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Last Updated on October 15, 2019

To Automate or not to Automate Your Personal Productivity System

To Automate or not to Automate Your Personal Productivity System

We are all about doing things faster and better around here at Lifehack. And part of doing things faster and better is having a solid personal productivity system that you use on a daily basis.

This system can be just about anything that helps you get through your mountain of projects or tasks, and helps you get closer to your goals in life. Whether it’s paper or pixels, it doesn’t really matter. But, since you are reading Lifehack I have to assume that pixels and technological devices are an important part of your workflow.

“Personal Productivity System” defined

A personal productivity system (at least the definition that this article will use) is a set of workflows and tools that allow an individual to optimally get their work done.

Workflows can be how you import and handle your photos from your camera, how you write and create blog posts, how you deploy compiled code to a server, etc.

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Tools are the things like planners, todo managers, calendars, development environments, applications, etc.

When automation is bad

You may be thinking that the more that we automate our systems, the more we will get done. This is mostly the case, but there is one very big “gotcha” when it comes to automation of anything.

Automation is a bad thing for your personal productivity system when you don’t inherently understand the process of something.

Let’s take paying your bills for example. This may seem very obvious, but if you can’t stick to a monthly budget and have trouble finding the money to make payments on time, then automating your bill payment every month is completely useless and can be dangerous for your personal finances.

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Another example is using a productivity tool to “tell you” what tasks are important and what to do next. If you haven’t taken a step back and figured out just how your productivity systems should work together, this type of automation will likely keep you from getting things done.

You can only automate something in your personal productivity system that have managed for a while. If you try to automate things that aren’t managed well already, you will probably feel a bit out of control and have a greater sense of overwhelm.

Another thing to remember is that some things should always be done by yourself, like responding to important emails and communicating with others. Automating these things can show your coworkers and colleagues that you don’t care enough to communicate yourself.

When automation is good

On the other hand, automation is a great thing for your personal productivity system when you understand the process of something and can then automatically get the steps done. When you know how to manage something effectively and understand the step-by-step process of a portion of your system, it’s probably a great time to automate it.

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I have several workflows that I have introduced in the last year that takes some of the “mindless” work from me so I can be more creative and not have to worry about the details of something.

On my Mac I use a combination of Automator workflows, TextExpander snippets, and now Keyboard Maestro shortcuts to do things like automatically touch-up photos imported from my iPhone 4S or open all the apps and websites needed for a weekly meeting to the forefront of my desktop by typing a few keys. Once you open yourself up to automating a few of your processes, you start to see other pieces of your system that can benefit from automation.

Once again; none of this works unless you understand your processes and know what tools you can use to get them done automatically.

The three steps to determine if something is “ripe” for automation

If your workflow passes these three steps, then automate away, baby:

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  1. You can do this process in your sleep and it doesn’t require your full, if any form of attention. It can (and has been) managed in some form prior to automating it.
  2. The process is time consuming.
  3. The process doesn’t require “human finesse” (ie. communicating and responding to something personally)

Automating your personal productivity systems can be a great for you in the long run if you are careful and mindful of what you are doing. You first need to understand the processes that you are trying to automate before automating them though. Don’t get stuck in thinking that anything and everything should be automated in your life, because it probably shouldn’t.

Pick and choose these processes wisely and you’ll find the ones that take up most of your time to be the best ones to automate. What have you automated in your personal productivity system?

Featured photo credit: Bram Naus via unsplash.com

More by this author

CM Smith

A technologist and writer who shares advice on personal productivity, creativity and how to use technology to get things done.

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Last Updated on October 22, 2019

How to Focus and Concentrate Better to Boost Productivity

How to Focus and Concentrate Better to Boost Productivity

We live in a world of massive distraction. No matter where you are today, there is always going to be distractions. Your colleagues talking about their latest date, notification messages popping up on your screens, and not just your mobile phone screens. And even if you try to find a quiet place, there will always be someone with a mobile device that is beeping and chirping.

With all these distractions, it is incredibly difficult to concentrate on anything for very long. Something will distract you and that means you will find it very difficult to focus on anything.

So how to focus and concentrate better? How to focus better and produce work that lifts us and takes us closer towards achieving our outcomes?

1. Get Used to Turning off Your Devices

Yes, I know this one is hard for most people. We believe our devices are so vital to our lives that the thought of turning them off makes us feel insecure. The reality is they are not so vital and the world is not going to end within the next thirty minutes.

So turn them off. Your battery will thank you for it. More importantly though is when you are free from your mobile distraction addiction, you will begin to concentrate more on what needs to get done.

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You do not need to do this for very long. You could set a thirty-minute time frame for being completely mobile free. Let’s say you have an important piece of work to complete by lunchtime today. Turn off your mobile device between 10 am and 11 am and see what happens.

If you have never done this before, you will feel very uncomfortable at first. Your brain will be fighting you. It will be telling you all sorts of horror stories such as a meteorite is about to hit earth, or your boss is very angry and is trying to contact you. None of these things is true, but your brain is going to fight you. Prepare yourself for the fight.

Over time, as you do this more frequently, you will soon begin to find your brain fights you less and less. When you do turn on your device after your period of focused work and discover that the world did not end, you have not lost an important customer and all you have are a few email newsletters, a confirmation of an online order you made earlier and a text message from your mum asking you to call about dinner this weekend, you will start to feel more comfortable turning things off.

2. Create a Playlist in Your Favourite Music Streaming App

Many of us listen to music using some form of music streaming service, and it is very easy to create our own playlists of songs. This means we can create playlists for specific purposes.

Many years ago, when I was just starting to drive, there was a trend selling driving compilation tapes and CDs. The songs on these tapes and CDs were uplifting driving music songs. Songs such as C W McCall’s Convoy theme and the Allman Brothers Band’s, Jessica. They were great songs to drive to and helped to keep us awake and focused while we were driving.

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Today, we can create playlists to help us to focus on our work. Choose non-vocal music that has a low tempo. Music from artists such as Ben Böhmer, Ilan Bluestone or Andrew Bayer has the perfect tempo.

Whenever you want to go into deep, focused work, listen to that playlist. What happens is your brain soon associates when you listen to the playlist you created with focused work and it’s time to concentrate on what it is you want to do.

3. Have a Place to Go to When You Need to Concentrate

If you eat, surf online and read at your desk, you will find your desk a very distracting place to do your work. One way to get your brain to understand it is focused work time is, to use the same place each time for just focused work.

This could be a quiet place in your office, or it could be a special coffee shop you use specifically for focused work. Again, what you are doing is associating an environment with focus.

Just as with having a playlist to listen to when you want to concentrate, having a physical place that accomplishes the same thing will also put you in the right frame of mind to be more focused.

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When you do find the right place to do your focused work, then only do focused work there. Never surf, never do any online shopping. Just do your work and then leave. You want to be training your brain to associate focused work with that environment and nothing else.

If you need to make a phone call, respond to an email or message, then go outside and do it. From now on, this place is your special working place and that is all you use it for.

Every morning, I do fifteens minutes of meditation. Each time, I sit down to do my meditation, I use the same music playlist and the same place. As soon as I put my earphones in and sit down in this place, my mind immediately knows it is meditation time and I become relaxed and focused almost immediately. I have trained my brain over a few months to associate a sound and a place with relaxed, thoughtful meditation. It works.

4. Get up and Move

We humans have a limited attention span. How long you can stay focused for depends on your own personal makeup. It can range from between twenty minutes to around two hours. With practice, you can stay focused for longer, but it takes time and it takes a lot of practice.

When you do find yourself being unable to concentrate any longer, get up from where you are and move. Go for a walk, move around and get some air. Do something completely different from what you were doing when you were concentrating.

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If you were writing a report in front of a screen, get away from your screens and look out the window and appreciate the view. Take a walk in the local park, or just walk around your office. You need to give your brain completely different stimuli.

Your brain is like a muscle. There is only so much it can do before it fatigues. If you are doing some focused work in Photoshop and then switch to surfing the internet, you are not giving your brain any rest. You are still using many of the same parts of your brain.

It’s like doing fifty pushups and then immediately trying to do bench presses. Although you are doing a different exercise, you are still exercising your chest. What you need to be doing to build up superior levels of concentrated focus is, in a sense, do fifty pushups and then a session of squats. Now you are exercising your chest and then your legs. Two completely different exercises.

Do the same with your brain. Do focused visual work and then do some form of movement with a different type of work. Focused visual work followed by a discussion with a colleague about another unrelated piece of work, for example.

The Bottom Line

It is not difficult to train your brain to become better at concentrating and focusing, but you do need to exercise deliberate practice. You need to develop the intention to focus and be very strict with yourself.

Set time aside in your calendar and make sure you tell your colleagues that you will be ‘off the grid’ for a couple of hours. With practice and a little time, you will soon find yourself being able to resist temptations and focus better.

More Resources About Boosting Focus and Productivity

Featured photo credit: Wenni Zhou via unsplash.com

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