Productivity for Humans: My System

No. Just no.

For your sake, I hope that you’ve never ventured into the wilds of the Productivity Internet. It is full of sages promising the world if you can learn to get up at 5:30am every morning, add butter to your coffee, and keep your inbox at the hallowed Zero.

For the record:

  • I’m convinced that all hours before 6am should count as nighttime.
  • I‘m against weird food hacks.
  • I reach Inbox Zero once a week if I’m lucky.
  • I still get enough done.

For me, prioritization is more important than structure. I’m more likely to work hard if I understand the importance of what I’m doing than if I’ve forced myself to sit in a chair until I’m productive. So I organize my life around related goals, starting at the yearly level and drilling down all the way to the daily level.

I’m sharing this not because anyone should mimic it exactly (this strategy is a personal hodgepodge), but because I hope someone will find it useful for organizing her own life. Here we go.

Yearly: Public, SMART Goals

To start the process, I sit down about once a year and think about what I’d like to get done that year. These goals can include anything I want to do that year, whether personal or professional. A good goal is:

  • Actionable. It must be possible, and my success must be measurable at the end of the year.
  • Exciting. I want goals that cause the flutter of nervousness in my stomach that’s correlated with personal growth.
  • Public. Knowing that other people know my goals motivates me to complete them. Nothing like the specter of humiliation to get you moving.

This system is inspired by the SMART Goals Framework. My current set of goals lives on this blog.

To ensure I’m on track, I review my goals and my progress monthly.

Weekly: Sunday Goals & Weekly Planning

Every week on Sunday, I sit down for about an hour and go through the following process:

  • Check in on my goals from last week. Did I complete them or not?
  • Do a reset. Zero my personal and work inboxes and review my spending for the week.
  • Make new goals for the upcoming week. I have a big bucket for work tasks, but also include goals for personal growth, financial health, fitness, and friend/wife/family “work” I want to do that week. This stuff is important too, and planning it helps me get it done.
  • Make a plan. Figure out roughly what should happen on each day to reach my goal.

Evernote is my primary tool for Weekly Goals. I have a starred note called “Weekly TODOs”, and each week, I copy the previous week’s goals into a new note with that week’s date (for posterity), and update my goals to be relevant to the current week. I refer to these goals about once a day, bolding goals I’ve achieved and making sure I’m moving forward.

For planning my week, I use a few tools:

  • My calendar. I like to block time for longer-form activities on my schedule. This reminds me to do the task, commits me to start at that time, and ensures I have enough time for the big chunks of work.
  • Todoist. I’ve become a big Todoist user over the past year — it’s a wonderfully simple to-do list app that also manages to have every feature I need. Most things I need to do go into Todoist. More about this on the daily level.
  • Papier. This is a Chrome extension that shows you the same page of notes each time you open a new tab. I lay out my main goal (or Commander’s Intent — see more below) for each day of the week. Each time I open a tab I’m reminded to focus my attention on what matters.

The Day to Day: Todoist & Commander’s Intent

At the beginning of the day, I look at three things: my Commander’s Intent for that day, my list of tasks in Todoist, and my calendar. I spend a few minutes adjusting things to make sure my goal is reasonable, and then it’s off to the races.

The Commander’s Intent is a trick from military planning. As we’ve all heard, no plan survives contact with the enemy (or your email inbox). The Commander’s Intent defines a successful mission: if you get one thing done today, what should that be? At the beginning of the day, the Commander’s Intent should look achievable with some breathing room left over.

I want to complete my Commander’s Intent each day, and if I’m lucky, knock off a list of secondary tasks. As tasks arrive, they go into Todoist, either assigned to today, assigned to a specific followup day, or without a date if they’re not important. That way I can free up mental space to concentrate on whatever problem is close at hand.

At the end of the day, I clean up my Todoist for the day, checking off everything I’ve completed and rescheduling everything else. Then I’m done.

In Conclusion…

Everyone is productive in different ways, but this is what works for me: an organized system with a lot of flexibility built in. I reliably achieve my goals, and when I don’t, I analyze why not and try to develop a fix for next time around.

Then I go have a drink and relax like a normal person :)

Have a suggestion for how to be more productive while also human? Would love to hear it — add a comment!

Product Manager, New York, fitness, food, laugh too much.