Category: Productivity (page 2 of 15)

Seven places I find interesting, relevant and useful stuff in 2015

I started using a new web service yesterday and something dawned on me:  half of the bookmarks in the toolbar of my browser seem to be devoted to similar kinds of sites. I’ve come to see these as a series of ‘sieves’. It’s important to use more than one and experimenting with new ones to prevent rust setting in!

Some of these services may be useful to you, so I thought I’d share them along with a couple of reasons why I find them handy. They’re listed in alphabetical order. If you have questions about them, I’ll try and answer in the comments section below.

hckr news - Hacker News sorted by time 2015-01-20 19-57-03

Hacker News

Possibly a little technical for the average web user, but the front page usually contains some gems. It’s basically a site where anyone can submit a link and it gets up-and-down voted by the community. Because of its focus, there’s often some really insightful comments in the threads. I tend to use an alternative interface (shown above) called

Know About It

Know About It

Again, this is a tech-focused site, but can be useful for surfacing some important or interesting discussions happening in various forums around the web.



This is my most recent find and is for everyone! You sign in with Twitter and/or Facebook and it curates the links that most of your contacts are talking about. Good for quickly catching up with stuff without having to endlessly scroll through your streams.



This is a dashboard with three versions: one each for designers, developers and entrepreneurs. My work kind of spans all three. Or at least it does in my head. 😉

Product Hunt

Product Hunt

This is perhaps the site I most look forward to visiting. It’s like other sites in that items can be posted and voted up and down. However, these tend to be niche startups (extremely niche in some cases!) that you otherwise might not hear about.



If you haven’t heard of Reddit then you’re either technically dead, have a moist under-rock home, or haven’t been online long enough. It’s the self-styled ‘front page of the internet’ and there’s always a ‘subreddit’ to find interesting. Can be a time-suck. A couple of my favourites are /r/todayilearned/ and /r/explainlikeimfive/.



This is probably the service I currently use least, mainly because it’s mobile-only. There was a time when I’d check this every day. It does surface some really interesting stuff. I’m not sure of its future since the Flipboard acquisition…


As you can probably see even from the screenshots above, some stuff appears in more than one place. If this happens, I take it as being an indication that this is important to pay attention to. Weak signals!

It’s probably worth pointing out that the above is a marked shift from my online reading habits before the demise of Google Reader. These services are either algorithmically-curated or curated by popular vote rather than  manually curated by me. Our information environments are important – as I pointed out in this DMLcentral post last year!

Oh and a bonus. As emojis are so 2014 here’s a huge list of Kaomojis. I use the one below in my Mozilla email signature and you may have spotted a few in my Twitter timeline…


Header image CC BY Karl Herler

The ABC of creating a system for personal productivity

Productive systems* are about heuristics and workflows. You can spend too long thinking about this stuff. Trust me, I have done. 😉

Here’s an approach that works for me. It might do for you, too. Ask yourself whether the system you’ve currently got meets the following ‘ABC’ conditions. If not, you might want to tweak it.

  • Is it Accessible?
  • Is it Beneficial?
  • Is it Collaborative?

These should be fairly self-explanatory, but if not, read on…


Every part of your system should be available to you, wherever you are. The easiest way to do this is to either use a service that syncs between your smartphone and laptop/desktop – or use a paper-based notebook.

There’s benefits and drawbacks of using both digital and analogue tools. Digital tools can often be accessed from anywhere, but often require an internet connection and/or a device with power. Analogue tools, meanwhile, are flexible but need to be taken with you everywhere. If you forget them, then you’ve got a problem in trying to get hold of the information they contain.


Some productivity tools are what some people call ‘productivity porn’. That’s to say they’re super-slick and give the feeling of doing something to improve your system. In fact, they instead monopolise your time that should be spent doing the actual work you enjoy (or get paid for).

Coming to a decision around this can be difficult, as some tools have a learning curve. With others, the benefits don’t become clear until you’ve used them a while. Tagging can be a bit like that. I’d suggest not jumping on bandwagons, but instead let others review tools and techniques before trying it yourself.


This is perhaps the condition that actually needs some explanation. Imagine your work, your productive system is a jigsaw piece. Unless you’re in charge of absolutely everything in the work that you’re undertaking, you’ll need to inteface with someone else’s system at some point. Even if you use the same tools, you’re probably going to use them differently.

Unless you’re dealing with sensitive information, you might find openly sharing your productive system (your to-do list, your notes, etc.) might be of value to your co-workers. They, for example, may decide to adopt similar conventions around tagging, or use the same headings for their Trello board.

It’s also worth saying that if you use tools designed to be used by more than one person, there’s a chance they can join your workflow. This leads to less disruption for you – and greater productivity!


I’d be really interested to find out whether you think this ABC approach is useful – and what you’d add or take away. I know we’re all interested in creating the perfect system, so I’m minded to end this post by a warning from Clay Shirky:

I actually don’t want a “dream setup.” I know people who get everything in their work environment just so, but current optimization is long-term anachronism. I’m in the business of weak signal detection, so at the end of every year, I junk a lot of perfectly good habits in favor of awkward new ones.

* I’d loosely define a ‘productive system’ as a combination of tools and techniques that allow you to get things done efficiently.

Image CC BY Kyle Van Horn

Scripting the first hour of each (week)day

I’ve just been listening to an episode of the Tim Ferris Show podcast in which he answers some questions from the community. One of them was essentially about remaining productive when you’re having an off day. Tim answered this by talking about ‘decision fatigue’ and suggested scripting the first 30 mins or hour of your day to get into the right mindset.

This is a great idea and something I’ve kind of meaning to write about for a while. I’ve got a half-finished post about President Obama’s advice to limit the decisions you make – even about clothing.

So here we go. Here’s what I do every morning. It might be a slight update from what I wrote for My Morning Routine.

1. Wake up without an alarm clock. This means that it’s not always exactly the same time, but it also means it’s likely to be a ‘softer’ awakening.

2. Get the children breakfast. I try to start their day off well by being interested in what they’ve got to say. I sit down with them at the table and have a cup of camomile tea.

3. Go to the toilet. I check Twitter while I’m there. Well, at least I’m honest.

4. Make my wife a cup of tea. I take it up to her while she’s getting dressed.

5. Get my daughter dressed. She can do most of this now herself as she’s almost four years old. However, she can struggle with some buttons, etc.

6. Wash myself. I go to the gym or swimming every day and have a shower afterwards, so this is quick.

7. Do press-ups, sit-ups, etc. I use my roll mat for this as we have a wooden floor in our bedroom.

8. Get myself dressed. Depending on how I feel I’ll wear jeans and a shirt/jumper or else a t-shirt and a hoodie.

9. Help my son. He alternates between Khan Academy and Duolingo for a week at a time. It’s had a demonstrable effect on his numeracy and French skills.

10. Have breakfast. This is usually just a slice of toast with butter. About an hour before exercise I’ll eat a banana.

This routine is flexible. Kids are wonderful at being able to play and amuse themselves, so sometimes this takes an hour, sometimes two. It depends. Every morning I walk them to school, which I consider a real privilege.

I’ve just realised that the above makes it sound like I do everything while my wife does nothing. That’s certainly not the case! She makes the house run like clockwork. I’m a mere cog. 😉

The thing missing for me is time to take my own emotional temperature. Usually I dive straight into work when I should probably read more Baltasar GraciĂĄn first!

Battening down the hatches (again)

Towards the end of last September I wrote a post entitled Battening down the hatches. In it, I explained how I dread the coming of this time of year:

[As] the days get shorter so does my temper…. my productivity and motivation goes down at the same rate as the thermometer.

If it’s not the lack of sun then why (seemingly all of a sudden in the middle of September) every year do I get that feeling that gnaws away inside me?

It’s a really difficult emotion to describe but it’s one I’ve heard others reference: one that says “you’re not good enough”. It’s just an overwhelming feeling of sadness that seems to creep up on me from nowhere.

Autumn seems to be coming earlier. Usually, as my hayfever tails off, the need to start taking my asthma inhaler begins – but this year, they’re overlapping. That can only mean one thing: I need to start battening down the hatches earlier.

Reviewing the things I listed last year that tend to help means I can prepare myself for what is to come:

  • Cold showers – unfortunately the house we’ve moved to doesn’t have a shower and it’s going to be awkward to put one in until we convert the loft. It’s high on my list of priorities, though.
  • Autumn half-term holiday to somewhere sunny – not currently booked as we went away in the summer holidays. However, I am speaking at a conference in Miami in early December.
  • Schedule less time away from home – a lot easier this year than last because of the changing nature of my role at Mozilla.
  • Vitamin D tablets – purchasing today.
  • SAD light – already out of its box in preparation. I may take some preventative ‘doses’ on grey days during this coming week.
  • Daily walks – I’ve started walking every morning, although I may need to change this to midday later in the year.

Of course, the best thing would be to split my time between our home in Northumberland and somewhere like California or the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to be happening anytime, as our children get older and we ‘put down roots’.

Managing my mental health is one of the most important things I can do – for myself, my family, and my employers. It’s all too easy to get into a spiral from which it’s extremely difficult to escape. Hopefully, being mindful, starting earlier, and taking the steps above will make the next six months manageable.

Thanks to those who commented on my post last year with some suggestions:

  • Joel mentioned that changing his diet, getting outside more, and altering some of his activities (less Facebook, less fiction reading) helped.
  • Mark suggested fitting daylight CFL’s around the house to brighten the place up.
  • Jade recommended St. John’s Wort and Evening Primrose to fight off depression – as well as waking up with sunlight.
  • Clint swears by feeling the full force of nature by standing on the beach during a gale, writing more, and watching fun movies.

To finish, a quotation:

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

(Albert Camus)

Walking to calm the monkey chatter mind

A couple of months ago I wrote about my morning routine. In that post I mentioned that I’ve begun to take my ’emotional temperature’ when I wake up. Something I’ve found useful no matter what colour I find my mood is a morning walk; it helps calm the monkey mind:

Mind monkey or monkey mind, from Chinese xinyuan and Sino-Japanese shin’en 心猿 [lit. “heart-/mind-monkey”], is a Buddhist term meaning “unsettled; restless; capricious; whimsical; fanciful; inconstant; confused; indecisive; uncontrollable”. (Wikipedia)

There’s something about the repetitive act of walking that takes thoughts tangled like an old ball of yarn and organises them into some sort of coherence. I guess the same is true of cycling or swimming, too.

I’m fortunate as there’s an ancient woodland on my doorstep to walk through, but even without this I think that the act of walking anywhere helps. The digital world is so fast-paced and almost schizophrenic compared to the offline world that we need to pull ourselves out of the stream to order our thoughts.

This weekend I’m looking forward to taking this further with a Hill Skills course. It’s the first step on the rung towards becoming a Mountain Leader. I never got around to doing the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award when I was younger, so I guess this is my opportunity to make amends!

Image CC BY Berit Watkin

My morning routine

Update: this is now cross-posted on the My Morning Routine website here!

I came across a website recently called My Morning Routine. Its stated aim is as follows:

Inspiring morning routines to set you up for a more productive and enjoyable day.

Understandably, a lot of them are idealised routines, but they’re nevertheless thought-provoking. Like another of my favourite interview-based sites, The Setup, each person answers a set of structured questions.

Now that I find myself with an established routine, I thought I’d have a go at answer the questions as well. But in my case, this isn’t idealised, this is literally what I do every day. 🙂

What is your morning routine?

I wake up sometime between 6am and 7am, depending on when my children wake up or whether my wife’s going for a run. I have a Lumie Sunrise alarm clock which sometimes wakes us up, sometimes doesn’t. Our kids, however, can always be relied upon! My wife and I used to take it in turns to go running on alternate days, but I found (bizarrely) that it seems to be a trigger for my migraines. It’s a real shame, as I used to really enjoy it.

It’s usually me who goes downstairs with my two kids (ages 3 and 7) to get us breakfast while my wife goes for a run or gets ready. I have a combination of fresh fruit, a special nut/seed mixture my wife puts together, and Greek yogurt. I also have a cup of tea. (I’m down to one cup of coffee with my lunch, these days)

When we’re finished I get our youngest dressed and then tag-team with my wife. I have a quick wash and do my exercises (including press-ups / sit-ups / stretching) and then head downstairs to help our eldest with either Khan Academy or Duolingo.

After that, I put together the things I need for the rest of the morning and we all walk our eldest child to school. I then head to the library to do some work and then either go to the gym or swimming before lunch. After exercise is when I have a nice, peaceful shower. 😉

How long have you stuck with this routine so far?

Ever since we moved into this house, which was February this year. I’m on a different team at Mozilla now, which means I’m travelling less and able to get into more of a routine. It’s good to get into a groove, sometimes.

The upside of this is that I’m starting to recognise and talk to people in my community, which is great. We’ve got friendly neighbours and we live in the kind of place where people will stop and have a chat with you.

How has your morning routine changed over recent years?

I didn’t really have a routine when I was on the Open Badges team at Mozilla. I was travelling almost every week, which has a knock-on effect upon getting into a routine.

Previous routines I’ve had were dictated by institutional hours (school/university) and commuting time. Not having to commute is amazing. It’s really good for my mental health to be able to choose which days to really crank and which days to take it easy. It’s even better deciding when to take PTO (Paid Time Off – or ‘holiday’ as we call it in the UK). When I was teaching I got more time off, but it wasn’t necessarily at times I needed it.

What time do you go to sleep?

I’d like to go to sleep about 21:00, but a couple of things stop me doing that. First, because I’m part of a geographically-distributed team I usually have work to do after I’ve put the kids to bed. Second, I like to watch something on Netflix with my wife before we go to bed. That usually means that 22:00 is the earliest. And then, of course, I like to read.

So, I guess that 22:30-23:00 is usual for me to go to sleep. Which explains why I’m often tired and need to exercise to keep my energy levels up.

Do you use an alarm to wake you up in the mornings, and if so do you ever hit the snooze button?

As I said above, I use a Lumie Sunrise alarm clock. It’s great – especially in the winter. However, if I’m travelling and if a different timezone, I need the reassurance that I’ll be up in time. On those occasions, I use the wriststrap of my Fitbit One and use the ‘silent alarm’ feature. I then wake up through vibrations, rather than alarm. That’s important, as when I’m travelling I often wear ear plugs.

Do you see to email first thing in the morning, or leave it until later in the day?

I usually check email while I’m getting breakfast ready. I use an app called Twilight on my phone to shift the screen colour towards the red end of the spectrum so it’s not so harsh for me when I wake up. Again, because I’m part of a distributed team, I want to make sure I’m already processing what I need to do that day.

So my email ‘on’ hours (both work/personal) are around 07:00 to about 21:00. I know some people complain about email, but at least it’s a stable, easy to understand platform with threaded conversations. I just have an ‘ACTION’ folder and an ‘Archive’ folder. Once you’ve triaged your email (i.e. got it out of your inbox), you don’t have to reply to it until later.

How soon do you check your phone in the morning, either for calls/messages or social media and news?

The first thing I do is check BBC News, the Wikipedia front page and Hacker News on my Kindle’s web browser. When I first wake up and I’m getting used to the fact it’s a new day, my eyes can’t take anything with a backlit screen.

While I’m getting breakfast ready and checking emails, I also check and respond to messages on Twitter. My Twitter network is even more distributed than my colleagues!

What are your most important tasks in the morning?

The first priority is making sure the rest of my family is ready – which includes their emotional well-being. My second priority is taking my ’emotional temperature’ for the day. If I’m feeling less than optimal, then I’ll read Baltasar GraciĂĄn’s The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence or some of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

On days you’re not settled in your own home, are you able to adapt any of your routine to fit in with a different environment?

I go to sleep a lot earlier when I’m away on my own. That’s for two reasons – to try and claw back some of my ongoing sleep debt, but also because the stimulation of being in a new environment means my brain needs to work harder even when ‘resting’. That means it needs to process connections while I’m asleep. So I sleep more.

What do you do if you fail to follow your routine, and how does this influence the rest of your day?

Interestingly, we’re thrown a curveball every week as my wife works Fridays as a primary school teacher. On that day, we get up at 06:00 and try not to disturb the kids. Then, my wife gets ready to leave just after 07:00 and I do everything until my mother comes to look after our youngest at 08:30.

In general, as my routine is our family’s routine, we keep each other right. However, if I miss my morning exercises – especially the stretching – I can tell for the rest of the day. I bought a training mat recently to ensure that I didn’t use our hard wooden floors as an excuse not to do them!

I’d love to read your version of this. Why not write a blog post answering the same questions?

Image CC BY Koshy Koshy

An emerging workflow

I’d like to thank to Oliver Quinlan for his reminder about sharing the ordinary:

It’s easy to get caught up… in your own area. When you are striving to keep improving and you are getting better and better, you focus on the small improvements, how you are as compared to the next best person. Often it’s easy to forget how far you have come and how valuable it could be to share that journey with someone else. When the thing you are working on is niche it’s easy to forget that others might be treading the same path, or might decide to if only they knew the path existed.

I write my weeknotes both for my own benefit (what I did, when) and for the benefit of others (especially colleagues) who might be interested in my work.

The problem is that these weeknotes don’t explain how I work and how it all fits together. Given that this changes on a regular basis, it’s worth documenting regularly. I’m definitely a believer in the Clay Shirky school of workflow:

I know people who get everything in their work environment just so, but current optimization is long-term anachronism. I’m in the business of weak signal detection, so at the end of every year, I junk a lot of perfectly good habits in favor of awkward new ones.

Before I start, and by way of context, it’s worth saying that this week Mozilla – and the #TeachTheWeb team in particular – has launched Webmaker Training. This is a four-week course to help people learn four strands of related to web literacy and contribution: Exploring, Building, Facilitating, and Connecting. More about that in this blog post.

I’m currently working on Webmaker and Web Literacy badges. This isn’t an easy process – even within the organisation that spawned them!  I’m currently looking at ways in which we can ‘breadcrumb’ contribution for participants throughout Webmaker Training so that they end up with a newly-redesigned Webmaker Mentor badge. Behind all that, however, is technology that’s shared across Mozilla and a newly-formed Badge Alliance, cultural differences, various assumptions and experiences, a distributed workforce, and attempts at a co-ordinated visual design. I’m doing my best!

Something that I’m still getting used to in a product-driven environment is the idea of an issue tracker. We use Bugzilla (fugly, but efficient and open-source) and, to a lesser extent, GitHub (closed-source itself but supports working in the open). You can see an example of working in Bugzilla with this ‘bug’ and a similar situation in GitHub with this issue.

Speaking of issue trackers, if you’re interested in implementing one, probably the easiest thing you can do is to set up a Trello board with cards in three columns: To Do, Doing, and Done. At the end of the week, you simply ‘Archive’ everything in the Done column.

Doug Mozilla   Trello

(click on image to see live Trello board)

Perhaps once I’m at one with the Matrix (i.e. can use Bugzilla more effectively) I won’t have to use Trello as well, but for now it’s saving my sanity: I just link the Trello card to the relevant bug. You’ll notice that I’ve also added another column for Stalled and References (current). That’s just so I don’t forget stuff. 🙂

The great thing about whatever system you use – Trello, GitHub or Bugzilla – the ideas underlying them are the same.

  • Work openly
  • Anyone can file bugs/issues/tickets
  • People can opt-in or opt-out of getting updates
  • Bugs/issues/tickets can be assigned to people
  • You can link out to relevant resources/context
  • Bugs/issues/tickets can be closed when done

It takes a bit of a shift in thinking, but I can’t help but think this would benefit every organisation I’ve ever been part of. Imagine, for example, a school where not only staff, but parents and students could file bugs/issues/tickets to make the community stronger? Wow.

Do YOU or your organisation use issue trackers? I’d be interested to find out more. 🙂

Image CC BY-NC-SA Giorgio Fonda

Be More Doug

Be More Doug

In the UK there’s an advertising campaign by O2 (part of the Telefonica group) encouraging us all to Be More Dog. In this post, I’m going to show you how to Be More Doug. It’s a fun way to reflect on the #MillionSkills interview I had with Christian Briggs and David Pace earlier this week based on the Decoding the Discplines process. You can see the website the team are building after their successful Kickstarter campaign here:

The Million Skills Project

The wide-ranging and, at times, challenging interview was conducted by Skype. Out of it came the following 10 points (which will be edited down to discrete chunks of video in the coming weeks):

  1. Crow’s nest scanning
  2. Vocation
  3. Surfing the zeitgeist
  4. Sharing
  5. Energy levels
  6. Enlarged version of self
  7. Doing work on behalf of others
  8. Prioritization
  9. Openness to outside influences
  10. Percolation

More Obvious

Four of the terms in this list refer to things that are more obvious than the remaining six. In order to avoid this becoming an epic post, I’ll run through the former quickly.

By vocation I’m rejecting the idea of ‘work/life balance’ as an artefact of the Industrial Revolution. Christian mentioned the term Gutenberg Parenthesis which is a convenient term to use here.

Energy levels is another pretty obvious one and cultivated by the holy trinity of sleep, exercise and diet.

We talked a lot about ‘over-sharing’ before I refined this to ‘appropriate sharing’ and finally just sharing. It’s particularly important for remote workers who are part of distributed teams to let other people know what they’re working on and any blockers they have. The more open and transparent you can be here, the better.

Prioritization is an interesting one and something I honed during my time as a classroom teacher. When you’re in an environment where there’s never enough time to do everything, then perfect is the enemy of good. I’m a big believer that success lies in knowing what to pay attention to.

Less Obvious

There’s a scene in the film I Capture the Castle (2003) where the main protagonist goes to see her father, a writer, in action. He’s covered the walls of his garret with pages and pages of his work. When she asks what they are, he says that they’re “perculating”. I see perculation as an extremely important part of my working life. I’ve realised that that I don’t have to finish everything in one go, that going for a walk or ‘sleeping’ on something works wonders, and getting feedback on half-finished things can extremely useful.

Linked to this is doing work on behalf of others. By this I don’t mean taking on their responsibilities. Instead, I mean packaging things up in such a way that makes them accessible to your audience. Too often we presume our audience – whether our colleagues or further afield – groks our context  instantly. Because something is important and familiar to us we assume it’s the same for others. (I’ve just given you an example of how easy it can be do provide context on the web by hyperlinking the word ‘grok’ just now.)

I remember years ago reading something Iris Murdoch wrote somewhere about never having a strong sense of self. I’ve thought about that often since then and whether or not I do. Either way, the important thing in digital interactions is to be an enlarged version of self. It’s some advice that was given to me during teacher training and has stuck with me since. Present yourself holistically, but be selective in what you portray. Be positive and, as my Mozilla colleagues are great at doing, say “yes, and…” a lot.

The last two things I mentioned during the interview are closely linked: crow’s nest scanning and openness to outside influences. What they have in common is looking beyond the here and now to think about what’s happening elsewhere and what could happen in the future. Again, it’s about what you should pay attention to. In terms of scanning, it’s about trends and thinking through what would happen if X and Y and Z converged. There’s plenty of tools that help do this so the problem becomes one of conservation of attention – knowing when to go deep and rabbithole, and knowing when to zoom back out.

In terms of outside influences, it’s good to read and interact with people outside one’s field. This is something I personally could do much better at. I find that every time I do this I end up with new insights to apply to my domain. This, along with the knowledge of your section allows you to surf the zeitgeist. I’ve written a whole paper on ambiguity, but suffice to say that human communication is fraught with difficulties. If you can find terms that resonate and convey meaning quickly, then use those. They often allow new thought structures to be built within communities. This works even if you don’t like the term itself – for example, I use the term ‘Personal Learning Network’ even though I find it a bit irritating.


I found this process extremely useful as an insight something I don’t really discuss often. I’d like to thank Christian and David for the invitation and sitting through over an hour of me holding forth.

Want to share your workflow and insights? The decoding process is really useful, but I think that choosing a topic and getting someone to ask you ‘why?’ a lot could also yield results that I’d love to read. Who’s up for sharing next?

3 things I do to work more productively throughout the day

I used to be a teacher. And before that I was a student in formal education. Yep, we all know what that means: someone else dictated my working day. This made the transition to managing my own time difficult. I was never taught what to do to maintain my productivity or how to listen to my body and preserve energy levels.

Since June 2012 I’ve worked for the Mozilla Foundation, a global non-profit with a distributed army of contributors. Although volunteering alongside my previous job prepared me a little bit for what was to come, the onboarding was pretty brutal.

In the time since I’ve learned a few things that I’d like to share. Everyone’s different, but hopefully these three things are more widely applicable.

1. Work in bursts

Members of my team live on the west coast of Canada and the US. This means an eight-hour time difference to the UK. This, in turn, means scheduling issues unless both parties are flexible.

I’ve found doing a couple of hours in the morning, a few hours in the afternoon, and then another couple of hours in the evening is good for both scheduling and keeping up some semblance of work/life balance.

2. Optimise coffee consumption

“Drink a cup of coffee, and the ideas come marching in.” (Balzac)

I read a long article recently (I seem to have mislaid the link) that had a great insight. The author noted that we tend to drink to go from unproductive to reach some kind of baseline level of productivity. And that’s important for people like lorry drivers or other people who have to ensure they don’t dip below a dangerously low level of attention.

Productivity comes in waves. Therefore, what’s more important for those that work with their brains rather than their bodies is how high the peaks are, not how deep the troughs are. I thought it was a great insight.

Instead of drinking coffee with my breakfast, I now drink it around 10am and then again at 1pm. This is right before the times that are (for me) the most productive of the day. There’s also caffeine naps as well, of course.

3. Exercise

I can’t stress this enough. You may have heard it many, many times. It might seem counter-intuitive. But the more frequently you exhaust yourself doing some kind of exercise, the more physical and mental resilience you’ll have.

Over the last few years I’ve been reasonably good at maintaining a regular exercise regime. But I’m far from perfect. Because of a busy schedule last week, for instance, I didn’t do much at all. And surprise, surprise, this week I’m lethargic, want to stay in bed longer, and can’t focus for as long.

Running is the best thing you can do. Use your old trainers. Go where no-one can see you. Just get out there and start lapping those people still on the couch!


While there’s other things that I’ve found keep my productivity levels high on a day-to-day basis, these are the three most important to me at the moment.

I’d be fascinated to know the things YOU do! Please do add a comment below or discuss on Hacker News. 🙂

PS Bonus points if you can tell me where I took the photograph accompanying this post!

Find what you can influence, and focus your attention

One of my favourite blog posts of 2013 was by James Clear. In it, he shared this diagram:

Circle of Concern vs. Circle of Control

This brings into sharp focus an easy way in which we can quickly and easily change our lives for the better. All it takes is shifting our attention from things we can’t influence to those that we can. In other words, focusing on and increasing our Circle of Control.

Here’s some examples where I’ve tried to do just that:

Example 1

“Success or failure is caused more by mental attitude than by mental capacity.” (Sir Walter Scott)

During the years I was writing my doctoral thesis I had very little time to study. Not only did I have a demanding full-time teaching job, but my wife and I had a baby boy to take care of and worry about as only new parents can.

In order to find time to write I had to carve out time wherever I could. This would often mean getting up very early (~4am) to get in a couple of hours of study before the rest of the family woke up.

Feedback from my family and colleagues quickly confirmed what I suspected: on the days I got up early I was more positive and pleasant to be around. Instead of waking up and reacting to what happened around me, I could prepare for it. I was in control.

Example 2

“Most people would rather be certain they’re miserable, than risk being happy.” (Robert Anthony)

When I used to commute to work, like millions of people around the world I switched on the radio each morning. After all, everyone wants to keep up with the news. So I joined an audience regaled daily with, effectively, stories of misery and death.

The turning point came when I realised that I could listen to podcasts in the car. I can’t remember exactly what I used to listen to back then but these days my favourites include Thinking Allowed, 99% Invisible, and Freakonomics Radio. Not only do podcasts tend to be more upbeat than the news, but it’s like having my own radio station. I’m in control.

Example 3

“A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” (Franz Kafka)

In my early twenties I used to read the bible every morning. While I’ve strayed away from the faith, the habit of reading something familiar and with a moral dimension has remained with me. In fact, the book I’ve chosen to read on repeat each morning was written by a 17th-century Jesuit priest named Baltasar GraciĂĄn.

The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence is a collection of 200 maxims about dealing with yourself and others. I read anywhere from a couple to ten maxims most days, and I try to do so before dealing with other people. It’s the perfect mix of pragmatism and moral imperative. Interestingly, sometimes it’s translated The Art of Worldly Wisdom.

The important point here is less the book I’ve chosen and more the habit of reading something that encourages you to be the best you can be. When there’s so much happening around me in the world that I can’t influence, it’s nice being reminded that there are many things I can control.


These are small changes that make a huge difference to my life. They involve shifting my attention from other people’s agendas to my own. This year I’m looking to further increasing my Circle of Control rather than my Circle of Concern.

You’ll notice that all of these examples derive from morning activities. For me, it’s a crucial time: get it right and you’re set up for the day.

What do YOU do to help increase your Circle of Control?