How I Became Ruthlessly Productive At Work (After Years Of Struggling With Procrastination & Distraction)

Every good blog has to have a time management article at some stage – this can be mine. Whether that makes it a good blog is up to you, gentle reader.

All right – time management.

I’ve always struggled with procrastination. It’s not quite as bad “My name is Matt and I’m an alcoholic” but I’m pretty sure “My name is Matt and I procrastinate on work” is not too far behind. I’ve done it as long as I can’t remember.

You know those people who like to burn through their homework so they can play outside? I’m the guy stuck inside doing it up to dinner time and beyond because I just can’t get myself to concentrate on my work . . .

I struggled with it through five years at my first full-time job, and I’ve struggled at my current one. I’ve tried different things.

I loved the Getting Things Done system. In fact, I read it in the week before I moved to Sydney to start my first full-time job. And it has certainly been a system I’ve come to rely on for how to get organised and keep your mind clear. However, for me, the GTD system didn’t help with the crucial problem I faced – procrastination.

See, by the time I’ve emptied my head, made all my lists, and done all that great GTD stuff, there’s the issue that that work has to be done. I read a variety of books that talked about different things like how to prioritise tasks, how to work out psychologically why you’re procrastinating (e.g. fear of failure). And I’d get some short-term changes out of these systems.

But for the most part, I’d keep falling off the wagon. And sometimes the advice you’d get from time management books would cancel each other out. Some books tell you that just actually doing the jobs that are there (rather than thinking about them) is a good way to go. Well, this is true, and there is something to be gained by just doing something now rather than endlessly scheduling it around. However, if you do everything that’s in front of you now, you’ll find that you answer a lot of emails, run a lot of errands for people who drop things on your desk – but the big picture jobs (most likely the ones you’re actually being paid to do) aren’t getting done.

I never knew how to get myself out of this dilemma. The other problem is, I’ve worked out that I’m a dreadful people-pleaser. It can be almost anyone in the company, but if they ask me to do something for them – whether it be shifting boxes or proofreading things or whatever – I’ll drop anything to help out.

And if I go to team meetings – aarggh!! – it gets even worse, because I’ll say “yes” to everything I’m asked to do, even if I’m not sure how on earth I can manage it all. Even though I inevitably get myself in trouble later on for not delivering everything I said I’d do, I still can’t help myself.

Oddly enough, it was this tendency of myself that led to an interesting breakthrough that I made.

The background was that at the beginning of this year, I had three roles at work. I was supposed to spend 2 1/2 days a week on one, and 1 1/2 days on the second and 1 day on the third.

On paper.

In reality, I’d just work on whichever one screamed the loudest. And I was having trouble doing any of them well.

And I was starting to get asked these questions, “How much time are you spending on each job area?” And you know what? I had no idea.

So I decided to start tracking my time. I know there are time management books out there that talk about doing a time log for a few days – some of you may even have tried that. However, that kind of thing is more about working out how many times you get phone calls during the day, how many times you distract yourself, etc.

But this time – what I wanted to do was actually track my time as if I was a consultant. So I signed up for a free internet-based timesheet called actiTIME. The main attraction with actiTIME was that it’s completely free if you just want a timesheet to log times into. (You can buy versions if you want to have more than 10 people using it and you want to access more complex management and accounting processes – but the free version suited me fine because I just wanted a sheet that I could log times in.)

The major tweak I made to it was that actiTIME comes with three main categories – Customers (it’s assuming you’re a contractor), then Projects which filter under Customers and then particular Tasks under that.

I changed Customers to Job Roles (one for each of my three roles) and kept the Projects and Tasks. (Actually, it was a nice feature that I could rename these levels to be in keeping with what I wanted.)

The other key that I decided to do was record my time in 15 minute increments, which seemed like a standard way of tracking these things. I’m not sure how contractors keep track of these things, or whether they guess at the end of the day, but I decided that I’d use a little countdown timer program that I had downloaded a long time ago (the sadly no-longer-available AleJanJes Timer, which I can’t link to because the page is no longer there). I’d set the timer for 15 minutes, and I’d run it pretty much every 1/4 of an hour (unless I wasn’t at my desk). I’d try to keep it as close I could to the hour, quarter past, half past and quarter to (e.g. 9.00, 9.15, 9.30, 9.45) so that it had a certain regularity to it.

Every time the Timer stopped, I’d flick over to my actiTIME sheet, which was sitting open in a browser on my computer all day.  I’d then add 15 minutes to the total of whatever task I was working on.

At this stage, I wasn’t attempting to prioritise my work or anything like that – and I still tended to work on whatever was screaming the loudest – but the idea was just to track it to give me an idea of what was taking up my time.

But what I didn’t expect was the amazing secondary benefit of this tracking – I finally discovered the anti-procrastination holy grail I’d been looking for!

Quite simply, knowing that every15 minutes I had to account for what I’d been doing made me work more solidly. Originally, this might have been because I had some thought that I was going to show the timesheet to my managers. That never eventuated – and I don’t think I’ll ever show anyone those reports – but after three weeks of tracking every 15 minutes, the habit was well and truly entrenched.

I’m not saying I didn’t waste time sometimes. There were times when I was tired, when I didn’t want to start a particular job. When I’d go make a cup of tea or coffee just to avoid starting the next time. (For the record, I’d count cups of tea as part of whatever job I was working on for 15 minutes, but if I had a real waste-of-time 15 minutes doing something like surfing the net or a long conversation with someone, I wouldn’t claim the time.) The idea was that I was trying to make sure I could account for all the 7 1/2 hours during the day that I’m paid for. And for the most part, I’ve been able to. There have been some days where I hit the end of the day and realise that I’ve only done about 7 hours work (despite the fact that I was in the office for a full day), but those days are becoming rarer.

I never would have picked it as being a winning system – running a timer and logging my work in a timesheet – but it has me able to do a full day’s worth of work, knowing that I didn’t spend a third or more of it mucking around and doing stuff I shouldn’t have been doing.

This system worked rather well for quite a while. Until I discovered the Pomodoro Technique, and decided to try that instead of my existing system.

That led to interesting results. . . and a new generation of time management for me. But I’ll save that for another blog.

In the meantime, I would challenge any of you die-hard procrastinators out there to give actiTIME a whirl, with a timer. (Hmm . . . maybe actiTIME could add a timer to the page?) Seeing as it’s no longer available, I thought I’d set the AleJanJes Time up on Media Fire for you to download. It was always intended to be freeware, so I don’t think I’m doing any wrong here. The guy who originally made it put it there so his kids wouldn’t fight over the computer.

I like this particular timer because it’s small and you can put it in the top right-hand corner of your screen where it will remind you quite obviously that your time is soon up. You right click on it to change the settings.

Have fun! I’ll talk more about Pomodoros another time.

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Film Review: The Box

I always enjoy Q&A screenings of films – you tend to pay a bit more attention to the film knowing that you can grill the director at the end of the film. (Especially when said director is going to be woken up at 3am and grilled over the phone.)

I wasn’t among the diehard fans who’d seen Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales last year, but I had seen both versions of Donnie Darko at the theatres. I wasn’t as big a fan of DD as other people – mainly because I think it’s just an excuse to encourage depressive people to kill themselves because the world would be a better place without them in it.

But I digress from The Box.

This movie was apparently based on a short story by Richard Matheson, which got made into a Twilight Zone episode, and that’s what makes this movie so enjoyable. It’s a complete throwback to the days of The Twilight Zone. It’s set in 1976 in Richmond, Virginia, and it’s awesome in so many ways. First of all, it looks 70s all the way – cars, costumes, everything. Secondly, which probably only matters to me because I’ve been there at that time of year – it looks like Virginia in the winter time. I love the trees, the houses. It adds a whole hauntingly beautiful aspect to the whole thing. And then there’s the music – it took a bit of getting used to, but the score was deliberately written in the style of Bernard Herrman, who used to write the scores for some of the early TZ episodes.

So the reason I’m telling you all this is that I want to make clear – the atmosphere of the whole thing was terrific. There wasn’t a dull frame anywhere in the film.

The problem really came from the story itself. As I understand it, Matheson’s original concept was the one that opens the film – a box gets delivered to a couple with a big red button in it. The couple are offered a choice: If they push the button, someone “who they do not know” will die but they will get $1,000,000. Or they can pass on the button and the money.

This concept is really good – and obviously enough to get me in the cinema. The problem was that it was only the beginning. The film then branched off into a second story which was related but felt completely different from the first one. I loved the second one even more, but then there was the third act of the film which tried to tie the whole thing together, but really seemed to just completely undo the reason for the middle part of the film. In fact, without too much trouble, you could have jumped from the first third of the film to the last third without too much trouble.

So my thinking is that it feels like two different stories trying to be written together because on their own, neither of them would pad out a feature-length film. So ultimately, while I loved the ideas he was playing with, I felt a bit let down at the end. Still, it looks and sounds so different from other films operating at the time, that I’d recommend having a watch of it anyway. Also, it’s deliberately been kept reasonably clean, both in terms of language, violence, etc. That’s not to say it’s not suspenseful (if not downright unsettling) in some parts, but it’s not a horror film, either.

4 out of 5.

Review: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

No 6 on the 1001 Films to Watch Before You Die. Now it’s over to Germany in 1919 for the rather bizarre experience of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

The storyline is pretty simple – a young man tells a tale of terrible occurrences in his village. A carnival comes to town and a mysterious Dr Caligari demonstrates a somnambulist – a young man in a coffin-like box who never wakes from his slumber – except at the command of the sleepwalker. Then people start getting murdered at night. Can you tell where this is going? Well, it does kind of go there but also has a twist or two along the way.

But the real point of watching this film is its example of what’s known as German Expressionism. Unlike the Americans, who were aiming for realism in their film (e.g. if you watch D W Griffiths at this time, he would often insert small children and animals in lots of scenes because, by nature of the fact that they can’t really act, give an added level of realism to the scenes). But not here. The sets are all clearly painted, and designed to look over the top and surreal. Doorways and buildings are set at lurching angles. Everything looks out of place and sinister.

I watched this online at the following link, and considering it’s got a relentlessly atmospheric string quartet soundtrack, it was rather effective on the whole. Worth seeing as a predecessor to some of the famous horror films that were to come.

3 1/2 out of 5.

DVD Review: Intolerance

This is no 5 on the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die, which just gives you an idea of how fast I’m going, seeing as I got the book a year ago . . . but look, even if I go no further in the book, I’ve seen an absolute masterpiece in this film.

But I’ve known that since I was 16. I first heard about Intolerance in some review somewhere in a newsletter by a Christian historian that my Dad subscribed to and I remember being intrigued by the concept. At the time, however, I thought that I’d never see the film, because where are you going to find a film like that in Brisbane?

The answer turned out to be, to my surprise, at my local library. I was hunting for something on the catalogue one day and discovered that I could order the VHS (this was definitely pre-DVD) in from another library. So I went ahead and ordered it in and got hold of the Hollywood House VHS version of Intolerance.

Now, a word about Hollywood House. Those of you who were collectors of videos back in the 80s may remember that, in Australia, Hollywood House was a video distributor that specialised in releasing cheap and nasty versions of old classic films that had found themselves in the public domain. And a film from 1916 fitted into that category.

VHS was never all that good for film presentation (as we discovered when we switched to DVD), but most videos looked like DVD compared to the picture quality rolled off by Hollywood House. It was horrendous. Image brightness flickered from frame to frame. The frame would wobble. I’m not sure what they did (or didn’t do) to get that, but it was rubbish.

Then there was the music. Obviously, there print of Intolerance didn’t ship with a score, so they’d made one up by randomly playing movements of classical works throughout the film. It was a complete and utter mishmash, including one 40 minute stretch where they just put on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade and let it run. And, to this day, I still consider the 2nd movement of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony to be the theme from Intolerance.

But despite all this, I fell in love with the film. For those who haven’t seen or heard of it, the director’s idea was to tell four tales of Intolerance – but simultaneously. So, like a piece of music with various themes, the film crosscuts between four stories: a “modern” (1916!) tale of a young couple being persecuted by unjust social workers and big business owners, the fall of Babylon to the Persians, the St Bartholomew Days’ Massacre in France in the 1600s where the French Protestant Huguenots were slaughtered by the Catholics and, finally, the life of Jesus Christ.

Not equal screen time is given to each stories. The modern tale gets the most airtime, closely followed by the Babylon story. The French story has characters, but they serve more to drive the plot along rather than to have any chance to breathe. And the story of Christ serves more as a chance to insert iconic Christian images in the midst of the other stories to add gravitas to the whole proceedings.

In some ways, this film is mad. The philosophy of the director seems a bit crazy – on the one hand, it seems like a Christian film, because of all the Christ references and Bible verses – but on the other hand, it portrays the fall of Babylon (an event described in the Bible as the catalyst for the exiled Israelites being able to return to their homelands after 70 years in captivity) as being a total tragedy. So it’s a bizarre mixture of sacred and profane.

And it’s really old-fashioned. Someone called it a “cinema sermon against bigotry” and it is. The closest modern equivalent to this type of director would be Oliver Stone.

And yet – despite all that – it works. I think the secret of it is fourfold:

1) Crosscutting storylines actually works better for modern audiences than ever before. We’re a generation that likes to multitask. We switch channels while watching TV, we tweet while answering emails. So to watch four stories at once like this is really engaging. As soon as one gets boring, the film switches to another one.

2) It shows the power of editing. If you were to watch the four stories linearly (ie one after another), you might be interested, but it would get a bit tedious after a while. But when you’re watching all four at once, especially towards the end when all four stories climax at the same time, it’s unbelievably powerful cinema. Intolerance takes its time to get going (it’s over 3 hours long) but when it hits its stride, its an unstoppable visual force.

3) Silent filmmakers understood the importance of visceral images. When you don’t have sound, you can’t effectively make a talking film with lots of captions. Instead, you have to create images that will grab people, regardless of whether they know what people are saying. And Intolerance delivers that in spades. There are women being threatened, crowds being shot at, babies being snatched from their mother’s arms. You see images like this, under any circumstances, and it puts fire in your blood. (Which is exactly what the film was designed to do.)

4) Finally, it has something for everyone. There’s stuff in there for historians, people who love spectacular visual spectacles, drama/romance buffs who want some melodrama, war fans who want epic battle scenes, and action buffs who want car chases.

It got a mixed reception when it was released in America, but in Russia, it was very popular, because it showed that there was a way to make cinema preach a message, and it inspired a generation of filmmakers there.

The only problem with seeing it nowadays is that of all the DVDs that are available, none of them really has a soundtrack that does this film justice. Despite my gentle knocking of Hollywood House video above, with its random jukebox of classical music, they did actually succeed in giving the film a big sweeping orchestral score – so despite the occasional mismatching of classics, on the whole, the effect was to give the film an epic grand feel.

On DVD, the film has been cleaned up rather well (especially if you get the American Kino edition pictured here, which is the best print of the lot of them), but the soundtrack options are rather poor. There is a version of this DVD from the UK by Eureka (that used to be available in Australia, but not any more, from what I see) and it had a Wurlitzer organ soundtrack for three hours which was pretty tough going (apologies to Wurlitzer fans). The Kino video has a mock-orchestral soundtrack played entirely on (cheap) synthesiser and keyboard. It’s a bit more action-specific than the organ, but even then it’s not all that crash hot.

I never got a chance to see it, but apparently in the early 90s, Carl Davis did some orchestral scores for old silent films (Intolerance) included, and I think that would be an interesting watch. Sadly, that’s been unavailable for years.

Anyway, due to its now being out of copyright, you can find this film readily available on the net. This link will take you to a complete version of the film (warning: it’s a bit of an ordinary print) that you watch or download. I’d recommend getting three hours worth of rousing music and watching it with your own soundtrack.

Everyone should see this film at least once.

5 out of 5.