Staying on-top of "things"
Life is complicated. There are a lot of moving parts and staying on-top of it all can be overwhelming. Here are some things that help me.
Some key themes:
- Make my brain work as little extra as possible
- Whatever I do should be sustainable or able to be improved incrementally
- Be aware of my time and say “No” to things
- Balance efficiently using my time and money
- Being aware of and trying to limit environmental impact
- Our lives (time), resources (money, space, energy), and opportunities are finite. Limited.
Staying “Organized” Link to heading
I’m a big fan of Marie Kondo books and I based a lot of my personal habits and systems around her ideas.
- Everything needs a place it is supposed to be.
- The places things go should not be used to simply hide them as clutter
- Keep only the things which “Spark Joy”
- If something should be kept just in case, or because getting again is expensive or impossible, have a dedicated way of handling it.
Points 1 and 2 are mainly ways to limit the amount of decisions when cleaning things up. It helps when I am trying to regain some sanity on my Desk in particular.
To only keep things which Spark Joy you have to have a sense for what that means (to you). One way of putting it is things which provide value to you. You have to separate the value they gave you in the past from what value it gives you now. Things you need for work are valuable the same as things which make you happy. However, you need to be intentional about whether this thing, not a category, still Sparks Joy.
When thinking of things you’ll use in the future: You have a limited amount of time in this world. Hopefully it’s a full life, but (not to get really dark here…) it may not be. Will you ever watch those movies again? Will it matter that you have a special copy? Will anyone look at these photos again? It takes time, effort, and money to keep things around.
And I think you still need to consider the cost of giving away or trashing something. Maybe the thing is irreplaceable
Productivity starts with “Why?” Link to heading
Unless you have a goal or outcome in mind it’s difficult to tell if what you’re doing is actually productive or not. First there are your values (e.g. Being healthy, being a good spouse or parent, maintaining meaningful friendships) which are really more like areas to keep maintained over time. Then there are your long term personal and career strategies and goals which ideally are aligned with your values.
Sometimes if you have a particular goal that is big or complex enough you can break that out into it’s own thing and link to it from your work or personal strategies.
Writing these as documents makes it much easier to refer to them during a weekly review where you can use them to help guide what you’re spending your time on. It depends on your job, but typically quarterly or by semester/season is a good time to spend the time to refresh and overhaul them if needed.
Dealing with projects and tasks Link to heading
Once you have a sense of what direction you’re going in we can return to the weekly/daily problems of your current set of projects and tasks.
To be productive in any creative or thinking roles we need Focus. And so that makes it super important to make sure that we:
- Get everything out of our heads
- Our brain believes the system will work and relaxes your subconscious/monkey-brain from worrying about this.
Planner, Calendar, and Todo list Link to heading
Use a calendar and todo list for your day to day activities. I personally use a mix of Google Calendar at work with iCloud Calendar and Tasks in my personal life.
But for planning and managing your projects I recommend using another app. I’ve used at different times Notion, Apple Notes, Obsidian, Workflowy, AirTable, and Trello for this. I currently use a mix of a git repo + Obsidian and Notion.
I found keeping them separate helps avoid the limitations of either one. To make this work you must do reviews of your projects. Ideally during a Weekly Review, but also this is what you should be referring to when you are planning or reviewing your plan for the day.
Collecting everything Link to heading
To keep your head clear of things you need somewhere to collect/dump things you get from others (emails, letters, texts), find somewhere (links, articles), or you just think of randomly.
You want a limited set of places where you always check and process everything to figure out what matters. This list is for both work and personal things of course.
- Email inboxes
- Text messages
- Voice mail
- Messenger apps: WhatsApp, Slack, Discord
- Bookmarks or a “read later” service
- Downloads folder
- Collaborative apps like Notion, Asana, Trello
- Project planning apps like Jira or Monday
Link to heading
- “Only things which spark joy” — It’s better to only keep the things around you which you actually really like or need. For most people that is far less than they have. The essential things for some is much more.
- Everything must have a place — Keeping a place clean becomes impossible if you must figure out where to put things every time you’re cleaning up. Having places for things also makes it easy to viscerally feel that you may have too much. This is important for keeping your space as clean as needed without the need for a big clean.
- Remember to clean your digital spaces too — Your desktop, your documents, the people you follow on twitter. It’s important to clean these out regularly (2-4x a year?) to keep them fresh.
- Tools do not fix things1 — Productivity follows from a process which tools can be made to make more efficient. E.g. for knowledge work less cognitive switching is best so first there needs to be a process for that (e.g. async work, etc.). Tools can be made from there.
Productivity is managing short-term pain for long term benefit
— We have issues going to the gym, but not watching movies for
hours. Even though the gym provides more long term benefits
(and we KNOW that).
- Solution is NOT “pushing through — “sleep when I’m dead”.
- Being passionate about the work is not a long term solution; besides are you sure you’re passionate about X and not just using it as a coping mechanism? Do you REALLY love League of Legends? REally?
- Find ways to enjoy the work — First, allow yourself to think it’ll be fun. Take the work sincerely, not seriously. Give yourself permission to have fun while doing it. Respect importance of your work with proper attention, but also give space to make it enjoyable.
- Productivity can not fix setting bad goals or impossible deadlines — Productivity makes us more efficient, but everything has a limit. If your job/work makes you miserable it may not be enough to “make it fun”. If the goal is to write a best selling novel in a week productivity hacks are not going to make it more possible.
Do not consume endless productivity content —
YouTube, Books, Podcasts, etc.; At some point you need to
stop. You must implement things. You MUST start doing whatever
your work is even if inefficient. Listening to content at 2x
speeds doesn’t make you learn more. In fact you’ll
probably learn less.
- Speed reading and listening is great for getting a sense of what is out there, but at some point you must take the time to actively listen and retain the information which is important.
Grab-bag of tricks and tips Link to heading
If you want a simple tracking “system”:
- Try using a mini Moleskine + a sticky note on the front for immediate tasks and reminders
Research Link to heading
“Paper beats Technology” in Meetings or Lectures Link to heading
Researchers studied students in classrooms at West Point showing students using laptops in class fail to learn or retain less information than others.
- Typing on a keyboard is faster than writing by hand. Writing by hand requires you to process and synthesize the information actively to compress it to keep up. This compression process actually enables the brain to learn the concepts.
- Because typing is so fast it can transcribe the lecture allowing students to not need to actively learn as much.
- Worth noting is that laptops contain many distractions and requires more will power to not become distracted than paper.
- Very few students review notes later. So it’s important to use note taking method which best enables retention: Paper notes.
- Study did not say laptops are not useful. Clearly if you transcribe your notes later you have another chance to see and process the information. Once in the computer it’s far easier to keep with you, keep safe, and makes it searchable. Using something like Roam or Obsidian also helps you link together topics and make more connections between concepts.
Verdict: Buy a nice notebook and pen. Use that in your classrooms for notes. If it’s important scan it into your computer later or transcribe the note; Later versions of iOS can read hand writing and let you copy it from the camera into your notes. If it’s drawings just redo the drawings via an iPad later or similar instead of bringing it with you.
Resources Link to heading
Links Link to heading
Links I thought were helpful to me or would be helpful for people in my life.
- “Want To Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender To This Algorithm” (Wired.com)
GTD is great for task based things, but horrible
for dealing with projects requiring deep work
- Projects like that need focused time spent which can’t be put into a next action really. The next action is work on it. Which really is just putting some time on the calendar for the week.
- GTD for College Students (Cal Newport)
Time management who hate it
- Simple paper calendar to jot down deadlines and etc
- Legal pad or notebook to just write things down as you think of them
- When overwhelmed: set time aside to go to a cafe/etc. look through calendar and notebook and come up with a plan that seems solid enough to calm you down
Books Link to heading
Some books I consider essential which helped me a lot over the years. They’re fairly mainstream books for productivity nerds, but maybe it’s worth listing them.
- Getting Things Done — Classic. Introduces key ideas of “inboxes”, “projects”, and the processing workflow. Important to remember that many have failed making complicated systems. Most have found actually using GTD to manage their entire life is unsustainable. Still, a lot to be gained from reading the book.
- Four Thousand Weeks — New, but instant classic. You have ~4000 weeks to live if you make it to your life expectancy. In the scheme of the universe a blip of time. Important to have realistic concepts of “what you’re meant to do”, “who you’re supposed to meet”, and etc. Primary Theme: Remember to LIVE life instead constantly chasing after it with productivity hack after productivity hack.
- Deep Work — tl;dr; Stop using things that distract you. Slack/Email/Etc. notifications; Social Media, TikTok, Youtube…; To do “deep” meaningful work requires space for your brain to do it’s job.
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You — Forgot the details, but I remember it to be a good book. Same author as Deep Work
- Four Hour Workweek — Another classic. The key ideas here are around automation and “working hard” != “smarter”. The literal advice from the book is dated, but the principals behind the advice are still relevant (e.g. the links are probably dead and etc).
- Four Hour Chef — Great follow up to Four Hour Workweek which teaches you about cooking, but Actually Teaches You about Tim’s methods for learning new topics quickly by using Cooking as an example. Also good for learning Cooking…