What to Do With an Extra Hour

Written by Dan Sackett on November 4, 2014

I am by no means a productivity czar, but I do find myself more productive after doing certain things. Above all else, I've found that given an extra hour, organizing myself and the things around me has paid off in dividends.

We've all had a time where we have an hour before we have to go somewhere or do something more important. In some ways, there's a lot you can do with an hour, but in other ways, you really don't have much time to start something substantial. So the idea of leveraging this free time and using it to organize some aspect of your life may either seem smart or absurd based on how you look at an hour.

I'm going to argue that it's the best thing you could possibly do.

You see, organization has played a HUGE role in my life. I'm a bit obsessive compulsive in how I do things and appearances are big for me. When I see a messy desk I want to organize it. But my hyper organization isn't what I'm talking about here. Instead, let's focus on some small ways you can organize your life in a floating hour so you can take that next free hour and get more out of it.

Organize Your Computer

If you're like me, you're at a computer for over half of the day. With programming, it's mandatory to be sitting behind a file system and computer monitor. Even for those that aren't programming though, you must spend some time at your computer whether it's sending emails or creating presentations. One thing that I've found when working in a collaborative ecosystem is that we share a lot of files back and forth. I download files from colleagues, shuffle them away, and sometimes forget about them. I'm sure you do this with email attachments and other documents.

What happens when you need to find them again?

Sometimes impossible, right?

I don't think this should be the case. Organizing your computer can be incredibly beneficial to your day to day productivity. Your operating system likely gives you sensible defaults like a "Pictures" directory and a "Documents" directory. These should be leveraged. When you download an image, it should live in your "Pictures" directory perhaps even in a subfolder called "Downloads". This way, when you are looking for this file again it will be more obvious where it exists in your computer. Adding to that, downloading files has a tendency to obscure the names into what we programmers like to call "hashes" which makes retrieving those files even harder.

It takes one second to change the file name to something more meaningful and I think it's very worth it in the long run.

Another problem with the computer for people is that they don't end up deleting old things. For instance, if you have a bunch of old projects laying around, they can clutter your HOME directory. If you are scared of losing them forever, why not take a note from GMail and create an "Archive" folder. This way, when a file or folder are no longer needed as readily, you can move them into the archive giving you less clutter in your individual directories and a smart place to look if you have to recall the file.

You see, it's little things that can save you time later. Think of your computer as your bedroom. You wouldn't put your underwear in your pants drawer (I sure wouldn't) so why put that downloaded video next to your work projects? You want things in meaningful places where you can reasonably deduct that "This file is most likely right here".

Now for programmers, you can try and argue that you can open a terminal and use the locate or find command to find relevant files, but don't you want to narrow down the search pool?

If you don't do anything else, take the time to adopt some best practices when organizing your personal file system.

Organize Your Tasks

I've admitted before that I'm a task list junky. Everything I need to do has a task list. Everything I want to do has a task list. Everything I need to pick up at the grocery store has a task list. I use them for everything because they tell me exactly what I want to / have to do. They help me remember things and most of all they keep me more organized.

I'm not saying that you need to download a task app on your phone (although this is helpful since you likely always will have your phone) but it pays to have some place where you can remind yourself what you're working on or what you want to work on.

At work, I have quite a few lists. My first list is a pad of paper that floats around my desk. It has somewhat useless scribbles on every page, but the currently opened page has what is going through my mind at the moment. It has lists, diagrams, and notes from my boss as he mentioned new features or fixes I need to make. A pad of paper is all it takes for me to remember exactly what I'm working on and what needs to get done.

For our projects, we have a collaborative todo list on Teamwork.com that I have painstakingly sorted to make sense. We split things based on deadlines and then on sections. We assign tasks to different people and in all, it keeps me in the know about what I'm doing and what others are doing. Websites like this are all over the place and allow you to have a hard copy online that you can access from anywhere that you have internet connection. I highly recommend getting your tasks somewhere accessible (which is why the phone is great).

While this may not be the best approach for everyone, it has kept me level and in the know. If you've never tried creating task lists, give it a chance and at least see if it helps you stay more focused.

Organize the Space Around You

This is one of the most important things that I do. Organizing the space around you means your work desk, your living room, the table at the coffee shop you're working at. Wherever it is that you get work done, take some time to organize it. This does a few things.

First, if it's a permanent space, it allows you to not think about organizing it. I've been in the position before where I say "I'll organize this stuff later" and then I'm constantly thinking about needing to organize. I never get fully into what I'm doing because I see the dirty dishes piled up or I see the cookie wrappers on my desk. You may be OK with seeing these things, but I'll argue that glancing over is a rabbit hole waiting to happen. You can get lost gazing off into the distance trying to guess what something is. If you take the hour or usually much less to organize the space around you then you minimize the things that can distract you.

Second, it gets you into the accomplishment mode. A lot of times for me, cleaning up the few things on my desk makes me feel ultra productive. It's as if I accomplished something, so let's accomplish something else. This trigger gets me moving on other tasks more times than not and can be a springboard my entire day.

It's important to eliminate as many distractions as possible when you're trying to focus so you don't make excuses for yourself. Cleaning the area around you does this.

Conclusion

So the next time you have an hour, use it to make your next hour more productive. Taking the time to organize your life and the things you work with is going to give you the chance to accomplish something later on that you wouldn't have been able to before. It's a life hack that I've taken in and I think it's something that more people need to actively practice.

Give it a chance and see what some organization can do for you.


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