Locus / Focus: an approach to productivity without myopia

Combining 2 great productivity principles, a data engineering mindset and a tool named Trello.


“You chase productivity tools like a dog chases a car.” — my wife.

She’s never not right, but this time I think I might have caught the car and actually know what to do with it.

Less than a year ago I took on a new role in a new team at work. It was a good time to pause and rethink my working style. I was moving into a much more structured team and I’d always needed help with prioritization and time management. This wasn’t for lack of effort. For as long as I remember working, I’ve been looking for the optimal way to manage my projects; to the point of obsessively checking Lifehacker everyday for new apps and reviews. I have an almost romantic relationship with the site (yes, my wife knows and she’s cool with it.)

I combined the GTD method, principles of the Accidental Creative, rudimentary data structures and an excellent tool named Trello to devise a method that works for me. Here’s how I figured it out so you don’t have to.

The thing about to-do apps

After chasing productivity methods/apps for a while I realized a few things:

  • These methods assume everyone is productive the exact same way. Working styles are highly personal; one size rarely fits all.
  • They try too hard to change individual behavior rather than providing the flexibility to fit themselves into your existing working style.
  • They get unnecessarily granular and you spend more time managing your tasks than actually doing them.

I kept looking for the productivity Goldilocks zone.

  • Some of them, like the bullet journal method, work better on paper — physical paper. I can’t argue with the sweet endorphin release of crossing something off from your list with a sharpie, but the benefits of digital syncing and storage outweigh this temporary emotional win.
  • Some methods try to parse out work and personal life. This distinction is tactically useless and creates unnecessary tension. Especially after reading The Accidental Creative where the author emphasizes whole life planning.
“Every area of our life is hardwired to every other area. It is impossible to perform a task in one sphere and not have it affect another.” — Todd Henry
  • In most apps, I never got the “full view” of all the tasks I needed to do. They swayed between being a giant laundry list to a myopic view of just one day. I kept looking for the productivity Goldilocks zone.

How I got there

What came close: any.do

In 2012, I was using an app called Any.do. It would force me to bucket tasks under Today, This Week or Someday. Before that I’d get detailed about when I was going to work on something — allocating work throughout the month. Work that I do now is rigid enough for a quarterly view and fluid enough to fit neatly into a weekly view. Taking a monthly view was not useful. I gave up on any.do because of a lack of the long view — I’d have tasks go stale in the “someday” section because they fell out of my immediate field of vision. Having a high level view of all the things that need to get done and the consolation that you only have to do 3 of those things today.


“I also suspect that all the (productivity) apps that help us make lists and then make it fun for us to check things off are reducing our collective productivity, by replacing real work and focus with structured productivity.” — Dan Ariely

Data Structures 101

I attended a class on ‘Data Structures’ when completing my engineering degree. The way you structure data changes how you relate to it. Almost every time & task management method I come across uses some fundamental data structural principle. The bullet journal method recommends just getting it all out there on a list. I have started thinking of my to-dos as queues and not lists. A queue has hierarchy baked-in. You can’t get to item #2 without covering item #1.

That’s what I’m like working on 5 projects

When juggling tasks I’m a like a distracted squirrel. My delusions of multitasking don’t help. Multitasking doesn’t work. I now know better, but my behavior doesn’t always agree. I feel the acute effect when working on a few projects that require a lot of research and data digging. When data crumbs from project #3 try to distract me from project #1 I tend to give in. Why? Getting distracted and still feeling productive is an awesome feeling. I need enforced hierarchy and prioritization of my tasks. There’s a reason why prioritization is the core of the GTD method.

The Accidental Creative

At the same time, a former manager shared a great book with me: The Accidental Creative. Man, I had grossly underestimated how much I’d end up using the tips in that book. The most important takeaway for me were the concepts of clustering similar tasks, reviewing your project plan often and whole life planning.

Enter Trello

I love Trello because I can zoom in to as granular a detail as I want and zoom out just as much to get the bird’s eye view. I first came across this great post about implementing the GTD in Trello which I then customized further. While I’ve always been a fan of GTD — implementing it seemed like a lot of work. Who wants to draw quadrants every single morning. What about tasks that don’t fall in any of the four quadrants? And it seemed like a very analog way of organizing — while that has its merits, I needed something that I could carry with me at any time and some place where I could add more things as and when needed without having to re-do my list.

Let’s do this

Setup

Sign up for Trello and create a new board. Create the following lists:

  • Priority
  • Inbox
  • Today
  • This Week
  • Waiting For
  • Done w/o <insert week here>
Trello lists

Download the app. I enter new tasks as and when they occur to me in the Inbox list. If you have an android phone — you can make this even smoother by adding a widget to your homescreen so you can add new things to the Inbox faster.

Your legend for the rest of the board.

Trello labels are very useful for their color coding too. In the priority list create the above four cards and give them a different color label. This is your legend for the rest of the board.

Instant input

I’m a big believer in buffer zones. I do the same for the research phase of my work. Scour through links and data to create a giant pile of raw information that I can parse through later. I find this useful for 2 reasons: you are more likely to identify connections between things when you see the whole collection in front of you and it’s easier to delay your decisions on something to later. I can just add it to the inbox list and let future-me decide.

Weekly triage

The Accidental Creative’s advice to block off an hour first thing on Monday morning is what I go for. I look at my Trello Inbox list and mark all the tasks with importance and urgency. Once this is done I move these items into the 3 different lists: Today, This Week & Later. I don’t fret over the number of cards in the others except for the ‘Today’ list. I try to not have more than 5 in there.

I use the importance and urgency of a task to sort it on the queue. Most important and urgent tasks on top and you can fill in the rest. The next consideration is clustering (another concept from The Accidental Creative). If there are 5 tasks all about sending short emails — I’ll cluster them together. It’s a great feeling — spend 15 minutes and move 5 whole tasks to the done section.

Review if you’ve completed all of the tasks from yesterday, see what tasks need to be removed, archived or added from the weekly list. Rinse. Repeat.

Extras

Deadlines

ConnieWonnie is my new favorite webcomic

No surprises: Deadlines help. Don’t overdo them. I’ve had little success with manufactured deadlines, so I only enter real ones. You can set a “due date” for any Trello card.

Decay

One of the new features I’ve been playing with is the time decay feature. It grays out tasks that have been around for 2 or 4 weeks. I use this as a good check every week. If a task has been in the “later” bucket for more than 3 weeks, does it need to move into “This Week” or can I just delete it altogether?

Locus & Focus

A lot of my work is about hours of digging through data, running queries, coding and collecting followed by bursts of connecting those datum into insights and then eventually packaging & positioning them the right way. Add the fact that I work across multiple industries and am a consultant to both internal teams and external clients. Each phase & project draws on different set of skills and energies.

This makes it very important for me never lose sight of the bigger picture. How are my internal teams and external clients seeing things differently? How are two seemingly disconnected industries more similar than people think? At the same time, the data heavy work needs absolute focus without distractions.

I usually go through productivity apps faster than a hungry gorilla goes through a banana bunch. Trello is the only one that stuck around. I’ve been using it for the past year to enhance everyday focus without losing sight of the locus of all that’s going on.