Take Time to Breathe

Life can get overwhelming. Work to do, dinners to cook, kids to care for, relationships to tend. Trying to do it all can be fatiguing. I have found this to be particularly true over this current long school holiday break, where the presence of children and their needs are incessant, but the other parts of life still need to be managed.

Trying to balance it all is not easy, and I don’t believe there is any magic bullet that will solve it all. There are only ever going to be 24 hours in a day. So I think the best response to the pressure comes down to 3 main things1:

  1. Scheduling: maximising the efficient use of time.
  2. Accepting: there’s no such thing as perfection.
  3. Breathing: maintaining mental health through awareness of the bigger picture.


Planning and scheduling can ease the mental burden. By making an agreement with yourself to do certain things at specified times there is clear evidence that time is being utilised to effect and things are getting done. At these times there is no need to worry about all the other things that aren’t getting done in the moment because at least you are doing something.

Personally this year I am trying to improve the structure of my scheduling. I am establishing days as either internal or external. Internal days are dedicated to working on the tasks I have recorded in OmniFocus, following the general Getting Things Done approach to task management. I will also use this time for internal meetings, planning and the like. External days will be available for me to get out on the road, visiting clients, following up business development opportunities, and networking.

I have taken my management of External days one step further by setting up a Calendly account. This service allows me to permit clients to book meetings with me directly, subject to my availability. Calendly knows the days I have set as External, and it knows when the slots I have made available are taken up, preventing them from being double-booked. Much time and effort was wasted last year mucking about with the to and fro of trying to coordinate meeting dates, so I hope this more automated approach will ease the burden.


I am the type of person that wants everything to go just as according to plan. Of course, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I have to accept the foibles of humanity and roll with the punches when things don’t go the way I wanted.

This is why planning methodology has moved away from ‘waterfall’ to ‘agile’ — because nothing works as intended, so change the plan rather than pretending that perfection is about to occur.


In the chase for productivity at the micro-level, it is easy to lose context. Really, in the grand scheme of things, it’s highly likely that none of what we are doing actually matters that much. Now, this is not me promoting nihilism, because what we do does matter to those in our circles. What I am saying is that there are going to be few times where there is not sufficient slack in the timeline to pause; to take a time-out. In this moment, breathe.

Go outside, take a walk, talk to a friend, pray, meditate — just do something different and unrelated to the task. Taking a break will freshen the mind and offer an opportunity to perceive that larger context. The thing that was causing stress may suddenly not seem quite so significant afterwards.

Ultimately, having a sound and stable mind will allow a focus on scheduling and facilitate acceptance of what can and cannot be achieved. It’s a virtuous circle.

  1. Because any good list worth it’s salt has 3 things. Not 2, not 4. Three. 

A Place for Everything

Over the past five years I’ve spent a lot of time learning the fundamental philosophies of a production system known as lean. I’ve read books and articles, I’ve taken a study tour to see lean in action in Japan. I’ve developed lean guides for business, and coached companies in the theory and implementation. Yet despite all of this, I still consider myself a beginner1.

Most of my lean work has been in relation to the manufacturing sector but the principles can also be applied to healthcare, food preparation, administration, and software development, to name a few. IT has even created further derivations such as kanban and agile.

Lean origins

Toyota is the company that can be credited for originally demonstrating the value of lean through their own Toyota Production System. Implemented with the help of Edward Deming after World War II, the company has embraced the lean philosophy of continuous improvement ever since. The company is now the gold standard with respect to lean implementation.

The theory of lean is much like an onion: there are many layers to it (and implementing it might sometimes make you cry!) Trying to emulate the Toyota Production System at the outset is an effort not worth taking, but any company can do implement some simple elements without too much trouble if they commit.

The best way to start

To get started I recommend following the exact same advice my Grandma used to give:

“a place for everything and everything in its place”

Yes, it’s as easy as that.

This concept represents one of the basic tenets of 5S. 5S is all about keeping things neat and orderly within the context of a lean workplace. Make sure if you take something, use something, or move something, that it gets put back once it has served its purpose. This approach will make it easier for your future self or somebody else to find a thing in the future. It will prevent the need to buy another thing because you couldn’t find the original thing. It will reduce stress and anger when you can’t find the thing you need at the time you need it.

Simply make sure everything has a home and that it always lives at home when not in use. Good tip, Grandma.

  1. In lean of course, maintaining a ‘beginner’s mind’ is a good thing as it keeps you open to new ideas and opportunities for improvement. 

Mindfulness Meditation

I’m not one for new year’s resolutions but at the beginning of this year I decided to try incorporating mindfulness meditation into my life. This was an idea brought about by a feeling that I was living life in a semi-permanent state of anxiety; feeling the pressure of the now and the next thing to be done that was sneaking up behind that. I figured that some mindful meditation might offer a way in which I could carve out some time to intentionally slow myself down and try to alleviate some of that perceived stress.

To facilitate the practice of meditation, I found Headspace. After enjoying the free trial I subscribed to an annual plan. Since my purchase, I’ve also discovered (but haven’t tried) a free, Australian equivalent, Smiling Mind.

As somebody who had never traversed the path of mindfulness and meditation, I had no idea what to do, how to do it, nor what to expect from it. The great thing about Headspace is that it assumes this is the case for its new users. The app provides a helpful introductory course that helps guide one into the technique and its potential benefits.

For the first few months, I was intentional about carving out 10-15 minutes each day for the exercise. Within a couple of weeks I found it had a positive impact on my state of mind, and each day I looked forward to the time where I could intentionally sit and do nothing. However, life being what it is, after about five months I found I was going days without meditating, and the habit that had been forming once again dissipated.

In the last few weeks, I’ve made another conscious effort to undertake a session of meditation each day and once again I am enjoying the benefits it confers. Now, heading towards the end of August, my total meditation time recorded in the Headspace app is at about 1,000 minutes1 which equates to a bit less than 17 hours.

In these days of hyper-connectivity and a constant barrage of (often self-inflicted) interruptions, we are lacking quality time for ourselves. It’s hard to ‘unplug’ from the world. In response, taking a few minutes out of each day to dedicate to my own peace of mind seems a sensible investment. The greater sense of calm I feel after a mindfulness meditation session helps with focus thereafter and so the time ‘lost’ to the meditation activity is quickly made up through increased productivity. Plus, nobody is so important that they can’t be incommunicado for 15 minutes, especially me!

  1. although some of those minutes belong to my kid who enjoyed listening to a session as he fell asleep at night. 

Entropy in Business

Entropy is the loss of energy in a system to the point that it is no longer available for doing mechanical work. It is the reversion to mean; nature’s effort to return everything to stasis.

Entropy is occurring everywhere, all around us. It is a fact of our life. Companies are fighting entropy as well. Without concerted effort and capital being invested, and ensuring there is talent deployed throughout all levels of the business, the expectation is they will wither and die. People working within companies are also fighting their own entropic decline. Over time, people get bored, burnt out or generally lose interest in their job, which can lead to a decline in performance.

To fight entropy in business you need new inputs of energy. This can come from bringing new employees into the firm, who have new ideas and ways of thinking that can jolt the business and offer new opportunities. The business can find new products and markets and establish challenging goals to feed motivation and drive performance. Another option is investing in business improvement and better systems to automate work, thereby transferring the risk of entropy to machines and information technology, and away from individuals.

The laws of nature define that entropy cannot be defeated, but we as humans have become very adept at fighting it. Within companies, the fight against entropy also rages, and its the job of the board and management to set a direction and focus effort towards initiatives that will motivate the organisation to continue to battle to keep it at bay. The problem is that entropy is incessant. Companies need to continually guard against its debilitating effects, or suffer the inevitable consequence of decline.

The Weekly Plan

I consider the two fundamental resources in work planning to be:

  1. The calendar
  2. The to-do list

The calendar represents the hard landscape: events that are non-negotiable, time-based and require you to be doing a certain thing, at a certain time, at a certain place, possibly with another certain person. If it’s in the calendar, it’s a certainty. Calendar entries are commitments to yourself and possibly others.

The to-do list is used to track tasks needed to be done to move the ball forward. The list is potentially filled with a lot of items that may not necessarily be linked with one another. They are commitments to yourself, but they are not tied to being done at a particular time and don’t generally require the involvement of others. I use OmniFocus for managing my task list, but it really doesn’t matter what is used, as long as there is a trusted location to track everything to be done.

As a general rule, I’m not a fan of putting tasks onto calendars. I think they are two distinctly different things that should exist in their own dedicated spaces. However, like any good rule, there are times when this rule should be broken.

Leveraging multiple calendars

The beauty of using modern electronic calendar systems is they support multiple calendars. The classic and most obvious application of this is creating seperate work and home calendars. In addition to these staples, however, it can be helpful to create a weekly plan calendar.

Each calendar’s visibility can be toggled on and off, depending on the needs of the moment.

Using the weekly plan calendar can facilitate the addition of tasks onto a calendar view without gunking up your regular calendars that represent real physical events and commitments. This leads to the next step: time blocking and setting commitments for your future self.

Time blocking

The purpose of time blocking is to help establish a plan for a forthcoming period of time and build accountability for your time. The idea is to create work sessions that are linked directly to items on your task list. Transferring tasks to a calendar and applying estimated timeframes in the form of a timed calendar entry can help build a visual map of work to be done. Visualisation is a great tool to help identify whether your to-do list is realistically achievable in the time available. It can also help enforce urgency by indicating how potentially little time is available for meaningful work. Finally, it can be a reward system. If you get ahead of your schedule, you’ve earned yourself some relaxation time, safe in the knowledge that you aren’t falling behind!

My approach

I generally reserve the time blocking approach for when I have a lot going on, and I’m starting to feel overwhelmed by it all. Ideally, at the start of the work week I will set aside half an hour, and look at my calendar of commitments. These are the scheduled events with other people that are locked in (usually weeks in advance) and that I need to fit all my other work around.

The next step is identifying the tasks that represent the ‘big rocks’ that I need to progress. What projects need to move forward this week? What are the tasks that need large sessions of time to get into a flow?1

Once I understand what time slots I have available for task-based work, I start creating related events on my weekly plan calendar, filling my days more completely. I need to take some care here though. I’m not an automaton, so it is important not to schedule every last minute of time. Doing that is just setting myself up to fail. In any week, unexpected things are bound to arise and time will be needed for this stuff, in addition to the general administrative tasks of email, communications, management issues, and so on.

With the weekly plan calendar populated and tessellated with my other calendars, I end up with a clear picture of my work week. At any point of time I know what I can and should be working on. I know that if I stick to the plan I set for myself, I will be closer to my goals at the end of the week than I was at the beginning. It’s a practical approach to personal accountability.

The overhead of doing this planning is not always worth the effort, but when lots is happening and it feels like control is being lost, this is a great way to reassert your plans and ensure that the important is not being overwhelmed by the urgent.

  1. Writing is a great example of this – you can’t really do it for 30 minutes here and there; you need a solid chunk of several hours.

More Productive on a Mac

A good tradesman values his tools, and generally has a preference for one piece of equipment over another.

In my trade, the computer I use is my primary tool. My tool of choice is a Mac. I am able to be so much more productive on a Mac because it’s the tool I know inside out. Over years I have customised how the operating system works, added on various tools, and generally made it work even better for me than it does out of the box.

Unfortunately, in my organisation Windows remains king. My employer doesn’t have a formalised Bring Your Own Device policy, but at least in recent years they have made WiFi available for staff, although it is firewalled from the main networks.

Corporate IT versus innovation

Employees are assigned Windows-based equipment to staff, and only company-issued hardware is supported by IT. Only their Windows devices are able to connect and authenticate directly with the official network. These devices are also completely locked down so the user cannot install or customise these platforms to suit their own needs or abilities. This is based on the assumption that a worker will only ever want Microsoft Office, and the overriding preference for corporate IT to make their job easier.

I think this approach stifles of innovation. The use of applications that go beyond Office can allow for employees to discover more creative solutions to problems. If the only tool you have is Word/Excel/Powerpoint, then every problem has to be resolved in the same limited way. Yet I love mind-mapping with iThoughts, then using OPML to move the concepts between a map and an outline in OmniOutliner. I am faster using Launchbar than the Mac’s Finder (and infinitely quicker than using Windows Explorer!). I have Keyboard Maestro1 and Hazel managing the system and moving files and folders around automatically on my behalf. I write long-form business reports in Scrivener. Then, I can use all the hooks across the Apple ecosystem to establish synchronicity with an iPad 2. All of this customisations represents innovation that makes me more efficient, but all of it is in circumvention of corporate IT. If I limited myself to a Windows PC I would be worse at my job. I wouldn’t be happy if my carpenter was forced to use a junky Ozito saw for all his work, and I don’t see why knowledge workers are so often limited in the same way.

Firms need to move with the times

With the move to more cloud services, firms have the opportunity to release the reins on device management. Establishing and supporting a Bring Your Own Device policy becomes much easier when the device simply becomes a node connecting to cloud storage, email, and so on. If a company doesn’t support an employee’s efforts to expand their creativity and efficiency, they are likely to lose their most productive and creative people.

Also, consider the next generation of workers that have been brought up on phones running mobile operating systems. If a business doesn’t effectively support a multi-device, syncing approach, they may find that younger workers truly struggle to manage.

  1. Written by a Perth developer who lives just a few minutes away from me.
  2. Unfortunately, corporate IT strike again with the iPhone. They installed an MDM profile that prevents all use of iCloud – even for syncing of preferences and settings.

Personal Kanban

What is Kanban?

Traditional Kanban boards are used in manufacturing and other production environments to help visualise the flow of work and bring to attention any potential backlogs or other issues that might impact upon efficiency or productivity. When I travelled to Japan a few years ago as part of a study tour on lean manufacturing, I witnessed all sorts of kanban boards in operation to help provide factories with necessary production information.

The essential premise of a kanban board is to demonstrate the flow of work along the value chain of production. At the fundamental level, the kanban board starts with a column for ‘work to be done’, then one for ‘work in progress’, before the work task exits the value chain as ‘completed’ work. Visually, a simple kanban board will have these elements drawn as columns on a whiteboard with a series of sticky notes representative of each element of work. As the work progresses, the sticky note is physically moved along the kanban board.

Kanban boards can be used more broadly than in just manufacturing environments. More recently, software development has adopted many of the processes and tools of lean manufacturing, including kanban boards, in the design and implementation of agile, scrum and other team-based development methodologies.

Personal Kanban

I have an interest in kanban at a more atomic level – that is, how can the use of kanban boards help an individual to understand and visualise their own personal workflow. For knowledge work, understanding where somebody is at with work projects and having a grasp as to whether the situation is under control, or at risk, can be hard.

I’ve recently been reviewing my own productivity management system to see if I can better implement personal kanban myself, to help me understand just how much work I have at any one time, and how my own ‘backlog’ is looking.

My Technical Implementation

I previously wrote about OmniFocus and how that brilliant application keeps me on track. Into that I have now created some kanban contexts, and tied these to a kanban perspective.

My OmniFocus kanban contexts
My OmniFocus kanban contexts

This helps me work on my task list by seeing my backlog of items, seeing what is currently active, and being able to work on them to completion.

While OmniFocus is excellent, one of its key weaknesses is reporting and data presentation. It helps manage work brilliantly, but it doesn’t do so well at providing context. Not a management report is to be seen, other than being able to create any combination of list.

To help with visualisation, I’ve had to turn elsewhere. I have recently revised a few Trello boards that I use to help visualise my workflow, simplifying the board design and ensuring there was a very clear ‘left to right’ flow. In the process of updating Trello, I investigated a few other online kanban boards (namely Kanban Tool and LeanKit) to ensure there wasn’t a better option for me, but the best experience remains Trello.

My final step was to really nerd out by leveraging the hard work of Jan-Yves Ruzicka who has built a Ruby library called Omniboard. If you have the capability to install Ruby, and the MacOS developer tools, Omniboard can create a fantastic graphical presentation of your OmniFocus data. This is output as a single, stand-alone HTML file which can be saved to Dropbox and thereby made accessible from any device at any location.

OmniFocus data presented in Omniboard
OmniFocus data presented in Omniboard

To fully automate the process, my final task was to have Keyboard Maestro executes a shell command to update the Omniboard file on a regular basis. This ensures I have a regularly updated personal kanban board based on the activity and progress I have recorded in OmniFocus.

The Point Being?

The ultimate outcome of all this tinkering is that I now have:

  1. a tactical view of my to-do list in OmniFocus;
  2. a visual representation of my workflow in Omniboard; and
  3. independent high-level strategic kanban boards operating separately in Trello.

If clarity of information is important to managing workloads, then I am now in a much better place than before implementing these changes. You may not wish to go this deeply down the rabbit hole, but I have found it any interesting exercise in designing a workflow system that not only helps me get stuff done, but let’s me see how much capacity I have to get more stuff done.