A Closer Look

Productivity Tip No. 1: Check Out the Blogs

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 9, 2006

For procrastinators and the easily distracted, Web logs can be best friends, indulging short attention spans with jolts of gossip, commentary and newsy tidbits. But a number of Web logs, or blogs, have emerged over the past year that offer a way out of a life of perpetually unfinished to-do lists.

Ironically, these blogs aren't pushing gadgets or Web services. Instead, they reflect a growing recognition -- especially among the tech-savvy -- that high-tech gadgets and an avalanche of online information can be more of a curse than a blessing for productivity.

Some bloggers are encouraging readers to revert to manila folders, paper and pencil when they can and not to rely on electronic devices to stay organized.

Merlin Mann, who runs productivity blog 43folders.com, suggests a "Hipster PDA" -- index cards and a binder clip to keep track of notes -- as a more effective way to keep track of events than an electronic gadget.

"Whether you decide on a tool that is high-tech or low-tech, the important point is to use it well," Mann says. "To think high-tech is naturally more advanced and therefore more useful than low-tech is inaccurate and misleading."

Gina Trapani, editor of Lifehacker.com, one of the more popular productivity blogs, said the target audience for this type of advice is "people who like systematic methods and logical methods to accomplish things in technology and life in general."

For some, a pen and notebook will do the job. For others, it's all about the high-tech solution.

"Computers can be extremely frustrating, time-sucking animals, but used the right way, they can actually make your life a lot simpler," she said.

Posts by Trapani on Lifehacker show how to block Web sites during work hours or how to set up a personal computer so it automatically backs up its content overnight. One article written by Trapani offers a visual suggestion on how to manage what can seem like daunting goals.

"Break your task down into chunks and track your progress to completion with a level-o-meter," she wrote in a recent blog post. "Similar to a fundraiser thermometer that rises with red marker the more money raised, draw yourself a personal progress bar to track your own progress."

For example, someone getting ready to write a 10-page report might draw out a progress board split into 10 sections before he or she starts writing, she said. Each time one page is finished, one section is colored in to track the progress.

"It's completely mental, but getting to the next level can be a huge motivator," she said.

John Anderson, a systems administrator in Gaithersburg who surfs productivity blogs regularly, said he tried gadgets to stay organized but had better luck with writing things on paper.

"You get the psychological advantage of scratching stuff off," he says. "The big thing is writing everything down and not trusting yourself to remember anything."

One of the hottest topics on many of the blogs is e-mail management.

Mann's advice is to increase the "automatic check" interval on an e-mail reader from every minute to every 30 minutes. And Trapani's site lists where you a get disposable e-mail address as a way to register for a specific Web site without disclosing -- and eventually clogging -- your primary inbox.

Many of the productivity blogs share a major inspiration: "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity," a 2001 book by self-help guru David Allen. In his book, Allen offers a system to file projects in a series of folders so it's clear what's coming up next without having to worry about what's on the horizon.

"More and more people are feeling overwhelmed," Allen says. "You need to make sure you're having conversations with yourself and constantly renegotiating your priorities so you feel comfortable."

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