What method? How to find a productivity system that works for you (Part 3)

ActionMethod stationery featured here

So there are a few productivity methods out there. Some are really simple, other’s are more well-thought through. There are likely good things to glean from all of them. I’ll summarize a few here:

Getting Things Done (GTD)

This is a pretty well thought- through process (it’s kind of scary). I read half the book and started trying it. It’s got a lot of really good ideas. According to WikiSummaries, the book is divided into three parts. “Part 1 provides an outline for getting control of your life through the five stages of mastering workflow: collection, processing, organizing, reviewing and doing. Part 2, which is well over half the book, repeats a lot of what is said in Part 1, but provides much more detail on the application of Allen’s methodology. Part 3 explains why Allen’s methods work and the benefits to be gained from using his approach.”

The part I find most helpful from this book is his underlying philosophy: “Allen’s philosophy is that to be one’s most productive self, one must be able to think clearly. In order to think clearly, one must have completely downloaded from one’s short-term memory or RAM (like computer RAM) all the “open loops” — unfulfilled commitments one has made to oneself. This frees the mind to do naturally what it does best — think about things rather than of things” (WikiSummaries).

Collecting: putting everything that comes to your mind to do in an Inbox. That could be a FieldNotes book that is always in your back pocket like the way my brother does it. It could be an Evernote note called “Inbox” or note on your smartphone. It’s the place you write down everything that you will ever need to do, might need to do, want to do even if it’s sometime in the future.

Processing: the regular time you take to review the things in your inbox and do them/process them. When processing your inbox, if the next item on the list will take less than 2 minutes you do it immediately before moving it. I was actually angry when I started doing this because it was causing some serious cognitive dissonance. My heart wanted to procrastinate but my brain wouldn’t let me!

If you want to know more you can read the WikiSummary, check out this article on 43Folders.com, read anything LifeHacker.com has to say about it.

Action Method

The Action Method is made by creatives for creatives so if your mind is less systems oriented, this might work for you. Or, if you just like pretty things, you’ll probably like this one too. It operates on the same principle of GTD as having to-do items connected to different projects. You can read more about it/see the apps or paper goods here.

Getting Sh*t Done (GSD)

This one is a stripped down version of GTD. Bill Westerman was sick of his Palm Pilot stilus and too overwhelmed by GTD method and the pretentiousness of Moleskine (and the hipsterness of the hipster PDA) that he accidentally developed his own system using a grid journal and pen. He starts by dumping all of the things he needs to do that day onto the list. Then he refers to the previous day’s list and adds what hasn’t been finished the day before. He then processes the list by adding markings to indicate priority. You can see a more detailed (including pictures) explanation here.


Two columns of to-do items, the left column is regular tasks, the right column is urgent. See more here including pictures and find all his posts about it here.

Dave Lee’s Productivity System (for creative/innovators who get bogged down by GTD)

Taken from his post explaining why GTD sucks for creative work:

“Most task/to-do software is based around the concept of projects and tasks. It’s really too bad. The tendency is to fill up your task software with dozens of projects and tasks under each project. But the more you look at your projects and tasks every day for the next few weeks, it gets discouraging. It feels like a never-ending river of stress.

The most important thing for the creative innovator is not a ton of tasks to do but rather the ability to see what’s important to focus on and to focus on that deeply. The creative innovator needs to go deep on a feature or issue, and the deeper they go the more creativity they unleash.. thus creating lots of value to the end user.”

  1. He breaks down his week into daily focuses that are the same each and every week. He’s chosen the five most important areas in his business and focus on them, one per day.
  2. He chooses his three most desired outcomes for that week. This gives him a goal and vision for his week.
  3. He chooses his three most desired outcomes for the day at the beginning of the day. All three outcomes should be related to your focus of the day.

He has a bunch more steps on that page if you want to know more, and a few more other posts that explains in more detail how it works.


If you’re a real beginner I’d suggest GSD or SuperFocus. If you want something more robust, then start looking into these other ones. Remember: it takes practice and time to develop the habit of putting your system in place. It can take a few years of trying and evaluating to get it right, that’s OK! Three years right now can serve you a lot more in twenty-five years than if you never try anything.

So out of this list, which methods have you tried? Which ones are you interested in trying? Or do you now have enough ideas to figure something out for yourself? Leave a comment here and let me know!

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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