Posts Tagged ‘Productivity’

Apple Watch as Dumb Phone

May 5, 2021

My phone for the past seven years or so has been an AT&T Z222 flip phone. I had a similar dumb phone prior to that for about a year, and I didn’t have a phone prior to then. I have been getting dumb phones to save me from myself. They are also a lot cheaper, both up-front and monthly.

I got a notice from AT&T saying that they will no longer support my Z222 in February 2022 due to their new 5G network. Soon after, the Z222 simply started not to work (it wouldn’t retrieve text messages, and the alarms started being unreliable).

I was looking for a replacement phone, but there weren’t great options. The options that were there didn’t get great reviews, and they were more expensive than I wanted (I prefer not to pay $80 for a dumb phone). I wasn’t happy with any of the options.

Enter the Apple Watch. This is really perfect for me. Here is how I did it.

  • An Apple Watch needs to be tied to an iPhone. This would seem to be a problem for me, but my wife has an iPhone. I can tied the Watch to her iPhone, and then I can have my own phone number through Apple’s Family Plan. The Family Plan is largely meant for kids (give the kid a watch instead of a phone) and elderly parents, but they will let anyone sign up.
  • This does everything I want it to do, and not much else. Cal Newport always recommended that you just use your smart phone for calls, text, maps, and audio. The Apple Watch does all of these things well. I can also look things up online if I need to, but I not about to go down any rabbit holes due to the fact that it isn’t pleasant to read for very long on such a small screen.
  • It has a low monthly cost. My Z222 was pre-paid, and $108 would last me roughly one year. My Apple Watch costs $120 per year (through Truphone), which is essentially the same (it is more some years, less others depending on how much I use the phone during the year). For roughly the same price, I get unlimited minutes now.
  • The Apple Watch is expensive up front—roughly $300. However, I use a running watch to track my speed and distance when I run, and the Apple Watch is only marginally more expensive than a replacement watch. So for $300, I get a new running watch, a cell phone, and probably save about $50.
  • I love new tech, and I think that it is just cool.

Now, I don’t talk on the phone a lot, and I don’t text a ton (when I do, the voice dictation works really well). So while this is a great option for me, it might not be for most.

I have been using the Watch as my cell phone since February, and it is the right solution to me. I am largely posting this because I had to work pretty hard to figure out that (1) there is a Family Plan and (2) it would work for me.


March 31, 2021

I read A World Without Email, and Cal Newport used it to finally convince me to use Trello to organize my projects (something his podcasts failed to do). The jury is still out, but I can definitely see the advantages of having all of your obligations visually laid out and limiting yourself to the number that you can work on at any one time.

I have been using it for a couple of weeks, and it is (1) helpful but (2) I am not sure if it is helpful enough. My old system of using text files worked well enough, and they don’t require me to use one more tool (even if it is a good one). Still, I am going to try it for six months or so to see if it sticks.

Last(?) Post on “Weekly” Time Blocking?

November 12, 2020

This is a continuation of the last two posts. One of the reasons I like having a weekly template for my time blocking is that I get a new task or fail to finish a task assigned for the day, I rarely reschedule it for a long time in the future. This new way allows me to type fewer keystrokes when scheduling it.

For instance, suppose that I wanted to schedule something for tomorrow. In the previous way, I would do the following:

  • Type :tabnew to open up the tickler file for the 13th of the month (today is the 12th) (really, I would type :tabnew 13<tab> to autofill this).
  • Type :5 and f\ to go to the correct line (Line 5) and the correct place for my tickler file (this won’t make a lot of sense without having seen the file, but not that I have four keystrokes).
  • Type the to-do item.
  • Later, when time blocking for the 13th, I then need to find the right place in the file and paste (shift-p) in the item (which is already in my to-do list, thanks to cron).

Compare this to the new way:

  • Type /FRI go down to the part of the file for FRIDAY.
  • I then need to find the right place in the file and paste in the item (which is already in my to-do list, thanks to cron).
  • Type the to-do item.

In the previous way, I have 13 extra keystrokes. This isn’t a lot, but it does add up, and it just seems like a lot more effort, since I have two files to think about and I have to have the item in three locations (tickler file, top of time block file, and then correct place in time block file).

I suppose that I mainly just like being more efficient. In itself, this won’t save me much time, but it all adds up.

“Weekly” Time Blocking Update

November 5, 2020

Lest you are concerned that I got on Cal Newport’s bad side by time blocking weekly instead of daily, I need to report that he is cool with what I do. At the 10 minute mark of Episode 38, Newport describes his weekly planning schedule. This is essentially what I meant by “weekly time blocking.”

So I was calling “weekly time blocking” what he calls “weekly planning,” and his name is more accurate.

I am sure you all are very relieved.

“Weekly” Timeblocking

October 29, 2020

I started a new way of time blocking, and I like it. The old way was this: at the end of every day, I would plan what I would do for the next work in 30 minute increments. It would probably take me 10–15 minutes each day, which dropped to 5–10 minutes after I automated much of it.

My improvement was to start doing 90% of my time blocking for the week on the previous Friday. I changed my automation to put a template for my week on my to-do list every Friday afternoon. At the end of each day, I then very slightly tweak the time blocking for the next day, but there usually isn’t much to do.

This new process has several advantages.

  • I can automate better. Previously, I basically had two scripts: one for Monday/Wednesday/Friday, and one for Tuesday/Thursday. This is because these days tend to have similar recurring events (class meetings, office hours, etc) in academics. However, Tuesdays and Thursdays, say, don’t have the exact same schedule, so I would have to manually adjust the template some each day (I could have had separate programs for each day, but I have an aversion to having too many files. When I want to change something, I want to change it in one file, if possible). Now, I have the template be exactly correct for each day’s recurring events.
  • I can more intentionally figure out when tasks will get done. In the previous daily scheme, many times I would get a one-off task that showed up on a day when I had no time to do it. Now, I can see all of those on Friday, and then I can put them in slots throughout the week accordingly.
  • It ultimately saves me time. Due to both the batching and the automation advantages, I went from spending maybe 45 minutes per week time blocking to about 25 minutes per week.
  • I like it better. The automation is key, but I also don’t like having a large task to do at the end of each day. I would rather carve out a bigger time once per week, and then have just 1–2 minutes of work at the end of each day.

Strangely enough, the day I decided to do this, Cal Newport said on his podcast that you shouldn’t time block by week. I think that he thinks that it is too much. It could be that my 1–2 minutes of time blocking at the end of the day would make him happy (maybe this is only “weekly” time blocking), it could be that his advice is just wrong for my situation, or it could be that I will come to regret this and wish I would have listened to him. For now, though, I think it is a good think for me.

What do you think: is it better to plan most of your day’s schedule the day before (or morning of) or the previous weekend?


September 29, 2020

I have been taking advantage of smoothing out aspects of my life, by which I mean removing “spikes” of activity. Here are three examples of spikes.

  1. I used to try to do all of my chores on weekends—there was a spike of chores on weekends, and a flat during the week.
  2. I used to try to do most of my work during the school year—there was a spike of work from August to May, and a flat during the summer.
  3. I used to worry about buy Christmas gifts, home repair, and school costs for my kids when the bill was due. There was a spike in my finances when the bills came due.

None of these experiences were pleasant, so I decided to try to smooth them.

  1. I now do 15–20 minutes worth of chores most mornings of the weekend. This isn’t too painful—I know it won’t last long—but the result is that I have roughly an hour less to do on the weekends.
  2. I now work throughout the entire year. The result is that I don’t have to work late during the school year.
  3. I now use the envelope system for my budget. Each paycheck, I put some money aside for Christmas presents. When December rolls around, the money is already there! (I used Snowmint’s Budget; they did not pay me to say that).

This type of thinking has greatly improved my life. I feel less stress, and more gets done. I now have a new application for this type of thinking, which I will share below.

My school re-organized how it distributes advisors to first year students. As a result, this is the first year I have twelve first year advisees (in addition to my advisees who are math majors). I don’t have my advisees in class, so I don’t see them regularly. I decided that I should meet with them via Zoom. If I have 12 advisees and talk to them all for 30 minutes each, this means that I have six hours worth of meetings that I need to insert into my week. While I love advising, this is rather disruptive to my work week, since I am losing close to an entire day.

The solution: smooth this out! I now scheduled two hours of meetings each week with advisees for rest of the semester. This means that I can meet each advisee for 30 minutes every three weeks (we can add more meetings, if needed). Six hours per week is a major disruption; two hours is more manageable. Plus, I think the meetings will be better—I will better be able to remember who said what when I record my notes after the meetings are done. Most importantly, I feel less stress about fitting these meetings in.

One interesting thing about these meetings: I decide to intentionally not smooth out the number of meetings I have during any day of my work week. I essentially put all of my meetings (for most everything, not just with advisees) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I have seven hours of Zoom meetings that I scheduled this week (I can’t control when other people schedule stuff); four are today (which is a Tuesday), and three are on Thursday (which is a Thursday, naturally). For some reason, I think that this is a better solution than “smoothing” and having 1–1.5 hours per day every day. Can anyone identify what the difference is?

Automation win: timeblocking

September 9, 2020

My productivity system focuses on just a handful of things.

  • A text file that contains my plan for the day.
  • A series of python scripts that automatically update that text file tasks that I need to do repeatedly.
  • Cron jobs that run the python scripts automatically.
  • A hipster PDA to capture things on the go and a physical tickler file for paper items (I moved 99% of the contents of my physical tickler file to the python scripts, but there are still a handful of physical things that I use. I put something in my python scripts to remind me to look at the physical tickler file when there is something that I need to look at).

My plan includes time blocking. I have changed things up in two ways from when I wrote this post. First, I now time block at the end of the previous day rather than the beginning of the day. I like this a lot better—I can just get straight into work at the beginning of the day when I have high energy, and it is nice to have an easy task at the end of the day when I have lower energy.

The second change is in how I time block. The contents of my text file for today are below (note that it is 9:22 as I am writing this, so I am doing pretty well), and you can see that it there is a reasonable amount of formatting (for at text file, anyway). I also have tasks that I do at the same time every day (e.g. email, research, etc).

Here is what I used to do: I used to have the python scripts put all of my to-do items in one place, and then I would format it at the end of the day by copying-and-pasting. My great improvement is that I now have the python script automatically print out a template that includes the formatting, tasks that I do every day, and blank time blocks. I then just make minor tweaks to the template to include one-time events and meetings. This probably saves me five minutes each day, which is awesome. There is no need for me to format every day when python can do it for me.

Check Calendar
Action Folder
6–7 Research
7–8 Project Euler
8–8:30 Chores
8:30–9 Walk with son
9–9:30 Blog (time blocking automation)
Math 111 (do 5.1, then 5.3 on)
10–10:30 To School: Trade books
10:30–11:00 Make agenda and Canvas Discussion Boards
Uncover new Meeting Discussion, do Agenda
Antiracist priorities in math department (look at data, 111/115, Placement Test, look at TPSE)
AWM subcommittee?
Inmate books
Math 111 (start at 5.1)
5.2: Similar Question disabled (plus one more)
11:45–12:15 Email
Oil changes for Prius and Echo (XXX-XXXX, then Option 1)
12:15–3:30 395
Individual paper due
Scholar Strike
3:30–4 home
4–5: Emerging Scholars meeting
Shutdown Ritual (28 lines, which includes a space):
Refresh ToDo to get tomorrow’s tasks
Log deep work hours
Update ToDo list
Copy down tasks from hipster PDA
Sync calendar
Check Action/Waitingfor
Tomorrow’s schedule (schedule the run earlier than the end)
Add Zoom meeting to existing calendar entries if needed
Delete office hours
Check Python/IndividualDays/TODAY to remove one-time reminders
Close windows and terminals that you don’t need
TIMEBLOCK (be sure to put in calendar!)
Update The Hive
Shut windows
Close ToDo.txt
Bring charged item home (phone, watch, mp3 player, headphones)
Check WaitingFor below (and copy for tomorrow morning)
Check for dandelions
Shutdown Complete

Calculus II Planning Postmortem

September 4, 2020

I am finally finished planning my Calculus II course for the year. This is good, because it is 3/4 of my teaching load. I want to evaluate how I spent my time so that I can be better when course planning in the future (which means Monday: I start teaching a pre-statistics course that starts around Halloween. I haven’t started planning it at all yet, and I have never taught it before).

I basically worked on this course for 9 weeks. Very roughly, here is how I spent my time by week. My plan is to look at this through a Pareto lense: I want to identify the 20% of efforts that are going to produce 80% of the results. I haven’t done this yet as I write this sentence, but the rules are that I get to pick only two weeks (out of 9, which is close to 20% of my efforts) that I think are the most valuable (If you are guessing that I am reading Essentialism right now, you are right). I will conclude that I should have have tried to compress the other stuff into waaaaay less than seven weeks. Try to guess what I will decide.

  1. Dee Fink’s Significant Learning
  2. Thinking about the course format with respect to the block/hyflex constraints.
  3. Identifying Learning Outcomes for the course.
  4. Writing quizzes, projects, and other assessments.
  5. Making Yoshinobu-ish tutorials (2 weeks)
  6. Making in-class worksheets with solutions for every day in class. (2 weeks)
  7. Writing the syllabus, specifications, setting up the Canvas site, and the like.

I am not including the work I did when I was trying to figure out how to make make my course more accessible, since that is perhaps a general professional development jag that should help me for all future courses (Sadly, I am not implementing it this semester since (1) Canvas doesn’t play well with it for some reason—I think that it doesn’t use MathJax, and Math ML is giving me problems— and (2) I might not need it if I don’t have students who require it. If I do have students, I will figure that out on the fly, which now won’t be hard given what I learned this summer. I just don’t have the time for it right now).

The Fink work is out. It was valuable, and it is useful to do every couple of years, but it didn’t help me get a course ready. The syllabus stuff needs to get done, so I suppose I have to put it in. So I am going to completely cop out on this: I would do most of this, but only spend 20% of my time on it. Here is how I might design it if I had to do it in 14 days (which I don’t—I have 1.5 months for my next course, even if it will be filled with a bunch of other stuff). So here is how I would do a macro timeblocking if I had to do it in two weeks.

  1. Spend one day on the learning outcomes. These are vital, but I think that I over-thought it. Just get it done.
  2. Spend four days writing assessments.
  3. As much as I hate to do it, I would skip Stan’s tutorials. They are great, but I think that the in-class stuff will be more valuable, and I need to choose between the two.
  4. Spend three days on in-class worksheets; I wouldn’t provide written solutions, which would make this possible.
  5. Spend two days on the syllabus and Canvas.

Obviously, I don’t have to limit this to two weeks, so this is not what I would actually do—this is just an exercise in prioritizing. In fact, if I had to do it in two weeks, I think that I would blend the tutorials and in-class worksheets into one Tutorialsheet chimera. I think that the tutorials are immensely valuable, and I am glad I did them (and the idea of the Pareto principle is not simply “only do 20% of the work”).

New Work Flow with Electronic Tickler File and Time Blocks

April 6, 2020

Since moving online due to Covid 19, I have changed up my workflow in a way that I like.

Before: I would have the electronic tickler system update my to-do list each morning. I would then time block in the morning to schedule my time.

Now: I have the tickler system update my to-do list at 4 pm the day before. My last substantial task of the day is to time block for the next day.

I like this new system a lot better. I can hit the ground running immediately in the morning when I have the most energy, and I can do something that isn’t too taxing right at the end of the day. I still have to adjust slightly in the morning due to recently-received emails, but this is not much work.

Electronic Tickler File

March 30, 2020

One of my favorite things that I have done in a while is update my workflow. First, some background.

One of my very favorite ideas from Getting Things Done is that of a tickler file. I started with a physical filing system of 43 folders (31 for each day of the month, and 12 for each month of the year). The tickler file is useful because you can easily remind yourself later of things that you want to do, but now is not the best time to do them. For example, if I want to email an advisee on the 8th to see how an Economics midterm went on that day, I would write myself a reminder on a piece of paper and put it in the “8” folder. If I read a magazine article on a classrom idea I want to try next year, I would put it in the “May” folder, since I will start thinking about planning next year’s classes in the month of May. If I have a friend whose birthday is on April 16th, I would write a reminder and put it in the “April” folder. On April 1st, I then go through the “April” folder and distribute the contents appropriately to the folders “1” through “31” (my friend’s birthday reminder would go in “16”).

The beauty is that I only have to remember two things: each day, I need to check the appropriate folder “1” through “31,” and I need to check the correct month’s folder on the first of the month. Actually, I could put a reminder to check the month’s folder in the “1,” folder, so I actually only need to remember to check the folder each day. This becomes habit quickly: I get to the office (a home office, right now), turn on my computer, and check the tickler file.

This has been great, and the tickler file transformed my life. I no longer had to stress that I was going to forget to do something. The drawback is that I spent 5–10 minutes each morning copying the paper notes of the tickler file to my to-do list.

The solution: use Python to create an electronic tickler file! I use a text file for my ToDo list, and that allows me to update my ToDo list with a combination of Python scripts and cron jobs.

Here is what I did: I created 43 Python scripts and 43 corresponding cron jobs (31 for the days of the month, and 12 for each month of the year). Here is an example for the 17th day of the month:

with open(“ToDo”, “r+”) as f:
old = # read everything in the file # rewind
f.write(“Grade statistics project\nLook at dihedral case for research project\nSchedule dentist appointment\nXPERMANENT DAY 17\nPay credit card billEND PERMANENT DAY 17\n”+ old) # write the new line before

Note that I have XPERMANENT and PERMANENT, since there are things that I will want to do every 17th day (like pay the credit card bill). For the nonpermanent things, I just go to the first item, and click d-f-X to delete everything up to and including X (which I then re-type—I used a capital X because I almost never use it for anything else, so it seems to be a good marker to indicate when I should stop deleting).

I can also easily move items from my ToDo list to the tickler file if I want to postpone it. I simply cut out the item on the ToDo list (shift-D in vim), open a tickler file by typing “:tabnew Python/IndividualDays/,” and pasting the item in the file. Then I don’t need to worry about it until the 17th!

I am slowly (month by month) moving all of my paper notes in the physical tickler file to the electronic one. I am saving myself a lot of time (maybe 30–60 minutes per week) by just having these reminders available to me. I still keep my physical tickler file, as there are often physical documents that I want to remember for later (it is a place to store the documents until I need it), but I am using it a lot less now.