Too Much to Do and What to Do About It

03/16/2013 04:38 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2013

I'm not complaining but I am seriously not going to do all the stuff I want to get done before I die. (Which I have calculated to be the year 2049 based on this quiz and my current lifestyle.)

With only 36 years left I need some help as I have some huge tasks left undone: I have thousands of "starred" emails in my inbox. I have hundreds of items in my to-do list. I have dozens of lists of books to read, movies to see, blog posts to write, and software programs to code.

So naturally, as a technologist, I turn to technology to help me out. Modern technology, like iPhone apps and integrated development environments, are awesome, but not enough. Just blindly dropping tasks into to-do lists, flagging emails for later, and loading up my Chrome browser with productivity enhancing plug-ins is fun but can actually make it harder for me to get better at what I do. I try out new task management apps like Lady Gaga tries out new hair colors. (We are both experimentalists!)

The answer of course is to have a method behind the madness of the tools.

I have toyed seriously with the major personal productivity and time management systems out there including Seven Habits, Getting Things Done, Inbox Zero, and Pomodoro. Generally the results go like this: More time getting organized that living organized. If there is one thing I keep having to relearn it's that getting organized is an addictive productivity sink. It feels good but takes up a lot of time. Remember, I only have 36 years remaining and I don't want to spend 50 percent of that time setting up folders and moving files around on my computer screen.

Here is my current, highly optimized, guide to personal productivity using a combination of technology, common sense, and ideas stolen (with love) from various experts and scientific studies.

One: Get plenty of sleep, light exercise, and eat well. Yes, I know all that is boring and non-technical but if you want to get through your backlog of stuff to do you're not going to make much progress when you're tired, out of shape, and full of sodium and sugar. I personally hate to sleep, abhor exercise, and love french fries. Mother nature has put me in my place for my huberious. (I've gone 65 days without touching a french fry and feel much better for it!)

Two: Create several accounts on your computer and use parental controls to limit your distractions and focus you attention. My Mac at home has four accounts: Work, Play, Writing, and Coding. Work as has all the tools, bookmarks, and apps I need to work from home. Play is where I keep StarCraft, bookmarks for distracting sites, and other fun things. The Play account is under tight time limits. (I don't use parental controls for my kids, I respect them too much for that, but I really need to battle my weakness for cat videos and fighting zerglings.) The Writing account is where I am right now, writing this blog post. I don't like to worry about styling as I write so I don't use a word processor, I use a text editor. Right now I like Ulysses on the Mac and Notepad++ on Windows. I have all alerts and notifications turned off in the Writing account. I keep Spotify running while I write so I don't hear audible distractions (I love to write to Star Wars filmscores). Coding is where I do my non-work technical exploration and research. This spring I'm getting deeply into SmallTalk. I have GNU Smalltalk installed as well as easy access to Xcode, Github, Sublime, and the all powerful Terminal.

Three: Set big numerical general goals. Long term I want to do some big things: Write 1,000 blog posts, mentor 1,000 people, code 1,000 programs, read every SF masterwork and Hugo winner. I'm keeping score too: 81 out of 1,000 blog posts, 25 out of 1,000 people, 500 out of 1,000 (estimated) programs, 17 out of 54 SF masterworks, etc. In online gaming working your way through a numerical goal (or quest) is called grinding. It's easy to track progress and the positive reinforcement of your incremental progress becomes addicting. Zynga and Blizzard have built their businesses around this fact.

Four: Set a tight schedule. I used to be very flexible and I never got anything done. I've learned the hard way that keeping to a tight schedule is my biggest problem and the best way to succeed in life. Every Saturday morning I write a blog post. Every weekday on the train ride into work I answer my email. Every weekday on the train ride home I read. I've found I have two peak performance hours during the day: between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. I have these times blocked off on my work calendar. During these two hours I seem to operate at 5x my normal speed. I try to save all my most important work for those hours. If I didn't have to work for a living those would be the hours I would reserve for writing, coding, drawing, or playing the guitar.

Five: Keep experimenting. In the Seven Habits this is called sharpening the saw. In Agile development this is called the retrospective. Pomodoro calls it overlearning. It's why I'm learning to code in SmallTalk -- an old, almost dead computer language. IBM dumped SmallTalk in favor of Java a decade ago. It's a hard language to find and install on your computer. Most of the SmallTalk implementations out there, except for a handful, seem to have been abandoned. But like Lisp, SmallTalk has had a huge influence on popular programming languages like Objective-C, Ruby, and Python. I want to improve as a coder and learning SmallTalk as a programmer is like learning Latin as an author. I'm not sure where I'll go next but every SmallTalk program is another step towards 1000 programs. (I have to get better at moving all my little programs into Github so I can count them better!)

Structure is important. Your life has a structure whether you like it or not. You might as well own your life's structure not not be a victim of it. Computers, smartphones, social networks, and MMORPGs are great at wrecking the structure of your life. With augmented reality right around the corner this ability to distract is only going to get worse. Throwing out all your computers isn't the answer. Besides losing your job and access to all your friends you'll just distract your self with typing letters to the editor and waiting for the mail. It's better to engage technology, schedule it, and integrate it into your structure.

Whew! One more blog post checked off my list: 918 to go!