I've spent a lot of time and effort assessing various productivity workflows. From Trello, to pen and paper, to custom tooling and CSV files. I've never managed to settle on one tool to manage my busy work loads. As someone who has a busy full time position, in a high growth AI company, who also does 10 or so hours of freelance work a week, along side many other personal projects. It became crucial but difficult to track what I needed to do each day, as well as any ideas I came up with or wanted to investigate further. I also have a habit of letting hundreds of browser tabs fester for weeks. To the point I regularly run out of ram and disk space off the back of all the ram and swap memory being consumed by my browser. As someone who has recently being diagnosed as having ADHD, I knew it was vital for me to find a solution to some of these problems.
The first problem I encountered was visibility. I'd often write things down, plan out my day in a planner, or in Trello perhaps. Then close the book, leave it somewhere. Or lose my Trello tab among all the other tabs. Out of sight out of mind. It's as though all that planning never happened, because I'd never look at it again. Or I might remember for a day or two before things slipped out of my mind again. Back to freestyling and trying to remember everything again.
A friend from work recommended an app called Bear to me, it was great for writing notes, it's essentially a Markdown editor, with some really powerful tagging, categorisation and searching tools. I would occasionally write some notes down in Bear, perhaps save a few links of articles I'd read and found important. Occasionally I'd jot a quick todo list down in there as well. I noticed that I'd come back to this app to find a link or some notes, and I'd suddenly remember my todo list, which I'd see listed among the list of notes in the side bar. I would accidentally stumble across my todo lists again, and I'd update them more often. Don't get me wrong, if I didn't save any links or write any notes for a while, the todo list would be plunged back into obscurity again.
By the way, this isn't a sponsored plug for Bear, you can use any Markdown editor!
But this got me thinking, what if I simply used this app more, relied on it in a more structured way? Would I keep reminding myself of my todo lists for example? Around this time I read a thread on Hacker News, of someone asking what they used for their productivity and todo lists etc. Overwhelmingly, people seemed to swear by text based solutions. Text files and an editor, some proprietary text formats specifically for note taking and todo lists, that happen to work well with Emacs etc. Some just used Markdown. Something else I noticed, was that people would keep their notes and ideas alongside their todo lists. Which confirmed what I had already suspected. If you keep everything in one place, rather than using fractured solutions and services, you're more likely to keep coming back to the same place.
I realised I had the perfect app staring me in the face for this. Bear is just Markdown at the end of the day, if I wanted to use something else, I could just export the data and do that. But Bear has really nice tagging and searching functionality, as well as being really nice to use.
The next problem I found was I didn't really have a format. I'd have some notes, so ideas, some todo lists, but they still weren't really together.
At this point I started reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, and there were some behaviours I wanted to change, that I wanted to be constantly reminded of. So I realised I had another piece of important information I wanted to be exposed to frequently. Behaviours. Which made me consider how I might structure my day, combining all of these key points. So I came up with the following:
I create a new entry in Bear for the week, the title is just
13/04/2020 - 20/04/2020 for example. Then I have:
## Monday ### Behaviours - Set aside some time for deep work, turn off Slack and put your phone on do not disturb. ### Aims - Progress freelance work, solve one of the challenging problems - Reduce browser tabs ### Todo - D - Spend a couple of hours on Rust learning project - S - Reply to X persons email - S - Tidy second bedroom ### Content Read [link] - Article on Kubernetes - this was useful for X project, because of... #kubernetes #architecture #xproject
As you can see I just list each day in that week under a sub-header, with a few more sub-headers. I'll go through each and explain the format. First of all behaviours, these are habits I might be trying to form, such as being less distracted by notifications, setting aside some time for more focused work for example. Or it could be something that might benefit me more personally or none work related, like drink more water. These are the first thing I see for each day, I put them at the top because I believe these should create a general framework of productivity, which everything else benefits from.
Next I list some aims, these aren't 'todos', more, themes for example. Areas of research or work I feel I might be behind on or want to get into good standing. These can be vague, such as 'progress freelance work'. This is especially useful for things your procrastinating on. Jordan Peterson was once talking about procrastination, in the context of mental health, but it's generally applicable I think. He said something along the lines of, 'ask yourself the question, what's the minimum I'd be prepared to drag my wretched self to do on this today'. An aim can be that, just aim to make some progress on this today. Sometimes that's the hardest part, just picking that problem up, you might be deferring it because you don't know something and you're not sure how to move forward. So that progress might be asking someone a question, or just spending an hour looking at just that problem. Sometimes that can make a world of difference and make that piece of work feel easy again. So I keep aims vague, I try not to set a hard goal, because it opens up the door for failures too easily. If I want to complete a specific task, I save that for todos.
You'll notice I'm prefixing my todo items with a capital S or D, these are a recent addition since reading Deep Work. They aim to split tasks into two categories. Shallow work and deep work. Shallow work doesn't mean shallow as in meaningless or crass. It just means work that you don't need to deep dive your time and focus into. Shallow work can be meaningful, but it can be distracting and prevent you from actioning the more cognitively challenging work. Shallow work might be meetings, responding to emails, slack messages, etc. Things that don't require a lot of undivided attention to complete. Deep Work made me realise that, my deep work was constantly having to battle with a steady stream of 'bitty' tasks, which I'd even actively exploit in order to procrastinate the more difficult tasks, under the guise of being 'available' and 'connected'. But that's not really where my true value lies. So I categorise my tasks, and aim to clear our any 'shallow' tasks, to free up a block of time and space to focus on the more focus intensive tasks. Where I can turn off Slack and put my phone in silent.
Another mistake I've made in the past is to list absolutely every minute task for that day. Which is hard to keep track of, and you tend to feel dejected by the amount of incomplete tasks listed against your day. However, most of those tasks turned out to be inconsequential or trivial. I was watching an FunFunFunction video with MPJ, who is someone I've drawn a lot of inspiration from over the years, and someone who's talked about productivity in a number of videos. One idea that really struck a chord with me that he mentions, is to list todo items, that if you were to complete, would make your day great. Even if it's just two or three things, if you can lie in bed at night and think "I'm glad I got those two things done", then they were probably the most useful things you could have completed. Aim to not let tasks that weigh on your mind continue into new days. Finally on todo items, I tend to group my work todo actions, any freelance, and none work related items into that same list. This is so that I'm constantly looking in the same place and not flitting between different apps.
Finally, I have a sub-heading for 'content'. One problem I had with trying to track the probably hundreds of articles I get through each week, is storing them for later. First of all I had to learn to stem the flow, I had to be more conscious, and more honest about what I intended to read or not. To ask myself 'is this really relevant?', and close those down (or don't open the in the first place). This helped, but I still had hundreds of tabs floating around, slowing my computer down. I would also store articles to Pocket and bookmarks, which I'd forget about. Pocket, I would pick off a few if I was bored waiting for a train or something. But bookmarks, I'd basically never ever open again. So each day I aim to pick off a few articles to read. Which I'd list under the
content heading, shown above. Once I've read the article, I write a quick summary of what it was about and how it's applicable to something I'm working on or interested in, as well as any comments/ideas off the back of that article. I use Bears tagging to include a few hash tags, so I can later look back on any articles I've read on a given topic.
This can also be books, and videos etc. With books, even if I haven't finished them, I might note down important sections or ideas from them across multiple entries.
Another problem I faced was simply starting my day without planning at all. Hoping the important things would crop enough that I'd remember to do them. Or trying to memorise (usually woefully) everything. Now I try to take 10 minutes before I do anything else each day, to consider properly what I need to do that day.
This isn't fool proof, I still have (many) days where I've slept badly, woken up late, missed stand-up, forgotten to open Bear and tried to wing a few tasks off the top of my head. But I've found with a simple, all in one place approach, it's easy to recover from these blips, rather than them becoming the norm, because the friction to get back to a good state again is too high when I'm already riding a wave of chaos. I hope you can find something useful in this post, it's something I've put a lot of time and thought into, hopefully I can save at least someone the journey themselves.