Tag Archives: organization

Tips for the Work-at-Home Crowd, and Other Monkey-Mind Procrastinators

Tips for the Work-at-Home Crowd and Other Monkey-Minded ProcrastinatorsRecently a friend asked for advice on staying focused and organized while working from home. I’ve been doing that for several months now and have some practices that work well for me. If you work from home, or if you work for yourself and find it hard to stay motivated, or if you suffer from monkey mind/lack of focus, perhaps some of these things will help.

A caveat. I like to joke that every parenting book should contain the words “My Kid” somewhere in the title.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting… My Kid.
Parenting My Kid with Love and Logic.

What works for one person doesn’t work for another, and this list is not one size fits all. That said… this stuff works for me and maybe it will for you too.

I also accidentally stood someone up on a phone call this morning. So clearly I have room for improvement.


It starts with a comprehensive to-do list. The to-do list is the backbone of getting stuff done. Notice I say “a” to-do list. If you’re using your email as an adjunct to-do list, you’re bound to miss stuff. (Plus you’re forever combing through your inbox, leading to distraction and inefficiency.) Get all of your items into one place. I use Things from Cultured Code and it’s simple and clean and functional and let you organize by project. But there are probably shinier new tools out there. And a paper to-do list gets the job done fine too.

But the to-do list is useless by itself. To-do items must connect with your calendar or they will sit on that list, stubborn, refusing to budge, forever. So each evening I look at the next day’s scheduled items in Google Calendar, then I look at the to-do items I want/need to tackle, and I merge them into a single written document. I use a small sheet of paper—the size of a grocery list, something I can carry in my pocket or purse so I don’t need to have my phone or laptop handy—and write out an agenda. For each block of time I will list an appointment or a task.

Think in terms of 90-minute blocks. I recently heard a podcast lifting up 90 minutes as the magic unit of time in terms of productivity. That’s about how long we can focus on a task without needing a hard reset. Since then I’ve been trying to think in these terms. I used to covet 3-4 hour blocks for writing, and I’d smoosh the rest of my life together to give myself those long expanses of time. I no longer do that. If I have the luxury of 3-4 hours, I still break it up into 90 minute chunks.

Break your time blocks into Pomodoros. Sometimes 90 minutes is too long to focus on one thing without getting distracted. The task is hard or unpleasant, or you feel scattered in your thinking. I love the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work for X amount of time and reward yourself with a short break. I like 12 minutes of work, 3 minutes of break. Pomodoros trick your brain by breaking a large scary task into small pieces. You can do anything for 12 minutes, can’t you? And I often find by the fourth or fifth Pomodoro I’m so immersed in the task, I bag the break when it comes.

And yes, there’s an app for that.

Celebrate what you accomplished–specifically. I like the sheet of paper for the feeling of crossing stuff off. But sometimes interruptions rule the day, or your energy takes you in a different direction than you’d planned, and it’s discouraging to look at the day’s agenda and see how many things did NOT get crossed off. To combat that discouraging feeling, at the end of the day I will turn that piece of paper over and make a list of things I DID do, even if they were things I hadn’t planned to do. (I think there’s a spiritual practice in there somewhere—one side, your best intentions; on the other side, the reality. Then you recycle the piece of paper and start anew.)

Think energy management as much as time management. This is an idea I got from Dan Blank. You only have so much control over your time. But you have more control over what you give your energy to (although that too is often dependent on other people). And when you’re energized by certain kinds of tasks, you can pursue them all day without feeling as drained–giving you some fuel in the tank for stuff you aren’t as jazzed about. For example, today I was meeting with several moving companies. I knew that process would drain me (in addition to taking time) so I decided to keep the rest of my goals modest. So instead of tackling that article I needed to write from scratch, I decided to do some editing instead. I’ll tackle the article another time. And I know it won’t fall through the cracks because I:

Do a weekly review and schedule blocks. Because I do both freelance writing and author-based projects, it has helped me to take 20 minutes every Friday to look at the following week’s appointments and to-do items. Then I will designate certain days as “freelance days” and others as writing/speaking work days. Do they often bleed into one another? Do I find myself swapping and adjusting? All the time. But even if your intentions get shot to pieces, I find this weekly big-picture time to be essential.

Answer yesterday’s email today. I know lots of people who claim to check email just once or twice a day. Frankly I think they’re lying. Or they have way more self-control than I do. I haven’t been able to kick the habit of checking email frequently, and honestly, I’m tired of expending the will power necessary to try and pull it off; it can be put to better use, like keeping me away from the canned frosting aisle of the grocery store. Instead, I check email at idle moments throughout the day and answer truly urgent ones then and there. Everything else gets a response the next day. I answer them all at once, which is more efficient than working in dribs and drabs all day long.

I can hear the protests from here. Yes, you are so very indispensable, or your industry is so fast-paced that it would never, ever work. OK fine. But some of you can do this. And believe it or not, you can train people to expect an answer the next business day. If it really can’t wait, they can use that old-fangled thing called the phone.

Put together an ad hoc staff. One of the hard things about working for yourself is the lack of accountability. Especially as writers. Nobody’s clamoring for that article I want to pitch to a magazine (though I hope they’ll love it once I do!). So find a writing group, or a bunch of fellow entrepreneurs, or whatever you need for your situation, and set up some accountability measures. I’ve got a small group of writers and we share weekly goals on Facebook. It’s just enough structure so I feel like I’m not out there all by myself.

Well, there you have it. My best wisdom (largely gleaned from others) that helps me get stuff done. What helps you? Would love to hear.


 photo credit: ABC-Analyse via photopin (license)

Friday Link Love

Some items that caught my fancy this week:

Bumper Crop on the NYC Taxi Farm

I love the Improvised Life blog. It’s bursting with creative miscellany. This post is about cab drivers in New York who planted a garden on a little strip of space in the Bronx near the place where they wait for fares. Wonderful.


The Daily Rind, A Better Way to Plan the Day

An interesting, graphical way to plot out the events of the day, using a circle motif instead of linear list. It’s like Daytimer Meets Mind Map. I haven’t put this technique into practice, and might not, because what I do works fine. But the other day I did find myself visualizing the day’s action items in this manner.


On Time Travel, Love and Changing the Past

Pete Rollins does a philosophical riff on Back to the Future as only he can.


Carrie Newcomer: Writing from the Spiritual Well

I’ve been following Carrie’s music for 15 years now, and she doesn’t give a whole lot of interviews. This is a good one. Carrie is probably responsible for my being a secret Quaker at heart.


Disaster Tolerance

If you don’t read Seth Godin, why not? He’s always interesting, even when he’s way out there. This one could have been written for the 21st century church.


And finally, it’s 12 days until the Wild Goose Festival, and I can’t wait. Read about it here.

It’s been an interesting few weeks. Lots of processing about life, vocation, the pastor/writing balance, etc. This internal work isn’t related to any decision per se—I really like being Tiny Church’s pastor, I feel called to it, and have no plans to leave. And I’ve got some excellent irons in the fire writing-wise. Life is trucking along, actually. Just a lot of questions swirling, turning up the earth so things can be planted. (Methinks the milestone birthday that’s looming approaching in six months is a factor.)

And as I’ve done this wrestling and contemplation, I’ve been very aware that this this festival of art *music * spirituality * justice is auspiciously timed. You might say eerily timed. The groundwork is laid. Something’s going to happen there, I just don’t know what it is. It’s exciting, but when life’s “trucking along” in a comfortable way, it’s also an unsettling feeling: “Dangit, Jesus, you’re gonna do one of Those Things You Do, aren’t you?” prayers. Eh, I hate when that happens. All you can do is buckle up.

Friday Link Love

Some stuff I’ve been captivated by this week:

Mars Hill — Broken Bottles

As I indicated a post or two ago, I adore Rob Bell. He’s one of my pastors, truly. And I listen to him and feel very sad that my little old Tiny Church is stuck with yours truly ever week… OK, not really. But really. This recent teaching of his on Ecclesiastes was one of the best I’ve heard by him. Recent teachings are only available for free for a limited time, so check it out soon.

Can a Fake Smile Be Bad for Your Health?

The scientists examined what happened when the drivers engaged in fake smiling, known as “surface acting,” and its opposite, “deep acting,” where they generated authentic smiles through positive thoughts, said an author of the study, Brent Scott, an assistant professor of management at Michigan State University.

After following the drivers closely, the researchers found that on days when the smiles were forced, the subjects’ moods deteriorated and they tended to withdraw from work. Trying to suppress negative thoughts, it turns out, may have made those thoughts even more persistent.

But on days when the subjects tried to display smiles through deeper efforts — by actually cultivating pleasant thoughts and memories — their overall moods improved and their productivity increased.

See, I had always heard that behavior can modify emotions, that acting a certain way in practice can help bring about that mood internally. So if you want to be happy, act happy. This seems to add a little nuance to that. There’s something in here that relates to authenticity too, I think.

Organizing Secrets from a Manhattan Design Guru

This is a decent enough article about being organized, but what I really loved was this line:

Staying organized is like gardening. You’re constantly weeding; it’s part of your routine.

I genuinely enjoy being organized and having a sense of order in my home, which is admittedly not fancy (and not perfect), but there is a place for everything and I try not to let it go too long before returning things to their proper spots. I’ve often felt bad about this though, like the truly creative people thrive on chaos, and neat freaks are just people who don’t have enough to occupy their time. (Where do I get such bizarre notions?!??) Hearing organizational efforts compared to gardening, which is a discipline that brings beauty to the world, was very freeing for me.

Parents Magazine: Twenty-five Manners Every Kid Should Know

I caught this in the print edition at the hairdresser’s and thought it was a pretty good list of etiquette for kids… warning, link is in slide-show format which I find annoying. Still, good stuff and we have some things to work on.

Come Along for a Ride into Space

A lovely six-minute video:

Cinematographer Luke Geissbühler and his 5-year-old son Max made a homemade spacecraft out of a Thai food takeout container and a weather balloon, and outfitted it with an HD video camera and an iPhone. Last August, they sent it into space.

“The mission was…was send it up into the upper stratosphere to film the blackness beyond the earth…Eventually, the balloon will grow from lack of atmospheric pressure, burst, and begin to fall…It would have to survive 100 MPH winds, temperature of 60 degrees below zero, speeds of over a 150 mph, and the high risk of a water landing….To retrieve the craft, it would need to deploy a parachute, descend through the clouds and transmit a GPS coordinate to a cell phone tower….Then we have to find it.”

And finally, tonight is the National Day of Unplugging. We are So There. Hope you’ll participate too.