Back in 2012, I made a leap in my career, going from field-ops to project management. I was quickly overwhelmed by the number of tasks I had to manage. Out of necessity, I began to research personal productivity. Since then, the topic has remained something of a personal obsession for me (I suspect my co-workers wish I’d shut up about it every now and then).
Over the years, I’ve experimented with a ton of different approaches to help me stay organized, keep stress to a minimum, stay focused on what matters, and generally…well…get things done. In this post, I thought I’d share a handful of tools and tactics that I currently find the most helpful.
“An all-in-one workspace for your notes, tasks, wikis, and databases.”
As the tagline implies, the idea behind Notion is to reduce the insane number of browser tabs and apps we have to use to manage our day-to-day work. It is a tough tool to conceptualize as it’s probably unlike anything you’ve ever used before. The term I most like to use when I describe Notion is “repository.”
Notion works phenomenally well for capturing and organizing information. Examples include notes, links, pictures, and much more. At OneVision, it has become our go-to tool for managing work in progress (think: project management, backlog tracking, sprint planning, etc.), providing us with a highly flexible set of tools for assigning and tracking tasks across the company. We have also found that it works exceptionally well for creating internal documentation — “wikis” — for our systems and processes. And who couldn’t benefit from better documentation?
If this app intrigues you, I highly recommend searching for Notion on YouTube. There are lots of great videos that will help you get your head around this powerful app and how it can help you and your team get organized. They also offer a personal plan for free. What have you got to lose?
Check it out at Notion.so.
“Free up your mental space.”
As much as I love Notion, one of the things I have found that it is not very good at is acting as what I call a personal “microtask” manager. By “microtask” I am simply referring to tasks that take 5 minutes or less. Notion’s reminder functionality also leaves a bit to be desired. That’s why I’m a big proponent of using a separate, standalone app to manage these “microtasks” and reminders. For that purpose, I currently use Todoist.
Task management apps are commoditized enough these days that I won’t belabor the core functionality. Suffice it to say it does everything you’d expect from a task management app. As far as specific features I like about Todoist, one that jumps to mind is “quick add” functionality using Intelligent text recognition. So, for example, I can simply type, “Follow up re: project scope at 7am tomorrow #OneVision.”
The sentence above creates the task, sets a reminder for 7:00 AM tomorrow, and assigns it to the project “OneVision.” I’m always looking for any efficiency gains I can find in my workflow and I love how this function allows me to quickly capture tasks without my hands ever having to leave the keyboard.
Other features that I love about Todoist include:
- The ability to create recurring tasks
- Beautifully designed apps for Mac and iOS
- Great keyboard shortcuts
- Slick integrations with Gmail and Slack
Give it a look at todoist.com.
“Yes. He just said ‘calendar.’”
I know what you’re thinking — “I came to this article to learn about productivity tools, and you’re wasting my time talking about calendars?! It’s true, there’s nothing sexy about calendars. But give me a chance here…
I’ve heard it said that if you want to get a good idea about someone’s priorities, look at how their time is spent. Yet I’m consistently surprised by the number of people I talk to who don’t use any sort of time blocking. If you don’t have control of your time, how on earth can you expect to be more productive? This becomes especially important if you’re in a role where others have the ability to schedule obligations on your behalf. In those cases, using blocks on your calendar to protect time for focused work is imperative.
I would argue that effective time management is the bedrock of any productivity system.
- If you want to be more productive, get control of your time
- If you want to get control of your time, manage your calendar
I’m not going to recommend a specific calendar app because, frankly, any calendar app will work (I simply use Google’s standard calendar interface). Instead of discussing specific software, I want to share two tips I have found effective in getting a better grip on my time:
Schedule two weeks out: If you are routinely trying to find time to focus on a big task or project, start working at least two weeks out on your calendar. Too many of us fall into the trap of only looking at the current week on our calendar. Perhaps on Thursday or Friday, we take a peek at the following week, but our view rarely extends beyond that. By this time, it is often already too late to carve out the time you need.
To counter this, I have made the act of scheduling my own focus blocks two weeks out as part of my weekly close-out ritual. It consistently amazes me the difference that this simple habit has made in my ability to be more proactive about how my time gets spent.
Color-code your calendar: I use different colors to code different event types on my calendar. For example, green is for focus blocks, blue for one-off meetings, gray for standing meetings, red for unconfirmed obligations, yellow for personal obligations, and so on. This allows me to assess at a glance how my time is being spent. For example, am I striking an appropriate balance between periods of isolated focus and periods of time to be available to meet with teammates? Are there meetings I’m still waiting to hear back from others on?
As an aside, some people use multiple different calendars for this. With few exceptions, I prefer to keep everything on one calendar. I find the use of extra calendars unnecessarily burdensome.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with dozens of different systems and apps. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that a perfect productivity solution does not exist. Every person is different. Every job is different. Every situation is different. Even individual preferences and work styles change (my own productivity system evolves regularly). If you end up experimenting with any of the above tools and tactics, or if you have other suggestions, I’d love to hear from you! Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!