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4 Steps to a Simple, No-Fail Productivity System

You can spend the rest of your time on Earth searching for the One True Productivity app.

There are thousands available. It’s easy to get stuck in a thankless loop of trying and abandoning them.

This isn’t just frustrating, it’s stressful.

I’ve been there. But over the years, I’ve developed a productivity system that’s simple, flexible, and effective. And it’s not based on any proprietary service.

It adapts the ideas of several productivity books like “Getting Things Done” and “18 Minutes.” But it’s not slavish to them.

My productivity system has just four elements:

  1. Master list of all major ongoing projects in Google Docs, broken down into major milestones as subheadings.
  2. An easily accessible list for capturing and minimally organizing to-dos on the go.
  3. A place to schedule to-dos off the list.
  4. 10 – 15 minutes per day dedicated to manually evaluating, organizing, and scheduling tasks.

The last item is the most important. My system isn’t automatic. It requires a small amount of daily management.

How it Works

As I go through my day, I’m constantly adding items to Todoist. I use app instead of others because it opens fast. My biggest fear with to-do’s isn’t completing them – it’s forgetting them. I need to capture them as they pop up.

I used to capture to-dos in an Evernote note. I liked the simplicity of that, but Todoist is better, even though I only use a fraction of its features. Also, Todoist integrates with all my Command apps – the core apps I access multiple times per day, like email and Google Calendar.

Some people intensively segment and organize their to-do list. Because I review and schedule my to-dos daily, I find it a waste of time to create elaborate lists with reminders, subtasks,  multiple tags, etc.

I just need to know what to do this week, next week, or someday. (Now and then, “someday” items move into my “this week” or “next week” list. Just as often, I delete them entirely.)

At the end of every day, I review my to-do list.

By the end of the day, my to-do list is a mess of unsorted items captured on-the-go. So I spend a couple of minutes categorizing items into the “this week,” “next week,” or “someday” lists. I don’t use many tags, but I do tag tasks by project or client.

The thing that takes the most time is breaking down large projects into smaller tasks. 

Then I set priorities for the next day.  Some people like to do this every morning; I prefer to organize my to-dos and schedule at the end of the day.

I choose five-must-do items per day. These are five things I must accomplish to be successful. This is based on a couple of concepts:

I then open Google Calendar and organize my day’s schedule around those five essential tasks.

Not all of the five tasks are equally important. Usually only one or two is truly critical, so I schedule those first and most generously.

As Kevin Kruse notes on Fast Company, “In all my research, there is one consistent theme that keeps coming up. Ultra-productive people don’t work from a to-do list, but they do live and work from their calendar.”

I rarely have to use reminders with this system. When I do set reminders, I do it directly in Google Calendar (which has a great reminder system).

As Daniel Markovitz wrote years ago in Harvard Business Review:

“The alternative to the feckless to-do list is what I call “living in your calendar.” That means taking your tasks off the to-do list, estimating how much time each of them will consume, and transferring them to your calendar. (Don’t forget to leave time to process your email. And leave some empty space — one to two hours — each day to deal with the inevitable crises that will crop up.) In essence, you’re making a production plan for your work.”

This system is far from automatic. It requires management and setting priorities. But until apps can actually do our work for us (which is coming), this system has been best for me.

What works for you? Share your system and we’ll cover it in a future edition of AgendaVT!

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