Continuing on the trend of things that I can talk your ear off about… Productivity tools and systems!
Over the years I’ve collected several techniques and practices that I use regularly to help me stay focused and meet my goals.
In this post I’m gonna go over them and provide links and pointers to go deeper if you are interested.
The search for effectiveness
For many years, the feelings of scarcity (specifically not having enough time) and of being controlled by my to-do list have lead me to research systems and tools to become more effective.
I like to think in terms of effectiveness rather than productivity. Effectiveness is leverage, it’s “choosing the right something” versus being just very efficient at doing things that are not need in the first place.
Effectiveness is a means to an end rather than an end itself. It’s a tool. By becoming more effective I’ve been able to enjoy more and do more of the things that are meaningful to me.
It’s an ongoing process, and it has already lead to more enjoyment, focus, and tranquility.
My current systems
My days are organized using Bullet Journaling (in short BuJo). In essence this is a way to organize information, todos, notes, and appointments using a single notebook.
Everything that you need to do is written down, notes that you take during the day are written down, tasks in the future are written down. While simple, this is incredibly freeing because I never have to worry about remembering anything. I just open the journal and it’s all there.
When I started doing this the main benefit that I found was that, because it’s on paper, BuJo forces a constant reflection on the tasks that I carry over into the next day (I manually have to copy them).
After years of doing it on paper I now do it digitally, it requires more discipline (copy-paste is almost free) but it fits better in my PKM (see below). If you are just getting started I would suggests to do paper for at least a few months.
Timeblocking and calendar management
I’m admittedly a bit OCD about my calendar, my time is almost entirely blocked off and most of it is not for meetings.
Blocking off time on my calendar allows me to ensure I will have time to do things I care about the most. During my Monthly and Weekly reviews (see below) I block off time in line with my goals. This also forces me to accept the things that I am saying NO to.
I mostly don’t decide in advance the specific activities I will do in a block of time but I know the “category” they belong to. I block off work time, slots for meetings, slots for family, meditation, workouts, seeing friends, going for walks, relax etc.
I have a shared calendar with my partner and personal appointments also block time in my work calendar automatically.
This article describes well how Marc Andreessen does this.
Either in the evening before going to bed or in the morning before starting my day I follow a quick daily planning ritual.
- I prepare the note for the new day.
- I look at the todos from the day before.
- I copy over the ones that didn’t get done and are still relevant.
- I review my calendar.
- I prioritize my work for the day and when I will do it.
This allows me to reflect on what I just accomplished and set realistic expectations for the day to come.
Every evening I track my mood for the day and I write a few words on what happened. I use this information in my Monthly Review (see below) to understand how I am doing, find patterns and get ideas on what changes I can make.
Initially I tried to track with a lot of granularity the people I met and the things I did but I found the overhead to be too much so I scaled back.
The next 3 sections are all dedicated to practices that I adopted from Sebastian Marshall and the folks at Ultraworking.
Every Sunday afternoon/evening I spend 30-60 minutes looking at the week that just ended and at the one that is about to start.
I ask myself these 3 questions while I look at my calendar, my email inbox, my tasks.
- What’s really going on?
- What am I gonna do about it?
- What matters?; What doesn’t?
Based on the answers I organize my calendar for the week and as ideas pop I prepare notes for the meetings I’m going to have.
Weekly reviews are the practice with the highest return of this list. Every Sunday I get so much clarity and calm by answering these 3 questions.
Every Month I spend 2h or so looking at my past month, reflecting on what happened (using the mood data mentioned above among other things), looking ahead of what I want and need to accomplish in the following month and finally coming up with a list of things that I am saying YES to and a (usually longer list) of things that I am saying NO to.
I then schedule time for all these items on my calendar to ensure that I will get them done.
In order to get inspiration and be able to select items effectively I’ve been using the monthly review template from Ultraworking.
This process helps me clarify what I can realistically commit to in the month ahead and decide what’s important. Like the Weekly Review it provides me with a lot of clarity and tranquility.
Most months I don’t achieve everything but over time I’m getting closer and closer to realistic goals and accomplishing what I want. Learning to not over-commit and schedule personal time in advance has been the big benefit of this practice.
Also, looking at the previous month and reflecting on how that went allows me to notice trends, if I have more than a few bad days in a month it’s a sign that something needs to be looked at.
Work Cycles and The Work Gym
Back in university I started using the pomodoro technique for my studies. I found it helpful but something was missing.
Work Cycles takes the pomodoro idea a step further.
I won’t go deep into the details but they are a very effective way to plan work session, define work blocks, maintain focus and recognize when things are going off track.
The Ultraworking marketing page does not lie, I can easily get twice as much done when I do cycles. And most importantly it’s much easier for me to get into flow and stay there.
Ultraworking also has an online community called The Work Gym, it’s a permanent Zoom room filled with other productivity nerds. There we do Work Cycles at the same cadence. On top of the social accountability and support it also forces me to take breaks between cycles, regardless of how in the zone I am.
Personal Knowledge Management system (PKM)
For a long time I iterated on how to organize my notes. Turns out that in the last few years this has become a quite popular topic and there’s a lot of ideas, courses, articles available.
What has worked best for me is building my own version of Tiago Forte’s Second Brain.
In short, take digital notes, organize your them based on “actionability” (which project is the note gonna be useful for) and don’t worry about tagging, categorizing etc. Notes can always be moved later and you always have full text search.
Get clear on:
- What Projects you are working on.
- What Areas of your life you need to maintain.
- What Resources you are interested in.
- Archive everything else.
Organize files, notes, todo’s across all your tools using the exact same structure. This way, when you switch tool, you know where to find everything.
The reason why PARA has been useful is that it helps me be clear on what projects I’m currently working on and when I switch between them I can easily get back to where I left.
An interesting realization, after trying so many apps for so many years, is that most of this requires very little tech.
As with many other things, there’s no substitute for practice. No need to search the perfect system, text files and spreadsheets might be all I need!
Over the last 20 years I’ve iterated through a lot of note taking apps, todo apps etc. At last, I am very happy to be back to plain-text markdown files.
The app is really well made and hackable, the community is friendly and it’s priced very fairly. It uses local text files. so even if it Obsidian were to disappear your notes will be left untouched.
I use Obsidian for Bullet Journaling, Weekly Reviews and for all text notes in my PARA system.
Google Calendar, Gmail, Gdrive, Google Sheet
I’ve already talked about calendar management above and there’s not much to add, I have a work and a personal calendar, they are linked so that I can have a single view between the two.
My google drive(s) - work and personal - follow the PARA structure.
Since reading Digital Productivity Coach I’ve been practicing inbox zero. It takes me < 10 minutes a day (admittedly I don’t get a ton of useful email).
Finally, Google Sheet is how all the Ultraworking systems are delivered, it works great!
Exists is a nice little app that I use to track my mood, do light journaling and monitor a few other stats.
I always liked the idea of quantified self but these days my tracking is very minimal.
Instapaper is a simple and clear read later app that I use to read all my articles. It’s connected to my Obsidian setup so that highlights are then saved as notes that I can search in my PKM.
Resources & Thanks
I want to thank all the creators that built and shared their ideas and systems. In particular the folks at Ultraworking, Forte Labs and Obsidian have really made a difference in my day-to-day. Although over the years I’ve paid for courses and services from all the authors linked in this article most of the content and resources are available free of charge.
I believe this shows how it’s possible to build successful business while being generous and allow everyone to benefit.
Here’s also some of my favorite links on these topics: