I get distracted easily. E-mail, instant messaging, the mighty and fraudulent web, you name it. However, recently I've surrounded my workspace with a couple of tools that help me reduce distractions, both explicitly and implicitly.

There are two tools that I've grown particularly fond of, Lightroom and WriteRoom. Accident? I don't think so. Both take a rather simple approach to reduce distractions. They fade everything else out and spread themselves all over the screen with their black UI, leaving nothing but their GUI on the screen. Simple, huh?

The concept of Lightroom is pretty clear. With film photography you went into a darkroom to develop film and prints. With Lightroom you basically do the same on your computer. Besides Lightroom being an excellent tool for post-production I really started to like the approach.

Lightroom

Soon I ran over WriteRoom again, having checked it out a while ago, a simple writing tool that basically does the same. It spreads out all over your screen, and everything that's left is a green, blinking cursor. Just like in the good old days, when your text had to fit on a screen 80x25 characters in size.

WriteRoom

While I don't wish to be back in those days, I enjoy writing in this environment, and I enjoy working with my photos in an environment where I can have my focus solely on them. Both tools are highly recommended. Especially Lightroom, not only for blackening out all other tools if you want it too, but because it’s a top-notch post-processing tool.

Something that I’ve gotten used to are virtual desktops, the simplest way to reduce distractions. Basically I spread my applications over different desktops based on their purpose. Everything involving the usage of the net goes on a separate desktop. Tools like OmniOutliner, OmniFocus, VoodooPad, Pages and the like go on a separate one, and everything involving development on another one. That way I can focus on a specific task, be it office-related work, developing or using the internet. This approach is so common in the Unix-world, where I originally started using it, yet only now will this be an actual feature in Mac OS X 10.5.

The last trick in my box is Desktopple Pro. It serves two purposes. With the press of a button it can hide your desktop. Want to hide all those cluttered documents during a presentation at a client’s? Desktopple is the tool for you. It can also hide unused applications after a certain amount of time. The latter is basically what I use now, since I found a more decent way to deal with desktop clutter: reducing it. My Desktop is basically empty. Just a simple desktop, no icons, no documents.

To start with I adopted Ethan Schoonover's Kinkless Desktop which helped a bit. I'm not the person to put much stuff on the desktop, but basically it always bothered me to have stuff lying around there. So I moved the Inbox, Outbox and Support folders to my Documents directory et voila: an empty desktop. No volumes, no external drives, no DVDs, nothing. Distraction-B-Gone!

For ten years now, I've been rather successful with my own typing style, using mostly my index fingers. I am pretty fast this way, but over the last months this lead to more and more pain in my wrists and my knuckles which can be rather unpleasant, especially when you type for a living. Learning to use all ten fingers for typing has been on my list for quite a while now, so now I finally got over myself and started learning it.

Basically it feels like learning to walk again, or like quitting smoking. It’s like getting rid of a really old habit. And that’s what makes a rather long transition. But it feels quite comfortable, and my girlfriend doesn’t complain about the loud typing noises I used to make.

I’m still in the learning phase, but I can offer some advice that might help you to learn it.

  • Use a tutor. Get some professional help. You don’t have to pay a teacher for this, use a tool instead. It will help you to pick up the finger positions. It can be a tremendous help in the beginning. I’m using CueType, in my opinion the best tool for the Mac. An alternative is GNU Typist for Unix. I’m sure there are also tools for Windows out there.

    Don’t hold on to these tools for too long though, as Morpheus put it, they can only show you the door. They usually put the image of your keyboard right in front of you. But that image needs to be in your head. Usually you don’t have the text you’re writing on the screen, but in your head.

  • Practice. Force yourself to type with all ten fingers. It’s useless to stick to your old habit, when you want to get rid of it. I’d recommend starting on a weekend and use it to get used to the new style of typing. Be warned though, this new habit might interrupt your usual workflow for a while. You’ll be slower than usual, so don’t work on the same schedule you usually do, plan for some more time for slower typing. In the beginning, try to type as much as possible, especially things you’re usually typing at work. A longer blog post, some code, whatever suits you, just type it to get used to it.

  • Don’t look ma, hands! Try not to stare at the keyboard to figure out what you’re fingers are doing. Instead, always try to find the home keys and start again from there. The marks on the keys J and F make this easy, but you’ll have to get used to it. If you feel you’re fingers are lost, reset them on the basic positions and try again. You need to learn to look at the screen and let your fingers do what they do best: Type.

  • Take it easy. Don’t try to enforce anything. For me the switch was really hard. You lose productivity at first, and you know you could just go back to your old style and type faster. This might be frustrating. Don’t force your fingers to type fast right from the beginning, it won’t work. First make it run, then make it fast. If you feel you’re loosing patience, reset your fingers to the home keys and start again, or take your hands off the keyboard for a moment

  • Be ready to fall. You’re gonna produce typing errors, a lot of them. Learn to find the backspace key with your small finger, you’ll need it, a lot. Same is true for the return key. On a German keyboard it’s important to learn to differentiate between the two. Otherwise an instant messaging conversation might become pretty embarrassing.

  • Use a good keyboard. I’m using a three-year old Apple Wireless Keyboard at the moment, and just ordered a new one, since the current one is too hard to type with. The keys shouldn’t give in too easily, this would produce a lot of errors, especially when you’re getting used to letting your fingers rest on the home keys.

Right now, typing with ten fingers doesn’t feel so weird anymore, but the old habits try to take over from time to time. I’m sticking to it though, and the tips above definitely helped me.

Tags: productivity

Our working days (even our spare time and holidays) are filled with distractions. Every social network that we used is fighting for our attention. Plus, emails are always waiting to be replied to, archived or deleted. Push notifications are constantly reminding us to reply to a friend, that one

Together, they've formed the holy trifecta of distractions trying to pull us away from getting work done.

Here are some simple yet incredibly hard suggestions:

  • Disable push notifications on your phone except for the most important services.

    I've come to think of push notifications as push interruptions. They do nothing but distract, they urge you to pick up your phone, to do something. They directly appeal to our need for something new, something exciting.

    I only have push notifications enabled for text messages these days and for our alerting. If there's one thing I want to be made aware of, it's when production is down.

  • Avoid checking email first thing in the morning

    As helpful as email is in communicating, plowing through your morning inbox sucks the bejesus out of your creativity. I found it to be poison for mine, in particular getting started in the morning.

    Rather than continuously have email open, only check it in intervals. If you can't get used to that easily, set a timer, and don't break the timer.

  • Kill Twitter, Facebook, and all the others

    Okay, this is harsh. But I found that Twitter is just as bad for my creativity juice as reading email first thing. There's always a lot going on, which is why we like checking our social network feeds in the first place.

    And that's exactly what they prey on, our time, the little bit of attention we can muster up to focus on something for a short period of time. I love reading what's happening out there, but at the same time, I love getting work done.

These steps sound so simple, yet they're incredibly hard. We get excited by the thought of a new email bringing us good news, by a friend texting us or by someone liking a photo. But does it really add anything so useful that it warrants distracting us from what's really relevant?

I've removed Twitter, Instagram, games, even email from my phone. It's quite deliberating. It does turn an iPhone into a rather expensive two-factor authentication device, but it removes a lot of pointless distractions.

Banksy says it best:

No more vibrating phone when an email comes in, when someone sends me a direct message or likes a photo.

All that can wait. My focus can't.

Tags: productivity

I've been trying to implement daily habits over the past couple of months. Writing, push-ups, taking a walk, writing a diary. Those are my key habits that I want to practice every day.

Initially, I committed myself to writing before noon, while never checking my email until later in the day as well. As my days started getting slightly more chaotic, I lost track of writing, and it'd slip.

The further into the day my writing would slip, the more stressed out I would be about it. At the same time, all the impressions I collected during the day would cloud my head, keeping it busy thinking about other things rather than focus on writing, or focus on anything.

This is only natural. As colleagues wake up, as work and communication in the team and with customers progresses throughout the day, lots of topics are touched, making you think about other things than what you wanted to write about.

I've been trying the Pomodoro technique a while ago. It definitely helped me focus on writing, when I was working on the Riak Handbook. I found it not so helpful for my every day work in a team though, as work seemed to bubble up more than I could plan for it.

But what I figured out does help is to timebox some of your routine tasks. Daily habits can be fostered by setting a schedule. I already started doing that by setting my email processing schedule to be no sooner than noon.

Why not apply the same to writing, reading and push-ups, those things I want to do every day?

My day now starts with reading, I even get up slightly earlier for it. I get the push-ups out of the way before breakfast, and I focus on getting my writing done before 10:00. Boom, that's already half of my daily todo list done. On top of that, the day started with a quiet moment with just a book and a cup of coffee.

In the evening, I close my laptop no later than 20:00, so I have time for myself, and for my family. My goal is to go earlier than that.

Setting daily schedules for those routines, whether they're things you really want to do or they're things that you have to do, helps reduce the impact of them. You can focus on getting them out of the way without getting too stressed out about them.

Tags: productivity

I’m a big fan of Kinkless GTD, or better yet, I was a big fan. Recently I got my invitation for the alpha program for the newest kid on the GTD tools block, OmniFocus, and now I don’t look back anymore.

After the last release of Kinkless, about a year ago, things got awfully quiet. I used Kinkless, because it integrated nicely with one of my favourite tools on the Mac, OmniOutliner, and because it was the best GTD implementation back then.

I’ve been using the OmniFocus Alpha version for almost four weeks now, and I’m quite happy I didn’t switch to another tool beforehand. Basically it’s the perfect combination of OmniOutliner’s advantages and the slickness of Kinkless, but without the explicit synchronisation. Kinkless consists of a couple of AppleScripts and basically needs to be run every now and then to fully work. That can get rather annoying, and when looking back, it took some of the easiness out of GTD.

OmniFocus to the rescue. Now everything happens when you tick off a task, create a new one, change dates, and so on.

The workflow is pretty simple. You have several ways to get new things into the system, into your inbox. There’s a QuickSilver action, a separate dialog to enter new tasks and the application itself. Creating, editing, navigating and solving tasks is done in the familiar style of OmniOutliner. It’s inheritance is recognisable in several places. And that’s the goodie about OmniFocus. If you already use OmniOutliner, you’ll find your way around immediately.

It’s a neat and simple tool, and that’s what I like about it, especially compared to feature-bloated tools like iGTD. The latter is an amazing piece of work, but I’m missing the focus on just the tasks which OmniFocus is built on. When it comes out, I’ll be one of their first customers for sure.

It’s finally easy to complete projects without them lurking around any longer, task disappear as soon as you completed them, you can filter your tasks, have folders, sub-projects, parallel-running tasks, and much more. I haven’t tried every aspect of OmniFocus, but the first impression is a very good and promising one.

Though it’s still labelled as an alpha, it works pretty well. It hasn’t crashed on me yet. Even if it would have, the crashes would be fixed pretty fast, I reckon, considering the number of builds that are available. The team cranks out four to five new builds every day, fixing bugs and adding new features. Of course, there are some issues on my personal list, but I’ll rather drop them an email than posting them here.

If you don't know what OmniFocus is about, Ethan Schoonover created an introduction movie about it.

Tags: productivity

I have nothing to add. Great to have one distraction less for a while.

Picture 1

Tags: productivity

A while ago I picked up Merlin Mann's (of 43 Folders fame) Inbox Zero philosophy and since, have been recommending it to friends. It's a great way to deal with your daily load of email, still one of the biggest distractions in the digital life.

It's just very fulfilling to see your mail inbox actually empty. If you like GTD then even more so, since you get that same warm and fuzzy feeling when you're done processing your inbox items.

Inbox at zero

Merlin held a presentation on the subject at Google and you can find the slides together with the speech over at 43 Folders

I know some people who keep all their mail in their inbox and are comfortable with that. Others just collect mail and some day get the fear of not being able to keep up with it. There are several options here. If it's not too much, sit down and take some time to process all of it. Get it out of your system. The other and even more drastic option: email bankruptcy which basically means to wipe everything from your inbox and start over with an empty one. Apparently it has worked for several people.

To get to inbox zero on a daily basis, you basically take time out of your day, say twice, to process every new mail. For me that workflow looks like this:

  • Read it
  • Does it need an action? If so, I reply if necessary, or file a task into my OmniFocus inbox. Then I file the mail using MailTags and Mail Act-On. Both great tools.
  • Doesn't need an action? Then file it or delete it.

It's so simple and it doesn't even take too long. Just spending ten minutes will mostly do. The result? The fulfilling feeling of having an empty inbox of course. The knowledge of having to care about those mails anymore. Until the next ones come in, that is.

Tags: productivity

I had the honor of speaking at JAOO, sorry GOTO, this year. Being part of so many great speakers, like James Gosling, Rich Hickey, Martin Fowler, Tim Bray, Michael Nygard, and Dan Ingalls (maker of several Smalltalk versions), made me feel nothing but humble, but not in a bad way. I talked about CouchDB, and if you care for it, check out my slides. This is my take away from the conference.

Be Humble

My point here is not to make myself look like someone who's unimportant, though I'm not important either. I'm humble, that's all. At the speaker dinner on Wednesday night I sat at a table with John Allspaw (Flickr/Etsy), Tom Preston-Werner (GitHub), Andy Gross (Basho), and Mike Malone (SimpleGeo). I knew some of these guys before, and talked in one way or the other, but this time was different. First of all, they're an incredibly smart bunch. Smarter than I'll probably ever be. Which is not a bad thing, because if anything it's a motivation to constantly improve myself, to never stop learning.

They shared stories from all the places they've worked, not gossip stories, but more stories on problems they solved and how they solved them. That just fascinated me. I could've sat there for hours, just listening to stories from how they did and do operations, how they handled certain problems, and all that at a scale that's usually way out of my league. I'm usually not a quiet person, but it's times like these where I can just sit and listen.

The problem I realized at some point though was, that in Germany, this culture of sharing simply doesn't exist. People don't talk much about operations, how they solve specific problems, the really interesting stuff. People talk about tools, languages, Amazon Web Services, all that stuff, but not how they go about to solve real life problems, at any scale. It's sort of sad, and I'm trying to come up with ideas on how to change that. Maybe it even happens, but outside of my usual circles. Other people from around here agree with me though, so I guess I'm not the only one thinking this way.

Because I just felt lucky being able to hear what they had to say. I love hearing these stories. There's a lot to gain from them, sometimes even more than just reading books (which you should still do of course). In a group I much prefer being the humblest in the band, and to just listen, obverse and learn. I love getting new ideas, new motivation and energy out of them. The motivation, together with a very specific track, lead to another realization.

Get Shit Done!

Every day there was one track at JAOO dealing with Scrum, Agile, Kanban, Devops, Lean, Continuous Something, you name it. I have a rather specific opinion on these topics, which I won't go into right here. I just find the amount of talk on the subjects ridiculous.

Which brings me right to the subject. Instead of talking about agile processes, or whatever kind of process, just get shit done. The secret to being a great coder, operations guy, or even writer is not to talk about becoming one, it's to just start writing. Or, as Tom Preston-Werner put it: Innovate, Execute, Iterate.

Talking about process won't get you anywhere. Pick what works for you and move on. If it doesn't work, reconsider specifically what doesn't, and improve. Don't blame the process. If shit doesn't get done, you have only yourself to blame. This realization is not exactly new, but it blows my mind how much time people spend talking about getting things done, instead of actually doing them. So here's the only tip I'll give you: get shit done. Working in a startup, which I just so happen to do, this is the only thing that matters.

My personal take-away from JAOO/GOTO, even though it's not even directly related to the conference itself but the stuff I experienced around it: Be humble, and get shit done.