As a few of you may know, I’m somewhat of a nerd for “productivity porn”— basically articles, apps, and techniques that purport to increase one’s productivity and efficiency. At one point last year I was probably reading about this stuff more than I was actually working!
However, I like to think I’ve reeled myself in a bit; I’ve tried a little bit of everything and the things that work for me have basically stuck, so if sharing my experience could help even one person get more organized or productive, then it’s a worthwhile endeavor!
Plus, I still love reading about this stuff, and I think I like writing about it, too.
What I do
“Getting Things Done”
Getting Things Done by David Allen is probably one of the most famous and revered productivity books and systems out there. The “Getting Things Done” (or GTD) system revolves around capturing all of your stray thoughts in an external system, be that a phone app, a Moleskine notebook, or even a stack of index cards (the “hipster PDA”, as it’s been called), organizing them, doing all the things, and reviewing. From there, it can be further subdivided into many steps and with their own sometimes-archaic sub-systems.
Capturing is probably the most important step; the human brain is not good at remembering all the stuff that needs remembering, be it meeting times, work tasks, household chores, phone numbers… sure, there are ways to exercise and improve this kind of memory, but really it’s easy to just write EVERYTHING down and organize it into a system for tasks (or “actions” as GTD likes to dorkily put it), calendar events, and reference materials).
One of the other big tenets of GTD is “contexts,” or a system of lists based on location or tools needed, like Home, Work, School, and Computer, which can sometimes be further divided (offline vs. online). The problem with this is it’s based on a pre-smartphone world (the book was written in the early 2000s) where most of the things we had to do were limited to certain spaces. This is sometimes still the case, and so they can come in handy at times (there are still things I can only do at home, or when I’m running errands), but there’s a lot more that can be done anywhere nowadays with unibiquitous connectivity.
One solution to this conundrum is to organize “contexts” by mindset; are you in a creative mood? Low on energy or time but want to get something done? I tend to use these kinds of modern lists in addition to or alongside some more “traditional” contexts.
For more on the system, I recommend reading up on some basic summaries of GTD, or taking a look at Zen Habits’ “ZTD” (“zen to zone”) system, a variant that, among other differences, builds habits one step at a time rather than dumping it all on you at once, which is a great way to go for beginners and those who just want to get going without too much hassle. But really, the best way to go (and what I’ve done) is to read that stuff, give everything its fair chance, and then take what works for you and stick to that.
GTD (and really any variations) can be implemented entirely on pen-and-paper, or all the way up to dedicated GTD-based task-manager apps (more on those later).
This is actually another core tenet of GTD, but I think it’s important enough and has evolved enough for me that it needs its own section.
On a regular, scheduled basis, I’ll review (and often revise) the various aspects of my work and life. Every morning I’ll look through my calendar to double-check that I know where I’m going, what I’m doing, and what goals I’ve set for myself that week. Every weekend I’ll update my budget, review all my projects to make sure they’re coming along, look at my goals for the month, and set my goals for the next week. Every month I’ll check my goals for the year and set my goals for the next month.
You probably get the idea.
“But why spend all that time reviewing stuff when you can actually do stuff?” you might ask. Because I need to make sure I’m spending my time on the right things. I’m naturally rather scatterbrained, and left to my own devices without these kinds of systems (aka me in high school) I just really don’t do a whole lot of work. I forget things.
Just last week, I thought maybe I didn’t need to review my weekly goals every day. So I didn’t. And you know what happened? Yep, I completely forgot about one of my goals, and it just didn’t happen.
So maybe you don’t need to review everything every week. But regular reviews can be the difference between “generally getting things done when they need to happen… except when I don’t…” and “Everything In Its Right Place”.
Morning and Evening Routines
This one’s pretty simple. I have a pretty set and (perhaps overly-)formalized routine for mornings and evenings. Dream journal, bathroom, brief exercise, breakfast and tea, internet, morning review, meditation. If I miss one thing it’s not the end of the world (and I frequently do miss things), but when it’s all put together, it helps wake me up and clear my head.
In the evening I have some other routines that make sure that I’m set to jump into the next day. Again, I often miss things, but when I don’t, I find I’m able to start that much more quickly the following morning. It helps a lot.
Do the Biggest/Hardest Thing First
In the “productivity” world this has been given the most ridiculous title of everything on this list: “eat your frog,” a phrase popularized by the book by Brian Tracy and taken from a quote by Mark Twain (almost certainly used in a different context than what was first intended): “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
The logic behind the modern idea is sound, though. If you do the hardest or most important things first, everything else will seem easy. Furthermore, as the day goes on most people lose energy. It makes sense that the most important stuff should get the most energy. This can mean what’s most important at work or school or a personal project that I really want to make headway on.
This can be kind of daunting, so if needed, I’ll often break down these big tasks into bite-size chunks that I can do one at a time and keep myself from being overwhelmed and procrastinating.
Get Up REALLY Early
If even a year ago you had told me that I would be getting up at 5am every weekday, I would have laughed. But lo and behold, I’m doing it, and it’s awesome. Maybe you think you’re a night-owl (I did!). But really, how much do you get done late at night? Sure, some people really are productive late at night… I found that most of the time when I was up late, I was basically just aimlessly browsing Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, or gaming, music, & productivity blogs.
Deciding to get up early and do work early in the morning was kind of a revelation for me, and without this I probably wouldn’t be able to promptly finish this film score I’ve been working on for the past month. So even if you don’t think you’re a “morning person”… just try it. Go to bed at 9pm (like, in bed, lights off, phone/TV/computer off) and get up at 5am. Do work in the morning. Do it for a week. See if it works for you. If not, find out what your optimal time is and stick to it.
edit: My wife reminded me that it certainly helps that she is also getting up at 5:15am every morning to get ready for work (she’s a teacher). So also marry a teacher, that will help you get up early. 😀
For the longest time I figured that meditation was one of those things only pseudo-hippies and practicing buddhists did, but after some reading about the benefits and watching this TED Talk, I decided to give it a try. I went to Headspace, a non-religious/non-spiritual guided meditation website/app aimed at making meditation accessible, and gave it a shot. I tried it for awhile, but it was irregular and it didn’t stick. More recently, when I was starting to get up early and establish a morning routine, I decided to try again. I don’t know what changed this time (regularity, more “ready,” early hours), but something clicked this time, and I’ve been feeling a lot more content and clear-headed as a result.
Headspace has a free 10-day trial, and I think you can re-do those 10 guided exercises, too. If you decided to keep going, it’s not too absurdly expensive. But starting my day off with that before work is now practically vital in getting some clarity in my big, busy head.
I’m always driven a little mad when I look at other people’s inboxes now and see hundreds of unread messages, even though just a couple of years ago I was in the same boat. Gmail especially has made it ridiculously easy to make an email inbox just literally an inbox and not the staging area or filing cabinet for new and old messages. I always just hit “archive” or move it to a folder when I’m done with it, search for it when I need it, and keep my inbox clear whenever possible. It cuts down the clutter and make things a lot easier all around.
Take Regular Breaks
It’s been shown that working overtime is not effective, yet it’s pretty common in a lot of workplaces. Whenever I have the option, give myself plenty of downtime between work. I’ve found that my ideal schedule is:
- 2 hours of work
- 30 minutes of downtime
- 2 hours of work
- hour of downtime (lunch)
- 2 hours of work
- half hour of downtime
- 2 hours of work
- DONE for the day
Sometimes I make one of the 30 minute breaks longer so I can go for a run, and I have a bad habit of doing work much later into the afternoon and evening. In general it’s rare that I actually get to follow this schedule with grad school and the various responsibilities that go with it, but it’s my dream that someday, when I’m done with school and making a living working freelance (fingers crossed, knock on wood, say a prayer), I can really make it an everyday thing.
Some of the Apps I Use
Omnifocus is an arguably overpowered, overpriced task manager for Mac and iOS, and I love it. It more or less follows a GTD model for organizing tasks, and though the price-tag may make you want to slap me for paying for a glorified list app (of which many alternatives are free), it does everything so much more reliably and just better that it’s, impressively, worth it. If you have a Mac give the demo a try. There’s also a student discount hidden away on their website.
If you’re not opposed to paying more money, I also recommend Asian Efficiency’s Omnifocus Premium Posts. In terms of opportunity cost, for me at least, it’s been well worth it, and it comes with a 60-day money-back guarantee so if you don’t like it you can get a refund (in fact, I’ve done that already with a couple of their other products) (more on Asian Efficiency later…).
Evernote is a lot of things, and I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it. It’s free, it’s a note manager, it’s a digital filing cabinet, it’s a reference material holder, it’s a scanner… it’s a little complicated, and that’s both a downside and a strength. I use it for all my notes, reference materials, articles I want to hang onto, and some other random stuff. Look into it. Again, it’s free.
I’ve been pretty off-and-on with journaling. I like the idea of it, but sometimes I get bored with it. Day One was really fun from the get-go. It’s a pretty basic journaling app for Mac and iOS with support for tagging, pictures, a command line interface if you want to get geeky, and some other fun stuff.
I generally use it as a pretty basic journal for personal and “professional” purposes; I’ll put my goals for the day and week, how much I got done, etc, and I’ll also Talk About My Feelings and whatnot.
This is a potential life-saver. Passwords are really easy to break, and when websites require strong passwords, people often end up writing them down in insecure locations, which is even worse than just having a weak password. 1Password allows me to assign a unique, strong password for every website and app I use and make it accessible via one super-password that only exists in my brain and keeps it all super-secure and locked down. It might sound scary if you don’t know how it works, but it’s great. Give it a look, or try one of the many alternatives.
I don’t use this nearly as much as I should. aText is a “text-expansion” app, which means you can type a short little thing, and it will automatically expand to something longer, saving typing time. Right now I use it for journal templates, a couple of email templates and signoffs and whatnot (“,jb” expands to “— Jon Bash”), and entering the current date. I imagine if I were a programmer or web developer I could use it for code snippets, which would be fantastic.
There are also alternatives for Mac, Windows, and now iOS with v8.0 (and probably Android). I chose aText because it was cheap and competitive with the more expensive options out there.
To say that YNAB changed the way I thought about money is not an exaggeration. It’s essentially a budgeting and personal-finace-tracking app, but it also involves a method that I won’t really delve into here. It basically forces you to manually track your money, but I consider this an upside. It’s available for Windows, Mac, iOS, and I think Android.
MyFitnessPal / Jawbone Up
The one-two punch of MyFitnessPal’s food-tracking with Jawbone’s step-counting did for my health what YNAB did for my money. Manually tracking calories and whatnot might seem tedious at first, but I had surprisingly little issue with it, especially with the help of a rather inexpensive food scale.
That said, I can’t really recommend Jawbone’s Up at this point. I’ve had a multitude of issues with the band and their service. I’ll probably be jumping ship to Fitbit or Apple Watch when my current band (a recent warranty replacement) bites the dust.
Some Other Things I Use or Have Used
- Things: I prefer Omnifocus’ hierarchy rather than Things’ flat lists
- Wunderlist: Pretty simple and sometimes buggy, but free and multiplatform!
- Todoist: Ditto!
- 2Do: Gets close to Omnifocus’ functionality for a lower price but is kinda wonky and buggy.
- Taskpaper: Plain text is pretty cool, but if you want to do more powerful stuff with it that comes stock in many non-plain-text apps, you have to do a hell of a lot of futzing and likely some coding.
- Alfred: An app-launcher (and a lot more!) for Mac.
- Dropbox: If you’re not using it (or something similar) you need to be.
- Mailbox: I stopped using this because of the way it turns the inbox into a to-do list. I’d rather just have one to-do list (Omnifocus).
- Mindnode: Mind-mapping is something I’ve only recently really gotten into, but I used it to take notes in class the other week and I think I got a lot more out of the lecture.
- nvALT: keep notes in a folder of text files, sync via Dropbox (I ditched it so I could just keep everything in one place (Evernote)).
- Fantastical: It’s really expensive and honestly I don’t think it’s worth $20, but if you can get it on sale it’s pretty fantastic (a-hyuk).
- CopyClip: Keeps the last 20ish clipboard items in the menu bar!
- Caffeine: Keeps the screen from automatically going to sleep. Good for live music performances and whatnot.
- Bartender: Hides away all those damn menu bar apps (another one of those things that I managed to snag on sale).
- Bullet Journal: A system for journaling, note-taking, calendaring, and task-managing using a single paper notebook. I followed this for awhile, but putting things in the digital realm just made more sense for me after a certain point. There’s a certain amount of complexity that a linear paper journal just can’t adequately deal with, even if there is something tactile and kind of romantic about it.
- Pomodoro Technique: Essentially, you set a timer for 25 minutes, and you do nothing but work during that time. Then you take a 5 minute break and repeat. After 4 intervals, you take a longer break. I still do this occasionally, and it’s great to get over procrastination and keep myself focused.
- Time-tracking: And I mean tracking every. Single. Moment. Of your whole life. How much time you spend sleeping, eating, working, surfing the web aimlessly… I tried this for awhile, and it did help keep me from wasting time when I shouldn’t be… but it was just way too much of a pain. The costs outweighed the benefits. So I stopped. Still, I suppose it might work for some people.
That’s about it in a(n oversized) nutshell! It’s been working well for me, I think, so take from it what you like and see if it helps you get more stuff done and whatnot.
I’d also like to recommend Asian Efficiency’s AE Primer, or just browsing around their website for ideas. Their name might seem a little silly, they can try a little too hard to sell you their $1000 video course, and the fact that one of the founders endorses Ayn Rand creeps me the hell out, but really there’s some good stuff to be found amongst their material, and the AE Primer gathers a lot of that into one place. Most of what’s in there can be found on their website, but it’s not too expensive (≈$10) and I find I like to have it in one spot. And again, if you don’t like it, you can get a refund.
If you have any questions, comment below or shoot me an email! I’ve spent way too much time reading about all this stuff, so if I can I’d like to put that time to some use…