Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

My Tools of Productive Awesome-ness

So, you want to be a badass ninja of productivity, right?

Here are the productivity tools I use regularly in pursuit of this goal. I’ve sharpened them like a samurai sword and continue to train my usage like a kong-fu master. If you want to become more productive, I highly recommend you try some of them out.

In this post, I’ll share my favorite tools and how I use them. Ultimately like any exercise in mind or body, it’s up to you to try them out, put in the world and make yourself into a ninja of productive awesome-ness.

Sitting Cross-Legged on the Floor: A Personal Health Experiment

When my grandpa was around 80 years old, he went into have a physical checkup. He had lived a long and productive life as a farmer in Western Nebraska. He was a physical man. Everyday he awoke early to tend his crops and herds. Even at that age, he still harvested several fields on his own.

After going through a few tests, the doctor asked him to stand up and try to touch his toes. With a bit of a grunt he stood up, bent forward and touched his toes. His body of over eight decades was still flexible enough to touch his toes without a hesitation or second thought.

My body isn’t half way to my grandpa’s age, and yet I can’t touch my toes.

Admittedly, I’ve never been very flexible. In my early teens, I recall pained struggles reaching to touch my toes and accepting failure as I touched towards my shins.

As a kid and even today, I can’t sit cross-legged comfortably on the floor.

Humans have been sitting on the ground in various postures for thousands of years. And yet in the last century or so, we’ve lost many of our capabilities. We sit in chairs, couches or beds. We take cars or other modes of transportation. We are no longer endowed with able bodies.

Over the past several months, I’ve been building my body. I’ve been exploring various exercises in order to better understand and reconstruct a capable body. I’m not aiming to win any Olympic Golds nor break any records. I merely want to be capable of running, jumping, lifting and pushing.

Through running and bodyweight training, I’ve come to realize that the body (and the mind!) can be trained to be bigger, better and faster.

For example, a couple months ago I could barely run for a few minutes without pained breathing. Now, through persistence and practice, I can run for a couple miles nonstop. Good habits and persistence go far.

So, I decided that a typical, healthy, human (myself included!) should be able to sit comfortably on the ground. Our ancestors had been doing it for ages. So should I.

The GTD Way: Managing Your Tasks and Information With Evernote

“Busyness” should not be an excuse for why you don’t get things done.

The logic goes: We are busy, so we suck.

Remove “busy” from your vocabulary of excuses. We are all busy. Presidents, CEOs and exceptional people all have busier lives than you do. These overachievers can manage many projects, habits, family commitments with dexterity and without worry.

Busy is the norm. We all have too many emails, texts, chats, social updates, too much information to learn, study, read, and, of course, too much to do. Some people can handle it and thrive in the age of “too much.” Others drown.

We can improve at completing our most important projects and responsibilities. We only need the right mindset and right systems to handle all of life’s information and tasks.

How do busy people handle everything? Everyone I meet who handles “too much” well tell me the same thing: “I have a system” or “I handle my tasks with [fill in the blank].” Productive people depend on systems and well-defined processes.

Whatever your system is, you need a way to capture what you are doing, prioritize where to put your time and energy, and then DO it.

Effective task and information management is the cornerstone of productive work and life. Once you got the information and tasks in an external, out-of-your-brain system, you work.

There are a lot of articles, books, and systems on productivity. I’ve read lots of them. The one book and process I return to and use is “Getting Things Done” by David Allen.

“Getting Things Done” (GTD) proposes principles and steps to handling information overload. We can all information and tasks we encounter and make them manageable and actionable. GTD has a lot of proponents, though how you use and incorporate is up to you.

There is no lack of tools out there for handling our information, tasks and projects. I’ve tried lots of them like Asana, Wunderlist, TODOist, OmniFocus and many others. I recently started using Habitica which has a unique social gamification twist on managing habits and tasks with a group.

These tools are great, but my primary tool for handling information and tasks remains Evernote. Evernote is old and is like a swiss army knife for capturing and handling digital information.

For me I have combined GTD with Evernote. It’s my philosophy of productivity with a method of handling all the inputs. I use Evernote as my primary task and project management tool with the principles of Getting Things Done.

In this post, I want to share what is “GTD” and Evernote. I’ll then dig into how I use Evernote to manage my tasks, projects and information. This overall system has been huge in helping me.

What We Know (and Need to Know) About Happiness

Happiness matters. If we aren’t “happy,” then very little else truly has meaning. If we don’t aim at happy societies, then what’s the point of everything else?

For the past month, I’ve been reading, watching, and reflecting on happiness. I’ve been tracking my happiness and trying to measure what makes me happy.

Ultimately this turns on the classic question: What constitutes a happy life?

Philosophers, social scientists, psychologists and many others have been pondering this question for ages. From classic treatises to the latest self-help books, there is no shortage of opinions on happiness. But now we can point to a lot of data to backup what is happiness.

Let’s start with what we know, before sharing my personal takeaways.

Time to Run: A Beginner’s Journey Training to Run 5K

I manage to run a 5K. About 3.1 miles. While it was a physical challenge and well beyond my initial capacity, it was by no means an exhausting one. It took me two months of training. It was more a mental and organizational challenge rather than some quest of willpower.

I research it, set the parameters and followed a plan. Over 2 months, I did 23 training sessions that culminated in 35 minutes straight of running.

Here’s the story of why and how I started training to run a 5K. I’m a total beginner. The journey towards this goals has been a rewarding one I want to share.

The Power of the Weekly Review: Why and How You Should Do Yours

I have been doing Weekly Reviews since May 2013. I have now done around 150 total in some form. This act has been one of the most beneficial things I’ve done to improve how I live. Each week I have a record where I check-in and gaze forward.

A “Weekly Review” is a set period each week where you take a look at the past week and scan towards the week to come. You examine your weekly accomplishments, record your analysis in writing, and visualize a plan for the week to come. It’s simple but powerful.

The core benefit of a Weekly Review is closure and thinking forward. First, you clear out your mental garbage and whatever else is lingering from the previous 7 days. You celebrate a few accomplishments. You recognize where things doing go well. You tell the story of your week. Second, now that you have some closure, you think about the future. You prepare for the week to come by visualizing what you want your next week to be.

Everyone will have different elements they want to include in their weekly review. My weekly review has evolved over the years. It went from focused on time analysis and goal track to a more holistic approach.

How you do yours will depend on you and your current needs. You need to make it a habit, and you should be flexible as you adapt your weekly review to your situation.

In this post, I’ll take a look at what is a Weekly Review, how to do yours, some of its benefits and provide my Weekly Review template.

How I Tracked a Year in Time and What It Meant

I tracked 27% of my time last year. For over 50% of that, I recorded the actual task or project I was working on during that time. Overall, I have 2341 hours and 44 minutes of total time logs and 1305 hours and 1 minute of task-tracked time logs.

So, from this tracked time, what have I learned?

On a high level, I learned that it’s important to be aware of what you are doing in the moment. For me, to track my time is to be conscious of that time usage. Verbalizing the activity you are working is a powerful way to stay mentally on-task.

Time cannot be “saved” and reused later. Time does not wait. It unwinds. At the end of a year, we have all accumulated 8760 more hours in a life. Much it is passes without engagement or becoming present-in-the-moment.

In my case, after a year of time tracking, I became much more engaged in my time. I am task focused now; my time tracking requires it.

In the end, I can also go beyond this general statistic on a year of time. So, where did my time go in 2015?

My 2015 Annual Review

As 2015 closes and 2016 starts, it’s time to draw together the lines of my last year and prepare some sketched out trajectories for the year to come.

Comparatively speaking, 2015 was one of the best years of my life.

This follows a series of great years from building my first successful personal business (2012) to a year and half of startup travels (2013-2014). I’ve rarely had a year of regrets in my life. Instead, I’ve structured my adult life around a string of personal and professional challenges.

2015 was not much different, except that my challenges came with a bigger opportunity and larger impact radius.

In order to close off each year and aim at the year to come, I decided I want to do my own Annual Review and share it publicly.

I will answer 3 questions in my 2015 Annual Review:

  • What went well this year?
  • What didn’t go so well this year?
  • What am I working toward?

Techstars in China in 2015: The Promise and the Progress

2015 was the first, full year for official Techstars activities and business in Greater China. It was a year full of challenges but also many great acheviements. As we look forward to 2016, let’s take a look at the progress we have made in Greater China in 2015.

The Promise: Helping Startups Get to the Next Step

In November 2014, I gave a short presentation at a meetup in Chengdu about my vision for our programs in China. After sharing some info about each of our programs like Startup Weekend and Startup Next, I concluded with a promise: In 2015, we would bring at least least one company from China to the United States. It was a bold promise all things considered, and many at that meetup probably thought we would never deliver.

Across all of our events and programs, this remained our defining objective: help entrepreneuers take the necessary steps level up their startups and businesses.

I’m proud to say we achieved this goal at least once this past year through one of the “graduates” of our first Startup Next in Shanghai: PartnerGo. I’ll share more about their story later.

In brief, 2015 was the year we launched official operations for Startup Weekend and Startup Next in Greater China. This began under the banner of UP Global and a very clear initial mission. Having achieved our initial objectives, namely sponsorship goals, it morphed into a larger strategy. With the acquisition of UP Global with Techstars, our mission joined theirs, and we were given the opportunity to delivery more awesomeness with the Techstars Accelerator team.

Like our review from June, let’s take a look at our top achievements from the past year.

A Year in Reading: 2015

Reading is one of my most engrained habits. I love to read, and I read everyday.

At any given time, I’m reading about 3-5 books actively. I try to read at least one fiction and one nonfiction at a time. I enjoy reading long books on historical figures and try to study about two or three major figure per year.

I read for learning. I read in order to gain experiences. Through reading, I have been able to learn much. I also reading as a way to lower my stress and help me sleep better.

In 2015, I read 47 books, according to my 2015 reading tracking. I even read one book twice (“The Martian”), so you might round that up to 48.

This past year I read a lot of great books. So, if you are considering a book for 2016, which ones would I recommend?