From DayRunners to Franklin Planners to Palm Pilots, Handspring Visors, Android and iOS phones and tablets and more, I’ve regularly pushed the boundaries of the tools I had on hand to make organizing my life as minimal and frictionless as possible. However, the basics of personal productivity transcend technology- and are much more about routine and discipline. Without discipline and consistency, any productivity strategy will fail. Here’s the simple tactics I use to keep life on the rails – whether on paper or electrons – and how you can do the same for your own life.
The Pillars of Productivity
Productivity is simply the byproduct of having a strong awareness of the basic facts of your life – the Whens, Whos, Whats, Wheres and Whys – and the ability to efficiently manage them. For any given problem or action (like a to-do list entry), you need some basic details easily on hand to tackle it:
- Who else is involved with this action, and how can they be contacted?
- When am I committed to do this action, or complete this task?
- What are the details I need to know about this action or commitment?
- Where am I supposed to go, or be, for this commitment to take place?
- Why do I care about this commitment, and what relative priority does it have in my life?
The first three (who, when, what) are the most important. Getting started is easy – all you need is a place to collect them. In particular:
- Who: Address Book or Rolodex
- When: Calendar (electronic or otherwise)
- What: To-Do list
Paper ‘notebook-based’ solutions like DayRunners and Franklin Planners (or modern equivalents) have existed for years to pull all of this together, but today’s technology and mobile/desktop apps have solved problems that existed there handily- like synching with your mobile device, and sharing data between apps (like your To Do list also helping manage the dates in your calendar, or your Contacts being available on both your desktop computer and any/all mobile devices you own.
Methodology-wise, I’m a David Allen advocate, and had the best luck with his GTD (Getting Things Done) principles. It’s a simple, straightforward system, and really works for me. There’s plenty of nuance to GTD when you dig deeper, but over the years I’ve really pared it down to a few key principles:
- Always keep your to-do list and calendar handy, and refer to them constantly as the day progresses.
- If something new arises that can be completed in under 2 minutes, do it right away. Don’t waste any long-term energy stressing over it, just get it done.
- If it can’t be done in 2 minutes, add it to your to-do list’s inbox (or a note/folder/desk/tray that you review often). Don’t stall or do it later- do it right now.
- Regularly review your lists against your goals and your commitments, and prioritize/schedule them accordingly.
- If you’re using electronic tools – SET REMINDERS LIBERALLY. Don’t trust your brain to remember to do everything.
- Rinse, repeat – ad infinitum.
Do you need an app or device for this process? Of course not. It’s really about training yourself to process and store your priorities on a regular basis, and make very quick, definitive decisions as to your goals. That said, although you don’t need to use an app or device to get started managing your life more closely, there’s overwhelming benefits to using technology.
Step 1 – Capturing Ideas and Info
As noted earlier, the routine has gotten incredibly straightforward to me. I like to capture every idea, task, or bit of information that flies past or around me if I feel it will be helpful.
- If someone suggests something you may need to do, think about, create or plan – or you just have a good idea you don’t want to forget – put it immediately into your To-Do list. Keep details simple at this point, aside from a sufficient description so you don’t forget what it’s about. Making a quick note could seem faster (and you’d probably be right), but making a To-Do entry for any good unprocessed idea is much better at urging you to do something about it – even if that’s just getting back to it later. The key is capturing it–quickly – so you don’t forget it.
- If someone offers their contact information (or sends it to you), create or update their contact in your address book immediately. Don’t wait! You’ve probably already got a small stack of business cards or hand-scribbled phone numbers somewhere that’s not in your contacts, so that’s always a good place to start. And take the opportunity to fill out more detail too- get a phone number to go with that email address, or the mailing address if you expect to ship/mail things back/forth.
- If someone suggests a meeting or event, put it into your calendar ASAP – even if it’s tentative. Set a reminder for it far enough out so you have plenty of time to prepare. Does someone else have to know? Add them to the invite (or cc: them on it) ASAP. Are there notes you’ll need to bring, or things you’d need to prepare? Jot ’em down in the event too. Taking an extra minute here to be thorough and ask a few extra questions will save many more minutes later, should you have to go back and track down key details you rushed past.
The most important part of getting things done is getting them written down and out of your head so you don’t have to worry about forgetting them. Build the discipline of recording a simple goal or task for each idea or thought that crosses your head, and the rest gets much, much easier.
Step 2 – Processing and Planning
So you’ve gotten really good at capturing your thoughts. Kudos! Now you’ve got a really big list of unstructured To-Dos and perhaps scheduled events, and (hopefully) a reasonably up-to-date contact list to work from. You now need to set aside a little bit of time each day – and often it doesn’t take more than 5 minutes or so – to process what you’ve entered, and adjust what’s already there. Here’s a good template for that daily 5 minute ‘pruning’ process:
- Open up your To-Do list, your Calendar, and your Contact list.
- Go through all the raw new entries in your To-Do list, and give each due dates relative to your priorities along with any additional detail you’ll need to get it done. If you don’t need to get that oil change until next week, move it out to next week! Don’t clutter your immediate schedule with things you can and should do later.
- Add the names of people you may need to work with, and check that you’ve got their info in your Contact list (or ask for it ASAP). Check your laptop bag, purse, wallet or desk for scribbled contact details you haven’t entered. And then throw out all those random scraps of paper. Uncluttering your life takes many forms.
- Sync your to-do list with your calendar if you added or changed a due date for any task. This critical step is where modern software really proves it’s merit by synchronizing your information. I use the Mac task management app OmniFocus, as it allows me to view my calendar items alongside all my daily assigned tasks and better juggle my daily schedule–but use whatever works best for you, even if your to-do list is in a Moleskine notebook and your calendar hangs on your fridge.
- In retrospect, do you really need to do/think/consider each item you added to your To-Do list? If not, be ruthless about either trashing (or moving out to a later date) anything that isn’t critical to you. Or better, move it to a ‘Someday, Maybe’ category you can review every month or two and potentially pick it back up when it makes sense so you don’t lose the idea, while gaining a bit more short-term focus. 🙂
Done once – or better, twice – a day, these steps get super fast – almost subconscious.
Each evening, I review what I haven’t finished and the new inbox items, re-schedule/re-prioritize them all as needed, and make sure I’ve got all the Who’s, What’s, When’s, Where’s, and Why’s covered. I check my laptop bag and wallet for new business cards, ideas or notes to process. When my inbox is empty and my pockets are all clear, that’s it – I go back to letting my calendar and to-do list dictate my day. As it should be.
Step 3 – Be Regular
To me, having a great personal productivity plan is easy. Remembering to follow it is the hard part. So make it part of your daily ritual! I generally take both a few pre-coffee minutes at home, and another 5-10 minutes in the evening, to look at the upcoming day and week, process my inbound tasks, and then quickly sync my calendar & reminders with all the things I need to do. Don’t be selective, either- the goal here is to capture EVERYTHING that comes across your mind- you can decide what to do with it later. Paper planner or smartphone, it doesn’t matter. Just carry it, and use it often.
That said, today’s technology is incredibly powerful for the day-to-day execution of your plan. Being an iPhone user, I use a simple solution for most of my data entry: I tell Siri to quickly add tasks to my Reminders app (which handily syncs with OmniFocus, too) throughout the day by saying ‘Remind me to <title of to-do> at <time I want to do it>’. Then I just process my to-do list twice a day in the mornings and evenings. Simple!
During the day, I also have my iPhone calendar open at all times alongside my To-Do list, and update it constantly with changed dates and times, and shifted priorities. Setting reminders to everything is really critical – it’s easy to dismiss an alert, in fact far easier than excusing your lack of decorum when you inevitably forget. Trust those reminders to keep you pointed in the right direction at the right time. Lean on ’em. They’ll help you save your mind for more important things.
When surfing the web day to day, you’ll find bits of inspiration and reference you don’t want to lose as well. For capturing those aha moments while browsing, I’ve also found Pocket and Evernote incredibly handy services for capturing ideas and good references. Pocket is a great ‘read it later’ service complete with mobile apps – if you see an article online that looks great but don’t have time to read it, just hit their little bookmarklet and it’ll save it to your news list. Evernote is great for general note-taking, and can be used the same way as Pocket for storing clips of web articles you want to refer to later. Both work smoothly across platforms/devices, too.
Another great way to capture ideas is with your camera phone. See something that sparks an idea? Snap away, and then mail yourself the important images for processing later in the day.
If you really embrace the ‘capture everything’ mantra, by mid-day, you can amass a lot of stuff in your ‘inbox’. Examples of the randomness of things in my inbox over the last few days:
- Finish that new song I’ve been stalling on
- Send David project briefs for release
- Pick up dry cleaning
- Watch new Logic Pro course (mixing/mastering)
- Reschedule 2-4pm meetings on 9/5, clear calendar
- Call dentist, check availability for next week
- Check WordPress – post bug?
- Devin’s slingshot – replacement bands?
- Front/R tire in Audi- slow leak? Check.
- Follow up with tenants re: oven repair
- Great article on CSS – read it (web link)
- Shopping list for 9/1 (smartphone picture of the whiteboard on our fridge)
- Article idea: Getting In The Habit of Productivity?
- Storage Unit: get Halloween stuff (by Tues)
- Call SoHo/SB re: gig dates – load-in
As you can see, not all of my raw ideas/thoughts have tons of detail- but just enough for me to be able to get back to processing ’em later.
Go Forth and Organize
The above is my basic routine- after about a month of sluggish progress it finally became reflexive for me. However, you also need to take a bit 500′ view of your life from time to time, so each week I also do a review of all my open projects/tasks and revise accordingly. This takes a bit longer as I go across everything in my to-do list and make hard calls as to what I can get done, and what I need to get done. Oftentimes things get moved out a week or so at this stage- as you can really get a better sense for your entire throughput when looking at progress over more than just a day or two. I usually do this longer-term review on Sunday evening, when I’m also looking ahead at the next week. But pick what – and when – makes the most sense to your own life and habits. It’s got to be comfortable to you.
It’s true, consistent repetition is really the most important part of the entire process. Much like a diet or workout routine, you have to really commit to both your system, and taking the time to make it work for you each day. But if you’re able to afford just a few spare minutes a day towards pulling your life in order – and doing it consistently for a month – I guarantee you’ll see a change in your own personal productivity, and probably even your life as a whole. I know I sure did. Best of luck!