I feel that the quest to be productive will last my whole lifetime. Every time I think that I have it figured out and put a system in place, the smallest change usually sends the system crumbling. However, I’ve recently settled on a few tools that are starting to stand that test of time, and I thought I’d take a moment to share them with you.
Note: I have found it the most useful to use a different tool for each “level” of planning, instead of worrying about one tool to rule them all. The problem with a tool that handles all levels of planning is that you usually have to drill down or sift though more information than you need to in order to answer the question…what should I be working on?
Level #1 - What should I work on this year?
In order to answer this question, you need to visualize where you would like to be months down the road. A year is a long time. In a year you could run a couple of marathons, write a book, travel around the world, and learn to ride a unicycle.
Side Note: Last year I watched a total of 47 hours of Breaking Bad. You can get a pilot’s license in 40 (I didn’t).
There’s nothing wrong with watching Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones, or Dexter, or Walking Dead, or whatever your show of choice might be. There’s nothing wrong with watching viral YouTube videos, perusing your favorite magazine, or scanning Facebook. However, let’s not forget that these hours add up, and often we say, at least to ourselves, that we don’t have the time for certain things. Let’s just rephrase that to “I’m choosing not to make that a priority.”
This year is going to be different. I have a goal of items I’d like to accomplish in 1 year. These are:
- Write a book
- Blog every week
- Lose 20lbs.
- Earn $50,000 from entrepreneurial projects
These are my goals for the year. To track these goals I use Evernote, which allows me to quickly create and categorize short documents. These documents are organized into “Notebooks,” my favorite of which is one I titled “Personal Development.” This is where I put journal entries that I come up with while on a personal retreat, or other high-level reflections that I want to be able to reference in the future.
You’ll notice in the above screenshot that I have dated my yearly goals from May 2014 - May 2015. I don’t want to wait until New Year’s Day just to implement a year plan. I’m going to start today. So should you :)
I also limited myself to a small handful of goals. You will find that one of the keys to actually completing your goals is to focus on a small number. If I listed every possible thing that would be cool to accomplish in a year I would give up on my list pretty quickly once I failed at one of the items, even though it might be a small goal that doesn’t really matter to me as much as the others. Focus on the “must-do” goals, the other stuff can wait (or it will work itself in anyway because you really want to do it).
One of the benefits of using Evernote is that it syncs to the free native iOS app.
Level #2 - What should I work on this month?
Now, taking these yearly goals, I need to break them down into monthly chunks. For this I use the excellent free tool Trello. With Trello, I can create a “board” for each yearly goal, then list in each month the mid-level tasks that I should complete that month.
The benefit of Trello for this level of planning is that I can see multiple months in a row, and drag-and-drop tasks from one month to another if needed.
Trello also has a native iOS app, which you can download for free.
Level #3 - What should I work on this week?
To plan out my weekly activities, I usually sit down at my computer for 20 mins on Sunday night and visualize what I will accomplish that week. This can also effectively be done at the end of Friday of the previous week, while certain tasks are fresh in your mind.
One tip I learned a while back is to limit your daily “must-dos” to two tasks. You will find ways to fill up your workday with tasks, whether it is an email, an IM, a phone call, or a tweet, something is going to distract you during the day and take you down a path that might not be the best use of your time. By focusing on two important tasks, I can make sure that I get those two items done, no matter what.
To plan out these two tasks per day for the week, I have found no better tool than a calendar (I use Google Calendar:
The benefit of using a calendar is that you can see your other obligations for the week as well, assuming you have multiple calendars setup within the tool. A benefit of Google Calendar is that you can share calendars amongst people, so my calendar is a compilation of the following (that I can turn on or off depending on what I need to focus on):
- Ryan’s Calendar (shared with my wife, has appointments, conferences, etc.)
- Heather’s Calendar (her calendar shared with me, important dates, etc.)
- Productivity (this is the one you just saw, no need to share that with anyone, it’s just for me)
Google Calendar also syncs with a number of mobile apps, my favorite of which is Fantastical
Level #4 - What should I work on today?
To ensure that my day is productive, and that I accomplish at least the two tasks that I have on the calendar, I spend about 10 minutes each evening to look over the next day’s events and make a plan for the day. I look at my appointments, my wife’s appointments that I might need to take the kids for, my main goals, and any habits that I am working on (more on that in a bit) and plan out not only when I will work on these things, but where.
I find myself more productive when I break my day up into chunks and even travel from location to location to accomplish them. The short drive time gives me a chance to reboot, and the limited time in a certain location will motivate me to work on exactly what I need to and not become distracted.
A typical day’s then would look somewhat like the following (sometimes I write these down, sometimes I just try to remember the plan):
- 7:00 - Alarm
- 8:00 - Write blog post (La Chatelaine)
- 11:00 - Dentist Appointment
- Lunch at home
- Afternoon - Integrate Stripe payment system for findbacon.com (Library)
- 5:30 - Be home
- 7:00 - Sitter for date night
I try not to assign hard times to items that might fluctuation, for example, what time to eat lunch after my dentist appointment. Also, since lunch is variable, the afternoon might start at 1:00, it might start at 2:00. However, I can always be specific about what time I wake up, or what time I tell my family I will be home if it comes after a work session. If I don’t complete my afternoon work task, I will just have to fit it in somewhere else.
One of the keys to this system is having grace for yourself. Fifty percent of the time my day doesn’t go exactly as planned, and that’s okay. I can re-arrange the schedule as needed, learn to plan less within the day, etc. The goal here is to maximize your day, not accomplish the impossible.
So, as far as software is concerned with this level of planning, I typically don’t use anything other than a scrap piece of paper to sort out my plan unless the day is especially complex. My appointments are on my calendar, and I use Google Calendar’s built-in notification system to send me text messages prior to an appointment just so I don’t forget.
Well, it looks like I’m over 1400 words so far for this post, so I’m going to save the other two items that I was planning on addressing for next week’s post:
- Misc #1 - How do I make sure I don’t forget small tasks?
- Misc #2 - How do I turn certain tasks into routines?
Thanks for reading! As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments below. What tools have you used to help keep you organized or productive?