We all know that it stating things positively improves our mood, our approach and the responses we get. It is a hard habit to get into and even harder to stick with.
Today I’d like to share my method for keeping my written language positive (as it turns out I touch many more people with what I write than what I say).
I use an auto expander as part of my productivity setup so that when I type -`address- my address is filled in and when I type -`@- my email address is entered. It’s been a mild gain and I’m glad I did it.
However it became really useful when I decided to use it to remove words from my vocabulary.
I set up my autoexpander (I use aText, other options are available) to consider the following words:
as triggers – every time I type one of them aText replaces it with the word “HAPPY” (choose what you want, I just wanted something I’d notice).
…and it’s been excellent. Several times a day the alert triggers and I go back and restate the sentence in the positive; most of the time it turns out I can do it more succinctly. I like to think it has made a big difference to how I write and how I think.
|Joseph Reddington <firstname.lastname@example.org>||
22 February 2011 at 15:11
To: “XXXXX” <XXXXX@imperial.ac.uk>
22 February 2011 at 16:18
To: Joseph Reddington <email@example.com>
I didn’t have a good illustration for this post, so here’s a fabulous photo of a polar bear from wikicommons.
When I was a callow PhD student I once walked in on a fellow callow PhD colleague watching a video lecture from MIT on bioinformatics.
The colleague said words to the effect of “This is strange, these are meant to be really smart MIT students in a postgraduate lecture, but they keep asking really stupid questions”.
That question, formed that way, made me realise something I should have known a decade earlier.
What I realised was that you don’t get into an MIT masters course only because you were a naturally gifted genius. These people asking the questions got there because any time something happened in a lecture that they didn’t understand they damn well stopped the lecture until the understood it. So for every minute of their undergraduate life they had been learning.
By comparison, I asked almost no questions during my undergraduate degree, I would wander in and start thinking about food, or Judo, or the pattern of light on the walls – and I’m mortified by that memory, just like I’m mortified by the fact that I used to think there was something strange about the people asking questions. The stranger thing was that I was turning up just so I could think about other things.
Because I now work from home entirely, I do a lot of my meetings via Skype. I wanted to share a simple thing that made this much better for everyone involved.
I look rough… and mostly blue. Why is that you ask? Well it’s because this is my desktop (also that’s my mum you can see in the picture… who I was talking to on Skype at the time):
Blue light makes me look a bit rubbish, so it turns out that I had to find a tone that matched my flesh colour….
One of the most stealthily popular pages on this blog is my list of the top disability blogs by traffic. If you are unfamiliar with it – I wrote a script that uses the Alexa Ranking to work out which of a set of about 300 disability websites is the most popular. It automatically updates every 24 hours so you can see if there are new people producing a lot of good content and use it to get a feel for what the bits of the ‘community‘ are underserved.
This past week I decided to tidy up the code and make it work a little more efficiency, and in more of a transferable way. Once I’d done that, it was pretty easy to use it to create an entirely new list: for productivity blogs.
To build up a list of popular productivity blogs I used the following lists:
Each of those provided 50 blogs. When I put them all together and removed duplicates I found I had a list of about 160 (actually that’s considerably less duplication than I expected.
I put them into my script (and you can, of course, have a look at the git hub repository) and it spat out the ranking. I’ve limited to top 60 for now – if the list expands as quickly as the disability one did then I’ll be able to extend that downwards pretty quickly.
So, without further ado, please go to: the always up to date list of the top 60 productivity blogs!
This post started as a blog post, and became a talk I gave, after the talk I came back and rewrote the post with the benefit of a year’s hindsight and much better graphics.
I used to be very disorganised, now I’m organised.
I still feel disorganised. On any given day I screw up as many things as I used to: the difference is that my bandwidth has increased. I’m screwing things up, but I’m getting more things right, remembering more birthdays, being less of a hassle to work with.
This change happened because I recognised that I was a slave to my email and made use of that fact.
I was a Computer Scientist, so almost all of my life (academic, work, and social) came though my email – I checked it obsessively to see if anything had happened.
Permanent To-do List
In early 2008 I discovered that Gmail had an ‘archive’ button (Yes, Computer Scientist… I know). When something was done, I could make it vanish into the ’search place’. Overnight, this changed how I dealt with my correspondence. Things in my inbox were things that I still needed reply to. I could get rid of the junk, reply to the rest, and generally exert some control over my life (to this day, I confused as how I managed to complete a degree and a PhD without having even got a this much of a handle on my organisation).
A few months later, it occurred to me that I could send myself emails: if there was something I had to do (“Buy milk” is the classic) then I could send myself an email. That email would sit in my inbox until I did the thing and then I could archive it. Suddenly I have a permanent to-do list that I’m checking obsessively.
Because I was obsessively checking my email anyway so I could never have that experience of writing out a to-do list and then ignoring it or losing it, or forgetting what was on it. If something went on the to-do list then I saw it eight times a day until I did it.
This was a transformation. I stopped forgetting things: if there was something I committed to, then I did it. Paperwork got done in time, bills were paid. In particular, literal nice things started happening. Before, I might think “Hey, it would be really nice if you sent X one of those sweets she likes” but I’d be dealing with something else when the opportunity arose, now I’d have the thought, send myself an email, and X would actually get the sweets.
I didn’t become a better person, but it looked like I did to everyone else.
Level 2: Calendar
Three months later I started using Google Calendar to send me tasks. This included both forwarding tasks “Submissions are now open so upload your paper” and reoccurring ones “Tidy house”. They end up in the inbox, so they get done. I’m now making all of my dentist appointments, avoiding deadline stresses because I’ve done the work, and saving lots of money on train and plane tickets by buying them in advance. I’m also been reminded when I’m due to give blood so now I really am becoming a better person.
Something that I didn’t notice at the time but I realised after reading Getting Things Done was that I’d taken my brain out of the process.
At any time of the day I used to be thinking a half dozen things like ‘must pay that bill’, ‘must talk to Steve’, ‘must buy milk’ – as soon as I had a trusted place to put these thoughts that I knew I’d check, these thoughts all disappeared and with them much of a base level of stress that I didn’t realise I was carrying around.
Level 3: Gamification
The masterstroke was yet to come: Gamification. Because the size of my inbox became the size of my todo list, reducing the size was the main focus of each day. I started to play little games “Can I half the whole list today?” “How much can I make it shrink in an hour?”.
As soon as you start to play those games you start wanting some form of proper way of tracking, so that you can play them over a little more than I couple of hours. So I wrote some code to chart the size of my inbox/to-do list. It started basic, but I’d poke it every few months and, as it refined, so did how quickly I got into a flow state. You can see a selection of the images that evolved into my stress chart below.
Winning rather than working
Getting gamification right means that you are processing things faster, dealing with things, getting more free time, making more of an impact, mostly because you are looking at how you are scoring on a chart a few times a day… It’s embarrassing to admit, but it worked wonders. Many of the things that I’ve achieved in my life look like they were selfless or served some higher power. In reality they were caused by a borderline obsession on getting a purple line to get closer to the bottom of the screen.
There are two things that I want you to take away from this.
The first one is that if you are a slave to your email, maybe that’s okay. Maybe you can make use of it. If I hadn’t have been a slave to my email I wouldn’t have been able to free up nearly enough of my time to do the first prototype TooManyCooks book (there are now 13!) I wouldn’t have been able to commit to building the Domesday Dataset, which I think has made more of a difference than anything I’ve ever done in academia.
The second thing is that this process happened in layers. I got the hang of emails, then of open tasks, then of calendar events. There was NO way I could have put all this together in one leap. It had to be stage by stage. Sometimes I tried something new and it didn’t work, that’s okay, because I was still at a level above where I had been. There are a lot of things that you can do to make sure that you juggle more plates without dropping them, but you have to have to do things one at a time.
As a bit of a change of pace from the heavily political/disability focus I’ve had recently, I thought I’d share this tip about transferring URLS and lumps of text between your iPhone and mac.
Like many people with both a macBook and an iPhone I’ve struggled to find a way to share a clipboard between them. Regularly I’ll want to text friends a link, or put a long “This is where you need to be and when” email into a text message. Equally I want to pull URLs out of WhatsApp or deal with photos in the couple of hours before iPhoto works out that they have arrived.
I’m aware of, and Lifehacker has featured, a range of ‘try to get this to work’ solutions, but most of the ones I’ve tried have been expensive, or horrific for battery life (and my battery life has quite enough pounding going on).
So I use iMessage as my Mule and take advantage of the fact that the iPhone has NO problem with texting itself and receiving the same message back.
I have a contact in my phone book called Clipboard. Clipboard’s phone number is my phone number (I know this because Tyler knows this…)
When I want to text a friend with a link I use iMessage to text Clipboard. Instantly, my phone picks up the message and I can copy and paste from ‘Clipboard’ to my text messages. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it requires NO battery strain, NO extra effort and NO apps.
Either talk about money or don’t.
I was once at a BBQ with three friends. One of us had recently got a new job and was quite proud of it. The conversation proceeded thusly.
Alice: It’s interesting actually, because even by the industry average, we are very comfortable at X
Bob: oh I don’t know, over at Y we have a really excellent package.
Alice: oh I’m sure it’s very good for your sector, but obviously our benefits are honestly very good.
Bob: -no, really we do have excellent
Alice -and particularly when you count signing bonus
Bob: actually when you include the pension deal it’s really quite superb…
…and the conversation continued for some time. Unhelpfully, the other people were: me, who as a relatively impoverished academic doesn’t compete on salary but does reap the many rewards of doing what I love, and another friend who works for a hedge fund, and who thus could comfortably buy all our houses and covert them into a selection of private ping pong rooms…
(EDIT an early version of this post missed the word ‘relatively’ from the sentence above, for which I received no small amount of abuse. The sentence is intended to reflect that I earned less than half of what anyone else in the conversation did. Not that I think I’m poor. I’d also like to point out that as a result of this post – my annual income is £0).
And the problem was that this terrible conversation and general waste of energy (and I have witnessed many similar) was not caused by rudeness but my misplaced politeness. There are many good reasons not to talk about money in general conversation. They include:
- It’s the wrong thing to measure about someone’s life – money is no better a way of measuring someones happiness than resting heart-rate is.
- Flaunting status (or perceived status) causes anger and ill feelings(helpfully illustrated by reddit’s reaction to this post – a useful lesson for me there…. )
- It’s pretty boring, there are much much more interesting things to talk about.
- It’s very backward looking – your salary is about who you were and where you were, rather than where you are going.
All of which are true, for varying values of true.
So society developed this rule of ‘avoid talking about salary in general conversation’, which is perfectly reasonable, if a little old-fashioned.
The problem comes when you get people who really really want to talk about how much money they make. For some reason they still want to obey the ‘avoid talking about salary’ rule so you get lots of bizarre insertions ‘of course, my salary is now considerable enough that we can afford to…’ or of course ‘yes we have an excellent incentives package’.
Here’s a solution: if you want to talk about it, talk about it. if your salary is that important to you then JUST SAY THE DAMN NUMBER.
It’s easy, I’ll go first. Here’s my most recent payslip (click on it for full size). I’ve sometimes been paid much more, and I’ve often been paid much less. For the next year – I expect it to be much less…
So there you go, now if you really want to tell me how much you earn, then you can just tell me the number. I can say ‘Okay, thank you for letting me know’ and we’ll move on to talking about something much more interesting.
A quick food hack I thought I’d share with you.
I have toast in the mornings for breakfast and so that the bread doesn’t go off (it takes me a while to get thought a loaf) I freeze the bread and put it in the toaster frozen. This, judging by the number of tips I’ve seen saying ‘freeze bread’, is fairly normal.
However, everyone who has tried this knows that Freezing sliced bread often leaves you with what appears to be a frozen loaf of unsliced bread. You start to think that you might need a chisel.
The solution is simple: deal your bread before it goes in the freezer.
1 Take bread
3 Put the bread back in the wrapper
4 Profit! Or in this case enjoy being able to easily separate bread in the mornings.
Hey, so the recent article I did on extending your gmail search was very well received, so here’s another tip (that I’ve slightly souped up) for this article – I hope it useful for anyone who finds searching gmail by date a bit of a pain.
I try and get everything in my inbox out and dealt with within 24 hours. But when I come online in the morning I get distracted by the stuff at the top of my inbox and forget, so things that come in at 10am often catch my eye more easily than the stuff that comes in at 6am.
Writing a search for ‘inbox NOT including today’ is slightly counterintuitive and somewhat of a pain so I put together a custom redirect of my own that brings up the stuff from yesterday that I need to finish If I got to
That redirects a user to their inbox with a custom search string that searches gmail by date. The search shows only those emails that turned up before today. It’s parameterisable so
takes you back four days and
takes your back ten days (this has never been useful, I promise).
The string is left in the search bar
so If you wanted to play with it, you can add extra terms and see where you end up.
It’s been useful for me so I thought I’d share to see if it was interesting for anyone else.
Because it might help people make up their mind, or achieve something similar (or, more likely, point out were I went wrong) here’s the relevant php (although I’ve also changed it in response to this) :
; //--> </script>
….and here’s the relevant bit of the .htaccess file that lets the nice url redirection work.
RewriteRule ^back/([0-9]+) redirect.php [PT]
I screwed something up recently. It was one of those silly things which rolled on and got harder and harder to deal with until I just ran out of time.
There where different things I should have done, and had I done any of them I wouldn’t have had a problem. All were simple: chase someone about their approval; remind a different person to book something in advance; explain to someone in detail some requirements; and ask someone else to get back to me as soon as they knew something was amiss.
I didn’t do any of those and by the time I found out there was a problem there wasn’t a simple solution. I spend an afternoon and evening and the next morning running around, ringing, cajoling, being polite, leaving messages, being angry, attempting to call in favours and trying to throw money at the problem.
It didn’t work. I ended up not being able to deliver something I’d promised and disappointing (and creating much more work for) someone I look up to very much.
I now lose my weekend because all the running around took me away from my day job.
But there is a positive to come out of this. I’ve actually not screwed something up this badly for a while – it’s been years since I had to make a call where I said “that thing I promised you, I can’t deliver”. But the process did feel familiar. I spent a lot of my university (particularly my undergraduate and the earlier parts of my PhD) doing exactly that – running around on tight deadlines, getting things lashed together by force of personality and hope, getting many of them to work and getting frustrated when things failed.
As you might have guessed from this, this or this, I’ve very much invested in personal organisation in the last few years. Some habits I’ve adopted have been sea-changes that made a difference over night, and some have been ideas that took a year to show the benefit, but I do occasionally find myself wondering if it’s all worthwhile – if the effort I put I to making sure everything is running smoothly would be better spent throwing myself wholeheartedly into a project like I used to.
But honestly. It’s having to make the phone call that says “I screwed up, I broke my promise” and remembering that this is how you used to feel *all the time*. That’s what makes me realise that it’s worthwhile.
(Image from wikipedia, from a suggestion by this person on reddit)
My Google Calendar emails me. It’s incredibility good for the soul.
When I am ill with a cold, I put a event in my Google Calendar saying “Take a moment to really enjoy being able to breath though your nose”. A couple of months later my email goes ‘ping’ and I do. I really do take a moment to enjoy being able to breath though my nose, it’s wonderful – you should try it now. These sort of emails pop up every so often. “Enjoy being able to move your shoulder”, “Isn’t it great not having a mouth ulcer?”.
It’s even better when you get into the habit, because the great thing about a trusted habit it that once you take the action, you forget about it. I got an email recently saying “Do something nice for Sam”. I have no idea why I put this in, or when I put this in, but I do know that I like Sam and so I sent him a present.
It’s an interesting thought experiment to consider your past self another person. Because there is a big difference between your past self as they were and the past self as you remember them.
If you were asked to think back to a particular year (pick one) and remember what you were like, you’d probably remember a bunch of embarrassing things you did and/or a bunch of really fun things: wild parties, holidays, jumping off cliffs. Given those memories, it’s very natural to think of your past self as stupid, hedonistic, and irresponsible. But you should be aware of the filtering that memory does. *Everyone* remembers the embarrassing and fun events because that’s the kind of thing that is easy to remember. You tend to bias yourself into remembering only the bad parts of your previous self, and that’s probably not good for you. You don’t remember you past self setting up saving accounts that you are keeping you out of debt, or forcing themselves to adopt the good eating habits that mean that you are 15kg lighter than you would be.
The thing with the calendar is the opposite. It puts you in mind of only the good thoughts of your past self. I don’t ever get emails saying “Steve is a bad person, don’t send him a birthday card”, or “Sorry you can’t afford your rent, but I really needed this iPad”.
All I’m suggesting is that it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider your future self as another person (that you like), because then find yourself doing nice things for them… and shortly afterwards you find your past self is doing more and more nice things for you.
EDIT: Somewhat unusually – reddit really liked this:
It’s very strange when all of the reddit posts are positive – you feel like you’ve broken some sort of universal law… :s
…and a little while after I wrote it… the wonderful xkcd came up with this angle…
I get fed up of psudoscience blog articles on everything from sugar-free diets to ice baths to ‘manifesting abundance’ – so I thought I’d write something that involved actual references to peer-reviewed papers.
Positive phrasing is something I really wish I could go back to. It’s easily the thing that I think made the most difference to my life when I was doing it.
What is it? It’s simple. For three months while I was working in Aberdeen I refused to say any of the following words in the office:
…and in fact any contraction of the word NOT and another word. This was strictly at the lexical level. I kept my mind entirely on the words, rather than the semantics. I could, for example, have said “That man makes me think of Hitler more positively” and it would have been entirely fine in the context of positive phrasing (even if it would have been outside the bounds of good manners).
- This was policed by a good set of people I was working with and a ‘negativity box’, which had 20p put in it every time I failed to self-censure… This is the genuine box (I know I’ve used it to illustrate other things in this blog, but it’s original purpose was as negativity box…)
Why was it so good? Because when you change your language it changes the way you think.
People react badly to “No”s in speech People react better to positives in speech
So instead of saying “Don’t want to wait” I would say “want to go”. Instead of “She’s NOT doing anything” it would be “She’s free all day”.
This is often called acquiescence or agreement bias – it’s a scientifically measurable effect (DiStefano & Motl, 2006; Cronbach, 1950; DeVellis, 1991) to the extent that a range of sources (e.g., Anastasi, 1982; Anderson, 1981; Mehrens & Lehmann, 1983; Nunnally, 1978; Spector, 1992) advocate mixing positive and negative phrasing on questionnaires in order to get accurate responses. (Much of these references came from Chen 2007).
2. Constructive conversation.
One of the nicest things to happen is it changes how you approach problems. Consider:
Labmate: do you think X would help?
Me: No, wouldn’t work.
Labmate: do you think X would help?
Me: I think Y might be a better idea.
Suddenly instead of knocking ideas down, I’m making constructive suggestions.
3. If you CAN’T say anything nice…
More than once, in office conversation, something would make me prick up my ears, about a colleague, event, or situation – I’d turn around, open my mouth-
-and stop. I’d stop because I’d realize that while, I could find a positive phrasing of ‘No, that’s NOT going to happen because he WOULDN’T be seen dead actually helping someone”, it really wasn’t going to be worth it. When you start looking at things this way it really is astonishing how much bitching you really do. How much of your everyday speech is devoted to just rubbishing something for the sole reason that you want everyone nearby to know that you think it’s rubbish?
4. Negatives are harder for people to process.
One of the things that’s been interesting watching my god-children grow up, is how hard they find “DON’T” as a word. “Sit down!” is much much easier for a child to understand than “Don’t stand up!”. For the second one, the child has to correctly work out which words are the original command (“stand up”), and then negate them in the particular context they are in (because the negation could be “sit down” if you are in the bath, or “lie down” in bed, or “stay still” – a literally minded child might understand his mum/dad to be saying “do NOT perform the act of changing position to standing” rather than what she probably means which is “stop being in the state of standing), then, once the command has been separated out, and successfully negated, only then can it be obeyed.
This is why parenting books spend quite a lot of time on the issue of stating things positively, and I think it’s just as important when talking to anyone (I’d link you to amazon – but there are just too many examples, go have a search)
(The classic references are: Gough, 1965, Clark 1976, and, for children specifically, Gaer 1969 – the 1000 or so citations they have between them are pretty solid as well…)
5. It’s easier for people to remember positive information
It turns out that if you give people a set of both positively and negatively phrased sentences, they’ll remember the positive ones much better (Cornish 1970), more to the point “that the majority of errors took the form of conversions from negative to affirmative, independently of meaning”. Worth remembering that one.
- Chen, Yi-Hsin, Gianna Rendina-Gobioff, and Robert F. Dedrick. “Detecting Effects of Positively and Negatively Worded Items on a Self-Concept Scale for Third and Sixth Grade Elementary Students.” Online Submission 14 (2007).
Cornish, Elizabeth R., and Peter C. Wason. “The recall of affirmative and negative sentences in an incidental learning task.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 22.2 (1970): 109-114.
Gaer, Eleanor P. “Children’s understanding and production of sentences.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 8.2 (1969): 289-294.
Clark, Herbert H., and Peter Lucy. “Understanding what is meant from what is said: A study in conversationally conveyed requests.” Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior 14.1 (1975): 56-72.
Gough, Philip B. “Grammatical transformations and speed of understanding.” Journal of verbal learning and verbal behavior 4.2 (1965): 107-111.
- DiStefano, C.,& Motl, R. W. (2006). Further Investigating Method Effects Associated With Negatively Worded Items on Self-Report Surveys. Structural Equation Modeling: A Multidisciplinary Journal 13, 440-464.
- Cronbach, L. J. (1950). Further evidence on response sets and test design. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 10,3–31.
- DeVellis, R. F. (1991). Scale development: Theory and applications. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Anastasi, A. (1982). Psychological testing (5th ed.). New York: Macmillan.
- Anderson, L. W. (1981). Affective characteristics in the schools.Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Mehrens, W., & Lehmann, I. (1983). Measurement and Evaluation in Education and Psychology 3rd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
- Nunnally, J. (1978). Psychometric theory (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Spector, P. E. (1992). Summated rating scale construction: An introduction. Newbury Park, CA:Sage.