Productivity and Getting Things Done — Part 01

By Jeff Smith

I’m a productivity nut who’s woefully bad at actually implementing any sort of real productivity tools or practices. Does that make sense? I read a lot about productivity, I tinker with a lot of processes, but I don’t implement productivity tools and techniques as well as I should. In essence, what I’ve been doing for years is just investing time and energy in learning about them and planning them out, but with no tangible result. Regardless of my intentions, that actually makes me a less productive person, does it not?
So, during 2015 I’ve been working on stopping that trend. I’ve got some practices ironed out for myself, and I’m working on solidifying a workflow.

This post will primarily go over what I’m currently using for productivity applications and processes, a brief overview of why each tool or process works for me, and then go from there. As I continue this series on and off, I’d like to go through some of the other tools that I’ve used in the past. I will let you know why I liked them, and why I eventually discarded them. There are many incredibly useful solutions out there, and no one-size-fits-all option for everyone!

Todoist is the single most useful productivity tool I’ve encountered to date. Todoist is a cloud based task management platform. Its UI is fairly minimal, and has a relatively clean look across all of its various formats. You see, that’s one of the most important, and in my mind the best, features of the application. You have native clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Windows phone, and more. It also has a web app, which is what I use most often along with the iOS app. The UI is nearly the same in all of the desktop versions (minimal and sleek) and it responds well to smaller windows in the web version. The iOS app is a real pleasure to use, and I say that as a person who generally isn’t thrilled about using phone apps.

Trello is the Project Manager I use right at the moment. It has a card based UI. You create a board, then you create card lists within it, then finally cards within those. Each card is movable from list to list and can contain descriptions, checklists, comments, tags, and more.
Those are the two main apps in my productivity workflow, although I daily use many other things — Evernote, Habit List and others — that we can go over later.

I use Todoist and Trello in distinctively separate ways. Trello, a more recent addition to my workflow, represents projects. I have a board for freelancing, and I have task lists within it for Ongoing Projects, Current Projects, Project Leads, and Archived Projects. I have a format for my cards. The name of the project is the title of the card (often <companyname>:<project> i.e. “Smith Supermarkets: New Website”). The description of the card has several parts:

  • Primary Contact: <contact name>
  • Contact Email: <email>
  • Contact Phone: <phone>
  • Unbilled Time: <time>

Now, those bits of information exist in other places in my ecosystem, but I record them here so that at a glance I can see the client, their information, the description of the project, and comments tracking the project. I then just update the card as I contact the client, or as major events happen. I don’t use it to track every single task on a project — it’s more about overall information gathering and tracking events, calls, and meetings.
Todoist, on the other hand, has a very different use for me. Todoist captures every task for pretty much every area of my life. Sometimes there is overlap with Trello, but not often. Some examples of the types of tasks I might enter into Todoist:

  • A daily event or habit that becomes different in some way and must be remembered.
  • Basic household chores
  • Followup with clients (calls or emails)
  • Random thoughts (Brainstorm some ideas for XYZ)
  • Tasks which are really the predecessor to other tasks (do A then make tasks for B and C)

Those are just a few examples of a countless number of them. I use the Inbox on Todoist to collect things when I don’t have the time or energy at the moment to sort them out into projects, labels, due dates, etc. I then go through later and process the Inbox, filing things into the proper places with the appropriate attributes.

I also take advantage of the sub-projects. I have a project for work, with sub-projects for large areas of responsibility. The same for “Home” (Sub-projects: Family, Vehicles, Financials, Network). One area that I find the Todoist iOS app lacking in is Siri integration. If you want to add tasks using Siri you need a workaround, like IFTTT. I use labels primarily as contexts, if you like the GTD methodology. Errands, phone, work and home (physical locations), and also people (for when I’m in contact with them or around them) — boss, child, girlfriend, specific coworkers, etc. I also have labels for energy — low energy tasks, high energy tasks, etc. I don’t use those much yet, but I’m working on it because it seems like a useful habit.

I try to go through my task manager twice a day. Once in the mornings — currently this review takes place just when I get to work. However, I’m transitioning into a “Before I leave for work” time instead. This is where I process the Inbox, look over Today’s tasks, reschedule any I know can’t happen, and assign Priorities. I use Priorities in a sort of non-intended way, I think. I try to assign three tasks of Priority 1 and three tasks of Priority 2. Priority 1 is “work” tasks — my three “big rocks” that need done today at work. Priority 2 tasks are my three “big rocks” for not-work — home, family, freelancing, whatever. I use Priority 3 for items that are none of the above but should stand out from the items with no priorities.

In the end, this is just a snapshot of how I use these services. The important thing is that you use one and that you trust it. If you don’t trust your system absolutely, it loses much of its value. You don’t want it to be just one more possible source of tasks — email, task manager, texts, sticky notes, pocket notepad, notepad documents on your desktop, etc. When I receive a task via another medium it goes straight into my system. This is another way to help with Inbox Zero, if you’re into that — when I check my email I immediately add any tasks (Return a call or email; check into XYZ app; find out about Project A and get back to client; etc) to my task manager and then label and archive the email, freeing my inbox. That sort of system works really, really well for me — but it might not work so well for you. You’ll have to try it out and see!

Hit me up at @jeffreylees if you have any interesting ideas on productivity, or things you’d like me to blog about!

Originally Published 02 June, 2015