Productivity is a fascination of mine. I read blogs on productivity, seek insight from people I find productive and have been known to test every new tool I can get my hands on.
The last part — trying all these tools — is ironic.
Using a lot of productivity tools is exactly like having meetings to plan when to have meetings. Only the completion of a task is productive. That’s success. I get that and still explore the tools out there for fun. No matter your use of tools — from hand written notes to handy apps — you must deliver results.
Here are the little heuristics I’ve put together. They are as much a set of tools as they are a workflow, so I’ll walk through them like I do in my day.
First Thing — today.txt
Every morning I fill out a today.txt file on my desktop. The blog that introduced me to it notes the format:
If nothing else, today I am going to ___________.
I am going to do this by ______ then _____ then ______.
If I do this and only this, today will be a good day.
The goal is to fill this out everyday.
I was skeptical at first go, but I’m now a believer. The act of defining your sole priority for the day leaves you with such a crisp clarity on what you want to achieve most. Somedays the one thing is personal life driven (“today I’m going to review my budget”). Most days are anchored in the core deliverables of my work (“today I’m going to create my presentations for VMworld” or “today I’m going to map out the company blog content calendar for this quarter”). That anchor statement reassures me that I know what I’m going to strive to complete today, even amongst the inevitable chaos of a busy day.
The value comes down to an important lesson on productivity. Productivity hacking is both a measurement of work completed over time and how good you feel about its completion.
This tool has helped me stay on task and feel successful once I complete it. It makes the rest of any day where I crushed my today.txt out in the morning feel like the world is my oyster. I’ve already succeeded at today. I feel more effective and more calm.
Those benefits alone make it an easy win for anyone.
Second Thing — My Tasks in Asana
Aside: The next step was NOT to check my email. There’s absurd amounts of research on the best work hours being absorbed by the barrage of emails. There are a few people who truly must be interrupt driven in their day and email is top priority. Most of us do so just out of habit. Break the habit by storing your action items somewhere else.
Here’s where the specific and actionable items of my day live. Every individual request of me that will take more than 5 minutes (or I just don’t want to forget) goes in to Asana as a Task. They explain what Tasks and Projects mean in some amazing documentation.
There’s a great deal to unpack here, workflow-wise. What I recommend starts and ends with this thought: Everyone in the professional world is a project manager. The balance of priorities across multiple projects is the life of nearly all people at work, so I really recommend spending the time to use it.
Third Thing — Evernote Tags
First, the tags: I read a great post on using tags in a clear manner on Evernote and it changed my entire workflow. Mine is slightly adapted as you can see below.
Here’s how I tag my notes. I use tags more than notebooks since I can organize information in more meaningful ways. I drop all tags into one of two top level tags to keep it clean / logical.
Second, comes the process. I keep a tag called “This Week” in my Shortcuts. Here is where I keep a small amount of work connected to everything else across the tools I mentioned above (notes related to my task in today.txt, notes connected to tasks in Asana). The “This Week” tag takes my massive quantity of information kept in Evernote and keeps it light and actionable.
A few other tips that keep Evernote incredibly useful to me:
- I write everything in Evernote. It’s my virtual paper
- If I write something down by hand, I snap a picture and add it to Evernote
- When I find great technology or powerful imagery, I save it with Webclipper
- I have a few shared notebooks with colleagues so we can see each other’s resources in real-time (Premium option only)
Fourth Thing — Think of Email Differently
Changing my relationship with my inbox allowed me to be productive in the ways mentioned above. Here’s the mantra I had to internalize:
- My inbox is NOT my to do list
- My inbox is NOT my document archive
- Focusing on my inbox is focusing on other people’s priorities, NOT mine
Given what my inbox is not, what is it left to be?
- Some email in my inbox connects me with others
- Most email in my inbox is a notification (similar to tweets on Twitter)
People are important. If someone is relying on you to be available, you should be ready to be available. Most of the time, just habitually, we behave as interrupt driven when no one needs something immediately from us. That’s the lesson here. And that leaves me the confidence to keep my inbox empty. I started with this multi-layer inbox zero strategy, and it was very powerful. I’ve slightly adapted based on using products I like (Acompli and Mailbox), but the core workflow is the same.
Fifth Thing — Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro technique is a specific type of timeboxing. The exact numbers are up for debate, but the core philosophy I find useful is that you work on a project for 25 minutes without interruption. You follow that time by a micro-break (usually 5-7 minutes) where you get out of your chair and do something different. Come back fresh after that. Repeat.
I didn’t lead with this one because I’m still torn on the methodology. I’m not sold on packing every bit of work you can into a day, so I don’t obsess over sticking to the process.
I do find it powerful when working on multi-hour projects. It prevents me from burnout or obsession. Example: setting 25 minute timers when I’m working on the VMware infrastructure at work prevents me from sitting there for 3 hours trying to fix minor problems that may or may not be related to my goal. The little break forces me to look up, recenter on the task at hand, and then go back with a refreshed perspective. If I’m truly in a “flow” moment, I keep going. Most of the time the few minute breaks ends up helping me complete a task faster.
If you’re interested, this lightweight OS X app is perfect for me.
These 5 productivity tools and conventions have made my days more productive. They came together after an acknowledgement that my attention easily wanders, that I get overwhelmed and that some mental corralling is good for me.
Most days end feeling productive. And that feeling is a sure to influence how productive I will be tomorrow. Other days get train wrecked by new priorities coming in. What’s great about this system is that I know exactly what got in my way and where to go after it ends.
Please leave a comment or shoot me a tweet if you end up implementing any of these. I’d love to hear how it turns out.