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How I (Sort Of) (Sometimes) Get Things Done

Posted in Thinking

Someone asked me to write up how my “productivity process” (such that it is) and I like writing so here we are.

My Goals

There’s been too much (virtual) ink dedicated to “productivity” as if being “productive” is a virtue in itself. This a capitalist fairytale. Don’t fall for it. I did for too long, thinking that getting more done would make me feel better about, well, anything.

Getting more done is not going to help anything.

Being able to focus, engage, and do the things you want to do can mean the world.

So I optimized for:

  • Building healthy habits that help me feel better about myself
  • Being present and helpful for my loved ones
  • Focus on whatever I’m doing (work or fun).
  • Using tools that make me happy to use them, but which are function-first.

If those aren’t want you need, cool! If those are what you need… sorry, my process may still be just for me. But maybe it’ll help.

The Core Tools

The main parts of my flow live in two tools: a notebook and a task app. But which ones matter. A lot.

Task App: OmniFocus

OmniFocus is the only task app worth considering if you use the platforms it’s on and can afford it. The rest of my advice may be my own nostalgia, but trust me on the sunscreen task app.

The killer differentiators from every other app for my needs:

  • Deferring tasks, meaning marking the time the task becomes available, not just when it’s due. Since I want to build habits I want to track lots of little tasks, but I want to focus only on the ones that matter. I want to be able to remind myself to take out the trash bin on Wednesday night, but I don’t want “Take out the trash bin” to be on my task list until Wednesday.
  • Strong repeat options, for much the same reason. I want to have a task to get to inbox 0 (more on that later) twice a day, but only on weekdays.
  • Strong search and data functions. It’s hard to explain completely, but as someone who works with computers I like that I can kind of see the data layer pushing up through the UI. This is very clearly a well-designed database, and seeing that makes it easy for me to build my own flows on top of it.

My OmniFocus Flow

The short version: track everything.

I have keyboard shortcuts on my laptops/desktops to bring up OmniFocus’s quick entry box so I can always add a task. On mobile I have a home screen widget to do the same (and show my current forecast, more on that later).

One failure mode for me early on with OmniFocus was tracking everything but doing nothing, so now I prioritize due dates. Basically there are three subsets of data in my OmniFocus:

  • Some tasks live in projects, which may or may not have due dates. A no-due-date project might be a game I’m working on, but my taxes have a due date.
  • Some tasks live in special paused tags for things like “books I want to read” or “birthday present ideas for my wife.” Not all of my tags are paused, but I do have a few special ones like that. Pausing makes the items in that tag unavailable, so that if I look at my inbox through the “available” filter I don’t see them. This is more or less against the intention of OmniFocus, but I use it anyway.
  • Everything else is a single task (maybe in a non-paused tag). And they all get due dates.

An important shift for me was moving from not putting a due date because I didn’t know when/if it needed to be done, to only tracking things I knew needed to be done and always deciding when they should be done.

I mostly live out of the forecast view which shows me the chronological view of tasks past, present, and future. I always aim to get to 0 past-due tasks, though I often live with some backlog.

Some examples of things I track:

  • Dishes (every day, available in the evening after dinner, due not long after)
  • Take out the garbage can (available Wednesday afternoon, due Wednesday evening, every week)
  • Reply to email from <x> (no recurrence)

OmniFocus is about building habits and making sure the things that make me feel good get done. My notebook is for focus.

Notebook: Field Notes

My notebook process started with the bullet journal idea, and as recommended I started with a Leuchttrum. It’s a great notebook, no doubt, but it was big and I could only carry it when I had a bag with me or had a free hand. And if I spilled coffee or something on it I was out a lot of pages.

So instead I went with Field Notes. They’re pocket-able, near-indestructible, and I can use one per month pretty easily. I prefer the pitch black memo book with dot-graph paper:

  • Memo book size fits cleanly in my pockets
  • Dot graph makes my note approach to indents feel more orderly
  • Black just looks cool

I use one a month, and generally am right down to filling it up. At some point maybe I’ll run out of space, but whatever, worth the tradeoff.

The pen part matters less, but since everyone getting into notebooks does what I did and gets a Lamy Safari I’ll offer my alternative: the Baron Fig Squire. I loved writing with a fountain pen and buying fancy ink, but as I moved towards ease-of-use over coolness I decided I wanted a small portable simple pen that was still well-designed. The Squire has great weighting, writes nice thick lines, and is easy to just stuff in a pocket. Plus I feel considerably less pretentious using one.

My Notebook Flow

The packaging for every 3-pack of Field Notes memo books has the slogan “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now” and that is exactly what my notebook is for. I optimize my notebook usage for making me be present, engage with information, and think about my life.

I started with the idea of a Bullet Journal and follow the simple version of the process from the website for quite a while, but eventually I drifted towards my own approach. In particular I found tasks in an app to be superior to paper, with the same for calendar. Those things just change too often to be in ink.

So, starting on the first page of my notebook on the first day of the month, I write the date (in ISO 8601 YYYY-MM-DD of course, like everyone should) and the three letter abbreviation for the day of the week on the first line. Then I note things until the day ends or I reach the end of the page.

The things I note are what happened and what I thought about <what happened/anything on my mind>.

Things that happen get an open dot to start the line (like this: ◦). Thoughts get a dash (so: –). This is basically the good parts of Bullet Journaling, IMO. You can do the whole Bullet Journal thing, sure, or you can just do these two things and never touch the rest of it and get most of the value.

When an event needs more detail (usually: an important meeting or a gaming session) it gets a top-level event entry, and the sub-events and sub-thoughts beneath it, indented one dot-grid box.

When a reach the end of a day, I skip a line, then add the ISO 8601 date and day of week abbreviation for the next day, and keep going.

When I reach the end of a page, the next page always starts with the date. If it’s a continuation I add “(continued)”. If an event crosses pages I re-state the event on the new page, under the date, also with “(continued)”.

Everything, work or personal, goes in the same notebook. This has been really useful for keeping myself in context. And it’s a big upside to a paper notebook where I don’t have to worry what 3rd party could have my work info—it’s on some paper that I have in my possession, no problem.

Index And Most Important Things (MITs)

I do maintain an index, a bit like Bullet Journal, but more focused on making me distill and remember days, plus setting some focus.

I’ll get to where I keep this info in a bit, but the two pieces are:

  • A list of days covered, what pages they are on, and any significant events on those days.
  • 1–3 “most important things” for the day. I number these and put each number in a box. When I do that thing I fill in the box.

The MITs are there to help me get started each day and decide ahead of time what I need to do instead of getting lost in whatever comes up. They can be anything, but most commonly are a chore, an email, a document to read/write/review, or an article to read. On some days when my calendar is particularly grim I write just one MIT: “Survive.”

The index of days helps me distill each day into what mattered most. I don’t write this for every day, but if something important happened I note it here. It also serves as a reference should I need to go back and look something up, but that’s pretty rare.

Initially I put the index on the first 2-page spread of my FieldNotes and used a notepad to set my MITs. But then FieldNotes released these cool date books which work perfectly for this, and now I use one of those.

My date book lives on my desk. If I need to go somewhere and take notes the date book doesn’t come along, just my journal. Everything still fits in a pocket.

Other Stuff

Having an approach to building positive habits and digesting things in the present is great, but there’s some other bits that go hand in hand for me.

The overall theme of my goals is attention, and our digital hellscape landscape is horrible about attention. To be able to apply my attention to things that matter to me I needed to reclaim it from negative habits I’d developed fostered by the attention economy.

Nobody wants yet another manifesto about how these things are bad, because they aren’t bad all the time for everyone. But they are for a lot of people, so here’s how I’ve reclaimed my attention:

  • Turn off notifications for anything that isn’t actually time sensitive. Only a handful of apps get to send me notifications at all, and I default every new app to no notifications.
  • Remove Facebook and Twitter from my home screen. Yeah, I still have accounts, and I post or read very occasionally, but these apps fine-tuned to draw in more activity and attention. Having them visible would remind me when I felt bored that I could go read an endless feed of things and mostly feel bad about them, or post something and feel bad that I wasn’t generating premium content everyone loves1. If I don’t see those apps eventually I stop thinking about them.
  • Craft my home screens to be the apps I want to spend time in. That’s a few apps around ‘productivity’ (calendar, OmniFocus, email), apps where I connect to just small groups of people I care about (Slack and Discord), or apps where I can read the things I always wish I was reading (various comic and ebook readers).

If you want to do more of what matters to you, you need to apply your attention, and you can’t do that when your attention is being sold off.

Putting It Together

I’m not sure this is a productivity process per se. Or at least this isn’t the kind of “solve all your problems by doing more” solution that we’re all offered. My approach is to feel better by doing less, but knowing what I do and why it matters to me. It’s ‘productivity’ by way of doing nothing.

Don’t fall for thinking that optimizing your output will benefit you. Find what you want in your life and do it thoughtfully. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about this from a religious and moral angle, but I think it applies as much to the capitalist ethos of output and productivity:

Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism in China, how much merit he had earned by building temples all over the country. Bodhidharma said, “None whatsoever.” But if you wash one dish in mindfulness, if you build one temple while dwelling deeply in the present moment—not wanting to be anywhere else, not caring about fame or recognition—the merit from that act will be boundless, and you will feel very happy.

Doing more will not earn you merit morally, it will not earn you happiness, whatever the world of consumption around you suggests. But doing your best and doing it in a way where you enjoy and process the moment you are in will reward you, and you will have more impact on those around you as well. Do less good work (as opposed to doing more work, but doing it not as well).

I’m not sure this approach is what anyone else is looking for, but it’s been useful to me. Maybe it can be for you too.

  1. That’s why my writing has moved long-form and to a light little blog I can run myself with no analytics. If I write for me I enjoy it, and I write things that others enjoy more. If I write for attention nobody enjoys it in the end. 

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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