Steal Back Your Time and Accomplish Your Goals

I began a “sabbatical” from regular work-for-someone-else life about a month ago. I work from home. I have a startup. I want to accept just enough work to get by financially (but not more than that). I want to achieve that some kind of illusion of work-life balance. I want to exercise more. I have several passion projects that I’ve wanted to spend time on for a very very long time.

If you’ve ever had a period of time like this (or if you just work remotely), you know that finding some kind of structure to your hours, days, weeks, and projects can be daunting. If you’re not careful, you always feel guilty about what you’re doing. I spent two years working remotely for a European company, and found that tracking the hours I actually worked was helpful for bringing balance to the remote working life. But I hate bookkeeping and so I evolved a simple system of moving glass pebbles for each hour I worked during the week.

Now I’ve modified this system to include a breakdown of how I want to spend my hours, and specific goals I have. At the beginning of the week, I have a clean slate for hours/goals I want to accomplish (and it can vary from week to week):


The full slate for last week included three exercise goals (hit daily step goal, meditation/yoga three times, strength training three times). Also in the work-life-balance category, I had a personal writing goal of 6 hours a week. You can see the bulk of my time for the week should be spent in working on the startup (roughly 3 hours a day) and accumulating some billable hours (roughly 4 hours a day).

As each day progresses, I simply move the right “pebbles” into the accomplishments for the day. This creates a nice feeling of accomplishment, and as I look back over the week, I can see the patterns to my days. Here are 4 days from last week.


When I’m not feeling very “work” productive, I simply focus on getting other goals I can accomplish until I feel more productive. On some days that means I can absolutely justify going for an hour-long walk outside in the sunshine, because I have a step goal to reach. Other days (like today) it means permission to spend an hour writing a blog post (personal writing). Sometimes, the pebbles validate my feeling of not being productive enough, and motivate me to do better. Other times, the pebbles show me that I’m spending too much time on a particular project and ignoring other places where I need to focus my attention.

I’ve tried using apps for doing something like this (HabitBull is a good one), but I find that an app is too easy to ignore. If I put the collection of pebbles for weekly hours and goals somewhere visible, it is a daily reminder of what I want to be doing with my time and helps me to meet those goals.

I think this same sort of strategy can be helpful for anyone who is trying to steal back their time to reach a goal, whether that be studying for a degree, trying to meet an exercise/diet goal, writing a book, or spending time with your family. We live in an age of distraction. You have to actively steal back your time from the Internet and digital distractions in your life to accomplish your goals.

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Self Evaluation: List of Fives

"Fives" by Leo Reynolds

Whenever I hire a new assistant, I have a list of questions I ask to get a feel for how we can best work together.  I want to make sure I take advantage of their strengths and provide them the opportunity for growth.  I think that good working relationships are developed when each person’s skills are valued and when they can learn about the things that they enjoy.

So, I’ve developed my “List of Fives” to feel out the strengths and growth areas for someone I’m going to work with, and I try to use it to help us to take advantage of synergy whenever possible.

1. What are your five biggest strengths?

2. What are five things that you enjoy learning about?

3. What are five topics you’d like to learn about that are unfamiliar to you?

4. What are five skills or strengths that you’d like to get better at?

5. What are your five favorite sources of inspiration? [books/websites/articles/poems/videos/songs]

As a little reflective exercise today. I answered these questions for myself today.

1. What are your five biggest strengths?

Problem Solving
Knowledge of Ed Tech Space

2. What are five things that you enjoy learning about?

Science of Learning
Learning Analytics
Social Media
Game Design
Data Visualization

3. What are five topics you’d like to learn about that are unfamiliar to you?

User Interface Design
PHP or WordPress coding
Science/History of Futuring
Science of Multiple Choice Testing
Artificial Intelligence for Learning

4. What are five skills or strengths that you’d like to get better at?

Leadership / Managing a large team
Fundraising / Raising capital
Conflict management (just not much experience)
Contract negotiation (no experience)

5. What are your five favorite sources of inspiration? [books/websites/articles/poems/videos/songs]

My Twitter network
Book: Theory of Fun for Game Design
Magazine: Technology Review
Magazine: Wired

It’s an interesting little exercise to help you to see whether your current job is actually utilizing your skills and providing you with growth, isn’t it?

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Turning Ideas into Action

At the moment when a person becomes inspired to make a change, how can an organization support him or her to make that change in their life or to facilitate that change in the lives of others?

Yesterday, during a conversation with my new friend Holly (who also happens to be my doppelganger), I had an inspiration on how to accomplish this.  It’s an idea inspired by the collision of several others:  A Recipe for Free Range Learning, my experiments with SpacedEd (now Qstream), my long ago experience with Flylady, the concepts of Optimism Bias and activation energy (from the Happiness Advantage), and the “Learn This” Button.

But before I explain the idea, I also have to preserve the story here, because it’s really eerie.  On Monday night, my husband tagged me in a picture and added the caption “Must … stop … self … from participating in more projects.  Must keep ideas at bay.”  For a minute, I believed it was me in the picture.  But then I realized I hadn’t met a single person in the group of people in the picture.  So, it wasn’t me … but darned if it didn’t look like me.  It was really bizarre.


So on Tuesday, I decided to try to identify the “doppelganger” because she had fooled both my husband and myself with her uncanny resemblance.  Lo and behold, when I walked into the Summit Lounge, the same group of people were assembled in a circle having a conversation about one of the actions.  I identified the one that looked like me, and made a mental note to find her later.  In the opening talk, she walked into the venue and sat down right next to me.  I introduced myself and explained that she and I might be doppelgangers (at least from the side profile).

So we started chatting between talks and one thing let to another.  Before long, we were talking about the Action Team she was involved with, and she expressed frustration that they seemed to be stuck.  When she explained what they were trying to do, something from the previous nights’ talks collided just so with a collection of talks and writings from the past, and a clear path to a solution presented itself.  I shared it with Holly, and she agreed that it was a really great solution to the constraints of their problem space: How to turn ideas into action.  I suppose that Holly and I were fated to meet, that she was meant to pose this problem to me, and I was meant to generate a solution out of the myriad of random stuff running around in my head.

Because I’ve been asked to share this strategy at least a half-dozen times in the  last 24 hours, it seems work writing down in its entirety to preserve the original details.  The fundamental idea is to treat each desired behavioral /action change as fusion of two streams: an action stream and a social coaching stream.  Together, this blends to form a set of instructions and the spice for a sort of “action recipe.”  Suppose that Holly has just watched an amazing TED video about using less plastic waste, and she wants to take action.

(1) At the moment of inspiration (in this case, the viewing of a TED or TEDx Talk), Holly should have the option to “make a change” or take action” on the screen.

(2) Now she has to decide the size of the impact she wants to make.  Ideally, the system would suggest starting small (unless Holly has already taken this action on a smaller level). In the recipe analogy, this is essentially answering the question, “How many cooks are there?”

  • One (individual – I want to take action on myself)
  • Several (family or a small group of friends)
  • Many (an organization or business)
  • Everyone  (community – I want everyone I can affect to take this action with me)

(3)  Suppose Holly does as suggested, and chooses to “start small” with just one cook.  Now she would see the recipes written by others who have tagged their action recipes as being linked to this video [note that speakers would be encouraged to write a few recipes if they are speaking about something that is action-appropriate]. Her choices might look something like this:

  • Cut down on the amount of plastic bottles you purchase
  • Recycle more of the plastic in your life
  • [FLIPPED] Recycle more of the plastic in your life in a town without recycling
  • [FLIPPED] Recycle more of the plastic in your life in Bulgaria

(4) Holly can click on multiple options on the list (to compare them) and then click on “See ingredients.”  The ingredients list would simply tell her what kinds of resources she would need to have or purchase to carry out the action.  For example, in order to cut down on the amount of purchased plastic, Holly would need to find or purchase two water bottles (one for home and one for work).

(5) Holly chooses the second option.  Now she is asked how she’d like to receive her coaching:

  • SMS Texting
  • Email
  • Mobile App

(5) Holly chooses to receive her coaching by SMS, so she follows the directions to set this up, and then the action begins with the first of 30 daily  texts (the number of messages would vary based on the type of action and chosen level of impact.

“This is your action coach.  The most important thing to do for the next 30 days is keep your water bottle full and in a place where you are likely to grab it when you’re thirsty. Today is your first day of change! Congratulations!”

The second day (and for every day after that for a month), Holly would receive a little message, reminding her to stay on track, and encouraging her to send data back to a global database:

“This is your action coach. How many times did you use your water bottle since my last text?  Please reply with the number times you’ve filled up your bottle. Don’t forget keep your water bottle full and in a place where you are likely to grab it when you’re thirsty.”

This string of 30 (or so) messages would be a fixed set of action instructions, written by the author of the recipe.  Now for the social coaching aspect. In combination with these messages (a la flylady), the system would provide coaching in real time.  For example, Holly replies to the last text with the number “3” … now the system adds her 3 refills to the global count and sends her words of encouragement.

“Wow! Yesterday, a total of 468 water bottles were refilled by people trying to make this change.  That’s a total of 468 water bottles that were not purchased. Collectively, that means you saved the energy equivalent of about 3.5 gallons of gasoline. Keep up the good work!”

Another type of social coaching might be inspirational stories, curated by someone keeping an eye on this set of recipes and receiving feedback from those who are nearing the end of their behavioral change.

“Looking for some inspiration to keep your change going? How about watching the short 8-minute film “The Story of Water Bottles while you take a water break today!”

So, fast forward to the end of Holly’s 30-day individual action.  During this whole time, she has received 1-2 text messages a day. Always an action prompt, often an inspirational prompt of some sort as well.  Every newbie to the action starts on Day 1 of the action prompts, but they just pick up the inspirational social coaching on whatever the coach is pushing out (news stories, facts, global stats for the change project, etc.)

(6) At the end of 30 days, Holly is asked to rate the recipe on a scale of 1-5 (good recipes should eventually rise to the top based on rating and number of times it has been used).

(7) Now the system encourages Holly to consider helping others to make the change.  “Would you like to try to influence others to make this change?  Your family, your friends, where you work, or your community?”  If Holly chooses to “level up” then she subscribes to a new recipe.  She is also asked if she’d like to tweak the recipe to make it better (she can “flip” the recipe into a recipe of her own making for a particular audience, perhaps she wants to customize it for teachers, for example)

Recipes at different impact levels would have different ingredients lists, different time frames, and different actions.  For example, if you want to change your organization, it would be incredibly important to get buy-in from a leader in the organization.  So a first step might be to make an appointment with two potential “champions” for the cause, and show them the video that inspired you.

Of course, recipes would be tagged for keywords and to link them to particular content (videos, books, etc.)

It is, in my opinion, crucial that the behavior change involves a “push” of coaching to the participant (too easy to forget you meant to change) and that it includes not just an action process, but a personal element of coaching.

Now … I’m tired and that’s all I’m writing about this tonight, because I need to get at least ONE night of solid sleep at this incredibly awesome TEDxSummit event.

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Sanity in the Age of Digital Overload

I often conduct a workshop called “Organize Your Digital Self” and the last section of the workshop is on staying sane in a world with so many ways to go into digital overload.  Here are a few of my favorites apps and programs for staying sane:

StayFocusd is a Chrome Extension that lets you choose websites (like Facebook or casual games sites) that you want to limit your time on.  You decide how much time is enough, and then StayFocusd will warn you when you’re getting close to your limit and cut you off for the day once you’ve surpassed it.  Sure, you can open another browser, but if the point is to be more cognizant of how you’re wasting time, it does a good job reminding you.

WorkRave is  designed to help prevent repetitive stress injuries (like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) but it also works very well to force you to take a break.  If you’re one of those people that can sit for hours working at the computer without even realizing that an hour has gone by, try a program like WorkRave.  You can decide how long you want to work in one sitting, how long you want to break, and how long you want your “snooze” to be before you really have to take that break.  Use your break times to talk to your family, spend time with your pets, go breath in some fresh air, get the mail, etc. The point is to force yourself to get up from your computer and do something else.  I’d experiment with the optimum continuous focused work time – for some it is 45 min, for others it is 90 minutes.

RescueTime is a bit like having your very own “big brother.”  Once you install it, it can track how much time you spend where on your computer (not just the Internet, but also your desktop, Windows or Mac).  So if you think you’re spending 3 hours a day answering email, it can verify that or it might tell you that the 3 hours is actually spent in Farmville.  RescueTime can also block distracting sites, so you can kill two birds with one stone – track time and block sites that are wasting time.  If you’re into the Quantified Self movement or you want students to track some data of their own for a project, the time-tracking reports and graphs from RescueTime are great (see video RescueTime Reports).  To measure just your online activities, there is now a RescueTime Chrome Extension too.

Part of staying sane is not becoming distracted and following link after link “down the rabbit hole” of time suck.  Readability is a great little browser extension for Chrome, Safari, or Firefox.  Their mission? “With one click, turn any webpage into a clean comfortable reading view.” Not only does Readability strip out all the extra links and advertisements on an article you’re trying to read, but it allows you to set your preferences for margins, background, text color, font, font size, columns, and more.  Subscribers to Readability can save web articles for later reading, send articles to a mobile device, and sync with Kindle.  The video that follows is a 1-minute tour of Readability.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Dropbox, which is one of those programs that has changed my workflow and contributed greatly to my ease of mind.  This is one that you will have to pay for if you want more than 2 GB of space (and trust me, you will).  Here’s the idea: if you’re working on multiple computer systems, dropbox makes a file folder on each computer and a mirror image of that folder “in the cloud.”   Whatever you drop into the folder on your computer, that file is mirrored in your Dropbox account in the cloud and then on the other computers synced to your account.  The beauty of this is that you can edit a file on your home computer, close it, drive to work, and after you boot up the computer there, the new version of the file will be sitting in the Dropbox on that computer.  You can also access any of the files in your Dropbox on any computer and on mobile devices by logging in to your Dropbox account.  This is invaluable when you suddenly have to present off someone else’s computer.  The ease of mind comes from knowing that if a disaster occurs and all your computers are lost, the Dropbox with all your important stuff will still be sitting there in the cloud waiting for you.  Dropbox has gotten some negative press lately over encryption practices, but the reality is that their encryption practices are better than most of our private security practices (if your work requires a security clearance, try another system).

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Extensions to Make Chrome Work for You

If you’re like me, you eagerly tried out Google Chrome right when it came out, but the lack of Flash support was an absolute killer.  So now I wander back every once in a while (especially when Firefox is crashing).  I like Chrome, and it does seem to run faster (a big concern of mine since I function without broadband Internet at home).  However, the fact that Google Bookmarks did not work with Chrome was a game-stopper.  I use my Google Bookmarks as a “to do” list of sorts, marking links with various labels for the sole purpose of adding them to digital maps or looking them up for articles later.  These are not public collections, nor do I want them to be and I plan to start using it regularly now.

To make a longer blog post short, I just discovered that the extension ecosystem around Google Chrome is now far more robust than it used to be.  Some of these Chrome add-ons (called extensions) are essentially beta (use at your own risk), but Chrome is now a viable option for me.

  • Google Bookmarks can be synced with Chrome using this GBX Google Bookmarks Extension, but Chrome bookmarks (if you have them) cannot be backwards synced.  Yes, there is one for Delicious too.
  • Add a Readability button using this extension.  In one click of the Readability button, you can turn an article with text, ads, and pictures to nothing but easy-to-read text in the default size, color, and background that you choose.
  • If you regularly tweet, like, or email webpages to friends, you might like the ease of Shareaholic, and it too has an  extension for Chrome.  I tried the extension, but it seems to be a bit buggy and I wasn’t impressed.
  • Not so long ago, someone told me about AdBlock, which is when I realized that not everyone was being forced to look at the poorly-designed graphic images and animations in Facebook.  There is some ethical quandry about whether it is morally right to block the ads, which are, in fact, keeping the websites funded.  Take it or leave it, I like AdBlock and here’s the extension for Chrome.
  • It used to be that you could only get the cool 3-D wall view of images from Cool Iris in Firefox, but (yay!) this extension is also available in Chrome now.
  • For a totally, indulgence-only extension, try Turn Off the Lights, which you can click to darken the rest of the screen when you’re going to show a video, just like you’re in the movie theater (find this here).
  • Many a time I have been working on a blog post or a conference proposal submission when something causes the browser to crash.  When that happens, you can lose all the carefully worded thoughts you’ve typed in the text boxes.  Well, not if you’re using Lazarus: Form Recovery (not recommended for Mac/Linux yet), which autosaves all those important thoughts.  Here’s the Lazarus extension.

Honestly, I don’t see anything else that is must-have, but maybe you know of some Chrome extension that we should check out?

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