Tag: micro-activities

Reaching InboxZero: a take no prisoners approach.

Student Results were released on Monday and this always generates a slew of email. For two days I’ve triaged and responded as quickly as I can to enquiries from students who expect to graduate at the end of the year and who want to understand the impacts of the grade I awarded them. For some, a swift response is required as they might be required to sit a supplementary exam and the results need to be forwarded to the graduations team if they are to attend the graduation ceremony next month. Others are serious but can wait for 24hours or so and some get shifted to the end of the pile as they are not time critical but I still have to action them.

After two days of fighting an incoming tide (and losing), I knew I had to get on top of this once and for all. Here’s what I did….

Step 1: Decamp to a lovely spot in a nearby park where there is no wifi, but lots of birdlife.

[Today’s remote office…]

Step 2: Open mail.app and work through the pile of email responding where appropriate or sending to OmniFocus as a task to be completed later. Since I’m not connected to wifi, emails that I respond to are sent to my outbox where they will wait until I’m back on wifi (at which point they will automatically send).
Step 3: Clear the decks entirely before returning to wifi-land.

It took two and a half hours of solid, focused work to wade through all the email and respond or Omnify it. The trick is to not be connected to wifi while processing the inbox, for if I had been responding and replying, potentially my correspondents might answer back. This would mean more email would come into my inbox and it’d take longer to clear.

Severing the connection works. Try it.


Accountability matters. It’s important to be able to demonstrate progress towards goals for two reasons:

  1. If people can see what your goals are, they are in a better position to advise and/or help
  2. If you publish your progress publicly, it can act as a motivating factor for completion

I’ve added a section to this blog called “project dashboards“. This is where I put the details of the the current projects that I’m working on and how far much progress I’ve made towards completing them. I’ve added a menu item to the top of this site so that anyone who wants to can see how I’m travelling. The idea that others can see at any time where I am at reminds me to keep focussed and keep moving forward.

Feel free to have a look.

How much coffee should you drink to be “productive”?

Warning: the following post includes a discussion on the results of self-experimentation using chemicals to improve my ability to concentrate. As I mention here, you should only mess with your body/mind if you are satisfied that you are doing so in a safe manner and that you are aware of all the risks. Even then, proceed with caution.

The experiment:

When I was in the final, desperate, stages of my PhD, I began to experiment with my psychopharmacology. I wanted to know exactly how much coffee I should be drinking to optimise my ability to put in the long hours required, but at the same time not lose focus. That one simple question led me on a fascinating journey into the world of caffeine and performance. Over the course of a month I experimented with coffee, carbonated caffeine based beverages, caffeine supplements (think: ‘pills’), tea and anything else I could think of that had caffeine in it. As you might well imagine, that particular journey had plenty of highs and lows.

One of the highs was when I stumbled upon this piece of research that looked at the effects of caffeine in Navy SEALS who were subjected to sleep deprivation during the infamous Hell Week training period. Navy SEALS were administered dosages of caffeine that ranged from 100mg to 300mg and they were tested for various effects on their cognitive abilities. Now I’m not suggesting that the final stages of a PhD is as demanding as Hell Week (although it felt like it at the time), but the nights are long and it requires a significant amount of focus on detailed work. One has to be sharp.

It turns out that 200mg of caffeine is the optimum dosage that will sustain alertness and will that still have a positive effect after 8 hours. Now the tricky bit lies in knowing how much caffeine is in any one particular drink (or supplement). It seems that the range can be large indeed depending on a variety of factors (method of extraction, size of beverage etc), so I relied on the USDA stats for coffee that was brewed from grounds with tap water (the most common method I used for making my coffee during this period), which suggests that the dosage is about 95mg per cup. Let’s call it 100mg.

This means that for the best results, I* should slam down two cups of brewed coffee to enjoy sustained, positive cognitive results.

Wilfully ignoring the science:

Of course that all sounds fine in theory, but there are many factors that means that each individual’s response to 200mg of caffeine will be different – not the least of which is whether or not someone believes they have a ‘tolerance’ to caffeine or not. Now, I would suggest that I drink more than the average amount of coffee in a day. I seem to average about four cups per day with most of the doses coming in the early part of the day. Since I drink so much of it, I expected that my tolerance is higher. So I began to dose higher (<– not so smart). Furthermore I began to mix with various forms of caffeine – a mixture of caffeine pills, ‘energy drinks’, flavoured milks, soft drinks… you name it.

While there is research to suggest that there is no material impact in such things as coordination (steadiness of hand) on doses of 200mg whether the participants drink coffee regularly or not, the fact was that I thought I was more immune to the effects due to my ‘higher than average’ consumption levels. So I drank more. And that, dear friends, is where the trouble began.

I can reliably inform you that extremely high doses of caffeine can have an impact on one’s mood, ability to sleep and feelings of general well-being. The effects are particularly pronounced if the dosages are taken in a short period of time – rather than spacing them out. The presence of other compounds other than pure caffeine can also have an impact. Flavoured milks, for example, have high doses of sugar in them – welcome to a cycle of highs and lows that is very, very unpleasant. Let’s not even talk about the impacts of ‘energy drinks’.

The results:

Once I had figured out that I was doing very bad things to my body and mind, I settled back into a routine that more closely resembled that which science suggests. I found that two cups of coffee (not espresso shots – that’s something else entirely), was enough to give me enough of a kick to be able to do the kinds of work that is involved in late-stage thesis writing/editing. I was able to chase down all the issues with my referencing and I was able to make sure that my arguments made sense (Note: this is different to the creative work in arriving at the argument in the first place). I was able to put in the very late nights required to get.it.done. In short, it seemed to work.

I’m not convinced, however, that it was/is sustainable. I now only use this particular technique sparingly. In fact, I can get more done when I deliberately slow down. More rest, longer walks and more frequent breaks seems to have a positive impact on my productivity beyond what messing with my brain with caffeine does.

*YRMV – (your results may vary)

email: just like normal mail but …

… well, it is just like normal mail and we should treat it the same way.

As far as productivity hacks go, the one thing I did that changed how I work is re-conceptualise email as a process of sending and receiving, you know, actual letters.

When I think about how I deal with the physical mail in my life, it dawned on me that treating email differently works against my goal of being productive and on top of things. Like a lot of people who complain about drowning in the email flood, I seemed always to be at the mercy of incoming email. It always found me at the most inconvenient times and it seemed that if I didn’t deal with it then and there, then I was not getting anywhere.

Of course now I recognise this as idiotic and I try to be smarter about how I deal with email (I have a whole bunch of email ‘hacks’ that I use which I’ll be posting up later), but the one that ties them all together is this:

I now treat email as if it was physical mail. I think about it in the same ways and I action it as if it was a physical letter.

This realisation translates into a few basic rules:

writing and sending email

  1. Writing email is a distinct and separate act. I can write email whenever I like – just like a letter – and I don’t have to look at the rest of my unopened mail to do so. Writing email is not dependent on any other task or action.
  2. I don’t have to send email right away. I can send it whenever I like. In fact, if I have a few emails (letters) that I have written, I can send them all at once by gathering them together and taking a walk to the local post box. The digital equivalent of this is drafting an email in something like TextEdit and then saving it, getting back to what I was working on before and waiting until the time arrives that I have set aside to deal with all my email at once (see below).
  3. Since I can’t control when a letter gets delivered and I have no idea when the recipient will get around to reading that letter, I shouldn’t expect an immediate reply. Letter writing and delivery and having the letter read is an asynchronous activity. It can take time and it involves more than one person who autonomously makes decisions about how they work with their letters. Email is also an asynchronous activity that also involves more than one person making decisions about their own workflow.
  4. Which means: I don’t use email for urgent matters. If I need to get in contact with someone else quickly, I use some other method that will reach them then and there. The test for whether it is important or not is this: If it is that urgent that it can’t wait, it had also better be that important that it warrants me deliberately interrupting someone else’s attention. Since I hate other people interrupting me with non-urgent requests, I make sure I don’t do it to others.
  5. I send the least amount of email I possibly can. If I want to ask a colleague something and it can wait, instead of writing an email I’ll jot down the question in a notebook and the next time we bump into each other I’ll ask the question then. Writing the question down gets it out of my head (which has its own benefits) and not sending email in the first place reduces the overall volume I have to deal with.

reading and answering email

  1. Reading email is a distinct and separate act. I can read email whenever I like – just like a letter. It makes sense, then, to be in the right frame of mind and have some dedicated time to reading email. Since I don’t know in advance what my email might contain, I deliberately set aside some time to thoughtfully read and respond. Therefore:
  2. Just like physical mail, I batch process my reading and responding to email.
  3. Since email is an asynchronous method of communication, it is unreasonable for others to expect me to read it as soon as they send it. Just because the act of sending is instantaneous, that doesn’t mean that I open my email client (the equivalent of walking down to the letter box or post office to see if anything has arrived) at the start of the day and then keep getting up from my work to go down and check it multiple times during the day.
  4. I check email once per day. At 2pm. This is known as the #2pmProject. If you are interested in seeing how a few of us use this, you can do a #2pmProject search on Twitter.
  5. To send or respond to email generally means more email comes back towards me so if email doesn’t need a response, I don’t respond. For example, if a departmental email comes around asking for people to volunteer for a particular committee and I can’t accept, I don’t respond with a “Sorry, I can’t do it and here’s my excuse” email, I just simply don’t respond at all. The writing of the excuse email is a waste of my time and the recipient doesn’t want to know why I can’t do it, they just want to know who can do it.

Reconceptualising email as a physical object has helped me to understand how it is that email flows towards me and how it moves away from me. It also highlights the important role that I play in managing, reducing or increasing that flow. By mentally adding ‘timing’ to each stage of the email process I now think about it not as something that is urgent and has to be done right now, but something that can be slotted into my day at a time that is right for me and my workflow.

If you find yourself struggling with email and feel that you are always reacting to email and not getting anything done, take a moment to re-imagine email as a physical object and ask yourself the following question:

What would happen if I waited to deal with email at a time that suited me?