Review of new productivity tools

Momentum is a shiny new minimalist habit tracking app for OS X that can sync with your phone (and watch).  Tracking more than three habits needs you to purchase the upgrade (which I will consider as the year progresses.)  For now, I am tracking three, work-related habits viz., do I meet the boss every day (to improve my work visibility), my daily reading of one article (and making notes), and whether there was any “Deep Work” done today.  It sits discreetly in the bar on top and can be configured to skip certain days and give reminders.

The second app, is Timey which provides a stopwatch that sits in the menu bar.  This is to track the amount of time spent on deep work with the idea being to see how much I get by the end of the year.  The good: a single click or a keyboard shortcut to start and stop.  The bad: right click resets the stopwatch (most menubar apps reserve the right click for the dropdown menu). So I need to remember not to right click or I lose the nice big number I’ve accumulated.  There is an ugly icon on the side that serves as a drop-down menu and doesn’t fade on the secondary monitor like the rest of the menubar.



Adding Evernote into the mix

I’ve written before about my tracking setup and HabitRPG.  Now I’m adding Evernote to the mix!

In the last few months, my use of HabitRPG has become fixed.  There have been quite a few improvements — including moving the annoying rewards to the bottom and a dedicated iOS app release.  This has meant the retirement of my calendar tracking system completely.  Although I regret not having the extra information that the calendar setup provides, the stat-taking doesn’t don’t suffer when I am travelling.

It’s been a while that I knew that my Things setup was not ideal for tracking research projects due to the lack of clear cut “next actions”.  Moreover, documenting every day’s progress seems a more useful tool to stay on track than the next actions.  So I have, in spite of David Allen’s assertion that there is no difference between “work” and “life”, decided to move all my research-related projects to Evernote.   All my “work errands” still remain in Things — tasks like submitting forms, emailing people, registering for conferences etc.  But the actual research projects are no longer there.  This also removes quite a lot of clutter from the next actions and I suspect will actually improve the usability of Things.

The only wish I have now is the ability to export the Things next actions list into HabitRPG’s tasks so I can get points for completing tasks.  That would be fantabulous!

So here is the current setup:

Main task manager: Things
Research manager: Evernote
Daily tasks/habits: HabitRPG

Deletions: I’ve gotten rid of the physical calendar and the post-it notes.

Reviews: Daily posts reg. research progess + weekly review and research summary post  + bi-weekly family review.

From “The Willpower Instinct”

In the quest for self-control, the usual weapons we wield against ourselves — guilt, stress and shame — don’t work.  People who have the greatest self-control aren’t waging self-war.  They have learned to accept and integrate [their] competing [inner] selves.

From “The Willpower Instinct”, Kelly McGonigal

Turning life into a game with HabitRPG

The last two weeks I’ve shifted my tracking system to HabitRPG.  Tracking on a wall calendar had two main defects for me: (1) Lack of visible automatic penalty for missing something I want to do on a day, and (2) Inability to use it while travelling (which is on average once a month).  Moreover, I had to wait till I came home in the evening till I checked something off.  Having an iPhone app means I can stay on top if it anytime.

The program asks the user to fill in three kinds of things to do — Dailies, Habits (both good or bad) and Tasks (which are one-time to-dos).  You earn gold and experience for completing something and level up once you’ve accumulated enough experience points.  The gold can be used either to buy stuff in the game for your character (like armour, pets etc.) or you can choose your own custom real-world rewards.

I find myself surprisingly averse to losing health points (which happens if you miss a daily or indulge a bad habit).  And wanting to perform an extra task just because I’m about to level up.  At the end of the day when I realise I haven’t done any German practice, I would have ordinarily said “screw it, it’s too late now”.  But now I know if I can just open Duolingo and work through two sections, I can tick it off.

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The thing I’m not too fond of the the RP (Role Playing) part.  I don’t care very much for the social aspects of it nor the  armour, dungeons, quests etc.  I can ignore it for the most part except there’s no way to turn off the in-game rewards.  The second thing I have trouble with is the “Tasks” list.  Since I already have a very functional GTD system in place, the single-list nature of Tasks is no longer viable.  But I would still like to think that ticking off a next item should count for something.  So currently the setup is that I put all the items I’ve been procrastinating on in the HabitRPG Tasks to give me some extra motivation to tick it off.

My current dailies include getting to office on time, meditation, german practice and some other daily hygiene-related errands.  Points are docked if I’m late, if I watch too much TV in the morning, miss going to the gym etc.  There are also nice ways to track the number of pomodoros spent doing deep work, coding or writing.

Keeping Track

The only way to complete any project is to return to it over and over again, doing the next task till it is complete.  The more projects you have, the more difficult this gets as one project distracts from the other.  This has no doubt lead to the sale of multi-million copies of books on time-management, prioritising and productivity in general.  As life becomes more and more complicated, it becomes more and more important the underlying systems work reliably, without needing constant tweaking.

This year is an experiment in deliberate living, which to me means observing how I ordinarily do things and tracking the changes that happen as I implement new ideas. This post outlines the systems I have in place for doing just that.

The first part is just daily habits for sanity — exercise, mediation, cooking etc.  Things that I tend to avoid as each individual instance is “not that important”, but continued neglect of which results in fatigue and depression.  For these, I feel that getting out my smartphone or computer to fill in a form or spreadsheet is overkill.  The simple solution which I implemented yesterday is to use a family calendar with each column representing one habit.  This hangs in my kitchen and takes only a few seconds to fill.  It also allows more detail — what kind of exercise? how many minutes of meditation? what did you cook?


The second part takes care of the overwhelming majority of projects of my life and this is the most stable part of my system.  I’ve been following David Allen’s GTD system (Getting Things Done) since 2008. In the last three years, I’ve converged to using the list manager Things.

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Finally, as had been noted elsewhere, the “Next physically actionable item” concept that drives GTD often falls flat when dealing with academic projects.  Usually, the physical action is always the same — to sit at the computer and open your editor. The “next item” is a multi-day project and there is no meaningful way to break it down into smaller components.  After a gruelling and satisfying day, you may still have no visible progress to tick something off your to-do list.

So although I use GTD’s capture system to capture new ideas that come along and to keep track of upcoming travel, conferences, job and fellowship applications, and general work errands, I find that when it comes to keeping track of research, what works best is a post-it note.  At the top of each note is the project’s name followed by the current task, the date you started that task and a few words describing the partially complete status.  The date reminds you the last time you worked on the project, so you can schedule some time to work on it if you’ve neglected it for too long.  These status messages will be moved to a log once I start on the next step .

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All in all, these three parts go a long way in keeping me productive and healthy.