Trying to get things done

​I am lucky to have a full time job and even luckier to have a wife and 3 children (lets call them Thing 1, 2 and 3). For a while it felt like I never had enough time to get everything done during my working day and maximise the time outside of work with my family. What follows are the tools and techniques I’ve accumulated over the last few years to allow me to be as effective and efficient as possible during my working day. The intended side effect is that I can relax more outside of working hours and get more valuable time with my wife and the Things. Everyone’s situation is different so these ideas may not work for you but I’ve been keen to write down my experiences and use that as an opportunity to tweak and revisit some of the techniques I use on a daily basis.


A solid routine is everything for me. It allows me to quickly get moving and start being productive as possible everyday. To support this I’ve tried to always ensure I have a system in place to help coordinate my teams work and something more personal to organise myself within that. 

Team work 

I work in software development so agile development practices are key for myself and my teams to get things done. Visualisation is important so Kanban boards are a necessity to be able to see where we are as a team but also for transparency for others so we waste less time on having to explain where we are as a team and instead let those interested self serve their project and product reporting needs. 

A well maintained kanban board (wip limitsdefinition of done) with good team rituals (daily standups, show and tells, retrospectives) helps eliminate the evil time wasting activities like unnecessary meetings and neverending email chains (more on email later!) there’s lots of online tools available (jiraleankit) to support virtual boards when having a physical board just isn’t possible.

Me work

I’m a sucker for a good notebook but my moleskine habit is becoming expensive to maintain. With this in mind I starting looking for a system that allowed me to plan my days and to-do lists in a more organised fashion so my notebooks became more than just a scribble pad. The first system I used was the storyline productivity schedule.This was a game changer in that it gave my working days a much needed structure that I could repeat on each page in the notebook and really helped me fit in as much as possible each day. 

A real valuable practice that become embedded in my daily routine was using the technique at the end of a working day to sketch out a rough plan for the following day. Anything on my mind or worrying me went down as an actionable item for the next working day. This stopped me dwelling on work when I was with the Things, freeing me up for epic living room dodgeball competitions and just being present with them as best as I could. 

After using the system for over a year and really seeing some productivity gains I began to tweak the system a bit. I soon found that the good people at Bestself had already done something similar and I soon moved to using their BestSelf notebooks and the daily planning system built into them. I’m coming up on 6 months of Best Self journalling and it’s added an extra dimension to my personal planning as it helps keep on track with quarterly goals as well as daily and weekly plans. As useful as it has been, however, the notebooks are fairly expensive so I’m now looking towards Bullet Journalling as the next system to use and I’ve a shiny new moleskine ready to go. This method works with any notebook though so definitely a more cost effective approach!

Email hacks

I’m a firm believer that email in the workplace, particularly large companies, is a productivity killer thanks to the bad practices that have grown up around it. Here’s my list of ways I try not to fall into those traps:

  1. Turn off email notifications – Emails are not the same as instant messaging so you do not need to read one as soon as it arrives. With this in mind….
  2. Only check your email at specific times during the day e.g. 10am, 1pm, 4pm. You should already know what you want to achieve during the day and are tracking that on your kanban board or in your journal so
  3. Stop using email as your to do list. If you always immediately action the next email you receive you have lost control (and sight) of your daily goals. Share with others the fact you only check your emails a few times a day and you’ll be amazed at how suddenly you’ll stop receiving so much too! When you do finally get round to reading you email …
  4. For every email read do one of the following actions: Read it and then delete it, Read it and then store it for reference, Read it and create a meeting or create a to do item in your journal or work item on your kanban board. This is effectively limiting your work in progress by ensuring that once you have read an email it is done. You never go back to it. True, it might generate an action for you but that action is now part of your work item system (kanban board, to do list in your journal etc.) and you don’t have to revisit it in your inbox. For those occasions you have to write an email a few good practices to keep in mind…
  5. Do you really need to send an email? Are you being lazy and avoiding a difficult phone call or video conf call instead? Are you expecting an outcome that might be better achieved with a meeting? If you still think an email is necessary..
  6. Reduce the recipients. Don’t play games and cc in senior managers just to show them how much great work you’re doing (they’re probably struggling to manage their inbox just like you so dont add to their pain)
  7. Be direct. If you are expecting someone to do something on the back of your email make sure you name check them specifically in the content ‘James, can you…’ 
  8. Keep it clear and concise. If you consistently send short to the point emails then your colleagues will be more likely to read an email when they know its come from you. The reverse is also true: If you are always writing huge epics then your colleagues will most likely roll their eyes when your latest masterpiece hits their inbox.
  9. Ditch the BlackBerry. Do you really need access to you emails 24/7? Do you want that blinking red light preying on your mind while you are trying to relax at home? Either bin it, switch it off or setup a profile for when you’re at home so it doesn’t flash/notify you and your friend’s and family will thank for having you back present again!

Kill the Apps

You probably should delete the Facebook app from your phone. You can still visit it via a web browser on your phone or just keep the app on a tablet at home. Not having the app will remove the Pavlov dog effect the notifications are having on you! If you can’t bear the thought of getting rid of the social media apps then install something like ‘Forest‘ to help. It helps you focus on productive working for set periods of time by growing little trees while you leave your phone /apps alone. If you interupt the session, check Facebook for example, then your tree dies and you need to start from scratch. It helps give a nice visual log of how productive you are being each day and makes you very aware of how often you check your phone (spoiler: too much)

Self Improvement

My current commute can vary between 50 mins to nearly 2 hours depending on what office I  work in so I’ve tried to allocate this time as learning time by either listening to podcasts or by reading. I tried for audio books but they made me nod off. Not a big deal on the train but not great when I’m driving on the long commutes.

Don’t sleep and drive

My current favourite podcasts to try and help expand my mind..

  1. Stuff you should know
  2. TED Radio hour
  3. 99% invisible
  4. How I built this

Regularly telling my family, friends and colleagues all about what I learned is both very annoying for them and very effective for helping me retain the key points. I may need to rethink this approach if it prohibits me from retaining friends too.

Reading more is definitely something I’m trying to work on and there’s a great Harvard business review article on the subject.  In it the author mentions how Stephen King would always have a book with him so that he could read during those little moments of free time during the day. With this in mind I’ve tried to bring my Kindle with me everywhere and have it loaded up with books and articles to try and get more reading time out of each day.

So what’s next

All of the above have helped me be more efficient during the day and I’ve seen real results in the amount and quality of work I’m completing. This in turn has had a real positive effect on my work life balance which was always the goal from the outset. I still have work to do to ensure I can balance everything including exercise and healthy eating when work and family pressures make things INSANELY busy. 

There is always going to be room for improvement but I look forward to the challenge. I also look forward to fun with these 3:

Thing 1,2 and 3

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