A friend recently asked:
what tools and techniques do you find invaluable for being efficient, productive and managing your tasklist?
I’m fairly into productivity and having a system in place, so building on what I’ve written about in the past, I’m going to provide a complete breakdown of how I manage my workflow.
So you think you can time management?
I’m a huge fan of the book Getting Things Done and I owe a lot of what I learned to the methodologies learned within the book. I’ve adapted the system to suit my needs as the book encourages you to. It’s worth calling out as whatever systems inspire you, it’s important to note that you need to do what works for you.
So let’s start by having a look at my workflow in Evernote (this uses an adapted version of The Secret Weapon, in case you’re lost):
You’ll notice there’s a few projects here:
- In Tray – this is where you dump anything and everything that can’t be immediately processed there and then. Say a friend suggests a book that’s worth reading, you’ve read an email and been given a task that needs looking at, or you’ve captured notes in a meeting and you want to capture the tasks you’re meant to do as follow-up. It all goes in the In Tray, to be processed.
- Top Priority Work – this is 1-3 tasks that MUST get done on the next work day, non-negotiable, if you can get one of these done you’re free to pursue the Work folder.
- Work – self-explanatory but where I keep my day-job things in, I’ll go into a bit more detail about how I manage them a bit later.
- Personal – these are tasks that I want to get done outside of work and usually for fun.
- (blank) – when a project comes up that requires the system, I’ve got a holder in place to capitalise on (I just like to know that I have the space)
- My Mission – this is where I keep my short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals – I’ll visit these occasionally and tweak where I need to
- Someday/Maybe – ever had a crazy idea that you’re not sure where it should go? This is the pile. I have a bunch of these and blogged about 8 ideas you could probably help me with a month ago
- Waiting On – this is where the contingent tasks go – and I’ll check this regularly to ensure I’m not missing any outstanding tasks
- Completed Tasks (not in shortcuts) – this is where you punt a completed task after finishing. It’s a way of crossing it off.
But what are these boxes for? How can I manage them? When do I move things from the In Tray?
Managing your In Tray
As mentioned, dumping things in your In Tray helps keep you afloat and see what you need to do, but you need to process what’s in the In Tray as well.
At certain times of the day, you’ll need to find more tasks to do, or take a break from what you’re currently doing, this is where you process the In Tray:
There’s a couple of tasks in here that I will process right away (and a couple that I’m keeping secret squirrel as they’re related to my day job).
The way you approach the In Tray is by applying the Do/Defer/Delete/Delegate technique. Put simply, this works like this:
- Do (if it takes less than 5 minutes)
- Defer (if it’s a longer task – place in your “Work” tray, or if it’s a personal or someday task, place in there)
- Delegate (if it’s a task you’re giving to someone else)
- Delete (if it’s no longer relevant)
I deviate slightly from the Getting Things Done system here, as before I defer something I tag it by priority:
Looking at my In Tray above, I’m writing this blog entry now, and I’ll focus on the Make an Awesome Online Course another day and pop it into my Personal tray tagged with ‘3-Soon’.
Tasks that get completed get tagged ‘6-Done’ and punted to the ‘Completed Tasks’ folder. Ever wondered if you’d done something 6 months ago and wanted to check and cover your ass? Well now you can.
It’s not just about having a system
There are a few other tactics I try to employ to ensure that I’m being as productive as I can.
Self Control for Mac – this lets you blacklist sites that cause trouble ie. procrastination. It’s pretty simple to use and you can set the time in 15-minute increments. It’s surprisingly effective once you get used to not being able to access Twitter et al.
Setting a Top Priority task at the end of the day for tomorrow – you’re going to run out of steam at some stage, and there’ll have been an elusive task that you struggled to get done. Send that task to your priority tray and and visit it as soon as you’re ready the next day (before email/Facebook/voicemails etc.)
No email for the first hour – if I can get started on my priority task before checking email, I’ll do so and bunt it out of the way, leaving me to achieve more for the rest of the day.
Pocket app – this app is a life-saver. Stop yourself getting stuck in click holes by clicking the Pocket web extension, and reading the article on your commute home instead.
Manage your energy levels
Lastly, and probably the most important is awareness of your energy levels. I’m highly functioning in the morning and then prefer interactions with people in the afternoon when I’m not as productive so I tailor my day accordingly. Some times admin is what I’d rather be doing (say Friday afternoon where I’ve given up). Getting an idea for when you’re better at certain tasks is great as you can line things up and chunk through them when you’re in the zone. Scott Young (a keen blogger on learning/productivity) has written about managing energy – you can read more about it here.
Lastly, it’s whatever works for you! This is my system and it’s admittedly complex when you’re looking at it as an outsider. I’ve been using this system for at least 2-3 years now and it’s held me in good stead.
If you’ve got a better system by all means use it!