First, You Make a List

You only need three tools to get work done. A place for notes and ideas, a to-do list, and a calendar where you put stuff you aren't going to do right now. Sure, this is simple and lightweight, but it's all you actually need. The first step, something I recommend doing every day, is to make a list first thing in the morning. I write down everything and anything I have on my mind about the day in order to get it on on paper and visible. Some people refer to this method as ubiquitous capture. That's great if you like buzzwords. Ubiquitous capture. Sounds important. You sound important doing it. But what you're actually doing is making a list of things that are emotionally crushing you because you haven't even begun to figure out what to do about them yet. Not as sexy, no?

What a list looks like isn't nearly as important as what you do with it. The whole purpose is to put it somewhere and do something with it. now. As soon as you finish your list, review it right then and there. Do tasks you can do now right now. This is the most impactful part of this process. You see, if you do it now it's finished. Done. The best to-do list is an empty to-do list, and keeping tasks from even reaching it is pro-level. I decide if a task is doable right away by determining if I can complete it in two minutes or less. Here's an insider tip. I can't do ANYTHING in two minutes or less. But, I know I'm a bad judge of time, and I know two minutes is actually more like five. If it only takes five minutes to do something that I have the resources to do now, then I surely don't have to take time out of my day to find a space for it later.

This is where the other two items of your process come in. If it has to be done today, it goes on the to-do list. If it can wait till later, it goes on the calendar. Thats a totally "duh" statement, but it is more complex than it seems. Just like with judging time, you can set yourself up for serious failure by overcommitting to what you can do in one day. Especially if you are communicating to someone what you are going to accomplish. Tasks you have to do have to get done, they make the to-do list. After that, it's up to you to assess how to spend the rest of your time. Starting out I recommend using the split-half approach. If you think you can get ten things done, only put 5 on the list. If you think you have time for 5, put two. Everything else goes on the calendar for another day.

What do you do if you complete your daily to-do list early? Celebrate. Enjoy the feeling of completing an assigned workload in or under the allotted time. Be careful if you decide to go back to this mornings list and pick another task. Make sure its something you can complete with the time you have left. You surely don't want to ruin the great feeling of completing a list by leaving for the day with unfinished work. Take that good feeling home with you. Its the best work you've done all day.

Quit! Or don't. But You Have to Pick One

##Part 2: Maybe you are the problem

####Can you get out of bed?

I do this magic trick. I can name one of your top five skills listed on your resume. Ready?

  • self starter

Cool, huh? We all put this because every job posting lists it as a requirement. What are employers looking for when they list this? They are saying they expect you to make it to the workplace on time and occupy the premises for approximately forty hours a week under your own power.

I had a job where, to improve attendance, there was an award created. The idea was to highlight perfect attendance over a quarter, excluding paid vacation and personal requests. The award was never given. Out of a staff of 45, every single person used at least one sick day or was over 15 minutes late. For a year.

I'm not saying we were irresponsible, or that people weren't legitimately sick. I'm saying that when you work for an employer, you have the luxury to use paid sick time. As an independent consultant, you don't have that luxury. If you aren't working, you aren't earning, and rent is a real thing.

This goes back to the self-awareness thing. Think about the last three times you didn't follow through on a commitment or called out of work. Was it for legitimate reasons? Or, was it a personal choice? I know, personal days are just that. My answer to you is this: when you are the business, there are no days off. It takes a special person to have the motivation to be functional for twelve or fourteen hours a day, not lose personal connections, still have a social life, and keep cranking out products.

####What are you working for?

I worry when someone says they want to work for themselves to get away from having a boss. The motivation isn’t right when you start from a place of negativity. I find most situations that start off this way tend to fail because too many important factors are overlooked before jumping in. Factors like the ability to start and run your own business.

My favorite people to work with are the ones who are in it for love of the game. What makes them successful? they are truly, honestly passionate about what they are doing and they sell the hell out of it. Sometimes they are the best there is at what they do, sometimes they flat out have more experience than anyone else. An acquaintance of mine owns a multi-million dollar shipping and supply company. He had done every job from loading the trucks to managing multiple locations before starting his own business. Nobody is born with a deep love of logistics. He learned by doing literally every job in the business. He started his own company because he could do it better than anyone else. He was so close to the metal nobody could come close to his ability to satisfy his customers and train expert employees.

Jumping into self employment without the proper skills and research can almost always be the kiss of death if the motivation is to not have a job. Millions, MILLIONS of people punch a clock. They ride elevators, decorate their cubes, get annoyed at the guy who plays his top 40 radio station a little too loud, wait impatiently for their 10:15 smoke break, look for khakis on sale at Gap, and generally live what many would call a routine work life. Avoid potential devastation to get away from a completely normal social requirement. It's really hard to explain to a future employer that the eight month blank spot on your resumé is because you didn't want to have a boss.

In some cases you may be too experienced to quit. If you have benefits of tenure consider what you are risking by going west. Are you an active and valuable asset to a team in a leadership or management position? consider the impact you may have on dozens or possibly hundreds of people's work lives. It may be a time to pair with a mentor or leader about how to transform yourself in your current job. Find opportunities to give back to your company and direct reports, and find motivation and satisfaction in bringing yourself even higher by improving those around you.

Dan Benjamin and the show Quit! provides an amazing resource for employees and employers alike. Great interviews with successful people give corporate stooges amazing insight into the world of the startup, the one-man-band,and the independent collaborators. We have the ability to find solace in a caller that sounds like they are in the same boat with us. Just remember to focus inward when listening to the great advice from Dan and the amazing success stories of guests and callers. Don't just wish you were like them, find out how you are different from them, what they did that you haven't, and what you need to do yourself to get where you want to be.

Fiddle it, But Just a Little Bit

Someone asked me recently what the best distraction-free plain text editor is. But it had to support a specific list of web based services, have a desktop and iOS component, and export features to a half dozen mobile services. And Dropbox. Other than the obvious things about this that make me question who I'm spending time with, I was really interested in his motivation. He wanted to know what he can buy to make him feel like he can do more work than he can with TextEdit and gmail.

I get asked stuff like this a lot. Usually after someone sees my desktop or an app I'm using on my phone or tablet. The response is always the same; "what app is THAT?!".

Honestly, I don't like talking about my workflow too much (and I want to talk about yours even less). A workflow is one of the most personal things you will develop. It's like puberty, you have to try a lot of different things to find out exactly who you are.

I'm not going to make a list of apps here. You can find those on every hack-a-life site ten times over. Lets focus on how to start a workflow without stopping your work.

###Avoid the hype

Don't add a tool to your workflow because Billy Blogger said its the best. The writer, generally, has reviewed an app as a stand-alone solution, not integrated into an existing system. It seems weird that a workflow solution wouldn't be utilized in the reviewers process, doesn't it? You see, the average blogger is paid per post. They have a finely tuned workflow that allows them to pump out the maximum posts in the minimum time. These writers are the productivity workflow masters, and they aren't going to miss a deadline or daily post count to test how something could fit into their life. That isn't to say they can't presume how it works, but there isn't a practical application. It's fine for you to upend your daily routine, though. Thats not to say its not a great place to get an in depth explanation of what the tool does, just don't let a stylized description of new software cause you to catch the vapors.

###Let the human do the work

So how do you decide what can help you work smarter? Ask one question; Do I have to change the way I work to use this tool? If something doesn't enhance the skill, speed, or quality of your work then you just go ahead and pass on that. A tool that fits right in with little to no fuss is exactly what you are looking for. If you want the ultimate in distraction free, use tools that aren't distracting. I know that sounds silly when you say it out loud, but think about it like this; if you spend more time setting up the tool and figuring out how to use all the features it offers than it saves you in a day, skip it. In the early stages of honing your workflow never implement something that causes you to change the way you work to use it. You wouldn't cut your toes off because a pair of shoes you like comes one size smaller. That doesn't mean that somewhere down the line you can't use those high powered tools you lust after. For now, keep it simple.

The idea is to work better, not to collect more software. Avoid productivity app critical mass. The more steps you add between creating content and shipping a product is just a chance for more frustration. Don't give yourself an opportunity to fail because your process is too unwieldy. If missing one sync is the difference between meeting a deadline or going over the risk is too high. Your boss doesn't care that you put that task on your mobile ToDo app but 4G was down in the area you were in so it didn't sync to the web server and didn't add it to your Google Doc so you didn't get an email to add it to your calendar so Bob would get the invite and add it to the Team Box project chat and it slipped your mind. Sound ridiculous? That's a true story about why someone missed a client lunch.

###Fiddle it, But Just a Little Bit

A little bit of customization is good for the workflow. Sometimes, you need to take time to adjust and hone the way you get thought to product. When you find a tool that adds value to your work, make sure to take the time to make it work for you. When you customize an app, or rearrange your desk, or get a notebook with grids instead of lines, take a moment to enjoy doing something for you and your work. Just make sure to know when the tool ends and the work begins.

You are not your Applications folder. You are your completed tasks.

Go ahead and ask me about apps to hide the menu bar. I dare you.

Quit! Or don't. But You Have to Pick One

###Part One: Of Carts and Horses

I really enjoy Dan Benjamin's weekly podcast, "Quit!." If you are unfamiliar with it, the premise is this--callers explain their current work situations and their plans to go rogue as a consultant or start their own "thing." A large number of the callers are in their early to mid 20s with a college degree, working in what is referred to on the show as a "corporate stooge" job. Their current jobs are always dry, boring, uninspiring dead ends with bosses that range from jackasses to not even present.

I actually talk out loud to the callers while I'm listening to the podcast. I want to grab every one of them by the ears and ask, "Where do you think the money that pays those student loans comes from?" I think Benjamin does a great service with this podcast, though. I really think he gives these young men and women a role model. Not in the sense of he started something successful on his own after quitting a job, but that he worked a LOT of jobs before creating his own thing.

When you begin to get the itch to start out on your own, there are some questions to ask. If you are going to be successful, you have probably already answered these. If these didn't even cross your mind, you might want to reevaluate what your next step should be.

Are you good enough to go rogue? If your plan puts you riding solo, can your skills speak for you? When you are pitching your abilities, talk isn't even cheap. It's useless. You're not contributing to a team-sourced product, you are the product. Your name and face are your brand, and, if you can't put numbers on the board, you won't go anywhere. It only takes one client to be dissatisfied with your work to make you unhirable. Nobody has any use for a consultant with beginner level skills, no independently completed projects, and rudimentary workplace acumen.

If you don't know if you are ready, ask yourself if you are learning in your job or earning in your job, because if you aren't doing one you need to be doing the other. Be really honest with yourself if you are still learning. If you aren't sure let me help you with this one; if you have been doing your current role for three years or less, you are still learning (and if you think otherwise you need to spend some time working on your self-awareness). Don't struggle to make a living while trying to learn how to do something you already told yourself, and, more importantly, a client, you know how to do. Learn on someone else's dime. You have a job right now that is literally paying you to learn how to do what you do.

Don't ruin your personal brand by firing too early. Move when you are confident in your skills. Daydreaming at work about being somewhere else is the best way to make sure you aren't going to go anywhere. Focus on the job you have now and use it to get good enough to quit. Find a mentor in your workplace, someone you are comfortable making mistakes around, and ask them to help you get to their level. Not just perfunctory skills, but about how to navigate the workplace and how to think beyond the job.

We continue next time with Part Two, where we discuss how many things you haven't done yet to start your own thing.

You Don't Need a Productivity Method

Let's get something out of the way. You aren't ready for GTD. GTD is for closers. Let's start simple, because I want you to be happy with the work you are going to do.

The productivity methods you hear your co-workers talking about are the exact ones to stay away from. The reason you have heard of them is because they are businesses. They are a way for a company to make money. 

Lots of these businesses have beautiful apps, very well designed websites, and hip "analog" paper products. Some have multiple objectives to becoming a  time saving "Technique Master" after you read the book and buy the special break timer dingus. But do they make you work better? Unless you are a project manager or going rogue as a consultant, it is way more wood than than you need. And, if you are a project manager or a moderately successful consultant, you got there by being good at this already, probably without the gimmicky tools.

What's the goal, anyway? "Your greatest satisfaction will be to have time as your friend!"

I have friends. Sometimes they pay for dinner.

The thing most people look for in a productivity method is some list or road map to work performance bliss. There is something key missing from this quest, though. What is YOUR ultimate goal? If you're looking for a list of tangibles and achievables to improve your work performance go to HR and ask for a copy of your job description, thats a pretty good place to start.

Chances are if you were asked to explain what you do you couldn't. It's the Office Space Syndrome. Sure, you can say, "I'm a Jr. Front End Developer 2", or "Project Finance Officer" or any other Capital Letter Noun that is your title, but can you actually tell somebody what you do? You can buy every business book on the shelf, but until you can understand why what you do is important to the company you can't possibly understand what you are doing. Make your own rewards for a completed task by educating yourself about why your work matters. In a year, when its time to move some people around, or maybe let some go, having business acumen around what you do won't hurt when everyone else in the bullpen has the same basic skills as you. 

What productivity methods don't do for you is give you the right reward. You feel good because you managed time or updated your app. If you want to feel good about your accomplishments when you leave for the day, work towards feeling good about the job you did. The tasks you completed don't have to be creatively satisfying to be satisfying. And you sure as hell don't have to buy a special egg timer to get the feeling.