How to Be More Productive with Spotify and the Pomodoro Technique

Once again everybody, it’s Friday, and my sister Jenny has made some great art for another post!

The spring semester is coming to a close, and I’ve been working on finishing several big projects. In order to get these projects done, I’ve needed to carve out blocks of time where 1) I was not distracted, and 2) I remained focused. Doing this is not always easy to do, but after a bit of trial and error, I think I’ve found a method that works well for me, and I hope for you as well.

The method that I use combines the Pomodoro Technique and listening to Spotify. Just a quick review on how these two things work:

The Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoro Technique Image

The Pomodoro Technique is method Francesco Cirillo developed in the 1980’s to break massive tasks down into digestible segments. Just for context, pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato, named after the tomato kitchen timer traditionally used for the technique. This methodology helps one to remain focused, and makes daunting projects look more manageable. For example, one 4 hour project could be divided into 8 half-hour projects. There are five easy steps to implement the technique:

  1. Select a task that you want to make progress on
  2. Set a timer to 25 minutes. This time can be different depending on your needs or preferences, but 25 is the traditional amount of time.
  3. Work on the task until the timer goes off.
  4. Take a 5 minute break
  5. After doing steps 1-4 four times, take a longer break.

Here’s what it might look like if you started at 1:00 after a lunch break, and wanted to work up until supper at 5:30, you could break it into 8 pomodori and have the time look like this:

  • 1:00 – 1:25 Pomodoro #1
  • 1:25 – 1:30 Five minute break
  • 1:30 – 1:55 Pomodoro #2
  • 1:55 – 2:00 Five minute break
  • 2:00 – 2:25 Pomodoro #3
  • 2:25 – 2:30 Five minute break
  • 2:30 – 2:55 Pomodoro #4
  • 2:55 – 3:10 Fifteen minute long break (handle any major interruptions that may have occurred in the last two hours)
  • 3:10 – 3:35 Pomodoro #5
  • 3:35 – 3:40 Five minute break
  • 3:40 – 4:05 Pomodoro #6
  • 4:05 – 4:10 Five minute break
  • 4:10 – 4:35 Pomodoro #7
  • 4:35 – 4:40 Five minute break
  • 4:40 – 5:05 Pomodoro #8
  • 5:05 – 5:30 Handle any major interruptions that may have occurred in the last two hours. Write notes in Evernote or Omnifocus about what was finished and what still needs doing if project is still not complete.

When I first adopted this system, it seemed counter intuitive to take so many breaks. Over a 130-minute period for four pomodori, only 100 minutes, or 75% of the time is actually spent getting work done. But this actually allows you to get more work done. Here’s why.

First, sitting for long periods of time is unhealthy. Sitting for hours at a time can cause cardio-vascular problems, increased risk of depression, decreased metabolism, loss of focus and motivation, poor posture, the list goes on, and exactly zero things on the list help you get your goals done. By getting up between pomodori, you can avoid all of these effects by standing up, stretching, and even going on a short walk near your workspace, and if you can, in the fresh air.

Second, life is full of distractions. If you have ever decided to spend a block of time working on one task, only to be interrupted by a more urgent task and then not getting the first task done, you know what I mean. In a pomodoro, you do not allow yourself to stop what you’re working on until the timer rings. If you do get up and do something else, you decide to void your pomodoro and it doesn’t count. Instead, you should write down any interruptions that come up and take care of those during your 5 minute or 15 minute breaks. I will frequently send text messages, short emails, and phone calls during my breaks. These distractions are going to happen whether you are pomodoroing or not, and if you’re dedicating 75% of your time to focusing on an important task, the other 25% is there to help you manage everything that would happen otherwise, so the 25% is not actually time wasted.

Third, stopping periodically forces you to check-in on how you’re doing. If you get bogged down in one part of the project and start spending way to much time doing something that isn’t an important part, after spending one or two pomodori on that part, you have a natural opportunity to stop and reassess to see if what you’re doing is effective or whether you should change your strategy.

So that’s a quick explanation of the Pomodoro Techqniue which is only half of the equation.

Spotify

Spotify Logo

Spotify is a commercial music streaming service that I have come to prefer over the last four months. You can select pre-made playlists, which has an advantage over Pandora and other commercial music streaming services that give you songs that a computer algorithm believes to be related, but aren’t always as related as one would like. You can listen to songs in shuffle-mode all by the same artist, all on the same album, or all in the same genre. You choose, and have a lot more control over what comes in your ear buds than many other services.

Up until March 31st, I was enjoying 3-month premium of Spotify with no ads for $.99, or about 1 cent per day. But after this was over, it would cost $5/month for a student license, and I decided to decline continuing premium for now. Now I was faced with jarring ads that might break my concentration and break my workflow. So rather than cave and give back in to the no ad service, I found a way to resolve the problem using the Pomodoro Technique.

Pomodoro + Spotify

Like I said in the beginning, the last two weeks have given me more projects that I usually have, that need me to be focused for hours at a time. I found that fewer people try to get my attention when I have huge headphones over my ears. While the music might not help me focus as much, it is great for drowning out distractions (especially if you have noise-cancelling headphones) as well as having fewer people try to get your attention. Don’t worry, if you’re using the Pomodoro Technique, you can still take the headphones off during pomodori and talk with folks.

So I’ve been listening to Spotify a lot, and I took time one evening to record the frequency of advertisements. I found out that the time between ads is either approximately 15 minutes or 30 minutes, and I say approximately because it rounds off to the nearest song.

This means that Spotify itself can act as a no-hassle pomodoro timer for you. For the every-30-minute advertisement, this signals that you are done with this pomodoro, and should get up and stretch or walk. In the case where you get 2 every-15-minute advertisements, I just remove my headset when I hear the first ad start, and keep working for 30 seconds before putting it back on, so I don’t get distracted. When the second ad starts, I know that I’m finished with that pomodoro again.

When I was using the Pomodoro Technique with Spotify Premium, I would have another timer running, often on my phone. But this was another app that I had to manage, and sometimes I wouldn’t hear the notification sounds over the music I was listening to. And sometimes I would forget to stop the timer from continuing onto successive pomodori, or I would believe that I started the timer when really I didn’t. Spotify does its best to make sure that you hear the ads, and it doesn’t forget to start or stop ads.

This system is great because I get the productivity of the Pomodoro Technique with essentially all the benefits of premium Spotify. I am pretty happy with it, and I am sure it will be a staple in my project-finishing techniques for a long time, or until I get enough income to justify Spotify premium again, in which case I will need another timer to notify me when I am done with a project.

The ABC of Rituals (My Morning and Evening Check List)

By the way, before I continue any farther, I want to thank my sister, Jennifer Wheeler, for making this amazing cover photo. :)

My dad is an airline pilot. Several times a week, he enters a vehicle capable of flying hundreds of miles, several tens of thousands of feet above the ground, over dense metropolitan areas, carrying dozens of very important of people.

What keeps my dad and so many other pilots like him able to keep from making mistakes? What keeps pilots from forgetting things? Checklists and routines.

AsianEfficiency wrote an article on rituals. Some checklists and routines are so important to how we function, that they reach the “ritual” level of importance, something that you do every day at the same time every day, in more or less the same way.

Why is this important? Because if you have a checklist that takes you “automagically” from when your alarm goes off until when you walk out the door of your dorm room/apartment/house, and that checklist does everything you need to get prepared for a successful day, then because you do this ritual every day you will automagically start every day prepared to be successful.

I use a ritual to convert myself from horizontal and asleep to being focused as I walk out my door of my dorm room every morning. I also have a ritual that brings me from a certain time of day (variable because I work evenings some days, and I’m free others), to being sound asleep every evening. These checklists cover everything from reviewing goals, to prioritizing tasks, to devotions, and make sure that the big things that are important to me in life are not going uncared for.

That’s a short explanation. If you want more reasons why this is a really good reason for you, there are other blogs online that you can get to with a google search. In this post, I mostly wanted to share my morning rituals. I focused on making them alphabetical so they were easy to remember, and fun to execute. So with further ado:

Morning ritual

  • Alarm goes off – This is the trigger that starts my morning ritual. As soon as this happens, I instinctively roll out of bed, turn off my alarm and drink a …
  • Bottle of water – This sits next to my phone. I chug it. Your body, which is mostly water has not gotten any of this precious resource all night, and the first step you can do towards reaping the benefits of being well hydrated is to actually drink water.
  • Cold shower – This shocks my body into gear, and forces me to do something uncomfortable first thing in the morning. If you can’t stand to do something uncomfortable for even 5 minutes, how do you expect to achieve your most daunting goals?
  • Dress for success – This is wrapped up with brushing teeth, flossing, and making myself smell nice. The longer I sit in pajamas in the morning, the more tempted I am to adopt the “today is a pajama sort of day” mentality. In general, the better dressed up I am, the better I perform, and I like to do a good job. Taking care of body image is an important part to starting out my days.
  • Establish room in order – A clean living environment is really awesome. I tried cleaning my room in the evenings before going to bed, but what ends up happening is that I sleep in my bed which requires it to be made again, and I also have a tendency to leave clothes on the floor. With most of my getting ready done at this point, I can clean my room and have everything squared away, so that any time I come back to my room throughout the day, everything is spic and span and I am motivated to get work done.
  • Feed on the word – Equipped now to do anything I want, I now spend time in Scripture. More on this in a future post.
  • Give thanks – After reading, I write down what I’m thankful for in a prayer journal. Writing helps me be focused, and I don’t drift off or fall asleep, or get distracted with what’s happening today.
  • Hone in on goals – I’m going to get a whiteboard soon, that I’m going to put yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily goals on, and this will be a place I keep going back to to get focused. Currently I do this in Evernote, and that gives me a bit of flexibility. I also check my calendar to make sure I don’t forget any appointments. After this step is done, my mind is free and I know exactly what is due today, and what is important.
  • Invite Jesus to help me with my goals – I do my best to align my goals with what I feel God is guiding me to do with my life, and I know that on my own, I cannot fully achieve these goals, nor should I even try to. A friend of mine summed this up in one of his favorite quotes from a book called Testimonies to Southern Africa:

“I see the work of God is so sacred, that I dare not touch it without the presence of Jesus by my side. All might, all power and all glory Ibelong to Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.”

  • Just do it – This is the last step of my morning ritual, which is actually the first step I want the rest of the world to see. It’s the part where I step out of my dorm room, and start doing the most important task of the day. By getting this done, I know that if I don’t finish anything else all day, that I will have still made progress toward my goals.

In between my morning ritual and my evening ritual, I have an intermediate step called

  • Kick butt all day – I’m not sure if I’ll keep this one here, but right now it serves as a great catch-all for the things that happen between my most important task, and my evening ritual.

My evening ritual is as follows.

  • Learn from a book – I’ve lately been reading more, and this is only because I try to get a little reading in every night, enough to read through one book per month.
  • Make notes from reading – I want to capture the highlights from what I just read, usually in Evernote. It helps me solidify what I learned, and also quickly reference it later if I want to refer to it.
  • Note daily progress in Evernote – This is where my journaling happens. I answer the same few questions every day, and they help me reflect on how I did on my goals, what I learned, and how I can be more focused, and how I can grow closer to Jesus. These are the material that I reference when I’m doing my weekly reviews, which are referenced for monthly reviews, which are referenced for quarterly reviews, etc…
  • Organize what tomorrow will look like – Comparing my long term goals with what I have time with tomorrow, I make a specific action plan for what the next 24 hours will look like. Which projects will I forward, and what resources will I use, who will I email, what is my most important task, etc…. The more decisions I can make in this step, the better I can avoid things like decision fatigue the next day.
  • Prepare for bed – This involves brushing teeth, changing lighting, changing clothes, all the necessary things for getting ready physically to go vertical for 7 hours.
  • Quiet time in prayer – Before actually falling asleep, I spend a few minutes reviewing how the day went with God. I ask forgiveness for times that I fell short, and pray for people on my prayer list.
  • Refill water bottle – I intentionally put a step between prayer and sleep so that I wouldn’t be tempted to fall asleep while praying. I walk over to the sink, refill my water bottle, and put it by my phone. I set an alarm for about 7 hours and 45 minutes in the future, and go to
  • Sleep

So that’s my morning and evening rituals. It’s what I do to make sure life is progressing the way I want it to do, and everything that needs to be taken care of, gets taken care of. The reviews are really important to me to make sure that I continue to be focused on getting what’s important done, and unless I put that in a check list, the reviews, as well as other things, often will get overlooked.

Let me know what you think. This is the routine that I’m using now, but I’m sure as time changes, so will the routine.

3 Criteria I Apply (In Order) When I Buy Clothing

It is often said of college students that when it comes to spending your time in college, you have options: sleep, socialize, or study — pick two. When it comes to computer software, you also have choices: good, fast, cheap — pick two. I would say when it comes to buying clothing, you have options: good looking, comfortable, and cheap — pick two.

I used to feel that clothing was one of those things that really didn’t matter too much. I thought that brand name clothes, or expensive suits were just a thing rich people did to show off to other rich people how much richer they were than other rich people. I wasn’t about that life. So when it came to clothing, I didn’t see the point in buying fancy clothes (or anything else) at the mall. Shopping at the mall was a complete waste of time. Consequently I bought most of my clothes from thrift stores and Walmart.

For whatever reason, I never really saw a problem with what I wore in high school. Many of my peers suffered from severe senioritits as sophomores, and came to school consistently in sweats and a hoodie. So I thought I was doing pretty well with my jeans, tennis shoes, and t-shirt.

Aside: There was one semester my junior year where I realized I had so many t-shirts from clubs in high school that I wanted to see if I could go the whole semester only wearing t-shirts I got from my high school. I did.

Anyway, after high school came college, and I noticed that there were essentially two groups of people at college: those who took college seriously, and those who did not. There wasn’t a perfect correlation, but I noticed that based on the way I dressed, I resembled the group of students who did not take college seriously. It wasn’t blatant, but I didn’t dress the way my friends who were eagerly pursuing their professional and academic dreams were dressing.

It all came to a head when I became an RA my sophomore year of college and got to know an amazing individual by the name of Ashok. Throughout the year of working with him, I learned just how important the choices we make about dress alter our lives. It’s more than just a fashion statement–it’s a courtesy, a sign of respect towards those that we work with. You find yourself treating others with more respect, others treat you with more respect, and probably most importantly, you treat yourself with more respect.

I’m not saying suits and ties every day, but I am saying that if I never graduated from my t-shirt and tennis shoes stage, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog right now. I would never take myself seriously enough to feel that what I had to say really mattered.

Anyway, enough biography, and the checklist.

I used to feel that the most important thing when it came to clothes is that I wasn’t spending a lot of money. Then, if I found something that looked like a bargain, I would check to see if it looked nice. And then I would buy it.

This is an awful way of doing it.

Here’s why: I quickly accumulated tons of cheap clothing, that kind of looked good on me, but not really. But half of it really wasn’t that comfortable so I never wore it. I found myself mostly wearing clothes that I received here and there on holidays from friends and relatives that was actually comfortable. I quickly realized that if something is not comfortable, humans do not like to wear it.

Therefore, spending $100 on ten cheap, uncomfortable shirts that you never wear is infinitely worse than spending $100 on one expensive, super comfy shirt that you will want to wear all the time.

Additionally, comfortability is more important than good-looking or even good-fitting. Why? Because if a sweater looks good but is uncomfortable, you just won’t enjoy wearing it and it will be a waste of your time and closet space.

Armed with this mindset, I have in the last year or so flipped the checklist upside down:

  1. Is it comfortable
  2. Is it good-looking
  3. Is it affordable

Now my closet is gradually becoming a collection of comfortable apparel that I am excited to wear, and most of it even looks good on me.

You can probably see how this spills over to other parts of my life as well.

A bank with no maintenance fee, decent bonuses, but awful customer service will definitely put you in a fowl mood when it comes time to plan a vacation, get a loan, do taxes, etc… It would be better on your happiness (and on the happiness of those around you) to find a bank with a maintenance fee but also features awesome customer service.

If you have a cheap phone that looks nice, but has an awful user interface, you’ll be cursing overtime you get it, and will likely want to replace it every time you use your phone (I’ve known people who actually abuse phones they hate, usually causing them to have to replace them). If you instead select a phone with a user interface you love, you’ll take excellent care of the phone, and will be likely not even to realize you’ve had the phone for 2 years (or however long you’ve had it) when it’s time to replace it. (Phones have been on my mind for the last two weeks,  you can read more in my article on the 12 days of Cell-Free-mas)

As a final perk, this method, when it comes to stuff, helps promote minimalism, which I am more and more interested in as time goes by. It’s a lot easier to live with fewer, but nicer things, than it is to live with lots of junky cheap things, but I’ll write more on that later.

In closing, I hope that this article helps you avoid decision paralysis next time you go shopping, and helps you cull out your wardrobe if you’re currently in the business of culling your wardrobe.

I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

The 12 days of Cell-free-mas

No cell phone is perfect, but when my Samsung phone stopped charging because the charging port got messed up, I was a bit disappointed. My phone was already showing the signs of it’s nearing demise, and I was hoping it would last until April when I could get a cheap(er) upgrade to a new phone.

I tried using different chargers with my phone, but one by one my phone destroyed the chargers so that they wouldn’t power any other devices. My mom experienced a similar problem in the fall, and her solution was to charge cell phone batteries, carry around a few spares wherever she went, and constantly replace the batteries when her phone ran low on juice. But that didn’t sound appealing to me, so I tried an alternative.

Not using my phone.

People wonder what it was like before people had cell phones. Since February 1, I have had a pleasant rewind into what my life was like when I was 16. Boy what a difference it made.

My normal self-check routine is to pat down my pockets and feel for three things: phone, wallet, keys. I often even say it out loud before leaving my room, car, workplace, friend’s house, etc… The list will change depending on where I am (passport gets added to the self-check list at airports, and so on). These last dozen days I’ve been readjusting to a self-check routine that consists of two-items, and it feels quite a bit more freeing.

I struggle to disengage from my day. From when I wake up until I go to bed, I’m constantly wanting to check emails, send messages to people, or even read different articles around the web. I recognize that the time I spend waiting here and there represents about 2% of my day, but I still feel horridly unproductive if I’m not doing anything during that time.

I am coming to realize that we as humans were not created to be constantly plugged in. Even though there are some environments that make us feel like we need to be constantly on call 24/7, this lifestyle is taxing, and never allows us to feel that we can truly unwind. In between classes, or during breaks, I am finding myself re-learning how to sit in a seat and just be content to wait without having to have a screen in front of me that is fooling me into feeling productive. It’s during these times that I feel like I can reflect on how my day is going, and re-align myself to those things that are important, like character development I talk with Jesus about every morning in my devotions.

I still make phone calls, but they are through my laptop or on a friends’ phone. My day becomes a bit more structured because if I tell people that I’m going to be there at a certain time, I can’t let them know last minute that I won’t be there. I have to be more responsible and even (heaven forbid) arrive places early, but nobody has told me that they mind much.

I could say a lot more, but I think you get the picture. I will likely upgrade to that new phone in April, but hopefully I can create positive habits of unplugging in the next few months that will persist even when I have the temptation of staying tuned in 24/7.

How I Keep Email from Ruling My Life in 3 Easy Steps

Email used to rule my life. When somebody sent me an email, they would entice me to read it, and then (most likely) get derailed from whatever I was doing. It was awful. If somebody malicious wanted to take over my life, all they would have to do would send me well-timed emails throughout the day, and I would never get anything done.

In order for productivity to work, the way I interfaced with email had to change. Nobody teaches you how to use an email before you get one, and so a majority of people misuse their email. I started reading some articles around the web, trying things, and here are these are 3 easy steps that I settled on that keep email from controlling my life.

I Don’t Check It All the Time

Once upon a time, I prided myself in the frequency at which I checked my inbox. I had it all down too. My browser would be default open up my gmail, my hotmail, and my university email account, and I had different people and mailing lists emailing according to their category and importance. I would respond to any and all emails within an hour or two.

What a waste of time!

When I check my email nonstop, whether it is on my phone, my tablet, or my computer, I spend so much of my time shifting gears between taking care of the here and now, and other people trying to get a hold of me. I struggled to stay focused on tasks (especially the important ones which required focus), because of a nagging feeling in the back of my head that I had something to check.

The fix: disable notifications and close the mail client. Check email maximum 4 times per day

The world won’t die if you don’t check your email every hour. Yes, you might be able to coordinate something in a day if you do send 20 small emails back and forward, but you can do the same thing with one email, and then a follow up phone conversation. Besides, many things do not need to be coordinated in a day, and if you’re good at planning you should be working out important details weeks in advance.

By checking in the morning, in the evening, and once or twice during the day (mealtimes) you can set aside whole hours of time in the middle where you’re working distraction free.

I Achieve Inbox Zero

Too many people use their email inbox like a todo list. The inbox is a striped column that extends thousands of messages down back to the previous decade. Urgent messages are mixed with blog subscriptions or general information emails CCed to dozens of people.

Offices that look like this look sloppy, but we don’t recognize the sloppiness on a computer because it’s digital, and therefore feels different. But it still is just as difficult for the human brain to process.

All of my emails forward to one account. And whenever I check it, I make sure that my inbox is empty when I’m done. I first quickly assign all my emails into folders: read-later, do-later, respond-to-now, or the archive. (The do-later is actually me forwarding them into my Todoist inbox.

Once my inbox is empty, then I know that everything is in it’s proper place, and that nothing is slipping through the cracks. Urgent things are getting done first, and other things are put in a list where they can be prioritized later.

I Keep Emails Short and Informative

Nobody likes rants (unless they’re giving them, but usually they’re frustrated at something and not enjoying their life too much anyway). So I don’t include rants in emails. I say what I need to say, and then finish.

When there are multiple things that I need to talk about, I send multiple emails. In the past, if I needed to tell someone a bunch of things that were sort of related, I would write a giant email with the subject line “stuff” and then put paragraphs of information in the text. I would get a reply that would say, “this is a lot of information, come to my office sometime later on to sort through all of it.” It didn’t work too well.

Now, when there are multiple topics I need to talk about, I put them in multiple messages. Each is short, too the point, and I know that the responses I get back will be more intentionally related to each topic, and usually I don’t need to show up at someone’s office to sort everything out (even though I still do this frequently when there is more to talk about than a paragraph or two over email).

I have found that I can keep my emails shorter by including more in the subject and less in the body. Many emails are so small that I can put the entire email in one subject and finish it with an EOM. This bothers people the first couple times they get it, but after getting acclimated to the shift, it becomes a time saver on both ends.

Conclusion

I don’t claim to be an email guru, but I know that I tend to handle more emails than the average person (maybe not the top 10%, but top 50%) and that there are bad ways and good ways to handle email. These are the methods that I have used for the last year and have saved me hours of time, and I hope they work for you as well.

Staying Productive with Todo Lists

I love lists. Lists allow me to write everything down in one spot so that I don’t need to remember everything. I realize that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for lists, but let me explain why lists help me to sleep better every night and keep me motivated throughout the day.

I’ve played around with Google Tasks, Any.Do, Wunderlist, Remember the Milk, but the ToDo list manager that I’ve come to love the most is called Todoist. It has a lot of features for premium users, and for about $0.08 per day, I can have a computer keep track of everything that I have to do and remind me what needs to be done, when it has to be done.

The workflow is quite simple. To keep myself from getting overwhelmed, whenever I remember that there is something that I have to do, I put it in my Todoist inbox. Need to drop off a form at the Administration building? I add it to the inbox. Homework due on Tuesday? Add it to the inbox. Need to email a professor about a conference, add it to the inbox.

At the end of the day, as part of my evening ritual, I take a look at what tasks are in my Inbox. At this point, I sort through them and categorize them:

  • Assigned- these have been assigned to a specific date, and should be done by that day or before.
  • Waiting For – these tasks cannot be done until a date has happened, or other paperwork has been processed
  • Someday/Maybe – these tasks are non-urgent, and are usually personal projects like “check out a book on body language from James White Library”

Something that I am doing this year that I did not permit myself to do last year was to leave tasks in my inbox. Historically, I have been optimistic about what I am able to get done, and when I finish the day with 4 unfinished tasks, I feel unaccomplished and drained. To overcome this feeling, I only write down tomorrow’s MIT’s (Most Important Tasks). So long as these things are completed, then the day is a success. Everything that needs to be done soonish but has some flexibility remains on the Inbox stack until there is a day where I know that I have a 90%+ chance of finishing it. When something leaves the Inbox, it does not come back, and if it goes into the Assigned category, then it gets completed on the due date.

Finally, the last thing that I do in my planning for tomorrow ritual is prioritize each task for tomorrow. Some tasks were assigned tomorrow’s due date perhaps a week ago. Others I have just assigned to tomorrow in reviewing my inbox. So now I make an order/attack strategy in how I am going to finish everything on the list.

And that’s it. I’m done. That’s all the thinking that I have to do about tomorrow’s tasks. At this point, I can go to bed without worrying about all the things I need to get done tomorrow, or how I’m going to fit everything in, because I’ve gone to the drawing board, written them all down, and in what order I’m going to do them. When I wake up in the morning, my list is there, ready to be executed in the prescribed order.

There are three main advantages to this system:

  • No more procrastination: Because I’m doing things in order, I don’t allow myself to do the easy tasks when I’m feeling lazy, leaving the most daunting tasks for later in the week. I tackle the highest priory tasks first thing in the morning, and important things are always finished by the end of the day.
  • No more multitasking: No two items in my todo list have the same importance. They may be marked on the computer has having the same priority, but because one shows up higher than the other on the list, each one get’s done sequentially. There may be the rare case where I start a process that requires me to wait for a few minutes (i.e., I’m installing MATLAB at the moment) where I temporarily start another task, but I come back to the other task as soon as I can to avoid multitasking.
  • No more worrying:  It is very liberating to know that I have everything written down and organized, and that when I am sitting down to plan my day, I have the whole picture in front of me. Everything is accounted for, nothing is forgotten, and I don’t have to worry about the unexpected occuring.

That’s about it. I hope that you can glean a few tips out of this email, and perhaps make your own days more productive.

Why I Take a Cold Shower Everyday

I first ran into the idea of taking Cold Showers from Joel Runyon’s blog  “Impossible HQ.” On his post on Cold Shower Therapy he says the following:

If you can’t do something uncomfortable and difficult for 5 minutes in the shower, how the are you going to do something uncomfortable or difficult in real life?

He has a point. The most important thing you can do to get any task done is to just do it. The bulk of the reasons why I don’t get things done when I need to is because I kept procrastinating, or talked myself out of doing something because it was uncomfortable, or didn’t sound like much fun at the time.

Cold Showers are the cure for this.

When I  was working at summer camp this last summer, I started taking cold showers in the mornings half-way through teen camp. I noticed a distinct change. When I started out a day telling my whining, sleepy-eyed self to get over it, and turn on the cold jet of ice-water, for the rest of the day I found it much much easier to do things that needed to be done, but weren’t the most enjoyable.

But it didn’t stop there. I think every teenage boy (and most non-teenage boys as well) want to feel macho, boss, masculine, etc… As a cabin, we did all the manly things we could think of together, including pushup competitions whenever we could. When they found out that I took cold showers every morning, and I explained reasons why it makes me “more of a man” when it comes to getting stuff done (and not being a sissy and coming up with excuses) they all wanted to try it to.

Well, after summer camp came August, with it’s ice bucket challenges. I watched video after video of my friends (some of which are pretty massive guys) wimp out from having a gallon of ice water was poured over their heads. Mostly because they were intimidated by something that looked really uncomfortable.

Anything worthwhile that you want to achieve is going to require some discomfort. The people who get the most done are those who put their big-boy pants on, and start doing the things they need to do to achieve their results. One of the ways that I discipline myself to get the uncomfortable things done is to turn my shower on to cold every morning when I get up. It takes zero extra time out of my busy schedule (and in fact saves time and water most days) and helps me to start out every day energized, and ready to tackle difficult tasks.

For another perspective on this topic, you can check out Asian Efficiency’s post Eat that Frog

Why I won’t be playing video games on my phone/tablet/computer in 2015

This Christmas break, I found myself putting a lot of time into Minecraft and Clash of Clans. I had no school, and had finished some personal projects, so I had some time to burn and a nice iPad mini and MacBook Air.

From my experience time tracking in the past, I had an intuitive feel that gaming was taking up huge amounts of time, and that the hours per day that I was spending on games could be much better spent working on this blog for example.

I’ve made New Years resolutions before, and am well aware of the backsliding that is associated with the term. According to this site, only 8% of us keep our resolutions, and only 46% make it to 6 months. But I believe a big part of the reason we don’t make it is because we don’t understand the neurochemistry behind it.

Part of the goal of this blog, Making Gears Turn, is to better understand the mechanics that power the human experience. To keep a New Year’s Resolution, you need to understand the neurochemistry behind motivation, and video games have a fair bit to do with that.

A researcher at UConn discovered that dopamine, a chemical often associated with pleasure and our brain’s reward system, is not strictly about pleasure. He placed a pile of food near rat subjects, and another pile twice as large behind a small fence, and saw what happened to different rats. Rats with low dopamine lacked motivation to overcome their obstacle, and went for the small pile that was most accessible. Rats with more dopamine were able to make it over the fence and to the food. It turns out that dopamine has more to do with motivation, and increased motivation often gives us the willpower to achieve goals that give us pleasure.

Dopamine doesn’t cause pleasure in our brain, but it is the gatekeeper. Endorphins on the other hand are the chemicals released when we run, eat food, or play video games. So when someone particularly enjoys an activity, the brain (particularly the hippocampus and the amygdala) record the environmental cues associated with that activity, and the next time those cues are seen, then we get excited and motivated.

The problem with video games is that they are at a place where normally we are supposed to be productive. In the example of a mobile device or laptop, we are supposed to be writing a paper, or sending an important text, yet dopamine triggered by the sight of our devices and the tactile feel of the keyboard instinctively prompts us to log onto Facebook.com or open up our favorite game. This hijacks productivity.

So in order to stay on top of things like exercise, clearing todo lists, and fulfilling personal goals (like writing on this blog), the video games get to go this New Years. Completely off the phone. So when I feel compelled to log on, the game simply isn’t installed (and my hippocampus hasn’t yet associated the app store with endorphins yet :D). Less time gaming leaves more mental energy and more time for other things that really matter.

Oh, and for the record, playing a board game is something that matters. :)

How to Blackmail Yourself

This last month, I had a big paper to write for one of my classes. The syllabus required us to write a 12-page paper on the “Affirmation of Life: A Philosophy of Existence.” It took me seven different drafts to finally arrive at a paper that I actually felt I could turn in.

As the deadline grew closer, my motivation waned rapidly. I was sick and tired of discarding hours of work each time I realized a draft wasn’t going anywhere. Each day I lost more and more motivation, and I feared I would not finish the paper.

The solution? Blackmail.

I went across the dorm hallway to a friend and told him, “Hey, it’s Friday now, and I really want to have a draft by Sunday.” (This would give me a whole week to revise the new draft.) “If I am not finished by Sunday at 11:00 P.M., I will give you $10.”

It wasn’t a lot of money, but I didn’t want to lose it. That Saturday night, I procrastinated on a personal project. I worked on my paper a little more on Sunday morning, but again found myself unmotivated after lunch. By about 5:00, I realized that if I didn’t get to work on the paper, I would lose the $10 in six hours.

I have never worked harder on something that I didn’t want to do so much in my life. The strategy was effective, and I finished the draft in time.

I got the idea to blackmail myself on a blog by Joel Runyon. He suggests larger monetary amounts, like a month’s rent. The more it hurts, the more the motivation. I agree that would be effective, but I found that even $10 works for me.

Not only does $10 work for me, I’ve seen it work for others. The RA’s and the Deans at the dorm where I work use “Hamilton’s” as a motivator. If someone forgets to submit a form on time, $10. If somebody is late for a meeting, $10. And when the Hamilton fund has grown to a sufficient size, we throw a pizza party, and give a round of applause to all the “sponsors” who funded the party.

It works. We haven’t had a pizza party yet.

This is the principle that powers an online app called “Beeminder.” Any goal whose progress can be quantified is plotted, and if you fall outside the grace zone at any time, Beeminder charges $5 to your credit card. No questions. No excuses. Just Abraham Lincoln. It hurts the first few times, but eventually you learn how to stick true to a habit, because somebody else is blackmailing you.

So if you have something you can’t motivate yourself to do, whether a personal goal or a project you want to make progress in before a due date, give this method a try. Worst case scenario, you’ll make somebody else’s day brighter because they’ll get a free lunch.

If you want to read Joel’s original post on this subject, here’s the link: http://impossiblehq.com/blackmail-yourself. You can see a video summary of Beeminder here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvRcuFq6ItI

November Resolutions

Here’s the problem with New Years resolution: momentum. Momentum is mass times velocity, and coming into a New Year, you simply do not have the time to build up speed on such massive projects. Therefore 2015 is getting a head start.

Since I returned from Lebanon, I have had a stack of items on my todo list I keep in Todoist that I just couldn’t clear. Just as I would finish everything I had to do for a given day, new scheduled tasks and projects would roll onto my list. However, I watched as the number of items started at 25 at the beginning of September, to about 10 a month later, and as of yesterday afternoon I am finally the proud owner (temporarily) of a clear todo list.

This November I’m aiming to achieve what is called a “perfect week” which is to finish every day’s tasks for a given week as well as any weekly goals.

This includes standards of cleanliness, personal goals like exercise, journaling, and blogging, as well as staying on top of studies and such.

Why do I believe this is achievable? Because up to this point, what I have been doing hasn’t been working out and its time for a change. Yes,any of these things I do already, but it isn’t 100% consistent. I’ve got a clean slate here at the beginning of November and I don’t want to let this opportunity pass by without making the most of it. With 60 days left in the year I hopefully will be in the swing of things fully by the time the new year starts, but I want to get at least one perfect week in before this month is out.

So my goals for November are:

Perfect day:

 

  • Read for Scripture reading schedule (New Testament in a month)

  • Make bed and clean room
  • Complete a lesson in Duolingo German
  • Memorize four verses in Scripture Typer and review 12+ verses
  • Spend 30 minutes on app for MENA
  • Exercise (running, pushups, swimming, etc…)
  • No overdue/incomplete homework
  • Drink 3 liters of water
  • Write in daily journal

And a perfect week consists of

  • 7 perfect days starting on Sunday
  • A blog post
  • 45+ minutes of dorm visitation prayer ministry
  • Not forgetting to call my parents

What goals do you have? Leave your feedback below.