Results for tag "productivity"

7 Articles

The Ultimate Time Management Hack that Took Me 5 Years to Create – Part 2

Here’s what happened last time on ExcelShir in case you missed it:
The Ultimate Time Management Hack that Took Me 5 Years to Create – Part 1

And now, the conclusion…

4. Medium Focus Time (4MFT)

What is 4MFT?

I realize the word “medium” can be very subjective, so for me it means time in which I’m not quite as focused as I am in the morning, but I’ve still got some pep left in my step. The trick to keeping productivity and focus up during this time is to shift gears and work on something different than I did in the morning. What can I say? I crave variety.

Where does 4MFT usually take place?

This almost always takes place at home. Occasionally I’ll be out and about and have the ability to stay somewhat focused in a cafe or bookstore. This is the exception though, not the rule.

When does 4MFT typically occur?

After lunch and meditation (here’s why I meditate every day by the way), which is usually between 3-5 pm, give or take an hour. 4MFT usually doesn’t last for longer than 2 hours.

Which activities are good examples for 4MFT?

  • Anything that I didn’t finish during my 1NET Time but the deadline is fast approaching… like blog editing for example. Ahem.
  • Prospect list research. Not the rote work of finding company names, contact names and email addresses. I’m talking about crafting a customized email pitch for each of them specifically. More on that in a future post.
  • Preparing for lessons with 1-on-1 Excel training clients.
  • A more enjoyable work project (something that I’m excited about, like dashboards).
  • If I have nothing pressing, than sometimes I’ll work on my own personal Excel projects during this time. Yes, I spend some of my free time with Excel. I’m hardcore like that.

5. High Focus Time (5HFT)

What is 5HFT?

Ah the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The Creme de la creme of productivity. To me, High Focus Time feels like the scene where Neo sees the matrix, or John Nash cracks the codes during “A Beautiful Mind.”

This may sound silly, but sometimes I actually feel superhuman. After all, I am experiencing “flow.” You know, the enchanted garden of productivity and full immersion where time seems to vanish. I learned about it through Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work.

The sad thing is that most people only stumble upon this sweet nectar of productivity by accident. I on the other hand, engineer this “flow” 3-5 times per week. Usually for 90 minutes. I know this because I log my time using the OfficeTime App, and use the free online tool e.ggtimer (props to Tim Ferris for suggesting it). Anything worked past the initial 90 minutes is a pure bonus. If I’m on a roll, I’ll keep going. If not, I’ll stop there and won’t feel guilty. Sounds like a win-win scenario if there ever was one.

Where does 5HFT usually take place?

At home. Period. I have yet to experience this anywhere else. I’ve got my comfy chair, Pandora One, my bottle of water (gotta stay hydrated!), and natural light pouring into my room. There are no distractions, no need to chit chat with co-workers to be polite, and no emails to check. The only way to reach me is through a phone call or text. Even then I only check to see if it’s an emergency, and answer only if it is. In case you couldn’t tell, I am extremely vigilant about keeping this time undisturbed!

When does 5HFT typically occur?

After breakfast. Usually from about 12-2 pm. Some days I can go for longer than others. I have noticed that it is extremely rare for me to be able to focus as well at any other time of day.

Which activities are good examples for 5HFT?

All the super important, creative work gets done here. For example:

  • Paid client work like dashboards, or one of my current projects such as Beyond Tells
  • Client communications that involve sales concepts or strategic thinking on my part
  • Curriculum development, filming, or pretty much any kind of work on my online Excel classes
  • Important brainstorming of any kind

Basically I’ll go down my list of WIGs and work on those first during this time. This is another reason why it’s helpful to recite my WIGs out loud every day, right before starting High Focus Time.

Whew! You made it through all 5 time contexts. Congrats! :)

So what does classifying time into these 5 contexts actually DO for me?

Well, for starters I become very familiar with which type of work requires which type of time context. This enables me to make startlingly accurate predictions of how much I can accomplish per week. More importantly however, I’m able to optimize my productivity system and see where the weak points are. It helps me use the right tool for the right job, or in this case, work on tasks that are ideal for the time context that I am currently in.

How do I do that exactly?

It involves 2 completely separate processes:

  1. Assigning new tasks to the appropriate time context
  2. Choosing which task to work on, given a specific time context

The key to assigning new tasks is to always go for the lowest possible mentally challenging time. Here’s the algorithm I follow:

  • Can this task be done in 1NET Time? If yes, assign it to 1NET.
  • If not, can it be done in 2MCT? If yes, assign it to 2MCT.
  • If not, can it be done in 3LFT? If yes, assign it to 3MCT.
  • If not, can it be done in 4MFT? If yes, assign it to 4MFT.
  • If not, can it be done in 5HFT? If yes, assign it to 5HFT.
  • If not, re-evaluate your time classification system, and consider creating a new classification altogether.

In Excel, it would look like a Nested If formula:

IF("Task"="4MFT","4MFT",IF("Task"="5HFT","5HFT","Re-evaluate System")))))

In English, all I’m doing is striving for the minimum level of focus required for each task. Only the tasks that absolutely must have super creative focus should be attempted during 5HFT. Otherwise I am sub-optimizing my most valuable asset.

Think of it another way. When you are cooking a stew you don’t chop all the vegetables first and only then turn on the stove to boil the water.

Such a rookie mistake!

Instead, you heat up the water first, and THEN start chopping vegetables. That way, by the time you are done chopping, the water is already boiling.

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

As for deciding which task to work on, given a specific time context, here’s the algorithm that I use:

  • 5HFT – Begin 5HFT tasks first. Only if all 5HFT tasks are complete move on to 4MFT.*
  • 4MFT – Begin 4MFT tasks first. Only if all 4MFT tasks are complete move on to 3LFT.
  • 3LFT – Begin 3LFT tasks first. If all 3LFT tasks are complete consider attempting 2MCT or 1NET, but most likely just take a break or stop doing work because you probably won’t be able to focus anyway.
  • 2MCT – Begin 2MCT tasks first. Only if all 2MCT tasks are complete consider moving on to 4MFT or even 5HFT (depending on how focused you feel).
  • 1NET – Begin 1NET first. Only if all 1NET tasks are complete consider moving on to 3LFT or possibly 4MFT if at a cafe or somewhere quiet.

*Note: When the thought of a particular 5HFT task makes me cringe and I don’t think I can do a good job of it, I move on to the next task immediately. It would be a fool’s errand to try and force it. Instead, I choose the next highest priority item that I DO feel like working on.

Pro tip: Go easy on yourself

A prime example of this is to notice if and when you are slipping from High Focus Time (5HFT) into Medium Focus Time (4MFT), or even to Low Focus Time (3LFT).

In fact, several times while writing this blog post I stopped in the middle because I realized I was losing focus.

In the past, I used to get really angry and disappointed in myself. But now, thanks to my personal daily affirmations, I smile and move on to another task, or take a break altogether. I can’t even begin to tell you how beneficial this has been to my productivity, sanity, and overall happiness.

Remember that it’s not just you. Everyone experiences these fluctuations in mood and productivity. In fact, according to Pauline Kehm the brain can only stay focused for 90 minutes at a time. I learned that during her fantastic mind mapping class. More on Mind Mapping in a future post though.

Have I tickled your curiosity?

Do you want to create your own time classification system? Here are some questions to get you started:

  • When are you most productive?
  • Where are you most productive?
  • How long can you stay focused on 1 task before getting distracted?
  • What tasks can you get done during NET Time (No Extra Time)?
  • Define your most productive time, medium productive time, and low productive time.
  • Create a list of common tasks that would be best suited for each of those time slots. Think about your physical location/environment too.

Final words of wisdom

No system is perfect. I don’t always stick to the schedule, and you know what?

That’s okay!

The point is to become more aware of your own habits and stop dilly dallying. Put another way: get more done, in less time, with less effort. Go with the flow of your own body and mind. Don’t swim upstream.

In other words…

be like the tuna, not the salmon

Thanks Jerry Seinfeld!

P.S. In the meantime, please enjoy a
Free 1-Page Cheat Sheet of All 5 Time Contexts

If you liked this post, sign up for email updates (they're free).
Email Address
First Name

The Ultimate Time Management Hack that Took Me 5 Years to Create – Part 1

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again:

“Time is our most valuable resource.”

No matter who you are, how many resources you have, or what you are doing with your life, we all share the same 24 hours in the day. There is no escape from this fundamental truth. At least, not in the foreseeable future.

Given that sobering realization, there are 2 ways we can deal with this:

  1. Complain about it and continue using it as an excuse to not get things done. (*Ahem* I used to do this all the time)
  2. Acknowledge it and make a conscious choice to measure, analyze, and optimize our lives to get more done in the limited amount of time that we have left.

Since there are quite a few things I want to get done in this life (like this for example), I choose the 2nd option.

If you chose option 1, I strongly encourage you to STOP reading this post immediately. It might shake your belief system to the core, and it doesn’t sound like you’re quite ready for that. Instead, check out the latest viral video on

On the other hand, if you chose option 2, grab yourself a healthy snack (carrots anyone?), because the next few blog posts will bring you one step closer to time management nirvana.

But before we Peter Pan our way off the cliff, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page.

Not All Time is Created Equal

This is important, so I’ll say it again.

Not all time is created equal.

Things like mood, time of day, environment, and other external factors have the power to impact the quality of our experiences, in a very big way.

To help illustrate this point, I am going to share with you the 5 classifications I have created to describe the different time contexts that I experience.


Let’s do this!

1. No Extra Time (1NET)

What is 1NET?

I first learned about this concept from Tony Robbins. As far as I understand it (and please correct me if I’m wrong Tony), it essentially involves optimizing an activity you are already engaged in to include an additional activity (or activities) to get more done in the same amount of time.

For example, here you can see Tony walking on a treadmill while answering emails. The point is, he’s already going to be answering emails, why not also walk and get some exercise in the process?

Another example is listening to audiobooks while on your daily commute. I do this all the time by the way, and am undoubtedly a happier, smarter man as a result. Thanks for the suggestion Tony!

Where does 1NET usually take place?

  • Subways
  • Waiting in long lines
  • Doctors appointments
  • Cafes downtown (if a meeting got cancelled and I already left my apartment)

Note: short waits in lines are not ideal for getting much work done, because by the time I get in “the zone” the wait is over and I have to stop what I’m doing. However, those short waits are perfect for my daily tracking activities (like my Diet Log and Life Balance Log), since they are very modular and don’t require a lot of thinking.

When does 1NET typically occur?

This is by far the most flexible aspect of NET time, which is what makes it so powerful. It can literally happen at ANY MOMENT. For example, on some days 1NET will occur in the afternoon while on the way to a client meeting. On other days, I’ll find myself in 1NET later in the evening. Which begs the question…

How can you tell when you’ve slipped into NET time?

It’s quite simple really. You’ll probably start to feel bored, or find yourself checking your phone for the 3rd time in a row, only to find that “no new emails” have arrived. In other words, you aren’t doing anything useful, but you could be. Make sense?

Which activities are good examples for 1NET?

2. Morning Coffee Time (2MCT)

What is 2MCT?

Alright, so the cat’s out of the bag. I’m a coffee person. That means every morning, like so many others in the developed world, I fill a Cup O’ Joe, and start the day with a little extra dose of caffeine. It should come as no surprise then, that 2MCT refers to that sacred time after waking up and before “officially” starting my day. Yes, for me the ritual itself is sacred. Don’t believe me? Look at Mariel Hemingway’s tweet in response to my post.

What’s important to note here is that I do this every morning anyway. This makes it very similar to 1NET, except for 2 key differences: 1) I am usually even more focused than during 1NET, and 2) I am always on my computer while having coffee. After all, with 1NET I am usually out and about, working from my smart phone. Nostalgia moment: Remember when the only thing you could do with your phone was make a call? *Sigh*

Where does 2MCT usually take place?

Fortunately for me, 99% of the time I am not rushing out of my apartment in the morning. This is just one of the many perks of being self-employed and not being a slave to the 9-5 culture! Because of this, 2MCT takes place in my kitchen, and I rarely ever skip it.

When does 2MCT typically occur?

About 10:00 am – 11:30 am. Why so long? Because I’m also having breakfast! And as you’ll soon discover, I’m also getting a lot of work done.

So :P

Which activities are good examples for 2MCT?

  • Checking personal finances
  • Recording earnings in my freelancer earning log from the previous day (my longest-running and most useful Excel tool I’ve ever created)
  • Re-categorizing transactions in (the best free way to manage your personal finances. And they didn’t even pay me to say that!)
  • Answering emails that I’ve marked as “Requires Action” (more on that in my post How I Reach Inbox Zero in Under 5 Minutes Every Day)

3. Low Focus Time (3LFT)

What is 3LFT?

This should be pretty self explanatory. During Low Focus Time I cannot engage in complex, creative, or cognitively-driven activities. In other words, I can’t focus very well. Thank you captain obvious.

Where does 3LFT usually take place?

95% of the time this takes place at home, but every once in a while I’ll be out at a cafe at night with my computer, and it happens there. Thanks for making that possible NYC!

When does 3LFT typically occur?

No matter how much I’ve tried to fight it over the years, after the sun goes down, my productivity takes an absolute nose dive. Interestingly enough, even if the sun is still up (as it is in the summer months) I still lose my ability to focus after 5 or 6 pm. There have even been times when I’m unable to focus during the day because I’m pre-occupied or excited about something else. In other words, Low Focus Time can creep up on you when you least expect it.

Which activities are good examples for 3LFT?

  • If I have any sort of manual repetitive task (of which there are very few in my life to begin with), this is the perfect time for it
  • Video editing for my online classes
  • Creating prospect lists for my Excel Dashboard Services (the world of information dashboards will never be the same!)

Tune in next time when we review the last 2 time contexts.

And yes, I am saving the best for last.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this parting thought, inspired by Bassam Tarazi’s blog post The Lie Behind Carpe Diem:

Don’t live everyday like it was your last. Instead, seize at least one moment, daily.

What moment will you seize today?

If you liked this post, sign up for email updates (they're free).
Email Address
First Name

NYC Subway + Tunnel Vision = Flow

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as “…a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.” Thanks Wikipedia!

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I know it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: New York City is awesome!

Where else do you have access to any cuisine, anytime, anywhere? There are so many different people from all over the world, in such a small geographic area. Want to take a cooking class? Pottery class? Join a Flash Mob? You name it, NYC’s got it!

And how does the city that never sleeps get people from point A to point B? Public transportation, a.k.a. the subway.

I was 12 years old the first time I rode the subway by myself. To put that in context for all you non-native New Yorkers, it was the emotional equivalent of getting my driver’s license.

One huge advantage of the subway, is since I’m not driving the train, I can get work done on the way. This goes back to Tony Robbin’s concept of No Extra Time or (N.E.T.) time, illustrated here with him answering emails while walking on a treadmill. I’m already riding the train anyway, so doing work would take zero extra time away from other things. And until we develop transporter technology, that’s not going to change anytime soon. By the way, any diehard Trekkie fans want to get on that? I’ll be the first on your waiting list!

It’s not all peaches and cream though. Here are some potential drawbacks of working on the subway:

  • No Internet access. This is not actually a problem, since there is always plenty of work that doesn’t require being “plugged in.” Anyone else feel like Neo from The Matrix sometimes? This mostly takes the form of writing (like this blog post!) and brainstorming (like the Mindstorm that generated the idea for this blog post!).
  • Major service changes that affect my usual route. This doesn’t usually happen, but if it does I need to actually pay attention to announcements which invariably distract me from my work. Sad face.
  • Very crowded trains. Fortunately, I rarely travel during rush hour. I make a point not to go anywhere before 2 pm unless absolutely necessary. If I’m downtown, I also make a point to stay out later until the evening rush hour ends at about 7 or 8.
  • The massively annoying and infamously un-entertaining “showtime” guys. I’m not sure who started it, but there are at least a dozen separate groups performing the same exact “show” these days. For those of you who don’t know, they blast loud hip hop music with a very strong bass, clap louder than your audiologist would recommend, and dance in the moving subway car. At least once during the performance they have a signature move of jumping onto the poles and twirling their way down. The only people who are impressed are out-of-towners. Clearly, these showtime guys are majorly disruptive. Fortunately I’ve managed to pinpoint which subway cars to avoid at specific times during the day. For example, they seem to be on a weekday loop during the day, getting on the 2nd or 3rd car from the front on the A train at 125th street. Why 125th? Because it’s the longest time between the next stop of 59th street and allows for maximum disturbance potential. I really want people to stop giving them money so they would learn that it is not a profitable way to spend their time. The fact that they continue to do it leads me to believe otherwise though. Wow, that was quite a rant. I must have been more upset about it than I realized!

Since I always like to end on a more positive note, here are some of the benefits of working on the subway:

  • Increased focus. I am able to concentrate remarkably well, with the help of in-ear headphones and the playing of music without lyrics. I make sure never to have it on so loud that I’m oblivious to my surroundings, but it’s enough to make everything else fade to background noise.
  • Movement & people. Sitting at home all day makes me feel physically restless and socially isolated. Riding the subway requires some physical movement and also surrounds me with people. #winwin
  • Fewer choices = less time deciding what to do. I’m either reading, listening to an audiobook (something I usually reserve for long walks in the city), or most of the time I’m reading or brainstorming. This takes some of the mental burden off of not knowing what to work on. It’s Barry Schwartz’s concept of the Paradox of Choice, we have so many options that we feel overwhelmed and end up doing nothing. Sound familiar?
  • Less pressure due to limited timeframe. When I arrive at my destination, the work must stop. That takes the perceived burden off of my shoulders in spending an indefinite amount of time on a particular task. I like that. It has the same impact as the 5 minute timer when I Mindstorm.
  • Helpful distractions. It allows for the option of momentary distractions and people watching. Again, it’s background noise so it doesn’t actually interfere with my focus if I’m in the zone, experiencing flow. However, if I hit a small road block or dead end of some kind, I can pause for a moment. I look up and people watch, and somehow it seems to help me come up with new ideas. I must have done that at least 4 or 5 times while writing the first draft of this post.

One last thing to point out is that on the subway ride home at the end of the day, it’s no longer my prime time for cognitive work. That’s why I do most of my self-tracking during that time. Diet Log, CANI Log, Life Balance Log, 1 Second Everyday, and of course the Subway Schedule Log.

The cool thing is that everyone works differently. It took me a while to become intimately familiar with my ideal working habits. Where do you work best? In an office? At home? At a coffee shop? On the train? Discuss!