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I’ve read a lot of productivity books over the years. I was never really a productivity enthusiast until I got a Job where my Boss was a productivity fanatic. And for good reason, the job wasn’t very cumbersome or hard. It just required really good time management and communication skills otherwise employees would be overwhelmed by a deluge of overwhelming requests, tasks and projects with no idea where to start.
I was dropped into this scenario with no choice other than to increase my productivity and find a way of getting more work done without succumbing to distractions.
My Boss recommended that I read Getting Things Done by David Allen and shortly after that I happened to read The 7-Habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey. These two books put me on a path of trying to optimize my productivity, time, energy and well being to be as effective as I possibly could. Not just in my job, but in what ever aspect I threw myself at.
This article will be about the result of many hours of research; experimentation and trial and error. I have borrowed a lot from Productivity Masters like David Allen, James Clear, Thomas Frank and various others that I couldn’t even name.
In this article we will look at what this productivity system aims to achieve, types of information and how we can deal with those different types of information in a practical way.
I also want to state that this system may very well not work for you. Actually, it most probably won’t. I do believe that there is great value in learning from others, and I hope you can do the same from this article. There is a reason I don’t strictly use one pre-defined productivity system and that’s because one system didn’t work for me. Instead I have borrowed tricks, ideas, methods and techniques from various different productivity systems to create the mish-mash that is my productivity system. So what I’d like you to do is read this through the lens of “What can I steal from Ross?”. I’d like to show you what worked for me so you can create a system that works for you. A productivity system should do just that, work for you, not against you.
What is the main goal of this Productivity System?
The overall idea of this productivity system is to get information out of your brain as quickly as possible. After all, “The brain is for having ideas, not storing them“. I firmly believe that a lot of stress that we endure is due to us trying to store too much information in our head. We are living in the age of the of information deluge, otherwise known as the information age.
After information is out of your brain it should be easily accessible and memorable. We are going to look at different types of information, how to record that information and then how I organize it and reference it in a way that is searchable for later use. As well as systems that bring information to our attention when we need it.
Types of information
We are bombarded by information on a daily basis. Anything that demands an ounce of your attention or precious cognitive resources is considered information. Definition: what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things. I believe that on a daily basis we are exposed to all sorts of different types of information. Here are the main categories:
- Complex Data
- Simple Data
In this system an event is derived from Google Calendars “Event”. Quite literally a block of time where you need to physically be somewhere or will perform a predetermined task. An important meeting, a phone call, a date with your girlfriend, a lunch appointment, going to the gym, washing your car and getting your hair cut – these are all examples of what constitutes as an event in this system. My philosophy is: If I need to physically be somewhere or physically be doing something this is an event. I used to be pretty extreme about this, I literally had “Brush teeth” on my calendar at one stage. I realized that this was absurd and now I just have time set aside for “Morning routine” which includes brushing teeth, having a shower, reading, making lunch for work and getting dressed. You get the point, I am physically somewhere doing some thing and it’s on my calendar.
But why the heck would you want to do that? Why would you want to have literally ever aspect of your life on your Calendar? Well it’s due to two factors: Decision Fatigue and Will Power. I know that if every time I need to be physically doing something or physically somewhere, and it’s on my calendar, my calendar suddenly becomes a powerful self reference tool. When a friend or client asks if we can meet, I can look at my calendar and instantly give them an answer based on what is on my Calendar.
I also believe in “Paying Yourself First” this means I put time on my calendar aside for things that are important to me like reading, exercise and Spiritual alone time. The reason I do this is because if I don’t my time quickly gets taken up by other obligations that are not important to me. So for example, if some asks me “Can we meet at 8am on Saturday”, I can kindly decline them because I have something else planned. That thing I have planned could be a 1 hour journaling session, reading time, exercise time etc. I also don’t have to tell that person this, I can simply say “Sorry no, I unfortunately have another commitment for that time”. You may think this is deceptive and dishonest, but there is a lot of truth in it. I have committed that time to some thing else important to me.
Later on in this article I am going to outline a way that I have automated scheduling appointments on my calendar without conflicting with time that is important to me.
To Summarise, an event is time marked out on my calendar where I need to physically be somewhere or physically be doing something. For this reason, I am obsessive about my calendar and almost everything I do goes onto my calendar. Sometimes, I do things that don’t go on my calendar. This is alright, I am a human not a robot.
In this system, all tasks are unplanned intent. What this means is that all tasks eventually become events or they are batched under a single event. A task is simply something you have to do, that where you have not planned the time that it’s going to occur. I personally use todoist for this because it has a great integration with Google Calendar.
Intent is pretty self explanatory, if you want/need to do something this is called intent. You intend to do that thing. This rings true in the quote by David Allen that I mentioned above: “The brain is for ideas not, storing information”.
The brain is more than suited to coming up with intent, but it’s horrible at remembering it. So write it down as quickly as possible.
Tasks are unplanned intent of physically being somewhere or physically doing something. They are usually stored in a todo list either in an application or on a piece of paper.
This is self explanatory and again, the brain is great at having ideas but horrible at storing them. When you have an idea it signifies intent, however In this case I classify ideas as intent with the purpose of being referenced at a later stage so, not immediately planned for action.
Writing down ideas as you have them is a great discipline to get into because it means when you do get around to creating time to execute them, you’re not sitting there asking yourself “what should I do now?”
I will use this blog as an example. I have a long list of ideas that I have for blog posts. Whenever I have an idea for a blog post, depending where I am, I write it down. Usually in my todo list inbox or if I have more time and I am not on the go, I put it in my list for blog ideas. This is important because I often allocate time on my calendar to write blog posts. When I sit down for one of those sessions, I should already know what I am going to research and write about.
4. Complex Data
Longform Data are Documents, Meeting Notes, Book Summaries etc. With this type of information the traditional analogue way of storing and indexing this type of information has been with filing cabinets. More recently we have had the advent of folders, available on almost every operating system. However as the world has gone towards a more cloud based system, there haven’t been many great solutions.
Notion.so, does however provide excellent indexability, database and searchability features. These are all important when it comes to storing long form information like Book Summaries, Meeting Notes and other Documents. Below, I have a section titled “Practical ways I have implemented this system” where I look at this with more depth.
5. Simple Data
This is boring stuff like phone numbers, email addresses. I am not going to go too in-depth here, but this is information that you receive that you will need later but quickly need to write down.
Say, for example, your boss says to you “Please could you give this guy a call, his name is Steve he’s a key accounts manager. His number is +27 123 123 1234. ” You should quickly input into your inbox: “Steve, key accounts manager, +27 123 123 1234”. Because that was the raw empirical data that you need to perform a task.
You might store this information in your Contacts app on your phone if you know that you will need to phone this person more than once.
In Summary data is simple information that either has a single use or needs to be referenced again later. Usually phone numbers, bank account numbers or log in details
The 3 Stages
This system centers around 3 stages. Think of it like a funnel all information that you receive should go through this funnel. This is the pillar of this system. The 3 stages are as follows:
Stage 1 is ‘input’. We discussed how your brain receives information on daily basis. This information could be and usually is, a variety of things: An email you need to send, a phone call you need to make, something you need to get from the shop, a book you want to finish reading, a series someone said you should watch and perhaps a recipe your mother gave you. These are all forms of information that are part of the greater information deluge that we are bombarded with every day. Most people (Myself included) try store this information in their head. As David Allen says: “The brain is for ideas, not storage”. The point of Stage One is to make transferring this information from your head as soon as you get it as fast and efficient as possible. Basically any thought, idea or information that needs to be stored should be as easy to jot down or store as possible.
The inbox is central to an idea that I (and Thomas Frank) call the Quick Capture method. David Allen will also talk about it extensively in his book “Getting Things Done”. I will speak a bit about the Quick Capture Method in the next section in more detail, for now I’d like to discuss the inbox. The inbox is the starting point for information input in this system. Now, something we need to understand is that we have a variety of inboxes in our lives. This system is most effective when we reduce the number of inboxes to as few as possible. Let me give you some examples of inboxes:
- Your brain
- Your sms/ instant messages on your phone
- A task manager
- Note book or diary
These are all areas that are capable of storing information for later use. They are all fed by many different sources. Your brain, for example, stores any information about tasks you need to do that you receive on the fly. Like your boss telling you in passing to complete a project for him. Or you may suddenly remember that you need to wash your dog. This is a piece of information that lingers in your head constantly until it’s done or it’s forgotten. Assuming this information, it puts stress on you because you need to remember this information. Either outcome is not favorable for your personal well being, or your dog’s.
The problem with having so many inboxes is that you are not sure where to look for information. We all to often find ourselves thinking: “Did I get that project when talking to my boss in the corridor, or was it an email?”. This is a problem because when we need to access information to make it an event. An event is a task that you need to execute that has been planned. It’s intent, with planning, it’s essential that we can do it as quickly as possible.
I have reduced the 6 inboxes above to 2 inboxes.
- My Todo list application inbox – Less than one sentence of information
- Simple Data
- My Notes Inbox – More than one sentence of information
- Complex Data
Any task (A task being unplanned intent of physically doing something or being somewhere) or Event (Planned intent of physically doing something or being somewhere), piece of information can be stored in one of these two inboxes until it’s ready to be processed.
Now you’re probably thinking “Ross, two inboxes? That’s not an awful lot, also, what about email and all my instant messages etc?”.
Well, these things should all feed into your inbox. The idea is to centralize as much of your incoming information as possible. Once you have done that you can plan and execute the event.
Lets take email for example. I like to use a method called “Batching” for email, this means that I check and reply to all email in one go. Usually during a pre-defined ‘event’ on my calendar. During this email time, any email that requires me to physically be somewhere or physically do something either gets put in my Calendar if it’s a predefined event. Or, if it’s a task that I need to plan and execute it goes into my todo list application. I know I am doing this right if I only read an email once. If I have to read emails more than once I am not doing this effectively. The 3 outcomes from reading my email are:
- I reply to the email immediately
- If action is required on my side I add the task to my todo list
- If an event is required then I put that on my calendar
Another trick that I have borrowed from David Allen is the 2-min rule. This is the rule that if something takes you less than 2 mins to complete it should be done immediately. This guideline works excellently when applied to email. If an email takes less than 2-min to reply to I will do it immediately during the email batching session. If the reply takes more than 2mins, perhaps it requires some thought and an in-depth reply then I will add a task to my to do list to reply to the email.
Quick Capture Philosophy
The Quick Capture Method is something that I touched on briefly above. This method works on the premise that if information can’t be captured quickly then it probably won’t be captured at all. This is a problem. This is an idea that James Clear talks about extensively in his book Atomic Habits. His basic thesis is that you should make good habits as easy as possible to execute, and bad habits as difficult as possible to execute. The entire point of this system is to get information out of you head as quickly as possible. The solution is to make sure adding information to your inbox is as easy as possible. For this reason you need to find an inbox that works for you. I have observed my boss use a simple notebook and it seems to work for him. Whether you are full digital person like myself or use analog tools like a pen and paper, it’s imperative that you find a method of recording information that is seamless and easy. Using a large A4 note book might be a deterrent because it’s difficult to carry around. A small A6 note book might be easier to carry around and therefor won’t deter you from putting things in your inbox.
I prefer digital inboxes because I believe it is easier to automate the flow of information which in the end makes my life easier.
To summarize, we all have information that gets thrown at us on a daily basis. Traditionally we have unconsciously stored this information in a variety of different locations. It’s our job to try stream line our inboxes into as few inboxes as possible. It’s imperative that it’s incredibly easy to add information to our inbox as quickly and as seamlessly as possible. Later on in this article I am going to outline some tips and tricks that I have for practically adding information to your inbox as quickly as possible.
The end goal of this entire productivity system is to route information to where it needs to go as quickly as possible so that it’s not floating around in your head. Part of this is making sure you plan sufficiently. Planning properly and consistently is important because it allows us to trust our system. If you don’t trust the system, you probably won’t use it. You will derive a great peace of mind from sitting down once a week or once a day, which ever you prefer, to plan how to route your inbox information. This is called the weekly review, and I have no one but David Allen to thank for this technique.
The weekly review
Your weekly review instills trust in your system because it allows you to make sure that you have accounted for everything you need to do, and plan for things that do need to get done. Have you ever lain in bed, wondering if you had completed everything you needed to do? Or perhaps, you were lying in bed and remembered something you needed to do. The Weekly Review is designed to help you account for every task, project and event you need to account for.
With a weekly review you will sit down once a week (Or daily if you have a more flexible schedule) and go through your inbox. Information that needs to be stored so it can be referenced later, is stored. Tasks that need to be created are created, and if need be, events are created if possible.
By the end of the weekly review you should have accomplished “Inbox Zero” Your inbox should be empty. If you needed to create and organize any events, these should be on your Calendar. In fact, everything that you need to do in the next week should be on your calendar.
How do you do a weekly review?
Typically I would allocate an hour a week where I can sit undisturbed and do a recon of the previous week and then plan the next week.
Step 1: Are there any things that I should have done in the last week that I haven’t gotten around to? → Reschedule if important or delete. Note: Sometimes I find myself rescheduling something so often that I just delete it, it probably wasn’t important. Step 2: Go through inbox and:
- Add tasks to my todo list
- Add events to calendar
- Store Information for later use
And that’s it. It is as simple as that. Some people have extremely extensive weekly reviews. I found that if mine was too long and arduous, I didn’t look forward to doing it and I’d skip doing it, which is not ideal.
What about things in inbox that don’t need to be done soon?
This also plays into the action stage (the next stage). If something doesn’t need to be done within the next week. Put it on your calendar. I really like Google Calendar because of the notification features. You can set up mobile and email notifications. If an important event is coming up in the next 3 months that I don’t want to forget about, I will create a reminder for 1 day, 2 days, 1 week, 2 weeks and 1 month before. This helps me keep the event in front of my mind while not stressing that I will forget about it.
David Allen also talks about a “Not Now/Later” list in his book Getting things done I use this technique as well but not as frequently. A calendar is more reliable.
When should you do a daily review?
If you are an information worker, it’s very likely that you may not have any clue what project you will be working on in the next 3 days. I have worked in a situation where my boss was very reactive. Someone would send him an email, and he’d just forward it to me expecting me to get the task done “As soon as possible, because it was very urgent” Of course, it wasn’t but this is the reality that lots of information workers. For this reason it might be more helpful to have a daily review. This daily review might be shorter than a weekly review since you’re doing it more frequently.
In summary the planning phase relies heavily on The Weekly Review. The Weekly Review is designed to help you systematically go through your inbox and ‘action’ all the stray tasks. This could mean taking an article you saved and putting it an “articles” or “to read later” folder. Or, it could be allocating time in your calendar to complete a task. The goal is to account for every task, so that it is out of your mind.
The action phase is pretty self explanatory. This is when stuff gets done. ‘Action’ looks different for different types of information and tasks.
Planning to do something is all good and well but we need to implement systems that help us remember to actually execute the task or attend the an event.
Lets look at a scenario of a simple task: Changing a light bulb.
Input → Suddenly remembering that you need to change a light bulb in your garage while you are at work
Inbox → Task is created “Buy light bulb” (This is the intent)
Planning → Planning is executed by appending “from Mikes hardware store on the way back from work” so now our task is an event: “Buy light bulb from Mikes Hardware Store on the way back from work” – Additionally I should add this to my Calendar. (Now we have planned the intent, it’s now an event)
Action → Create a reminder for 10min before you leave work to make sure you actually remember to stop buy the store on the way back from work.
Now lets look at a different scenario: A really interesting article that you want to read at a later stage.
Inbox → Task is created “Write book summary notes on Cal Newports Digital Minimalism” (This is the intent)
Planning → Planning is executed by appending “On Saturday at 8am” to the end of the task so the task is now an event: “Write book summary notes on Cal Newports Digital Minimalism on Saturday at 8am” – Additionally I should add this to my Calendar. (The intent is now an event)
Action – Calendar Reminder reminds me on Saturday to write book notes on Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism.
With this example, I have often created a recurring event on my calendar to review the notes that I have written to try better retain the information
I hope you understand the basic idea? The goal with the Action phase is to implement systems that remind me to complete the task that I’ve planned. You should also get into the habit of referring to your Calendar before you commit to any task, or when you are trying to decide what work you should do next. Essentially, a Calendar first mentality.
Personally I have found reminders in apps like Todoist and Google Calendar are very helpful for this action phase. Additionally I’ve had to get into the habit of checking my Calendar first thing in the morning before I do anything. This allows me to make sure I am always doing tasks and attending events that I should be due to my prior planning.
Practical ways I have implemented this system
Below I have outlined the practical ways that I have implemented and automated this system in my day-to-day life. I am going to try cover each type of pre-defined information and how I deal with it.
Events are tasks are predefined intent that have been planned are ready to be executed (Action Phase).
The first strategy that I have adopted with dealing with events is skipping the inbox and planning phase altogether if I can help it and just adding the event straight to my calendar. A good example would be talking to a friend face-to-face and organizing to meet for coffee. I will take my calendar out, find a time that works for both of us and put it straight into my Calendar.
The Second strategy I have adopted with events is using a service to automate event creation. I use an app called Calendly for this. The free version of this allows you to create one “Event Type”. If you want to have more event options for your contacts to choose from you’re going to need to pay for a the premium version.
I’ve taken this really far and you may not be comfortable taking it as far as I have. I have used a text expander app on my phone that allows me to type in “Bookapp” which expands to: “You can use the following link to book a slot on my calendar. This helps us avoid any back and forth when arranging the appointment because only slots where I am free are available: https://calendly.com/rossgriffin
I hope you don’t take offense to this, my intention is only to make life easier for both of us.”
Here is an example:
This has proven to be a very useful way for me to automate a lot of this productivity system. Someone will say “Hey we should have Coffee sometime!” to which I reply “Yeah we should! I will send you a link that allows you to inform me of what time is most suitable for you”. This system allows me to get rid of a lot of the unnecessary back and forth that usually goes into organising social events. We have all been in a situation where both parties can’t find a time that suits everyone. This way of automating this system allows me to avoid this, and the bonus is that we skip the inbox and planning phase because its automated.
The Third strategy I use is called time blocking. I have written an article about this which you can find here. Quite simply, time blocking allows me to allocate time directly on my calendar to tasks that need to be done. This is usually done during my weekly review. I do, however, like to see my calendar as a working document and frequently move events around even during the day.
Todoist allows me to transfer tasks from being tasks to being events quite easily with their calendar integration which is really excellent. Below is an example:
My task manager of choice is Todoist, although, I do use Asana for all work related things. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I like Todoist because I can quickly take a task like “Buy a light Bulb” and make it an event on my Calendar without even leaving Todoist. I can do this using their smart language feature. This means that you can take a task and create an event directly from todoist just by typing in the date and time.
I also use Todoist as my primary inbox for all information that is less than one line long. This includes scenarios where people offload phone numbers on me on the fly. During my Weekly Review, I can quickly go through the Todoist inbox and plan for the week ahead or route information necessarily. Todoist allows you to put a widget on your home screen of your andriod device that lets you create tasks directly into your inbox.
I’ve used an integration on IFTTT.com to make a simple integration between Google Assistant and Todoist that allows me to add tasks to my inbox by voice. All I have to say is: “Hey Google, add a todo “Get Light Bulb at 5pm”. This then creates a task directly in my inbox. This is an example of the quick capture method that I’ve spoken about.
Earlier on I defined an idea as intent with the purpose of being referenced at a later stage, this differs from a task or event that needs more immediate action. I am an ideator so I often have ideas. Lots of them are bad and I eventually end up deleting them. Some are good, I think. This article for example, was just an idea that I had written down for more than 6months.
It is important that ideas are easily indexable and searchable. The ideal situation would be having a database where you store all your ideas so whenever you have some free time you can look at your ideas list and execute on of them.
I personally use Notion.so for this because the app as an incredible database functionality. You are able to quickly add ideas to an inbox and then later on during your weekly review add them to the necessary database. For example, I’ll often have article ideas which I will add to my inbox and then during my weekly review I will move them to my Blog database on Notion.
Notion also allows you to add as many tags to your database and sort database items in a variety of ways. This is specifically helpful for this kind of information storage.
I do not think this needs to much practical explanation. As I defined earlier, data is things like bank account numbers and contact information. This information is usually stored in my inbox until I either need it or until my weekly review.
Complex data in my definition and in the context of this system are things like notes from meetings, podcasts, books; articles you’ve saved; and documents. This information often doesn’t need to be “Completed” it’s usually not executable. Personally, book notes and summaries are an example of complex data. This is information that needs to be easily searchable and indexable. Here is an example of one such index that I maintain in Notion.so:
Now, how do you make this sort of thing actionable? How do you execute this kind of information? Well, most times you don’t. It just sits there and is available when you need it. However I find its often beneficial to create a task to review this kind of information.
When I read a book a take down notes constantly. When I have completed the book I create a task: Write out summary and notes for [name of book]. Then, once I have done that, I create follow up tasks to review that data at least once, sometimes more.
Notion also allows you to install a web clipper to immediately save articles off the web to your Notion Database.
This Productivity System hinges on the idea that you should not store information in your head. I have found the more that I write stuff down and create a solid plan on how to execute, review and store information I have been able to cope with higher workloads at work and get more work done.
As you receive information, you need to record it as fast as possible in a way that’s easy without any barrier to entry.
Once you have recorded the information, you need to make sure you are regularly planning how you are going to execute that information if it needs to be executed. If it doesn’t need to be executed you should be planning how to review the information or putting in systems that allow you to easily find that information.
My hope is that as you have read this you won’t copy the system, but rather glean tips and tricks that will help you in formulating your own productivity system.
This productivity system is a mish-mash of various other systems that I have read about and studied over time. I can’t close this article without acknowledging these people and resources:
Website: James Clear – James Clear
Website: College Info Geek – Thomas Frank
Youtube Channel: Mat D’ Avella
Thank you for reading, if you have gotten this far. If you have any questions, comments or criticisms I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.