All posts by Chi Yan Lam

About Chi Yan Lam

Chi Yan Lam, PhD(c), CE, is a program evaluator, researcher, and educator. He works closely with social innovators and public sector leaders across Canada to bring analysis and strategy to bear on program development, evaluation, and decision-making.

Spotlight on Productivity: 5 Productivity Tricks for Researchers/Evaluators/Graduate Students

This is the sixth and final post  of the Spotlight on Productivity series, in which I examine productivity challenges associated with academic/knowledge work and take stock of current thinking and tools to help us get things done.

5. Mise en place

Everything Ready
(via Flickr, wickenden,

Mise en place is French for ‘put in place’. It describes a practice by chefs preparing all the necessary ingredients in advance of service. All ingredients are prepared for use, organize, and within reach. Taken to the context of productivity, it means  gaining as much clarity around the nature of the problem you’re solving, the tasks that need to be performed, and having the necessary pieces to execute a task. Execution is not the time to fumble around with getting things ready. Because knowledge work is often emergent,  take  preparation as far as you can.

4. Workflow

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom presents a workflow-based solution to photographers. (via Flickr, devar,

Professional photographers rely on a well-rehearsed workflow to maximize  productivity. (After all, any time not spent behind a camera is time wasted not making money.) A workflow refers to the general sequence of tasks that need to be performed for any projects. Associated with each step of a workflow are inputs, processing, and outputs.

For research projects, chances are you need to: 1) define the scope and context of a study, 2) design the study, 3) apply for ethics clearance, 4) collect data, 5) analyze data, 6) interpret data, 7) write-up the data, and 8) disseminate the findings. That constitutes a generalized workflow for researching/evaluating. Practicing and adhering to a workflow means less thinking and planning. The GTD workflow I wrote about here is another example.

3.  Define your top 3 tasks to complete for each day.


Identify and limit your day to completing only 3 tasks. Do them when your are mentally charged and refreshed (i.e. soon after you wake up).

2. Pomodoro

Italiano: Autore: Francesco Cirillo rilasciata...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pomodoro is a timing technique for maximizing productivity.  Pomodoro is Italian for tomato and the technique makes reference to those manual kitchen 30-minute timers. ///CHECK To use the pomodoro technique, simply work in bursts of 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. Each 30-minute burst consistute a pomodoro.  During each pomodoro, avoid any distraction and work ONLY on your task. Pomodoro aficionados would tell you to do 4 pomodoros, totalling 2 hours, and take a longer break.

1. Apply OHIO — only handle it once — to your e-mails.

For each piece of correspondence, only handle it once. Act on it immediately. Then file it, or delete it. Apply David’s GTD workflow.  (via FastCompany,
There you have it. I hope you found this series helpful in enhancing your productivity!

Spotlight on Productivity – Day-Planning using David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner

This is the fifth post  in the Spotlight on Productivity series, in which I examine productivity challenges associated with academic/knowledge work and take stock of current thinking and tools to help us get things done.

Being Productive = Staying Focus

One of the most important realization about being productive is maintaining razor sharp focus on doing only a few big things a day. The brain, like a piece  of muscle, does tire out. That’s why it makes sense to start the day off doing cognitively demanding tasks when you are fresh and recharged. Leave technical tasks towards the end of the day.

But meetings and errands do get in the way of producing. This requires conscious effort to prioritize tasks and arrange to do them during “down time”. It’s also helpful to create time-blocks where you purposefully block off to dedicate to certain important tasks, like writing a paper or doing literature searches.

In the last post, I introduced David Seah’s tool for project-task tracking. In this post, I introduce David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner for day-planning. It’s has several built-in features that work well with knowledge work.

What is the Emergent Task Planner?

In David’s words, the ETP is designed around three ideas: The ETP is designed around three ideas:

  • Focus – A small set of important tasks is more likely to get done.
  • Assessment – Estimating and tracking task time helps you allocate your time more effectively.
  • Time Visualization – There are only so many hours in the day. By showing you the time you have left, you can see whether your planning is realistic or not.


How to Use It

ETP Instructions (via David Seah,
ETP Instructions from David Seah (via David Seah,

1. Write-in the date and hours of the day at the top and left-side of the form with your favourite pen.

2. Write-in three tasks you want to do, more if you are feeling optimistic!

3. Block-out the time to do them in the day grid on the left.

4. Keep notes of interruptions and unplanned tasks as necessary.

5. Review at end of day, and prioritize what’s left for tomorrow.

Why use ETP

The ETP is excellent for tracking how much time is spent on each task. Since adopting it, I find that I am more conscious of how I am to spend my time, and how I actually spent time. It allows me to do a post-game analysis each day to fine-tune my productivity. I now feel more in control of my time and of my day.

Like the TPT, the ETP is free to download and print in B/W and Colour. The ETP also comes in several different sizes (US Letter/US Half-size 2-Up; A4; A5).

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

Spotlight on Productivity – Tracking projects with David Seah’s Task Progress Tracker

This is the fourth post  in the Spotlight on Productivity series, in which I examine productivity challenges associated with academic/knowledge work and take stock of current thinking and tools to help us get things done.

I previously characterized knowledge work as centering around projects. Projects are time-bound, and involves a series of tasks. They often require coordination between individual. Often than not, knowledge-work projects requires a degree of creative; it’s hard to replicate the same steps for every project. Being flexible in coping with the demands of each project is key to maintaining momentum.

When doing any projects, it’s often helpful to:

  • break down the project into sub-tasks
  • Estimate and track time spent on the project
  • Maintain a log of tasks performed
  • Track the status of any projects.
  • Remember what’s been done after a project has been dormant for  some time.

In David Seah’s work, I found a solution. A graphics designer by trade, Seah has been producing a line of paper-based productivity tools since the mid-2000’s.

What’s Wrong with To-Do Lists

Prior to discovering Seah’s Task Progress Tracker, I used to create to-do lists. But this isn’t the best approach according to Seah.

To-do lists have their place as pre-flight lists and reminders. They are also workable for tasks that you know how to complete. When tackling something new, creative, or unknown, I don’t think they don’t work as well; they are like the untrained boss who bugs you every five minutes for results, without caring about how you get them. It’s oppressive!

Seah’s solution is to track the time spent on each task.

The TPT is designed to provide an overview of a project and its subcomponent steps, focusing on problem solving rather than mechanical task completion. It does this by tracking time spent, not tasks completed. This allows you to be mindful at the “intention” level as you work toward solving your problem, which is appropriate when pioneering new processes or doing fundamental research. So long as you’re working, that’s great.

At the heart of the TPT is the “Tracker Bar”.

TPT Line (via

How You Use TPT

1. Start a new sheet for each project. Note the Project Name and the Start Date. I staple the TPT to the front of a folder.

Example of TPT in action. (via David Seah,
Example of TPT in action. (via David Seah,

2. List any tasks down the left that you already know has to be done. Add to the list as new tasks emerge.

3. Optional: Estimate the time it takes to complete each task via tick marks.

4. As you tackle each task, pencil in the time you spent in 15-min chunks.

5. Once you finish a task, add up the time spent, and tick off the line.

It’s been about two months since I started using the TPT to track my projects. There’s something gratifying in filling those bubbles. I also feel a greater sense of accomplishment. Better yet, I now have a betters sense of where my time is going.

The best part? Task Progress Tracker sheets are available for free for self-printing. They come in B/W or colour. Or, you can buy them pre-printed on his site. Give it a try, and let me know how it’s working out for you!

Jennifer Ann Morrow on 12 Steps on cleaning and prepping dataset

Jennifer Ann Morrow, faculty member in Evaluation, Statistics, and Measurement at the University of Tennessee, recently blogged about data cleaning and data set preparation at AEA365. She describes 12 steps in her post here, and excerpted below. This is a skill that all quantitative (and qualitative!) researchers should know how to do.

She’ll be running a Professional Development workshop  on the same topic at the upcoming Evaluation 2013 conference in Washington, DC.

1. Create a data codebook
a. Datafile names, variable names and labels, value labels, citations for instrument sources, and a project diary
2. Create a data analysis plan
a. General instructions, list of datasets, evaluation questions, variables used, and specific analyses and visuals for each evaluation question
3. Perform initial frequencies – Round 1
a. Conduct frequency analyses on every variable
4. Check for coding mistakes
a. Use the frequencies from Step 3 to compare all values with what is in your codebook. Double check to make sure you have specified missing values
5. Modify and create variables
a. Reverse code (e.g., from 1 to 5 to 5 to 1) any variables that need it, recode any variable values to match your codebook, and create any new variables (e.g., total score) that you will use in future analyses
6. Frequencies and descriptives – Round 2
a. Rerun frequencies on every variable and conduct descriptives (e.g., mean, standard deviation, skewness, kurtosis) on every continuous variable
7. Search for outliers
a. Define what an outlying score is and then decide whether or not to delete, transform, or modify outliers
8. Assess for normality
a. Check to ensure that your values for skewness and kurtosis are not too high and then decide on whether or not to transform your variable, use a non-parametric equivalent, or modify your alpha level for your analysis
9. Dealing with missing data
a. Check for patterns of missing data and then decide if you are going to delete cases/variables or estimate missing data
10. Examine cell sample size
a. Check for equal sample sizes in your grouping variables
11. Frequencies and descriptives – The finale
a. Run your final versions of frequencies and descriptives
12. Assumption testing
a. Conduct the appropriate assumption analyses based on the specific inferential statistics that you will be conducting.


Spotlight on Productivity: 5 Steps on Managing your Projects Kanban Style

This post is number three in the Spotlight on Productivity series, in which I examine productivity challenges associated with academic/knowledge work and take stock of current thinking and tools to help us get things done.

In the first post of this series, I characterized academic / knowledge work as having to juggle multiple project. In the second, I argued that the cognitive toll on managing productivity can be alleviated through relegating planning to a productivity system. This is where I introduced David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system. GTD is useful to shortcut decision-making on tasks. Today, we look at how to manage decision-making with projects.

(By decision-making with projects, I don’t mean project management. Project management has more to do with a set of technical skills involved in managing within projects. My focus here is simply how to juggle between multiple projects.)

Kanban Style

Kanban is a process originating from Toyota manufacturing that now sees adaptation and application to software development and personal productivity. Kanban, Japanese for “billboard” or “signboard”, is a visual method for managing logistics. The way Toyota uses it goes like this: Suppose you’re assembling dashboards for cars. To assemble this dashboard, you need various components that are already pre-assembled upstream: odometer, RPM meters, clocks, car audio panels, navigation systems, etc. As each dashboard gets assembled, components get used up. This drop in component level triggers a signal to upstream manufacturers to manufacture more components just in time for use in the next round of manufacturing. How this differs from typical manufacturing processes is avoiding having large batches of inventory sitting around. By keeping track of the rate at which components are used up, the quality of the components, you benefit from improved product quality and increased productivity through working in small batches, hence “just in time”.

Applying Kanban to Personal Productivity

What we can take away from Kanban are two principles. The first principle is the importance of visualizing productivity. By visualizing productivity, you have a more powerful way of understanding the complexity and demands of your work. Here are five steps to jumpstart the process.

1. Make a list of all the project you are involved in.

2. Make a list of all the publications you are currently working on. Identify the status of each of these writing projects (e.g. conceptualization, initial drafting, waiting for review, editing, copy-editing, submission to journal, revision, etc… )

3. Identify which of the projects/publications are inactive at the moment. (In GTD language, this is your Someday-Maybe/Waiting list.)

4. Identify tasks within each project.

5. (optional) Flag tasks with impending deadlines.

Mapping out your projects this way give you a high-level view of that various projects you’re involved in, and the complexity of the tasks involved.

Here is the second principle. According to Personal Kanban, a site dedicated to applying kanban to personal productivity, it is also important to limit ‘work in progress’. Their reasoning is simple. You can only do so much in a day.

Here is my own Kanban Board that I have been using for some time to help visualize my projects. Here’s a link to a PDF that you can print and use on your own.

personal kanban

In the next post of this series, we’ll complete this personal kanban process by identifying tasks for work-in-progress. We’ll do this through looking at David Seah‘s incredibly useful tool, Emergent Task Planner. Stay tuned. 🙂

Spotlight on Productivity: Getting things done with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system

Before diving into the specifics of productivity challenges, we should start with the concept of ” Getting Things Done“.

For me getting things done is a mindset to approaching productivity. By relegating the decision-making associated with each piece of task to the GTD system, we can move through our work more efficiently.

David Allen is the celebrated productivity guru whose book on productivity–Getting Things Done– revolutionizes how we think and about productivity.

There are LOTS of primer and discussions on GTD… so I’ll only highlight a few of the key principles.

GTD boils down to this according to Gina Trapani on Lifehacker: Make three lists. Revise them daily and weekly. (She’s referring to a to-do list, project list, and a someday-maybe list).

GTD is premised on the idea that the brain is best for high-level cognitive activities, as far as productivity is concerned. Brain resources are not meant for and should not be wasted on low-level tasks. But what do we typically do?  We clutter our mind with having to remember what needs to be done. By freeing up cognitive resources through prioritizing, we can work faster, better, and with less effort.

GTD has several key concepts and key activities to it.

1)  For every task that enters your work-queue (GTD calls it an inbox), decide on what to do about it. Is it actionable? Is it Best tip: Act immediately on whatever task that can be completed in 2 minutes. Here’s a flow-chart cheat-sheet.


2) Scour your office/home and collect all that needs to be processed and acted upon. Loose pieces of paper. Receipts. Papers to be filed.  Make a big list of all the things you have to do. These tasks now form your work queue.

3) Also, empty and unclutter your mind of all the things you want to accomplish in the next while. That project idea you have lingering at the back of your mind. That paper you want to write “when you have time”.

4) Finally, tackle your work queue systematically. Realize that some items receive immediate attentions, while others don’t. Create a “Someday/Maybe” for projects and tasks that you don’t need to attend to immediately.

If this post on Getting Things Done piques your interests, the GTD Cheatsheet series at gives as an excellent overview to the system.

These four steps form the basis of the GTD system. While some adhere strictly to the system, you could also see it more as a guiding framework. I find it more helpful to adapt it to the nature of knowledge work —- which is what I’ll be discussing in the upcoming posts.

Thanks for reading!


What does your personal GTD system look like? Do you have experience with using Allen’s GTD system?  Let me know.