Increase productivity with ambient noise

Increase productivity with ambient coffee shop noise from coffitivity.com

Turns out it’s harder to be creative in a completely quiet space. Moderate ambient noise, like the sound in a coffeehouse, helps. So, the folks behind coffitivity.com recorded several minutes of coffee shop activity, and now you can recreate the coffeehouse vibe in the comfort of your own office, bedroom, backyard…  wherever!

I have been listening to it while creating this post, and it is great! The recording is good quality, and includes conversation, chairs moving, laughter, utensils clinking, doors opening, and other generic thumps and thuds. The noise ebbs and flows, and I found myself nudged back to my writing by the sounds after having drifted off in my head. The recording is a little over nine minutes long, and it loops automatically (you have to start it manually, though, which I like, since it gives you an opportunity to plug in headphones, if you desire). It’s wonderful stuff, and I highly recommend it!

I’ve bookmarked the website for use at work and here at home. Great stuff!

If you use it, come back and tell us what you thought! I’m really curious to know whether it helps you.

Photo credit: QuesterMark

Just… can’t… focus…

When dealing with overwhelm at work, I often struggle with analysis paralysis.  Heard of it?  It’s the inability to choose one option, when presented with a boatload of options.  That’s a scientific term right there – boatload.

analysis paralysis do mindless tasks instead

So many Pop Tarts! Which one to choose?

Now, where was I again?  Oh, yes – trying to pick which task to start on first at work.  So damn many choices!  How do I pick just one!?  What if I don’t pick the right one?  What if…Squirrel!

Well, on the days when everything is important, but nothing is urgent, and you just. can’t. focus…  The option might be to choose “none of the above”.

“Blasphemy!” you say?  I say, “No!”  In a University of California, Davis study cited by Erin Doland in a couple of posts on Unclutterer, it was found that over-worked employees who introduced mindless tasks into their daily routine enjoyed enhanced efficiency and creativity.  In a November 2011 article, Erin provides a great list of mindless, but absolutely useful, tasks that often go undone.

Recently, I employed this tactic on a day when I just wasn’t feelin’ it, and I went down the list, item by item, and completed each one.  Here’s Erin’s list, and what I did with it.

  • File.  I keep my work files up to date, so I reorganized my files a bit, to eliminate a stand-alone file cart that I was able to move out of my workspace.
  • Review your bulletin board. I don’t use a bulletin board, so I reviewed the papers in my reference files.
  • Clean your work surface.  I disinfected my work surface, keyboard, mouse and phones – desk and mobile.  I even disinfected my lotion bottle, since I use that several times a day.
  • Enter info off business cards.  I plugged in a couple of business cards I found while moving my file folders around.
  • Back up your computer.  This is taken care of by our IT department, so I decided to clean up my computer desktop, and moved/deleted files as necessary.
  • Unclutter your bookshelves.  I used to use a lot of binders in my daily life (before moving almost to exclusively digital files), and I had held onto several from two years ago.  I cleaned them out, and placed the empty binders into a community supply area for my still-analog coworkers to use.
  • Equipment check.  Erin recommends taking stock of all your electronics – are you using all of it?  Do you know how to use all of it?  I don’t have any equipment I’m not using, so I took this time to review the apps on my iPhone, and ended up deleting a few.
  • Restock.  I went “supply shopping” when I dropped off my old binders, and picked up some paper clips and some more correction tape I’d been a bit low on.

The mindless work took the better part of the morning, and by lunchtime, my desk was the envy of the neighborhood. I felt better in the space, too.  The desktop was clean and well organized.  I had put away many of the papers that had been nagging at me, causing a surprising amount of mental drain, and I felt lighter and freer of mind.

Coolest part?  I was able to crank out two major deliverables that afternoon.  I was surprised by the boon I experienced.  I had more energy that afternoon, and was really able to focus on my work.

The benefits have lasted a few weeks now, since my workspace is still clutter-free and organized.  I have come in each morning to a clean desktop, empty in-box, and a calmer workspace.  I still have more to do than I can get to, so the overwhelm still exists, but my workspace certainly promotes a calmer environment in which to feel overwhelmed.

What I haven’t done yet is to add mindless tasks to my daily schedule at work.  The study found that the effects were greatest when the mindless work was intermingled with the mindful work – the employees had to switch from mindful work to mindless work and then back again, in order to experience the increased efficiency and creativity.  Therefore, taking a morning to be mindless was great, but if I want to reap ongoing benefits, I should schedule the upkeep of my desk into my day on a regular basis.

Will you try this?  Have you tried this?  How did it affect you?  What mindless tasks do you have on your schedule?

Simplified workday scheduling

One can find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places… Today’s nugget comes to us from a blog post on Alice.com (yes, the online home essentials store – neat, right?). They have a very brief post from last May that describes how to plan your day in just four steps.

The original post appears to focus on planning a day for someone who works from home, but I think that it could easily be applied to office work, too. What appeals to me about this method is that you’re really only focusing on getting up to four things done on any given day. The hardest part may actually be choosing only four things to focus on!

Here’s my interpretation of their four steps.

  1. Pick three “must do” things for the day. These are the three things you can’t leave the office without accomplishing.
  2. Add another priority task. This is something that is important but not urgent, and likely is something you’ve been wanting to get to for some time. It should be something in addition to your three “must do” items.
  3. Routine tasks. This includes checking email, voice mail, filing paperwork and things like that. These tasks will fill in the blanks in your day.
  4. Leave yourself open time. Give yourself plenty of buffer time to accommodate those urgent things that always seem to pop up.

Pulling it all together is the trick, though, isn’t it? How do you decide when to schedule all of these things? My suggestion is to schedule your top three for as early in the day as possible, with breaks in between, and leave the priority task for later in the day, with your routine tasks falling around the time of day when you always seem to fall into a slump. The routine tasks generally don’t require a lot of brain power, which is ideal for that lower energy time of day.

If you’re like me, and you don’t really know when your low energy time of day is, you might try tackling your routine tasks during breaks between your top three and your priority task for the day.

Do you think this would help you? Have you done something similar? Did it work?

Keeping track of tasks when you’re overwhelmed

Charlie Gilkey may just be my favorite person on the Internet. Among many other wonderful things he has done, Charlie created a set of task management tools that actually makes sense to me.

PF PlannerI have tried so many things to keep track of all the projects, requests, random tasks and various things-to-do that are on my plate. I’ve made lists, created spreadsheets, added tasks to Outlook, just given up, and then tried them all again.

What I like about Charlie’s tools (including the original, revised, and newly revised versions) is that they guide me from the big picture to the minutia, in a logical, step by step manner, and they can be used independent of one another, in case I don’t know the big picture, or can’t face the minutia.

Let’s pause a moment to properly introduce Charlie. He runs a business, website and blog called Productive Flourishing. I found it a couple years ago, and have been a loyal follower ever since. I enjoy reading his blog, and find his advice easy to understand, though hard to follow (mostly because change is hard). My favorite thing about Charlie has to be the fact that he’s his own BS meter, and he calls himself out on occasion. I appreciate that in anyone doling out advice.

Anyway, Charlie has said that he initially developed these task management tools – he calls them planners – to help himself, and he tested them and refined them before putting them out there for others to use. He’s continued to refine them over the years, and the latest iteration is quite nice.

There are a number of versions of the planners – action planners, freelancer workweek planners, and blog post planners. There are also supporting documents like the individual project planner, the productivity jumpstarter, and the heatmap (this is an interesting tool that I tried to use, but I’m really not self-aware enough to get much out of it yet).

I’ve used both the action planners and the freelancer workweek planners, and now that I’m blogging again, I’m using the blog post planners. At work, I find that the monthly action planner coupled with the freelancer workweek planners are the best fit for me. I can give myself a plan for each week using the monthly view, and then flesh that plan out a bit more in the weekly view. I don’t get down to the daily view much anymore, as my days are not really my own (that’s just not the culture where I work).

I used to try to get to the daily level, but I was driving myself crazy with having to re-write half (or more than half) of my tasks onto the next day’s list. I was giving myself too many things to do each day, and it was only when I backed out to the weekly view that I started to give myself a bit of grace for things left undone on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, since I could see at a glance that I could get them done on Thursday or Friday…

In any case, I love these planners, and if you’re struggling with overwhelm, these are a really nice way to start to manage it. Plus, if you poke around on Productive Flourishing, there’s some great advice there, too.

How do you track all of your tasks, projects and various to-dos?

Does feng shui at work, work?

Last year, I was so overwhelmed at work that I felt paralyzed. My workload was ridiculous, my desk was a mess, my to-do list was incomplete, and I was fearful of coming to work every single day. It was oppressive and terrifying, and not at all me; wonderfully organized, kill-it-at-work ME.

Workspace - left sideI didn’t know where to start making things better, so I went with an idea that felt a little off-the-beaten-path. I decided to come in on a Saturday, and try to apply feng shui principles to my cubicle/workspace/desk (I do not have an office). I’d read a few articles by Ann Bingley Gallops on her website, The Open Spaces Feng Shui Blog, about the myriad benefits of having good feng shui at the office, and figured that even if I didn’t get much good chi from it, I could at least have a better looking space.

When I say this was a little “off-the-beaten-path”, what I really mean is that this is akin to wishing on a star, believing in leprechauns, and riding a unicorn home.

Clutter is very bad feng shui, I’d learned. So, I first needed to declutter the space. I went through all the papers and filed or pitched them, making notes about anything that I’d kept out on my desk as a reminder to do something, so that I wouldn’t forget to actually “do it”, but didn’t have to keep the paper out any longer. I gathered up all of the business cards I’d collected and put them in a container or entered the data from them into Outlook and then recycled the card, as appropriate. I opened up all the boxes I had stored under my desk, and I threw out tons of old files I’d been keeping “just in case”.

The decluttering took a long time. There was a lot of clutter. I mentioned that I’d become overwhelmed, right?

After I finished the decluttering process, I had to clean my desk. With Lysol. It was gross. I removed all of the bits and bobs that I keep on my desktop, dusted, and then wiped the surface completely clean. Twice. It needed it that badly.

Once I’d cleared off the desktop completely, and dusted and cleaned it, I began applying the principles of feng shui, as described in this article by Ann (I read a bunch of articles and watched a few YouTube vids on the topic before moving forward). I also learned about the bagua map, and laid out the various areas of my desktop according to the outcomes I wanted my workspace to support.

I’m telling you – this was wayyyyyy out in left field for me. I’m a science girl. Proof or it didn’t happen. My desperation was clear, just by the fact that I was willing to consider this stuff, let alone actually apply it.

Mostly, this was a reorganization and clearing of clutter. The feng shui principles guided placement of things like my computer (I changed its location so I didn’t have my back to the entrance of my cubicle), my inbox, photos of my family and pets, some artwork from my daughter, an industry achievement certificate (“me wall” kind of thing), new plants (real and fake), stuffed animals, a colorful glass paperweight and glass “fishbowl”, and a picture of a small pond with koi. The plants, paperweight, “fishbowl”, and the picture of water and koi were new additions, to help balance the elements within the bagua map, and promote the flow of chi.

The outcomes that I wanted to support were financial abundance, balance, peace, harmony, and professional success. I felt that the combination of those outcomes would allow me to feel better about my job, achieve better balance between home and work, make more money (which would help me justify spending so much time at work), and be better recognized for my significant efforts.

Workspace - right side

I was amazed at the results. Proof or it didn’t happen, right? Well, the proof manifested itself in a few ways.  I received a raise and a bonus (neither was truly significant, but they were both higher than average in my workplace). I received more support from co-workers willing to share the workload. I was better able to focus, and the overwhelm was reduced. I felt more free to express myself and my concerns to my boss. I received more support at home from my husband. We ran the smoothest, most successful, best attended convention in years.

I’m not kidding around here. I’m not exaggerating for effect. These were tangible changes that I really don’t think I affected in any way other than by changing things up at my desk. Maybe they were all related to the fact that I felt better at my desk.  More relaxed. Better situated. Maybe I achieved better chi after all. I honestly don’t care which it was. Many things got markedly better after I went through this exercise.

Speaking of exercise, it wasn’t long after I did this that something in my brain clicked, and I finally did something about the weight I’d gained. I began a wholehearted campaign to lose 50 pounds, and took up running within 2 months of setting up my desk in this manner. I didn’t really make the connection between the two until recently, but I will say that the timing is suspect.

So, financial abundance, balance, peace, harmony, and professional success were my desired outcomes. I don’t think I did too shabby. Ever since I did this at work, I’ve been wanting to try it at home, to see if I can achieve similar results there. I’ll need a bit more than a single Saturday to make that happen though.

What do you know about feng shui? Have you applied it anywhere? Have any advice? Experienced results? Think I’m nuts? Share!

Grief, guilt, longing – working parenthood

Me with my Emma

Me with my Emma

Today I wanted to talk a little bit about one of the reasons I search for ways to change myself.  My husband and I have a young daughter, Emma.  She will be turning four in March.  Before we had her, I thought I wanted to be a career woman.  That feeling quickly evaporated once she was born.

I still love what I do for a living, but being away from her so much is really hard.  It hurts my heart to leave her every morning, and my soul dies a little on the occasions when I travel, and hear that she cried after I left, or that she had bad dreams about me leaving her forever.  No one could have prepared me for the depth of these feelings.

I spend as much time with Emma as possible when I’m home, and we have mommy-daughter dates on the weekends.  We go to the library, to the play area at the local mall, we’ll have play dates with her friends, and we do the weekly grocery shopping together.

But, there’s always this sense of, it’s not enough.  Like I’m letting both of us down by not being a stay at home mom to her.  I live with the guilt of a mother that isn’t available to her child 24/7/365.

I think that many working mothers (and fathers, too!!) feel what I feel.  I don’t imagine that I’m unique in this.  I haven’t yet found a way to lessen the feelings, though.  I plan to keep looking for the magic potion that will wipe away the grief, guilt, and longing that go along with being away from my “baby”.  That’s the thing I want to change about myself in this case.  I can’t stop working – that’s just not an option for us – so I need to find a way to live with this situation, and not have my heart torn in two.

Are you a working parent?  Have you found a way to cope with these feelings?

Got motivation?

Unclutterer is a great website. Erin Doland and her team of writers, including Deb Lee, are talented and informative, while maintaining a great sense of humor throughout. I have read Unclutterer for years now, mostly for their titular advice on eliminating clutter from your life.

This week, however, Deb offered up some great tips on how to find your motivation. One of the coolest things she points out is that losing our motivation is to be expected. I am not somehow “broken” because my motivation has waned on some of my projects. This is surprisingly encouraging information! How many times have you said “what’s wrong with me?!” when you suddenly lack the drive you once had? I know I’ve berated myself for waning motivation on more than one occasion. Possibly even today. Possibly.

So, knowing that our motivation will desert us at some point, Deb suggests that we forge ahead, making plans, and factoring in a need for a kick in the ass around the mid-way point. If our project or goal is especially massive, we should plan for a few ass-kickings (pronounced: rewards) at key points in the process.

We could also create or tap into a support network. WeightWatchers, Jenny Craig, MyFitnessPal, and other weight loss sites all embrace this concept. WeightWatchers’ ads talk a lot about research on how people who have support lose a pretty sizable percentage more weight than people who don’t have a support system. It’s really no different in any area of our lives. If you are working on a big project at the office, but are left to your own devices, you are less likely to be successful than if you are accountable to someone else throughout the project.

I like Deb’s advice that we re-read an especially inspirational book, blog post, or article. Or watch a program that made us feel like we could conquer the world. Or talk to a person that always makes us feel powerful and motivated. Revisiting motivating moments in our life can inspire us all over again. I use pocket to keep track of blog posts and online articles that have inspired me in the past.

Probably the hardest advice to follow is to eliminate the overwhelm. Stop saying “yes” so much. Eliminating some of the overwhelming feelings about our workload can be incredibly motivating, but we are rarely in a position (whether at work or at home) to say “no” to a new project or responsibility. I swear, overwhelmed is the new black.

I’m still reeling over the knowledge that I’m normal, even when my motivation fails me. There is nothing “wrong” with me, and I am not somehow defective because I lost my drive. This is so freeing, I immediately felt a little bit more motivated upon reading it.

Go check out Deb’s original post, but come right back and tell me what you’ve tried to get your mojo back.