Scheduling Brain Dumps

 

I look forward to my Friday wind-down time. This is usually spent either travelling back from a client site or, if I'm working from home, stretched out on the sofa carrying out my weekly review. 

Why do I look forward to this so much? 

I love this time because part of my weekly review involves a scheduled brain dump - thirty or so minutes that are spent simply emptying my head of all thoughts and feelings. 

I open up Day One on one of my devices (often this is the iPad as it's great for this scenario) and create an entry within my Inspiration journal (with a tag named Brain Dump) and just...write. 

What do I put in there? 

Anything and everything that comes into my head. 

It could be thoughts about my day at work, worries about the weekend, reminiscing about conversations I've had that are, somehow, still playing on my mind. Maybe there is something you need to research in readiness for next week, or you've had an idea for a project you want to work on but seems ridiculous at this moment. 

Any of these things can lead to inspiration and forewarn you of situations that are not as they should be at this moment. 

Once everything has been extracted from your grey matter and displayed in front of you, magic can happen. 

  • You can review what you've written and make decisions about how/if to progress them. Is there a problem that needs to be resolved? Create a project in your task-manager of choice and work out what the very next action is that needs to be completed to edge you closer to resolving. This process alone lifts the pressure from yourself and allows you to wrestle control of the situation from your sub-conscious. Let's face it, your subconscious would have been happy to keep hold of that negative thought and let it pick away at you, slowly, over time, driving you nuts! Not anymore - take control. 
  • You can revel in the glory and take the time to feel good about things. That's right - we're allowed to do that sometimes! If you have achieved something great or were thinking about a special time you had with your family when you performed your brain dump, take the time to re-visit this thought and think about what it means to you. This could be the most productive thing you do all week as there is no greater motivator than positive thoughts. 
  • You have freed up your brain to have more ideas. I've lost count of a number of times I've created a project after a brain-dump and, as I'm working out the actions required to meet my objective, other ideas find their way into my mind and start knocking at the door, desperate to be let out. This often happens during the brain dump process itself. Creativity begets creativity. 

If you schedule a brain-dump at least once a week, you open yourself up to a lot of possibilities for self-improvement and focus. How long it takes is up to you. Sometimes, I'm done after fifteen minutes. Other times, I'm still there after two hours, ideas pouring out. 

Give it a try - let me know how you get on.

How I (Simply) Use OmniFocus and Launch Centre Pro - 1.0

I’ve not been using my iPhone to anywhere near it’s potential recently. I don’t know why this is - it’s certainly been a hectic twelve months in my life personally with lots of changes taking place - however, sometimes it’s important to step back and look at some of the barriers that you are facing with getting stuff done. One of mine was the efficient use of OmniFocus on the go.

Looking back, a reason for this was the friction involved in getting to the perspectives or contexts that I needed. There were a lot of screen presses needed and as my OmniFocus setup is fairly detailed, I looked for other ways to record important tasks on iOS. This CAN work for some people, however, my mindset is slightly different. If I’m not focusing on one application, or system, I’m not focusing on any and I lose trust. Once the trust in the system goes, then the whole system goes and this has been an issue for me.

Upon looking into ways to reduce this friction, I thought of Launch Centre Pro as a means to grant me easy access to frequently accessed lists within OmniFocus. It has made a huge difference.

My set-up is by no means extensive as I like to start simple and then build up as the need for more complex actions arises. I’d still like to present you my simplistic LCP and OF configuration and show you how it was created.

I’m going to assume a working knowledge of Launch Centre Pro for the purposes of this post!

 
 

As you can see, I have four LCP actions for OmniFocus configured. These are all accessible from the OmniFocus Group that I have setup on my Home Page for Launch Centre Pro. Creating the group is easy. Click the pencil icon in the top right-hand corner. Any spare grid spaces are converted into plus signs. Select one of the grid spaces and choose Group from the resulting pop-up. I’ve placed my OmniFocus group button directly above the Home Button of my iPhone, as this is easiest for my thumb to get to and I fully expect this to be my most used LCP button.

Dashboard

The Dashboard view is a list of Flagged and Due tasks that I have for today. It’s in the top left hand corner as I don’t use this view that often on my iPhone. My iPhone is rarely used for critical, must do tasks - that’s my MacBook Pro or iPad. 

Dashboard is a Perspective within OmniFocus and being able to view this from a button press is super handy. 

To setup any Perspective: 

1) Click the pencil icon once more, select your group and you’ll have a second grid of icons to select. 

2) Choose where you would like this Perspective to go and select Action from the pop-up. 

3) Select Action Composer

4) Select Apps with Actions

5) Scroll down to OmniFocus 2 and select

6) Press Open Perspective

7) In the Name field, type the Name you wish to see in the LCP icon. In the Perspective field, type the name of the Perspective you wish to open (I imagine you will want both of these fields to be the same)

8) Click Done. 

9) (Optional) Change the icon by clicking the Icon option and configuring the background, style and icon contents. 

10) Done! You have a new Perspective accessible from the touch of an LCP button. 

iPhone

I have a context called iPhone which is for those tasks that I can only complete when I’ve got my phone to hand. It’s not often that I’m not in front of my MacBook or iPad so if I ever have a task I can complete on any device, I usually go for the larger devices as it invariably makes the task quicker and easier. However in my quest to make more use of my iPhone, I’ve created a context (and Perspective) for tasks that are phone dependant. These could be calls, researching iPhone apps, checking App Store updates for iPhone. This list will grow I’m sure, but for now this works. 

Setting the icon is the same as the steps above, merely substituting the Dashboard in the Perspective field for iPhone.

Household

This is a perspective that contains the tasks that need to be completed around the house. At the weekend, the MacBook is either away or performing backups/maintenance so I want to be reliant on my phone for keeping me up to date with what I can be doing around the house or with the family, so I’ve created a perspective for just this purpose. 

Errands

This one speaks for itself. This perspective contains a list of all available items with the context of Errands and is great for when I’m out in the car and need to pick up groceries or other items for the family. 

As said, this is a rudimentary setup. I’m planning on adding new buttons in the near future. I’ve just watched a great video over at Learn OmniFocus that shows how to create a button for entering a range of New Items. There are workflows for adding in clipboard content and setting up templates for recurring tasks. I’m also planning on leveraging a one-button search in the near future. 

I’m hoping to present a version 2.0 of this post in six months time to see how my setup has progressed (I’ve just put it into OmniFocus now so no excuse for forgetting!). 

I’m opening the comments on this one so any hints and tips that you would like to share, feel free to pass them on!

Public Groups with TextExpander

 

Back in the days before TextExpander went all cloud-based on us, there was a feature called Predefined Groups . These were groups of snippets built into the software with their content pre-loaded. We had groups for AutoCorrectSymbolsInternet Productivity amongst others. 

Now that TextExpander has provided the ability to access our snippets from a web interface, the potential for these Predefined Groups has grown. Now, they have evolved into Public Groups, a far more scalable and accessible solution. 

Public Groups are, at their core, groups of snippets shared by TextExpander users. They have consciously made these groups publicly accessible and there are some great ones available. Here is the universal way to find them:

1) Log into your TextExpander account via a Web Browser

2) On the Snippet Groups page, select Add Public Group

3) Here, you can scroll through the page to find the groups that you wish to add. When you find the group that you wish to add, click Subscribe. A new page will appear with one further box - Subscribe To Group. Click this and you are off to the races. You can view the contents of this group from the web interface, or from your locally installed application. 

In this example, I’ve added the group Accented Words by Jean McDonald. While adding accents to characters is a relatively easy process on macOS (simply hold down the key for a second and a list of accents appears on screen), remembering which ones form the word correctly is not so easy. This is a great group to have!

 
 

It’s important to note that you cannot make changes to a Public Group, although you probably worked that one out already, being the astute reader that you are. You can, however, Duplicate the group so that a copy of the snippet group appears in your own personal snippet library. From here, you can use the Public Group as a base and add your own snippets as you wish. Any changes made to the Public Group by the owner won’t reflect in this duplicate you have created. 

Creating Your Own Public Group

You may have a set of snippets that you have lovingly curated and you wish to share with the wider public or members of your own team. This is an easy process, as you would expect. We’ll run this example from the web interface once more. 

1) Log into your TextExpander account via a Web Browser

2) Click on the Group that you wish to share

3) Click on the Sharing tab and towards the bottom of the screen you will see a section called Public Sharing. Check the radio button called URL Sharing and then click Publish In Public Groups.

4) The resulting window allows you to change the TitleAuthorCategory (General, AutoCorrect, Symbols, Internet or Medical) and specify whether you have the legal rights to publish the groups content. 

Once this is complete, the request is sent to the team at Smile Software for review. If rejected, contact them and ask what actions need to be completed to remedy this. They are a great team and will help all they can.

There we have it, a brief overview of Public Groups but certainly enough to get you started.

Multitasking Is Rubbish

I'm supposed to be good at this stuff, yet it's amazing how many times I'm guilty of failing to eat my own dog food. In fact, I wouldn't be offended if you said that I can be a real idiot at times when it comes to being productive. 

Hey, at least I can admit it and recognise where I've fallen down I guess! 

Just this morning, I fell under the "I can multitask" bus and this is how. (Hands up if you've done the same....)

I'm sat in an office with one other person, dialling into a conference call via Skype For Business. It's a call that doesn't need my attention for the entire forty-five minute duration, so I make the usual pleasantries at the beginning, mute the microphone and use this as an opportunity to process my email from the previous day. 

Mistake. 

In fact, count the 'productivity' mistakes through this sad tale as you read. 

I've got one ear listening to the content of the call whilst I'm looking at an important email that is going to take some serious troubleshooting over the course of the day. I'm reading through, and for some reason, I think I'll concentrate on the email a little easier if I take one of my earphones out and reduce the volume of the call I'm participating (!) in. 

My office mate then sees the removal of the earphone as a sign to ask a question he's been keen to ask for days. Being a quintessentially polite Brit, I have difficulty saying that I should concentrate on the call I'm on (as well as the important email I'm trying to process) and so I engage. 

We chat for a couple of minutes until I hear a voice in my ear.

"Lee, did you catch that? I think you're on Mute". 

Naturally, I have no idea what was asked, and so I abruptly cut off my office mate, apologise to the conference call lead for the network issues I just encountered (!) and ask them to repeat the question, wasting the time of everyone on that call while the events I missed are recanted. 

So I now have a call that is being extended unnecessarily, an email that is no further through being processed yet is now in the back of my mind due to its importance, tugging away at my attention like a puppy playfully trying to free a toy from the hands of it's owner, as well as a colleague who feels awkward having been cut off mid-sentence while I deal with something that is clearly 'more important'. 

All in the name of trying to do more than one thing at once. 

The brain is not designed to multi thread, like a modern day CPU. Multitasking is simply a myth. When you try and work on more than one thing at a time, all you end up doing is switching your attention multiple times - and all of that attention-switching takes energy as well as time. Each time you shift from watching TV to writing a text, to checking your Twitter timeline - your brain is initiating a stop/start process each time. It's fast, it's rapid and it can give the illusion that you are doing more than one thing at once, but have you ever been listening to a podcast whilst checking Twitter and found that you'd missed something that was said? Of course you did! You weren't listening whilst reading, you were listening then reading - your brain was switching rapidly between one task and the other. 

 Was I able to complete any of those tasks earlier to the best of my ability? Not a chance. Yet the example I've given above is repeated by people in both the workplace and domestically time and time again. Myself included! Admittedly, this morning was a rare occurrence and I'm usually highly focused and able to work on items singularly without an issue. This morning I just - fell off. I thought I could do it and was pleased, in the end, to see that I couldn't and the theorising we read about multitasking is indeed true. 

There is a great test you can do at the following site that tests this theory - I urge you to try it out. 

Creating Custom Searches with Alfred

 

I use Alfred for a lot of different things. It’s an app launcher, a currency converter, dictionary, calculator - in short, I try to use it as my shortcut for anything and everything that I do on my Mac. 

One great feature is the ability to search for content on different websites directly from the Alfred input bar. All I have to do is type in google or imdb followed by the search criteria and Alfred is able to invoke those searches, all from a compact and hassle-free interface. 

There are lots of default sites and services searchable by default, easily accessible by opening Alfred Preferences -> Features -> Web Search (see the below screenshot for the list). As you can see, the most common sites are certainly taken care of. There are occasions, however, when I want to search for content within a different site. My own is a great example! Am I able to configure an Alfred search workflow to trawl for content on a custom site? 

You bet you can! 

Here’s how:

1 - Identify the Search URL

Before I can configure a custom search, I need to know how my site handles search queries. The easiest way to do this is to navigate to my site and carry out a search. I have a search text entry field on my home page, so entering omnifocus as my search criteria took me to the following URL:

http://www.myproductivemac.com/search?q=omnifocus

Dropping the Omnifocus from the end gives me the custom search URL in use on my site. I need to take that and enter this in Alfred. 

2 - Add Custom Search

Go to Alfred Preferences -> Features -> Web Search and in the bottom right-hand corner, click the option to Add Custom Search

In the resulting pop-up box, enter the Custom Search URL retrieved earlier into the first field. Fill in the remaining fields, paying careful attention to the Keyword field. This is the abbreviation you will type in to invoke the search. This needs to be unique and memorable. MPM is easy for me, so I go with this. 

You can validate the search by clicking the Test button. If successful, it will navigate to the custom site.

It’s that simple! If you find yourself performing lots of searches in sites that are not listed in Alfred by default - such as forums, discussion sites, game reviews etc, this is a great shortcut.

Why I Love Morning Pages

My morning routine has matured over the years. I remember the time when it was as simple as:

  • Stagger downstairs
  • Chug coffee
  • Worry about the coming day
  • Sit down and rock, gently, to and fro
  • Get dressed
  • Commute to work. 

Thankfully those days are a long way behind me, as I adopt tried and tested methodologies to help prepare myself for the coming day, as well as the coming weeks and months. 

One such practice is known as Morning Pages, a technique devised by Julia Cameron. The framework for this involves writing three pages of longhand writing that can be based on ANYTHING. You just let your brain run free and write down anything that comes to mind. 

Sounds strange doesn't it? Well, I thought so too, however when you marry this up with the practice of meditation, you can find yourself with some pretty impressive results. Whilst meditating, I find my brain roaming, with thoughts trying to barge their way into the forefront of my consciousness. The key to successful meditation is to gently push these thoughts aside and retain your focus. 

When writing your Morning Pages, rather than push the thoughts to one side, you release them onto a different medium - in this case, paper. 

Julia Cameron first mentioned these Morning Pages in her twelve week course The Artists Way and adopts a strict set of guidelines as to how they should be completed. They must be completed first thing in the morning, before your ego's defences have had a chance to form. You must complete three pages of continuous long form writing (fewer is stifling for the brain, whereas any more can reduce the practice to being nothing more than a chore).  You can, however, write about anything. Anxieties, plans for the future, events that have made you angry, or even elated - it's entirely down to you. You let your brain run free. 

So how has writing these Morning Pages helped me with my day-to-day life? 

As someone who is trying to develop journaling into my daily routines, I find writing my Morning Pages an essential experience. I find myself writing about so many different things, it's almost like mind-mapping in the way one thought or feeling can unlock another. I write about my family, my work, my studies, my hopes and dreams, my concerns, my goals - one thought always begets another and when I complete the last word, I feel genuinely liberated. 

Completing this process every morning gives me a regular outlet for my thoughts and feelings that I can rely on and, more importantly, look forward to completing. 

My quarterly goals are always commanding my attention, so my Morning Pages are a good opportunity to write down how I feel they are progressing. I don't make conscious changes to them at this time, or even make any form of judgment or decisions as to how they need to improve. Sure, I can write down any modifications that need to be made, which I can review later, however, this practice is intended solely as an outlet for my thoughts. Write now, action later. 

My brain has been pretty clear recently and I owe that not just to the Weekly Brain Dump, but to my dedication to completing my Morning Pages. There are three whole pages to complete, it's difficult NOT to empty your brain during this process!

I've also been able to face up to my problems in a more pro-active manner, rather than let them fester and erode myself from within. Like many of you, I've endured tough times over the last few years and there have been times when I've doubted so many things, not least myself, however I have found that getting these thoughts onto paper/print has somehow brought them more to the surface, given them a sense of..well, realism. If something is real, it needs to be dealt with. Even the act of committing your anxieties to print is a form of processing, a way to share the worry - even if it's only sharing it with yourself. I like to look at this as sharing my worries with a better version of myself, someone who is more equipped to deal with the situation. 

Now I'd be lying if I said that I follow Julia Cameron's Morning Pages practice to the letter. On the contrary, I merely use the premise as a framework and I have adapted to fit my own way of life. 

In the first instance, I'm a digital junkie and I scan my pages into DEVONthink so that I can search them retrospectively and look for patterns and trends in my thinking as part of my monthly review. I was toying with the idea of using Day One to record these pages, however, I'm reluctant to use my iPad or MacBook first thing in the morning. I like to wake up slowly, with as little tech light as possible. This may change though, we shall see how it develops. 

Secondly, Julia recommends three sides of US Letter Paper (A4 for we Brits is fine). I tend to use my Moleskin for this instead as this is my handwritten 'thought journal'. Also, this scans nicely into Evernote. 

This isn't the first thing I complete as part of my morning routine. I come downstairs, put the kettle on for my coffee and whilst that's boiling, I drink two glasses of water, take my vitamins and perform some light stretches. Once complete, I make my coffee then go and settle down in the living room where I put on some quiet music and start writing. 

Finally, I don't commit to a given amount of pages. I'm a strong believer in Parkinson’s Law which says that work will expand to fill the time allotted to it. Therefore I set a timer for thirty minutes which I've found is often more than enough to empty my head in the morning. Invariably I'm complete by 5:45am. 

Like everything, I'm not a purist. I don't practice GTD exactly as the book says, when managing projects, it's hard to follow PRINCE2 or Agile rigidly 100% of the time and I've found Morning Pages to be no different - I need to tweak a little here and there to make it work for me. 

If this post does nothing more than to make you think about writing something about your day first thing in the morning, then I'll be happy in the knowledge that I've been able to do some good along my way. You'll feel the benefit. 

 

TextExpander - Adjusting When a Snippet Expands

 

There are occasions when I will expect TextExpander to expand a snippet I type, only to be greeted by a stony silence and no magic on my screen. The reason for this is that, by default, TextExpander will only expand when preceded by white space. While this is great for those abbreviations that actually form part of a word, as many of my snippets form part of a Markdown link, which is preceded by parentheses, this became frustrating in a short space of time. 

I didn’t realise, however, that this behaviour can be changed. 

The team at TextExpander actually recommend that you keep the default settings, whilst creating a separate group that will contain snippets which expand directly next to other characters. 

This can come in very handy when expanding email address, HTML code, anything in parentheses - the list is lengthy. 

Adjusting a Groups Settings

1) Click on the Group Name

2) Select the Drop down list next to Expand When

3) Choose your new setting. 

expandwhen.jpg

Very quick and easy tip. 

 

Go Dark To Shine Bright

 

I have to say that being a nice person can be a real productivity killer at times! Saying No to people seems to be just so rude sometimes that I find it almost impossible to do.

Sadly, for lots of people, this means that their workload can end up being inflated, with only a certain percentage of it taken up with that they will get the direct benefit from. 

Well, I used to be in a situation very similar to this. I hate letting people down and love the sense of well-being that comes from helping others as much as I can. That’s where the problem lies though. We tend to have a distorted view of how much time we are actually able to give across to others. 

Look at the amount of time you spend reacting to inputs from other people that disrupt the flow of your work. You get notifications via many different mediums on your phone or computer. I know this used to be the case for myself, with several messaging applications open, email, as well as the occasional phone call (shock horror…phones receive calls too!). Sitting in an open plan office also meant that people would always chat when passing, or across the desk. Sometimes, even wearing the largest pair of headphones known to man wouldn’t get the point across that you really don’t want to be disturbed right now! 

I decided I couldn’t keep trudging down this productivity cul-de-sac any longer and so came up with a list of potential actions I would employ to prevent those issues from affecting me.

Phone Notifications OFF

The biggest culprit for these mental shoulder taps was definitely my phone. Well, I say my phone, let’s be honest, it’s me, as my phone doesn’t self-configure itself to disturb me whenever it likes. During my working day or periods where I need my concentration levels to be at their highest, I turn off all notifications except for those from any VIPs. In my case, this is my wife, as a lack of productivity is a small price to pay for missing an alert from Mrs Garrett. 

This approach works really well for me. When I install new apps, notifications are off by default however it’s the SMS messages, iMessages and emails that can be the killer. I hold the view that if there is an emergency, someone will call. If they call and it isn’t an emergency, then they know in no uncertain terms that next time, it had better be an emergency.

Use Your Calendar

Your calendar can be a really useful tool for letting people know you cannot be disturbed. When I am not in meetings, I schedule myself project time so that those who can view my Calendar see me as busy. It could very well be that I’m not needing that whole block of time to concentrate on one thing in particular however it’s far easier to take away from a Calendar than it is to find time in one.

Fake meetings can be very handy as well. Obviously, you need to be in some form of high ranking superiority in the job you are in to use this approach! 

If you schedule your peak focus periods into your Calendar in this manner then you will go a long way to minimising the distractions other people present. 

Use Your Email

You have to be strict with yourself and simply stay away from your email during your busiest times. If you reply to emails within several minutes of receiving them, people will expect this to be the norm. You will then set a precedent that you could really do with avoiding. Conversely, if people know that you only check your email at pre-designated times of the day then people will not badger you for information. In fact, the number of emails you receive could very well reduce. 

By using an Out Of Office assistant wisely, you could help yourself immensely too. Let people know automatically that you will not be able to reply to any new emails until a given date, or explain that you are currently unavailable, however, if it is an emergency, provide details for a medium that you can be communicated via. 

Use Your Colleagues

Let the people around you know you cannot be disturbed. This will not only prevent them from mindlessly distracting you but will also enable them to act as gate-keepers, stopping others from disturbing you, taking messages etc. Maybe have a pre-designated signal to identify that you are in Do Not Disturb mode. My headphones work the majority of the time but there will always be an exception to this rule!

Offer Alternative Appointments

Let’s be honest, it’s hard to just tell people you don’t have the time to listen to them. However, explaining that you are in the middle of something at the moment and offering an alternative time to chat shows them that you do want to know what they have to say, it just needs to wait. If it’s important, then you won’t miss out on something you should know, whereas if it isn’t, then you have successfully avoided this time-drain without offending someone. 

Also, offer alternative methods of communication when you don’t have the time to talk. If it’s something that will need attention, then ask for an email on the subject which also acts as a nice digital reminder that you have something that needs processing. 

In Summary

Nobody likes letting people down or appearing as though you haven’t got time for them, however, it is a necessary evil when it comes to maximising the time you have available for the actions that matter. Remember that every time you say No to someone, you are actually saying Yes to something that is more important. 

It’s a tough balancing act to pull off, being a decent human being and a productivity demon, however with some careful planning, subtle changes to your workflow applied and diplomacy, it can be done.

Sometimes you need to go dark in order to shine bright.