The Firehose — that inexhaustible flood of information and tasks flowing into your PC, phone and brain 24/7 — is not going away.

Note (18 Oct 2015): following Medium’s recent changes, all my marginal notes, which provided additional into, were unilaterally set to Private. I had to turn them into responses, so it looks like I’m having a conversation with myself, filling my profile with my responses to myself. Dumb move, Medium.

Your ToDos aren’t going away either. Because the Firehose is not just content — it’s a ToDo Factory.

Some of the ToDos in your Firehose are explicit — emails from your boss or client demanding attention. But most are implicit. That interesting report you should read and reflect on. That post you should comment on. That article you should share with your colleagues or friends.

There is only more Firehose

No matter how many hours you put into it, there’s no end in sight. There is only more Firehose. So there are always more ToDos.

And there are still only 24 hours in each day.

Morning guy

And only some of those hours are your best.

If you’re like me, you do your most creative, focused work in the morning. There are many sound physiological and psychological reasons why. But the Firehose doesn’t care. Because while you slept, it was building.

You finish breakfast and open your Inboxes and the Firehose explodes across your screen, a whole night’s worth of pressure bursting through

You finish breakfast and open your Inboxes and the Firehose explodes across the your screen, a whole night of pressure bursting through your email Inbox. Your Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts. Basecamp, Yammer, Jira, Assembla, Confluence, Trello. In your Calendar, meeting demands from your boss, partners, client, subcontractors, colleagues. And all the ToDos you didn’t get to yesterday, now flashing red.

The Firehose is not waiting for you. It’s clamouring for your time and attention. So you give it yours. And suddenly it’s 11am, and you’ve lost the best part of the day.

suddenly it’s 11am, and you’ve lost the best part of the day

A recent article in HBR presents two techniques to cope — either undertake behavioural change or use technology — as if they were opposites.

But why not use technology to create the space for behavioural change? This is a slideshare from a presentation I made recently about doing precisely that:

The rest of this post is based around it — each section takes you through a few of the above slides, so read on…

Three techniques and some tools

At the presentation’s heart are three productivity processes, connected by online tools:

3 productivity techniques, supported by interconnected online tools

The three techniques are:

  • A Daily Routine (bottom) organises time, so that you work in synch with your brain’s ability to focus
  • Scan — Queue — Store — Share (top) channels the Firehose into actionable stuff: ToDos; your personal Library of useful resources; and a steady stream of content Shared out via your social networks
  • Getting Things Done (or GTD, middle) helps you manage ToDos and time

There’s an enormous amount online about GTD so if it’s new to you, check out Dave Allen’s site. Now let’s break the above image down.

Time: Work with your brain’s rhythm

Organize the day around when you are most — and least — creative and focused.

My Ideal Day has three core periods

Only you can figure out your own set of Productivity Tips — all I can do here is tell you mine:

Ringfence your most focused period for your Most Important Task (MIT)

Mornings are when my brain is best, so I ringfence 2–3 hours every morning to work on the day’s Most Important Task (MIT) without interruption, because research shows that:

workers are interrupted — or self-interrupt — about once every three minutes, and it takes them about 23 additional minutes to get back on track.
- The One Work Problem That Plagues Us All — And Some Clever Ways To Fix It

This also ensures I tackle the hardest thing first, because:

human nature means we start with the easy stuff… As the day goes on, work emergencies will pop up … an extra meeting … Your MITs will slip through the cracks.
- Morning Habits That Are Killing Your Daily Productivity

Stand Pause

However, concentration fades after 60–90 minutes, so I split the morning session into two sessions, divided by a brief Stand Pause, which involves leaving my desk:

Researchers associate sedentariness with heart disease, a bad back and colon cancer… sitting for just 30 minutes slows your metabolism by 90%.
- 7 ways to get off your ass and stand more

Afternoon

Energy levels take a hit after lunch, which is why many swear by short post-lunch naps. As the above graphic shows, I try to:

  • schedule meetings soon after lunch — there’s no chance I’ll do my best work then, and interacting with other people will raise my energy levels
  • spend the rest of the afternoon on management (planning, organizing, etc.) and shorter, easier tasks.

Morning and Afternoon Routines

Unfortunately, you must also figure out what you will do during those hours.

Control the Time Vampires: uncage them only during Morning and Afternoon Routines

And that means opening your Inboxes, translating messages into ToDos, and organising them by project and time.

The problem is that those messages flooding your Inboxes are Time Vampires — managing them badly costs you more time and energy than you probably realise. Worse, whenever you get stuck, part of you wants to check your Inboxes.

those messages flooding your Inboxes are Time Vampires

The solution is to treat your Inboxes like dangerous animals: to be caged most of the time, but let out occasionally to prevent them exploding. I focus Inbox management into two fixed periods of every day: my Morning and Afternoon Routines.

Morning and Afternoon Routines exist in both Calendar and GTD app

These are Calendar appointments with myself to implement the ‘Morning Routine’ and ‘Afternoon Routine’ projects in my GTD system, each composed of recurring tasks like ‘Scan Inbox’ and ‘Check Queue’ (explained below) as well as mind/body hacks as diverse as ‘Be grateful’ and ‘Drink water!’.

Between them, these Calendar appointments and GTD projects mean I don’t need to worry about continually checking my Inbox or forgetting anything — I can trust my process, close my Inbox, and get on with my work with a ‘mind like water’.

a mental and emotional state in which your head is clear, able to create and respond freely, unencumbered with distractions and split focus.
- mind like water, David Allen

And because the Morning Routine is deliberately short (most organisational tasks are in the Afternoon Routine), I focus my morning, when I can concentrate best, on my Most Important Task.

I can trust my process and focus my morning on my MIT with a ‘mind like water’

I’m less strict in the afternoon, as that’s when I’m using email myself. However, I can ensure I don’t get sidetracked thanks to the power of Scan — Queue — Store — Share:

ToDos: Scan — Queue — Store — Share

Organising your day to stop your Inbox sucking the life out of it requires dedicated processes and tools.

One of these processes is Scan — Queue — Store — Share, which efficiently channels the Firehose into:

  • ToDos in your GTD management system (I use DoIt.IM)
  • a Personal Library of useful stuff, Stored for later use (I use Diigo)
  • some of which you Share with colleagues and/or the world at large (via If This Then That, or IFTTT)

Update (Oct 13, 2016): Scan-Queue-Store-Share is also explained in an update post: Stop drowning in your Inbox, which also sets out how I aligned this process with my personal content strategy, and dug myself out of trap I found myself in.

Ideally, this all takes place during the Morning and Afternoon Routines.

GTD also drives your Inbox management

Let’s break this process down:

Scan your Inboxes

Inboxes are anything from email to Twitter to your phone’s voice recorder — anywhere where content and ToDos gather.

Firstly, know this: almost nothing in any Inbox requires an immediate answer. We’ve all become accustomed to giving and receiving immediate email response, but in error: anyone who expects one is imposing their needs on your day.

almost nothing in your Inbox requires an immediate answer.

Moreover, opening and then responding to each email is massively inefficient multitasking. You are almost certainly more efficient doing one task — like Scanning an Inbox — because our brains are:

“not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

- Why the modern world is bad for your brain

So when you open an Inbox, Scan it. This is classic GTD singletasking:

When you open an Inbox, Scan it
  • if you can deal with an Inbox issue in under 2 minutes, do so
  • otherwise, add it to your ToDo Queue (next)
  • leaving behind a FileMe Queue

Even if you open your ToDo Queue as soon as you close your InBox, singletasking is simply more brain-efficient. Do. One. Thing. At. A. Time.

Limit Morning Routine to an Emergency Scan

Keep your Morning Scan short by asking each email: are you an emergency?

Morning scans identify emergencies only

True emergencies are Enemy Number 1 because they eat into your Most Important Task ;(

But most mornings you can Queue the ToDos for the Afternoon Routine, close those damned Inboxes and get onto your MIT.

Or just leave the ToDos in your Inbox — you’ll Scan it in your Afternoon Routine anyway.

Queue stuff to be Read & Done

Any non-emergency ToDo that takes over 2 minutes is therefore put into one of just two Queues:

Non-emergency? Takes more than 2 minutes? Add it to one of two Queues
  • To Read Queue: online resources to be read and acted are one-tapped or one-clicked into Pocket. It’s now Queued To Read, on all devices, anywhere.
  • ToDo Queue: emails containing ToDos are forwarded to DoIt.IM, my GTD app, which turns it into a ToDo in my ToDo Queue (the DoIT>IN folder).

Of course you’ll also create ToDos manually — I can add directly to DoIt>IN from my Android notification bar or DoIT web app. ToDos can also be created from other Inboxes using IFTTT, which I’ll cover soon.

Read and Store in your Personal Library

Your To Read Queue has resources which looked - at first glance, during a recent Scan - worth a proper read and/or further treatment.

Useful read? Store it where you’ll be able to find it (much) later

My Afternoon Routine has a recurring ToDo to check my ToRead Queue. And because I use Pocket, I can also check it on the metro, waiting for a meeting or whenever I’ve got a free moment. So I’m usually reading stuff Queued 12–24 hours earlier.

If they are worth it, I then Store them in Diigo — my online Library of useful stuff. That involves tagging them so I can find them easily tomorrow, next month or next year, thanks to Diigo’s faceted search interface.

One tag — “l8r” (i.e., later) — puts the resource in Diigo>L8R — another Queue, which a recurring ToDo will ensure I check later, usually to integrate into a longform blog post.

Finally, the Diigo popup auto-copies any text I’ve selected into the Notes field of the Diigo item. I can edit that Note, adding remarks, ideas etc, which is very useful when I want to:

Share it

Certain tags in Diigo can publish that resource wherever you choose.

Thanks to the magic which is IFTTT (If This Then That):

IFTTT recipes, triggered by certain tags, share the resource for you
  • Storing an item to Diigo with the tag ‘like’ will post it to my TumblrHub as a QuotePost.
  • Tag it ‘tweet’, and the Title and URL goes to Twitter.
  • Similarly for LinkedIn, my client’s Yammer and intranet … as well as my own ToDo Queue.

In this way the entire Firehose is channeled into your ToDos and personal Library, from which you Share selected resources with zero additional effort.

the entire Firehose is channeled into your ToDos and personal Library, from which you Share selected resources with zero additional effort

Of course, I still publish most stuff from my Queues onto social media manually.

Afternoon Routine

Because I want to focus on my creative work in the morning, the Afternoon Routine is the organizational linchpin of the day.

As I start the afternoon routine

By the time I come back from lunch:

  • I’ve already made a full morning’s process on my MIT
  • Inbox contains unread emails which arrived while I focused on my MIT
  • my ToDo Queue contains the tasks I put there that morning, as well as a standard set of recurring ‘Afternoon routine’ tasks
  • my ToRead Queue contains resources I Queued to read that morning, and probably others from the day (and night) before.
The Afternoon Routine includes assigning ToDos for that afternoon and tomorrow morning’s Most Important Task

Recurring daily tasks

As mentioned earlier, the ‘Afternoon Routine’ GTD project is composed of recurring tasks such as:

Scan: this is the day’s Full Scan: I do what’s possible within 2 minutes, otherwise I Queue it.

Read, Store and Share the interesting things I’d noted over the past 24 hours.

Manage ToDos: I then open the ToDo Queue (DoIT > IN) and, based on my morning progress on my MIT, I’ll:

  • decide what I’ll do that afternoon by assigning those tasks to Today
  • decide what tomorrow morning’s MIT will be by blocking the time in my Calendar
  • (re)Schedule the rest, or set them to Next, Someday or Waiting.

A few other recurring ToDos ensure I file emails received yesterday and do other bookkeeping, etc. Some of these appear only on specific days — for example, I check the abovementioned Diigo>later queue every Wednesday and Saturday.

Weekly review

There are also two important Weekly ToDos:

  • every Monday a ToDo pops up to make me set my Weekly Goals. That way, every afternoon I have these goals in mind when deciding what to do that day, and what to set to Scheduled, Next or Someday
  • Every Friday afternoon I revisit those Goals in my Weekly Review, a critical part of the GTD toolkit (pdf).

And then I get on with the rest of the day

Because the afternoon is more about managing and less about focusing on my MIT, I’ll probably Scan and Queue occasionally throughout the day, but even then those Inboxes will be shut at least half the time.

I’ll generally end the day with a final Scan-Queue-Store-Share, so that I can start the next day without a backlog of unfinished ToDos.

Update (Oct 13, 2016): I updated this process here:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Mathew Lowry

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Piloting innovative online communications since 1995. Fascinated by the intersection of media, technology, society and science.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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