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During May I gave myself a challenge to complete a large number of specific tasks and goals. The purpose was to see how much I could push myself and how much I could get done. It was ridiculously ambitious and unachievable.

But I would still consider it a success if I stuck with it, even if I got nowhere near my targets.

I learned some things about myself.

The May Challenge was an almost complete success — I surpassed some targets and got within a couple of percent of achieving the others. It was only a family emergency on the final day that stopped me hitting all the targets.

But the most interesting thing to come from it was that most of the heavy, consistent work was done in the last third of the month. Up to that point I did very poorly on most measures and thought there was no way I could get anywhere near the results I wanted.

So now I am thinking, can I work at the intensity I reached in the last ten days, or even surpass it, for a whole month? And I reckon I could.

The June Challenge was born. It is vastly more difficult than the May Challenge. It is probably three or four times as difficult to achieve. And there is an added difficulty in that there is a category of task that is not well defined.

Before anyone thinks I must be mad and what about downtime and rest and recreation and socialising and family time and all that normal stuff — I will still do that. There will be less of it, maybe, but the idea is to work more intensively, more focused on the work and less distracted by anything at the times when I am supposed to be working.

I will have seven to eight hours sleep a night, because without good sleep none of this would be possible. I will go for walks and exercise for about an hour or so a day. I will do the housework and the shopping and the cooking as normal. I will spend time with the family as normal, and socialise as normal.

But I will do much less TV watching and much less mindless or aimless surfing of the internet. I will spend less time staring into space with no purpose, and I will catch myself being distracted before the distraction becomes a several hour waste of time and energy.

There is a trick to this. The trick is to make all the work into fun, or as much of it as possible. That way, I don’t need to set aside time for entertainment and relaxation because my whole day is enjoyable.

During the May Challenge I discovered that I did my best work early in the day, so I turned my days upside down. Instead of showering in the morning, I shower at night. Instead of staying up late, I get up earlier. Instead of reading news and checking email in the morning, I do it later. Instead of housework in the morning, I do it in the evening (and prepare for the next day).

If I start work at six, and immediately get on with the important thing, which is writing, I can go for about three hours before I need breakfast. Then I have a quick nutritious breakfast and work more, mostly writing, for about four hours and then have lunch. After lunch I am losing my gloss, so I do easier things like admin, reading, editing, anything.

Tomorrow I will write more about my plans for the June Challenge.

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DiceI have had a dice on my desk for the last few weeks — I’m not sure where it came from — but I didn’t get rid of it, thinking that someday I would find a use for it. And yesterday I did.

We all have a few small tasks which we really don’t want to do, that stay on our to-do lists for weeks, months or even years, that we procrastinate on. Sometimes we will get around to doing one of them, and it will only take a couple of minutes, and we think “why the hell didn’t I do this months ago? It was so easy. What was I worried about?” So we tell ourselves to just do these tasks in future, stop procratinating, and not to sit on them for ages. But we soon fall back to the old procrastinating ways.

Well here is a fun way of getting through these tasks or todos, getting things done, and improving your productivity (a procrastination hack, I suppose):

Write a list of five of the tasks that have been hanging around for a while, and add a fun task on to the end of the list, making six tasks altogether. Next, number them from 1 to 6. Now roll the dice and immediately do the task that corresponds with the number you have rolled. When you have finished that task, roll again.

The tasks should be fairly short, like Next Actions — the idea is to knock off a few tasks over a short period of an hour or so. Examples might be making a doctor appointment, booking the car into the garage, writing a quick reply to a difficult email, phoning a late paying customer, making a follow-up sales call, or clearing your desk.

Here are a couple of variations:

  1. Make a list of five tasks, numbered 1 to 5. Roll the dice and do the corresponding task. When you roll a 6, you can stop until the next day.
  2. Make a list of 12 tasks and number them so you have two tasks numbered 1, two tasks numbered 2, and so on. Roll the dice and either choose from the two correspondingly numbered tasks, or do the first correspondingly numbered task (but choose which method you are going to use before you start, or this might introduce another source of procrastination).
  3. Use two dice and 12 tasks.

If you haven’t got a dice handy, you could either make a spinner from an hexagonal piece of card with numbers 1 to 6 on each edge and half a cocktail stick through the middle, or write the numbers 1 to 6 on pieces of card or paper, turn them face down, shuffle them round and pick one.

I hope you find this useful. Let me know in the comments if you have any other ideas for using a dice, and especially let me know if you have any success with this technique.

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If you’ve only got time to watch one movie this week, this one should be it:

Gollum and Smeagol sing Barry White

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Do you ever find files or folders on your computer which you are unable to delete? It seems to happen more than I would like in Windows XP, and the biggest culprit seems to be Microsoft.

Most of the files I can’t delete tend to be Windows Update files, especially SP2 updates. It is usually safe to delete these, although it is best to wait a few days or weeks to make sure there aren’t any problems with the update. The folders usually have a long random alphanumeric name, and inside there is another folder called SP2 with a file called Update.

At least for folders and files in XP SP2 , first, in Windows Explorer, go to Tools -> Folder Options -> View tab -> scroll to bottom of Advanced settings and make sure “Use simple file sharing” is unticked (it can be ticked again after the files are deleted). You will need to be logged on as an Administrator to do this.

Use simple file sharing

Click OK to exit back to Windows Explorer, navigate to the file or folder you want to delete, right click and select Properties, then in the dialog that pops up (it is slightly different for files and folders) choose the Security tab and for your user, or the Admin user group, choose Full Control.

Software Properties dialog

Click OK to exit the dialog, select the file or folder again if necessary, and hit delete.

If that doesn’t work, there are a couple of programs you can try: GiPo@MoveOnBoot and DelinvFile. GiPo@MoveOnBoot has both a free version and a commercial version with more features. Purge IE is free if you just want to delete files, but for folders and other functions, you have to pay and register.

Edit: Just found Unlocker at http://ccollomb.free.fr/unlocker/ . It puts an unlock option in the right click menu in Explorer. Much easier.

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skype_logo.pngThere is a great article at VoIP News called Hacking Skype: 25 Tips to Improve Your Skype Experience.

The article mainly lists third party apps that can be used with Skype to improve Skype useability, and add some pretty useful features. There are also some settings within Skype that I wasn’t previously aware of, such as setting up Call Forwarding and filtering unwanted callers.

Thanks to Bob at ToDoOrElse.

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© bedo - FOTOLIAOne of the best days of my life was the day that we, the family, were finally out of debt. We still have the mortgage, but that doesn’t really count as a debt — it’s more like an investment. It happened about three months ago, but now I feel that it is safe to talk about it because there is no sign of us going back into debt.

I can’t communicate how it felt, but it is up there with having babies and falling in love. After being in debt to the tune of around £10,000 for nearly 10 years, and almost always living on my overdraft for years before that, it is a new experience for me. It is like my life has suddenly begun again.

When you are heavily in debt, it colours everything you do. It is like being shackled, or having a millstone around your neck — everything you do has a bearing on your debts, either increasing them or reducing them. It doesn’t help to motivate you to do new things or achieve new heights when you have the negative goal of reducing your debts, or at least not letting the debt get any bigger. I felt that before I could do anything else financially, I had to get rid of the debt first; if you skip that step, debt will always be a part of your life. When the debt has gone, all the goals become positive. You can build the extension, go on holiday, move house, whatever, without having the debt to get out of the way first.

So how did we do it? First we drew up a list of debts and assets, and worked out our equity (ie, what we were worth after debts and savings (hahaha) were taken into account). I drew up a budget in a spreadsheet and worked out how much was left after all the necessaries had been paid for each month. That figure was then added up until it reached the amount of the debt. I calculated that it would take 12 months to eradicate the debt, so we had a target, which was the end of August 2006. That was a good motivator in itself — it could be done and it would only take a year. The whole family joined in and we found ways to reduce our spending to give us an even better chance. It worked perfectly, except it took a couple of months longer.

We paid off between £800 and £1000 each month. I had half a dozen 0% credit cards, and I swapped money around all the time to avoid paying interest. I was quite successful at that for a few years, but it was a constant worry, keeping track of all those cards, their payment dates, remembering the end date of the 0% promotional periods, applying for new cards, closing old accounts… Now I have closed all the credit card accounts except for one that I use for everyday spending – it pays a “reward” and I pay it off completely every month. If I am ever tempted to use it for a purchase that I can’t afford to clear at the end of the month, I will close that one as well.

And the icing on the cake is that we have decided to continue finding ways to reduce our spending, and we now have £800 left over every month which is no longer needed to pay off our debts. It is like having a massive pay rise. Some of it we are using to make overpayments on our mortgage, but I’m not sure if that is the best way to use the money.

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coins_sm.jpgI was disappointed this year, as in most years, with the amount of interest I earned on my savings, and it occurred to me that I had earned more by switching from my old energy providers (electricity and gas) to a cheaper one; over a year I will save about £100.

For the purposes of this article, the word “saving” is used in two contexts where finance is concerned: first, meaning “investing”, and secondly, “not spending”. So if I save five pence on a tin of beans, I didn’t spend five pence on the tin of beans that I may normally have spent. But if I then buy something else with that “saving”, it isn’t saved at all — it is spent. If I put it in a tin and when I have enough of these little “savings” to make it worthwhile, I put it into a savings account, I have saved it and it will earn more money.

For instance, if you can save £100 per year on your utilities bills, it is the equivalent of earning interest at 4% (after tax, but still generous) on savings and investments of £2500 for a whole year, or the equivalent of working on average (roughly based on UK average hourly pay) for 12 hours after tax.

Unless I have completely misunderstood how finance works, the actual comparison is much more stark if you take inflation into account.

If you get 5% interest on your savings and inflation is running at 4% per year, then the amount you earn on your savings is actually only 1%, so you would need £10000 in savings or investments to earn the £100.

Based on these figures, whichever way you look at it, it is very worthwhile to cut down on your spending. And there is another, possibly even more important benefit: if you don’t spend, you don’t consume, and if you don’t consume we all benefit just a little bit.

Save £20 on your phone calls here, £50 per month on your food bill each month, £100 off your Christmas budget each year, not buying that gadget that would be nice but that you probably won’t use all that much saving you £200, waiting a couple more years for that plasma TV and saving £1000, and all the other myriad ways of saving (or, rather, not spending) a few pence here or a hundred pounds there.

And the benefit is even larger if you plough those “not spendings” into an interest earning account.

Alternatively, you could work less, or cut your hours and do voluntary work for the rest of the time, or cut your hours and spend those extra hours working on your garden growing your own, cheaper, organic food, and thus saving even more money, not to mention the planet. Food for thought…

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The Simple Dollar – Building a Better Blog for 2007

Those of you who, like me, have just started a blog or who are struggling with an older blog, will be in need of tips and advice to help make it more successful. Well Trent, over at The Simple Dollar, has recently written a series of posts on building a better blog that is well worth reading.

Trent approaches the topic differently from many others I have seen. The series predominantly focuses on how to write for your blog so that it engages the reader and encourages them to come back for more. It hardly mentions the technical aspects of running a blog or ways to make money from your blog — there are plenty of other excellent resources on these aspects of blogging, such as the series on Blogging for Beginners by Darren Rowse at ProBlogger.

Here is part of the introduction to the series:

These posts assume that you’re already blogging, that you have a passion for improving your blog’s long term traffic, and that you’ve gone through many of the ups and downs that come with blogging (big spikes in readers, periods of slow or nonexistent or even negative growth in readership). This series is borne out of the success I’ve had with The Simple Dollar, which is the culmination of many years of lessons learned as a less-successful blogger.

The goal of these posts is singular: each post is devoted to a specific aspect of building a healthy long-term readership of your blog…

So thankyou Trent for sharing your knowledge, and I wish you and all serious bloggers a successful blog in 2007.

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Bath and North East Somerset Council have issued a list of 10 tips for a greener Christmas. I thought the list was too good to just be limited to a small area of the UK, so I am reproducing most of it here.

It starts with some startling statistics (bearing in mind that the population of the UK is about 60 million)…

We all produce more waste at Christmas than at any other time of the year. We use over 83 square kilometres (nearly 52 square miles) of wrapping paper in the UK, more than enough to cover the island of Guernsey. We also send a billion Christmas cards, and use 750 million extra glass bottles and containers, 500 million more drinks cans and 8 million real Christmas trees.

And here are the 10 top tips to help you cut down on the amount of waste you produce (and consequently save you some money at this expensive time of the year):

  1. Sponsor a charity
    Many charities offer sponsorship as a way of giving a really worthwhile gift to someone. These are particularly great presents for people who ‘don’t want anything’.
  2. Send gift tokens
    Gift tokens are an ideal way of letting people choose a present they really like and the range of places offering gift vouchers varies enormously, so there are lots of options to give someone a special waste-free gift.
  3. Use charity shops
    Charity shops are ideal places to buy unusual and affordable second-hand items. They’re also a great place to take any unwanted Christmas presents at the end of the season.
  4. Buy an event or experience
    Instead of buying an actual item, try buying someone an event or experience instead. There are lots of imaginative ideas, from a meal out, or a trip to the theatre, to more unusual experiences such as a trip in a hot air balloon.
  5. Avoid overpackaged gifts
    Try to resist choosing gifts that have lots of packaging that just ends up in the bin – look for items with less packaging instead.
  6. Email Christmas cards
    To help cut down on the billion cards that are sent at Christmas time, try sending electronic cards instead. Some workplaces encourage people to make a donation to charity instead of sending an actual card.
  7. Reuse your old wrapping paper and cards
    Save good quality pieces of wrapping paper to reuse for next year and reuse old cards as gift tags. It’ll save you money and cut down on the amount you use.
  8. Buy recycled products
    There are many excellent and unusual gifts made from recycled materials. Go to www.recyclenow.com for a comprehensive list of recycled products, from clothes and furniture to toys and gadgets.
  9. Have a reusable party
    If you’re having a party over Christmas time, opt for reusable plates, cutlery and glasses. Some supermarkets offer free loan of glasses to help keep costs down.
  10. Choose longer-lasting, non-disposable gifts
    Choose items that are likely to last and avoid buying disposable items or items that have disposable parts. Try to buy mains rather than battery-operated gifts and instead of items such as disposable cameras or razors, choose longer-lasting alternatives instead.

Wishing you all a happy and fun holiday season, and one that doesn’t cost the earth!

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It seems so obvious that energy is easier to control than time. By our actions and mindset we determine how much or how little energy we have at any given moment, but time cannot be controlled in the same way. The best we can do with time is to use what we all have in the best way we can, and the best way to use that time is by having the energy available to draw upon.

I have made uncountable lists over the years, and set myself an assortment of goals and challenges, and they have often been helpful in the very short term — minutes or maybe hours if I’m lucky. But without the energy, and the determination, concentration, stubbornness, willingness, and everything else that relies on energy, the lists and goals are only fleetingly helpful. So it seems that it is important for our personal energy to be at an appropriate level for the tasks we wish to accomplish.

It is so easy to lose energy, or for it to dissipate extremely quickly. For example, you may be steaming ahead with a project, knocking off each Next Action quickly and efficiently, and then you are interrupted by a colleague, your concentration is broken, and when you are able to get back to the project your energy level is much lower because of the need to go back to the point you reached before the interruption.

Another example: you are progressing well with a project, energy levels are high, it is all going swimmingly, but then you hit a brick wall — a task involves much more planning before it can be completed, an essential item is missing, an aspect of the project is much more difficult than you realised — and your energy plummets. You suddenly find yourself running through treacle, you can’t push forward, you are stumped. Usually when this happens we leave the task, tell ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow, and the task subsequently appears on our ToDo list every single day until it is done. Every time you look at your task list you see this task and it nags at you constantly, decreasing your energy even further, daily, continuously, until a point is reached where it either doesn’t matter any more because the opportunity has passed or circumstances have changed, or because you finally do it.

Another example, you start work in the morning, full of positive energy and raring to go. You get so much done and you are riding a high. You work through till lunch and then take a well earned break. You eat your sandwiches or pie, crisps, chocolate bar, maybe some fruit and a dessert. You go back to work but your energy has slumped. You feel tired, your arms are heavy, you decide to play a game of Freecell to get your brain working again. You sit back in your chair and have a ten minute nap. You get to the end of the day, knackered, annoyed that you have wasted the whole afternoon.

So, you cannot get more time, but you can get more energy. Therefore, our focus should be on increasing our energy reserves or energy levels, and on preventing our energy levels from diminishing too much. Of course, we can get out of bed an hour earlier in the morning, and this may appear to give us “more time”, but there are 24 hours in a day and that will never change. We will just be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

So how do we get more energy. How do we stop our energy from dissipating wastefully?

Well, there are lots of ways to get more energy. Correct diet, exercise, sleep, doing things you enjoy, listening to motivational speakers, listening to uplifting music, watching movies with a positive message, avoiding places and people that deplete your energy, time management (or rather, managing your personal resources effectively – resource management), managing stress, and so on (I’ll think of others as I develop this theory over the next few weeks).

Time is a finite resource, and our use of it will be well-served by planning and organizing to a certain extent. But unless you have the energy to carry out your time management plan, it counts for nothing.

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