Tag Archives: productivity

Finding peace and productivity in cube farms

The New York Times has a good piece on cubes, bullpens and other open office work environments and their impacts on productivity. As traditional offices become less popular, it’s important for us to realize that it’s not enough to just put in desks; creating a work environment that fosters productivity takes purpose and forethought.

The biggest complaint with open office environments is noise, and this is largely because too many companies think that creating an open, collaborative environment is as simple as getting rid of fixed offices. But it’s so much more than that:

When Autodesk, a software company, moved into a an open-plan building in Waltham, Mass., three years ago, it installed what is known as a pink-noise system: a soft whooshing emitted over loudspeakers that sounds like a ventilation system but is specially formulated to match the frequencies of human voices.

Autodesk ran the system for three months without telling the employees — and then, to gauge its impact, turned it off one day.

“We were surprised at how many complaints we got,” said Charles Rechtsteiner, Autodesk’s facilities manager. “People weren’t sure what was different, but they knew something was wrong. They were being distracted by conversations 60 feet away. When the system’s on, speech becomes unintelligible at a distance of about 20 feet.”

If you find yourself more at ease and able to work when you can hear the air conditioning running, it’s because you find the white noise soothing. A lot of people do, and open work environments without background noise are a disaster for productivity. The issue isn’t that people don’t like working in environments with noise, but rather that people get distracted by other people talking.

Background noise is soothing and helps us concentrate. It blocks out the world. But talking isn’t background noise. Our brains begin to try to process the conversations of others and we begin to get distracted.

Office environments need to be purpose built. Quietness is the enemy. Too much of the wrong noise is the enemy too.

In many open work environments everyone feels like they need to be quiet like they’re in a library. Quietness breeds more quietness, which makes every breech of the quietness stand out.

There are some great open work environments out there, and others were clearly built just to save money. Best practices for open work environments would include some kind of background noise, purpose built acoustics, providing quiet spaces for work, having lots of meeting rooms and allowing for remote work.

Without all of those, a cheaper open work environment may end up costing a company a lot of money.

Pushing for lost attention

I no longer have email push email notifications turned on my phone.

Nor do I don’t have have my phone pull emails at set intervals. Why? Productivity and stress reduction.

The biggest problem with having your phone push email every time a new message comes in is that you feel compelled to check it. Making email work for us isn’t about checking email; it’s about processing email. Much of the email that I receive can’t be quickly processed on a mobile phone.

If I can’t process the email, what good does it do to check it and have it sitting on my mind? When we allow email to fester on our minds, it causes needless stress. We think about the contents of that email and a job we have to do, but we aren’t actually working on doing that job, so it steals our attention, even as we try to relax after a long workday.

Everything in our lives suffers from stolen attention. So why have email pushed to you when you don’t intend on actually processing those emails once and for all?

Many of us read and email but don’t act on that email, leaving us less apt to process the email later. We have only served to acquire that  brief satisfaction of checking an email, only to allow stress and lost attention overtake us during all the moments we don’t process that email.

People use the unread designation that emails have as a sort of productivity heuristic. If the email hasn’t been opened and read, it should be acted on. Once opened and read, it doesn’t need to be acted on. But that’s a lie.

This isn’t to say that push notifications don’t have their place. Rather, for most people, the decision to use push notifications should be done on a case by case, project by project, job by job basis. This week, push notifications come in handy, due to the nature of the work I’ll be doing.

I’m at The Intel International Science & Engineering Fair, the world’s largest international pre-college science competition. I’m expected to responsive to email constantly and help run the event. It makes sense to use push or pull notifications this week.

I’ll be much less focused on producing something original and more focused on helping keep this science fair running well. This is a push email kind of week.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to email. When I’m back in the office next week, I don’t want my phone buzzing with email constantly. I’ll be back focused on Web work, social media and writing. Those activities are best done with some level of concentration.

In many situations, checking email is a good way to not get work done. I’m not checking email as I write this post, and I don’t have an email application open or push notifications on. I want to focus on writing this post, and at 9:30 on a Saturday night, there is no chance that I’ll receive an urgent email (usually I don’t write blog posts on Saturday nights, but I’m working this weekend and all of next week, and this is what I’m doing for some down time).

Part of making email work as part of a modern, usable workflow is taming it. Unless you’re a traffic manager or some other office job that has you managing the flow of projects or doing constant deals, you don’t need email open all the time.

I can’t get lost in programming if I’m being notified about emails. I can’t think clearly enough to write while I’m being bombarded by email. Multitasking is overrated, and constantly being connected to email is even more overrated.

Imagine if your email inbox was actually the mail you received in the post office. All day long there would be a knock at the door and a new letter. You’re sitting down to dive into a long work session and all of the sudden a new letter shows up. You check it and then try to go back to work again.

And then another letter shows up.

When Sparrow came out for the iPhone, I thought it was a great app that a had a fatal flaw — it doesn’t support push or pulling of email. Now I realize that as part of my workflow, this is an asset. I check Sparrow only when I have time to process email.

I do, however wish that Sparrow supported push emails, because there are times like this week that I do need to able to receive emails in real time. I hope Sparrow does eventually support push email, because it’s a feature that when used properl can come in handy.

But for most of the time, I’d have push turned off. Ideally checking email when I’m bored neither cures my boredom, nor makes me actually tackle my email.

In the end, what we really need are easier ways to turn push notifications on and off. There isn’t a global way to turn push notifications on and off in iOS. We’re left with a laborious process where we have to turn on and off notifications on a per app basis. This makes it very unlikely that people will actually turn push notifications off when they’re trying to focus.

Push notifications have a purpose. We cannot deny that. But we need better control on when they are interrupting us or not.

This is an issue that is still being worked out in mobile OSes, and something that has to be addressed. It also has to be easy to do, because this cannot just be the domain of power users.

My iPad setup

Above is my iPad home screen. I try really hard to keep all of my apps on one screen and very organized for quick access. I have one app on a second screen that I’m still trying to find a home for.

The other day I posted my computer setup for grad school this fall. In this post, I’d like to focus on an increasingly critical part of my computing setup, my iPad.

I have a third-generation iPad with the Retina Display and 32 GB of storage. I have the wifi-only model since I’m either on wifi a lot or the times that I’m not, I’d prefer to just use my iPhone to create a wireless network. I don’t really need multiple wireless Internet plans. I’d recommend at least the 32 GB iPad. As I’ve begun to use my iPad more for work, I’ve noticed that I have a lot less space left over for movies, songs and video games.

I have a few movies stored on my iPad and a couple of games. With all the apps and files that I have, I only have a few GB free. The next iPad I get will probably have more storage, but I think this amount should be good for at least a few more years.

I use the standard iPad smart cover in gray. I find that it works pretty well and does a good job of protecting the screen. It does sometimes fall off when I’m holding it, and it offers no protection for the backside. But, it is the best case I’ve found when it comes to the ability to easily take the case off.

If I’m just lounging around a comfortable chair or sofa, I don’t really want the case on. More heavy duty cases are often too hard to regularly pull off.

The three main things I use the iPad for are reading, writing and surfing the Web. I start and edit a lot of my posts on my iPad. No, it’s not a good device for writing long-form journalism or books, but it’s perfectly good for writing 500 words or so.

The iPad is also a great device for getting ideas down and finishing them off when I get back to my desktop computer. The first 150 words of this post were typed on my iPad when the idea struck me, and now I’m fleshing out the post on my Mac.

You never know when an idea will strike, and I’m much more likely to start writing now that I have a good iPad (and iPhone) workflow that seamlessly integrates with my main computer.

Writing words

When I first got the iPad, I purchased Pages, which is a pretty good word processing program in the abstract. It has a critical flaw, however: syncing a document between the iPad version and the Mac version of Pages takes a lot of work and is anything but intuitive or seamless. I would not recommend it, and it’s not worth describing the broken process here (a quick note: I would recommend purchashing Pages if you ever need to open and edit Word files, because Pages works really well for that).

Let’s just say that that Pages is nothing like the experience I get with Byword, where I start a file on one device, and it syncs automatically via Dropbox, allowing me to pick up where I left off on another device. All my changes are automatically synced via Dropbox, and I don’t have to do anything to get the latest version of a document.

A big part of what I do is write and take notes, and that part of my workflow will be the main focus of this post. I use several programs for this purpose: Omnioutliner, Byword and Simplenote (note: Simplenote is both an app and a Web service). They each serve a purpose, and I do not like programs like Word that try to be all things to all people.

Simplenote is very aptly named. It’s a great program for taking short notes or writing down little bits of frequently used information. The beauty of Simplenote (and the Mac software that I use to sync with it, Notational Velocity) is that everything is built around search, not some file hierarchy that is easy to lose files in.

Simplenote, because some things you want to make sure you get in writing.

All of my notes are stored in one folder. You can also store your Simplenote files as one big database file, but I don’t recommend this, as it ties you into the Simplenote ecosystem, which may not be around forever. Also, by storing your Simplenote files as individual text files, any program that can open text files can open Simplenote files. This makes it really easy to start a blog post as a note in Simplenote and bring it into a full-fledged writing program such Byword.

Rather than going and hunting around my file system for information, I just search for what I’m looking for in Simplenote. I store all kinds of little nuggets of information that I know I’ll need at some point in the future. It’s incredibly helpful.

I store building codes, for instance, in my notes folder. If I want to know how to access the gym, I just search for gym or building codes and the information is right there for me. Or if I need to know where certain files are stored on my work’s server, I have a note just for that information.

My work also has several different wifi networks, depending on which building and floor. I have a note with login information for the networks. I just type in wifi and the note comes up (and don’t worry, Simplenote supports encryption).

I also use Simplenote to jot down ideas for articles and blog posts that I’m writing. It’s a good program for quickly getting ideas down. But I don’t like it for more structured writing. That’s where Byword comes in.

Byword is my favorite writing program for a fey key reasons: There are Byword clients on both OS X and iOS, it is easy to sync between all of my platforms, the program itself is gorgeous and minimal and the software isn’t larded up with features that get in my way and distract me.

Byword is beautiful. Just me and my words.

Take a look at Word sometime and ask yourself is that a writing environment that inspires creativity? It looks like something designed for making corporate memos. Byword’s beauty and simplicity focuses on your words only, letting you create your own palette with your words.

I simply write more and am a better writer in Byword than I am in Word. If you’re a writer, you should like your writing program. You should enjoy the actually experience of writing in it. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Syncing is the reason that I selected Byword as my main iPad writing program. Any writing program that doesn’t sync with a personal computer OS is fairly useless for me. The days of device silos are over. I have little need for creative software that ties me to a specific device class.

I do most of my writing on my Mac, but I find that the iPad is a good device for doing a final read. I’m no longer sitting at a desk, staring at the same monitor that I have been for hours. With Byword, I can take my iPad, go grab some coffee, lounge around on a sofa and do my final read in a totally different atmosphere. I find that being in a different state during the editing process makes it easier to catch mistakes made during the writing process.

For me, Byword for the iPad ends up being the program that I often start a post on and where I finish a post. The middle, where most of my words are written, is done on my Mac. This post will follow that arc as well.

The last main pillar of my iPad setup is Omnioutliner, which is a great program for making structured outlines. I have yet to find a better program on any platform for taking notes. Simplenote, as the name implies, is for simple notes and tiny bits of information, whereas Omnioutliner is for taking really great notes and making them into a cohesive outline.

People use Omnioutliner to outline how a book will go or to take notes for a class over an entire semester. Omnioutliner has an incredible amount of formatting control and is extremely fast for indenting and outdenting. Whereas Word annoys the user by trying to guess what the user wants to do with an outline, Omnioutliner does no such thing and instead gives the user full control over how an outline will look and feel.

Like your outlines with Roman Numerals? Go for it. Like your outlines with letters? With numbers? Want a custom combination depending on which level of indentation you are on? Omnioutliner supports it all.

Omnioutliner is my go-to program for taking notes during meetings. Even on the iPad’s software keyboard, I am able to type fast enough to take meaningful notes during meetings. I’m not sure if I’ll be using the Mac or iPad version (with an external keyboard) of Omnioutliner for note taking for grad school, but it would be nice if the two versions synced with each other.

Omnigroup has said that they are working on making Omnioutliner sync between the Mac and iPad versions, but that isn’t here today. The biggest knock on Omnioutliner is that it lacks this syncing. It’s not a deal breaker for me because there is no program anywhere near the capability of Omnioutliner on the iPad that does support syncing.

Keeping my life in order

The iPad is my key life and project management tool.

I find that the built in calendar program on the iPad is fine. It syncs with both Mac and PC calendaring software and can work with a lot of people’s corporate calendaring systems. It also syncs with Web calendars offered by Google and others.

For project management I use Omnifocus, which is ostensibly a GTD (Getting Things Done) program, but it doesn’t have to be used in such a way. Think of it as a very powerful to-do list app. It helps you plan out projects and work and execute them.

This is a very basic way to use Omnifocus. It’s great for staying on top of projects. I use it more in depth with more granularity to my steps for work projects.

Omnifocus also syncs with the Mac and iPhone versions, which is a must for me. (although I’d argue that the Mac version is superfluous now, and that the iPad version is by far the best version).

Between calendar and Omnifocus, the iPad and the iPhone really help keep my life in order in a way that a personal computer couldn’t. I have to juggle my day job, work on the Interchange Project, the writing that I do for other organizations and my school work. I’m away from my work and home computers a lot more than I’m away from my iPad and iPhone, and what good is software that can remind you to do something if it’s not near you when you need it?

A big part of what I do is read, and the iPad is my main reading device. Instead of keeping countless tabs and browser windows open, I use Instapaper to to read all those links that I come across during the day but don’t have time to read. I click a little button in my Web browser and the articles and blog posts are sent to my iPad (and iPhone) for reading at a later time.

If reading is a big part of your job, I cannot recommend Instapaper higher. Along the same lines, I keep up with a lot of different sources of information via RSS. Reeder is my favorite RSS reading program, and it syncs between my Mac, iPad and iPhone. The iPad client is really good and it has the ability to tweet out articles that I find interesting, and it has Instapaper integration for stories that I don’t have time to read.

I also recently started using News.me to stay up-to-date on the most talked about stories on my network each day. I usually start my day with breakfast, News.me and Reeder.

Reeder makes for a really great news discovery and reading experience.

The key to making this whole experience work is syncing between my computer and my iPad and iPhone. Without the syncing, and the seamless integration, I wouldn’t do much writing on the iPad.


Syncing is a big part of making an iPad workflow work, and without syncing to smartphones and personal computers, the iPad would lose most of its power as a work tool. The two main options for syncing files between an iPad and a personal computer are iCloud and Dropbox.

iCloud only works for OS 10.7 Lion and later. If you have an older version of OS X or use a different OS altogether, iCloud is immediately out as an option. If you can choose between both iCloud and Dropbox, it really comes down to how much of a power user you are. The benefit of iCloud is that it comes baked into iOS, and the first 5 GB of storage — plenty for most document storage — is free.

To me, the choice comes down if you want to view file structures. If you’re used to the traditional file structure format of OS X, Windows and Linux that involves nested folders in different locations on hard drives, Dropbox will just make sense. Using Dropbox is just like using any modern computer from the last few decades. You store files in folders and you can nest folders inside of folders.

If you never really like the whole managing where files go process, iCloud may be the better choice because it has no file structure whatsoever. iCloud associates files with individual programs. Looking for a Pages file to work on? Just open up Pages and search through your list of files. You will only see Pages files; all other files will be out of sight, out of mind.

You don’t have to worry about where a file is stored, and there is a certain simplicity to this that is appealing. If I know I’m looking for a certain Pages file, why am I seeing all of these files that aren’t it from other programs? With iCloud’s method of storing files, if you at least know the program that it was created in, it won’t be that hard to find a file.

The downside of this is that currently iCloud storage doesn’t allow multiple programs to access the same files. Will Byword still be your text editor of choice five years from now? Maybe not, but how will you get those files to be associated with another program?

Apple hasn’t really addressed this issue yet. I suspect that a future version of iOS (perhaps as early as this year) will allow a user to select multiple programs that can open and edit a file. But that’s not the reality today, and we can only make decisions based on today’s realities.

With Dropbox, I can have multiple programs open the same files. Heck, programs that haven’t even come into existence will one day be able to open my files. It is, however, more complex to setup this structure, but it offers a world of flexibility.

I store my Byword files as plain text files, a format that has been around for decades and a format that will probably be around on computers as we know them forever. I’m not concerned that 20 years from now that my files won’t be accessible by modern programs, and because I’m choosing a basic file format, a lot of different programs can open the same files. It is entirely possible that a text editing program will come around next year for the iPad that will blow me away, and I’ll be very thankful that I stored by files as plain text and used Dropbox, allowing my new program to easily begin editing those files.

But Dropbox has some negatives. First, it costs $100 a year for a paid account. If you keep an iPad for five years, that’s $500. That’s a lot of money to spend for the privilege of having more flexibility with how your files are stored.

Yes, Dropbox does give free account holders 2 GB of free storage, which is fine for most document types, and the ability to earn 16 GB more of free space by referring people to Dropbox, but for most people Dropbox still offers less free space than iCloud. And, while clearly not a fault of Dropbox’s, Dropbox can do a lot more than iCloud, and you’re much more likely to eat up your Dropbox storage than your iCloud storage.

Also, more novice computer users may also find the process of setting up Dropbox to be harder than iCloud. I’d recommend setting up folder structures on a personal computer and not on the iPad for instance. To use Dropbox, you’ll need to tie it into a personal computer as well, whereas iCloud can exist just on and iPad and the cloud.

Dropbox, however, does a lot more than just syncing files. It provides a backup for all of the files in my Dropbox folder on my Mac and is my main backup strategy.

Dropbox can back up just about anything (iPhoto databases excluded), whereas iCloud can only backup files from programs that are written specifically for iCloud. As it stands today, iCloud isn’t really a Dropbox competitor, and I would recommend that users at least go with something like Dropbox to back up their important files.

In terms of up-time and reliability, I find Dropbox to be better. I haven’t had issues with either, but Dropbox has years of proven service. If you’re comfortable with traditional file systems, and you’re looking for a way to backup files on your personal computer as well, I recommend Dropbox over iCloud. I personally use both, but Dropbox is the backbone of my productivity syncing solution, whereas iCloud is used for backing up my audio and video files.

Software and services mentioned in this article:
* Byword
* Simplenote
* Omnioutliner
* Omnifocus
* Instapaper
* Reeder
* Pages
* iCloud
* Dropbox

Ignore email, be more productive at work

A new study suggests that ignoring email makes you more productive:

In the study, a group of 13 volunteers vowed to go on a no-e-mail diet for five days, with all new e-mails received during that period bypassing the inbox and a rule against sending any new e-mail. Researchers monitored both the heart rate of participants as well as the activity on their computer screens during the e-mail vacation and during a three-day control period of e-mail use.

While heart rates remained virtually the same—they were actually a bit higher, which the researchers attributed to an increase in reported away-from-desk activity—the concrete benefit was that the workers spent almost twice as much time in each window on average (over two minutes per windows without e-mail, versus 75 seconds with it) and switched windows half as much (18 times per hour on average without e-mail versus 37 with it). These results suggest that having no e-mail to attend to improved workers’ attention spans and made their days less intense.

I’d suggest that employers stop relying so much on email. It’s not a project management tool.

Episode 10: Angry Avians (using the iPad for work)

We discuss how we use our iPads for work and how tablets can make us more productive.

Safari on the iPad would almost be worth the price of admission alone. It’s a really great app. So are Mail and iCal. We don’t discuss this built in apps, however, and instead focus on some of the really strong third-party apps that help us be more productive.

Here are some of the applications we talk about:

  • Omnioutliner — A great outlining program, especially helpful in meetings.
  • Omnifocus — A GTD, task management program. Built for David Allen’s system. Very handy for staying on top of multiple projects at once.
  • Reeder — The best RSS program around, complete with great social media and Instapaper integration.
  • Instapaper — If you love to read and reading is an important part of your job, you need Instapaper ASAP.
  • Twitterific — Our favorite Twitter app.
  • Kindle/iBooks — Great for reading books, papers and reports.
  • TripIt — Your travel companion.
  • Pages — Word processing on the go. Not bad for taking notes in meetings either.
  • Numbers — Spreadsheets on the go, also helpful for being able to view spreadsheets in meetings.
  • Keynote — Presentations on the go.
  • WordPress — Post to WordPress blogs, such as this site. Works better than logging in through the Web.

Listen to this week’s show:

Download the MP3

How do you use your iPad for work?

We’re doing our next show on how we use our iPads for work, which apps we have and how our iPads are set up.

We’d love to hear from you too. What are your top five most used apps? How does or doesn’t the iPad enhance your productivity? What kinds of apps and features would you like to see?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below or send me a message on twitter @pwthornton.