Over the past month I’ve gone deep on the topic of personal productivity. I’ve implemented a bunch of systems and tools into my workflow that already seem to be positively influencing how much I get done and how I feel at the end of a workday.
Here’s the general structure for how I’m currently thinking about productivity:
Task Management helps you capture, retain and prioritize what to work on
Time Management allows you to create space in your life to accomplish the tasks you’ve prioritized
Energy Management ensures that when you sit down to work that you can actually focus on the task at hand and finish it in the time you’ve set aside
For the sake of not turning this email into a novel, I’m only going to cover my learnings in the first two sections, but if there’s enough interest I’ll cover energy management at a later date.
The best advice I’ve read on task management comes from David Allen’s book: Getting Things Done
. While the whole book is great, I think the first two steps of his process are the most impactful: capture and clarify.
Rarely do tasks start out as actionable units of work. They originate from a variety of sources (your significant other, boss, an author, etc.) through multiple channels (conversations, email, mobile messages), and without appropriate context for how to take action. These same channels also contain plenty of irrelevant information that, at first glance, can be mistaken for a potential task. Since it takes time to separate the signal from the noise, your job, when something captures your attention, is to write it down immediately
While some object to the idea of quick capture as an act that pulls you out of the moment, the alternatives are much more mentally taxing. Picture yourself at dinner with your friends and you suddenly remember that you have a presentation due next week. In this situation, you have three choices:
Do nothing – without expending some mental energy chances are that you’ll end up forgetting all about the presentation and suffer the consequences.
Become preoccupied – by devoting your cognitive energy to retaining this thought you’ll inevitably lose focus on what’s going on around you
Quickly capture it – record the thought and worry about it later so you can engage with your surroundings
Personally, I’ve found that having the peace of mind that all my potential tasks are safely stored has allowed me to be much more present in everything I do.
Which tool you use for capture will depend on your own personal habits. Some people like paper notebooks because of the freedom they offer. I find that since my mobile phone is always an arm’s length away, it’s my most reliable capture device for my workflow. I adopted a task tracker called Todoist
which I like because it’s easy to capture things quickly, has a mobile app, a desktop app, a Chrome extension and even a Gmail plugin. I’ve enjoyed it to the point that I’ve already signed up for the premium version (here’s my referral link
if you want 2 months free).
If you choose a task tracking app you’ll also want to make sure you have solutions for where to store articles, long-form notes and PDF files. I’ve been using Notion
for this, which has been great so far (if you want some credit, here’s my link
). That said, there are also plenty of other good solutions for tools. If you use anything great, I’d love to hear about it.
A note on email: unless you’ve already have a good system for it, I’d strongly discourage using your email as a capture device, since so much information already flows through it. That said, it’s definitely a good idea to have a capture tool that is only a few clicks away from your inbox for when you need to store something relevant.
Not all the items you’ve capture are destined for your to-do list. Your next step is to take each one and determine where it belongs. Any item capture should go into one of the following buckets:
Archive or Trash – the place to send any items that you don’t need to interact with anymore
References – for any information that isn’t directly actionable, but that you don’t want to forget (a quote, a manual, a presentation deck, an interesting statistic) you’ll want to put in a file system where you can store it and easily find them later (this is what I use Notion for).
Later list – a place to store items that might require action in the future, but don’t have enough urgency to handle in the near-term.
Waiting list – if you’re waiting on somebody else to accomplish something, this is a good place to record it
To-do list – for items with clear next actions that you’re not ready to do immediately
Calendar – for items that you’ve committed to doing at a certain time on a certain day.
Project list – If something has multiple steps that may span the length of more than one working session it should probably be designated as a project
To help determine which bucket an item is meant for it’s helpful to ask yourself following questions:
Is it actionable?
Is this something you need act on? If the answer is no, then it’s probably meant for one of the following destinations:
Archive or trash – if you don’t need to act on it
References – If you want to hold onto it for the future but can’t think of when you’ll use it
Later list – If it’s something that you may want to act on in the future
What’s the next action?
If you’ve determined that an item is actionable, your next step is to decide what that action should be.
A good next action should be physical and visible. For example, “figure out job requirements” isn’t physical or visible action but “drafting requirements for a role” is.
Do it, delegate it, or defer it?
Once you know the next action you want to take, you have three options
Do it. If an action will take less than two minutes, go ahead and do it, since the overhead of tracking in your to-do list will likely take longer than two minutes.
Delegate it. If you’re not the right person to do it delegate it to the appropriate entity.
Defer it. If it takes longer than two minutes, and you’re the right person to do it, then it’s likely a good candidate for your to-do list
A Note on Email
Email was my productivity kryptonite. I found myself sometimes dipping into the email slot machine every thirty minutes. I desperately needed some way to process my email quickly so I could get onto more important things. I set up my email using this workflow, that Tiago Forte recommends
and it’s been a lifesaver. If you find yourself in a similar situation I highly recommend it.
Review & Prioritize
Just because a task appears on your to-do list doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worth prioritizing. Certain tasks demand to be finished immediately while others can be put off indefinitely. Whether or not you make an active effort to prioritize your tasks, you will inevitably end up spending more time on some than others. Rather than leaving it up to gut feel, it’s worth spending the time to review and rank what’s most important.
I’ve been doing my weekly review on Sunday, before the week kicks into gear, and people start making asks of my time. The goal of this process is to consolidate my tasks into one place and end up with a ranked list of what I should be spending time on. Here are the steps I take (under ideal circumstances):
Audit my previous week – Did I get everything done that I committed to? If there are any tasks left over, I add them to your list of potential tasks for the upcoming week.
Perform a brain sweep – Even though I’m pretty good at capturing items when they arise, I often still have a few stray open loops in my head. I try to give myself some time away from distractions to get them all on paper.
Review my projects – I look through each of my projects and areas of responsibility to determine what progress I want to make over the next week. Then I add any tasks that might be required to get me there.
Glance at my “later list” – Next I check to see if any items on this list have risen in importance and may make the cut for something I want to accomplish in the near future.
Consolidate potential tasks – If I have items in multiple places, here’s where I’ll consolidate them in one location alongside anything that came up during my brain sweep. It’s a good idea to pick one system of record and make sure everything eventually finds its way in there.
Clarify any outstanding items – This is when I clarify any items that I’ve captured but haven’t tagged with an obvious next step, using the process we just covered.
With all my potential tasks clarified, and in a single place I can now determine which ones are worth spending time on this week. Here are the criteria I use to prioritize:
Value – What are the the consequences of completing that task multiplied by the probability that those consequences will be realized?
Urgency – Do I stand to lose a lot of potential value by putting this task off?
Leverage – Will completing this task make my other ones easier?
Investment Required – How much time, energy, money will this task require from me?
Dependencies – In order to complete this task am I waiting on someone else?
Constraints – Will doing this improve the throughput of the system as a whole or am I just putting more stress on the bottleneck?
Stakeholder Demands – Who’s asking for this?
This list is exactly MECE yet. Nor have I figured out the correct weightings, but it’s a good start.
The result of it is a stack ranked list of my tasks. The next step is scheduling, which is where time management comes into play.
I’ve dug into lots of articles and books on Time Management. Here are some of the most helpful principles I encountered:
Design Your Day
If you want to ensure your time is being allocated towards the right things, start by adding them to your calendar. By blocking off periods of time to accomplish your priorities you make a commitment to yourself that you’re actually going to do them.
I’ve been scheduling every minute of my workday. Do I always follow the plan? Nope. But I try my best, and usually I end up completing what I committed to that day.
One objection people have to scheduling is that they hate feeling like they’re controlled by their calendar. While your calendar may remind your of things, it’s ultimately what shows up on it is up to you. By scheduling each minute you’re allowing your responsible reflective self– the one who has your best long-term interests at heart– to take the control of your most valuable resource from your impulsive self.
Fix the length of your workday
Along with scheduling your working hours, it’s also helpful to fix your workday to a certain length. How many hours you set aside each day may vary and depend on your specific goals and situation but the principles are the same:
- Choose a schedule of work hours that you think will allow you to best accomplish both your personal and professional goals
- Do whatever it takes to avoid violating this schedule.
The reason this is helps your productivity has to do with a time management principle known as Parkinson’s Law, which states that, “Work will expand to fill the time allotted for its completion.”
If you don’t fix your schedule, it can become easy to goof off and waste time. Your work will end up taking longer and naturally you will need to pull from somewhere which can deteriorate your health and relationships over time.
Maker vs. Manager Activities
Certain types of tasks require different amounts of energy and time. Activities like meetings, calls, or email management lend themselves to shorter 30-60 minute windows.
Tasks that involve creative heads-down work, are almost impossible to complete in short windows of time. Instead, they require long 2-4 hour windows of uninterrupted focus.
This distinction is what Paul Graham refers to as maker vs. manager time
. Manager time is divided up into short windows to deal with issues and put out fires whereas maker require long stretches of deep work. When scheduling tasks, be mindful of what kind of task you’re trying to accomplish and how much time it requires.
Bulldoze Your Calendar
When you first encounter your schedule you’re likely to be confronted with a bunch of appointments that don’t reflect your priorities. If you leave them where they are you won’t be able to make room for the larger blocks of time you’ll need for generative work. Take the advice of Make Time’s authors, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky and bulldoze your calendar:
“Imagine a tiny bulldozer driving through your calendar, pushing events around. The bulldozer might compress one meeting by fifteen minutes and another by thirty. It might shove your one-on-one from the morning to the afternoon or push your lunch back by half an hour so you can get a full two hours of generative work done. The bulldozer could even stack all your meetings on one or two days of the week, freeing up the other days for solo work.”
This can be challenging to do if you don’t have much autonomy over your schedule. If you’re in this situation I’d recommend trying to lobby for at least one day each week that you can clear for generative work.
The Scheduling Process
With these principles in mind, you can now go about scheduling the tasks you’ve prioritized on your list. The scheduling process is often most helpful when it follows your weekly review, but it can also be done separately. You’ll want to start from your highest priority task and work your way down, taking the following steps:
Ensure tasks are properly scoped – the more you can downscope a task into smaller parts, the easier it will be to fit into various blocks of free time. By turning one large task into a series of smaller deliverables, you can create momentum and allow yourself to ramp back up into a task after an unwanted distraction.
Estimate task times – if you haven’t already try to estimate how long each task should take. Try to give yourself a bit of buffer so you don’t end up driving yourself crazy.
Bulldoze your calendar – take a look at your schedule for the week. Is it already filled with meetings and tasks that don’t accurately represent your priorities? This is your opportunity to move things around.
Add anything that must be done at a certain time – If you have a morning routine, you’ll need space for it when you wake up. Most standing date nights, need to happen in the evening. If an activity requires transit from one place to another this is a good time to slot it in.
Find space for what matters – here’s where you’ll start actually inserting your most important tasks into your schedule.
With your schedule all planned out, the final step is figuring out how to manage your energy and attention so that you can actually get the work done.
As I mentioned above, since this email is getting long, I’ve decided not to cover energy management. If this topic generates enough interest, I’ll cover it in a later issue.