My Current Productivity Stack

One of the main topics of conversation on this blog is productivity, as you can tell by its weighting in the tag cloud below. Much of the discussion thus far has been about productivity hacks, various techniques or environmental factors you can tweak to optimize your performance. What I haven’t talked much about is what my own personal setup looks like. While I expect everyone’s system to be a little different, this at least provides one specific example for people to work from.

My long-term to-do list lives in Workflowy. I like Workflowy because it has a very simple text interface, with infinitely-nested hierarchies (this is similar to Org Mode for Emacs). This is perfect for both organizing my to-do list into categories, as well as easily creating sub-goals for each task, an absolutely critical psychological component of productivity. My current top-level categories include two context-specific to-do lists (work and home), one context-independent current to-do list, my master someday-to-do list (with short, medium, and long term potential items), a list of my annual/quarterly goals, and a separate category for very big long-term projects that I work on periodically. (The only feature that Workflowy does not implement natively that I would like to use is some kind of deadline/priority system, though you can play with hierarchies and tags to make something approximately similar. Divia uses Things for this purpose.)

In practice, I tend not to work directly out of Workflowy, instead it has become a repository for everything I eventually want to accomplish. I already keep a simple text file open on my computer to do time-tracking* and general stream of consciousness writing, so this becomes my working to-do list as well. Usually when something pops into mind, I will add an item to the bottom of the file.┬áVery quick items I batch together and do between larger tasks. If this gets too crowded, I offload items into appropriate categories in Workflowy. When I don’t have any items in the to-do list and I’m ready to work, I will often fetch items from Workflowy and add them to the bottom of the text file.

When I think of to-do items on the go, I will add them to a simple text file on my phone. I use the same file to keep references to things I want to look up later, that came up in conversation. Periodically I will batch-process all of the notes on my phone – this does not make it as good for time-sensitive things.

Just as I use Workflowy for my working memory, Evernote has become my long-term memory. Every significant piece of writing I have will wind up in Evernote eventually. This includes long emails, notes from conversations or lectures or conferences, the list of items to look up from my phone, fictional writing, long/important sections of my stream of consciousness journaling, lab tests, various lists, everything. My email archives also serve a similar purpose, and everything pre-Evernote is stored as searchable emails to myself.

This gets to my inbox. I am a huge proponent of Inbox Zero, and will in fact do a post on email management generally. For those who are not familiar, the idea is to set the goal of keeping your inbox empty, and either archiving or responding to everything when you check your email. I tend to batch-process my emails as well, so sometimes I go a few days without responding to much. The Inbox Zero philosophy also essentially turns my inbox into another form of to-do list: if there is something in my inbox, then I have something I need to do! These can be communication-related to-do items… or I can use my inbox as a kind of time-based reminder system, specifically using either Boomerang or Followup.cc. This is absolutely great for making sure to-do items filter back to the top of my priority list when they need to be done after some set date, effectively serving the function of deadlines in my productivity stack.

Now that I have a toddler and a puppy at home, I generally prefer to focus most of productivity during the work week, and keep my time at home more focused on the family. (Weekends are an exception here – when I have free time I do occasionally use it to get in additional work.) This clear separation of context has been very helpful in maintaining or even increasing my productivity since having a baby. I know that when I am at work, I am there to work. That helps keep me focused, and make the most of my available time.

I haven’t mentioned much in the way of my actual work habits, including low level tactics like Pomodoros or whatnot. In part this is because I tend not to use any techniques like that religiously. Those kinds of hacks seem great for getting me over a temporary hump, but they have never been the basis of my long-run productivity, and I have never incorporated them into permanent habits. (More recently I’ve noticed a surge in productivity since Burning Man, which I think is generalizable and maybe will be the subject of a separate post.)

…and that’s it really. That’s the whole thing. Sometimes I think it seems a bit simplistic, but sure enough, that is enough to underlie most of the success I’ve had in increasing productivity. It is a great system for making sure I do day to day work, and also allowing me to keep moving forward on long-term goals periodically. There is a lot more to having a successful life than just a productivity system – after all, you need to determine your long-run goals at all, and be able to create a plan to reach them – but once you do have the high-level strategic stuff in place, having the right system in place can make all the difference.

* Time-tracking is something that people tend to do more formally than I do, and is perhaps worth optimizing more. I’ve considered using a spreadsheet for this purpose, and adding up time spent doing various activities. I have yet to find something that reduces the cost of tracking enough to make it worth it. Writing in a simple text file does keep me honest, and gives me a short-term accounting of my use of time, even though it’s harder to get a picture over long time frames.

  • About time-tracking–I don’t know if you’ve been referred to it already, but I find http://toggl.com/ to be almost as fast as a text file. It also works on phones, and can categorize, add things up, etc.

  • Roman Duda

    For time tracking, have you come across TagTime? It’s pretty low cost!

    http://messymatters.com/tagtime/

  • If you like workflowy, but mostly use it for task management I recommend you take a look at GTDNext (http://GTDNext.com)

    It’s like Workflowy but with all the normal task management functions built into it. Repeating actions, Due Dates, Start Dates and much more.