What I’ve learned about working productively

I’ve worked out of my home office for the last thirty years. 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 some aspects of what’s worked for me will be helpful to you.

Work environment: Office furniture, ergonomics, and beauty
Twenty-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 its toll, and 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 pointing devices aren’t positioned just-so. Don’t skimp on firm work-surfaces, keyboard drawers, and touch devices that are easy to use; you’re body will be the victim if you do.

Finally, when I had the opportunity and funds to add a custom home office onto 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, and 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; you get a framework that helps you build process that’s 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 are continually backed up to each other (local back ups—great for fast restoration of a lost file or two) and to the internet cloud (remote back ups—where I’d go if a catastrophe took out all my computers). The magic that does this can easily be set up to backup 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.

Work in sprints, not marathons
It took me years to learn that working at 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). My current process is to 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 the process 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 some of the things I’ve learned about working productively. Do you have lessons to add?

Chair photo attribution: Flickr user spyndle