A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called An overview of my planning and productivity system in 2019. I was discussing it with a couple of people last week and thought it was probably about time that I updated it to reflect how things have evolved during that time.
During the last few years, my basic tools have not changed. As I said in my last post, for a long time I tried to limit myself to using only one task management application. I would periodically switch between Trello and something else (Outlook tasks, Wunderlist, Todoist). Eventually, I realised that I could use different tools for different jobs. For me, a good organisation system should enable you to do the following, and this is what I use:
- Capture, clarify and prioritise
- Plan, schedule and track tasks
- Google Calendar
- Reference documents and file storage
Capture, clarify and prioritise
At the heart of my capture system is Todoist.
Any idea that I have, if someone asks me to do something, if I have an email to reply to or text message that I think I will forget about, it immediately goes into my Todoist inbox.
I can use Todoist on my smartphone, in a browser, in the desktop application. I can use Amazon Alexa with Todoist: “Alexa, add peanut butter to my shopping list.” “Alexa, add wash windows to my to do list.” I then have If This Then That (IFTTT) rules set up to move these items from the default Alexa lists to my Todoist 🛒 Groceries list and Inbox list, respectively.
I have Todoist for Firefox which allows me to quickly add the current website to my to do list (great for both tasks and articles I want to read later). I use Todoist for Gmail that will turn any email into a task; I don’t use this as often as starred messages in Gmail but it has been very useful for reminding myself about
Any time that I hear myself say, “I need to…” or “I need to remember…”, I immediately add it to Todoist. It doesn’t matter how big or small that task is. That is where I capture almost everything.
I also have my shopping list in Todoist because of the flexibility of being able to add things via the app or Alexa and having it synchronised before I get to the supermarket.
Clarify and prioritise
Key to the clarification and prioritisation stage of my system is my weekly review.
This regular appointment with myself allows me to review my goals and prioritise what I need to do during the next week.
I aim to do this every Sunday evening, although occasionally it does move to a Saturday or Monday, depending on my commitments.
I have an agenda for my weekly review:
First, I review the past week. Did I complete what I had planned? What went well? What didn’t go well and why? I find the Asian Efficiency TEA framework of time, energy and attention useful here: which of these was lacking? What can I learn from this going forward?
If there are any incomplete tasks in my calendar, I will capture these in Todoist. I’ll also take this opportunity to ensure that any other tasks are in Todoist, e.g. phone messages, text messages, emails, etc. I’ll check the calendar too—what is coming up, events, birthdays, anniversaries? My aim here is to have everything in one place to be triaged.
The next two steps are a bit of a to and fro activity. I will usually work with Todoist and Trello open side by side.
Next, I will review my goals for this quarter, to remind myself of what I am aiming for. What are my priorities? These are in Trello, in a project called Planning.
I used to manage these in OneNote pages but I moved to Trello as I preferred to see each project visually as a card and move them around to prioritise them.
Some ideas in Todoist will be simple tasks that will take between five minutes and a couple of hours, some will be small projects with many sub-tasks. I don’t have any hard and fast rules about how I manage these but I tend to manage the smaller tasks in Todoist and the larger tasks and projects in Trello.
I will manage simple projects in the planning board; for larger more complex projects I will create its own Trello project and link to it in the planning board and affix a Trello icon sticker to remind me that it has its own board.
On the planning Trello board, I prefix each card with one of three titles:
- LIFE—general life admin projects that will affect business as usual, if you like, e.g. moving to a new utility company or chaning my car.
- PROJECT—these are larger, personal projects like writing my book or scanning Mum and Dad’s photos.
- OTHERS—these are projects that I am involved in for other people, e.g. building a new website for a friend or church work.
First, are these projects still relevant? If so, I adjust the priority by reordering them. For each project, I capture strategic next actions in Todoist or directly into Google Calendar.
Next, I will return to Todoist and clarify and prioritise the tasks there. I find the 4 Ds useful: Do, Defer, Delegate, Delete.
- Do: if they are quick, two-minute tasks I will often just do them there and then.
- Defer: if they take longer then I will defer them. Some are projects, so I move these into my Planning Trello board. Some I will schedule straight into my calendar to be done on a particular date. Or I will add a target date to the task in Todoist. Some I will group together in a new list to be done during a scheduled block of time. Others may be added to a Someday Oneday list of projects that I also keep in Trello.
- Delegate: a few tasks can be delegated to someone else.
- Delete: Others get no further than the inbox, they are not important or urgent, and they don’t support my goals so I just delete them.
As part of the prioritisation task, I will also try to estimate how long each task will take to complete. I will often update the task to include my estimate in hours, e.g. Scan and file car documentation (0.5).
Some of these ideas in Todoist may be small projects that I want to manage in Trello rather than as tasks in Todoist. During this stage, I will move these projects into Trello and prioritise these along with everything already there.
My lists in Todoist are now:
- 1:1 Friends
- Waiting for…
- 01 January
- 02 February
With all that done, I am now confident that I have captured all that I want to do, what I have been asked to do and what my strategic priorities are. It is time to plan my week.
Plan, schedule and track
I use what I’ve learned about my priorities in Todoist and Trello, and the lessons learned from looking back at my previous week, and I start to block out my calendar, also bearing in mind the TEA framework.
Over the years, I have found that I am most productive when I block out chunks of time in my calendar to do similar tasks.
For example, I might block out 30 minutes to reply to emails, or an hour to do the various bits of life admin that come in (submit gas and electricity meter readings, review home insurance, scan and file documentation, etc.).
Sometimes, once I have blocked out the task in my calendar, I will remove it from Todoist. Othertimes, I might just create a block called ‘Life admin’ and group those items in a list in Todoist and schedule them for the due date. I’m quite flexible about doing this and just go with what feels best.
I also try to ensure that each day isn’t just back to back tasks. I like to keep some free time to allow me to relax (I’m really not good at that) or have some slack to pick up other priorities or opportunities that come up during the week, or to move blocks that I have already planned because maybe I’m too tired to do it on Tuesday but I can move it to Wednesdsay evening. I like that flexibility.
With my calendar blocked out, I feel confident that the most important things will get done this week.
Reference documents and file storage
The last part of my productivity system is my reference system. For this, I rely on Dropbox and OneNote.
I store all documentation in OneNote—anything that would normally be stored in a filing cabinet. I have a very specific taxonomy which also mirrors the categories in my physical filing cabinet and Dropbox:
Having everything in OneNote makes it really easy to keep on top of all my documentation. Everything is searchable, although my information architecture skills are not bad. It means that I have everything with me on my phone or my laptop when I am away from home. I really wouldn’t want to return to a paper-based system again.
I store all other files in Dropbox. I try as much as possible to mirror the categories in OneNote, so if I have complementary files I can find them more easily.
I have a few other files in Google Drive, but these are almost all working files that require spreadsheet capabilities (like health logs, work timesheets and annual leave tracking). I would love OneNote to introduce some basic spreadsheet capabilities to tables which would eliminate my reliance on Google Drive.
And that, more or less, is how I am managing my responsibilies and projects in 2021.