Taking a month off from blogging…

This is the first post I have published here since the 26th August. A week prior to the start of the new school year I decided to take a short break from blogging. This is not to say I wasn’t writing. On the contrary I have a number of posts ready to be published in the near future, including a post detailing how I’ve continued my efforts to reign in my web footprint, culminating in the deletion of my Facebook account for the second time. More on that, anon.

During this time I also continued to dip my toes in the Twitter stream and posted occasionally over at Et cetera, my other blog. However, I found that having taken a couple of weeks to finish my third MA paper and ease my way into the start of term, I had some breathing room. It felt good. It was then that I decided I would extend this mini-sabbatical for a few more weeks.

The extended break allowed me to finish off a few personal projects; to focus my energies on what has been a good but challenging start to the new school year; and to get a number of new projects off the ground.

This time last year was a different story altogether. I started the new school year in full flow – writing, blogging, planning, marking, starting the MA… the list goes on. The result? I found that come October I was drowning. I did not want to repeat this, hence the self imposed break.

Sometimes, you need to stop and ask yourself: “What is most important to me, right now? What really matters?” It is when you stop and take the time to consider this that you might find some things can wait. That the best way to prioritise your time, is to put some things down for a while. I love writing this blog but my day job is far more important. This blog would not exist in the first place without it. What’s more, taking a month off has not hurt one bit. In fact it has only served as a reminder of how much I enjoy writing and sharing my experiences online.

Are you giving your most important tasks the time and energy they deserve? Or are you spreading yourself too thin? Perhaps, it is time to take stock and ask yourself: “Where should I be focussing my time and energy?”

Perfect ‘Simple’ Note Making – Revamped

nvALT, my preferred text editor, has been the constant tool in my writing and note making setup for more than a year now. There have, however, been a few changes to both the way I write blog posts and the way I create and sync notes with my Android phone. Therefore, I felt a brief update was in order.


While learning HTML syntax has helped me to build and customise this blog, it is not particularly easy to use when writing blog posts. What I prefer, is to write in plain text. To avoid writing out lots of HTML, I would write posts in nvALT and then add links, formatting and images in the WordPress browser-based editor. This was not the worst workflow but it was not ideal.

Over the last three months I have been learning to write using Markdown. Markdown is both a software tool and a simple syntax, created by John Gruber, that allows you to maintain your focus on writing. It works by converting plain text, formatted with the Markdown syntax, in to valid HTML.

nvALT has Markdown support built in meaning that I can write a blog post using the syntax, quickly open up a HTML preview to check that everything looks as it should, then simply copy/paste the HTML source code directly into the WordPress browser-based editor. After adding a title and tags all I have to do is hit publish. A far more pleasing workflow.

If you are interested in learning Markdown quickly, this video by Eddie Smith is definitely worth watching:


A couple of months into learning Markdown I decided that I should find a text editor for my Android phone that supported it. Being a very specific search I quickly came across Epistle by Matteo Villa.


Like nvALT, Epistle has built-in Markdown support. Which means I can write fully formatted blog posts on my phone, using the Markdown syntax. It has an elegant and minimal user interface. Note creation involves a single click and they can be organised alphabetically or by date. Also, you can select from serif, sans-serif and monospace fonts. After a couple of clicks, I had Epistle working in exactly the same way as nvALT. I was completely sold.

Getting in sync

However, there was a problem. Epsitle does not sync with Simplenote. Instead it syncs with Dropbox. Fortunately, I remembered reading a blog post demonstrating how to sync your notes in nvALT with Dropbox and Plain Text for iPad. Re-reading the post it was clear that I could do the same with nvALT, Dropbox and Epistle.

In short I switched to saving notes in nvALT as plain text files. Then I created a folder called “NV” and moved all my notes to this folder. Next, I synced the folder with Dropbox using MacDropAny. To complete the setup, in Epistle, I changed the Dropbox folder it was syncing with to the “NV” folder I had created. And that was it, my notes were synced across both devices.

Perfect and ‘Simple’

It’s almost a year since I first shared an insight into my note making and writing processes. In essence not much has changed. My setup and work flow remain perfect and ‘simple’; revamped but much the same.

Before you can learn to say ‘no’, you have to decide what to say ‘yes’ to

Learn to say no

It is easy to say yes. After all, saying yes offers instant gratification. Your line manager is pleased therefore you feel good. Great even. Until, you have said yes to so many things that it is not fun anymore. Until, you have so much work that you don’t know where to start. Things are either not getting done or you have compromised your usual high standards, instead outputting mediocre work. Or your work/life balance has tilted so far in the wrong direction that you have forgotten what your family and friends look like; the book you started reading two months ago remains unfinished; and your fridge, once stocked with fresh produce, has become a haven for microwavable processed meals.

This is no way to do ‘the work’. You must learn to say no; to recognise when you have taken on enough. A scary idea, particularly for someone at the start of their career. The fear sets in. You don’t want to disappoint anyone. However, you can do it; you can learn to say no.

But first, you need to have an important conversation with yourself. What is this conversation about? It is about figuring out what excites you, about what is important to you. It is about…

Deciding what to say yes to

You may not figure this out immediately. In fact, for some it takes the scenario described in the first paragraph to get there.

When I started work at my current school, I was employed to teach English and Media Studies. I quickly realised that the lessons I had been given, teaching Media, were the ones that I looked forward to the most. I had a conversation with myself in which I promised to focus my energies on Media Studies. I decided to say no to English in order to say yes to Media. When opportunities arose in Media I unequivocally said yes. When opportunities arose in English I sometimes said yes but more often said no. It paid off. The time and attention I have put into Media Studies has resulted in elevating the subjects status within the school, a sustained period of successful results and subsequent promotions for myself.

The problem with pleasing others

It is easy (particularly as a teacher) to fall into the trap of trying to please everyone. The work you want to focus on is pushed aside by numerous requests and tasks from many different people: colleagues, your line-manager, the principal. The problem with pleasing others is, you simply can not please them all. Therefore, it is important to remember (no matter how far up the ladder you climb) who you are working for. For me, it is the students. Everything I do, every time I say yes, it is because I believe that it will have a positive impact on the learning of the students. If I don’t see a benefit for the students within what I’m being asked to do then I’m going to try to say no.

In practice

In practice, saying no is not easy. I won’t lie and say that I say no to any task that I don’t see the value in. If I did, I would probably find myself without a job. However, I have learned to manage my workload, to say no when I can, and to say yes (as often as possible) to the work that matters.

To put this another way:

Until you say ‘no’ to everything else, you cannot say ‘yes’ to something worth fully investing yourself in.

~James Shelley

Reading Productivity

Having spent more than a year improving my personal productivity, I can sum up what I’ve learned in a single sentence: “Pick one task and do it”. However, that would do a disservice to the journey and to the great people who helped me along the way through their writing on the subject. So, without wishing to encourage you to spend more time reading about productivity than being productive, here are three books that really helped me reach a place where I can stay focused on doing ‘the work’.

Focus – Leo Babauta

If I had to recommend one book this would be it. It has really made a difference in helping me become more productive. The books’ strength lies in its brevity and the fact the Leo doesn’t over do the GTD stuff. Instead, he focuses on the underlying issues that may be stopping you from doing ‘the work’. It reads well. Eloquent prose, set out in well-structured essays that challenge you to reflect deeply on the way that you prioritise and use your time. Particularly, useful was the focus on changing and replacing habits. By replacing bad habits with useful, more productive ones, I have seen a huge difference in my productivity.

Highlights include:

  • You don’t need to respond
  • Going with the flow
  • Single tasking and productivity

Keeping It Straight – Patrick Rhone

Patrick is one of my favourite writers on the web and his work translates really well to the structured, thematic nature of a book. Keeping it Straight is Patrick’s first book – a collected set of essays that deal with personal productivity, minimalism, mindfulness and motivation. Again, this is not a long read; perfect for the daily commute or for dipping into when the moment arises. This book is very personal, much of the content gleaned from Patrick’s journal, it adds a level of authenticity that I find is often missing from books of this ilk.

Highlights include:

  • Don’t Worry
  • Doing The Dishes
  • Email (And Other Things That Go “Ding”)

#uppingyourgame – Doug Belshaw

Doug is a friend who has been fantastically supportive, helping me on my blogging journey. He has also (although he may not have realised it) had a significant impact on my approach to personal productivity. His approach is a pragmatic one and as such he begins by getting to the heart of why we should care about being productive in the first place. This is refreshing, as many productivity related texts assume that the reader already has this figured out. Like the other two books, this is a well structured, well designed text, placing emphasis on the authors voice.

Highlights include:

  • What does productivity look like?
  • How to find your personal well of motivation
  • Productivity killers

As I mentioned above, it is easy to spend more time reading about productivity than actually getting on and being productive. However, while I’m on topic, I thought I would share some of the other material that has contributed to my journey. This is not an exclusive list, just a selection of the ones that come to mind as I sit writing this.

Manifesto: Inbox Zero

Idea: five.sentenc.es

Essay: Making the Clackity Noise

Essay: Cranking

Essay: The Noise

Essay: the beauty of the ellipses

Essay: Purpose Your Day: Most Important Task (MIT)

Essay: Do One Thing Well

Essay: How I Became an Early Riser

Essay: How to ‘chapter’ your life to make it more productive

Essay: The hidden power of a gift

Book: Mindfulness in Plain English

Video: Just This

Podcast: Enough: The Minimal Mac Podcast

Podcast: Back to Work