How to Find Your Perfect Productivity System
Seven simple steps to productivity bliss
Productivity is a market, a subculture, a philosophy, and the bane of everyone’s existence. Perhaps you struggle with prioritizing your tasks. Perhaps you feel like you chug and chug along but can’t get enough time. Perhaps you’re easily distracted. Perhaps you can never remember where you saved your notes or files.
Rest assured, there is a solution. It takes some hard work, but you can and will find a productivity system that actually helps you be productive.
I’ve written about my BuJo, which I know a lot of people rely upon as their project management system. For me, BuJo is more of a daily guide and a place to keep my logs without cluttering my computer. Plus, I find it satisfying to check off habits, log workouts, and list chores with pen and paper, while it feels more freeing to type out work todos — and it’s definitely easier to record dense project notes by typing. Plus, who wants to write out URLs in their BuJo? Yuck.
Also, I don’t like having it all in one place. I need separation between work and home, especially as a freelancer. As a productivity expert, I know I’m breaking a major rule by splintering my to-dos into different “buckets.” However, the golden rule of productivity is to do what works for you.
Here’s my process for finding your perfect productivity system.
Step 1: Do a brain dump.
Open a blank text document or pull out a blank sheet of paper. Write down everything on your mind: things you have to do for work, chores to do around the house, ideas that come to mind, things you’ve been meaning to explore, upcoming events, groceries you need to buy…all of it. Take your time. It took me about an hour, but there’s no right or wrong amount of time.
Once you’ve finished, set the list/scribbles aside.
Step 2: Audit your task lists.
You’ve probably been listing your to-dos somewhere: Todoist? Evernote? Napkins? Go through them and ask yourself these questions:
- Could this task be broken down into subtasks?
- Is this task actionable? For example, “productivity blog” means nothing. “Write productivity blog” is actionable. And as per number 1, you could break that down into multiple tasks, e.g. “Research,” “Draft,” “Review,” “Publish,” and “Promote.”
- Does this task depend on other tasks to be done?
- Does this task need to be done by a certain date? If not, do you want it off your plate by a certain date?
Depending on what type of tasks you’re looking at, you may also want to ask:
- Does this task require other people to complete?
- Will this task repeat at any point in the future?
If you find that you need to fix the way you’ve been naming or organizing your tasks, hold on. We first must do Step 3.
Step 3: Think about what helps you get things done.
Do you need to be reminded on a regular basis? (It’s okay if you do!) Do you need to be able to view today’s tasks in a separate list? Do you need to associate tasks with a certain context (e.g. Home, Work, School)? Do you need to have a progress bar or milestones to help motivate you?
Answering these questions will help you decide the overall shape of your productivity system. You can choose from existing methodologies or develop your own. The most common methodologies are Getting Things Done (GTD), Pomodoro, Zen to Done, and Don’t Break the Chain.
Getting Things Done: a context-based system that emphasizes quick wins and requires you to break down big tasks into smaller ones. GTD triggers tasks based on the time of day and where you are.
Great for: people who are on the go a lot, need frequent reminders, or get overwhelmed by big projects
Not great for: people who like structure or who work on projects that require a lot of planning or staggered work
Pomodoro: a time-based system that encourages you to enter “focus blocks” of 25 minutes, then take a break. Pomodoro is more focused on productivity and time management than task management, but many adherents find that it’s a great complement to other productivity systems.
Great for: people who are easily distracted, have well-defined “productive times” during the day, or need to make progress on a lot of mentally intensive projects
Not great for: people who need to frequently respond to colleagues or clients or whose work revolves around communication
Zen to Done: a habits-based system that focuses on recurring or structured work rather than instant wins. ZTD encourages you to organize your time around themes and priorities rather than knocking out tasks as they come. (ZTD is the system I use.)
Great for: people who have multiple long-term goals, people who juggle multiple projects, and creatures of habit
Not great for: people who struggle with procrastination or who need to quickly shift priorities in their work
Don’t Break the Chain: a task-based system that revolves around achieving your goals by tackling several small to-dos each day. DBtC’s motivator is a big checkmark or “X” on the calendar that shows you the “chain” of . The idea is that you tackle your long-term goals by focusing on the daily goals.
Great for: procrastinators, people who are seeking to build something up (e.g. a book) or improve on a metric (e.g. number of pushups)
Not great for: people who juggle a lot of projects
If none of these systems quite work for you, that’s okay! Your custom system should take the following factors into account:
Do you need reminders for your tasks? Whether you’re forgetful or need a motivator, you can incorporate reminders into your system by using an app devoted to this, a task manager app that sends reminders, or a combination of both.
Do you need to schedule blocks of time where you work on certain things? It can help to do an audit of the times you can more easily get into the flow and the times you need to just sit and do nothing. Once you understand your tendencies, you can try scheduling appropriate tasks into these blocks.
Do you have long-term goals, short-term goals, or a mix of both? For long-term goals, a system that breaks down your work into “stages” or assigns priorities to a certain day, week, or month can be helpful. For short-term goals, your system should favor a chain-like progression such as daily to-dos. For a mix, a productivity app that shows tasks, events, and notes together would be ideal.
Do you need to feel like you’ve knocked out a bunch of tasks each day, or are you okay with carrying some things over? If you’re the type to feel uneasy if you haven’t completed your to-do list, you need to be sure you’ve broken down work that takes a longer time. If you’re more of a progressive worker, you might prefer a system that shows milestones or overall progress.
Step 4: Fix your task naming scheme
No matter which methodology you choose, it’s best practice to name your task an actionable thing and define its scope. Start with a verb and end with a noun.
If you’re using GTD, add a context or location, and the time you’ll do it. Your app might allow you to do this separately (more on that below).
Bad example: “new blog post”
Good example: “write new blog post @ home tomorrow”
If you’re using ZTD, add a next step or a project. Your app might allow you to tag the task or add it to a list to help provide it with context or connect it to a greater plan.
Bad example: “productivity system story”
Good example: “write productivity system story for #blog tomorrow”
If you’re using Pomodoro, you might consider naming the tasks according to what you can accomplish in 25 minutes.
Bad example: “blog article”
Good example: “create outline for blog article”
Step 5: Research an app that will work for you
There are a zillion productivity apps under the sun. Some are full-fledged project management systems that are great for teams (or can be hacked to suit an individual’s needs — check out my story on that, linked at the bottom of this piece). Some are simply places to collect notes, tasks, and events — the three types of things you would store in such a system — in your organizational scheme. Below, I’ve recommended apps that best meet the project methodologies described above. I also encourage you to check out my free comparison chart on Airtable. (Note: I didn’t include apps for Pomodoro because you really only need a timer.)
If you’re using GTD or something similar, I recommend the following apps:
Things 3: This app is for Mac users only, but it’s unique in that it combines your tasks and events in a fluid view. It lets you set time periods for when you’ll get things done and seamlessly integrates with Mac’s location-based Reminders app.
Remember the Milk: As the name suggests, this app is geared toward busy people who are bouncing between work and errands. It lets you add a context to your tasks and set location-based reminders (only in the Premium version, though). You also can add time estimates, start dates and due dates, and tags to any task, which are all immensely helpful. By creating a smart list using these criteria, you can identify “Quick Wins” or compile a “Start Today” list. Remember the Milk is a good complement for the ZTD methodology as well (that is how I use it).
Evernote: This note-taking app allows you to quickly capture ideas, create checklists, and set reminders, all of which are crucial to GTD. If you have a lot of ideas coming to your mind and need a quick way to sort and clarify them as GTD requires, give Evernote a try.
There are also plenty of apps that are created specifically for GTD. Just be sure not to procrastinate on your other tasks by trying them all out.
If you’re using Zen to Done, you’ll need something that can handle both short-term tasks and long-term goals. I recommend the following apps:
Trello: I’ll be discussing Trello in detail in a future post, but for now it suffices to say that Trello is an amazingly adaptable visual project management app. It’s based around the Kanban board, in which tasks are sorted by project status. However, you can adapt this approach to sort by other criteria. Trello’s primary drawback is that you can’t look at different boards simultaneously or tie them together. So you’d need to create multiple boards showing your yearly, monthly, and weekly spreads, for example. If you want a similar option that matches the Zen to Done theme, try ZenKit.
Bear: If you wish Evernote let you link notes together and organize by tags rather than notebooks (and if you’re a Mac person), give Bear a try. It can pull triple duty: It’s a writing app, note-taking app, and productivity app. Essentially, it can serve as a digital bullet journal. I currently use it to organize all my copy for pitches to editors, my website, and so on, but I’m thinking about using it as more as a bullet journal.
Don’t Break the Chain
If you’re using Don’t Break the Chain or just want to build habits, I recommend the following apps:
Productive: This is an iOS app that promotes habit-building. It lets you choose from common habits and create your own, then set their frequency and timing. The app then assembles a daily plan for you. Once you complete the habits, it shows your progress, responds with encouraging phrases, and tracks your daily knockouts on a calendar. This app isn’t a good way to manage tasks outside your habit-building, but with its habit-oriented approach, it can complement a ZTD system as well. (If you’re on Android, Streaks is very similar.)
TeuxDeux: The key to DBtC is to set daily goals and knock them out. A lot of task managers don’t provide the visual satisfaction of seeing what you’ve completed, nor do they show you a calendar spread. Try the web-based TeuxDeux app to list your daily tasks, then simply tap them to mark them done. So satisfying!
If you’re a hybrid productivity master, you’d do well by using Trello and Evernote, as they’re both very flexible. However, here a couple of apps specifically designed for hybrids:
Pomodoro + GTD = Pomotodo (available on iOS and Android), which lets you implement the Pomodoro technique while knocking out your tasks. Also, TickTick includes both location-based reminders and a Pomodoro timer (however, it’s not free).
Pomodoro + ZTD = Avaza, a robust project management app with a built-in time tracker and the ability to set milestones and track progress toward a goal.
ZTD + DBtC = Wunderlist, a to-do app that can be hacked for both ZTD and DBtC. It takes a bit of work, but by using Wunderlist’s recurring tasks, reminders, and hashtag feature, you can form it into a powerful productivity system.
Step 6: Pour your tasks into your system.
Phew! We’re almost done. Now that you’ve decided upon your methodology and app(s), it’s time to enter your tasks, events, and notes into the system. Set aside at least a few hours to do this.
Once you’re done, you might feel inspired to start doing stuff. That’s great! But hold on one more second.
Step 7: Automate as much as possible.
You will be infinitely happier and more productive if you automate as much of your life as possible. While apps like Productive will automate task creation for you, some systems need a little extra love.
That’s where Zapier comes in. It connects apps to each other to save you the trouble of data entry. For example, if you’re a freelancer who collects leads through Typeform, Zapier can go ahead and pump those leads into Trello (or wherever). Zapier works with most of the apps I mentioned (though not the mobile-only apps) and can literally save you hours.
Here are a few of my “Zaps”:
Zoho Email to Trello: I have a mail filter set up to automatically tag emails from my freelancing platforms as “freelance.” Those emails then become tasks in the “Inbox” list of my Trello board “Freelance Assignments.”
Trello to Remember the Milk: When I process the tasks in Trello, I move them from an “Inbox” list to a “Ready to Start” list. When I do this, Zapier pumps the information into Remember the Milk and puts it on my daily to-do list.
Wunderlist to Trello: I use Wunderlist as a social media manager, but I also like to see my scheduled posts in a visual spread. However, I do not want to spend a lot of time copying and pasting into Trello. So, I use Zapier to automatically create “cards” for posts and sort them according to status.
Obviously, I still have some work to do. I have to login to Trello to process the tasks. You may wonder why I even have Trello in the system at all: Why not send directly from Zoho to Remember the Milk?
The answer is simple: I personally need to mentally process the task before it shows up on my to-dos. That’s why, in designing your productivity system, it’s important to take your preferences into mind. If you’re the type to let your to-do app simply hand you tasks, you’re probably a fan of GTD and a mail-to-task Zap would work for you. If you need a sense of structure or the ability to sort the task into a larger scheme, you’re probably using ZTD and you need that middle step. There’s no right or wrong answer.
Are you ready?
I’ve got good news…
We’ve made it!
You’re ready to be a productivity powerhouse.
The perfect productivity system is one that’s custom-tailored to your quirks. You may find your answer in one app or a combination of several. Remember: It takes time to get used to a new system, so aim to use it consistently for 30 days. I find it helpful to set a reminder on my phone to check your app(s) of choice if the app doesn’t bug you automatically (most of them do).
Now, go forth and get stuff done!