Do you sometimes feel like you’re spending more time “getting organized” than actually getting things done?
Is your to-do list getting bigger and bigger and starts to overwhelm you more and more?
It happened to me as well before I recently came up with this productivity system.
In this monster (2500+ words) article, I’ll unveil the first productivity system I’m happy with after literally years of testing different methodologies and tools… and I’m a productivity freak! Since adopting it, I’m way less stressed out about what I have to do or when I have to do it because I have a system I trust and can rely on.
To me, it’s the ultimate productivity system because it’s almost 100% digital, not too time-consuming and integrates the dreaded To-Do List, your email, your calendar and your storage.
Why systems? Simple. We’re only human, and we often tend to overestimate our willpower (which is not that powerful as Tim Ferriss repeats over and over!). Systems keep us on track, whether it’s about personal finance or choosing & prioritizing tasks better (must-read article in addition to this one).
And this productivity system is my new right arm. Let’s get to it!
The Methods Behind my Productivity System
I’m not going to pretend the productivity principles behind this article are mine.
Some pretty smart people have come up with productivity methods that just work. The one that has impacted me the most is GTD (Getting Things Done) by David Allen.
Here are its principles:
- Capture everything that is on your mind. Everything!
- Clarify your action items by breaking them down
- Organize your action items according to categories and priorities
- Follow weekly and daily “rituals” to keep on top of your tasks
It sounds obvious and simple, and that’s why it works. We’re as lazy as our willpower is unpredictable!
It’s great, but as is it didn’t suit my willpower and laziness, so I adapted it to the modern age and tweaked it to make it more powerful!
I also combine those principle with some other productivity
Why a Digital Productivity System?
Recently, there has been this big trend of going back to paper To-Do lists and calendars. While I get some of it, the convenience of having a digital productivity system outweighs the cons:
- I can access it anywhere, on any device
- I can automate things and interconnect my To-Do List, Calendar, Emails and more so that they work together
- I can share them with collaborators in a few clicks
- I can set up reminders
- I can dynamically filter, re-arrange or organize things at will
Enter the Productivity System
Productivity System Components
Below is the first messy draft that goes me to this Productivity System (it’s changed since and this article describes the new version):
The four “bubbles” represent the four main components of this productivity system:
- To-Do List (I use now use only ToDoIst)
- Email (I use Gmail)
- Calendar (I use Google Calendar)
- Online storage (I use Google Drive and Evernote)
Productivity System Principles
- Each component must be only one app and has to be used for all professional AND personal projects (with the exception of online storage for obvious reasons)
- Each component must have a way to filter by personal vs. professional and by project
- Each app must be able to communicate with the others via direct or indirect (IFTTT of Zapier) integration
- Don’t plan more than you’re able to chew: we’ve all got a limited number of hours in the day. Planning what you really have time to do is way less stressful (hint: you’ll do less!). Also, emergencies will arise so leave space for them!
For this productivity system to stay organized, you will need rituals as recommended in the GTD Methodology. This is the one thing that made GTD stick for me. When I first adopted Getting Things Done, I wasn’t properly doing the rituals and I thought this methodology was not for me… I was just doing it wrong. This is CORE.
- Morning, Daily GTD Ritual
That’s the first thing I do when getting to work. In short, that’s when I decide what I will do on a given day.
Here are the steps involved in the daily ritual:
- Taking a look at my calendar to see what’s already planned
- Taking a quick look at my emails (just the email subjects!) to see if any emergency has popped up
- In my To-Do List app
- Looking at tasks assigned specifically to today
- Looking at tasks of the week (determined in the weekly GTD review) that I should do today based on the degree of Urgency and Importance
- Selecting tasks I plan on doing today
- Blocking time on my calendar for the most important tasks
More on that in the To-Do List section!
- Weekly GTD Ritual
A big part of why GTD wasn’t working for me at first was because I wasn’t properly doing my weekly GTD ritual. Block 30 minutes in the weekend and get to it (I do it right after my Personal Finance weekly routine).
Here are the steps involved in the weekly ritual:
- Empty my physical inboxes (and create necessary follow-up action items)
- Empty my digital inboxes
- To-Do List Inbox
- Evernote Inbox
- Clean Google Drive “main folder”
- Review “waiting for tasks”
- Go through all my action items and if needed
- Break them down into smaller tasks
- Add a due date
- Mark as Important or not important
- Mark as urgent or non-urgent
- Estimate time needed to complete
- Decide which tasks I should do in the coming week
- Review upcoming Calendar (and create/prioritize action items)
The 4 Pillars of your Productivity System
In this productivity system, we’ll consider four components: To-Do List, Calendar, Email and online storage.
Your To-Do List
As I mentioned earlier, I use Todoist as my To-Do List manager. Not only the Pro version is pretty cheap at US$ 28.99 per year (you could get by with the free one to start), but it has apps for EVERY operating system (Mac, Windows, IOS, Android), browser etc. (even Gmail) you can imagine! And, very important, it integrates with IFTTT and Zapier, which helped me integrate with Asana that I have to use for other projects.
For it to match the GTD Method, you’ll need to organize it this way:
Tasks can belong to projects, can have tags, priorities and due dates.
When creating a task, try to add a #project, @tags, priority right away so that you stay on top of your To-Do List.
I try to make tasks begin with an action verb.
Don’t hesitate to create recurring tasks!
I’ve chosen to have two main projects: professional and personal. Inside them, I have projects that can have sub-projects.
By default, TodoIst has four levels of priorities (p1, p2, p3, p4).
For GTD, here is how I set them (after reading this article):
- Priority 1: for my 2-3 most important tasks for the day (hello Tim Ferris 😉 )
- Priority 2: for the rest of my tasks for the day (usually 10-15)
- Priority 3: my tasks marked for the current week (between weekly reviews)
- Priority 4: the rest
So priority 1 and 2 are for today, and the rest are to be planned for later.
Shortcut: to add a priority to a task, enter it like this “p1” for priority 1
That’s where you will need to be organized for GTD to work well. Here are the tags I use, and that work well:
You’ll recognize the Time (5min, 15min, 30min, 1min), Energy (Low, Medium, High) and Priority (p1, p2, p3, p4). But I’ve also added two more dimensions: Important and Urgent. Those will help us do a dynamic Eisenhower Matrix in the filters section.
I’ve dropped the context (to do at home/work, on the phone/laptop, etc.) as it didn’t suit my case and is already represented in my projects.
Shortcut: to add any tag(s) to a task, enter it like this: “@tag”. Yes, you can add multiple
That’s where the magic happens. Since our To-Do List is digital, we’ll be able to dynamically create “views” that suit our GTD productivity system. Filters allow you to do just that with queries.
More specifically, to know in which order to tackle tasks, I use the Eisenhower Matrix. If you need a refreshed on that, head over to my time management article.
Here are the filters we’ll create: a “Today Eisenhower Matrix”, a “Daily Review Eisenhower Matrix” and a “Weekly Review Eisenhower Matrix”.
And if you’ve set up you Tags and Priorities like I have, here, are the filter queries for each:
- Today Eisenhower Matrix: “p1, @urgent & @important & p2, @urgent & !@important & p2, @important & !@urgent & p2, !@urgent & !@important & p2″
- Daily Review Eisenhower Matrix: “(overdue | today) , p1|p2, @urgent & @important & p3, @urgent & !@important & p3, @important & !@urgent & p3, !@urgent & !@important & p3”
- Weekly Review Eisenhower Matrix: “overdue, 7 days , p3, p4”
For instance, here is what my Today Eisenhower Matrix looks like:
Other To-Do List Tips
Don’t feel the need to add due dates to your tasks if you don’t have to; your Priorities will do the work for you!
If a task takes less than 2 minutes, I do it right away. No excuse!
Time management is key! As I mentioned earlier, I use Google Calendar because it’s available on all my devices (MacBook Pro, Android, Chromebook and the web), integrates with many things and allow me to have multiple calendars.
Here is how I manage my calendar:
- Block time for your main three tasks of the day
- Have a different calendars for every project + a personal one
- Add every event you will go to in your calendar, it will provide you from double-booking
- Send a Calendar to everyone you’ll meet. They will remember and you as well!
- By the way, schedule your next meetings with Calendly which integrates with your Google Calendar, it will save you a lot o back-and-forth time!
- When possible, add the event/meeting address and transportation time needed to your calendar events. It will save you time while on the way
- If you need to be reminded of an event, set up reminders or alarms weeks, days or hours in advance
- Block time twice a day for emails
- Know your energy levels during the day and schedule activities accordingly
We all have different energy levels and preferred depending on the time of the day, and you should use that to your advantage.
For instance, I’m much better in the morning for organizing things and logical thinking while I have low energy in the early afternoon and can write long-form essays in the evening. Here is how I apply that to my day management: I block my morning for my most important tasks of the day and avoid meetings in the morning but rather schedule them of administrative tasks in the early PM and my writing in the evening.
Here is another great time management article by Noah Kagan on how to find your peak times.
On morning routines
Anyone who is busy enough knows that days are never long enough and your important personal development activities like sport, meditation or reading won’t get done if shit hits the fan.
Invest in yourself and focus them in the morning before anything else when you’re waking up and at your peak alertness. Your morning routine will also set you up for a great day! For more about this, read The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. By the way, I don’t wake up crazy early in the morning, I just make sure to start my day with my most important activities.
One inbox to rule them all
Remember one of this productivity system’s principles: “Each component must be only one app and has to be used for all professional AND personal”.
Email should be the same; you should only have one inbox to check. An easy way to achieve this and that allows integrations & automations is to use Gmail with Aliases.
Setup your inbox for success
Then, you can get organized with Labels and folders by email address and some much more advanced setups.
I also like to setup my Gmail with the “unread first” view so that I never miss an important email. It also allows me to bump an email up to my inbox by marking it as unread.
Which looks like this:
When it comes to email, you should limit input and interruptions.
When it comes to limiting interruptions, I like to:
- Deactivate your email notifications, both on desktop and mobile
- Batch email checking (twice per day is doable, but you’ll need discipline)
- Use Boomerang to postpone sending emails and have them “come back” according to rules (for instance if no one replies with three days). You can also create “if this then that” rules. For instance, if no one reads your email, send them a specific answer.
- Unsubscribe from emails you don’t need any more with this method rather than Unroll me (they sell your email data for ads)
What Action item can come from an email?
Not let’s talk about the content of emails. If you think about it, four types of output can come from an email.
The first question to ask is: “Do it need an answer?”
- Short or easy answer: Reply
- Long answer that needs discussion and research: add Task in To-Do LIst (very easy with ToDoIst Chrome extension that has a nifty “add email as task” in Gmail.
- Calendar event
- Ignore or file for later use
Your Online Storage
Though many won’t consider it as a part of their productivity system, I do. We’re always working on documents and taking notes online.
It’s really important to me to be able to access my files & documents from anywhere and on any device.
In order to do so and have access to cool automations, I use Goole Drive & Evernote for different purposes:
- Google Drive for file storage, sharing and document collaboration (Text, Spreadsheet or Slideshows)
- Evernote for note taking and information gathering (thanks to the Evernote browser Capture extension).That’s also where I scan business cards (and can add to LinkedIn and contacts directly). I organize it with tags versus notebooks as Evernote’s search becomes really powerful with tags!
Both tools allow you to create sharing links with different rights for each file or folder, which makes it great for adding files as tasks in your to-do list or sharing them in emails.
Plus now, Google Drive & Evernote now integrate as you can attach Google Docs to your Evernotes.
Automate/Outsource things with IFTTT & Zapier
This Productivity System blog post wouldn’t be complete without a note on automation.
After all, when we think of systems, we often think about automated systems rather than only a way of organizing things. My piece about how to prioritize tasks and assign them is always a good reminder before automating anything.
In that world, the kings are IFTTT (free) & Zapier (paid for powerful stuff).
Given that, most people tend to use IFTTT when possible since it’s free and Zapier for the more powerful stuff like multi-step actions with multiple connected apps.
For instance, here is an article I wrote about how to automate social media with IFTTT and Buffer.
In this monster (2500+ words) article, we tackle:
- The GTD Method Behind my Productivity System
- Why a Digital Productivity System?
- The Productivity System
- Its Components
- Its Principles
- Its Rituals
- The 4 Pillars of the Productivity System
- To-Do List
- Your Online Storage
- Automating/Outsourcing things