Productivity is a combination of your ability to (a) get things done and (b) remember commitments. If you create and follow a system that helps you do these two things, you will likely be more productive than most of the people you know.
My approach was largely shaped by a combination of the following:
Search long enough and you’ll find guides ranging from the simple to the absurd. Everyone’s is different because everyone is different. Read my guide, read the ones above. Make your own. Just have something.
With that, here’s how I do it.
Stop using your brain
Computers are great at storing and recalling information—your brain is not. You want your brain to worry about the doing, not the remembering. Move your mental checklist into an app.
Whatever app you go with should make it easy to capture tasks on-the-go. It should also let you create different lists. Beyond those two requirements, the app doesn’t matter. (I use Things by Cultured Code.) Just pick the one you like best and commit to using it.
I recommend creating four lists:
- Inbox: your digital dumping grounds. Put no effort into what you’re capturing here, just get it out of your head and into the app.
- Next: all the things that, if able, you could work on right now.
- Waiting on: sometimes your tasks will depend on someone else doing something. Track of those things here.
- Someday: it’s not always the right time to work on something.
Using the system
Make a commitment? Add it to the Inbox. Remember you need to buy eggs? Inbox. Find an article you want to read later? Inbox. Don’t rely on your brain to remember this stuff. Your brain is not good at that. Stop making your brain do things it’s not good at.
Review the Inbox a few times per day. Move tasks into one of the other three lists. Sometimes the thing you put in the Inbox needs broken into a few smaller tasks—do that and then move them where they need to go. Over the next few weeks, you’ll get to experience the profound relief that comes with knowing your mental state of the moment has zero impact on your ability to (a) get things done and (b) remember commitments later.
Don’t overuse due dates. Only things that MUST be completed by a certain date should have a date. Otherwise you’ll have to think about whether a task’s date is fixed or flexible. Remove the ambiguity—either the date is the most important thing, or it doesn’t matter.
In addition to committing to this system, here are a few other tips:
Morning and evening routines: Every night, reserve 5-10 minutes to review your next day’s calendar events and scrub through your Next list. Highlight (and mark) the 3-5 things you want to work on the next day. Every morning, jump straight into your top task. Ideally you should schedule at least 30-60 minutes of uninterrupted time (especially before even checking email and Slack) to work on your top task. I have to block out the time on my calendar. This is usually 8:30-9:15 for me. I’m trying to extend that to a full hour.
Only check email (and Slack, etc.) twice a day: You won’t miss anything important, I promise. I check them once at 9:00 and again at 16:50. When you do decide to check the various inboxes of your life, always snooze, archive, or reply to every message. Leave your inboxes empty.
Get off your phone: If it’s for work, leave it on work devices. Checking our phones is my generation’s smoke break. Maybe you can’t delete email from your phone (although I’d encourage you to try). But turn off notifications for email, and set messaging to only send you notifications for channels you absolutely need to receive messages for. In general, remove any apps on your phone that aren’t for communicating between real people. This means most social networking apps, games, news. Set aside some time each night to binge those things. I promise you won’t miss them. They’re sucking your time away to the tunes of hours and tens of hours a week. If you choose to keep them, don’t then take to those same tools to complain about how hard it is to find time for your side hustle.
Finally, carry a notebook: I just told you to use an app, but apps require phones, tablets, or computers and I dislike those in meetings or on the go. A small notebook and pen are perfect as a short-term place to capture anything in your head. Write things down throughout the day, and then once a day move all tasks into the app and cross out everything in the notebook. This gives you the benefit of the app when it comes to organization and the speed/social acceptance of paper/pen when you need it.
That’s it. Four simple lists, a notebook, and an app.
Be careful not to let the process become the product. Too much and you’ll spend hours tweaking the system without actually getting anything done.
And remember: productivity for productivity’s sake is pointless. Make sure you’re actually working on things that matter. If you are, then spending an hour figuring out a system like this can be well worth the investment, and pay dividends for years to come.