What I learned in March

Now that April is more than halfway over, I finally have a minute to share my insights from last month!

March was enlightening for me in many ways. I was able to observe myself and my work habits more objectively – looking closely at what they really are and how I operate – in order to build around who I am instead forcing myself to work the way I think I should.

I learned that I work best when I have no ultimate final output in mind. Diving into the process with no solid vision of what I am doing or where it is going is the most fun I can have. It’s where I constantly find myself inspired and excited, and where I smile and laugh as I see the form of a project bubble up from the work I’ve done, not knowing what it wants to become until it does. I love watching it emerge.

Along the way, I found a few tools and techniques that helped me get into this process and stay there longer. They made my work much more enjoyable and focused, eliminated a large percentage of distractions, and helped me stay more organised – all so I could experience more time with that beautiful spark of creative inspiration.

1. Tools

Split screens on Mac

No need to get all fancy with multiple monitors, you can get the same benefits using Mac’s split screen (there might be PC options for this too. Definitely worth looking for). Just hold the green dot down until you have the option to choose another screen. Whichever one you select will sit side by side with the other (with the option to change the ratio or swap them around for whichever view suits you best). I tend to put research on the left and writing on the right. It looks like this:

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Perks:

  • Everything you see is in full-screen mode so you aren’t distracted by the dock or other open windows. You have to make a purposeful effort to leave this space, which means you stay longer and get more into the flow of what you’re doing.
  • If you are collecting images (for a course you’re writing, perhaps), this setup is handy because you can drag the file from one side to the other, skipping the hassle of saving it and then uploading into the doc (just make sure you also document the source so it’s easy to find again later when you need to edit and cite).

2. Google Tools

I am a Google gal indeed, but I never appreciated the power of its documents suite until this year. I would love to avoid having my entire life there, but they make products that are far too helpful and easy to use, and they make them free. There’s no escape!

Drive

I would write about it every month if I felt you’d still listen. I love it more all the time. It’s nearly replaced Evernote for me, almost exclusively because I can organise it any way I want. And although all cloud services are accessible everywhere, Drive doesn’t limit how many devices you can access it on – very handy for someone who tends to get inspiration and ideas any time of day. It’s also super slick to share and collaborate on every type of project.

For any WordPress users, there’s also a great new add-on that lets you compose in Drive and then dump everything directly to WordPress to publish (click the add-ons button and search for WordPress to install and set up). For some reason, I find Drive easier to write in but hate doing all the copy and pasting and reformatting on WordPress, so this is great for me!

Forms

I also developed a new way to use Google Forms to keep track of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve set one up for every project I work on that allows me to enter some basic information: the time I started, what I accomplished, what I thought of that I could work on going forward, and the finishing time (it doesn’t calculate the total hours so I also added that in. Also note the lack of a To Do list – see below for why). Here’s what it looks like:

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I can go back and flick through each of these entries separately or as a combined file to see what I have done and what else I want to do. It’s a good place for me to go when I’m feeling a) like I haven’t done anything and am a waste of space (shows me I’m actually doing a lot) and b) stuck and not sure where to go next (there’s a whole list of ideas there already so I can grab the most relevant one and get going).

Chrome

It’s so flexible and easy to work with. I keep trying to switch to Safari (not sure why, I guess it feels more sophisticated?), but find myself right back at Chrome every time. It’s probably because I do so much with Google and Chrome pulls all my tools into one place (please don’t get evil Google! My life is in your hands).

The most wonderful thing I found with Chrome this month is the multiple logins. I have different email addresses (far fewer than I used to, but still a worrying number) that I use for different projects. Hopping between the two to access my Drive, email, calendar, etc was so irritating. But Chrome developed a great feature where you can open different windows under different accounts and it keeps it all beautifully separate while still sharing the same desktop login.

It’s helped immensely! Before, the only way I could truly separate projects was to create separate desktop logins, but that meant I couldn’t access all the same files (or had to go through a complicated process to share them). This has made my day a breeze. I can work under this login for a while, then hop to that one, and all along the way I have exactly the files and bookmarks I need readily available. I adore it.

Chrome Extension: Screen Shots

Chrome also has some great extensions that help you get stuff done faster. A good one I found this month is for screen shots.

I don’t tend to do loads of of these, but the one thing that does (or did!) annoy me when I had to was that I couldn’t always capture the whole webpage in one go. I had to stitch together two or more images. This month I found a cool extension for the Chrome browser that lets me do like I did with the form above and get a gorgeous image of the entire page. You can find it here.

3. Bullet journaling

And now for something completely opposite of Google: good ole’ paper and pencil. Isn’t it just the best?

Here’s the thing about bullet journaling: while I did start doing it in March and it has been remarkably fun and helpful, I have a lot of conflicting opinions about the culture that surrounds it online. It seems like a lot of people use bullet journals as:

  • a) a way to NOT do things by spending all their time designing awesome pages for the projects they won’t ever finish,
  • b) a way to self-flagellate about all the things they haven’t done, and…
  • c) a way to create so many tasks for themselves (from a compulsive desire to cross things off), that they run around like manic people freaking out about how much there is to do.

I dislike all of these things about the bullet journal universe.

With that in mind, here is what I like about it.

  • I can design my pages however I want
  • I can do things in any order I want (great for a person who flits between projects and ideas often)
  • I can collect things in useful places, instead of on post-its or random text files, so that I can find them more easily later.
  • It’s fun
  • It’s relaxing
  • I love pens and paper

I hope to write more in-depth about the way I have built my journal, what I’ve decided NOT to use that many people do and what I have found really helpful. Watch this space.

4. Techniques

The last couple of things learned in March were simple techniques that helped me stay in the flow better.

Time Blocks:

As I mentioned at the beginning, focusing on the process of making instead of a tangible final product is key for me. How to do it though? I mean, when we sit down and decide what we’re doing every day, we start with To Do lists, right? And those lists are made up of “products” – end results we have to achieve by the end of the day.

Not so!

In March, I focused on holding the process as sacrosanct. Instead of a to do list, I created time blocks. I decided how much time I wanted to spend on each project during the week (I plan better in weeks than days), then I created a time block system where my only goal is to work on it in a focused way for that amount of time each week.

Here’s a glimpse of what that looks like this week (each full square is one hour):

The surprising thing? I end up “finishing” far more than I ever did when I had a to do list in mind. Having something I have to do hanging over me is a sure way to make sure I don’t do it. But telling myself, “Work on this for X amount of time. It doesn’t matter how much you get ‘done’, just put the time in”, has helped me get farther along in some projects than I think I ever would have otherwise.

Process not product.

Stop

This system of time blocks became completely irrelevant, however, if I wasn’t strict with myself. When I had only a small window of time to work in, I was very focused and on task for the duration. If, however, I told myself I could carry on after the time was up, I found that I waffled, faffed and flitted (pick your favorite verb to describe that anxious, useless moving about without actually doing any real work) for as much time as I gave myself.

You must stop.

Set a timer. Make the most of that time. Stop when it tells you to.

If you find yourself deep in the flow and really want to keep going, stop when your time is up. You can make a purposeful choice to give yourself another block of time, but give yourself a definite boundary before you start again. Don’t let your blocks melt together into “all day” or “until I’m done” territory.  Be conscious about your time and how you are using it. Keep your blocks small and purposeful. You’ll get much more out of them that way.

And on that note, it’s time for me to stop writing for today and move on to the important Play with My Kitty time block.

See you again soon!

PS This post was late because I “had” to go to Italy for a couple of weeks to meet up with my parents. Life is hard sometimes. Especially when everything you see is dripping with deliciously purple wisteria. Oh Italy. Sigh. 

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