A simple and powerful todo list setup

Before I start – a disclaimer: this will be a bit of a geeky post and completely irrelevant for anyone not on a Mac. If you don’t have a Mac, well then hopefully this gives you yet another reason to want one.

This is the first of a couple of posts about how I’ve set up my Mac. Personally I’m pretty happy with the way it’s working for me, and I figured that it would be great to share some of the tools that I use (… as I expect that I’ve spent a little bit of time tuning my setup, I figured it can be useful for others too!).

The Todo List – Things
First of all, I use Things for my todo list. It’s pretty to look at (if you’re going to spend a lot of time with your todos, better have something beautiful), it’s efficient, it’s easy to use and all in all does what I need it to. Additionally it syncs with my iPhone so I can always access my todos.

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Project Reference Materials – Things Folders

I use Things Folders to store project reference materials. Project reference materials are any files that are associated with the projects I’m working with. Things Folders create a filesystem that is automatically updated with all your projects. 
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Project Reference Materials – Evernote

For project reference materials that are scraps of notes, bookmarks, webpages or links I use Evernote. Evernote is a great way to store just about any scrap of note or link. I have a couple of scripts that I modified from other’s sources that helps me sync my Evernote to Things. 

EvernoteLinks – This script runs in the background and whenever a note in Evernote is tagged with the same name as a project in Things a link is created in the “notes field” of Things. The script was originally from this thread and I modified it slightly to suit my needs. Original of the script came from here.

Evernote2Things – This script automatically creates todos from any note that is tagged “todo” in Evernote. I have a slightly modified version to allow creating notes from e-mail, as mentioned below. Original of the script came from here.

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To have these two scripts start when you start your computer, unzip the files in to the “Applications” director. Then go to “System Preferences”, choose “User Accounts” and then select your own user account, click “Login Items” and then click the “+” and find the two applications Everenote2Things and EvernoteLinks and add them to your list of login items. 

Quick add of todos – via LaunchBar

Things have their own excellent feature for quickly adding a new todo (you can choose your own keys – but by default it is Ctrl+Space and Ctrl+Alt+Space), however since I use LaunchBar heavily, I can add items from LaunchBar directly (I find it’s just faster that way):

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Quick add of todos – via eMail

I also like to forward and link e-mails to my todos. In this way, I can easily create a new todo related to an e-mail. I used to use Mailplane which integrated with Things so that Ctrl+Alt+Space would automatically link to the e-mail thread in question. Now I use Sparrow Mail which doesn’t have this feature, so I have used the above mentioned Evernote2Things to achieve the same thing. 

What I do is that whenever I have an e-mail that requires a Todo, I forward that e-mail to my special “Evernote secret mail address” which is provided by Evernote. I have a special notebook called “todos” and a tag called “todo”, so when I e-mail I simply append “@todos” (which instructs Evernote to store this e-mail in the notebook “todo”) and “#todo” (which sets the tag “todo”) to the subject line.

Once Evernote has synced to my local program (which it does within a minute) Evernote2Things mentioned above automatically adds a todo in Things.
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EvernoteLinks.zip
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Evernote2Things.zip
Download this file

Growth is discomfort!

I think this is clearly true – so what are you uncomfortable about right now? Maybe that’s what you should be doing?

 

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“In many instances, the likelihood of an individual succeeding (no matter what the goal) will be dependant on how uncomfortable that person is prepared to get and for how long.” C.A.H.

The Application of the Information

This morning I coached someone who asked me to expand on the ‘growth comes through discomfort’ theory. It’s something I’m always teaching and it’s a concept my client was having trouble getting her head around – from a practical application point of view. As the concept is relevant to most of us, I thought I would expand on it a little today.

What’s Growth?

In the context of this discussion, growth could mean a range of things: learning, improvement, adaptation, skill development, greater insight, better understanding, less fear, more confidence, greater productivity, less anxiety, more patience, fewer destructive habits and even something as practical and measurable as greater physical strength and improved health.

For an athlete, growth might mean more points per game, a higher vertical leap or a faster time. For a shop-aholic it might mean eliminating debt and changing spending habits. For the person with a social phobia, it might mean looking someone in the eye and initiating a conversation. And, for the chronic people-pleaser it could mean saying ‘no’ to somebody, taking a stand and not backing down. In simple terms, growth means creating positive change in some area of our (personal) world.

What’s Discomfort?

Discomfort, on the other hand, could be anything that (in a general sense) we’d rather avoid. It could present itself in the form of a work problem, a financial situation, a conversation we’re always deferring, a fitness challenge, a health issue, a habit we need to break, a fear we need to confront, a relationship we need to end, a dynamic we need to change or even (as many people have experienced) an unexpected illness. It could arrive in the form of an emotional, physical, psychological, sociological, financial or professional challenge. Or, a combination thereof.

Individually Uncomfortable

The interesting thing about the discomfort/growth paradigm is that it’s completely personal in terms of how and when it works and what it means to us. By that, I mean one person’s discomfort (and, therefore, opportunity to grow) will be another person’s minor event. There is no universally relevant discomfort scale because we all think, feel, experience and react differently. A scale like P.R.E. (a widely-used scale which gauges an individual’s Perceived Rate of Exertion while completing a physical task) tells us that comfort or discomfort, hard or easy is all about the individual. Which tells us that learning, adaptation, change and improvement are also about the individual.

Standing on a stage and talking is simply part of my job. For me, that task is about as stressful as driving a cab might be for a cabbie. That is, not very. For someone else, it might be an exercise in anxiety or maybe even terror. And, at the same time, a major opportunity for growth. Knowing that things only have the meaning we give them, we can safely assume that there is no single experience, process or situation that will produce consistent or equal results in terms of positive or negative change across the board.

Naturally, not all discomfort serves a positive purpose (standing in front of a moving bus for example) and, of course, we need to be wise and discerning about how, when and why we ‘get uncomfortable’. Having said that, it’s important that we find the awareness, courage and understanding that allow us to see problems, hurdles, barriers and catastrophes for what they really are: opportunities to grow and learn.

Is it time for you to address that thing you’ve been avoiding?

Don’t get mad at me – you keep putting it off. I’m just reminding you.

Image: Jeff Black

 

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Why do we feel stressed?

A couple of years back I was heading “into the wall”. For a long period I had been working too much, resting too little and in general having a quite unsustainable lifestyle. This lead me into a condition where all my executive functions was affected – my short-term memory got bad, I couldn’t access things from my long-term memory, I had a hard time planning or even structuring my activities and so on.

This is not all that uncommon today, there are an increasing amount of people who are having sick-leave from work due to stress related illnesses or injuries. Stress in the workplace is so pervasive that it sometimes seem that everyone should go through a period of burn-out through our working lives.

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So, what causes it all? Well, the obvious triggers are too much work, too little relaxation, etc. However, since experiencing it myself I’ve wanted to understand it from a broader perspective than that. One explanation that I’ve really been able to connect with is that stress is due to our working memory becoming overloaded.

Our working memory is the part of our memory which we use to store temporary information in. This memory is generally understood to be able to process 5-10 items at a time – though it can be trained & exercised to deal with more. What happens is that as we’ve moved from mostly physical (manual labour) to more abstract and conceptual work (knowledge work), the requirements on our working memory have risen – but of course, the capacity has stayed the same. This causes a lot of stress.

Think of an example of a task you might have in your everyday life – “send out meeting notes”. When you’d start on such a project you’d probably first have to break it down into smaller actions in your head, say “find paper notes”, “type out notes”, “ask peter about his feedback on X”, “find Sandra’s e-mail address”, “draft e-mail”, etc. While doing these individual actions you’d also have to keep a lot of small notes and details on how you’re doing them in your head. Additionally you might get new ideas and remember old tasks while you’re doing this – meaning more things to keep in your head.

Overall, it’s a recipe for working memory overload. So, what do you do? Well, I’ve found that for me, one of the simplest and most effective ways have been to simply write everything down. I write down each task immediately as I remember it into my todo-list and I write down ideas, thoughts, etc. in a note-taking system. Once I consistently started doing this I noticed stress went down, even as I still had a lot of things to do, but just by writing it all down and keeping it out my head, I no longer felt as stressed about it.

So, if you’re looking for a good way to reduce stress, get out and buy a good notebook, a stack of index cards or a software like Evernote (for free!) to keep it all out of your head.

Video blog: Getting complete control over your INBOX

This is my first video blog post ! I’ll share my (and many others) way of getting and staying on top of your email:

As said in the video it’s really about having your e-mail as an incoming area, and then using your task manager as the one and only place to store tasks. Use the task manager for all the tasks that you have – both those that comes from your e-mail and those that you get from other sources like phone calls or meetings that you attend.

For e-mails you process all the incoming mails according to the different steps I outline: delete, archive, do, delegate or defer. Use the “Archive” feature in Gmail a lot – this is your best friend when trying to get in control. By writing all the action steps in your task manager you make sure that you don’t forget anything – this is essentially your second memory!

For those of you who want to dig into where I get these ideas from (they aren’t mine!) check out:

Removing the cruft

There’s a lot of unnecessary things that we fill up our lives with, things that we feel we need or want, but which aren’t really adding value to us or even worse might be directly harmful to us or the environment around us. Many of us will have almost addictive relationship to them. Examples are many – but to give you a few: coffee, candy, television, alcohol, meat, cigarettes, porn, electronic gadgets, clothes, money.

One of the goals I have is to remove some of all the unneccessary foods, possessions and behaviors that I have in order to make my life simpler and make me feel better. At first I thought that scaling back would make me feel that I was not enjoying life as much, or that I was withholding things from myself – but then I reflected back on how it has been to be a vegetarian for many years and realized that it very seldom felt like that. Rather, the feeling when you choose to remove these unnecessary things from your life is a sense of freedom.

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To align with this I decided about a year ago to remove alcohol. Alcohol, in modest amounts can be good for you, but it is in no way essential to our lives. The average alcohol consumption by a Swede in their mid-twenties (that included me too!) is for sure not in the “healthy” range. Furthermore alcohol has a number of negative effects – the obvious one being hangovers, but also lower quality sleep and so on. Removing alcohol wasn’t hard, and now one year later, I feel once more a sense of freedom, rather than deprivation.

So, why exclude something completely? Why not just lower your consumption? Well, the fact of the matter is that psychologically, I noticed that I tend to engage more in the behavior than I think – if I say “I will lower my consumption” rather than quitting completely. Exceptions are easily made and easily forgotten – and therefore I find that aiming to completely abstain is much more effective. However, I also believe in being flexible, for example: during the last 6 months I have also stopped drinking coffee. I used to be a heavy coffee drinker (think 1-3 cups / hour), but I wanted to get away from the sense of “need” and the “addiction” that I had to coffee. However, this doesn’t mean that I cannot once in a while enjoy a great cup of espresso – like when I’m in Italy or at a place with a great barista. The key is just to have the policy of not drinking coffee and then only allowing in rare and well-defined exceptions.

So, what next? For the next upcoming months I’ve decided that I am continuing on the same track as with coffee and alcohol and I’m going to be only drinking tea, milk and water. Milk for the nutrients it provides and tea because I enjoy it & it has few negative effects.

Photo by: Hypergurl

Use your energy wisely

Humans are a sort of biological machine, we have energy as input and our output is movement, action, thought and all that. We are not a power source in and of ourselves, rather we have to get our energy from the outside world.

This means, that we don’t have an unlimited amount of energy to expend. In fact, in our lifetime, we only have a limited amount of energy in total to use. To me, the conclusion of this is that we need to choose to place our energy where it counts.

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There are infinite and one ways to spend your energy at any given moment – an average Saturday evening you could choose to sleep, go to a party, have sex, read a book or any other activity you have the physical and mental capability to perform. Our choices are sometimes conscious and sometimes not. The big issue for most people however (including myself), is that most of our choices are of the preceding type. We simply live day by day without really reflecting about where we put the majority of our energy in.

This way of living doesn’t mean that we’re wasting our energy – not at all, I think it’s fully possible to live a great life and have a great impact on the world and the people around you even when we aren’t focusing exactly on what we’re doing. However, by realizing that our energy is limited we also realize that all these choices we make have an alternative cost, that is they have a cost in terms of the other opportunities or areas where we could have put our energy. What this means, every day is that we should try to evaluate where we get the most return on the energy we put in – trying to see and be realtistic and honest about what result we can expect for any of the different choices we can make, this can be a good reflection exercise or even something to think about in day to day life.

Let me take a trivial example, I was flying a month or so ago the airport we were going to closed due to adverse weather conditions right before we were about to land. After circling the airport for a while the pilot decided that we would have to land in another airport and wait until the first one opened. We landed and we sat in the plane waiting and waiting. After a couple of hours waiting people started to get frustrated. One guy decided that he was going to take his frustration out on the cabin crew, arguing with them that they should provide free food and snacks (even though this was a low budget airline…) during the wait. This guy could have decided to use this energy and time to connect with the person he was traveling with, or to brainstorm a new idea or challenge he was facing – or even to meet someone new. In this case, I understand the outcome he was hoping for, maybe a free sandwhich, was probably not the maximum return he could get.

Bodybuilding for your focus muscle

Most of us have jobs and lives that presents us with a huge breadth of activities that we’re supposed to handle each day.

In order to manage all this without going crazy I find you need to start developing a razor sharp focus. Focus is one of the most useful tools to get a lot done – it allows you to achieve more during less time and improve your results.

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One of the best teachers of focus that I have found is Zen (or Chan) Buddhism – and while I would not refer to myself as Buddhist, I find that there is a lot to be learnt from this school of thought. At the heart of Zen Buddhism practice lies Zazen (“seated meditation”), which in essence (in my interpretation) is a way to clear away all the layers that lie between you and your true inner self, in order to reach Nirvana.

Zazen isn’t only a good practice to build mindfulness (which I could dedicate a whole other post to), it is also a great training ground for you to develop the three key elements for building a razor sharp focus:

  • Single-task, only do one task at a time and do it until completion. Don’t try to complete 100s of tasks at once, but take them one at a time. This doesn’t only hold for your goals and activities but for many things such as goals, studies, etc. Choose one thing and focus on that. During a work day you can apply this by writing down 3-4 things you want to accomplish during the day and then schedule 3-4 times when you are going to completely focus on one of these tasks. Then work focused until you’ve completed it.
  • Eliminate distractions, once you have chosen your single task eliminate as many possible distractions before you start. In an open landscape office? Put on your headphones with some great music. Got a cellphone (of course you do)? Put it on silent. Got MSN running? You know what to do.
  • Be self-aware, when starting to learn Zazen you’re taught to be aware of your breath and the feeling of your body and clear all other thoughts – making note of when your mind wanders and silently returning to your focused awareness. Apply this when you’re working, by simply being aware of what you’re doing, what distracts you and what takes your time. For example, you can get a pen and pad and write a mark every time you find yourself loosing focus.
    However, remember not to scold yourself for being distracted (we all do get distracted at times) just silently make a remark of it and then return to your focused state. Just like zazen shouldn’t be force, your focus will develop much better if you don’t make it a pain.

By applying these three habits to your activities you will find that your focus gradually, slowly develops sharper and sharper. Don’t get frustrated if you find yourself distracted many, many times in the beginning – focus is like a muscle, it takes continuous practice in order for it to grow strong.

Photo credit: Harpersbizarre.