What’s the goal of a personal productivity system—the collection of to-do lists, calendars, and other tools we use to keep our lives running smoothly? Here’s the answer in one word:
In the end, we’re trying to achieve a measure of trust—the easy feeling that what we’re doing is what we’re supposed to be doing, that we’re not forgetting anything, and that we don’t have to worry that the bottom is about to drop out of our lives. Trust allows us to focus deeply on the task at hand and relax just as deeply when we’re not working.
To achieve this trust, we don’t need a “name brand” productivity system like GTD, Bullet Journaling or Kanban. These options are great, but most highly productive people use productivity systems of their own design. You probably do, too. If so, let me lay out the basic components any productivity system needs so you can review your own practices.
Capturing our thoughts is where it all starts. By jotting down ideas and to-do items, we get them out of our heads and enable deeper focus. It would be nice if actionable ideas only came to us while we’re sitting at our desk, but our minds don’t work that way. We need to be able to record information in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, on the slopes, or anywhere else.
Smartphones are the obvious choice for capturing new ideas, and they work well. Just fire up your Notes app and enter each idea on a new line. When I’m at my desk, I instead use scrap paper to record blog post ideas and reminders to pick up butter at the grocery store, dropping them into my inbox (a letter tray) for daily processing. I’ve also kept a pen and notebook in my pocket, and that’s an option as well.
Make sure you have a way to capture new information, and just as importantly, make sure you process those thoughts—going through the pile and deciding whether or not to act on each one—daily.
The to-do list is low-hanging fruit, and you probably already have one. You might use a single old-school to-do list or a series of “next actions” lists separated by context (Home, Work, Errands, etc.). There’s endless variation in how folks set up their to-do lists, and as long as you have somewhere to record what you need to do and can make sense of it when it’s time to be productive, you’re in the clear.
As with the to-do list, I’m probably not blowing your mind with the idea of keeping a calendar, but it’s worth a quick revisit. Much of what we need to do is timebound, and we need to be able to look at one document to see everything that has to happen at a certain time today or in the future. Calendars can be either paper-based or software-based, and both options work well—use whichever appeals to your sensibilities.
Here’s the component most miss. In order to deeply trust your system, you must review it at least weekly. How you conduct your review is unimportant—what matters is that you regularly look at your to-do list and calendar, add what’s missing, and delete what’s no longer necessary. It’s easy to skip this step (I skipped it for years), but if you want to be able to fully trust your system, it is essential. I plan out my week on Sunday, and I review the past week as part of that process. At the end of the process, I feel like I have a handle on things and know what I need to do over the next week. It lets me relax fully.
Most productivity systems contain additional parts and practices, but these four components are the basics. For more thoughts on how a well-oiled personal productivity system runs, check out David Allen’s Getting Things Done or my post series on GTD. GTD’s not perfect, but it’s a good starting point.
To-do lists are highly individualized, and there’s room for plenty of variation. A good way to assess how well your system is working is to measure the trust we discussed earlier: if you feel like your system has you covered, keep up the good work! If you feel slightly uneasy, tweak your approach a bit. A system you can fully trust is worth the trouble it takes to set up and maintain.
P.S. I recently participated in a panel on minimalism for the news channel TRT World. It was a blast! Feel free to check out the segment here.