How to make a productivity system that works for you (Part 1)

Source: See-Ming Lee

When I started working after I graduated from university, I quickly realized that I had no sweet clue how to keep track of my schedule and responsibilities. I knew it was the thing that would make me sink or swim on the job. I started by learning about productivity and trying things out. I tried to-do lists, tried filling things into my daytimer, I tried different kinds of day-timers. I tried all-digital and all analog. Over the course of a few years I had figured a few things out. I read parts of David Allen’s Getting Things Done and found one thing to be shockingly true: open loops (ideas/thoughts floating around in your head) take up mental space/energy. Closed loops (writing things down in an inbox) freed up my brain for other things. Getting the systems to work for me has been an ongoing process.

So are you, like I was a few years ago, a complete noob at organizing your life? Have you figured some things out and not others? I still feel like both. Here are some things that I’ve come to understand about myself.

  1. I like writing things down.
  2. I like accessing them anywhere.
  3. I need to be able to think in Projects or Areas of responsibility (because it helps me manage my time).
  4. No matter how hard I try, doing everything digital doesn’t actually work for me, despite being a technophile and desperately wanting to be all-digital.
  5. Productivity stuff really helps but it’s still easy to let the processes run away from me.
  6. I haven’t found anything that’s 100% natural, and that’s probably natural.

The best combination I’ve come up with so far is:

  • Google Calendar where I keep my appointments (work and personal on the same one, my husband shares his calendar with me so I know when he’ll be home for supper etc.) and slot in times to work on things that are priorities/how I want to spend my time.
  • A list of projects/areas of responsibilities with ongoing To-Do lists associated.


Digital Calendar

I can’t seem to manage without the digital Calendar. I need reminders to be sent to my phone to start working on the next activity, or to leave to go to a meeting. I value the ability to be able to invite people to meetings or them schedule meetings with me and that seamlessly integrates into my calendar with little effort (I use Google invites or Doodle). I find it valuable to take 30-45 minutes to schedule my week at the beginning of the week to make sure priorities stay priorities and reduces decision fatigue because I need to decide “what’s next?” less. Some of these things can be done with an analog (paper) agenda. I personally like digital because I can move things around without it making my agenda page ugly.

Is a calendar right for you?

It’s surprising how much time we can waste. Having everything written in my calendar either before or after I do it helps me manage myself. Did I spend 15 minutes joking around with my coworkers? Did I only take 30 minutes to do the thing I had scheduled an hour to do? Did the metro break down and my meeting at UQAM get pushed back? Are these things patterns? I turns out I like to evaluate enough that this information is helpful to me. Plus, I just like to feel like I accomplished something at the end of the day and a calendar full of pink helps me see what I accomplished. If you agree you like those things, then you should try out using a calendar. If you’re not sure, give it a whirl for a few weeks and decide whether it’s helpful or not — NOT whether it’s easy or not.

To-do list of Project/Areas of responsibilities

Something I took away from Getting Things Done is the idea of Projects and Areas. In my job I can work from various different places on various different things. Tasks range from Administrative things (emails, phone calls, reimbursements) related to one project or another. Projects can be as simple as running an event or retreat or as complex as a month-long overseas trip involving smaller projects inside of it. When I can divide my brain into Université de Montréal responsibilities or UQAM responsibilities, or this staff or this website I can think through the next steps easier. When I plan my day out, I have a better idea of what I need to take along with me depending on where I’m working and what I need to do. This is less relevant for people who work at the same office every day. I don’t.

I’m still figuring out which is best for me on this one: digital or analog. Last year I found a system that worked pretty well that was on paper. I grew a bit tired of how I always had to carry this bulky thing along with me and was helpless if I forgot it. In September I tried out a new digital version of what worked last year (read about it here). It worked pretty well, but it required more work to maintain than I was used to in my paper version. I’m going to take some time to evaluate which is better for me in the long-run.

What about you?

As you start to figure out what does and does not work for you think about these things:

  • Do you need something portable? How portable?
  • Do you like striking things off a list?
  • Are you obsessed with digital things? (This doesn’t mean it works for you, I can testify to that!)
  • What has worked for you in the past?
  • Do you work with long-term projects or short term projects?
  • Do you work in different locations?

I’d love to hear your thoughts since I’m still learning about what works best for me. Leave a comment here and let me know what you swear by and what you’ll never try again!

EDIT: Check out Part 2: Analog/Digital and Part 3: What method? as well.
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