How I get things done

You may know that I love my work and I love traveling. But I hate the feeling of not having got enough stuff done during the day. And I hate the feeling of not having chosen my activities wisely.

Hi, my name is Adrien, and I’m a productivity addict.

Even if it’s not easy to perform great everyday, I found that ticking checkboxes is very rewarding for me, and motivating me to achieve more. While working remotely, I also found out that I cannot always control my context. So I learnt how to adapt to uncertainty, without losing time or causing frustration.

After reading (too) many articles about productivity, and many months of experimentation, I’ve reached a process that I think is worth sharing with you today.

If, like me, you’ve already read too much productivity tips, feel free to skip to the “My ToDo lists” section. Otherwise, I advise you to read the following tips first.

Tip 1: Productivity towards your own goals, and happiness

Productivity isn’t a goal, but rather a tool for better achieving our goals.
To be productive in the most meaningful sense, we need to be able to step back and ask ourselves what goals we really care about, and why.

After making her point, Jess shares a few great tips:

  • Plan and schedule your tasks of the day, every morning;
  • Pick each task by asking yourself if it will make you feel good;
  • Regularly ask yourself how you feel, and what you could do to feel better.

Tip 2: You can’t control everything, and that’s OK.

Aaron Swartz said it best:

“With all the time you spend watching TV,” he tells me, “you could have written a novel by now.” […]
Time has various levels of quality. […] And it’s tough to focus when you keep getting interrupted. There’s also a mental component: sometimes I feel happy and motivated and ready to work on something, but other times I feel so sad and tired I can only watch TV.
If you want to be more productive then, you have to recognize this fact and deal with it. First, you have to make the best of each kind of time. And second, you have to try to make your time higher-quality.

Following Aaron’s advice, the tasks I would like to get done should not be in one list, but in different lists, depending on my context. (place, mood, etc…)

Tip 3: Prevent distractions, but plan time-offs

As Chris explains, we can’t stay in focus mode all the time. But we can interlace short bursts of focused work with breaks:

I had to figure out how to work smarter, not harder. […] Slowly but surely, Pomodoro has forever changed how I work… […]
That’s 25 minutes of steady, focused work on ONE task. No multitasking. No emails. No phone calls. No checking Facebook. Nothing! No distractions allowed.

Pomodoro is one way to prevent the guilt of checking Facebook or Twitter in the middle of a task. But it does not matter how you achieve that, as long as you commit to focus solely on your tasks for a few minutes, then allow yourself some well-deserved relief time for other activities. (e.g. Facebook if you really enjoy that, or something happening in the real world)

Tip 4: Bake your own routine, and stick to it

Let Robin inspire you with the following story:

A major financial player […] shared that he’d recently brought NBA legend‎ Magic Johnson to speak to his corporate team. Magic spoke of the fact that during one season Larry Bird dominated him when it came to free throw success. And so, Magic vowed that the next year, he’d show Bird his own mastery. For the next 6 months, Magic built the following morning routine: he’d wake early and go down to his home basketball court. And he wouldn’t leave until he’d make 100 successful free throws. In a row. Some days, Magic would be done by 7 am. Other days he’d still be shooting at noon. But he never left before making his 100 daily consecutive free throws‎. It was a dedicated routine. The next year, Magic Johnson beat his rival Larry Bird in free throws.

Here are other selected parts from her article that I love:

  • The thing that’s easiest to do is rarely the thing that’s the best thing to do.
  • Things you do regularly are 100X more important than those things you do rarely.
  • Spend the first 90 minutes of your workday on your #1 opportunity.
  • Check your email after lunch. Make your phone calls in the afternoon. Surf the Net in the evening.
  • Inspiration isn’t some random event. No, it’s an organized result.
My productivity stats of the year

My ToDo lists, and how I use them

Based on the foundations provided above, and my own preferences, I decided to apply the following rules:

  • I store tasks in different lists, for each usual type of context.
  • Every morning, I split new tasks into smaller tasks, give them a very clear and unambiguous title, then classify them into contextual lists. That way, I can dilute boring/scary tasks into steps so small that I accept to do one of them each day.
  • Every morning, I decide which tasks I want to get done today.
  • I track time spent on each task, and allow myself some free “leisure” time between tasks.
  • I avoid procrastination by not allowing “leisure” activities to be accounted in my time-tracked work periods. (or I have to stop the timer)
  • When I’m done with my tasks of the day, I can tap into any list I like, including leisure-related lists.

Below are the lists that I use with my current ToDo-list app.

Note that the app itself does not matter. You can apply the same process using just good old paper and pencil.

Core lists

  • Inbox: I put all my notes and ideas in this list. Especially from my smartphone, on the move. I sort and classify them every morning.
  • Today (smart list): contains all the tasks I had planned to do today. (tasks from any list appear in that list when they are due today)
  • My Today: a list that I populate every morning, from my “Inbox” and “Today” lists. I usually put between 1 and 5 tasks in that list everyday, and intend to make it empty by the end of the day.
  • !Waiting: in that list, I add all the things that I’m waiting for, and that I don’t want to forget. (ex: expected deliveries and payments, stuff lent to friends, photos I want to gather from other people…) I use it to remind the corresponding people that I’m still waiting!

Contextual lists

  • Admin: boring but necessary tasks. (e.g. monthly accounting)
  • Pro: work-related tasks. (e.g. code for current project)
  • To blog: ideas / topics I would like to blog about.
  • Groceries: …and other things I need to buy when I’m outside.
  • Activities: outside activities I would like to do someday. (e.g. restaurants, visits…)
  • Geek activities: week-end projects and other cool ideas I would like to do at home (e.g. turn my spare laptop into a media center)
  • Music to listen to: in that list, I paste and bookmark URLs of music that I freshly discovered, or was recommended to give an ear to.
  • Videos to watch: URLs of videos (usually technical) that I would like to watch someday. (most of them were added using a bookmarklet)
  • Films to watch: films that I would like to watch someday.
  • Stuff to sell: list of items that I own but don’t need anymore.
  • Bucket list: achievements, travels, or other big activities that I would like to do before I die.

Public lists

  • Ideas: ideas of software (or business)I’d love to build, during a hackathon, or as a side-project. I share it publicly and maintain it regularly as a proof that ideas are not worth keeping to oneself. It happens that strangers or acquaintances contact me to collaborate on those ideas.
  • Looking for: a list of skills or services I’m currently looking for, or need advice on. This is like a wish-list for people who want to help me, or to collaborate with me. It contains great icebreakers for strangers who want to ask me something! ;-)

Bonus: GTD-style contexts that I’m considering to add

  • Offline focus: tasks that I can do in a quiet environment without Internet connection (e.g. writing a blog post in the train)
  • Online focus: tasks that I can do in a quiet environment with Internet connection (e.g. write code for my clients at home)
  • Online work: tasks that just require a good Internet connection (e.g. download system updates, upload/backup photos and videos, fill out some administrative forms…)
  • Phone calls: tasks that must take place where I can have a phone (or skype) conversation without bothering anyone, nor being bothered by anyone.

And you?

As some of you may have guessed, I’ve been using Wunderlist to manage my tasks. But, as written above, it does not matter what software you use. I picked Wunderlist because it was popular (and thus, reliable), multi-platform, free, and because it has an API that I can play with.

Now, I would love to read how you deal with tasks, and productivity in general!

So, please comment on the parts of this article you do differently, the part you don’t understand, or reply with your own process and/or tips!

And, if you don’t know what to say, but enjoyed reading this article, I’d appreciate it if you recommend it, and share it to your favorite social network! :-)

Productively yours,

Adrien Joly