Everyday personal productivity

June 12, 2022

Introduction

In this post, I present a minimal personal productivity system.Being productivity means executing tasks. Implementing a personal productivity system is metaproductive; it enables the execution of tasks, but is not productive in itself. Don’t get metaproductivity confused with productivity: this is an easy trap to fall into.

This article is for people who would like to improve their professional and personal effectiveness and reliability, while managing to reduce task anxiety.

To establish some credibility and give the reader contexts in which this system has been successful,“People who write extensively about note-writing rarely have a serious context of use” (link) - Andy Matuschack

I have used and improved upon this system for well over 10 years. It has served me well as a student, a founder, in research and development roles, in engineering and product roles, and as a management consultant. I currently rely on this system as head of product at an early-stage startup.

In the interest of keeping things short, justifying the different elements of this system is out of scope for this article. However, I’d be thrilled to engage and improve on this: please send me an email with questions, comments, or improvements.

Finally, I can’t claim originality. Though my system has organically evolved, much of it is bread-and-butter productivity, and much of it is borrowed from those better at this than I.

Method

There are four tools you need for this system. You probably have them all already: email, calendar, a todo list, and a (digital) notebook.I am happy to provide recommendations, but overthinking this is probably responsible for more lost productivity than Netflix. Use your ecosystem’s default tools: i.e. GMail, Google Calendar (or Outlook, or Mail and Calendar), Notes or OneNote. For a todo list, I haven’t used it, but Todoist looks great. I use Things (todos), Vimcal (calendar), Superhuman (email), and Roam Research (notes).

For each of these tools, I’d highly recommend learning the shortcuts for the commonly-used actions for each tool you use. Over time, this will save you from repetitive stress injury, and save you a lot of time every day.

Email

We all get and send a lot of email. To help me manage my responsiveness and anxiety around this fact, I adhere to the practice of Inbox Zero. Nearly every day my inbox should be empty by the time I put away my computer. Lingering emails typically mean procrastination in decision-making or filing, which can lead to poor responsiveness and increased stress.

Archive or delete emails you don’t need to respond to. Respond immediately to emails that can be taken care of with little effort. Add tasks to your todo list (and link to the email in the note section, or include the title for easy searching) for emails which need to be returned to.If your email client has a “remind me later” functionality, like Superhuman does, you can also snooze emails to appear in your inbox when you’re ready to take care of them. It can get easy to overdo this, though, and have many emails perpetually snoozed. There’s a balance to be had.

Delete emails that you won’t need in the future (e.g. spam / marketing emails, or uninteresting newsletters), to keep your search effective and results uncluttered.

Having a few folders / labels is also helpful to enable searching for emails you might need later. I’d suggest: Receipts, Newsletters, Reservations, and Other Admin. You can set up automatic filters to label certain emails (e.g. all Uber receipts get the Reciept label automatically, and newsletters I get automatically get Newsletters). Reservations, including plane tickets, get this label, making them easier to look up later. Other Admin can be used for charitable giving (you can use multiple labels in most email systems so might add Receipt here as well), or medical information, or warranties.

Don’t overdo it: you can spend more time and energy creating labels than is really needed. Labels should be freeing: you can rest assured that archived messages won’t be lost in the future.

Calendar

Every event or activity that has a time and a date should go into your calendar. Repeating events included. Invite people to events that they’re attending with you. Add alerts to events 10-30 minutes before (or, take into account travel time). Add due dates, anniversaries, the birthdates of friends, and of friends’ children (with reminders a few weeks before if you’re sending gifts!)

If you’re feeling bold and can commit, you can also use your calendar block time to do certain activities, such as exercise or time for writing. Some people benefit from scheduling their todo list onto their calendar at the start of every work day, though I have had limited success with this approach.

If you have a shared calendar for work or family, be sure to block times on there if you need to make sure someone doesn’t schedule something over the same time.

You might use different colors for types of events. This helps you visually differentiate events that e.g. require preparation, or planning events. For example, I use a light grey color for planning blocks of time for tasks, as they’ll be the first to go if I have a busy day. It’s also soothing to see blocks of time I know are going to specific tasks I want to accomplish, instead of a solid block of Zoom meetings.

Todo list

Todos lists are simple: you add tasks to this list, and expect them to show up in your daily (“Today”) list on the date you want to be reminded of them. You do this to ensure that you don’t forget to do things, to help you prioritize your work, and to relieve the burden and anxiety of remembering to do tasks.

Whatever you useI use and love Things, but often wish I could share or collaborate on todo lists, use it from Windows, and integrate with other apps or todo lists. I know many apps can do this, but I haven’t yet found one I like as much as Things.

, make sure that your tool allows you to

  1. Quickly enter tasks (from your mobile device as well as your computer, ideally with a keyboard shortcut)
  2. Add notes to tasks (to give more context or links to related content)
  3. Create projects (which are collections of tasks which can be sequenced and individually scheduled)
  4. Create scheduled and repeating tasks

Adding to the todo list: You should add most things that you need to do and take longer than 2 minutes to do (just do the task if it takes 2 minutes to do). Don’t add tasks which are engrained habits that you truly won’t forget. They’ll just take up space. Don’t add tasks that you can do in two minutes and can just take care of now.

If it’s an event (discussed above), then it should be in your calendar. Otherwise, the task should probably go in your todo list.[^more-info] Add the date that the todo should appear in your Today list. Sometimes you might want a todo to prepare for an event, though, perhaps scheduled for the day or week before the event.

Some ideas for repeating todos: Write in journal, Review flashcards, Buy a gift for Mom’s birthday (set the scheduled date to appear in your Today view 2-4 weeks before her birthday!), Work out, etc.

Processing the todo list: This is something that needs to become a habit. Look at your todo list every time you need something to do. When you look, prioritize (you hopefully drag tasks so they match your priority) which task should be done next. Reschedule tasks that need to be done today or need to be done another day.

Focus on that one top task at a time.

Semi-regularly (~2 times a week), go through several days or weeks of todos and delete, reschedule, or clarify tasks.

If a task can be broken down into several smaller tasks, consider doing so. Sometimes tasks just keep getting put off: this is often because it’s unclear how to start them, or because the task is just too big or daunting. Break it down. If there are many tasks related to accomplishing one larger task, create a project to group them together. This is an easy superpower[^unreasonably effective behavior].

Digital notebook

Here, I’ll offer a few suggestions here for the two highest-value form of notes I take.

Meeting notes: I try to take my own notes in a meeting (sometimes difficult when leading a meeting, but still worthwhile.) I invariably find them useful.

In preparation for meetings that I am running, you should always create an Agenda in your notes for this meeting and a list of questions to be answered. Circulate this prior to the meeting, if appropriate. At the very least, you should write down your own goal for the meeting.

The format below is standard, with “Summary” and “Next steps” being the most important:

  • Metadata: attendees, date, subject, location: It’s good to know who was there, and a single short sentence describing the purpose meeting. Maybe just a title.
  • Raw notes: Who said what, what was decided on. This is the longest section of notes. Highlight and bold parts of it (e.g. questions, action items, decisions made) while you go (this is another great keyboard shortcut learning opportunity) to make the summary and next steps sections easier.
  • Next steps: What needs to happen as a result of the meeting, and who will decide it?
  • Open questions: What open questions remain, and who will answer them?
  • Summary / takeaway: At the end of the meeting, if you can write a 1-10 sentence summary: you’ll thank yourself later. This is also how you make friends. Describe the main points of the meeting. What decisions were made.

Circulating your notes with next steps / decisions / key takeaways is an organizational superpower. You make sure important decisions aren’t forgotten, and can preclude excessive future discussion on items which were decided. People have a chance to amend notes when you send them out, and if they don’t, take it as tacit approval of what you’ve recorded. The note taker has a lot of implicit power in and around meetings, and meetings are often where big decisions are born. This is also a way to make sure you don’t miss something important.

Research notes: Research notes are another primary note-taking use-case for me.

First, write down questions to guide and scope your research. Answer them inline (and link to the answers if you found them elsewhere).

The main body of such a note ideally has an outline structure, and you should continue to add to it over time. Providing footnotes / links to sources inline will often save you time later. If your note-taking tool supports it, link to similar notes in the past. Embed images. Create your own images / sketches.[^excalidraw]

I suggest saving links to resources with titles and a short summary.

Make it easy to search your notes with tags, folders, or backlinks, as your tool permits. Don’t spend too long on creating a hierarchy of organization: [[Ontologies are broken by default]]. If the note is for an ongoing project or area of interest, have a tag for that, and consider having a project page index that links out to all constituent notes. Try to be consistent, but don’t worry about it too much.

The act of taking notes, and especially the act of [[Summarizing]] and linking your notes will pay huge dividends.

Summary

In short, keep your email inbox empty, label a few types of emails to make them easier to find later; move events into your calendar; move tasks into your todo list and out of your inbox and brain, schedule them, and regularly ruthlessly prioritize them; take notes structured around next steps (tasks) and decisions, and always have an agenda for meetings.

There’s a lot of writing out there on refining and expanding on all of the above, but I’d recommend starting small and staying consistent with the basics first. Actual productivity comes from actually doing things; metaproductivity enables this, but working on your productivity system isn’t directly productive ([[Time spent on productivity is not productive]]). If you do these things well and consistently, you’ll be operating at a high level.