How to wake up fresh with a smarter alarm

Most of you might not know that your brain is in various phases while you sleep. Yes, even if you think you are a deep sleeper, you aren’t in the “deep sleep” stage the entire time you are in the bed. The brain alternates between various stages and there are times when you are in deep sleep and times when you are in the light sleep stage.

The problem with traditional alarm clocks are that it is based on a fixed time and what stage you are during that time is totally dependant upon what time you started sleeping (not what time you went to bed). Waking up to the “nuclear warning” sound of your alarm clock while you are in deep sleep is the worst way to begin your day.

You can wire up your brain and monitor what stage you are in and ask someone to wake you up at the right moment. But It is too costly and no human would be willing to monitor and wake you up every single day.

The alternative is to use the various sleep monitoring apps available for your smartphones. These apps use the accelerometer in your smartphone and detect the minor movements you make when during the lightest stage of your sleep. Using that, it can wake you up at the right stage and you would wake up refreshed and not wanting to kill everyone.

SleepTime alarm set screen
SleepTime alarm set screen

The app I use is SleepTime by Azumio, which is available for both iPhone and Android phones. All you have to do is set up a Alarm Time by which time you “should” wake up. The App chooses a 30 minute window before the set time. Whenever you are in the lightest stage of your sleep within that 30 minute window, it wakes you up. It also has nice graphs of your sleep stages and how often you woke up, etc. It is interesting if you love to measure metrics about everything.

The alarm sound is also very light and pleasant sounding (much relief to my wife) and since you are in the lightest stage of the sleep, even the lightest sounds is enough to wake you up. I tried similar apps long time before but the old android smartphones were more of a battery extractors and the phone died out before I could even finish a night’s sleep. Constantly monitoring the accelerometer is a battery drain.

But nowadays batteries are much better and on my iphone I lose about something like 20% of battery from a fully charged state. I did try this app many days and I have definitely been woken up at the lightest stage of my sleep to the lowest volume. There was an exception on a day or two, but that was because I was too tired to wake up because of not enough sleep (I am a night owl).

If you are a normal living person and want to wake up fresh everyday, do try SleepTime. You would notice a small difference in how you wake up.

Increase your concentration using the Pomodoro Technique

real-world-pomodoro-timerThere are times when you would want to sit down and work on a task, but lack the determination & concentration to sit through it and finish it completely. Add colleagues or family members who constantly disturb you for petty things and you have got the perfect recipe for a huge list of tasks that are half-complete and you don’t even know where your entire day had gone.

After trying lot of techniques for handling my time and task lists better, I finally found the Pomodoro Technique which is quite easy to stick to and also leads to much higher productivity. Pomodoro technique divides your entire work hours into 25 minutes intervals with 5 minutes break in between. There are also times when you can take a longer break. But the 25 minutes (called a pomodoro) is purely spent only for work with no distractions (there are ways to handle interruptions too)

Starting on the Pomodoro Technique is quite easy. All you need is a piece of paper, a simple countdown timer and some tasks which you must get done. You can read the official book which does a good job of explaining in detail how to start using the technique. But here is a very quick version that you can read now. Once you see how effective it is, it is hard to not use it when you want to be productive.

Step 1: List out all the tasks you want to be completed today. Order them by the highest priority first.

Step 2: Pick the first task, start your countdown timer for 25 minutes and work on the task at hand.

Step 3: When 25 minutes has passed and you hear your alarm, stop working, mark an “X” against the task and take a break for 5 minutes. If you are programmer, get out of the desk and go drink water and look out the window.

Step 4: If the task you picked is completed, strike out the task and pick the next task. Else continue working on the same task. Now start your next pomodoro (25 minute counter) and repeat until all tasks you listed are completed. At the end of the day, the task sheet you have will show you how productive you were and how many tasks you got completed by the day.

Note: After every 4 pomodoros, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. You could do anything during this break like checking email/facebook, having lunch, drinking coffee, etc. So you get a big break every 2 hours.

This is the very short version of the technique and is enough to get you started. But do read the book (you can complete it in 1 or 2 pomodoros) and it explains in details on how to handle interruptions (both internal and external). It also explains how to do time estimation and lot of other tips that may be useful for advanced users.

There are various apps for smartphones, for the pomodoro timers. Even though I have a physical timer (the pomodoro shaped one) I got from Chile, I use the Mac app Pomodoro Desktop which also has a free open source version for download. The good thing about it is the ticking sound which when you hear on a earphone, will drive you to push yourself harder to complete as much of the task possible before the current pomodoro completes and I love this for just that.

Stop procrastinating using this 2 minute rule

Are you a super procrastinator like me? Do you always wait till the last minute to finish off something? Use this 2 minute rule to finish off the small tasks and have a clear head for your important tasks which take longer time to finish.

If something can be done in 2 minutes, do it NOW. 

Simple. Thats it. These include things like throwing the garbage out, calling your bank to enquire about a transaction you don’t remember, booking your travel tickets, etc. Some of the tasks might require some thinking (like the travel dates) and it wouldn’t be complete in 2 minutes exactly (like the phone call). But you do get the idea right?

If it is so simple and can be done in a very short duration, do it immediately and strike it off your task list (you do have a task list right?). Your mind has limited bandwidth and once these silly tasks are completed, you would be off to solving real problems that matter.

8 Ideas to keep you motivated when working from home

When I say I work from home, my friends and relatives imagine me lying down lazily on the couch and watching TV, with one hand on the laptop and another hand in a bag of chips. No boss to breathe down your neck or micromanage you. You’ve got all the time in the world and can even take a quick nap if you are feeling sleepy.

Actually, working all alone in a room without any direct interaction with your team members is slightly depressing sometimes and can take a hit on your productivity. Sometimes you would miss that micromanaging boss who sits near your desk with a list of tasks to complete – printed out on paper from your bug tracker.

Here are 8 ideas for you to work smartly and be productive working alone from home.

1. Have a routine and stick to it

clockWorking from home gives your the joy of 0 minute commutes. But that doesn’t mean you can wake up any time you want to and sit down to work in your pajamas with your breakfast in one hand.

Start your work just like you would do if you had to go to an office. Wake up, go to gym or a jog and have your breakfast before you step into your home-office (yeah, refer it as Home-Office next time you talk to friends). For some people they feel productive and in the zone only if they dress up, just like in an office. Try doing it and find what suits you.

Find the right time for yourself. Few of us are a morning person while some are night owls. I personally prefer working late at night and get into the zone only after midnight. You can try talking to your boss if you can shift the time a bit based on what kind of a person you are. But do make sure you have at least a few hours of overlapping time zones between team members.

2. Have a separate work area and time

You know how working from home means, you can lie down on your bed with your laptop and your boss wouldn’t even know. Or how about catching up on the shows on TV while you lean back on the couch. You could never get things done that way.

Always have a place at home where you can draw an imaginary border separating your home from your office. Most of the times, a simple desk with a good chair in a separate room would suffice.

Make sure the place is well lit and the temperature is set to the optimum as too hot or too cold can be a real irritant and can cause a huge drop in productivity. And also keep the desk clear of all clutter. Close the doors and tell your family that during your work hours, you are not to be disturbed unless your house is on fire.

The border should work both ways. Whenever you are in the work area during the work time, do only work related activities. And once you step outside the work area, spend your time with your family. This means having your lunch/dinner away from the desk.

It may be tempting to have your lunch at the desk. DON’T DO IT. Step away and spend your lunch time with family/friends if you can. Lunch can also be a nice time to meet some mentors and network with them asking for advice.

3. Have a prioritised task list

task-listStart every day by creating a list of tasks that need to be completed today (better if you could do it the night before) and make sure you specify how much time it would take to complete. Sort it based on priority or whatever magic number your team uses. Manually ticking off each task as you complete is a small treat to your brain.

Its OK even if you miss the time estimations initially. Unless your task list has a deadline, it would never get completed. Having the set of milestones to complete will really make you forget about those little distractions you might have every day.

I use Trello for tracking the tasks and it works great when you have a team working on various parts of the project. If you are working on a simple project as a solo developer, something as simple as a pen and paper would work great.

4. Take regular breaks

Working continuously for long hours can have problems to your health and also affect the quality of your work. Everyone can work for long hours without a break, but pretty soon the body will break down and you would have to take a longer break than the occasional 5-10 minutes break you should’ve taken in the first place.

Sitting for long hours in the desk is very damaging to your body and make sure you take a very short 5 minutes break every 25 minutes. You can use the pomodoro technique for this and it is very effective.

5. Talk to your team – either through IM or Skype

skypeSometimes it could be lonely working in your room with no one to talk to. If you have a team which is also working remotely, always communicate with them – either through instant message or call them up using Skype. All it takes a couple of minutes of discussion with another person to spark off the solution to the hard problem.

If you are a single developer working on your own startup, call up some friends or mentors and have a quality discussion for 5-10 minutes.

When you call your friends, you don’t have to always talk about your work. If you do, pretty soon you will be reaching only the voicemail. Instead ask about their day and suggest something that might help them. Remember everyone has problems and just like you, they are also looking for a place to express their emotions.

6. Block Social Networking Sites

The constant checking of updates on social networking sites is the most distracting thing you can do while at work. Block them completely during the work hours or use the “separate social networking device” method I talked about earlier. Also make sure you measure your productivity and identify key areas where you can improve.

And social networks also include your personal email or GTalk account. Remember to do your personal work on your personal time and not while you work.

Of course this rule doesn’t apply if your job is dependent on the constant access to these sites.

7. Work from a cafe/library at least once a week

Working from the same place could become boring after a while and soon you would be irritated at even the tiny things on your desk (thats why you should clear up your desk regularly). When that happens, just throw your laptop into your bag and head off to the nearest cafe or library and sit down for couple of hours and work.

If there is no internet connection, means no distractions – even better. Going offline for a few hours isn’t that life threatening as you would think. The two hours of concentrated work in the cafe will be more productive than 8 hours of monotonous work in your desk.

8. If everything fails, work from a coworking place

This is seriously the best option for some of us who could never get things done sitting alone. In a coworking place, you have the company of like-minded people in a proper office setting. Sometimes this is all the motivation you need for working. So try working from some coworking place in your city for a month and see if it helps.

Sometimes there might even be casual coworking events called Jellies where people gather in a place and work together. Search for a Jelly in your city. If there isn’t one, host one for others in your house.

The new faces you meet in such places are refreshing and help in the creative brainstorming. If you are interested, you could also try collaborating with them on their projects in your free time.

Try these 8 tips above and drive out the boredom of working alone. Have you got any more ideas to stay motivated working at home? Leave your tips in the comments section below.

Measure your productivity using RescueTime

You can’t improve something unless you measure it. If I asked you how productive you were last week, you would not be able to give an accurate and objective answer. You might say “Well, I emailed the proposal to the client and added feature A, B and C to the product”.

Measuring productivity by tasks completed is good, but can you say what percentage of time you spend on your code editor/IDE vs checking status updates on social networking sites? Unless you find out your productivity percentage, your time will leak one distracting site at a time, everyday.

I use the perfect tool for measuring how productive you are everyday and you can also start using it for free. And it runs in the background, not needing any kind input from you, but gives insightful information about your computer usage. It is called “RescueTime“.

rescuetime logoRescueTime offers a free software that runs silently in the background of your computer, tracking the various things you do on your computer – applications you work on, files you edit, websites you visit, etc. It stores them all securely on the server and allows you to see them and put them in 5 broad categories – very productive, productive, neutral, distracting and very distracting.

For example, your IM client is marked automatically as very distracting, while your spreadsheet would be marked as very productive. It can even use the URL of the websites you browse and classify them accordingly based on what type it is – like News and Opinion for Reddit and Reference for Wikipedia.

You can view your reports per day/week/month/year and you get interesting metrics about total time you spend on your computer, productivity %, most productive days, efficient time of the day and lot of nice looking graphs.

My this week's rescuetime dashboard.
My RescueTime dashboard.

You can edit the categories a site/application belongs to easily and also set the productivity score for them individually. You can even setup goals for completion everyday – like minimum of N productive hours from 9AM-6PM, no more than X distracting time for the entire day, etc.

If you are a freelancer, working on multiple client’s projects, you can create multiple projects and setup keywords to match activities to the respective projects automatically. Pretty neat, huh!

The basic version is free which is sufficient for most of a beginner’s needs. There is also a Pro version which provides detailed analysis of individual activities you did, access to data older than 3 months and track offline data like meetings/calls. Apart from the individual version, you can also buy RescueTime for your entire team and track the productivity of your entire organisation.

Do install it and give it a try. In a week, you would be hooked on to the information you measure about yourself. And once you start measuring something, it automatically improves like magic. Do come back in a week and leave a comment here on how productive you were.

Disclaimer: I am a long time RescueTime user and love it. However the links are referral links and if you sign up using the links above, I would get a few days of the Pro version free. 

Instant solution to reduce distractions

Do you waste hours everyday on your computer, checking your facebook or twitter account or email inbox?

Just follow this simple rule below and reduce your distractions instantly.

Block your distracting sites on your computer and use only your mobile phone or tablet to check your Social Networking updates or Email.

Simple, right? Not too difficult.

The beauty of this method is that you don’t block Facebook/Twitter completely out of your life as that would be very hard for most of us today. But you make it a tad bit difficult and annoying by forcing yourself to look away from your desktop and using the smaller device. This works even better if you keep your mobile out of reach far away from your desk.

Reason this works: the context switch from your productive task to the unproductive task is so apparent to you because of the different devices you use, you can easily snap out of the distracting task within minutes and get back to your work. Making the conscious effort to waste time, makes you realise that you waste time.

So try this out for at least a week and see how much your productivity has improved. Tomorrow I will tell you how to track your productivity on your computer with a software which runs silently in the background.

Tip: To block particular websites, try the StayFocusd extension for Chrome. Similar plugins for other browsers shouldn’t be hard to find.

How to achieve your goals 85% faster

Have you wanted to lose weight, but couldn’t get yourself off your butt and go for the jog every morning?

Or have you always wanted to invest your money for the future, but can’t save hundreds of dollars every month?

Or you have this amazing idea for a startup, but don’t have the courage to quit your job to work on it?

Everyone has long term goals like these, but we don’t start working on them.
Reason: We want to commit to the goal 100% and be sure that it would work. And we are not even sure if we could continue working towards the goal every day.

The solution to this is to have something which works good enough today – something which works 85% of the time. This is what Ramit Sethi of “I will teach you to be rich” calls “The 85% solution” in his book.

If you want to hit the gym every morning, start by going atleast 1 day every week. Do it for a month and gradually increase it to 3 days a week and so on.

Want to save few hundred dollars every month? How about setting up a monthly automatic transfer for $50 today. Most of us can live if we don’t have that $50 this month. After couple of months increase it to $100 or something higher.

About your startup, why not work for just an hour every night after your day job? Thats about 7 hours (even more if you put in extra hours during the weekend) every week and it adds up to 30 hours every month.

The idea behind this is to have a system which will make you get started with as minimal effort as possible. The start is the most important part and once you find it is working, soon inertia will make sure that you keep going. And using this method means, you won’t feel guilty even if you didn’t go to the gym for 1 day.

85% of something is better than 100% of nothing.

This is what I decided for Blogial. I could’ve waited for my entire life to build the custom blogging application in Django or I could start today with just just a wordpress install and the default theme and write good content. The wordpress route is the 85% solution and it is far better than the Django App which doesn’t even work yet.

So go out and work out in the gym today and don’t worry about tomorrow. Remember doing it once a week is better than thinking of doing it every day.

How to make sure I blog regularly

Do you start a blog and write few posts in the beginning and then let it go into Limbo? Many of us do and I too have done this to numerous blogs.

With the new reboot of Blogial, I need a system which keeps me blogging regularly. For that I have a few rules which I plan to stick to as much as possible. You can also try these rules/suggestions for your improving your blogging.

Publish only one post everyday

I intend to publish only 1 post everyday – not more than one. Some may think why only one? Why not publish as many I could write? That was what I used to do whenever I started a new blog – try to publish as many times as I could. But I find it is not sustainable and it leaves many gaps (and sometimes abandoned blogs).

Also as I am not going to write about breaking news, I want to spread out the posts so that I don’t end up publishing 10 posts in a single day and then take a break for a month. I want to build up a small but great community of readers who want to read what I am going to write about today. Also this will free up my time for other projects I have.

Calendar_IconFor this, I am going to follow a something similar to Jerry Sienfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” technique. I have a daily calendar (the physical calendar, where one tears off yesterday’s page every morning) in front of my desk. I will tear each day off after that day’s post is published. I will also try to write as many posts whenever I have the creative juices flowing and set it to publish in the future so that I can enjoy my vacations without having to worry about the blog. Even this post was written before and set to publish in the future.

Write at least 5 blog post titles everyday

The hardest part of writing blog posts is to come up with an interesting subject to write about. If the title is done, almost half of the post is done. And if I think of at least 5 titles every day, I can think up of enough blog posts to fill a year in just 73 days. Of course it won’t be that simple to come up with 5 titles every day, but making an effort to record all ideas is what matters.

I have a notebook in Evernote with notes for each topic and writing down a list of all titles I think up. I even have written down about 12 titles already. Maybe it would help storing all the titles along with some outline of the content as drafts in WordPress itself. I need to try out both methods and see which is better and will stick with one.

Have a Regular Schedule

I want to try writing at the same time everyday. I still haven’t fixed a time of the day, but right now it is in the night after 11:30. I am a night owl and I can spend more time writing and fixing the post after everyone’s asleep. Of course, thinking about ideas would be done the entire day and writing the titles would would take maybe a minute or two.

Avoid looking at analytics and tinkering of themes/plugins

I don’t want to waste time looking at analytics and trying to perfect the themes or plugins. At least in the beginning, as long as the blog works and can push content I write, I am OK with it. Having a blog with great content that looks mediocre wins hands down over having an mediocre blog that wins design awards. This is called the 85% solution which needs a total change of mindset that helps improves your efficiency and I will explain it in tomorrow’s post.

This is the action plan I have right now for publishing regularly to Blogial. Do you have any other technique that works best for you?