Open Thinkering


Tag: lifehacks

Productivity: choose your friction.


I see people making poor decisions every day. To be more precise, I see the results of the poor decisions people make every day.

It’s easy to make bad decisions. In fact, as human beings we’re fairly spectacular at rushing into them or, at the other end of the spectrum, agonising over them for so long that we become paralysed. This is because we haven’t chosen our friction.

What is ‘friction’?

My thinking about this was prompted by an excellent session at the Thinking Digital conference by Richard Titus. He reflected on the fact that friction isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Friction can cause frustration, mental effort and spending an inordinate amount of time thinking around a problem. This is a bad thing if you’re talking about navigating the menu system on your TV, but a good thing if you’re a programmer hoping to achieve something that nobody has before.

That’s why we need to choose where we’re willing to accept friction.

Choose your friction

Choosing where you find your friction in life is fairly straightforward. It’s a decision based on how much the thing you’re considering matters to you in the long-term. It’s a question of weighing it on your life-scales, so to speak.

Let’s say you’re planning a trip to Italy. There’s two ends to the continuum: plan everything yourself, or let someone else do it for you. Obviously doing the planning yourself is going to result in a lot more friction: it’s going to cost you time and effort getting everything how you want it. But let’s say it’s your honeymoon, possibly the most important holiday you’ll ever go on. It therefore weighs heavily on the life-scales and will massively affect your decision one way or the other.

Or, in an example closer to home, you’re deciding which phone to buy. There’s a plethora of options but there’s still a continuum from extremely easy-to-use up to bleeding-edge features requiring some hacking. If you’re a developer or someone interested in the future of technology, the latter might be where you’re willing to find your friction. My mother, on the other hand, would opt for as close to the beginning of the continuum as possible.


We all need friction in life. We need it because it adds value and meaning to our lives. Overcoming difficulty is one of the best stories we can tell ourselves and others. But you need to ask yourself whether you’re experiencing friction in the right places.

  • Would it be better to spend a little more money so as not to be frustrated by poor design?
  • How about cutting down on the number of possessions you have so there’s fewer to maintain?
  • Who else is in your ‘friction field’? Seek them out.

Image CC BY-NC-SA Joseph Robertson

Establishing your productivity ‘endgame’

‘Endgame’, like ‘aftermath’ is a term with a defined meaning that we borrow for everyday usage:

In chess and chess-like games, the endgame (or end game or ending) refers to the stage of the game when there are few pieces left on the board. (Wikipedia)

This can be used as a powerful metaphor for different stages of life – and the productivity and motivation required to get there. I’ve got an endgame in mind that’s comprised of three parts. I want to:

  1. Be writing and presenting on a freelance basis by the time I’m 40.
  2. Spend as much time as I can with my family.
  3. Have a stress-free (or at least low-stress) lifestyle.

It’s all about priorities. I’m not about to turn down potential high-risk opportunities without deep consideration, but they have to – long-term at least – fit in with the above. I’m not going to flog myself like the proverbial dead horse for things that don’t fit in with these. Have you got guiding statements like these to help focus you?

You may be wondering what this has got to do with productivity. Isn’t this just deciding your life’s priorities? Well, as I argue in #uppingyourgame, productivity is always productivity for something. There’s not much point streamlining and making more efficient something just because you can – especially when it’s something that you value.

Take, for example, Saturday mornings with my son, Ben. We could be in and out of the swimming pool after doing pre-planned training and then straight home. But why? Instead, we enjoy a different sort of productivity. It’s a productivity that is focused on our relationship with each other and our own happiness and enjoyment.

So have a think about your productivity ‘endgame’. Are you headed down the right road?

HOWTO: Productively hack your workday.


It’s entirely possible to make a massive effort and write that lengthy report in a weekend, pull an all-nighter to get that code committed or spend all your holidays with those lesson plans. Of course it is.

But that’s not being productive. That’s panic-working. Being productive is all about the everyday routine. ‘Hack’ that and not only will you consistently get more done but you’ll also avoid negative knock-on effects on your health and energy levels.


I changed job last week. In fact, it was more than a change of job: it was a change in so many respects that it was almost a complete break with what had gone before. I’ve at least changed:

  • My method of transport to work (car –> train)
  • The hours I work (now on flexi-time)
  • My working environment (classroom –> office-based)

As a result, I’ve had to re-think my whole system of productivity. In fact, given that it takes a while to get into a routine, I’m still iterating it. Such things take time to tweak.


As I explain in #uppingyourgame: an educator’s guide to productivity, context is everything when it comes to productivity. Β That’s why I can only explain how I’ve decided upon my new system; you have to create your own!

1. Write down the top five things that you need to fit in to either every day or at least most days. If you’ve never done this before you may need to brainstorm 20 or so things and then narrow them down. For me it’s (in order of importance):

  1. Spend time with my family
  2. Work on my Ed.D. thesis
  3. Exercise
  4. Write daily blog posts
  5. Research things that interest me

2. Think about time constraints when doing these things. For example, it’s impossible for me to spend time with my family whilst I’m at work in my current position, so I need to make sure that I’m available to spend time with my son, Ben, from when I return home until his bedtime. It’s also important to think about things that have to be done in ‘chunks’ (like exercise) as opposed to things that can be disaggregated (such as writing blog posts).

I’ve decided that I the best time for me to exercise is in the morning. It makes me feel better, enhances my productivity, and fits in better with with my working day. I’m also spending 30 minutes each way on the train each day. Unlike driving, this is time I can spend doing things (although even when I was driving I’d be listening to relevant podcasts). So, whilst I don’t want to lug my Macbook Pro to and from work each day, I have found a way I can work on my thesis by reading journal articles on my iPhone.

3. Finally, consider changing your sleeping habits. This, I think, can have the greatest effect on your productivity. I’m not a huge believer in people stating they’re a ‘morning’ or ‘night’ person, but if it were true I’d be in the former camp. Getting up and going to bed half an hour earlier can have a huge effect on your productivity. Find out what’s the best time for you. At the moment I’m thinking of shifting from 6am to 5.30am to get some blog post writing done! πŸ™‚


Productivity is a very personal thing. But it’s important to reflect constantly on what you’re doing and why. It’s not about spending every single moment of your day working, but it is about organizing it so everything in your life points in a direction you’ve consciously chosen.

Happy planning! πŸ˜€

Image CC BY-SA gadl

How to be overwhelmingly positive (even when you don’t feel like it)

CC BY-NC Jon McGovern

Happiness is a conscious choice, not an automatic response. (Mildred Barthel)

I used to have this quotation up in my classroom – accompanied by the smiliest smiley you’ve ever seen! It, along with other quotations* would often prompt questions and discussion. A lot of students didn’t really understand what it meant until I explained it to them. Some adults too.

What it means is this: everyone has setbacks in their life. But it’s your reactions not your carefully-considered actions that show your character. I’m reminded of the story of the member of the congregation who followed the vicar around whilst nailing up banners in the church. “Why are you following me around?” enquired the vicar. “I want to hear what you say when you hit your thumb with the hammer,” replied the parishioner! :-p

So to be positive is a choice in life. Things are going to come your way that you could conceive of as being:

  • unfair
  • sad
  • depressing
  • demotivational
  • a setback
  • tiring

Which is why you need to lean into life. Expect setbacks, have strategies for dealing with them.

The second way to be overwhelmingly positive (even when you don’t feel like it) is to focus on the needs of others. Selflessness actually has a massive effect on your own wellbeing and happiness. Think about it: ourΒ needs are actually very few; we often confuse what we desire with what we need. There are those around us with very real needs.

There are people who are lonely with whom you could spend some time.

People in mourning whom you could comfort.

Those struggling to make ends meet who you could help in cash or kind.

The list goes on. Once you take that step outside yourself, you’ll find it much easier to be positive. After all, you have to be positive in order to have a positive effect on others!**

* Such as my absolute favourite: “He who stops being better stops being good” (Oliver Cromwell)

** Just as with all advice on this blog, this is something I don’t claim to be perfect at. But I know that I’m in a state of perpetual beta. I’m actively *trying* to get better at stuff like this… πŸ˜€

A Week of Divesting: an introduction

Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, having a Zen moment at home in 1982

I can’t seem to find the exact clip I want online, but there’s an episode of the Simpsons where Homer eats a chilli pepper and hallucinates. He eats it at the Springfield fair where Otto has hippy-like booth encouraging people to “Simplify, man…”

It’s amusing because we’ve all come across the stereotype of the zealot who wants everyone else to live their lifestyle. They sing its praises and assume that as it’s a lifestyle they enjoy and value that it’s both more appropriate and morally superior to others. In the Simpsons clip it’s a lifestyle defined by the mantra ‘simplify.’ What I’m interested in this blog post – and, in fact, this week – is not merely the ambiguous call to simplify one’s lifestyle, although what I’m going to do could be seen to be a constituent part of that. I’m going to spend a week divesting.

The best definition of ‘divest’ that I’ve found comes from Wiktionary:

To strip, deprive or dispossess oneself of something (such as a right, passion, privilege or prejudice).

What prompted this?

I subscribe to a number of podcasts that I listen to whilst driving. One of these is a Radio 4 programme called Beyond Belief. I caught the end of it when it was broadcast live and then listened to the podcast on my way to the National Christian Football Festival the weekend before last. This particular programme was about poverty and whether or not, especially in this time of recession, it could be seen as a good thing. I was particularly struck by what the Jainist monk had to say.

As my wife will attest I have, at several times during our marriage, talked of ‘getting rid of everything’ as I felt it was weighing me down. The Jainist spoke about this directly, and mentioned a poem [find poem] about a prisoner locked in a cage. This prisoner pleaded to his captors now and again. However, his pleading was not to be released from the cage, but simply to have a newer and shinier one. The Jainist likened this to being in the thrall of collecting material objects and wealth.

After the programme, and unusually for me as I like my music, I spent the rest of the journey in silence, contemplating. I reflected upon my new job, my Dad being half-way across the world, and my wife’s accusative statement the other day that all my son sees me do is ‘go on the computer.’ I realised that there’s stuff getting in the way of that which is important. I need to get rid of that stuff.

Why are you telling me this?

It would, of course, be quite possible to ‘divest’ quietly and with only my immediate family knowing about it. After all, as Jesus said, we should not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Am I showing off or attempting to garner praise?

Not at all. There’s three reasons why I want to document my actions and the thoughts behind them:

  1. Sharing what I’m thinking and what I’m up to comes naturally to me.
  2. I’m human and therefore weak. I may not actually go through with it unless I’m accountable to someone or something.
  3. Perhaps you or someone you know wants to do something similar. This may give you ideas or lend support.

This week, therefore, I’ll be writing blog posts focusing on the following:

The final blog post of the week will be my reflections on whether it’s all gone to plan!

Are you weird?

I expect some of you reading this will assume that I’ve had some kind of re-religious conversion, especially given the references above. That’s not the case. This is purely a secular decision to reclaim some mental and physical space.

Some might think that I’ve turned into a Luddite. Far from it! It’s hardly likely given my new official job title is ‘Director of E-Learning.’ There’s a difference between recognising the appropriate use of technology and being the equivalent of a dog chasing shiny cars.

Others may consider that this is simply a fancy way of saying I’ve got too much stuff in my house and it’s time for a clear-out. Actually, the opposite is true, actually. We’ve moved house recently to a larger property. Compared to others, our house looks quite spartan.


Have you gone through or thought about something similar to this? If so, I’d like to hear about your experiences. Again, I’d like to point out that I’m not doing this for the back-slapping or to be praised. It, like many things I do, is an experiment. I hope it pays off!

The 3 key elements of productivity.

Harder Better Faster Stronger

Productivity is big business. After all, who wouldn’t pay good money to find out how to become faster and better at work and play? The less reputable books, blogs and podcasts available would lead you to believe that there is some kind of ‘dark art’ or ‘magic formula’ to becoming more productive.

That’s simply not true.

Productivity boils down to three very straightforward things:

  1. Motivation
  2. Efficiency
  3. Choices

Let me explain…

1. Motivation

These three key elements to productivity are actually somewhat hierarchical. At the bottom of the hierarchy comes motivation. This can come from a variety of sources but all lead to a realisation that your day-to-day routine can be made faster, better and more interesting by making some changes.

Some of the best ways to get motivated that I’ve found are:

  • Getting up early
  • Reading something motivational (including the Bible)
  • Finding an audience (e.g. through blogging)
  • Holding yourself accountable to someone else
  • Having a goal in mind (e.g. spending more time with family, achieving a target amount of something)

2. Efficiency

Efficiency is doing things you already do, but faster and/or better. It’s like replacing You 1.0 with You 1.5.So instead of using a paper calendar you use an online calendar. You multitask. If there’s a way to use keyboard shortcuts in an application you use routinely, you seek them out and start using them.

Motivation must be present before time-savings and productivity boosts through efficiency can be found. It’s far too easy to maintain the status quo and do things in the same old tried-and-tested way. Efficiency involves experimentation and, as such, can be tiring as you are exercising your mental faculties more. This, of course, is good in the long run for mental development and memory retention.

3. Choices

Ultimately, though, being productive means making the correct choices, constantly improving workflows and having a decent feedback system. One of the best ways of doing this is by being part of a self-improvement community. Churc communities – at least the more evangelical ones – are naturally like this, but they can be found elsewhere.

Twitter and other social networks are good places to find motivated, enthusiastic people willing to share ideas and tips on becoming more productive. Some of the absolutely top tips, however, come from the comments sections of productivity blogs.

Here’s 5 productivity-related blogs you should definitely subscribe to:

What makes YOU more productive? πŸ™‚

(Image credit: WAYWT? by Frederic della Faille @ Flickr)

5 productivity tips/hacks I’ve come across recently.

I’m always on the lookout for ways in which I can be more productive and increase my creative outputs. Time is precious when you’re a teacher, husband and father! Whilst I recommend you subscribe to blogs like Lifehacker and directly, I’d like to share with you some of the tips and ‘lifehacks’ I’ve found useful recently:

1. FriendFeed

If you’re not using FriendFeed yet, you should be! I’ve been using it for a couple of months and find it very useful. It’s like the river of news and updates you get on Facebook (or at least last time I checked). The difference is that it’s people in the edublogosphere so it’s things related directly to professional learning. The quality of links, recommendations, etc. I get through FriendFeed means that I actually check my feed reader less often now (and use Feedly instead of Google Reader when I do…)

2. Firefox Extensions

I’ve already blogged about Stylish and Feedly, but it’s amazing how much Firefox extensions (addons) can improve your productivity. Take a couple recommended by Lifehacker recently:

  • Tree Style Tabs – allows you to hierarchically organize tabs in a vertical manner in your sidebar. Much more useful than it sounds!
  • Picnik – allows you to capture and edit screenshots online.
  • Zemanta – adds features when creating blog posts like related articles, suggested tags, links to Wikipedia articles, etc.

It’s worth trawling through the Mozilla Firefox addons site and/or doing a Google search for recommended extensions. There’s some great one out there! πŸ™‚

3. How Priorities Make Things Happen

I know from experience that I work much better and in a more focused way if I’m working to a deadline. In fact, I purposely don’t start things until, for example, I’ve only got 24 hours left to complete it. Otherwise, I procrastinate and then, when finished, endlessly tinker to make things ‘just right’.

In a Lifehacker post about a book entitled How Priorities Make Things Happen, this is put into a more structured and easy-to-understand (and follow) form:

The easiest way to make a goal meaningful is to use ordered lists and a high priority one bar. These two simple tools force you to make tough decisions early. An ordered list simply means putting your goals in priority order, most important at the top, least important at the bottom. Divide that list in half: the top are things you must do, or die (Priority 1). The rest are things you hope to do, but can live without (Priority 2). Make your priority 1 list as small as possible: set a high bar. The smaller your list of must do’s, the easier they are to achieve. You will face waves of conflicting emotions as you decide what is truly important, but once you settle on priorities the hard decisions will be behind you.

4. Share Your Secrets To Be The Change

I’ve always shared pretty much everything I’ve ever produced – from my university essays/theses to resources I use in the classroom. Others have been flabbergasted by this approach, finding it strange that I should give away for free what I’ve put so much work into. I have the opposite approach – I get back so much more than I give. I’m sure others reading this have found the same.

It’s for the above reasons that I found Share Your Secrets To Be The Change, a post on, to be so affirming. I especially liked the bits about sharing ‘making your life happier’ and making you into a ‘hero’. Knowing that I’ve got an audience certainly makes me more productive.

5. Top Ten Modern Life Survival Skills

It’s all very well these websites that show you how to start a fire using a Coke can and a piece of chocolate, but how many of us will actually ever need to do that? Really useful ‘modern survival skills’ can give you more control over your life; ergo more time and therefore productivity.

A post on Lifehacker entitled Top Ten Modern Life Survival Skills includes this gem:

Ever notice how putting your hand on your clock radio tends to clarify and boost the signal? You can use that same body-as-extended-antenna trick to locate your car in a stuffed parking lot. Hold your remote opening fob against your skull, hit the alarm (or beep-beep locking button), and you’ll locate your vehicle from farther away.

Have YOU got any productivity tips/hacks you’ve come across recently you’ve found useful? Share them in the comments section! πŸ˜€

(Image credit: branching out by shapeshift @ Flickr)

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