Hello, world. I’m MacDara Conroy, and this is my blog.

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Productivity special

Seeing as how it was Blog Day the other day, I thought it’d be a good idea to tidy up this post I’ve had in the works for a number of weeks: a behind-the-scenes ‘productivity special’, if you will.

One big change in my work methods since March is the switch I made from using the ‘One Big Text File’ method to Notational Velocity for my electronic notebooking needs.

Notational Velocity, or NV, is weirdly enough harder to explain than it is to use. Basically it’s an open source app for plain text notes (about anything you want: blog posts, recipes, to-do lists, etc) and a way of organising those notes so everything you need is at your fingertips. You give your note a title in the top bar, you type what you want to type in the main window, and it’s saved in a designated folder. Every note constitutes its own text file in that folder, but you never need to see the folder: everything is consolidated within the app.

You might think that sounds over-complicated and potentially confusing, but it’s only when you start using it that you see how well the system works. Notes can be tagged with keywords, but essentially every word in every text file is a tag; type what you’re looking for into the top bar — which doubles as a new title box and search bar — and up pops a list of all the notes either tagged with that word, containing the word in the title or within the body text.

If that’s not narrow enough for you, it’s easy to use your own syntax to designate specific types of notes so you can search within those. For instance, I use the two letter code ‘BD’ for my blog drafts, so if I want to look just within those I’ll preface my search with that code. That’s what works for me, and you may have another way that works just fine for you (but if you’re going to do it my way, I recommend using letter combinations that are uncommon in English, as the app will search for any and every instance of those letters in sequence).

But here’s the real kicker: everything is saved automatically. Every time you type, it saves — and remembers multiple previously edited versions — so you don’t have to worry (too much) about losing anything. That’s some next-level shit when it comes to workflow, believe me.

And that’s all there is to the NV system. It’s the best of both worlds: everything’s kept in one place (the apps makes that seamless) but the individual files for each note are there if you need them. And using plain text keeps the file sizes (and the clutter) to a minimum.

Of course there are lots of subtle ways to improve upon the basics, too. I use the NVAlt fork of the app, which adds some extra functionality (such as word count, a big one for me). And it’s easy to sync your notes with the cloud so you can access things on the go (I use it for the shopping list all the time: I can add items using the desktop app, and they show up like magic in Simplenote on my phone).

If you deal with a lot of information in your work or even with your hobbies or interests, I seriously recommend you give it a try.

Speaking of work and workflow, I’ve also come across the Pomodoro Technique, which I’m sure I’ve read about before as the idea seems pretty familiar. In essence, it’s a way of breaking up one’s work day into a series of specific tasks, and tackling those tasks one-by-one in short bursts of activity, normally 25 minutes apiece, with a short break in-between. (The ‘Pomodoro’ bit comes from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer used by the method’s first proponents.)

I probably ignored it at the time because I didn’t think I needed it; I was a pretty productive guy once I got going, after all. But that’s it in a nutshell, really: while I’m good and getting stuff done once I get into the swing of things, whether it’s my main job or my freelance commitments, some days it can take a while for me to get into gear, especially when I’m tired and unmotivated. Ever have those days when you spend an hour just triaging your e-mail? That’s me, that is. And paradoxically, it’s worse for me in the office than when I work from home (for reasons I don’t need to get into here).

Obviously it’s not going to work in every instance; I can’t do much about the idle time spent waiting for others to send me things I need, for example. But on those days when I start with a lot on my plate, I definitely helps me manage my day better, and I wind up after a few hours both feeling and knowing that I put in a solid effort.

The results have been clear to me: I can honestly say I’ve been a lot more productive overall this year than I have in the past (a lot more writing, especially — don’t ever let anybody tell you that writing isn’t hard). And even on those days when I don’t have so much in terms of specific tasks, I’ve still got those other bits of administrivia that need taking care of but which I keep putting off (no excuses for that any more!).

Twenty-five minutes isn’t even all that long — it’s the length of that crappy sitcom you weren’t even watching anyway — but it’s surprising how much you can get done before the buzzer sounds.