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The tools and knowledge for productivity. Les outils et connaissances pour la productivité.

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Psychological productivity tactic: turn on your household machines or robots to motivate yourself to get started on your own tasks

Marc

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The next time you’re at home and need some motivation to start working on whatever tasks you have ahead of you, try this trick: begin by turning on a household machine / robot and then start working on your tasks. Knowing and witnessing household chores getting done in your home might just provide you with the boost you need to get a good productive streak started.

How this works

There are three concepts at work here. The first is that the action of starting various household robots gives you an easily accomplished task to begin with (e.g., Item #1 on to-do list: load and start dishwasher), which then gives you momentum to keep going and move onto the next item on your to-do list. Second, being aware of these various robots performing their work and hearing the background noise they generate provides an ongoing motivating effect: you feel like there’s a team getting things done, that there’s some sort of productive energy at work in the house (which is technically true: both robots and biological creatures expend energy to perform their tasks). Just after I start the washing machine or dishwasher and then sit down at my desk, I often find myself thinking “with these machines already at work, I will have accomplished so much more in an hour from now,” and my robot won’t stop until its task is complete and neither will I.” Third, there is the added bonus that some of these robots, such as the washing machine, need you to tend to them after a certain time, so you end up needing to take one or several short breaks throughout your day. A new work-break cycle can then start once you set another robot to work, such as the dryer.

This is a tactic I first heard about a while back on an episode of the Cortex podcast (I forgot which episode; hopefully someone remembers and they can send me a quick message so I can directly link to it here). I’ve also seen other people mention this tactic on various websites (such as the r/productivity subreddit), so I know I’m not the only person who has found it useful. It’s a bit of a bizarre trick, in that it seems mostly effective if you are able to somewhat anthropomorphize the robots in your house. Thankfully, this will only get easier for us all, as robotics and AI companies are pouring serious resources into making their products seem more and more human.

 

Here’s a short list of some robots / machines who can work alongside you while you’re at home

These first few machines / robots are the most common. They typically require you to turn them on but they then need you to tend to them after they’ve completed a cycle of work.

  • Dishwasher

  • Washing machine

  • Clothes dryer

  • Oven

  • Slow cooker

  • A microwave cleaner (the microwave is the robot doing the actual work here)

These next few machines are usually autonomous. In order to obtain the benefits of the tactic proposed in this article, you would want to program them to go to work while you’re also at home.

There are also newer robots which are semi-autonomous: you will need you to place them in their area of work and it’s probably a good idea not to get too far for safety reasons or in case they get stuck. These are excellent robots to get the productivity boost we’re looking for, if you have a task you can complete while you remain nearby (such as work to complete on your laptop or another household chore which can be accomplished nearby).

Finally, there are also automated tasks you can have running on your technology devices (desktop computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles, etc.). Though these processes are unlikely to produce any background noise unless they’re equipped with spinning hard drive disks or have particularly loud fans, you’ll still know that your devices are hard at work alongside you. If you plan on getting work done on a device (such as a laptop), it’s probably not a great idea to run any of these processes at the same time – as they can slow your device down and distract you – but you can recruit the other devices in your home into your team of robotic workmates.

  • Install or download new software, media, updates, games, etc.

  • Create file backups (cloud, disc, USB drive, portable hard-drive, another device)

  • Run a virus scan

  • Defrag and optimize your drive(s)

Manage a super busy day with a Post-It® notes game plan

Marc

You have some time and energy to get things done today. However, you feel stressed when you think about all the things you need to do or you consult your mile-long to-do list or your to-do app. What you need to do on a day like this is manage your stress and get organized. You need a short, simple game plan that you can look at throughout the day to stay on top of things without getting distracted or discouraged by your to-do list or your time management app.

I would like to share a useful tool for such situations: the sticky note game plan.

Items needed:  
- A writing instrument (a pen, pencil or marker)
- One highlighter
- Post-It ® notes (sticky notes)

1 - items.jpg

Though not necessary, you can make your system more precise by using different pen or highlighter colors or sticky notes of different sizes and colors. You could, for example, use differently colored markers or sticky notes to assign tasks or steps to individual family members.

You’ll want to select a wall or large flat surface somewhere that is visible in your house. This is where you will place all of your sticky notes and create your game plan for the day.

Why use sticky notes?

  • They allow you to freely organize and re-organize your list.

  • You can transfer uncompleted tasks or steps to another day or another list.

  • You can temporarily stick them up on the wall or a flat surface in your house so that they’re extremely visible while you’re going through your tasks.

  • Alternatively, you can be more discreet and place them on a paper or plastic sheet.

  • You can re-use sticky notes as portable reminders or lists (for example, you can write a small grocery list and simply grab the note and bring it with you to the store).

So how does this tool work? There are essentially 5 phases. I will explain each phase and use an example to demonstrate how it all works.

Phase 1. Write the 3-5 most important tasks you need to accomplish today
Think about tasks that have upcoming deadlines or which you have decided are important to you. Write each of them on a separate sticky note.

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Let’s list the important tasks in a fictional weekend day in my life as an example:
- Pay bills
- Clean the house
- Prepare dinner (my brother and his spouse are coming over for supper tonight)
- Exercise

Use your highlighter to make these tasks stand out; it will be important to differentiate them from their sub-tasks, which I call steps.

Phase 2. Write out the steps for each task
Sub-divide each task into its component steps. Ideally, you want to aim for 3-5 steps for each task, though there is room for a lot of flexibility here. Write each step on its own sticky note.  

EN - Phase 2.jpg

Pay bills
- electricity bill
- condo fees
- credit card payment

Clean house
- clean dishes and kitchen counter
- clean floors
- clean washroom
- dust entire 1st and 2nd floors
- clean windows

Prepare dinner (Caesar salad with chicken strips and strawberry rhubarb pie)
- go to grocery store to buy missing items (croutons, chicken)
- cut chicken into strips
- bake chicken strips
- wash and cut vegetables for salad
- mix ingredients for salad dressing
- assemble ingredients into salad
- make pie crust
- cut strawberries and rhubarb
- bake pie

Exercise
- prepare for run (clothes, shoes, sunglasses, phone, headphone, sunscreen, etc.)
- go for 10k run
- take a shower and get dressed

Phase 3. Add/remove
The purpose of this stage is to evaluate the feasibility of your plan for the day. You may realize that it is not realistic to complete all of the tasks and steps you wanted to today, or (this is rare) that you can fit in more tasks or steps for today.

In my example, I have realized that I likely won’t have the time to complete all of the steps I’ve outlined for the day so I think about what is really important for me to accomplish today. I realize that I can’t skip or delay any bill payments and that I won’t cut back on my run because I’ve made an important commitment to myself to get into better shape. However, I see some flexibility in some of the steps for cooking and cleaning I want to accomplish before the visit we’re receiving tonight arrive at our home. I realize that the windows are relatively clean so I decide to remove it from today’s list.  I also realize that it isn’t imperative that I make the salad dressing myself or that I cook a dessert from scratch, so I decide to buy both of those instead, which will save me a considerable amount of time.

Pay bills
- electricity bill
- condo fees
- credit card payment

Clean house
- clean dishes and kitchen counter
- clean floor
- clean washroom
- dust entire 1st and 2nd floors
- clean windows

Prepare dinner
- go to grocery store (croutons, chicken, + salad dressing, + strawberry rhubarb pie)
- cut chicken into strips
- bake chicken strips
- wash and cut vegetables for salad
- mix ingredients for salad dressing
- assemble ingredients into salad
- make pie crust
- cut strawberries and rhubarb
- bake pie

Exercise
- prepare for run
- go for 10k run
- take a shower and get dressed

Phase 4. Organize sequentially
At this phase, we want to re-organize each task and step in a logical, sequential order for the day. Consider important deadlines and when things should logically be completed for maximum efficiency.

In my example, I have realized that, as some of my bills are due soon and I don’t want to pay any penalties or pay interest, I should keep paying my bills as the first task of my day. I also reorganized the bills in order of their deadlines. I will then go for my run, as I could stop by the nearby grocery store on my way back and walk the rest of the way home with the required items I need to get for supper (bonus: I can bring the sticky note for that task with me as my shopping list). I also realize that I should prepare for supper before I take care of cleaning the house, that way I won’t have to clean the kitchen twice and I can also get some cleaning done while the chicken is in the oven. Finally, I also re-organized the steps for my cleaning task so that they’re done from “top to bottom”: it makes sense to follow gravity and go from ceiling to floor while cleaning, in order not to have to repeat any steps and maximize how clean everything will look when you’re done.

EN - Phase 4.jpg

Pay bills
- credit card payment
- electricity bill
- condo fees

Exercise
- prepare for run
- go for 10k run
- take a shower and get dressed

Prepare dinner
- go to grocery store (croutons, chicken, salad dressing, strawberry rhubarb pie)
- cut chicken into strips
- wash and cut vegetables for salad
- bake chicken strips
- bake pie
- assemble ingredients into salad

Clean house
- dust entire 1st and 2nd floors
- clean dishes and kitchen counter
- clean washroom
- clean floor

 

Phase 5. Final lineup and go
Now is the time to execute each step. Line up your steps from left to right and top to bottom, as though you were reading text; this is the sequential order in which you will complete each step today. Any steps that can be done at the same time or during the same trip can be placed on top of the other.  The task sticky notes are moved out of the way and kept on top as reminders of the overall objectives for the day. As you’re working your way through the list of steps, either cross out or peel off the sticky notes. Both options will leave you feeling satisfied.

Don’t be afraid to make some adjustments out of sequence. In my example, once I started putting together the final lineup, I realized that it made more sense to bake the pie before the chicken because the I could start both at the same time but only introduce the chicken at a later moment in the oven.

En - Phase 5.jpg

Once all your steps have been completed, update your to-do list or your time management app.

Our wooden donation crate

Marc

Have you ever decided to donate an unwanted item only to forget about it entirely until you found it again months later sill taking up space in a corner somewhere in your house? Have you ever started to fill up a cardboard box with stuff to donate, only to find yourself taking things in and out of the box a few weeks later, unsure of which items you finally decided to keep, donate or throw away? Has your partner or roommate ever accidentally given away an object of yours, stating that they thought you had recently made passing comment about wanting to get rid of it? 

If so, I have a simple solution: modify a wooden crate to make it into a permanent donation bin.  

There’s a bright orange wooden crate which has lived in a dedicated space at the bottom of one of our closets for the last two years. This is our donation box. We call it the “orange crate”. It has one sole purpose: everything that goes in it is donated. No exceptions. My partner and I are never unsure about the fate of items which end up in the orange crate: items that are placed in it will eventually be donated (usually at the local thrift store).

Why use a wooden crate?
I selected a wooden crate as the box because those are relatively cheap, they have sturdy handles, they’re able to hold heavy items, liquids won’t damage them (contrary to cardboard boxes), they hold no smells, items at the bottom of the box can be seen through the wooden slits, and theses cases can last for multiple generations since you can easily repair them.

Why paint it orange?
I spray painted the wooden crate a bright orange so that there will never be any ambiguity with other crates or boxes in our house; it is clear that this crate is not a storage container which can be used for moving or storing various items. I never have to worry about whether or not my partner forgot about what will happen to stuff that is placed in the only bright orange wooden crate that we own.


How did you make it?

Step 1:  Choose a crate
First, select your crate size and type. We went with a basic pine crate that measures 18” x 12.5” X 9.5” but there are crates made of different woods and of different sizes. Find what works best for you.

Step 2:  Sanding
Then, you’ll want to sand it to get rid of rough surfaces and get the handles nice and smooth for splinter free transportation.

Step 3: Painting
When you’re ready to paint, get some cardboard boxes or plastic sheets to cover the floor and one or two sides of where you decide to work and get spraying. Follow the distance and spray patters as directed on the can.  Ideally you should paint outside or in a well-ventilated space. I ended up needing two cans of oil aerosol paint to get a nice even coat on every surface of the crate, inside and out.  Let the crate dry for approximately 72 hours to make sure the paint doesn’t transfer onto other surfaces or objects. I decided not to prime or seal the crate because I wanted to keep costs down on this project. I wouldn’t add any of those steps if I had to make another one; it has held up perfectly so far.

Step 4. Furniture glides
Once everything is dry, stick some plastic furniture glides beneath each corner of the crate so that it can easily be moved around on the floor or in your car trunk, and to help protect it from rough surfaces (such as pavement). 

furniture glides.jpg

A few extra features
So, our orange crate functions according to a basic rule which never changes:  items placed in it are to be donated. However, over time, a few extra features have been added.  

First, there’s a binder clip which holds rebate cards for our local thrift store. It always stays clipped to one of the walls of the crate. Whenever we go there to empty out the crate, a staff member punches one or several holes in the card. Once the card is full, it can be applied to purchases during a future visit to their store. What we do is fill up those cards each time we go to empty our orange crate and then we donate the cards to a local non-profit which provides free furniture and clothing to those in need. Staff or volunteers at the non-profit can then use them themselves to purchase items for clients or pass the cards on to their clients. It’s best to keep the rebate cards with the box so that the cards can be punched when we go to the thrift store, aren’t lost, forgotten at home before leaving with the crate or accidentally placed in my partner’s wallet, etc.

Second, I also keep a stack of orange stickers with the binder clip so that we can identify larger items for donation that don’t fit in the crate. The larger items are usually kept near the crate so that they’re brought along when one of us makes a trip to the thrift store. I’m using some old post-it stickers for now but I’ll eventually get some large orange stickers that don’t need additional tape to hold well.

Finally, I have a monthly recurring task on my to-do app to drop off the orange crate at the nearby thrift store. This helps ensure that the box doesn’t overflow and that items which might happen to be near the filled-up crate aren’t accidentally picked up and donated when we take the crate to go empty it at the thrift store.    

items.jpg

My triple alarm clock system for a more regular sleep schedule

Marc

Photo by  chuttersnap  on  Unsplash .

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash.

I’m kicking off this blog with one of the most beneficial changes I made to my own personal routine over the last few years. It’s a potential solution for those struggling to maintain a healthy sleep schedule: use alarms to start and to end your day. In fact, I have personally found that the optimal system is to use not two but three alarms each day: one to wake up the morning, one to start winding down in the evening and another one to go to bed.

Here’s how my current system works:

To start, it’s important to note that, at the moment, I work a typical Monday to Friday job and that I like to get up early and work on side projects before my shift begins at work. I also typically need between 6.5 and 7.5 hours of sleep each night. You’ll want to adjust the times for all three alarms around your own schedule and your sleeping needs.

Morning alarm – 5:30 a.m. from Monday to Friday, 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, 6:30 a.m. on Sunday.
Getting up so early during the weekdays used to be very difficult for me, even with the use of my evening alarms, until I started looking into a solution to prevent me from snoozing so easily. I ended up settling on the free Early Bird Alarm app for android (another alarm app which I recommend is the very popular Alarmy). Early Bird has many useful features but the one that works for me is its QR code function. Once the alarm rings you can quickly tap a button so that it goes silent but you then only have a few seconds until it goes off again (mine is set to remain silent for 15 seconds but you can adjust the silence length or disable it entirely). In order to shut off the alarm for good, I need to get up and go scan a QR code that I printed and taped to the back of the cabinet door in my washroom. By the time I have walked to the washroom and turned the lights on, I’m wide awake. I allow myself to sleep in a bit on Saturdays and Sundays, but no later than 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays and 6:30 a.m. on Sundays so that I struggle less with the 5:30 a.m. alarm come Monday morning. I also printed off a small business card sized QR code that I keep in my wallet; when I’m travelling for work or visiting friends or family, I place it at the other end of the room in order to replicate my system.

Evening alarm – 9:30 p.m. every night
This is the first of two alarms that goes off on my phone every night. Its function is to remind me to start winding down for the day, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, so that I’m physically and mentally more relaxed and more likely to feel sleepy by the time my bedtime alarm goes off. The rule I have for the Evening alarm is that, once it goes off, I can’t continue doing anything that is physically or mentally stimulating or that requires active participation: no sports, no video games, no board games, etc. Instead of doing something stimulating, once this alarm goes off, I’m typically reading a book or browsing Reddit on my phone. Of course, I don’t always follow this rule (going out with friends or watching a movie at the theater are typical examples) but the fact that I follow this routine on most days reduces my desire (or ability) to want to stay up at extremely late hours when I’m out doing something social or watching a late-night movie. An important note: you have to remember to turn this alarm off when you go the movies, as many alarm apps disregard your volume settings and even airplane mode.

Bedtime alarm – 10:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
When this alarm goes off, I have to stop whatever I’m doing, go brush my teeth and then go to bed. Once in bed, I let myself read a book or an article on my phone and then I’m usually sleeping at the latest by 11:00 p.m. I allow myself to stay up a bit later on Fridays and Saturdays but never later than 11:30 p.m., unless it’s an exceptional social event (New Years, a wedding, etc.).

Finally, here are a few other things that have helped me develop a healthier sleeping schedule: playing white noise on a loop through some speakers in the bedroom (I suffer from tinnitus), splurging for a really comfortable pillow (such as the Coop Home Goods - Eden Memory Foam Pillow) and using melatonin supplements (Jamieson 3mg Fast Dissolving Tablets work wonders for me)