Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tools and Tips for Improving Productivity (and Maintaining Sanity)

The following is from a workshop I will be giving on Monday. Feedback is welcome in the comments section. Original document can be viewed here.


There are two groups into which I’ve placed each of these tools and tips.  The first group are straight forward and relatively direct in how they help (MOE, ERO, etc. friendly if you like).  The second group are perhaps a little more indirect but are much more useful in the long run.  An example of a directly useful tool would be Google Calendar where you can set up your calendar to email or “txt” your schedule to you each morning.  This has obvious benefits to your productivity.  I won’t spend much time focusing on these direct methods because they are self explanatory as to how they can help.

An example of an indirectly useful tip is to develop your creativity.  While it might seem obvious to some, as to how this helps productivity and reduces stress, it’s hard to justify activities that develop creativity while “on-the-clock”.  The reality is that this will produce much more beneficial effects to your productivity (and to your sanity) than learning how to use Google Calendar ever will.  But, just so that we can easily justify this workshop, the first list is our direct list and has some immediate benefits listed alongside.

Implementing New Ideas

This is the caution:
In beginning to incorporate new tools and tips to improve productivity, the chief danger is in trying to do too much and increasing stress levels so that productivity actually decreases!

A tool that can make an immediate difference is learning how to block your time.  Instead of completing tasks, set aside a period of time, e.g. from 11:45am to 12:15pm on Tuesday during your non-contact period, and work on the task without a mind to finishing it during this time.  

The pressure of having to complete the task can affect your ability to do the task in a number of ways.  If the task is “big” (or even seems “big” when it isn’t) people are prone to procrastinating.  We are more likely to put off a task if we perceive that there is not enough time to complete it in the time that we have.  Even if we decide to give it a try, our performance will be affected by our knowledge that we can’t do as good a job as we would like, or that we can’t finish it in time.  By blocking a period of time on your Google Calendar, without the expectation of finishing anything immediately, you can make a good start.

To survive the implementation of these tools and tips, I suggest finding 10 minutes per week to expose yourself to ideas like this and to try and incorporate them.  Set a timer.  The worst that could happen is that you waste 10 minutes of time frustrating yourself each week.  The best that can happen is that you change your life and enjoy your work more than ever before.

Even if you don’t think that blocking time is a tool that will work for you, the caution still stands: Gradual change, not trying to do it all at once, is the most sustainable.

Personal Development (A comment on Group Two ideas)

This is something that the bottom line often misses:  
“Personal development may be the most beneficial investment to productivity.”  

Dan Pink, author of ‘Drive - The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, has found in his research that a carrot and stick approach is a mistake and that:

“the secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”

You can watch a video of Dan Pink talking about these concepts in more detail here.  

Group One - The Obvious stuff

Countdown Timer for blocking your time.

Gmail and other Google Applications - (click on the “more” link at the top).  The main benefit to these apps is that they are online so that you can access them anywhere.  It’s a good idea to keep a copy of some of the more commonly used files from your Google Docs on a memory stick in case you can’t access the Internet.  Dating your files in the file name before uploading them to Google Docs can provide a quick and easy reference to the newest version if you modify offline and re-upload.  Google also stores multiple versions of the same name with a timestamp but it’s not as obvious. “The best way to manage your tasks.  Never forget the milk (or anything else) again.” Sort of like scrap booking great ideas, pictures, websites, and any online content or offline content that you can transfer online using a portable device.  You then have access to this info via your Internet connected mobile device.  Don’t bother with notes on paper.  Scan them, take a photo of them and then recycle the paper.  Puts it all together in one place.

Google Reader (one of the more useful Google Apps) - put all of the blogs that you read in one place.  This enables you to get through a seriously huge quantity of material in a meaningful way.  Subscribe to education blogs, subject specific blogs, personal interest blogs (you never know when you will find a learning context that you can help your students relate to more easily).  Be brutal with your screening of articles by their titles, starring the ones that you think are worth reading for later viewing.  Block your time on this because you can spend days reading random goodness through Google Reader.

Suggested feeds for interesting reading using Google Reader:  Another innovation along the lines of Google Reader, except broader in scope.  You set up your preferences for topics and click the “stumble” button to go to a random web-page that is along the lines of your interests.  As you stumble through pages you can click the “like” or “dislike” button so that Stumbleupon better learns what you are looking for.  This has good entertainment purposes but, if you set up a “work” Stumbleupon account for research of ideas, you can keep your every day lessons fresh using the unlimited scope of the Internet.

Microsoft OneNote  - Similar to Evernote but with no Internet connection required, a little known tool included in Microsoft Office 2010.  You can link OneNote use to a smart board to easily keep your notes given during a lesson.  Notes can easily be exported in pdf format and uploaded to the Internet for students that are absent, overseas, in other teachers’ classes (to give them a different perspective from their own teacher perhaps) or for future use if you are sick the following year and need to give notes with no preparation.  One of the more powerful tools is that you can record audio (class discussion or teacher explanations) and directly embed this audio into the OneNote sheet with the notes.  This is a great way to contribute to department resources and to show evidence for appraisal, etc (Likewise with Google Docs and the various sharing features)

Email Tips:
  • If you typically check your email more than 2 or 3 times through the day, you might like to consider blocking time for your email checking and replying.  Email can be a huge time waster if you keep going back to it too often.
  • If you must have your email open, e.g. for video chat or instant messaging availability in Gmail, then learn to use the “priority inbox” to sort your email and don’t feel that you have to answer emails immediately.  Train yourself not to compulsively answer emails or mark them as read!
  • If you run out of time, it’s okay to leave an email half written (but saved) in a draft form.  It is easy to develop the habit of putting pressure on ourselves to finish emails before heading off to a meeting or class.  This results in lower quality emails and being late which reduce our effectiveness.
  • Take the day off from checking emails once in a while.  Some businesses even have email-free days.  And don’t be afraid to totally empty your inbox if it has months (or years) of emails to respond to.  Anything important and people will get back to you.  An inbox full of emails to respond to can be an enormous weight that can kick your procrastination into gear!
  • Try not to check your emails until you have completed one of your major priorities for the day.  Otherwise your day can be totally hijacked by checking and replying to emails or by actioning.  Learning to prioritise will help with this, but having rules about when you check email can help you prioritise.

Only agree to meetings (or calls) with a clear agenda or end time otherwise you will sit through many a pointless meeting.

Related to the above: Learn how to stop people/students from rambling.  It’s good to give your time to others to show that you are listening, but if they ramble on you are wasting time that you could use to help many others.  The nature of our role (and our education system) is to work for many (too many?) so we have to be a little brutal with time-wasters sometimes.  If you run meetings, don’t let people ramble on - remember that any activity which holds everyone in one place has the potential to waste hours of time when multiplied by the number of people attending.

Don’t have unnecessary meetings and try to include only people with a direct vested interest in the content of the meeting.  If only 3 out of 10 people are involved in one agenda item that takes 30 minutes to discuss, that is 7x30=3.5 hours of work time wasted.

Learn to be concise.  Get to the point quickly.  Don’t waste other peoples’ time.

Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should.  Humans are social beings and if we don’t have non-work social outlets, our work time will develop into a social outlet that can waste much time.  It’s also good to “switch off” from work regularly and this is hard to do if your work is also your social outlet.

Learn some speed reading tips (even if you don’t learn to read a page by looking at it, you will read faster).  Some quick tips:
  1. Use a ruler or other line marker to help you focus on the line and then move it down the page/screen (I often use my finger).
  2. Practise spotting key words and phrases to avoid reading non-essential words.
  3. Try reading with no internal monologue.  Most people read by “hearing” a voice in their mind at close to normal speaking speed.  This limits your speed significantly.  The goal is to bypass the internal “voice” and pass straight to the comprehension part.  It takes a lot of practise but is possible for everyone.

Develop filtering techniques for reading articles (fits in well with Google Reader).  For example, if a title “rambles” or is vague, then the article is probably going to be the same and will take too long to get to the point.  Don’t bother wasting your time - read something else that will give another idea to you quicker.  If in doubt, read the first paragraph to confirm.  Reading headings + first and last paragraph + two or three random paragraphs through the article can often give you the gist of an article too.

Use tabs in your Internet browser.  Open links in a new tab, finish reading your current page and then close that tab (or bookmark for later).  Bookmark tabs if you don’t have time to look at them now, or email links to yourself.

Develop your memory using some simple memory techniques, e.g. assigning letters to numbers to memorise long strings of digits or associating tasks with crazy images that link in with the physical environment where the task must be remembered.

Group Two - Indirect (But Powerful) Stuff

Nutrition - Eat right (but enjoy your food), maintain a healthy weight, and your stress will decrease while your creativity and productivity will increase.  Feeling physically great has many positive side effects for work outcomes.  If you feel great from proper nutrition you will feel more like exercising.  Use tech tools to learn about good nutrition and to record your intake for later reflection - you’ll likely be surprised how the junk food adds up and what your calorie intake actually amounts to.  Some applications can give you nutritional information just by taking a photo of the food!  One of the best resources for healthy lifestyle changes that I’ve found is from Dr. Phil Maffetone, Ironman coach, author, and musician.  Read some of his nutritional advice here.

Exercise - Find a way to exercise regularly that you enjoy and can easily maintain.  Don’t exercise to lose weight (proper nutrition will take care of that well enough), exercise to enjoy yourself in a physical way and to develop your cardiovascular fitness.  Dr. Maffetone has plenty of advice for exercise also (hiking is one of his favourites).  As for nutrition, exercise sets your body up for great work performance and even a moderate level of fitness improves your ability to deal with stress.  Keep a public blog/journal of your exercise and encourage friends to do the same - get ideas and talk with each other to develop the exercise community.  This will help you stick with it.  The same process could be used for students learning a new task, using a blog to plot their learning observations and progress.  Some great opportunities for data collection using pedometer functions or GPS in mobile devices can lead to interesting lessons with students if you enjoy that sort of thing.

Sleep/Rest - With good nutrition and exercise, sleep patterns often settle into something suitable automatically.  Again, you can research online for interesting tools to track your sleep habits or for fun things to try to develop your knowledge and control over your sleep, e.g. lucid dreaming

Learn to avoid multi-tasking - your creativity can drop significantly with even a little multi-tasking.  Rather, focus on one thing at a time and complete that task better or faster.  Students will multi-task to their detriment with competing distractions of mobile devices in class.  As this becomes more the reality, we must educate our students of this danger.  Josh Waitzkin - author of “The Art of Learning” discusses the problem of multi-tasking with a detailed example from a classroom/lecture situation here. And he is interviewed about his book and life in Part One, and Part Two. “Get 80% of the results for 20% of the effort” is a common phrase heard around Tim Ferriss, the author of this site and various productivity and life-management resources.  I’ve already linked a few of his articles.  One of the more amazing articles I’ve read (and tested to a small degree) is how to learn languages in super fast time (Tim can become conversational within an hour because he has refined the techniques but anyone can apply the principles). - another source of great brain improving techniques.  There is a valuable free e-book through this site when you sign up for the newsletter (which comes very rarely in my experience). - more lifestyle skills and observations.

Steve Pavlina’s Personal Development Website is another fantastic source of motivation and inspiration for positive change to develop your life.  Steve is a highly successful businessman who has seen enough ups and downs in life to relate to everyone.  He is an incredibly clear communicator who stands out among other life-enhancement gurus because of this.

RSA Animate has a collection of visually engaging lectures presented in a short but clear form.  You will be amazed at the creative way these ideas are drawn.  Check out a sample: Changing Education Paradigms is the source of many of the original talks that are adapted for the RSA Animate presentations.  There is much more variety here and the longer talks give more time to absorb details.  One classic from is Sir Ken Robinson’s talk about how schools can kill creativity.  His book The Element gets into more detail on this topic.

Video Clips Demonstrating Use of Tools (NOT!!!)

This is a bit of a cheeky section (sorry) because there are no links here.  Just go to YouTube and search using the keywords “demonstration” and “tool-you-want-a-demo-of”.  

A Final Word

I hope these links are of value to you.  They have certainly been of incredible value to me over the last 10 years or so.  Please share them with others and send me your own discoveries if you think they are in a similar vein (especially the group 2 ones!).

If any of the links do not work, and seems unresolvable from your end, please let me know and I will try to work out the issue.

You can email me at Hillcrest High:

If you want to follow my occasional musings, book reviews, and various other aspects of my personal development (perhaps via Google Reader) you might like to read my blog: