I like to think that I get a lot of stuff done. I write on this blog nearly four times a week, I volunteer for both local and distant non-profits I like, I’m active in student organizations at college, I study a lot, and I still get my homework done. Other people have noticed this and asked me how I’m so productive. This essay is where I try and “share my secrets”, so to speak.
The real secret is that, in the past, I wasn’t nearly as productive. I struggled with procrastination, had issues completing assignments on time, and always felt like I never had enough time to do things. But, starting in January and continuing for the past eight months, I have slowly implemented several systems and habits in my life that, taken together, have made me productive. Productivity is not a talent I have – I’ve learned to be productive over the past several months and I have habits in place where I basically cannot fail to be productive.
Hopefully these systems will work for you. I’ve seen some people adopt them to some success, but I’ve never seen anyone do it exactly the way I do. And perhaps it would even be bad to do it exactly the way I do, because everyone is just a little bit different. I’m being aware of other-optimizing and letting you just know what’s worked for me. I make no claims that these systems will work for you. Your mileage may vary.
So what are the systems? To get you to be productive, we’ll need to get you to organize, to prioritize, then to do and review. Have those four things down and you’ll have everything you need to be productive.
The first step to being productive is to be organized and remember things without memorizing them. If we get these systems down, you won’t forget your ideas, when and where events are, what tasks you need to complete, what papers you have, and what emails you have.
The Most Important Rule: Write Things Down
If you only take away one system from one category, I want it to be this one. Whole essays can be written about these systems and this one is no different – write things down. Whenever you have a cool idea, an event invitation, a task, etc., write it down. Always. Constantly. No excuses.
I’ve found in my life that stress has come in surprising part from trying to keep everything in my head. When I write down everything I think is worth remembering, whether it be a concrete thing I need to do or just a cool yet unimportant idea I want to follow up on sometime later, I write it down. That gets it out of my head, and I no longer feel the need to remember things (as long as I remember to look them up later), and I feel much better.
I’ve also found in my life that I constantly think I’ll remember something and it’s not worth writing down. More than half the time, I’ve been wrong and forgotten the thing. This has meant I’ve forgotten cool ideas and even forgotten events or to complete key items. Always write things down, no matter how convinced you are that you’ll remember them.
How do you do this? I suggest getting something that will always be with you that you can write things down on. For the vast majority of my readers, this can be a phone where you text yourself messages. For a long time, I would use my smartphone to email myself notes, because I knew I’d always check my email later and then could record the note to a text document. Later on, I moved to keeping track of ideas on Evernote and then later moved on to keeping track of ideas on Workflowy. Workflowy costs $5 a month to use it to full potential (worth it, in my opinion), but there are free alternatives (that aren’t as good, in my opinion).
However, don’t shy away from the good old pen and paper if it gets the job done. I got this notepad for $6 and it’s been great.
Keep Track of Events: The Calendar
Of course, some of the things you want to write down will be particular things that need to be recorded in particularly useful places. One of these things is events, or places you need to be at a particular time and place. For this, you can use any calendar, but I like Google Calendar the best. Whenever you get invited to an event, record it on your calendar. (We’ll include reviewing your calendar regularly in a bit, so you won’t forget what’s there.)
A common mistake I see people make is to rely on Facebook events to keep track of their events. Perhaps this works for some people, but not all events are done through Facebook or can be done through Facebook, so you end up keeping track of events in multiple places, which causes confusion and missed events. Wherever you record events, record all your events in one place.
Keep Track of Tasks: The To-Do List
The next thing you’ll want to keep track of is tasks. For this, you need a to-do list. I spent a lot of my life just using a TextEdit document, but I recommend you use a dedicated app instead. I personally use Workflowy here too, but others work great. In the past I’ve used Trello to great success. I’ve seen others succeed with Asana or even just a text document on the computer.
A common mistake I see people make here is using their email as their to-do list. This might make some sense, but often emails contain information unnecessary to your tasks which slows you down, and sometimes emails contain multiple action points. Worse, emails contain no easy way to prioritize tasks (which is really important and will be discussed in a bit).
Bottom line: Keep all your tasks in one crisp, clear place. Don’t spread out your to-do lists across multiple applications and don’t put it in with a bunch of other stuff.
Action, Waiting, Reference: Stay Organized with Zones
Once you have your ideas written down, your events on your calendar, and your tasks on your to-do list, it’s time to organize the materials you’ll have to deal with. Lots of physical papers and computer documents come at you throughout your day and it’s time to organize them.
The trick here? Get a surface area you can keep clear and divide it into three zones: action, waiting, and reference.
The action zone is for things that need to be done. Have a form you need to fill out? Something you need to read? Even more outlandish things like a necklace you need to repair or something? Keep everything needed for a task together in folders or with paperclips as necessary, put it in the action zone, and record the task on your to-do list.
The waiting zone is for things that eventually need to be done, but which cannot be done yet because you’re waiting on something. Perhaps you need feedback from someone, a package still needs to arrive, or the task only can be done on a certain day. For this, keep everything grouped together in the waiting zone, and record on your to-do list what the task is and what you’re waiting for. (We’ll revisit implementing zones in the to-do list in a little bit.) Move things to action and update your to-do list when what you’re waiting for arrives.
The reference zone is for things you might need to look at and need to be kept around, but are not associated with any task. For examples, things I have had in my reference zone are passwords, details about tasks from people, items that are relevant but not necessary to the work that I’m doing, etc.
Always Inbox Zero: Apply the Folders to Your Email
Email is really messy for most people, but it doesn’t have to be. The solution here is to implement the zones in your email too. I use Gmail, but nearly every email system includes folders these days. Use that system to create three folders – action, waiting, and reference – in your email, then sort your email according to the folders and record on your to-do list.
There is no reason to have any email in your inbox. You should be at “inbox zero” constantly. Whenever an email comes in, process it and file it. Got an email from Nancy that you need to reply to? Put it in “Action” and put “Reply to Nancy’s email” on your to-do list. Got a long email from your boss that you don’t even have time to read yet? Put it in “Action” and put “Read boss’s email” on your to-do list. Then when you go back to read it, you can determine the next action item.
Emails also make sense to be put in waiting. If it’s important I get a reply from the email, I’ll put it in waiting to remind myself to follow up later if necessary (more on that later). I’ll also put emails in waiting if I’m expecting a reply from someone else first, or if it’s information for an action item I can’t act on yet, or if I want to reply later on.
Lastly, reference is very important for emails that you need to keep around to read, but don’t need to reply to. Lots of notes that people send me get processed into my relevant Workflowy document and then kept in reference for as long as they’re relevant.
Now that you’re all organized, it’s time to get in a position to do the things you need to do. But watch out, because unless you have time to complete your entire to-do list in one sitting, it’s a poor use of time to just go from the top to the bottom. Instead, we need to go from the most important to the least important.
Eisenhower Matrix: Do What’s Important
Here, you take your to-do list and organize everything into four quadrants: important and urgent, important and not urgent, unimportant and urgent, and unimportant and not urgent. This is very easy to do on Workflowy, and still possible on something like Trello.
There’s pretty universal agreement that you complete all the “important and urgent” tasks first and the “unimportant and not urgent” tasks last. But the real trick is that after you complete the important and urgent tasks, you should move to complete the important and not urgent tasks. Ignore the not important and urgent tasks until you’ve completed all important tasks and even be comfortable with skipping unimportant tasks if necessary. Why? Because they’re not important.
If you get this matrix down, you’ll soon get ahead on your tasks, because you’ll be completing important tasks before they become urgent.
Also, note the inclusion of “waiting” here as one of the tabs in my to-do list. This is where I put tasks I can’t complete yet with a note of what I’m waiting on. Something like talking to my Dad three days from now would be tagged as “#30aug :: Talk to Dad” (using Workflowy hashtags), but I’d also do things with unclear dates, like “Brian responds to email :: Forward response to Seth”. Beware that being able to manage unclear deadlines (where you don’t know what day the task will be) is something that most to-do list apps struggle with.
Timeboxing: Plan Your Day in Advance
The next prioritization thing to master is planning your day in advance. You do this through making “time boxes” for things, or periods of time where you’ll do something predefined. For example, I’ll set aside some time to work through my to-do list or to work on particular projects. For bigger projects, I’ll decide how much I want to work on them in any particular day or week and set them aside from my to-do list. I’ll then block out time for them on my calendar and end up with days like this.
Since I plan my days in advance using this timebox method, I just plan every minute of the calendar in advance and have a plan so I always know what to be doing and never miss a beat. Of course, things come up and you’ll have to change your plan for the day, but that’s better than having no plan at all.
Two Minute Rule
It’s important to be mindful of how much time it takes to record a task, put it in your to-do list, and prioritize it, however. For most people, including me, it’s about two minutes for any given task. This gives rise to the “two minute rule”: if doing somethign would take less than two minutes, just do it now. Likewise, if it would take over two minutes, put it in your to-do list and do it at the best time.
Now that you have your to-do list set and timeboxes for when you’re going to work and on what, it’s time to actually do the work.
The Pomodoro Technique
The ideal timebox should be a length that is a multiple of thirty minutes so you can do the most powerful productivity thing there is: The Pomodoro Technique. Beware that it doesn’t work for some, but I do urge you to give it a fair shake and a few tries, because for those whom the Pomodoro works, the Pomodoro Technique works wonders.
Here’s how you do it. Set a timer for 25 minutes. During those 25 minutes (a) work only on your task at hand; (b) do not do anything else, even for a second; (c) be completely focused; (d) be free from distractions; (e) and do not multi-task. There are some acceptable things to do during a Pomodoro, however: go to the bathroom, drink, listen to music. But there are tons more things not to do during a Pomodoro: check Facebook, read your email, etc. The list will go on.
After the timer expires, take a five minute break. During these five minutes, do anything you’d like except the task on hand. Even if you feel like the break is boring and you’re itching to get back on task, don’t. You’re only hurting yourself in the long-run. This five minute break will restore your focus, keep you grounded, provide a way to think through your ideas in a different setting, and prevent you from needing longer breaks later in the day.
It should be noted, however, that the Pomodoro can be a bit difficult to get in the habit of, though. To solve this, I’ve found it useful to work my way up to the full Pomodoro by spending a month getting used to “15 minutes of work, 5 minutes break”, then another month doing “20 minutes of work, 5 minutes break”, and then finally “25 minutes of work, 5 minutes break”.
Different people have tried other multiples besides 25 and 5, but I’m still convinced that 25-5 is the ideal split. Perhaps 27-3 could work better for advanced Pomodoro users, but I wouldn’t push it further. I’ve seen things like 90-30 or 30-10, and all of these seem to involve working just a little too long (losing focus) and then taking a lot more break than is necessary. Of course, if it works for you, then it works.
Be Comfortable with Breaks
The important lesson of working a lot is to be comfortable with taking a break. The novice productive person will think it virtuous to work clear through a break and onward, thinking that he or she is making even better use of their time, defeating all those sissy workers who need breaks! But really, this person is just setting up their own downfall, because they’ll crash and burn.
Burnout is real and one of the most dangerous things you can do is train yourself to feel guilty about not working. So you need to remember to take breaks. The break in a Pomodoro is a good one, but I also recommend taking a larger break (like 30 minutes) after completing three or four Pomodoros.
One particularly good break I’d like to give a shout-out to is to take a nap. Taking a nap at a fairly regular time has health benefits (see also here, here, and here) and doesn’t harm your night sleep if you nap for 20 minutes and don’t nap too late in the afternoon or evening. In fact, I’ve actually found naps to be a time saver instead of time “wasted” for a break, because I can sleep less at night and still feel rested and be focused throughout the day.
Keep Your Energy Up
Another thing to prevent your chance of crashing and needing a long break to restore your energy is to keep your energy up. I recommend drinking something that is somewhat sugary but not too sugary (I drink water-diluted lemonade in a 25%-75% mix) and remembering to exercise on a regular basis. Also, eating healthy and sleeping right works wonders for keeping your attention on your work.
Of course, it’s not enough to do if you’re not going to learn from how you’re doing and improve. I suggest you review your life on multiple levels – daily, weekly, monthly, and once every six months.
For the daily review, I keep track of whether I’ve succeeded at certain habits like exercising and eating right, and log the amount of time I’ve spent on various things so I can keep track of my time usage. I also complete other relevant logs, and then spend a bit of time reflecting how things have gone for the day and think of ways to repeat successes and avoid mistakes. I then check the plan for the next day and tweak it if necessary. This process takes me about 15 to 20 minutes.
For the weekly review, I go through my action-waiting-reference zones wherever they exist (physical piles, email, and computer folders) and process them – make sure everything there is still relevant and still belongs in the same place. I’ll remove whatever needs to be removed at this stage and remind myself what I’m working on. I’ll organize and clean anything that isn’t organized at this stage and get everything together. I’ll then quickly re-read my strategic plan and plan out the week in accordance with my goals. Recently, I’ve set amounts of time per week I want to be spending on certain projects, so it’s now a matter of making a schedule that works. This process usually takes me 45 minutes to an hour.
For the monthly review, I reflect on the habits I’ve been trying to build for the month and decide what habits I want to keep, what habits I want to add, and what habits I want to subtract. I review how the month as a whole went and think about what I can do to repeat successes and avert future failures. I then write up a reflection and publish it on my blog. This process usually takes me two hours.
For the six month review, I return to my goals and think about how my life trajectory as a whole is going. What are my life goals? What am I doing to accomplish them? Am I closer to my goals than I was six months ago? Should I be working toward new goals? What common mistakes did I make through the past six months that I want to avoid? I then write a document with my personal mission and goals for the next six months and skim it every week to constantly remind myself of what I want to be doing. This process usually takes me three hours.
Yes, there will be an unlucky day where you do all four reviews and spend like six and a half hours reviewing your life at different levels. Perhaps this is a bit much for people, but I’ve found tremendous benefit from it. I’ve found that spending this day reviewing my life has saved me from not just days, but even months, of wasted time that doesn’t accomplish what I really want to do. Reviewing is another way of saving you time.
These tips are really a result of me experimenting for eight months. I’d expect you to take a similar amount of time to go from zero to productive and end up with different systems that work for you and your environment. But I think there are a lot of power in these systems and I’m interested to see what other people do and how other people run with them. After all, they work for me.
Appendix A: Additional Tips
Now I’ve given you all my main advice, but I have some additional tips if you want to keep reading.
Carefully form these habits over time. This is a lot to do at once, so do it in stages. Build the habit of writing things down first, and then slowly get the apps you like in place for ideas, events, and tasks. After you have that down, spend the time necessary to get your email in order and implement the zones wherever possible. Then begin to move into prioritizing your tasks with the Eisenhower Matrix. After you have this down, begin planning your days in advance with timeboxes and start doing your reviews. While you’re building that habit, simultaneously start building up the Pomodoro habit, slowly approaching 25-5 over a few months.
Find a way to reliably stay on habit. Don’t make the common failure of sticking to something for a month or two and abandoning it. Spend a lot of energy thinking through how you’ll stay on habit and how you’ll not be like all the other people who think they’ll stay on habit then fail. Make a bet with a friend, start up Beeminder, or create some other kind of commitment device.
Form the productivity mindset. I had a lot of trouble implementing this plan until I was able to think of myself as an important person who does important things and should personally value my time. I had to really want to be productive before I could start being productive. Success at this will follow from the right mindset. It’s time to start thinking of yourself as important. If you can’t fool yourself, maybe it’s time to look at your goals and decide what goals would make you feel important and then do those goals instead.
Behold the power of routines. I find it a lot easier to exercise if I have a routine of “every other day, right after waking up” or “every other day, right before dinner”. Your routine can be built from here. It’s a lot easier to stick to timeboxes if they’re regularly occurring. Use a calendar and build yourself something nice.
Put everything in a particular place. People lose a lot of time just hunting around for things. Solve this by spending some time ahead of time organizing things in your life and getting them into particular places. Then always make sure things return to their places.
Declutter your life. You’ll work better if you have less stuff to keep track of and less commitments to worry about. Get rid of everything and delegate anything you can.
Make a productivity place. This works especially well in colleges where there is a large variety of places you could be working. Find a place to work, set up your Pomodoros, and follow them to the letter. Don’t mess up. Take your longer breaks somewhere else. If you do mess up, find a new productivity place and start again. I found this really helpful for my mindset, but others have found it silly.
Don’t neglect friends and family. This is a big one. Remember, the goal of being more productive is to free time to do the things you want and be with the people you want. It’s not to spend 100 hour workweeks neglecting those who are important to you. Make sure to take some time off to spend with friends and family. Schedule it in your calendar if you have to. This will matter most in the long-run for your life.
Productivity ≠ Busy and Busy ≠ Productivity. If you do productivity right, you shouldn’t feel busy all that often. Being busy is a sign of having poor productivity and/or having taken on too many commitments, and is rarely ever a sign of doing things correctly.