Category Archives: Layering

My Dirty Little Secret: An Email Box Is Not A To Do List Violation

SecretZenHabits recently published “The Dirty Little Secrets of Productivity Bloggers” about how bloggers and productivity professionals don’t always follow all the rules of productivity. Today I’ll admit it too- I’m not always productive. Frankly, I don’t think it’s a secret- people aren’t perfect and sometimes it’s more fun not to be perfectly productive. Here I’ll point out one way I violate my own rule of keeping an empty inbox, but why it makes me more productive. First lets’ start with the rule:

An Email Box is Not a To Do List

One of the most common reasons people don’t empty their inbox is because they keep it as a to do list. Here are 5 reasons I point out for why an inbox is not a to do list:

  1. Clear To-Do List– If your inbox and your to do list both have to dos then there is a lot of going back and forth trying to figure out what to do.
  2. Have Specific Information on Tasks– It’s hard to know what to do on email message because the subject line isn’t clear (e.g. “fwd: Re> Hi”).
  3. Nothing Gets Lost– Too many messages makes it hard to manage an inbox to do list.
  4. Easy to see new urgent items– With many messages it’s hard to see what’s important.
  5. Clear Head– Everything has a place: to dos go on a list. Inboxes need to be processed.

Keeping an empty inbox helps you know what you need to accomplish.

My violation

I sometimes keep messages in my inbox as a to do list.

My Reasons

I keep messages as my to do list to remind me to reply later that day. I feel that putting it on my to do list may add some extra steps to find it and it may get cluttered with my other responsibilities so I dont get to it the same day.

Now let’s see how my system goes against the five reasons above and may not be a bad violation:

  1. Clear To-Do List- With minimal items in my inbox it isn’t that hard to see what to do and it keeps these important items front and center.
  2. Have Specific Information on Tasks- Being that i read the emails earlier in the day it’s still fresh in my mind what i need to do about them.
  3. Nothing Gets Lost- With minimal messages no dos get lost.
  4. Easy to see new urgent items- With minimal messages it’s easy to spot what’s important.
  5. Clear Head- Everything still has it’s place. Important to dos for today are in my inbox.

As you see my excuse has some logic to it. Perhaps it can be considered an advances hack. As long as I don’t abuse it I’m fine violating this tenet.

What productivity rules do you violate?

photo credit: Duquesa Mercedes

Reading The Sign: Getting Paid To Improve

I was excited with my first post-college job working for a computer consulting company. The work was interesting and challenging and my hourly pay was 4 times what I was making in my college part time job.

One day, I was setting up time tracking software for a partner in a law firm, a distinguished gentleman with a cool accent. There was a cryptic sign that hung over his computer that said “CANI- Constant and Never Ending Improvement“, without any context.

After the installation I showed him how to use the software. As I demonstrated I turned on the timer and explained the basic functionality of the system. Finally after about 5 minutes of discussion i turned off the timer. The software showed us how much money he would earn for a similar transaction. When I saw the amount on the screen I was floored. That 5 minute conversation would earn him as much as I made in an hour- this is after my big increase.

Obviously this was a successful person. With constant improvement it’s no wonder he was making the big bucks. Maybe it’s time for me to paste the phrase on my computer:

CANI- Constant and Never Ending Improvement

The Super Goals- The Missing Ingredients For Your Success

Multicolour PeppersThe difference between a dream and success is whether you pursue your dream.

You’ve no doubt heard you need to set your goal before you achieve it. If you’ve thought about your goals you’ve compiled a long list of all your projects. But it’s likely there’s one project you missed- your life goals(a.k.a. dreams). Dreams are the ultimate that you want to achieve. They are your super goals. Here you are picturing what success looks like for you.

To set goals, you first need to crystallize your dreams. What do you want? What do you want out of life? How do you want to live it? Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? 25 years? These large decisions can have effects down to: How do you know which job offer to accept? Which house should you buy, if any? To the day to day decisions: should I buy this fancy coat?

What’s stopping you from achieving your dreams? For many people it’s simple, they haven’t verbalized their dreams. Without verbalization, dreams can’t happen. One way to put some structure around your dreams is to determine your dreams for each area of your life: career, financial, family, social, community, health etc. When you are verbalizing your dreams- focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. For example, “I want to be fit” is more powerful than “I don’t want to be fat”.

A dream should be something you truly want. Then set your energies to it. Your thoughts, beliefs and actions should be geared toward achieving this goal. You’ll need to believe this dream is possible. You don’t need to know all the details of how it will happen- just know that it will. Logic tells you if you believe something, invest yourself in it and your mind works toward achieving it, you will be more likely to succeed.

Before you commit to a dream ask yourself if it’s really what you want. Picture your life with your dream achieved. You may find that it isn’t quite what you want. Growing up, many of us wanted to be sports/music or film stars. If a genie came and offered to grant you that wish would you still want it? Maybe you wanted the fun that went with being a baseball player but do you really want to play every single day for 10-20 years? Perhaps you may want it, but do you want to keep up that rigorous travel schedule? The pressure of performing every day? How will this correspond with your goal of raising a family? So before you commit to a dream- think it through.

Just verbalizing your dream will get you closer to achieving it. Add your dreams to your goal list so you take steps to make it happen. Layer your dream to break it into reasonable parts. Review your dreams often to ensure you’re still striving to reach it.

May all your dreams come true.

What are your dream?

photo credit: Tracy O

Downtime? What’s That? 7 Ways To Maximize Downtime

Asleep at the Wheel
Web Worker Daily had an interesting post on Using Your Down Time Effectively. I don’t remember the last time I had downtime. Here’s the ways I turn my down time into up time.

1. Documentation and Clean up

Write documentation for your previous project. Write down the steps you took to complete it (if they’re complex) in case you need to redo it. Get rid of old versions of documentation and coding. Get rid of or file the old paperwork.

2. Review your Previous Project

See what went right and wrong. Learn from it. Improve your process or knowledge. This is like an accomplishment review for a project.

3. Improve Processes

Take the opportunity to improve processes. Think about what can be done better. What takes too long? What processes are error prone? Improve it.

4. Keep Learning

Is there a skill that will make you more marketable? more productive? Is there a certification that can make you stand out? There’s always something new to learn: learn more about the tools you use. Learn to type faster. Learn about personal finance.

5. Do Your “Somedays”

Have you ever said to yourself, “I don’t have the time to do this now, but I want to do this someday”? Your someday has arrived. Start planning your downtime in advance- while you’re working. If you come up with an idea put it on your “someday/maybe” list. (This is “Getting Things Done”(GTD) language for a list of things you may get to in the future). During down time review this list. See which projects will help you most and start working on it.

6. Follow up

Check in on your previous completed projects. Make sure that the results are being used correctly. There may be opportunities for improvement. Your “customer” will be impressed by your dedication quality.

7. Start Building a Machine

When you build a machine you take your downtime to a new level (super-up-time?). When you build a machine you create a long term system. For example if you are a web designer and bid for projects frequently, create a “job making machine”. Building a machine will get you more jobs with less effort. Your machine could include a standard introductory letter, sample web sites by category, a list of testimonials, an up to date web site, follow up letters, sample proposals by target market. You get the idea. Put together everything you need to bid on a project so that it takes you little time to place a bid.

Don’t just start this machine randomly. Launch one step at a time (see layering) e.g. start with one follow up letter at a time. This way if you get interrupted (by a new project) you can take advange of your previous successes that you’ve already accomplished. Then at the next down time you know exactly where you left off.

Using these seven techniques you can eliminate downtime and maximize your efforts.

When was the last time you had downtime? What did you do?

photo credit: Aaron Jacobs

8 Steps to a Productive Day

Path to a productive dayThe Getting Things Done Yahoo Group is having an interesting discussion about Control mechanisms.

Without control mechanisms of some type in place, doesn’t that pretty much leave you in the lap of the gods so to speak?

In my response I outlined 8 steps to being productive. I try to instill control, yet give the flexibility to be creative and maximize your day. It all starts with thinking first.


At the end of each day you should plan your next day. This may be an outgrowth of your weekly review- or as it should be called “The Weekly Preview”. Depending on your type of job think this is impossible, but it’s not. For example, if you are in constant crisis mode most of your plan may be thrown out each morning but your plan should be to get the bottom of the crisis so you can move past it.

First you’ll need to determine the most important tasks (MITs) that need to be done the next day. Don’t count daily maintenance tasks like following up and checking email as part of this. If there are 20 things you need to get done then you’re just setting yourself up for failure (unless they aren’t big and you can batch a bunch together and count it as one of your MITs).

Don’t try to fill your full day with MITs- these are just the choices to get you started. Just pick the 1-5 items that you want to get done the next day (keep it 3 or less ideally). Start with items that MUST get done (e.g. deadlines) – that if you don’t do it you’ll need to stay late. Also check your calendar of how much time you’ll have. The more scheduled time you have the less MITs you should plan. Then if you still have open slots, pick tasks that will be best for you for the long term while balancing for project size: smaller projects go first. A better idea is to use layering to cut your most strategic projects into small attainable parts so they don’t get pushed off and are the smaller projects that you end up doing.

At the end of this process you’ll have you a few MITs and a bunch of other tasks. Dont worry these other tasks will still get done.

Here’s how to schedule your productive day:

1. Most Important Tasks

Start with your first MIT first thing when you get in, before you check email or process your other in boxes. Much has been written about the advantages of starting the day early. Getting in early to do a MIT can set your day in the right track. Even if you cant get in early get to your first MIT as soon as possible.

2. Process

When you start processing your in boxes do the quick tasks on the spot. GTD has a two minute rule that in itself can trim items off your to do list before they get there. I would expand this to a 5 minute rule (or even 10) for the following scenarios:

a) Lots of small tasks

Your to do lists are long enough, if you keep having to add 5-10 minute tasks to it and cycle through 5-10 minute tasks every time you want to pick a task you’re just wasting time and energy. Further if you know someone will spend 5 minutes following up on these tasks then it wastes more time. Get it done. Once it’s done it’s no longer on your list and out of your mind. This is part of the reason you didn’t over schedule yourself, so you can properly react to your incoming tasks. If you have a lot of these tasks then you may decide to schedule a MIT for the next day to get rid of the 10 minute tasks.

b) Offensive Opportunities

Sometimes if you take care of a task quickly you can create good will. This can be used with prospects, customers and bosses.

c) Preparation

If you receive information about a task that doesn’t have an immediate deadline don’t just file it away, look at it first. Jot down a quick outline of your thoughts. You may create a few Next Actions right away. Pay special attention to missing information, you’ll want to email people quickly so they have maximum time to do proper research. Seek to get project scope/deadline early on- this will save you lots of rushing at the deadline.

d) Soaking Time

Give yourself time to be creative by figuring what needs to be done and let your mind work in the background. Again an outline helps here. Then let your brain work in the background. You can even schedule a reminder for your self in a few days to jot down a few more notes.

3. Maintenance tasks

These are the small daily tasks you need to do like ticklers/follow ups. Be sure that you go through your follow up list.

4. More MITs

Spend uninterrupted time on your next MIT. Set your environment so you can get in the zone.

5. More Processing/Breaks

Breaks are good for you- just don’t take it to an extreme. Two to five minutes every hour gives you time to rejuvenate. After a break you can switch gears to the next MIT or processing time.

You should schedule processing time at key intervals of your day. Different jobs have different requirements. I would recommend once in the morning, once before and after lunch and one last time before you leave.

6. Context

You can only do certain tasks in certain places. In your Preplanning, you may have scheduled yourself to be in a place to do one of your MITS (e.g. a meeting). Be sure that you think through where you’ll be so you can have a productive time during the transitions e.g. as you wait. Trace your steps through transitions. If you find yourself in your car be sure to have your cell phone or something appropriate to listen to.

7. Seize The Day

After you’re done with your MITs for the day, you pick your next task by gaugin the time available/energy available. If you’re ambitious you can find another MIT, otherwise just slice and dice and get your task list down.

8. Start Planning

Before you leave for the day preplan (see the first section) the next day to get it going on the right foot.

As you see this schedule is rigid but allows flexibility. You may be going along one day doing your tasks and realize that the current task can be ATEd (automated, eliminated or delegated). If you spend some extra time now you’ll receive greater benefits in the future. You can then decide to schedule it for the next day or push off your next MIT to the next day and do the automation on the spot.

I used this flexibility to write this blog post. I started the base of this blog post as a reply to the conversation but as I kept writing I realized it was getting lengthy as there were some concepts I wanted to explain. Some may have quit and said there’s too much to write and not enough time allocated. Instead I took the extra time and it became the foundation for the blog post that I wrote later.

Have a productive day!

Photo credit: Maik Radke

Six Reasons You Should Layer Your Projects

Success on a project, in business or in life can’t be achieved until you start. Layering is an approach that increases your chance for success.

The concept is simple:

  1. Break the project into small parts
  2. Launch
  3. Repeat this process with more layers of complexity

The power of layering is easy to see below.

Show results– Layering allows you to see results from your actions quickly. This will help get more buy in and give you the confidence to succeed.

Benefit from the results– You can begin benefiting from work work quickly. You don’t need to wait for the whole project to be completed.

Learn from success and failures– You can learn from the feedback of your launch and it can help set the direction of further phases of your project.

Helps determine priories– After you launch a layer the next need will become more obvious.

Determines the project’s viability– Once you get your feet wet on the project you may find that the project is more complex that originally thought and it may not be worth it to continue. This helps you cut your losses.

Doesn’t get bogged down in details– The longer a project continues the more likely it will get held up for small details. Layering may allow you to launch without the details fully developed and then you address it in a future launch.

As you can see there are huge benefits to layering. Layering is one of the principles of building your success- you can read more about it, including examples how to use it, at the Layering Page .

The Best Productivity System For You Guaranteed

Everyone has their own way of doing what it takes to be successful. Is your system better than mine? Or is mine better than yours? Maybe David’s way is better than both of ours? The answer to all three of these questions is undoubtedly “Yes”.

For you, your way is better. For me, my way is better etc. Lets face it, we all do things differently. We do things different because we are in different situations. You may have a home office and need to set up barriers not to let work into your home life and I may have be overwhelmed with email and dealing with that burden is my primary goal.

No matter how well we do things our system is not perfect. This is why you’re reading and trying to get tips to improve yourself- to be more productive. I’m here to find common ground to see where we agree (or should agree)- there are certain fundamentals for success.

My goal on this site is to identify the fundamentals (roadmap and tools) to achieving success. Then you can choose how you want to implement it. You already perform many of the fundamentals yourself but we need to organize it so that we dont need to think about what’s next. Identifying a roadmap will give you a way to tackle any project. The tools will help you get there faster.

The key to any project is to start with basic building blocks: Think, Do, Enjoy. In short:

  • Think before you do something.
  • Do- Do it the best way you can.
  • Enjoy it- gives motivation and meaning to what needs to be done

There’s much more to each of those phases, but I’ve only introduced you to the basics, which you can already apply. The key is to start small- you can’t make a radical change overnight. Building your success machine will take time. You need to take on one task at a time execute it well and gradually take on more as you integrate this into your life. This process is called layering: you start with one success and build on it. Now you’ve just added a new tool to your success tool box (I’m sure you always had it but it never had a name). Next time you have a large project you’ll take the time to think first- how can I break this down into smaller parts. How can I get something done? Pretty soon you’ll be a pro at layering and your productivity will soar.

Should you use an outlook/palm combination or is it a gmail/remember the milk combination to track your to dos? That’s up to you. If i take you out of your comfort zone you wont listen to even the best system. The key to getting more productive and successful is taking it one step at a time.

The best system for you is the one that works for you. Look around here, read Getting Things Done, read other blogs take the best ideas and implement them in your life. Then you’re guaranteed to increase your chance for success.

How Layering Helped This Site Launch Quickly and Can Help Your Projects

Completing a large project is difficult. You can go through a phase of requirement gathering, analysis and sign offs and still not anticipate everything that can go wrong. Plus the more time you spend on analysis the more likely the need changes. This is why large projects fail so frequently. The solution is Layering. The concept is simple: break the project into small parts, start small and “launch” frequently. Then add more layers of complexity on it. The advantage of layering is that you can see results quickly and adjust your plan to make your project more successful.

After identifying the desire to start this site I realized it would take months to set up and gather all the required content. That’s a long time. The solution: launch quickly and often. Using the layering technique I did.

1. Identify the Goal
Every project must have a clear goal- if you don’t know where you’re going how do you know when you get there. The goal was to launch a site that conveys the best methodology to achieve success.

2. Start small
I determined the first step is to get a site up, outline the system and start explaining each of the concepts one at a time. If I would have waited to write all the content for all sections to explain the whole system it would have taken a long time. Further, I wouldn’t be getting feedback from my readers along the way on tweaking the content. So this concept will actually make my end product better. I registered the domain and used blogger to get started.

3. Get better
I started adding some more content and filled out categories. But I soon realized that although blogger is good for blogging it’s not good for organizing information. The kind of information information needs a different tool. I evaluated Content Management Systems and decided on Joomla which I had used previously.

4. Tweak it
I tweaked the home page and site organization to make it easier to understand. I’ve added a Get Started page to make it easier to adopt the system. Then I added a game section to house all the fun exercises to teach the system.

5. Keep Layering
I keep adding more blog posts. Then I transform some of the small ideas from a post to the big idea for an article about the principles. I’ve come to a stable stage now, but i know that one day i’ll want to change my look and add logos and branding. But that isn’t important now as I’m building content and a community. So I’ll layer that later.

If you’ve noticed that some items in the blue print and principles aren’t built out yet, now you know why. Come back soon and they will be.

The Easiest Way to Jumpstart Success

Seth Godin, Author/Marketing Guru, writes about Layering. The concept is simple start simple and layer more complexity(better results) on it. This should sound very familiar to Success readers- it corresponds to the “layer” principle. (I’ve standardized on his name.)

Big projects are daunting. Just keep it simple and you’ll succeed.

Start small– identify some quick next actions and get it done. You’ve already succeeded more than most people who are only thinking about it.

Tweak it– Based on feedback tweak your initial outcomes to make it better.

Get better– Keep building on your initial success. What are the most important steps to get to the next goal.

Keep Layering– Identify more wins. What other goals can you achieve quickly?