the wisest choice. Paper and pens are tactile and incredibly flexible.
It’s also really hard to mindlessly lose an hour playing Hangman.
Here are some of my indispensables:
The Bullet Journal
Ry Carroll’s Bullet Journal is incredibly popular, but if I’m going to be perfectly honest — I think a lot people are Doing It Wrong.
There’s a massive community of “BuJo” creators on Instagram, Pinterest, and YouTube who will teach you how to decorate your bullet journal with fancy typography, complicated calendar layouts, and graphic spreads.
And while I’m always a fan of buying more office supplies, the best part of the Bullet Journal is its simplicity.
By all means, have fun with decoration if you enjoy it. But I really recommend sticking with Carroll’s original core idea, then adapting it to your own needs rather than something amazing-looking you see on Instagram.
I keep my own version of a bullet journal (I call it a Portable Writer’s Studio), and occasionally I teach workshops on that. Make sure you’re on my email list if you’d like to be notified the next time I hold one.
My friend Victoria Labalme is a big fan of index cards (3″ x 5″ or A7) for keeping notes on the fly and organizing her ideas.
I use them to put talks together, but my favorite thing to do with these is to make myself a very limited to-do list.
If I have three things that need to get done before lunchtime, I write them on an index card.
Priorities for my week? Index card that sits next to my laptop.
Whittling down my next tasks onto a small paper card keeps all of the overwhelming detail off of my list and out of my brain.
Yes, I could absolutely use a notes program on my phone for these. Which would mean powering up my phone. Which opens the door to all kinds of non-useful ways to kill 30 or 40 minutes.
Index cards are small, simple, frictionless, tactile, and superbly flexible.
I talked a few weeks ago about the grown-up (well, maybe not that grown-up) version of a sticker chart.
This is just a blank calendar that you use to track your habits.
You can use different colors of stickers, like Stephen Guise does with his Elastic Habits system.
Or you can use glitter unicorns and butterflies. Or some fancy Japanese stickers (maybe the ones you bought for your planner then never used).
Again — low-friction, tactile, simple.
Also, stickers are fun, and fun is good.
Tips, tricks, and hacks
I’ll wrap up with a couple more tips and tricks. I have huge numbers of these, but I’ll keep it to three for today:
Count your spoons
All this time, I thought people on Twitter were using “spoons” as a more PG-13 way of saying “balls,” but no.
“Spoon theory” is a metaphor to explain that our energy to do things is limited, and that some people have less of it than others.
Some people have a lot of spoons (energy) and some people don’t. You’ll also have more spoons on some days than others, and at different times of your life.
It is incredibly common to get mad at yourself because you think you should have the energy and focus to do a bunch more tasks than you actually can.
Worse, the self recrimination ends up burning up energy you could be using on something more rewarding. (Because let’s face it, anything is more rewarding than self recrimination.)
Thinking of your capacity for focused work as a physical object can help you be more realistic about how many spoons you actually have on a given day, and what you want to spend them on.
This is simply working alongside someone else.
It plays a role in why we sometimes are more productive in an office setting, and why it sometimes can be hard to keep our momentum when we’re on our own.
It’s also why writers love coffeeshops. Caffeine and physical bodies (who aren’t trying to distract you with conversation) in one heavenly package.
The 21st-century version of this is coworking, both physical and virtual. Sit close to a few pleasant people, absorb some productivity sparkles, get more things done.
I’ve run a virtual coworking community for almost two years now, and they’re becoming more and more popular.
They help give your work the structure of time and place, without the stress of commutes or contagious diseases. Or mandatory pants.
Keep a long “what’s next” list
My final hack (for today) is just for writers and other content creators: Keep a really long running list of what you’re going to write about next.
Back when I wrote 100 emails for my list in a row, I started with a list of maybe 30 topic ideas.
I kept them in a digital text file as a numbered list.
Any time I added to my list, I was able to see how close I was to my 100 goal. It was also easy to rearrange them as I went.
You don’t have to be working on a content marathon to make this work.
Grab hold of the scraps of paper and notebooks you have lying around, and collect a pile of ideas you actually want to write about. Arrange them in the order you want to work on them. Make it a numbered list if you feel like it.
As new ideas come up, add them to the list wherever they fit. If you fall out of love with an idea, move it to another list, something like “Maybe later.”
As you start to accumulate a nice long list like this, it becomes almost impossible to run out of things to write about.
And if you get to an idea that you aren’t in the mood for, you can just look ahead until you find an idea that works better today.
Listed out this way, you’ll spot related ideas that can be combined for series and larger pieces. You’ll see what themes are coming up for you again and again. And you’ll be able to judge whether you’re striking a good topic balance for your audience and your goals.
Again, you could definitely use a more robust tool for this. (Some folks just use their WordPress calendar.)
But a simple text file takes seconds to update, takes up essentially no room on your hard drive, and can be expanded as far as you find useful.
This week (September 12-16, 2022), get live support and encouragement for your big project
I’m holding a free focus sprint this week, and you’re invited.
We started on Monday, but if you’re finding this post before Friday the 16th, you can still join in. Reply to any of my emails to let me know you want the links!
Just drop your details in the form below (beneath the comment section) and we’ll make sure you get the invite.
Remember body doubling? (It’s, like, twenty lines above this one.) A focus sprint harnesses that to give you a little motivation boost. And because it happens at a specific date and time, you’ll be able to plan exactly when you’ll work on your project.
This is a great time to make significant progress on work that’s hard to make time for. You could use the time to:
- Plan your next launch
- Make progress on a book
- Get your finances organized
- Declutter your work space
- Map out the final quarter for the year
- Polish your website
- Tackle the homework for the course you bought this summer
Or anything at all that’s been on your to-do list for too long.
You don’t have to make every session, and it’s completely fine to show up late or leave early. All focus is good focus!
Check out the earlier posts in this series
- Join me for a month of flake-free productivity
- The first key: Preserving your momentum
- Rewards and reinforcement: Can you bribe yourself into being productive?