I mentioned in the first post of this series that no tool can help you without the right mindset. The opposite is also true. No one app can become a panacea for your efficiency issues, but the right productivity tools can save you lots of time and improve your flow.
Of course, productivity is a deeply personal matter and I have no will to cover every tool out there – I’ll simply share with you what works for me. We’ll start with the essentials. My system consists of three key tools:
- A task management app to keep track of projects and to-dos.
- A calendar app for appointments and time blocking.
- A note app for your archive of useful resources and notes.
Everything else is bells and whistles on top. The nice-to-haves include tools useful for niche actions like reading and sharing articles online or time tracking.
Task management with Todoist
I’ve tried more than 10 task management apps and when I found Todoist some four years ago, I became a fan overnight. The tool can be as simple as you want it to be. When I’m on the go and want to log a task quickly, I can do it by just typing in the content and worry about moving it to the right project or date later. When I’m on my computer, I can arrange stuff the right way and make sure everything is logged correctly.
Get a high-level view with projects
To arrange tasks, I use a mix of projects and sub-projects. A have a constant set of projects for different areas of my life – person stuff, blog ideas, tasks related to my work at Enhancv and my NGO tasks with Ratio. These would have sub-projects related to each major thing I’m currently working on.
“Wait,” you might be thinking, “you just said you want a simple system, why complicate things with so many projects?” It allows me to keep tabs on the number of things I’m actively working on. It’s an easy litmus test for productivity and focus – you can’t have 20 balls in the air and expect to successfully land each one of them.
Priority levels for your MIT
While Todoist allows you to put priority levels for each task, I’m mindful of overcomplicating things. I use priorities only to mark my most important task for the day and up to 2 additional key tasks. It is not so much a question of information as a question of commitment – adding the priority level means I promise to do this today.
Make Todoist your trusted system
A task management tool only works if it can remind you of all the tasks in your day. Often this means logging tasks from different platforms. I use IFTTT to add the appointments from my calendar and the tasks from shared work projects on Trello, as well as starred emails I need to get back to. This means I can use just one tool to get everything in order.
What didn’t work
I’ve tried a bunch of other tactics that I didn’t find helpful but you might:
Adding recurring tasks to my daily routine – I thought getting a couple of tasks to remind me of the importance of daily meditation, journaling, and gratitude would be a good thing. Turns out the anxiety of seeing so many tasks to complete in a day trumps the benefits of being reminded.
Splitting tasks based on energy level and time – I briefly used labels to denote how long a task would take and how much energy it would require. It takes a lot of time to classify each task. The information provided can help for quicker decisions what to do when you have just 15 minutes prior to a meeting. On the other hand, I saw I have a good enough grasp of those details to make decisions on the fly even without the labels.
You can try these ideas and see for yourself what works and what doesn’t.
Block time with your calendar
What do you use your calendar for? The obvious answer is scheduling meetings. But your calendar can be much more helpful than that.
Plan your ideal week
Being a person with many interests means there are a lot of things I like doing, but rarely find time for. This blog is a prime example of that. There are also some tasks that don’t take up a lot of time, but they are tedious, so you postpone them often – like preparing documents, answering emails, reviewing a content plan.
For both these types of tasks, it’s crucial just to set aside the time to do them. I make this easy by creating recurring tasks. They block time off my calendar and kill the “I don’t have time for that” excuse. Here are some of my categories:
Learning: I block time on Mondays and Saturdays for keeping up with marketing news and articles. I also block time on Sundays for practicing Italian.
Sports: I have two hours a week blocked for running and two hours blocked for weight training. I move those around every week depending on my trainer’s availability and the weather forecast. But if I decide to skip some, I need to remove it from the calendar (and consequently feel bad about it).
Blog writing: I have a big block for blog post writing on Saturdays. Then there are a couple of 30-minute slots dispersed throughout the week for planning the next post, publishing a draft and sharing on social media, and working on the weekly newsletter.
Administrative: Although it’s dull work, someone needs to do it. I keep separate blocks for dealing with emails and documents for my NGO work. There are also some blocks set aside so I can prepare for my weekly project status meetings.
Having these recurring appointments in my calendar means I have the time blocked already. If I want to schedule on top of these tasks, I need to move them to another time slot. The color coding helps the slots stand out and give me a broad picture view of what I dedicate time to. For example, green is for sports, light blue is for learning, peach is for blog work.
Set time for the important stuff
When there is an important thing I want to work on, I set aside time for it in my calendar. This could happen at the start of the week or on a daily basis. But if it’s important enough to be at the top of my priorities, it’s important enough to be on my calendar. Since I’m a morning person, I’d block the time before lunch for that. There will be time set aside for ad optimization, preparing weekly reports, drafting copy for different campaigns we’re working on, etc.
I don’t go as far as saying “If it’s not on my calendar, it doesn’t exist.” But if it’s not on my calendar, it surely doesn’t matter if I don’t finish it today.
Keep things with Evernote
Disciplined people remember. Smart people take copious amounts of notes. The latter is my preferred approach, as well.
My tool of choice here is Evernote. I’ve tried ditching it a couple of times over the years for Google Docs, but the lack of proper offline access makes Evernote superior. The one thing I lack here is Markdown support and predefined heading styles – if you’re a Markdown fan, you can try Bear.
Flexible organization with tags
The typical problem with notes is that it’s hard to keep them organized. I have more than 1200 separate notes in my Evernote. And they are organized in a terrible manner. Or at least this is what you might feel at first when going through my notebooks – but there is a method to my madness.
Evernote allows for a single note to be added to one notebook only. So say I’m researching something about improving ads and I stumble across a great article. I will file it in my Enhancv notebook, but I also want to write a blog post on the topic. Do I move the note? Duplicate it? This is the precise decision energy drain that you want to avoid. Instead, make things flexible.
I keep four notebooks only:
Inbox: this is where all new notes come in for further sorting. It’s also the place where I keep the notes on my active projects;
Household: this is the shared notebook me and my partner use for everything from common travel plans to copies of important documents for our apartment;
Cabinet: everything that is filed away already – past projects, meeting memos and so on;
Swipe File: this is a separate notebook with useful concepts, frameworks, graphs – things I might want to reference in the future when working with a client or doing a presentation.
All other context around the note is set with three sets of tags:
.Projects – tags showing what project a note is related to;
^Descriptors – is it a meeting memo, an article clipping, a rough idea, a post draft;
*Topics – is it related to marketing, content, branding.
Do you see the special characters in front of each category? This allows you to easily pull up the full list of tags in the category. If I start adding a tag and type a dot, I’ll see a dropdown with all .Projects tags. Smart, right? Of course, the idea is not mine – you can learn more about it from Michael Hyatt.
It’s a simple thing and lets you make multiple links between notes. And then, it’s easy enough to organize search filters around tags. So I can pull a list with notes that have the tags .blog and ^ideas, but don’t have the tags ^draft or ^ready – this will let me see notes with rough blog post ideas and decide what to write about.
Don’t spend time on organizing, design for search
I’ve used the same philosophy in Google Drive, Evernote and all other places with large lists of files. I create a loose strategy for organizing things but make sure I include search-worthy keywords. In the case of Evernote, this means I create ugly looking note titles that will easily pop up when I search.
One note is better than two notes
Most note apps have a big shiny button for creating new notes. This makes it natural to create a new note every time you sit down. I’d strongly advise against it – instead, see where combining notes makes more sense.
For each running project I’m working on, I’d have a separate note in Evernote’s Inbox notebook. I’d keep all meeting notes, ideas, resource links in one place. This makes it super easy to refer to past discussions and also keep the unnecessary proliferation of notes at bay.
Now let’s move on to the other tools in my productivity stack. They are niche, so I’ll cover them in less detail – if you want to know more, just drop your questions in the comments section.
Keeping time with Toggl
I use time-tracking on and off. It’s a great way to learn where your time goes and it’s especially useful when starting a new job that you haven’t done before.
I used to track my time with Toggl religiously for more than a year. When I felt like I wasn’t learning anything new, I ditched it. But since I had built a robust habit out of using it for so long, it’s easy to get back into it when I feel I need to. It also has Pomodoro support, so if you like to split work into 25-minute chunks, it can work wonders. I’m not a real fan of the Pomodoro technique, as most of my work requires focus for longer periods of time and this creates unnecessary interruptions.
If you do decide to track your time, I’d strongly recommend you track both your work and your personal time. This gives you a better idea of what’s going on in your life and how you divide your focus.
Yearly goals with Trello
I use Trello on a number of work-related projects and it’s a great thing for managing collaborative work. On the personal side, though, Kanban doesn’t work for me – I need specifics and strict deadlines to function well.
But I find value from Trello when doing my goals for the year. I’ve written a detailed post about it, but in a couple of words:
I split life goals into several categories;
I add to-dos with specific key results for each category;
I put a nice picture and title, so I can easily remind myself what this year is about.
I consult the resulting board when doing my monthly planning – but also from time to time with no other goal in mind than to remind myself what my current focus should be.
Inoreader as the source of all knowledge
I’m old-fashioned. I still remember DOS, I can quote Bon Jovi songs, and I use RSS. The reason for this is that I prefer to be in control and no tool like Facebook or Flipboard, or Nuzzel gives me full control. That’s why I rely on a content reader to follow my favorite sources. And there’s no better content reader than Inoreader.
I’ve used it ever since 2015 when I was working for the company and still use my Pro account in full swing. During my two weekly learning sessions, I go through more than 180 articles. If I don’t have enough time to read every interesting piece, I’d add it to Pocket to read on the go, even when offline. The really practical things I share in my social channels through Buffer. If there’s something I want to keep for future reference, I’ll add it to my Evernote Swipe file. And when some interesting science news crosses my feed, I’ll tag it and send it automatically to our content Trello board where the content team will translate and share on social media.
There are some sites that don’t support RSS, though. Then I’d subscribe for new post notifications and use the Mail2Tag feature to get that info in Inoreader instead of my inbox. It means all content is ready for me to read in one place.
This is a really short overview, but it should give you an idea of why Inoreader is my content tool of choice.
Building habits with Strides
Earlier, I mentioned that I tried adding morning routine tasks to Todoist, but that created unnecessary clutter. I tried something different which worked better – a habit-building app called Strides. It’s a simple tool that I only use from time to time to solidify new or strengthen existing habits. You just name your habit and set what’s the desired occurrence – daily, 3 times a week or whatever. It also supports “negative habits” where more is not better, like limiting the times you consume alcohol per week.
I generally don’t like tools that do one thing only or that don’t blend into my existing tool stack. However, Strides is an acceptable compromise when you want to incorporate something new into your life. It helped me a lot when starting my daily meditation practice, for example.
Long live productivity tools!
Some people argue that the only thing you need to be productive is a paper planner and sheer force of will. It is true that the best productivity tools out there will do little if you don’t have the discipline to follow through. But it is also true that productivity tools can help you eliminate some busywork related to planning your day and organizing your tasks and thoughts. It would be rather silly to denounce those – just like it would be silly to think they provide you with all the answers.
If you’re interested in the topic, check out the other two posts in the series: