I started a series of posts at Our Mommyhood about being productive. The first post explained an overall philosophy I use to try to stay organized and productive, and that is the idea of contexts. By breaking your to-do list into contexts, you can better deal with what you need "to do" where you are, and not get overwhelmed by a long list. The second post explained the tool I use for said to-do lists, an online program called Toodle-Do, which also has a free app I use on my phone. The last post discussed ways to use a Calendar to stay organized. (Note, Google Calendar does now allow you to color code different appointments, as well as an overall color code for different calendars that you are viewing. LOVE.)
This is the final post in the series on Mommie Productivity. There are several other little tools that I use to help myself be productive, and get everything done in my little compartments of my life. None of these really warrant a post on their own, so I'll tie up the series with this little list of miscellaneous tools to help you get jump started, or keep you on track.
1. My phone. I used to carry my organizer with me everywhere. When I was single and childless, and a busy, hardworking Division Chair, that wasn't difficult to do. My work bag went with me everywhere, so my organizer was never far away. If I needed to schedule a drink with a friend, write down some ideas, jot a to-do, or something to look up online, it was usually within arms reach. Now, the diaper bag goes with me just about everywhere - except to work. I struggled for a long time with an organizer solution that was big enough for my essentials, but small enough to fit in the diaper bag. I found myself not carrying it nearly as much, and not having it when I needed it.
Around the same time, I was discovering the online to-do list. While you can print it out and take it with you, I would often not have it when I needed it, and not have access to the computer to pull it up. I needed my calendar and to-do list to have some portability. That's when I got my new smartphone.
Since Google created Android, it is very easy to get Google products on your phone, such as Gmail and Google calendar. I have even created a link to Google Documents so with one touch on my phone screen, I can see my monthly budget spreadsheet, or any other document I have saved. With the addition of the Toodle Droid app icon, I now have access to my tools simply by carrying around my phone - which I would be doing anyway.
Again, this part of the solution may not work for everyone who doesn't have access to a smartphone. In that case I recommend printing your weekly calendar and your to-do list periodically if you need to carry them with you. Or carry notecards or sticky notes, and make it a habit to add the items to your online tools once a day, or whenever you do your GTD processing (discussed in the first post).
2. A sticky note. Not just any sticky note, but this one. Specifically, it says:
One thing at a time.
Most important thing first.
I picked up that saying at 43 folders, a website devoted to personal productivity, particularly using the same tenants of Getting Things Done that we are discussing in these posts. So it's not original, by far. But it's a great reminder when your mind is going a mile a minute, when your adult ADD/mommy brain is in high gear and you can't get focused. You can only really be effective at one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is a myth. Psychological studies show that when you think you are multi-tasking, you are actually switching your attention back and forth quickly, not really focusing on multiple things. So pick the most important thing for you to focus on, work on it, and start immediately. Don't justify why it's the most important, or worry about something that is only slightly less important. Do one thing at a time, pick the most important thing for this moment, and get started.
It seems simple. But having it in front of you really does help. When I come barrelling into my office first thing in the morning after dealing with chocolate milk and daycare and ... it helps to have a reminder. What do I start with? What should I work on? I have a thousand things to do today. Where is my to-do list? Don't check email. Don't just jump in.
One thing at a time.
Most important thing first.
3. Baroque Period Classical Music. Yes, that sounds really strange as a productivity tool. There are some studies that show that the timing of the rhythm in Baroque music helps to entrain your brain for focus. This may be the basis for the Mozart effect - the theory that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. When trying to prove the effect, researchers found that what is actually happening is an increase in attention and focus.
It sounds really crazy, but it really seems to work. When I've come into my office rushed and harried, with a long to-do list and class in an hour, and I have several things to do but I can't seem to decide where to start, I have turned on some Baroque music, and it helps me to get calm and focus. When I use it in conjunction with the sticky note above, it almost seems magical how I can transform into a focused person, tackling a stack of papers to grade and starting to get things accomplished.
Pandora Radio offers free radio based on music genre. Pandora lets you judge individual songs, and can tailor the station to play more music that is similar to your preferences, and to play less music like the songs you tell it that you don't like. Over time, you can customize a station that plays soothing background music that will also help you with attention and focus. When I know I need to be focused and work, I start my Pandora station that I have labeled "Office Baroque". Perhaps it is just a placebo effect, but it helps me to start working in a more focused way.
Pandora also has a free app for my Android phone, so if I am home, or at the library, and want the same attention focusing effect, the same station is waiting for me wherever I go. I love it.
There are challenges. I'm a bit of a Covey-ite, in spite of professing my allegience to GTD in the first post. My most productive times are when I take the time for weekly planning. Taking a little time, usually on Sunday, to journal a bit, reflect on what has been working and what hasn't been working, what got accomplished and what is still in process, and what the priorities are for the week, help me to make sure I address everything that I need to. Covey suggests putting in the Big Rocks on your calendar - for me those are classes and bedtime routines. Neither are negotiable, and both occur routinely and at the same time each day. Once those are in place you can plan your week around them, making sure to look at your big picture goals and making sure you are doing something each week to advance toward them. That last step is key to personal growth, but is the step that tends to get lost when you plan day-to-day. Especially as a single mother to a toddler when I'm having trouble just keeping up with the laundry.
I haven't found a good solution to this step, and I am open to suggestions. Lately I have been doing this step on paper, which makes it difficult to fit into my technology described above. Perhaps I am too noncommittal to the plan to commit it to Google calendar, so I would need to address that issue. I have a printed schedule of the week - usually from Google calendar, so it already has the time-bound items listed. Then I draft - in pencil (noncommital, remember) - a framework of my week. This afternoon I'll write an exam, this afternoon I need to try to set appointments with students. It works well when I do it, and I always start Monday morning feeling more prepared and less panicked - and have less of a need for the sticky-note-and-music cocktail to calm myself down to get focused at work. I can't seem to figure out if it works so well, why I have a hard time doing it.
So I'm not perfect at it. I keep trying to do everything expected of me in the time I have to do it in. I've been late with a couple of obligations in the last couple of months, and my students were pretty annoyed at the grading time this semester. It's because I took on too much with the online graduate classes I'd been taking at the same time. Now I'm busy getting summer online classes developed and helping with some department service that look good in the tenure notebook. Just trying use my tools to get things done!