“I became an expert overnight” said no-one, ever!

It’s easy to believe that some people were born in life to do what they do, that somehow they are gifted at birth or it’s part of their DNA. The way that they make it look so easy, that their knowledge just flows from their lips or fingertips like it was gospel, or that their power and hold over an audience is natural and unrehearsed. In reality, when you see them in full flow of their ‘expertise’, it’s a common mistake to forget or to not even realise how much time they have spent repeating over and over and over, through trial and error, through failure and success, through sacrifice.

Is it our own mistake, or is that what we’re taught to believe? Today’s modern society can unfortunately deceive those who wish to take on a new skill or ability, with promises of success without the effort, achievements without the commitment, and reward without the risk. In turn, this causes those who fall at the first hurdle all too easily to give up and lose hope, never again opening up the opportunity to understand their own potential.

The truth is, anyone can achieve what they want in life by committing themselves to that outcome. Whatever it is you’re trying to learn or the goal you want to achieve, the investment of time in repeated rehearsal and then taking inspiration from failure (because there will be many opportunities), are two key ingredients for success.

For myself, I’ve learned that the only way to know, is to try. How do you know if you can, if you never try?

Back at school I used to dread those afternoon cross-country runs, since it meant trudging through the rain for a hour, trying to keep up with those who seemed to otherwise enjoy the experience. I couldn’t see the point, and found relief on returning to warm up with a hot shower, quickly forgetting what just took place. Or perhaps they understood. Not the meaning of today’s running experience, but the longer term benefits of running every week. The repeated experience – each time making small progress, small improvements, growing their ability.

Earlier this year I decided to put a stake in the ground and conquer my aversion to running – if there is one event that needs to be done, it’s the London Marathon. If there is a reason to run, it’s to see if it’s possible to run that 26.2 mile distance, as someone who has always avoided the experience all together. How hard could it be? How far I could run, how long, how quickly? It is something that is unknown to me, as I had not tested myself, or tried.

The first few times I felt like dying since my body was quite rejecting the idea. Sitting in a chair all day it seemed, was much easier, less effort, more reward. But pushing through, and doing it again, different day, different place. Even after the first few weeks, stop start, walking to running, I began to see an improvement. Small progress, small improvements, growing my ability. Encouraged, I looked for ways to keep focused, building a habit, maintaining consistency, as I was living proof that the only way to improve is to repeat, over and over and over.

It’s still a good 6 months away, but with the targets I’ve set, using the tools I’ve found to help me out along the way, I should be on target to complete the marathon within a reasonable time. To be honest, I am not looking to set the world on fire, as It isn’t about showing to other people what I can do. Just being able to complete it at all is proving to myself, that I can, because I tried.

Productivity, Technology

Productivity on the Mac: aText

Recently I’ve been looking at a number of ways to improve productivity – this includes changing the way I work, live, and operate, but some of these improvements can be done in small steps as well. Having switched back to Mac at the end of last year as my primary device for work and play (the biggest improvements gained were through choosing high quality hardware with an SSD drive, by the way!) I have since built up a useful collection of software utilities which make those small improvements in productivity.

The latest of these is called aText, which I came across when originally looking at start using TextExpander. In simple terms, it will replace text automatically with pre-defined text, which you configure within the app. How is that useful? It takes some getting used to, but if you spent anytime thinking about it, you’ll find that you regularly type the same particular phrases all day long – this app allows you to, for example, type ‘tkvm’ in any application, and aText will replace that with ‘Thank you very much’.

Not an immediately obvious benefit, but as I’ve began to populate aText with business names, people, products, I do find myself writing emails, documents, meeting notes much quicker. In Evernote I recently built a template note which I use to document all my meetings – using aText, I can now quickly include attendees (e.g. ‘AA*’ becomes ‘Andrew Allen’), add dates (‘ddate’ becomes ‘Friday, 23 May 2014’), include timings (‘ttime’ becomes ’13:56’) etc.

Arranging meetings and including the conference bridge details is quick as well. I’ve setup ‘bridge*’ to be automatically replaced with:

To join the teleconference:

United Kingdom: 0800 xxxxxxx (freephone) or 0203 xxxx xxx
United States: 855 xxx xxxx (toll-free) or 404 xxx xxxx
Conference Code: 7785xxxxxx#

To view all global dial-in numbers, please click the link:

So why aText? Like I mentioned above, I was looking to use TextExpander as I heard it described on a recent productivity podcast, but I couldn’t justify ~$35 – fortunately a few Google searches later, I came across aText, which provides pretty much the same functionality and at only $5 on the App Store, it was a no brainer.

The Pomodoro Technique

Entry Updated: July 4th, 2012

I’ve always been interested in trying to find ways of improving my time management – like everybody, it’s not perfect, and with so many distractions all around us all the time, it’s sometimes too easy to procrastinate.

While reading through Scott Hanselman’s 2011 Ultimate Developer and Power Users Tool List for Windows, I noticed a link to Tomighty, along with a reference to The Pomodoro Technique. After digging in further, and reading through the links and the material on the site itself, the simple idea of managing tasks in 25-minute segments appealed. I’ve tried various methods before, and anything complicated or hard to maintain quickly gets dropped by the wayside as I fall back into old habits – I know I am not the only one.

The Pomodoro Technique was actually created by Francesco Cirillo back in the 1980s and is practiced by professional teams and individuals around the world. The basic unit of work can be split into five simple steps:

  • Choose a task to be accomplished
  • Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer)
  • Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
  • Take a short break (5 minutes is OK)
  • Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break

And although that’s pretty much the main ideas, there are some other primary objectives needed to get the most out of the technique. On the official site, you can download the following free resources, which is pretty much everything you need, and I highly recommend reading through the book as your first step (there is a print copy available on Amazon if you prefer):

Like Scott, I’ll be using Tomighty on my laptop – it’s also a bonus that you don’t need to install it. I know there are lots of other similar software solutions available, including on the iPhone, but this looks to do the job, and I am sure that Scott has already evaluated loads of them before deciding to stick to using Tomighty.

I’ve also ordered the official Pomodoro Technique Timer from Amazon UK – technically any timer will do, but I’ve always had something about wanting ‘official’ products 🙂 It’s ~£8.00, not really that much more than any other timer. I like the idea of something physical, so that I can apply the technique away from the computer or technology in general.

So I’ve actually written this up in my first Pomodoro, and I am going to see if I can continue to use this technique to stay as productive as possible. We’ll see 🙂

Update: July 4th, 2012

Almost 2 weeks later, and it’s actually been pretty hard to try and stick to using the technique, but where persistance has won out, it has been rewarding. It’s also true that while initially you think you can do 8 to 12 Pomorodi in a day, I’ve yet to reach that target simply because the number of distractions in a single day are considerable, and while this will differ for everyone, working in an open plan office ensures that distractions are all around.

Building out your record sheet, depending on what statistics you decide to collect, actually helps make the obvious distractions standout, and from there helping you to avoid them. If I need to concentrate fully (the whole idea by the way), I’ll set messenger to busy, close Outlook, and if possible, work from one of the hot offices – but any room where you can work on your own and shut the door will do.

I did recieve the Pomodoro Technique Timer I ordered from Amazon, but the only downside so far is not being able to use it more than a few times in the office, since everyone else around you will quickly get irritated with it – however, I do make a point of using it at home, since it’s also about associating the motion of winding up the timer.

Back in the office, although I’ve got Tomighty installed onto my laptop, I’ve actually found the most useful timer is the Pomodoro Timer app on my iPhone. I tried out a number of different timers from the App Store, but I didn’t want any that included the ability to record tasks in the app directly, or be over complicated with features, or laden with advertisments. I liked the Pomodoro Timer most because it keeps the screen active while running, but will still popup / alert once its counted down, even if you do switch to another application – you can also write a little reminder note under the timer itself to help keep your focus on your current task. By using the iPhone, I can cut down on annoying anyone else by just adjusting the volume, or wearing headphones.

When it came to finding the most suitable way of actually tracking tasks as ‘Activity Inventory’ and ‘To Do Today’ worksheets, keeping these on paper didn’t work for me. Instead, I’ve settled on using Microsoft OneNote synced into my Microsoft SkyDrive account – because there is now a OneNote client on the iPhone, I’ve now got full access at work, at home, and always with me on my phone.

I did come across a few websites that are designed for working with the Pomorodo Technique, allowing you a place to record and track all your pending activities, along with some automated reporting capability. Personally, I didn’t want to use yet another tool for storing my personal data, or become dependant on yet another 3rd party website which may not be around in 12 months once the developer has lost interest.

If you’ve started to look at the Pomorodo Technique yourself, I have also since read the Pomodoro Technique Illustrated by Staffan Noteberg, which I can also highly recommend, even over the original book. It breaks it all down into easier to digest illustrated sections with lots of other ideas discussed as well, including using the technique amoung a team of people.

I’d be interested to hear if you’ve tried to use the technique yourself, even heard of it before, or have any other suggestions from your own experiences – add your comments below.