August 23, 2019

Staying Productive - Tools & Methods

I'm on vacation. In lieu of another shallowish dive, I'm posting this quick look into what I do when I'm not enjoying the sunny weather of somewhere nice.

It may not seem like it from this blog post, but in reality, I'm actually a pretty productive person. A lot of this productivity stems from two things: Philosophies, and gadgets. Staying productive is something that we all struggle with from time to time - so to keep you motivated, here are some of the ways that I try to stay productive!

Getting Things Done

The core of being productive is getting things done - that is, taking in tasks, and producing results. In this section, I'm going to talk about some of the things that I do to get things done, and to motivate myself to finish work once I've begun.

Gadget: Make a list

There's nothing quite like the age old todo list, and there's a reason that this is on everybody's "5 things you can do to be more productive" list. As humans, we have very little ability to keep things in our head - and by moving our todo list from our heads onto a piece of paper (or an awesome app) can keep the mind free for actually thinking, instead of trying to remember what we have to do. The issue with the todo list is that if something doesn't make it onto the list, it flies into the garbage heap of forgotten things - so the only gotcha here is that you have to stick with it, and keep writing everything down!

The todo app that I use is Todoist. I have a lot of qualms with todo apps (which could easily be another blog post) - but this one hits my minimum qualifications:

  1. I can view todos on all of my devices (there's a web app, along with mobile clients)
  2. I can organize todos into projects
  3. I can schedule todos on a particular day, prioritize them, and view my whole week from a top-down view.

Philosophy: Just Do It.

One philosophy that I love to use to keep quick things off of my todo list, and keep my time free, is a "Just do it" philosophy that I picked up somewhere (not Shia LeBoeuf). "Just do it" is the idea that if you have a task which is going to take less than five minutes, you should do it immediately instead of putting it off until later. This strategy of completing tasks has a number of immediate benefits:

  • It makes people think you are task superman (since you get most things done super fast)
  • It keeps your todo list free of small things, which can pile up rather quickly
  • It keeps your mind free to work on big projects, instead of small nagging things in the back of your head.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Todoist app and the Just Do It philosophy are at odds with one another. Todoist has a thing called "Karma", which you get for adding and completing tasks in the app. When you're "Just doing" things, you really quickly create and check off tasks, which is somewhat annoying, but hey, you can get that rush of finishing something without feeling like you did any work.

Philosophy: Frog Friday

While it might seem odd, this is a classic productivity technique. The idea stems from the Mark Twain strategy of "Eat Your Frogs", which while quoted in different ways, goes mostly like:

If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.

This roughly correlates to "Do the thing that you dread most early in the morning." While I would love to wake up every morning and get the day's rough work out of the way, there are always some things that I manage to push on and on and on until they end up costing me a lot of productivity. To this end, I use the idea of "Frog Friday."

Frog Friday is where I save everything that I know I don't want to do, or find tedious until Friday, and then take the whole day to work on these things. When I'm done with these things, I consider my week finished, and I pack it in for the day. This has the net result of leaving me with a clean desk/mind for the weekend, while accomplishing everything that I need to do that isn't so pleasant. Packing these things into a single day forces me to work on them - and provides some structure that I really need to get things done.

Philosophy: Fill Productive Time with Productivity

One of the hardest things that we can do as people is ignore all of the distractions around us and focus on what needs to be done. This starts by separating time into "productive time" and "relaxation time," and drawing strict boundaries between them.

During productive time, I expect to be getting things done - I take the highest priority items from the top of my todo list, and finish them. Then you take the next item, and do that. It's a shockingly simple philosophy - but it works really quite well. During productive time, you shouldn't be focusing on those notifications on facebook, or that funny link that somebody just sent you. You should be getting things done - trust me - those messages and emails can wait.

When you are using your time productively, it can be surprising how much you actually get done. One of the things that I can struggle with from time to time is not having enough things on my Todo list to keep working on during productive time periods. When you hit this point, it's always really easy to quit, and say "Well, I've finished everything." This isn't really what you should be doing, however. If this ever happens, you should take some time to replan what you are doing the next few days, and add some more tasks to today. If you have nothing for the rest of the week, then you should search out some things to do (Or take up a hobby which fills arbitrary amounts of time).

During relaxation time, I expect to be relaxing. I expect to be spending hours binging the latest episodes of Friends, or playing games. This one is the easy bit. Letting work spill into relaxation time is just as bad as letting relaxation spill into productivity time.

Staying Productive

When I'm working, I usually have more than one project, more than one task, and more than one thing to do. It's always hard to prioritize what comes next, and switch contexts from one project to another. These are some of my strategies for keeping my projects straight, and on track.

Gadget: Dropbox Paper

Recently, Dropbox released a tool called "Dropbox Paper", which is basically a notepad for the internet. There's nothing particularly special about it, but it provides a great place to keep your life organized at a high level. I have a paper doc for every project with a few sections:

  • Project Outline

In the project outline, I talk a bit about what the project is, who is involved, and some of the high level details. It's amazing how just writing these things down can clean up the details of a project that lives only in your head. For many of my projects, this is the "abstract" of the paper that I'm going to write. It's the high level overview of what I think I'm going to get done.

  • Project Goals

The project goals are targets/milestones that I want to hit. These can involve tasks, or they can be higher level goals, such as things we want to demonstrate by working on the project. By clarifying the goals of a project, I can generate todos that work towards these goals, and I can always take the product that I have so far, and keep re-evaluating to make sure that I'm staying true to what I want to get out of the project.

  • Project Timeline

Planning ahead is an amazing thing to do. By estimating the amount of time that I expect different parts of a project to take, as well as plotting out the different milestones, deadlines, and other bits and pieces, I can get a good feel for how urgent some things are. In addition, I can use the super handy Gantt chart feature in Dropbox paper to do this - which makes planning super easy.  

  • Week 1...N progress

At the end of every week, I like to write a summary of what I accomplished for that project in the given week, and what the upcoming todos are for the next week. This helps me see if I'm still on track, and can be handy later when somebody asks "What have you been doing for the past week"  - and you can go back to this section, and see your progress right there, without having to do too much thinking.

Philosophy: Stay on Target

While the name for this philosophy comes from Star Wars, it's actually a really interesting idea to keep in mind when planning long projects. Usually, at the beginning of each project, we have a set of goals that we want to get out of the project. Sometimes these are deliverables (and very clear) and sometimes these are much less clear, and much less obvious. It's always important to go back to these goals (preferably for every week/todo) and make sure that you're generating tasks which take you closer to a goal. A lot of times, we can avoid doing unnecessary work by making sure we're staying on track at a high level.

Philosophy: Shot for an MVP, then refine

This idea is one that I think a lot of people say they are going to do, and then they don't. When working on a problem, it's easy to get lost in "What if's...." and do preventative work that isn't exactly necessary. Since I'm a machine learning researcher, I tend to do this a lot, where I start working on something and then add some functionality or code that I don't exactly need - but could help solve a problem that I don't have yet. While it's important to keep potential problems in mind, and leave yourself enough flexibility to solve them later, it's important to not spend too much time solving problems that you don't have if you want to move fast.

Inbox Zero

My inbox right now, as I write this post...

This is a controversial one, but when it comes to email, I like to keep inbox zero. This means that the only things that I have in my inbox at any given time are emails that I have to respond to. When an email comes in, I archive it right away if it doesn't matter to my productivity flow. I use the "mute" function in gmail liberally, and I do my best to unsubscribe to promotional emails when I get them. My metric for unsubscribing is not a harsh one: "Have I ever used the content in this email?" If yes, then I keep them around, but it's amazing how many emails that I get fail this check.

What I Don't Use

For me, these two productivity tools are enough. I used to pay for Newton, an excellent email client, however I realized that I don't spend enough time responding to emails or handling email things to use the advanced functionality. I used to use Trello as well, but I never really could get moving the cards around to stick. Not only that, cards wouldn't archive automatically when they reached the end of my boards (unless I paid for a plugin), so that was right out. I used to use Toggl for time tracking, but I realized that I don't have the patience to start and stop productivity times every time I wanted to get work done.


I might not use many tools, but by sticking with my philosophies of getting work done, and using the tools that make sense, I'm able to be rather productive - I mean hey, I managed to write a blog post three weeks in a row. That's something! I hope that this was useful to somebody - but if not, it's nice to just get some of my thoughts and philosophies down so I can point people at this later if they ever have the question "How are you so productive?"