How I get more stuff done

In my newsletter this weekend, I talked a bit about the benefits of improving focus. As I’ve added client work to what I do, the number and frequency of deadlines and deliverables has multiplied far beyond what I had when I was just doing marketing for one brand, so managing those without breaking any promises has required an entirely new level of focus for me. I had to up my game considerably.

Here’s what I did to increase the amount of focus I brought to the table. Your methods and mileage may vary. I used to manage by my inbox, which was thoroughly ineffective. It was water spraying everywhere, so many things competing for my attention, and stuff unquestionably got lost or went missing.


Today, I manage almost exclusively by my calendar. I block off time for each task that needs doing, and during those times, I do those things and nothing else. Client work gets repeating windows as needed, and everything else gets time as needed. The secret is this: during those time periods, one and only one thing gets attention, nothing else. Ask anyone who used to work with me how much time I spent on IM and email compared to today, where I spend almost no time on IM and do my inbox in short bursts infrequently throughout the day.

Here’s the second secret: if something can’t be defined in a block of time on my calendar, it gets put away until there is a timeframe defined. That’s the only way I’ve found that important things get done – they get a timeslot, and during those times, they get exclusive focus. If something doesn’t come with a deadline or a timeframe, then it doesn’t get scheduled and no energy is given to it.

Here’s the third and final secret: by creating blocks of time on a calendar and looking at it in a weekly view, I can move blocks around like kids’ toys so that the maximum amount of stuff gets done. If a block ends a little bit early (5-10 minutes or less), I can check messages or hit Facebook for the few minutes left over; if a block ends substantially earlier (more than 10 minutes) then I start moving things around and getting even more done. The goal is to keep a steady pace of work throughout the day with as few gaps and periods of downtime as possible while not being stressed about the workload. Having this system lets me stay at maximum productivity without maximum stress.

As I said earlier, your mileage may vary. You may find this practice drives you crazy, and that’s okay. Find a method that works for you – this is just what I’ve needed to do in order to maximize the time I have each day to get stuff done.

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What Mists of Pandaria teaches us about paralysis of choice

Dr. Barry Schwartz is famous for his TED talk about explaining the paradox of choice: when faced with too many choices, often we choose none. Nowhere is this highlighted more than in the new World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria. Once you reach level 90, you’re presented with a buffet of different choices for your endgame character. Actually, the buffet analogy works only if buffets could be several miles long.

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Here’s a brief look at what you can do at the maximum level:

Challenge Mode Dungeons
PvP Battlegrounds
PvP Arenas
Pet Battles
Daily Quests for Reputation for:
– The Klaxxi
– The Lorewalkers
– The Tillers
– The Anglers
– The Golden Lotus
– The August Celestials
– The Shado-Pan
– Order of the Cloud Serpent
Farming, including reputation quests for NPCs

Each of these branches of activities can lead you down a nearly endless path of quests to do, items to collect, things to make, or places to visit. Blizzard Entertainment was telling the absolute truth when they said there’s more to do at endgame than ever before.

…too much more. So much so that players are actually complaining about being overwhelmed by choice. So what’s the solution for the overwhelmed player? Set a goal. If you intend to raid, you need gear, and gear comes from valor points and dungeons. Run dungeons, do quests that award valor points. If you intend to make money in-game, focus on the moneymaking professions and the materials that support them. Getting a farm up to speed will help with this – and as many farms as you can support with your time.

Having a clear, well-defined goal cuts through all of the choices that Mists of Pandaria presents us. The catch is that with this many different ways to play, you have to pick one and only one goal. If you pick a couple or three goals, all of those goals eventually get fed back into all of the activities and you’re back to feeling overwhelmed again. For example, if you decide you want to raid and be fully raid ready with consumables, then instead of just focusing on gear, you’ll focus on gear, your farm, professions, and materials – and you’re back to a supremely large menu of choice that leaves you feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. Pick one and only one goal, focus on it like a laser, and achieve it, knowing that there will be plenty of time for the other goals to be accomplished.

It’s not a terribly large stretch of the imagination to see how this applies to the real world. Look at your to-do list. Overwhelming? Mine sure can be. I’ve got dozens of different items that support different goals and different aspects of my life. If I focus on just one in the short-term, I’ll get a lot more done than trying to do a little bit of everything and not moving the ball forward substantially in any one area.

Pick a goal for today, any goal as long as it’s something you can make substantial progress towards, and do your absolute best to tune out everything else in your work day for the day. See if that makes the difference you’ve been looking for in terms of satisfaction of accomplishment!

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Unsolicited Review: Mailstrom

If there’s one addiction I have in the productivity space, it’s constantly looking for better, more effective, faster email productivity apps. Baltimore startup Mailstrom made it onto my radar scope recently via Greg Cangialosi, and it’s pretty darned awesome.

What does it do? In short, it lets you take a very fast first pass at your inbox in a way that doesn’t suck you into it. This is more important than it sounds. Many times, you and I will go into our inboxes, intending to achieve inbox zero, and get sucked into reading an update, a digest, a pile of email, or a social network notification, and fall into the trap we were hoping to eliminate. Mailstrom helps with that.

Here’s what you see when you log in:

Mailstrom: Analyze your Inbox

You get a very nice graph of what’s taking up space in your inbox, and then with a few simple keyboard shortcuts or clicks, you can trash or archive stuff without reading it, thus freeing up space and not mentally distracting you. Once done with that, you can click through to the other menus up top for things like social network notifications, lists you subscribed to, etc. and knock off those items.

This is what I woke up to: an inbox with 88 items. In literally 60 seconds, I wiped out 77 of them without ever setting eyes on any of the content, and the remaining 11 are things I legitimately need to address. That’s awesome.

That’s all Mailstrom does, and that’s all it needs to do. It doesn’t need to be a replacement email client, it doesn’t need to be fancy – it just needs to let me punch the graymail in the face swiftly, which it does beautifully.

Right now it’s free and in closed beta, but you can apply and usually get access in a couple of days.

Here’s hoping this product stays around. It’s a keeper.

Disclosure: Mailstrom hasn’t paid for this review in any way, though if they would like to send piles of unmarked $20 bills in non-sequential order, they are welcome to do so and this disclosure will update accordingly.

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