In this post, I’m going to explain my system for keeping myself organised and productive. This system has been working well for me for the past two years, and I have helped a number of people to set it up for themselves.
For my fellow productivity geeks, here’s a spoiler alert: it involves Getting Things Done, Personal Kanban, Inbox Zero and Trello. The target audience for this blog post is newbies, so this should be a good place for you to start if you don’t know what any of those things are.
Note that this system is not for everyone, and this blog post is not meant to be a grand universal theory of productivity. It’s just a description of what works well for me, my thoughts on why it works, and some tips on how to get started with something similar yourself. And it is not something that I’ve invented – most of it is based on practices that I have read about elsewhere which I’ve referenced throughout.
Before I dive into the detail, I want to start with a primer on some of the key principles on which the system is based.
Let’s start with a definition. Productivity is about producing more value with the same amount of effort. See the focus on “value”. What you produce must actually be useful and meet some sort of long term goal. Also see the focus on “the same amount of effort”. It’s not about working longer or harder – it’s about working smarter.
1: Look after your health
The most important factor that affects productivity is health. Unhealthy people are not productive. Stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet all have a big impact on your ability to do anything well. This is one of the big reasons why people who work less hours are often more productive: all that rest makes for a healthier person, so that when they do work, they work better.
2: Start with the end in mind, but keep long term plans high level
To be genuinely productive, you need to have some long term goals. Without these, you cannot be confident that your day to day activities are really worth doing. However, detailed long term plans are wasteful as our circumstances and priorities are constantly changing.
3: Do something that motivates you
Daniel Pink wrote an excellent book in which he argued that autonomy, mastery and purpose are the three main sources of motivation. It takes less willpower (or effort) for a motivated person to start or continue a task, so a motivated person has a clear advantage. Looking at the big picture, there isn’t much point in being productive if you can’t find a purpose in what it is you are doing.
Steve Jobbs said “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” How we work is also important to motivation too. We enjoy our work more when we have autonomy (the opportunity to solve the problem in our own way) and mastery (the opportunity to do the job to a high standard).
4: Habits reduce the energy required to do things
Doing things takes energy (sometimes not doing things takes energy too)! Energy is finite, and you need to use it wisely. Habits reduce the energy required to do a repeatable task. They are your brain’s autopilot. Once you learn how to do something on autopilot, you don’t have to put as much energy into doing it. This leaves you more energy to focus on doing other things.
Brushing your teeth is an excellent example of a habit – most people do it at the same time every day and it doesn’t take any effort to start doing or to do. You just do it in your sleep twice a day without thinking. Take advantage of habits to become more productive. Identify things you should do every day or week, put the effort in to make them a habit and then reap the rewards when that thing no longer takes much effort to do.
5: 80% of value can be achieved with 20% of effort.
The idea 80% of the value can be achieved with 20% of the effort is known to economists as the pareto principle. In some situations the split is more like 90/10 or 70/30, but the point is the same. This principle is key to agile development, where the most valuable work is prioritised and delivered first. Once this is done priorities are re-evaluated before work begins on the next most valuable work, and on and on. Detailed long term plans are avoided in favour of delivering the most valuable work in small batches.
We should apply this principle to our personal productivity. We must become comfortable with not doing everything on our to-do-lists. Do the most valuable tasks first every day and move on to the less valuable tasks another time.
6: Multitasking is not efficient. Do one thing at a time and do it well
98% of humans cannot effectively multitask, and do not realise that constantly switching between tasks massively reduces their ability to focus and be productive. When most people multitask, they are rapidly switching between tasks. This involves lots of context switching, which is inefficient. Brain capacity is taken up by remembering the different contexts and navigating between them rather than on solving the problem at hand. So instead of multitasking, focus on doing one thing at a time and do it well.
7: We are at our most productive when we are focused and in a state of flow
Being in a state of flow is when you’re fully immersed in a specific task with a seemingly inexhaustible amounts of focus. You are ‘in the zone’. Five hours may zip by, and you hardly even notice. This state of flow is when we are at our most productive.
How do you get into a state of flow? Choose work you love. Choose an important task. Make sure it’s challenging, but not impossible. Find some quiet time. Clear away distractions. Focus. Enjoy yourself.
- Look after your health
- Find meaning in what you do
- Have long term goals in mind
- Use habits to get more done with minimum effort
- Prioritise your work
- Do the most important things first
- Do them one at a time
- Maximise the time you spend in a state of flow
These are the principles on which my personal productivity system are based. Now, let’s move on to some of the practices.
Getting Things Done
GTD (Getting Things Done) is a system for collecting, processing, organising, reviewing and doing your tasks and projects. It was created by David Allen.
Allen noted that our minds are overrun with thoughts: groceries I need to buy, a voicemail I need to return, an interview I need to prepare for, a blog post I need to write (and the list goes on). A constant stream of thoughts like these stops us from focusing and makes us unproductive, uncreative and stressed.
Each time one of these thoughts pop into your head put it into a task management system. Get into the habit of spending a little bit of time each day keeping this system organised. Once you know you can rely on the system to be accurate, you will be able to spend less time worrying that you have forgotten something or should be doing something else and more time actually doing the things that are of high priority.
The task management system he proposed consists of different lists where you put tasks or ideas. Below is a simplified version of the getting things done workflow that I use:
Step 1. Collect
New tasks and ideas can come from anywhere: conversations, meetings, emails, messages or divine inspiration. Wherever they come from, they all end up in a list which I call ‘inbox’. It is important to collect everything into one place so that it can be relied upon as a canonical source of all tasks that need doing. This gives me confidence that important things aren’t being forgotten and allows me to focus.
Step 2. Process & organise
I frequently review the inbox and ask myself the following questions:
Is it actionable? If not, and if it’s something I might need to refer back to in the future, then I keep a note of it. Evernote is what I use for this. If it is actionable then I ask myself:
Will it take longer than two minutes? If not, the time it takes to process it is too high relative to the cost of doing it, so just do it. Otherwise you should put it in one of your other lists.
If it is actionable and takes longer than two minutes to do, it should end up in one of these lists:
|Inbox||This is the list where you collect all your new ideas and tasks. It should be reviewed at least once per day.|
|Priority||These are things that must be done today. Don’t do work from any of the other lists until this one is empty.|
|Backlog||These are things you need to do, but not necessarily today. On busy days, you won’t get a chance to look at this list.|
|Someday||Things you might do on a quiet day. Mostly contains things you haven’t accepted that you’ll never get round to. Periodically cleanse this list of those things.|
|Archive||For things you won’t do or have done.|
|Waiting for||For tasks where you are dependent on someone else. For example, if you’re waiting for someone to check your blog post before you publish, that task goes here.|
|Scheduled||For tasks that need to be done on a specific day. For example, you may want to notify yourself when it’s time to renew a contract or fill in a timesheet.|
|Projects||Projects take more than one task to complete (eg. move house, learn to code, buy christmas presents, etc). For each project, identify the 1-3 tasks you need to do next and make sure these are included in one of your other lists. When these are done, identify the next most important/urgent tasks. Repeat this process until the project is finished. This keeps you progressing towards completing the project, without clogging up the system with lots of small tasks that all relate to one project.|
|Other lists||Feel free to create new lists as and when the need arises. Examples include groceries, books to read or things to learn.|
Step 3. Review and do
Work through tasks in priority order. Start with things that need to be done today. Do them in priority order. Move onto the other lists only once today’s tasks have been dealt with.
Don’t spend all day moving tasks between lists. Instead, hold daily reviews of 5-10 minutes at least once per day to keep things organised. Focus on inbox, priority and waiting for – the other lists don’t need to be reviewed every day.
Weekly review. Review your main lists. Move tasks around if their priority has changed. Archive anything that’s no longer relevant. Check in on all your projects and make sure that your next actions are properly prioritised.
Personal Kanban (with Trello)
Kanban is a process used to manage the workflow of teams. The are two steps involved in creating your own Personal Kanban:
Step 1. Visualise your work
Do this by putting all your lists side by side, and include two new lists: ‘In Progress’ and ‘Done’.
I keep my most frequently used lists on the left: Inbox, Priority, In Progress, Waiting For and Done. This visualises how tasks move from inbox, to being prioritised to being done. On the right I keep the lists I use less often: ‘Backlog’, ‘Scheduled’, ‘Projects’ and ‘Someday’.
Trello is the perfect tool for this. It is a free digital product that allows you to have multiple lists on one screen, and multiple tasks in each list. It is easy to move tasks between lists or to change the order of lists.
Step 2. Limit your work in progress
We know that humans achieve more when we focus. So set limits on the number of tasks you prioritise and do. I set a limit of five tasks in ‘priority’ and one task in ‘in progress’.
Planning to do more than five tasks today? A long to do list is intimidating. Break it down into smaller chunks that are more achievable. Pick the five most important ones and move the others off your list. Once these are done, see if you have time to do the others. If not, reschedule. If they’re important enough you’ll get to them eventually.
Working on more than one task right now? Remember that 98% of humans cannot effectively multitask. Do one thing at a time, finish it, then do the next thing.
Writing good tasks
It is important that tasks are small enough to complete in a few hours. Breaking work down into bitesized chunks makes it easier to avoid procrastination. Completing multiple small tasks gives me more of a sense of achievement than getting half way through a mammoth task.
Each task should have a brief title – just enough to tell you what action is required. Any extra information or links can go into the notes. Where a task takes multiple steps to complete you can add checklists to break it down further, or break it down into multiple cards.
Kanban vs To-Do Lists
I previously tried using Getting Things Done with Wunderlist, a conventional to-do-list application. I found Trello and Personal Kanban to be superior for two reasons:
- Being able to see all lists on one screen gives me an immediately available view of my goals, high-priority actions, work in progress, dependencies and achievements. This gives me all the information I need to manage my workflow at a glance.
- Without work in progress limits, lists can become too cluttered. This makes it hard to focus on the actual priority.
Getting set up on Trello
Use my trello board template to replicate this system for yourself.
You can power up your Trello by using
- Labels chrome extension. It can be useful to categorise work by type or context. For example, you may want to label all tasks by the project they relate to. Trello’s labels provide an excellent way of doing this, and can be filtered once applied. This extension included the label text inside your label – one piece of functionality I really believe that Trello should have out of the box.
- Butlerbot. This excellent tool allows you to make your Trello more intelligent. I’m using it to move tasks from ‘scheduled’ to ‘today’ on the day they need to be done, and add a ‘weekly review’ task into my to do list every week, but it’s capable of much more advanced logic.
- WIP chrome extension. Allows you to set limits to the number of tasks that can appear in each list. When the limit is reached the list turns yellow. When it is exceeded, it turns red. The colour indicators nudge me toward respecting the limit, but don’t prevent me from exceeding it if the need arises.
Adding new cards quickly
I have a shortcut on my phone and an extension on my web browser that enables me to add a task to my inbox in 2 clicks. This enables me to quickly add ideas and tasks which I sort through at the beginning and end of each day.
Don’t write detailed trello cards for yourself. When writing tasks for teams, detailed descriptions are needed so that others can understand the context. This isn’t necessary if you are the only one using it.
Separate work and play. I keep separate accounts for my personal and professional life. Why? When I’m at home, I don’t want to have work tasks ruining my zen. So if I remember something about work when at home, it ends up on a work list that I forget about until I’m in the office.
Don’t be too zealous about work in progress limits. Sometimes, something super-urgent comes up and you may need to break your work in progress limits. It’s not the end of the world if this happens. They are there to nudge you in the right direction, and it’s okay to bend the rules occasionally.
Don’t record obvious things. If there’s something you do every day or that’s in your calendar, there’s no need to keep it in your to-do list as well. For example, if you need to review the work of a colleague, schedule some time to talk to them, add it into your calendar and assume that the task will be completed during the meeting. Removing the obvious things allows you to focus on what matters.
Consider using more than one board. The web page where all my lists live is called a Trello Board. It’s important to keep all the main lists on one board so that you can see them all at a glance. But if like me you like to keep lots of extra lists, it may be worth keeping this information in separate trello boards. For example, I have a Trello board of books to read. Every time someone gives me a book recommendation it ends up on this board, and when i need something new to read this is the first place I look. I also have separate boards for tv, films, travelling, learning and shopping.
By applying the principles of Getting Things Done to my inbox, I can be confident that:
- I haven’t missed anything
- I’m working on things in the right order
This is the point of inbox zero. Taking 5-10 minutes at the start, middle and end of each day to process and organise everything in my inbox means that the rest of my working day is spent focusing on the right things. I often receive hundreds of emails a day, and this system works well for me.
How to achieve inbox zero (and keep it there)
Have thousands of unread emails in your inbox? This might take a few hours…
Set up a folder structure in your email that matches your getting things done lists. Gmail organises folders alphabetically, so I use numbers and underscores in my naming convention to ensure they appear in the correct order.
Move all your emails to your new folder structure. This might take many hours at first, but once it’s done it’ll just take a little bit of time every day.
Unsubscribe from things you don’t need to receive. It’ll mean you get less emails in the future and make email management easier.
Set up filters to get certain messages to skip your inbox. Some messages can be auto-processed. For example, every fortnight I work on the product triage rota. All emails that relate to this skip my inbox and go straight to a folder, which I only pay attention to on the days that I’m on the rota.
Use filters to automatically apply labels. Automatically label incoming emails to make them easier to find For example, any email containing the words ‘receipt’, ‘invoice’, ‘payment’ or ‘ticket’ get the ‘receipts’ label applied.
Add a reference folder. One extra folder I recommend is reference. Move an email here if it doesn’t need an action, but you know you will need to search for it again soon (eg. important email from the boss or meeting minutes). This is a quick and clean way of bookmarking important emails for future use.
Don’t do these things
Create lots of extra email folders. A researcher called Steve Whittaker installed logging software on the computers of several hundred IBM workers (with their permission), and tracked around 85,000 attempts to find email. They found that people who clicked through folders found emails more than 50% slower those who used other methods such as search, and had just as high a success rate. Taking into account the time needed to create and maintain an elaborate folder structure, those who rely on search along would be even faster still. This indicates that if you want to get quicker with email, spend less time moving things between folders and more time using search. It’s well worth taking the time to learn how to use search operators so that you can search for emails even more effectively.
Manually sync your email and Trello. Roughly half of my tasks come from email. It would take too long for me to keep email and trello in sync. Instead, I only add an email to Trello if it requires an action beyond responding to the mail.
Long term focus
Getting Things Done, Personal Kanban and Inbox Zero will keep you organised. But being productive isn’t just about producing more – it’s about producing more value. What is valuable to you? That’s worth taking some time to think about.
A personal mission statement is an excellent tool which helps you to answer this question. It involves articulating the type of person you want to be, and what it is you want to achieve in your life. From there, you can identify goals which help you to achieve your mission, and day to day activities that allow you to achieve those goals.
Regularly review your mission and goals
I have set up a long term planning board which includes my personal mission, future goals and completed goals. Every 3 months, I complete the following activities:
- review my personal mission, and make any changes or improvements that are needed
- review the goals I set 3 months ago. If achieved, i move them into the completed goals list.
- identify goals I’d like to pursue next that take me nearer towards achieving my mission. For example, my current goals are to set up my company, find my first contract, move house, learn to draw and meditate daily. These are all listed in the projects list on my planning board. This helps me keep my mission and goals front of mind when i’m planning my daily work.
Keep long term tasks off the personal kanban
The long term planning board helps keep me focussed on goals which matter to me. It’s also a useful place to store any tasks on your planning board that aren’t going to be done anytime in the next month or so. I have a list of future tasks on my planning board where all these things go. I also keep any far away scheduled tasks on here – such as the date for when I need to renew my phone contract. This helps to keep the planning board free from clutter.
Well done on making it to the end!
If you’re interested in learning more about personal productivity, I recommend the following books: