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My rebooted blog on tech, creative ideas, digital citizenship, and life as an experiment.


Just do it? But HOW? 24 productivity experiments I tried, plus a QS time management recap

In the workshop

[Cross-posted to Quantified Self]

Some time ago I was asked for the ultimate productivity tip, and instead of giving a straightforward take-away, I said that in the end the answer is "it depends." That wasn't a cheap shot because what works for you might not work for the next guy, and vice versa. Sound familiar? It's the same case for medications, meditation, and most anything else we humans do. That's why it's best to experiment, examine your results, and decide based on the data. In other words, quantify!

But there's a complication. Coming up with metrics that reflect the value of what we do, rather than the individual efforts, can be a challenge. While the latter are simpler to measure, (there's a reason that some jobs require you to clock in - "seat time" is an easy metric), the real test is more how effective we are, not just how efficient. I may be cranking widgets at a fast pace, but what if I'm making the wrong ones?

Until we have general-purpose and quantified framework for measuring value ("accomplishment units?"), we have to keep being creative. In this long post I want to seed some discussion by sharing two things: some specific productivity experiments I've tried, with their results, and a recap of the cool productivity experiments found here on Quantified Self. Please share techniques that you've found helpful.

Productivity experiments I've tried

Adopt a system. The single biggest productivity change I made was trying a system for organizing my work. In my case I got the GTD fever (Getting Things Done), and my results were clear, including getting far more done more efficiently, feeling more in control, and freeing up brainpower for the big picture. At the time (five years ago) I wasn't thinking of it in terms of an experiment, but it certainly qualified. From a QS perspective it can function as a kind of tracking platform because it has you keep a comprehensive and current list of tasks (Allen calls them "actions"). I have used them for various tracking activities, mainly by characterizing or counting them.

Two-by-two charting. I've plotted 2D graphs of various task dimensions to analyze my state of affairs, such as importance vs. fun (a sample is here). These are a kind of concrete snapshot that I analyze over time. In the above example I decided that the upper right quadrant (vital + fun) was still a little sparse.

Artificial deadline. A standard productivity idea is to impose a deadline on "as soon as possible" tasks that don't have a hard completion date. For two weeks I tried assigning one to each task, and prioritizing based on that. It was a disaster, and I hated it. I think it's a function of my personality, but my stress level shot through the roof.

Daily planning. The idea of creating a fresh "to do" list for each day is a classic time management idea, so I tried it for a month. Each day I'd pull out a mix of tasks (e.g., important, fun, large, small) that I thought I could get finished, then work strictly from that list along with my calendar. The test was how many tasks I got done, along with overall feeling of accomplishment, as compared with working directly from the master list (70+ items for me at the time). The result was huge. I got a larger percentage of tasks done each day (about 25% more), mainly because I had a kind of "focus anchor" that kept me moving. Also, it made it easy to turn it into a game where I tried to get a "touchdown" - all of them checked off. This changed my behavior to be more realistic about my expectations, which was both painful and satisfying. You can find an example daily plan here.

Estimated vs. actual completion times. For a few weeks I tried estimating how much time tasks would take, timing them, and comparing the two. Not surprisingly, my estimates were overly optimistic in general. (Apparently most of us have trouble - see the Wikipedia article on the Planning fallacy, esp. the paper "Exploring the planning fallacy: why people underestimate their task completion times".) The above daily plan example shows using the daily plan to track it.

Tiny tasks. Another thing I experimented with was breaking tasks into a maximum of 10 minute chunks. This is an extreme example of divide and conquer, but it helps avoid procrastination because a small task wasn't as much a turnoff as a giant one, making it easier to get started. Not only was this actually the case, I also found that once I got into the flow I was usually able to get more than 10 minutes of work done.

Interruption log. Because interruptions are a common productivity drain, I thought I'd try an experiment of simply tracking them. I recorded who interrupted me, when it happened, the topic, and how long it lasted. I did this for a week and then studied it for patterns that I could use for prevention. By far the most common type was internal: my frequent multasking, esp. checking email (more below). I found the simple act of tracking was an embarrassing eye-opener, and I've since been able to manage it via further specific experiments.

Task input/output. For a few weeks I measured how my tasks list size changed over time, looking for I/O trends. By recording starting and ending counts each day, I learned that I had a small "leak" where I was accepting more commitments than I could get done. This helped me get choosier about what I said yes to, giving me a good personal excuse to turn down work. Putting items on a "not doing" list helped relieve the guilt.

Incremental vs. batch. At one point, tracking expenses became a unpleasant time sink, so I experimented with doing incremental processing of receipts once a week, rather than waiting for the monthly bank statement to do them. The result was a massive improvement. The latter used to take about an hour, but the incremental combination was about 15 minutes (5 minutes per week entering, and 10 minutes reconciling).

Email. Email deserves a special experimentation category because it's such a black hole for me. If I'm not careful I spend too much of time "checking," rather than actually working through messages. (I work from a zero base, i.e., don't stop processing until the inbox is empty.) Here are some experiments I tried, with a quick thumbs up/down:

  • No Thanks rule (i.e., don't send an email whose only purpose is saying thank you). Thumbs up.
  • Use a Mac dashboard widget for monitoring gmail every five minutes (gasp!) Thumbs down.
  • Create a Firefox smart keyword to search Gmail without having to look at the inbox. Thumbs up.
  • Adopt a 24 hour maximum email response time (allow up to a day to respond). Huge thumbs up!
  • Turn off the new mail annunciator. Another big thumbs up.

I'll finish with some other productivity experiments I've tried:

  • Used the STING method to stop procrastinating (Select one task, Time yourself, Ignore everything else, No breaks, Give yourself a reward).
  • Do one High Value Task a day.
  • Process a book in one hour.
  • Used a digital voice recorder to take reading notes.
  • Outsource transcription of dictated notes.
  • Schedule tasks on calendar (no lists).
  • Use time blocking (schedule regular chunks of time with myself for important tasks).
  • Work in one big window (i.e., blank computer background).
  • Disable certain sites during project work (especially Gmail).
  • Change work venue (conference room, and cafe).

Recap of productivity experiments shared here on Quantified Self

There's a lot of experience, advice, and ideas about productivity here on QS. Following is a sampling of the creative techniques that people have tried out.

Gary's comment on my post Discuss: The Quantified Worker listed these (his words):

  • Word count: this is simple but powerful; Buster Benson is supplying a nice general tool for this at 750 words. I track them in my word processor.
  • Time arrived at my desk: I have done this for long stretches at a time, when subject to competing demands. Simple pattern awareness very helpful.
  • Total work hours: This is not as helpful to me, as quality varies, and increasing "time at desk" does not always increase quality/quantity of work.
  • Time in total concentration, 25 minute intervals: I picked this up from Robin Barooah's talk on his caffeine and productivity data. (See The false god of coffee.)
  • Time in concentration, 6 minute intervals. In this case, you keep a timer running and make marks on a piece of paper for every six minutes that passes. The first four marks are dots that form the corners of a square, and the next six marks are lines that connect the dots, completing the outline of the square with diagonals crossing in the middle. Total: ten marks = 1 hour concentrated work.

Kevin's post "Productivity" Dashboard Monitor talks mentions RescueTime as being a kind of productivity information center that helps to analyze your tasks. You can find quite a list of similar tools in the Productivity section of Self-tracking links to get you started, such as Harvest, TimeDoctor, and Slife.

Gary's writeup of Ping's Thesis - From Diary to Graph shows a lovely graph of data from a widget Ka-Ping Yee wrote to log his activity.

Finally, you might want to watch these related QS videos:


2011-03-11: They did WHAT?

Test Tube Terrarium

Quick links from the past week of experiments in the World Wide Lab

The Fish Pond: Vazquez's velocity increasing: I don't follow sports, but "experiment" comes up constantly in that context. In this case, pitcher Javier Vázquez is reported to have changed his form to use his lower body more. It seems to be working: "On Wednesday against the Nationals, Vazquez was clocked at 90 and 91 mph, after he was about 87 mph in his first outing." What's interesting is that experimentation is prevalent in sports (and probably has been forever), and that there are straightforward metrics for evaluating impact.

Facebook experiments with streaming movies: In "Tell me, Betty. Has your husband always been..." I mentioned Amazon's recent addition of instant video to their Prime program. Well apparently Facebook and Warner Bros. Pictures are getting into the spirit with an experiment to offer The Dark Knight for 30 Facebook credits (AKA $3). From the Think, Try, Learn perspective, this highlights how experiments can impact others. In this case, Netflix Investors Spooked By Facebook Video Experiment. Of course our personal and group experiments don't have this kind of massive impact, but they do affect those around us. Relationship experiments in particular come to mind.

Plastic-free experiment an eye-opener for Kanata family: Here's an experiment I admire, and that anyone could try. A family of four stopped buying things containing plastic. Wow! Given that nearly everything has - or is wrapped in - plastic, it's a challenge. The article mentions what we eat, what we wear, and how we wash and brush our teeth. It also shows the power of experimentation to change behavior, in this case naturally using much less plastic.

I was pleased to find recent stories on killing your TV (or at least not paying for it), such as What it's like to cut the cord and stop paying for TV and Savings Experiment: Cutting the Cord on Cable's Pricey Monthly Bill: We've not had cable for years, which I admit gives me an embarrassing and smug sense of superiority, along with the more humble satisfaction of not rewarding crappy programming by paying for it. That said, for us the experiment wasn't difficult because we haven't spent the time to find a series that we like.

In this Book review of The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us, the author mentions some fascinating experiments, such as the 1995 "sweaty T-shirt experiment":

By getting 44 men to wear T-shirts without deodorant for two nights and then having women sniff them, Wedekind discovered that "women nearly always preferred the scents of T-shirts worn by men with MHC genes different from their own - suggesting that we can determine our genetic compatibility with potential partners simply by following our noses."

What I particularly like is the comment that the best science experiment is the kind that defies your expectations. Edison experiment, anyone?

Finally, what list of experiments could fail to mention Amy Chua's provocative Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (covered in Time's Tiger Mom: Amy Chua Parenting Memoir Raises American Fears)? To me, of course, its potential for experiments leaps out. So, I was pleased to see someone trying it out: Valerie Frankel: My Tiger Mother Experiment: Using Chua's Book as a Parenting Guide. Do you have any thoughts on this one? I haven't studied it yet.


"Tell me, Betty. Has your husband always been..."

[Reet Pappin] Tell me, Betty. Has your husband always been this, well, ... bitter?

[Betty Armstrong] No, he wasn't at all. I think it's something new he's trying.

This is from the absurd The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, one of the gems I found on the new Amazon prime instant video. (Learning about this new benefit was a delight, since I've been a Prime subscriber for years to feed by reading habit.) I perked up when I heard Betty's response, which is a lovely Think, Try, Learn perspective. Not an experiment I personally want to try, though.

I love the work of this indie movie team, though I think the first movie, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (official site here), was better. Here are a few gems on YouTube from this same team (I enjoy how they play with language):

I've embedded them below. You can find more at moontaurus's YouTube channel.

I'm curious

If this is your sort of humor, what else do you like? I need a lift!


How to get your Edison updates to go to Twitter

rss icon

An Edison user asked about getting his experiments' observations to route to his Twitter account. Here's how I did it for the @thinktrylearn Twitter account. Basically you use Edison's RSS feature, which is available for both an individual experiment or for all of your experiments. (The @thinktrylearn one uses the third RSS feature, all experiments.) I used twitterfeed.com, though there are other similar tools.

To find the various RSS feeds on Edison:

There you have it! Anyone want to give it a try?

(Note: Currently the feed for group experiments is not showing. The work-around for the motivated user is to use the first type of pattern. For example, the RSS feed for the group experiment corresponding to my above peer experiment - bottle good feelings (Group) - is http://edison.thinktrylearn.com/experiments/show/367.rss.)


How to Bottle Up Good Feelings (Group Experiment)

Glass Vase 01

When I told a friend about some recent great news (a LinkedIn invitation from a self-experimentation leader), she suggested I "bottle the feeling." This struck a chord with me because I tend to focus on the negative, i.e., when things don't feel like they are going well. So I decided to do an experiment where I do just that - capture when I feel especially good because of an event. My "bottle" in this case is my big-arse text file. All I've been doing is:

  1. Notice when something good happens to me,
  2. Write it down in the file, tagging it with BottleTheFeeling, and
  3. Review the file when I'm feeling down.

So far I've been doing the first two, but I haven't implemented a reviewing practice. Also, I had not set up a proper Edison experiment, so I thought I'd make a group experiment and ask if you'd like to join me. You can learn more about it at bottle good feelings (Group Experiment). To join immediately:

Here's the summary, taken from the experiment:

What can we do to save up good things that happen to us when we need them on emotionally rainy days? A gratitude journal is a traditional approach, but in this experiment we try something simpler and more immediate - "bottling" the feeling for later.

This is similar to the common gratitude journal idea [1], but feels to me a little lighter to implement. It's also similar to my hack, Use Gmail's "star" to highlight your good news, but more specific.

Why don't you join me? It'll be fun!


  • [1] Here are two useful links. First, How to Keep a Gratitude Journal | eHow.com. Second, from What is a gratitude journal?:
    [In your journal] you will write 5 things that you are grateful for that day. You can do this right before bed or in the evening sometime. These don't have to be big earth shattering revelations, as most things you are grateful for are not. These entries are what matter to you and what you are grateful for. This is a very personal venture. The only 2 rules with the gratitude journal are:
    1. Everything in it must be positive and;
    2. You can only list something you're grateful for once - no repeating entries.