On Notebooks and Scratchpads

Some organization/productivity tips.

When I’m working in my office, I’m sitting in front of a computer all day. Although I have three different tools for taking notes on my computer while I’m working, I always turn to pen and paper when I need to make a note. And I recently realized that that isn’t a bad thing after all.

Sure, you can use software to jot down notes as you need to, but there’s really no substitute for a notebook or scratchpad. I have both, although I prefer the notebook.

It’s usually a spiral bound notebook, the kind with page perforations so you can cleanly rip off a sheet. I keep it open on my desk to the “current” page, which is the page I last used for jotting down a note. I try hard to start a new page each time I have a series of related notes to jot down, but I don’t always succeed. Sometimes, I simply forget.

Recently, I used up all the pages in my notebook and haven’t replaced it. So I’m using a scratchpad. I make the scratch pads out of the galley pages for my Quicken books. Really. Here’s how it works. I write my Quicken book and submit it electronically as Word files. I get back edited Word files, accept or reject changes, and send them back. Then the book goes to layout. The publisher prints the galley pages and sends them to me. I mark up the pages that have problems and send them back to the publisher. Since there’s no reason to send back pages without problems — after all, why pay to ship more than you have to? — I save them. I bring them to Kwikprint here in Wickenburg and they cut them into 1/4 or 1/2 size sheets and pad them up with about 200 pages per pad with the blank side facing up. Throughout the year, I use the scratch pads in my office and house to jot down notes.

What kinds of things do I jot down? Well, one look at the notebook will reveal all. Here’s my current scratchpad (1/4 page size) by page:

  1. The phone number for the local museum (highly recommended), along with the user ID, password, and domain address for a recently created MySQL file.
  2. A list of the template files I plan to create for my series of articles about creating a WordPress Theme from scratch. (The same list appears in the first article of the series.)
  3. My ScratchpadMeasurements of content, sidebar, and page sizes, in pixels, for the WordPress theme I’m designing from scratch and writing about in the article series (see image).
  4. Another page of the same thing but with a different layout and different measurements.
  5. A list of hexadecimal codes corresponding to the colors I plan to use in the WordPress theme I’m creating.
  6. Dates for the beta and Gold Master releases of a software program I’m not allowed to talk about.
  7. Domain names for a few adventure travel sites I checked out for possible advertising of Flying M Air excursions. (They all suck.) Also the phrases Whirly Girls, instrument rating, and Part 136 jotted down during a conversation with a fellow pilot this afternoon.

What’s not listed here are the pages I don’t need anymore, the ones I’ve torn out and discarded. (Don’t worry; I have a recycle box under my desk.) That’s the beauty of notebooks and scratchpads. You can write down the information you need when you get it and discard the pages when you’re done with them. Or file the pages if you think you’ll need them in the future.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free ProductivityI’ve been trying hard lately to get and stay organized. I have been reading Getting Things Done by David Allen and it’s been helping. Although I think he goes to far — no, I do not need a label maker to properly file or label things — he has a lot of good ideas. And although he recommends blank, unlined paper — like the kind in your copy machine — I prefer lined notebook paper for notes I want to keep. What I like best about the notebooks is that the pages stay bound together until I’m ready to discard or file them. No loose paper scattered all over my desk, waiting for me to do something with it.

So although I still rely on iCal to keep track of appointments and schedule items, I don’t use any computer-based tool for jotting down notes. All notes are in my notebook or scratchpad (or both), where I can note things wherever I am, without having to open a program or document and use a keyboard.

After all, it only takes one hand to write with a pen.

5 Tips for Staying Focused

Some things that work for me.

I’ve been having trouble staying focused on my work these days. It seems that the number of distractions at my desk exceed the number of reasons I should work on my current work-in-progress, Excel 2007: Visual QuickStart Guide.

I’ve come up with a few tips that help me stay focused on a specific project or task. You may have heard some of these elsewhere; I’ve been reading a lot of about productivity tricks lately and have been linking to other articles. But this is my take on these techniques — whatever that’s worth.

  1. Organize your workspace so it has everything you need to work on the project — and just that. If you’re as likely to succumb to distraction as I am, anything handy that’s unrelated to the task at hand will pull you away from it. Ditto if you have to get up and get something that you need that’s not handy, especially if getting up takes you past the fridge, the phone, or any other distraction.
  2. List the steps you need to complete to get the job done. Think the job through before you begin so you know what has to be done. Amend the list as you work. Before starting any task that’s not on the list, ask yourself if it’s really part of the project. If so, add it to the list and do it. If not, don’t be tempted.
  3. If you don’t need an Internet connection to work on your project, turn it off. That’s as easy as turning off your AirPort card (on a Mac), unplugging your Ethernet cable, or turning off/unplugging your router. One tip I read online recently suggested using a light timer to turn off the router for a certain amount of dedicated work time each day. Personally, I like to be more flexible.
  4. Don’t check your e-mail. If you have to keep your Internet connection turned on for your work, don’t run your e-mail application. If you do and it checks e-mail periodically (as most do), you’re very likely to be distracted by an incoming e-mail message. I know I always am. Best to not to run your e-mail application at all.
  5. Don’t run applications you don’t need to get the job done. That includes (especially) Web browsers and other distracting applications. If you’re often tempted with games and are fortunate enough to have more than one computer, delete every single game you have from your work machine so you can’t be tempted to play when you should be working.

Remember, I work alone in an office, so I’m not usually distracted by other people. If you have distractions from others, be sure to check out “18 Ways to Stay Focused at Work” by Dave Cheung. His article includes some tips for keeping co-workers from ruining your productivity.

Tools to Help You Minimize Distractions on your Mac

So you can get things done.

The biggest source of distractions for me these days is my computer itself. There are just so many other things to do with it (blogging, researching stuff on the ‘Net, e-mailing, playing with images, etc.) than the things I should be doing (working on my Excel book, writing articles for Informit.com, taking care of accounting matters, etc).

Evidently, I’m not the only person with this problem. It was covered on MacBreak Weekly, one of the podcasts I’ve been listening to these days. A summary of some of the tools discussed on the program is covered on 43 Folders: “MacBreak: Minimize distractions on your Mac.”

My favorite: Spirited Away to hide inactive windows.

If you’ve got the distraction problem as bad as I do, good luck getting over it.

How to Use E-Mail More Safely and Effectively

“Hacking Email: 99 Email Security and Productivity Tips”

I just stumbled across this article on the Web today. It’s got some really great tips and advice for using e-mail.

From Hacking Email: 99 Email Security and Productivity Tips on ITSecurity.com:

The 99 tips in this article make up the best in email practices. From how to ethically use the “BCC:” to what attachments will make your mobile emailing compatible with everyone else’s, this list covers everything you need to know about emailing.

Highly recommended reading if you use e-mail in your day-to-day communications — and who doesn’t these days?