A Cheater’s Guide to Self Improvement: Addendum

As a followup to my previous post, I’m going to try and elaborate more on the individual techniques I use for tricking my brain into acting like the focused productivity machine that it certainly isn’t. Here are a selection of tools and tricks I’ve used to good effect when trying to keep my productivity up and my wasted time down. Some of them work incredibly well with me. Some of them are tricks of last resort I use when I can’t seem to get focused any other way. Your mileage may vary.


I try to plan out every moment of my day at least a couple of days in advance. Sometimes it gets all wonky and I have to spend time shuffling and juggling tasks as things get thrown about by unforseen circumstances, but sticking it out is worth it especially for the record of what I actually spend my time doing. This is all motivated by the need to prioritize tasks without having to decide, when I find myself with a free moment, what the most important thing I could be doing it is. If I break down tasks into actionable chunks and then sort them into my schedule based on priority and accounting for deadlines I can actually get a substantial block of crucial work done without having to choose it over more fun but less urgent projects. The schedule is law and what’s on the schedule shall get done. Looking a week ahead and popping in a few slots where I have to do some research for a pending project or manage some tedious CAD I’ve been avoiding helps make sure they don’t get put off further.

I tend to schedule in more time than is truly necessary to complete each goal so that I can use the remaining bits to faff around, check my email, and generally reward myself for keeping on track. Cool down time between highly disparate tasks seems to be pretty important to prevent burning out. I use a pretty extensive task list to manage what goes on the calendar.

Task Lists

I’ve got a Google doc that I share with a few friends who are more-or-less in a blood cult of getting shit done. We check in with each other to see how we’re progressing on our goals, what we’ve accomplished during the week, and where we are in our long term plans. The doc includes a long list of tasks I want to get to divided up into a few categories. The general outline is as follows:

  • What am I doing right now?
  • Queue for little stuff I’ve just remembered but can’t break from what I’m doing right now to manage
  • My goals for today
  • My goalcheck buddy’s goals for the week
  • What I’m writing about for #blogday
  • Long term goals
  • Emails that need writing
  • Recurring tasks (blogging, drawing, exercise, boning up on programming, and managing my store)

Everything that doesn’t fit neatly into the list gets put in a database I use to keep track of ideas. I like  having a separate document that acts as long term storage for things that just aren’t actionable, don’t have a clear goal or deadline, or will take up too much time in huge chunks so can’t be easily filtered into the calendar. If things grow an extensive tail of notes they get spun out into their own document.

I try to keep my daily goals down to three items. I find that splitting focus too much or trying to bite off too much daily quickly leaves me burnt out. I like keeping completed tasks on the list for a while with a strikethrough so I can revel in them before deleting the entry. It gives me a pretty good barometer of what I’ve been up to and how well I’ve been keeping focused.

3 Kinds of Time

Amanda Wozniak once shared some excellent advice with me about how she manages her time. She said that there are essentially three ways for her to tackle a demand on her schedule: right now, on the calendar, and never. There are things that she can spare an hour for right now. If someone in her department rings her up with a question she doesn’t have to devote more than an hour to answering she almost universally has time for it. If it will take longer, it gets moved to a discrete date and block of time on the calendar. If things are pending, nebulous, and difficult to schedule, it’s very unlikely they’ll ever get tackled. I try to keep this in mind when scheduling things for myself. I try to turn big amorphous tasks into little, edible blocks of time.

Goal Check

This research article from Psychological Science suggests that a strong part of self motivation and avoiding procrastination is setting external rewards and consequences. It’s definitely worth a read. It says that we have more-or-less two sets of motivations: one when we actually set our goals and another when our mettle is being tested. To quote from the article directly:

“… individuals have a set of preferences, X, atsome point in time (or under a certain set of environmental conditions) and a different set of preferences, Y, at some other point intime. In the case of the crème brûlée, dieters may prefer not to consume it (Y) before going to the restaurant, prefer to eat it (X) when ordering dessert and consuming it at the restaurant, and prefer not to have eaten it after the meal is over (Y). This type of systematic preference reversal is often described by hyperbolic time discounting(e.g., Ainslie, 1975; Kirby, 1997; Laibson, 1997), under which immediately available rewards have a disproportionate effect on preferences relative to more delayed rewards, causing a time-inconsistent taste for immediate gratification. Crème brûlée poses but a minor self-control problem. Examples of more important self-control problems include not exercising enough, scratching a rash, nail biting,smoking, engaging in unsafe sex, abusing drugs, overspending, procrastination, and so forth.”

The article goes on to say that imposing firm, evenly spaced deadlines with strong consequences for lateness is optimal for getting the most work done. Work done on those kinds of schedules also ends up being much higher quality and less stressful than the work produced on a self imposed schedule.

I’ve found that social pressure is a great way of creating external motivating factors that help curtail my own distractions. Having another person expecting progress, setting rewards and punishments, and helping me be realistic about what I can accomplish has been incredibly helpful. So, every week, I have a half-hour video meeting to check up and plan the next handful of days. I’ll also do a coworking session if there’s some incredibly tedious work that needs getting done. If I’ve got a dozen emails to write it helps to have someone looking over my shoulder making sure they get written.


The Pomodoro Technique is a way of managing tasks with a timer. The general principle is that you have a 25 minute timer; you set the timer every half hour and work solidly until the timer rings and then use the next five minutes to mess around and relax before setting the timer again. Occasionally I’ll employ this one, but I’ve found a system that works a bit better for the type of work I do. Since getting into the zone and hitting my stride for CAD work or illustrations can take the better part of an hour before I am at my peak, I will often work to a playlist. I find that queuing up an hour and a half of music and working until the playlist ends gives me a good way to space out and produce without forgetting to look up and give myself a rest to prevent burning out. This mix is one of my particular favorites.


Over the years I’ve gotten a good sense for my own attention span. I find that I need a little distraction going on in the background to keep from switching channels when I get frustrated with the thing I’m working on. If I’m thoroughly engrossed in a design and suddenly Photoshop crashes losing me an hour of my time having an audiobook playing somehow helps insulate me from rage quitting and spending the next couple of hours posting snarky comments on Twitter.

However, there is another side to this. Things like chatting and video seem to take up way too much bandwidth. If I’m trying to watch a show or IM while working chances are I’ll be incredibly prone to switching tasks rapidly, surfing the web idly, and wasting time.

Rewards, Forgiveness, and Micro Tasks

Don’t forget that all of this is in aim of doing things you want to do, climbing the big mountain of your goals in life, and getting to that sometimes distant shore called happiness. Don’t punish yourself with a mountain of work and then punish yourself again for not being able to finish it. Schedule time to reward yourself. Don’t isolate yourself and blow off friends because you’re too married to your calendar. Remember to be flexible and if you end up getting behind forgive yourself like you’d forgive your favorite people. Learn to work new habits into your life by starting small. Instead of trying to go from zero to exercising an hour every day, start with five minutes of exercise every day to make a hole for it in your life and then build on it by extending the time you exercise a little each day.

Although these techniques aren’t the balm for every one of the world’s problems, they keep me from falling off cliffs and crashing through deadlines. Let me know if you’ve found a particular GTD system or method that keeps you performing at your peak over on Twitter.

Photo Credits:

Calendar Round by vbecker, on Flickr
My to do list is healed and in use! by robstephaustralia, on Flickr
TARD1S not TARDIS by yksin, on Flickr
Extensions by Marcin Wichary, on Flickr
Pomodoro Technique (illustration) by Michael Zero Mayer, on Flickr
img_0054 by Zlatko Unger, on Flickr
flossers by nooccar, on Flickr