[I know I keep making references to in-progress articles on habits and planning that are supposedly in the works. They’re almost ready for release, I promise! (Worse case: 2 weeks from now.) In the meantime, here’s a practical productivity-oriented post to tide you over.]
I use a variety of different tools and several routines to keep track of all the things happening in my brain. My general philosophy is to “outsource” my thoughts as much as possible so that I remove things that eat away at my attention. This way, I’m focused mostly on the present.
For ease of organization, I’ve broken up the rituals/tools I use into five different categories:
- Reminders (stuff I want Future Owen to remember)
- Thoughts (musings on things that I want to record)
- To Do List (TDL) (actual things I want to get done)
- Productivity (auxiliary things that help me finish my TDL)
- Reflection (high-level view of how I’m doing across all areas)
Each subsection will focus on my general thoughts on the specific section, followed by the tools/rituals.
I’m quite distrustful of my brain. Whenever I stash a thought away, thinking, “I’ll remember it when the time comes,” I almost never actually remember it. As a result, I take a fairly overkill approach to making sure that I remember things. My motto for reminders is to take note of something immediately after I think of it.
For short-term things that come up in just a few days, I’ll send an email to myself. Gmail has a nice unread-first feature that makes it easy to see what things I need to do at a glance.
If it’s even more immediate, I’ll resort to using index cards cut in half, which I’ll either slip under my watch or in my pocket.
For upcoming events, I use Google Calendar. It’s a good way to keep track of events happening that are a little later down the pipeline.
Here’s my calendar for December 2016:
Similar to reminders, I think it’s a good idea to write down your thoughts once they appear in your head. I have a physical repository of thoughts, which is in a notebook, and a digital repository, which is on Google Keep.
Throughout the day, I usually carry a pen in my pocket, and my notebook is close at hand.
Here is what notes in my notebook look like:
Here is what my Google Keep looks like:
To-Do Lists (TDL):
I use Workflowy for mapping out tasks and subtasks. I think that to-do lists are the cornerstone of any optimal Getting Things Done (GTD) system. The reason is pretty simple—it’s hard to achieve your goals unless you’ve figured out which actions advance your goal.
For the nitty-gritty details, I use a paper schedule (in its own separate planning notebook). Actually, I merge a paper schedule with a to-do list, so I end up both scheduling and assigning action items at the same time.
I started off loving schedules, but a period of not-scheduling left an aversion to planning in my head. A quick fix that works for me now is to just set a 5 minute timer and try to finish my schedule before then. It’s fast and it doesn’t feel like it slows me down.
Here is what my Workflowy looks like for an old project:
Here is what my paper schedule looks like:
I don’t block any sites, but I do use Kill News Feed for Facebook on Chrome to avoid distracting wall posts.
I should probably also mention that I don’t use pomodoros. I tried it for a while, but it didn’t feel right for me. Instead, I just work on a thing for as long as I can. If I feel restless, I’ll just listen to that part of me and wander around for a few minutes until I feel like I want to do work again.
My single favorite tool is probably Toggl. It’s a cloud-based online timer that syncs across all devices. I can start a task and track how long it takes me.
It might sound a little silly, but having the timer running in the corner of my browser is a really great mental reframe for entering “work mode”. It’s also just good for getting info on how many hours I spend on different things.
Here’s a picture of my recent Toggl activity:
Other than that, I’ve found the Android app White Noise Generator by Relaxio to be really awesome. There’s 10 noises, including railroads, coffeehouses, and the ocean, that you can mix and match to get something appealing in the background.
Also, I tend to drink quite a bit of water when working. I end up having to go quite often, but this seems to be good because it naturally breaks things up…(Your mileage on this one may vary.)
I tend to talk to myself a lot. I think this ends up being reflected in the self-reflection things I do.
First off, I’ve been journaling daily for about 2.5 years now. I’ve found this good for charting how my states of mind have changed over time.
In terms of “check-ups”, I make a monthly goals spreadsheet every month, and I review it every Wednesday with a status update. It’s mainly a way to remind myself of what I’d wanted to get done, and I can see how far I’m getting to actually doing them.
Here’s August 2016’s goal sheet:
I also do the same thing for every year (with monthly check-ins).
Lastly, there’s blogging! I write every week here on mindlevelup, and I try to use it a focal point for distilling my thoughts that are more rationality-related. Time-wise, most posts take me on average 1.5 hours.
Those are all the things for now.
Even though listing them all down like this looks like a lot, they’re all fairly ingrained in my schedule, so it doesn’t feel like a burden. I also don’t claim that the benefit of any of these tools is very large, or that they’ll work well for you.
If you had to just pick one item, I’d say the to-do list is best for efficiency and the journaling is best for introspection boosts. I probably wouldn’t recommend trying all of them at the same time, though. But if any one of these seem interesting, do give it a try!