One productivity system to rule them all
How I consolidated my own productivity system by trial and error
I always considered myself a productivity geek. I had a blast reading books such as Getting Things Done, Atomic Habits, and The Bullet Journal Method.
However, I never wanted to be more productive for the sake of capitalism, but rather to feel free–making time for doing things that really mattered.
But finishing up a day at 5:00 pm with a joyful sense of accomplishment, a fully-completed to-do list, and clear plans for the next day was the exception rather than the norm.
I would normally end up with more things to do than the previous day. Ruminating thoughts telling me there was something incomplete I was not aware of, and the worst: my mind bugging me that somehow I didn’t do enough, as If I were making one thousand side steps but none forward.
After coming to terms with myself that my productivity system was not working, I decided to address the challenge as a design problem: stating my vision of my to-be state, then conducting some research to find which set of systems would help me become my better version.
Following is my journey and learnings, as well as the definitive productivity system that I built based on mixing and matching other ones.
Whenever I start a design project, one of the first questions I get to ask is “Let’s say this project was a complete success. What made it so great?” This allows to me to grasp the criteria that will be used to measure whether the project was an achievement or not.
For my productivity system, I asked myself the success question and came up with the following set of requirements which I framed as job stories.
- When I am wrapping up my day, I want to feel a sense of accomplishment that I did what was important, so I don’t need to work extra hours or have ruminating thoughts after work.
- When I am dealing with multiple projects and initiatives, I want to feel I am capturing every single task so I don’t miss any agreement I committed to.
- When I am deciding what to work on, I want to be able to prioritize tasks so I don’t spend too much time on initiatives that are not as important.
- When I am evaluating my work-life balance, I want to feel the productivity system is helping me keep work on check, so I avoid burnout.
- When I am exercising the productivity system, I want to be able to repeat it in a simple and scalable way, so the productivity system works for me and not the other way around.
The best of many worlds
With a clear definition of success, I reviewed many productivity models, broke them down, and merged the best of them, testing them to assess to what extent they’d get the jobs done. Following is the synthesis of the productivity system I have been using so far.
The system consists on three sub-systems: modes, tools, and activities.
There are three possible modes you can engage through this system: signaling, executing, and reflecting.
Signaling means being aware of potential new tasks or work you need to take ownership of. Whether it’s through meetings, slack threads, or emails, you will need to translate requests into tasks you can track and prioritize. I use my iPad for note-taking, as I discovered that by handwriting I tend to better encode information. When in signaling mode, I use an app called GoodNotes that allow me to have multiple notebooks for different projects. One notebook I have is called GTD (Getting Things Done), with a to-do template I use to quickly capture tasks I need to work on.
Afterwards, during catch-up time (see activities for more information), I review the GTD list and migrate the tasks that will take more than 20 minutes to my board (see tools).
Being aware of the signaling mindset allows me to don’t miss anything or feel I did not capture what was important to capture.
Executing is the mindset when you are committed to getting things done. According to Daniel Pink and his book When, humans have a chronotype (patterns in our circadian rhythm) that makes us be more efficient on certain activities depending on the time of the day.
I consider myself a lark, so I always schedule a focus time of at least three hours every day from 8:00 to 11:00 (the time I have my standup) to do analytic and hyper-focused tasks.
Having your priorities right will be paramount for good execution. I won’t dig deeper into how to prioritize as there are many useful resources out there such as the Eisenhower Matrix for a healthy prioritization.
You might think that executing is the most important mode as it is when things actually happen. That is not the case all the time. Although every mode is important, reflecting is the one that can exponentially improve your productivity game, as it is the one many people overlook.
Inspired by the Stoics, when you are finishing up the day, you can enter into reflecting mode by going through your calendar and notes of the day to identify patterns.
- What was my attention focused towards?
- What did I learn today?
- What made me feel engaged?
- What drained my energy?
- What did I accomplish?
- What should I prioritize tomorrow?
You don’t need to answer every single question, but getting into the habit of reflecting back every day, like doing forensics to your own schedule, can reveal important insights so you can course correct the morning after.
Now that we got familiar with the different modes we can engage with, we can explore the tools we can have at our disposal to better leverage the productivity system.
I have always been an advocate of single sources of truth. One place to have everything. However, that might be difficult as you might be constrained with your company tools, or you just simply can’t track everything in one place. That’s ok. It is my case as well, but I have managed to reduce my number of tools to only 2. A brain extension and a tracking system.
You will need a dump tool that serves as the extension of your mind. A safe place where you can write down and capture everything you deem important. My iPad works as my brain extension, but a notebook or a stack of post-its can serve this purpose as well. What’s more important is that it’s handy for you to use so you don’t leave anything in your mind.
My tracking system is an accurate picture of what I am working on and my priorities. I have crafted this board so it’s both robust but simple in using. And I just created a template for you to play with. It consists on a Notion page, which includes a kanban board with an added timeline view, so you can both track the status of the tasks you create, and add some estimates so you can better plan your days.
If a task takes less than 20 minutes, I just do it, but if it’s something that might take more, I create a card representing a task, or I do it during catch-up times. If the initiative might take more than a couple of weeks and could lead to multiple tasks then I create an epic, added as a Notion property.
Feel free to use the board and let me know your thoughts.
Just like in agile frameworks such as scrum, I also defined some activities or ceremonies that I conduct consistently, where I both engage in the modes mentioned before and I use the tools to my advantage.
- Focus time: Creative time where I mostly engage in Executing mode
- Catch-up time: 2 periods of 20 minutes every day where I get to review notes to migrate to my tracking system, create tasks, or answer emails
- Retrospective: Last 15 minutes of the day where I reflect back over what I accomplished, and plan my next day so I don’t feel I left something missing and can wake up the next morning with laser focus.
I am constantly improving this system so it gets simpler and more powerful. If you’re willing to experiment feel free to grab it or cherry pick what you think might help you. Please reach out if you have any feedback after experimenting with it!