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1/18/2008
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How To Take Back Your Time And Attention

Merlin Mann, the self-described "head basket case in charge of productivity on the Internet," provides some tips and tricks for taking back control of your life in a breezy and insightful Macworld presentation.

What's the answer? Use lifehacks -- little tricks for cutting through time-consuming problems.

And renegotiate -- start working with the people you're accountable to in order to waste everyone's time less. "There is a certain amount of attitude of victimhood that is inherent in knowledge work," Mann said. "As much as you want to blame your douchebag boss for your problems, you let a lot of stuff into your world" -- RSS feeds, YouTube, Netflix, and TiVo are all potential timesinks.

"Part of this renegotiation is understanding who gets access to you, understanding when they get access to you, and understanding how long they get access to you," Mann said. "If you're going to be a productivity ninja, you need to be able to make quick decisions on that."

Another potential timesink: E-mail. "You can tell a lot about someone by how they choose to spend their time," Mann said. "And you can tell an extraordinary amount about someone by who can demand their attention at any time, and get it." Most people give that kind of authority to e-mail -- whenever the e-mail dinger goes off, most people drop what they're doing and check e-mail.

Mann suggested turning off mail settings that have it poll automatically, instead setting e-mail checks to be manual. He also suggested turning off alert sounds that tell you when you have new e-mail.

He suggested simple e-mail filters to make the most important messages float to the top. Since he's been bombarded by press releases, he has a filter set up that deletes anything containing the words "For Immediate Release." And e-mail that's sent to multiple recipients "goes into a little gray folder I look at once a day," he said.

Another lifehack: Learn to qualify "yes." If someone asks you to do something, don't just say "yes," qualify the answer. Learn to use words like kinda, maybe, later, and a little. Say you're "kinda interested," ask for "a little more information," Mann said.

Knowledge workers can also start trying to change the culture in their companies to permit better productivity. Start with your own workgroup of immediate co-workers, Mann said. Get together and solve some small problems. Get people started using meaningful subject lines in e-mail. Get everybody to agree that e-mail should be used only for FYIs and messages that can be checked every day or two, IMs should be used for immediate problems, and if IM conversations go longer than a few minutes, they should switch to phone. Set times for "radio silence," when nobody talks to anybody else and everybody just works. Do the opposite: Set office hours, where the whole team sits in a meeting room and anybody who needs to talk to the team about something can walk in and talk to them.

Learn to phrase questions. Mann is the father of a newborn daughter, and he said he's looking forward to applying a child-raising tip he got from a friend. "The best way to get a kid to go to bed is don't ask them if they want to go to bed, ask them what color jammies they want to wear," Mann said. Make it easy for other people to say yes. Don't ask to set up a meeting -- suggest a date and time. He said when he worked as a waiter, a colleague told him a simple trick: Always nod. Mann demonstrated: "Did you enjoy your meal?" he said, smiling and nodding. "Do you want to order some cheesecake?" he said, smiling and nodding.

Budget time on timesinks like Twitter and Facebook. "You can say to yourself, 'Sometimes I can eat a bin of ice cream but I'm not going to eat a bin of ice cream every day,'" Mann said.

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