Thursday, January 1, 2015

Productivity: Using Technology to Focus Better

To continue my productivity series, I'm sharing a few ways that technology tools can help you focus.

I feel like I've been thinking about productivity a lot because it's that time of year (winter break) when I begin planning for the new semester ahead.

But, in all honesty, I'm sort of a sucker for the subject of productivity/time management in general. My favorite Google app is the Calendar, and in the olden days before electronic calendars, I was a sucker for those Franklin planners. So, I'm a planner and a productivity junkie.

During a typical day in the library, I have a set of tasks I want to accomplish. Some tasks are those that don't require high-level focus: checking and responding to email, paying bills, creating book orders, minor technology related tasks, and so on. These tasks can be interrupted and I can easily resume them with no trouble. (Interruptions are a normal and welcome part of my day - I'm here to serve.) Others require high-level focus such as planning a lesson, writing an article, or brainstorming other important library related things. During these activities, I need to be able to think without distractions.  I thought it might be fun to discuss some tools I use to create an atmosphere of total focus. Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

Simple Pomodoro Extension
Yes, there are other online timers. But when I set a timer via Google, I usually end up closing that Chrome tab by mistake and then totally forget I had a timer on. So...this is when a Chrome extension helps. I really like Pomodoro because I agree that working in chunks of time is the best way to focus. When I really need to focus on something, I'll set this timer and then go to work. It's nice because I know that when I'm done, I get a reward. Read more about the Pomodoro technique here. It's simple and effective.

Momentum Extension 
I use Google Calendar to organize my life, as mentioned before. I'm preaching to the choir here for those of you who are already Google Apps users. But for those using another online calendar or a paper calendar, perhaps I can convince you to try Google Calendar. It's essential for my productivity, as you'll read in an upcoming article about Google Calendar's fabulous features.

However, sometimes, I still end up with to-do lists for my to-do lists, so when I need to really focus, I need something a little simpler. This is where Momentum comes in. It's simply an extension that takes over your "new tab" in Chrome. It's simple, yet gorgeous. You type in your focus for the day and every single time you open a new tab, it will show you this: (Each day you fill in the blank with your focus.)

The beautiful background changes each day, which is awesome. The bottom right corner has a to-do list that you can use or not. You can even hide it in the preferences. This is the simplicity I need on those occasions when I really need to focus. When I try to open a new tab, this greets me and reminds me what I should be focusing on. Love it! Give it a try.

Google All-Access 
My favorite and most important tool for focusing in music. I plug in my headphones and start my "inspirational" playlist. This playlist includes peaceful, yet inspiring instrumental and movie score music with no lyrics. (My dance playlist is handy during the aforementioned more mundane tasks of the day to make them more fun. Dance music makes everything more fun.) This inspirational music helps my brain function at its highest level. The moment I hear it, I can get in gear.

Yes, you can achieve similar results with Pandora, Spotify, iTunes radio or any other music curation/streaming service. In fact, I actually use Pandora as a discovery service to locate the movie scores that I will add to my Google music playlist. But for creating as many playlists as I need, easily and intuitively, I love All Access. I can access it on all my devices. I can pin a playlist to my device, so I don't have to use data when not on wifi. It powers my entire day from the dance music in the morning, throughout my workday, and while running in the evening.

The point is, music is great for focusing. So find your focus playlist by whatever means you are partial too. (That 10 year old Classical Music for Dummies CD is a start, sure!) If you're in the market for a new streaming service, I highly recommend Google All-Access.

It probably goes without saying, but let me remind you that if you're setting up to really dig in without distractions, turn off your notifications, email pop-ups, and slide off your unneeded extensions. I'm surprised how many people don't realize you can do that. Slide them off (that gmail counter can be super distracting. How long can you look at it without clicking??) You can always click the little arrow if you really need to get to one while you're focusing. If you don't know what I mean, watch this: (it's flash, sorry if you're on mobile.)

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I would be glad to hear your suggestions! Is there another extension that's handy for turning off notifications or any apps that you use to help you stay on track?