What I’ve learned about working productively

I’ve worked out of my home office for the last thirty years, and have learned a few things about working productively. During that time I:

  • Consulted on information technology for hundreds of companies.
  • Wrote and maintained almost a million lines of code.
  • Ran a couple of small non-profits (still do) and served on my local United Way Board.
  • Wrote Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, and am now hard at work on my second book.

Along the way, I spent a fair amount of time experimenting with different environments and work processes, always with the goal of improving my productivity. As you might expect of a proponent of the philosophy of risky learning, some things worked and some didn’t. I’ll reserve the things that didn’t for another post.

You may not have as much control over your work environment and process as I do. Nevertheless, perhaps you will find helpful some of what follows.

Work environment: Office furniture, ergonomics, and beauty

working productivelyTwenty-five years ago I purchased two astronomically expensive high-quality office chairs. Until then I had sat on a sagging ancient chair rather like the one pictured. Hours spent in this chair had taken their toll. A kneeling chair replacement, while an improvement, was not comfortable for long periods. The marvelously adjustable Steelcases that made me gulp when I signed the check paid for themselves many times in adjustability, comfort, and eliminated physical therapy appointments.

A few years ago I replaced both chairs, and this time I was happy to sign the check.

In the same spirit, I learned the importance of correct ergonomics for computer keyboards and mice (later, touchpads). Long hours toiling over these machines translate to pain and discomfort if keyboard heights aren’t right and you don’t position pointing devices correctly. Don’t skimp on firm work surfaces, keyboard drawers, and touch devices that are easy to use; your body will be the victim if you do.

Finally, when I had the opportunity and funds to add a custom home office to my home I spent serious time and money creating a space that I would find beautiful. Built at the northwest corner of my home, the office receives natural light from two sides and looks out onto a flourishing garden and beautiful Vermont stone walls and woods.

Knowing my appetite for workspace, I also took the opportunity to build about three times more beautiful custom desktop space than I thought I’d ever need. (A good thing I did—these days it’s pretty full most of the time.) Having a beautiful space for my work feeds my energy and spirit and helps me get through those times when I’m feeling creatively blocked and work isn’t going so well.

Getting Things Done

No question—until the day I die I’m going to have tasks on my to-do list. Being at peace with this reality in the here and now is hard. I am perpetually interested in exploring more than I can practically accomplish. As I age, my ability to keep track of and continually re-prioritize what’s important lessens. Embracing Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done has been a lifesaver. I may always be trying to bite off more than I can chew, but GTD allows me to avoid being overwhelmed by the consequences of my curiosity. What many don’t understand about GTD, and what makes it so powerful, is that it doesn’t impose a specific implementation on you; it’s a framework that helps you build processes customized for your needs. Here’s more information on why and how GTD works.

Highly flexible, continuously-on backup of digital stuff

I have one word for those of you young enough to miss the decades when personal computers were expensive, hard to use, and frequently broke. Lucky! I’ve spent too much time configuring and running expensive and all-too-fallible equipment designed to back up valuable digital data. Today, there’s no excuse for losing any of the ever-increasing quantities of information we entrust to our electronic gizmos. My four computers continually back up to each other (local backups—great for fast restoration of a lost file or two) and to the internet cloud (remote backups—where I’d go if a catastrophe took out all my computers).

You can easily back up to other computers or hard drives in the same location or across the internet (perhaps your friend’s business across town) or to hosted servers sitting elsewhere on the internet. The name of this magic is CrashPlan. (No, I do not get a penny for recommending their service.) If you’re not using a service like this with every computer you own these days you’re nuts.

For working productively, run sprints, not marathons

It took me years to learn that working on a problem or task for hours on end without a break is not an optimum way to work. Please don’t make this mistake (no matter how young you are). Currently, I decide on the task I want to work on, set a timer for twenty minutes, and work uninterruptedly until the timer sounds. Then I’ll take a break for five minutes and repeat two or three more times before taking a longer break. I came up with this approach myself; an almost identical version is called Pomodoro. The frequent breaks give my brain relaxed downtime to mull over a problem and, often, propose creative solutions. And I find it easier to ignore the lure of the modern environment of constant email and internet distractions by telling myself I’ll just work for twenty minutes first.

That’s my summary of what I’ve learned about working productively. Do you have lessons to add?

Chair photo attribution: Flickr user spyndle


4 thoughts on “What I’ve learned about working productively

  1. I’ll have to try your sprint idea. I tend to get caught up in something and three hours later surface for air only to realize most of my body has fallen asleep!

    This may just be a work-in-a-home-office essential, but I’ve had to be very deliberate about making sure I get face time with real humans a few times a day. Also, when I find myself getting the after-lunch sleepies, doing something at least mildly vigorous works better than coffee to wake me up again (say 20 jumping jacks or a quick run around the block).

    Another key for me is to make sure my e-mail in box is empty at the end of each day. Yes, it can be done, and it feels really, really good.

    Again, maybe not for everyone, but I live and die by my to-do lists (daily, weekly, monthly). Crossing everything off the day’s list is almost as good as having the empty in-box come 6 o’clock.

    1. How could I have forgotten to include the importance of exercise?! A great addition Sue!

      “In-box zero” is indeed a satisfying state, but I only achieve it with copious use of a “pending” folder, which feels a bit like cheating. (There are always plenty of tasks for which I’m waiting for input from others before I can proceed.)

      I think you must be more disciplined than me, because I am unable to predict how many of my non-time-sensitive to-do list items will get done by the end of the day/week/month. I wonder how you’re so good at that. Admirable!

      Thanks for sharing Sue!

  2. I like the idea “Work in sprints, not marathons” it works for me as well. I am a Java developer and also running a Java blog. At starting I was pretty passionate (still is) about it and working day and night. But after toiling hard with it, I found my passion is decaying day by day. Then I learn, enjoying my work but not to toil hard with it and get bored.

    1. Sachin, you bring up another good reason to work in sprints not marathons. Working for long periods without a break simply isn’t fun, and usually saps your passion for your work quickly. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *