In your work and life, you're pummeled daily with a deluge of information, tasks, requests, distractions, and noise. In the midst of many voices, it can be challenging to know what you should hold on to, what you actually believe, and what you should do right now.
Focus is a growing commodity, and when you leave it up to your brain to do all the heavy lifting, you can end up feeling anxious and overwhelmed. “Your brain is for having ideas, not holding them,” David Allen says. Cutting through the craziness you face each day with clarity around what you’re experiencing, where it is you’re trying to go, and what it is you should be doing not only gives you peace of mind, but also gives you greater opportunity for deeper impact.
Having a system for managing the flow of your life and work gives you a way to be proactive, not simply coming up with thoughts on the fly or reacting to your world. Putting in place simple tools for capturing your observations and tasks makes it possible to see what David Allen means when he says it’s valuable to create an external brain that thinks for you.
Unfortunately, when a system exists only in digital form--it's easy to feel the chaos of digital distraction. When you're only typing things into a computer or phone, the glare from the screen just doesn't always sit right. Going exclusively paper-based, however, is inefficient. Values-driven productivity isn't about turning against efficiency. It's about putting efficiency in the service of effectively executing on your values. Incorporating both paper and digital elements to your workflow management helps give you a strong dose of screen-free reflection without compromising the way technology can best serve us.
Focusing on workflow management is ultimately about focusing on your process rather than your outcomes. Outcomes improve, however, when process is refined. Managing the information in your life with a structured process isn't a task reserved for CEOs. It's a tool for all of us to experience greater capacity for clarity and progress.
Remember: the reason for even having a system in the first place is not for the sake of doing as much as you can, but being more effective with your clearly defined values and priorities. This is a deep dive, but doesn't capture every detail or trick. Many people use many different systems to great effect. I implement much of David Allen's Getting Things Done philosophy with some twists through the following tools and rhythms. I'd suggest you pick up a copy of his book to dive deeper into these concepts.
Paper and pen
I use this journal for almost everything--capturing ideas, meeting notes, nuggets from books, wisdom from podcasts, what I've been doing, how I'm feeling, all of it. It all goes into this journal. I start my day writing in it and carry it with me wherever I go. Occasionally, I capture ideas on slips of paper or Field Notes notebooks. But I make sure all of my notes don't get lost in a trash can or on my desk. If it's a loose piece of paper and I want to keep it, I'll put it in a basket next to my desk to be processed at the end of the week. More on that later.
To me, in a meeting with someone, a journal says, "I'm paying careful attention." A phone or computer says, "I might be checking my email while you're talking." Long hand also makes me feel more mentally engaged and present with the material, no matter what it is. This is slower, but it's more effective.
I use an incredibly simplified version of Bullet Journaling to capture my thoughts. Ryder Carroll founded the Bullet Journal method, and what I do is a complete degradation of his beautiful system. My bullet journal simply means my thoughts in bullets. I used to track tasks in my journal, but I don't anymore. I used to track my calendar in it. Nope. Now, it's just a place to get what's in my brain out on paper in an easy format.
Why bullets? It takes the pressure off. To give you an example of the wide array of things you might find bulleted in my journal, here are a few stripped directly from the last few days:
- Tim Ferriss podcast with Mr. Money Mustache: Is this purchase killing a negative?
- [My son] coughed all night and is getting colds frequently
- Lunch with Stan
You don't have to come up with flowery prose. You don't have to be someone you're not. You just get your thoughts out. Tracking the mundane things in your life is actually incredibly important. Keeping a log makes me treat the seemingly insignificant with significance. It makes me more thoughtful about my interactions and experiences. Instead of jumping into the current of life and letting it take me wherever, whenever, I am frequently pumping the breaks by getting out a pen and taking some notes.
My journal does have an index. Each page is also numbered. The index tells me where months begin and where I've taken notes apart from days for specific purposes. As an example, here's a few things my index has:
- 1 - 5 January ->
- 6 - 9 TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking (pages for notes on the book)
- 14 - 37 January (cont.)
- 60 - February
I haven't kept much from Ryder Carroll's system, but I have kept this. Only write down days and content as it happens. Don't prelabel dates. If you interrupt January to take notes on a book, just save a few pages for the book and have January pick back up afterwards. Note it all in the index.
Each morning, the first thing I do is this:
Month Day, Year - Day of the week (in a rectangle)
- Bible study and prayer
- Book Chapter: Verses
- Summary: Write what I just read in my own words.
- Impact: What I'm taking away.
- Book Chapter: Verses
- Things I'm thankful for:
- Thing 1
- Thing 2
- Thing 3
From here, everything continues in outline form. For instance.
- Todd Henry Podcast - The Questions We Avoid
- What's not working? In the present state of your life and work, what isn't working? What about your goals aren't working?
- What am I really trying to do? Do I have a false narrative?
The key here is don't put pressure on yourself. Some days I only capture what I'm thankful for and what happened in Bible study. Sometimes my bullets would bore anyone who picked up the journal to sleep. Sometimes I write down uncompleted thoughts. Sometimes it's a break from bullets and a small drawing or design. This isn't about being regimented. It's about giving yourself structure to find freedom.
This is my travel log in life. It is my tool for articulating and remembering. So many experiences we have go whooshing by without being sorted out and remembered. The journal helps me do that.
Every week I scan each of my daily entires into Evernote. I usually do this on Fridays. Using the Evernote Scannable app, I capture each day's content as separate scans and save it to my Evernote Inbox. The app allows you to easily grab content from a notebook, crop it in seconds, rename it "Month Day, Year notebook entry" in a snap, and then let it automatically export to a default notebook.
To process everything I wrote in the week, I've sometimes read it out loud to myself during the time I'm scanning it in. It sounds crazy, but you'll be amazed how much more sense you can make of the world after you've thought it, written it down, and then said it out loud. You get your thoughts in line as you write them down, but sometimes it takes verbalizing what you've written to get them to march.
More on what happens after each day's entry lands in Evernote later.
When a new month is about to begin, I denote that in my journal. I add a new entry to the index and put a hand-drawn chart on the month's title page capturing my daily disciplines. The goal of this chart is to refocus on the fact that progress happens in the small things, and it keeps me on track toward the goals I'm pursuing with these habits. I list the current habits I'm currently tracking, a column for the total times I completed them in the month, my goal percentage of days I've completing them out of days available for them to be completed, the actual percentage of days I've completed them, and a column to make a check mark if I met my goal or an "x" if I didn't. At the end of the month, I'll come back and fill in the results before I begin the next month. This can also be a great place to write any goals, observations, or thoughts about the month.
Each day throughout the month, I'm tracking my daily disciplines in my iPhone through an app called Streaks. When I go to log the results from my disciplines in a month to my journal, I simply open Streaks and transfer them back into my journal.
Other paper materials
I often have other paper I want to capture that exists outside my journal. This can be an encouraging note I got in the mail, a receipt from the doctor for our HSA, something interesting my son drew, etc. The point is, I want to keep it forever--or at least for the foreseeable future. I will put this paper in the basket next to my desk I mentioned earlier throughout the week. At the end of the week, I will go through and put in action items in my digital system before scanning them into my Evernote Inbox using either the Scannable app or my Doxie scanner, a small, single-page scanner that sits on my desk and allows you to push scans into Evernote as well.
Digital tools offer incredible opportunities for efficiency. Having an offline space to gather thoughts is important, but I leverage technology manage almost all my tasks and communication with others. Many people following the Bullet Journal method in its pure form keep their tasks offline as well. I've found the sheer number and complexity of tasks & projects to manage merits putting it all in the cloud in a flexible and scalable system.
I generally manage my tasks according to the Getting Things Done methodology. This philosophy runs deep, and if you're new to it--I'd suggest just reading David Allen's book. If you've gotten this far in the post and aren't asleep, you're probably the type of person who would resonate with at least some of what he has to say. At its core, David Allen tells you to put everything in your life into lists and well-organized folders. Get it out of your head and into a system. Instead of a to-do list, you need a next actions list. A next actions list is simply an inventory of all the things you can do right now to get closer to completing projects in your life. It's a comprehensive list of the very next steps. These next actions are categorized by contexts, which are simply just places where these actions must take place. For instance, you might have a list of all the next actions related to your errands or house.
I use Todoist as my tool of choice for implementing GTD. In order to do this, I am a premium user. Considering almost everything I need to do in my work and life is dictated by Todoist, the cost to upgrade is basically a steal. Within the tool, you can arrange your projects and lists in an outline structure. Here's how I manage tasks.
Here's how I use Todoist for four different types of tasks/items.
If a task can be done as quickly as possible and has no definite due date: I assign it a project and a label. When I start working, I work off of tasks in labels rather than tasks in projects.
If a task can be done as quickly as possible, but has a definite due date: I assign it a project, label, and date. If I don't get to it under a label, it will scream at me when it shows up in "Today" as the last possible opportunity to knock it out.
If a task has to be done on a specific date: I assign it a project and a date, but no label. Anything with a label is something that can be done right now.
If it's not a task, but a list item: I assign it a project and no date or label. This turns "projects" into reference folders.
When it comes to deciding what to do in a given day, I work primarily from labels and "Today."
- Areas of focus
- MC (monthly connect)
- Current projects
- *List of current projects*
- A project is anything with a set end date within the next year and requires two or more steps to complete it.
- *List of current projects*
- Projects on hold
- *List of current projects on hold*
- Check lists
- *List of repeatable tasks or items like a packing list or series of tasks needed to complete a monthly assignment*
- *List of people I interact with where I want to track things to talk about*
- *List of things without directly actionable items like a wish list or movies to see list*
- *A place to capture dreams and long-term ideas*
- Areas of focus
- *Same headings as above with different sub-projects beneath them*
Tasks or items can be assigned to any of these projects with or without a due date. I then have a list of labels, which are contexts.
- Waiting - Anything I've delegated or am waiting for an answer on
- Phone - Any calls, texts, or tasks associated with my phone
- Errands - Anything that needs to be done while out of the house
- Computer - Anything that requires I have a laptop
- Notes - Any handwritten note I'd like to write
- Home - Anything that requires I be at home to accomplish
- Wife - Any topic of discussion that needs to be had with my wife
- Agendas - Any topic of discussion that needs to be had with anyone else
- Read/review - The book or books I'm currently reading and/or long-form articles I'd like to review
- Anywhere - Anything that can happen anywhere without specific tools
- Alexa - This is automatically created by the Alexa skill and isn't used
When I start working, I first start with all the tasks that are due today. If I assigned tasks a due date, it means they have to be done with by that specific date. Things due today are highest priority. Then, I go and work off of labels depending on where I am and what I'm doing. Tasks with a label are tasks that can be done right now. They are next actions--things that can and should be done as soon as possible, batched by appropriate contexts.
Premium users have the ability to filter tasks based on certain criteria. Here are the filters I currently have in place.
Next actions - a list of every next action irregardless of context. This is helpful for getting a bigger picture. Query: !no label & !@waiting
Shared and not assigned - my wife and I share certain projects (example: "Around the House"), and this filter helps me see any tasks that still need a leader. Query: shared & !assigned
Next actions due this week - any next actions due in the next seven days. Query: !no label & (overdue | 7 days)
Next actions due this month - any next actions due in the next 30 days. Query: !no label & (overdue | 30 days)
Happening this month - things happening on specific days in the next 30 days. Query: no label & (overdue | 30 days)
Due in a week and waiting - anything I've delegated or asked about that requires completion or an answer in the next seven days. Query: (overdue | 7 days) & @waiting
Due in 30 days and waiting - anything I've delegated or asked about that requires completion or an answer in the next 30 days. (overdue | 30 days) & @waiting
Recurring tasks - any recurring task in my system. Query: recurring
The first rule of email is to check it as little as possible. Don't live in your inbox. Distill your emails into tangible things that need to be done as quickly as you can and get out of there. Living in your inbox robs you of the ability to add unique value because you're operating only from the agenda others are setting for you. Executing this agenda is an essential part of being a good team member, but it's not the only or even the primary way you mold, shape, and drive things.
You do that by working on them, not just in them.
This isn't a reason to become unresponsive or unkind. It just means it's better to engage less frequently and with more intentionality than to always have the passive pull of your inbox running in the background, dragging you away from things every few minutes to take a look.
I keep email in offline mode most of the time. I turn off email notifications on my computer.
As I'm going through email, I'm asking of each message, "What do I need to do about this?"
If the answer is clear, I put a next action in Todoist and move the email to an "Action" folder and move on to the next message.
David Allen has a two-minute rule that says if it can be done in under two minutes, just do it. Don't move it anywhere or add it to a list, just knock it out. It will take more time to organize it than do it. So just do it.
If it's something that needs to be sent to someone else or delegated, I pass it along and move the email chain to a "Waiting" folder. This is also true of emails I send and want to make sure I get a response. I throw them in the waiting folder and check it periodically to see what's still out there.
Things I want to keep, I store in folders. Tickets or travel information gets moved to a different folder as well.
The key is seeing the inbox as the noise that needs to be distilled into articulate messages. The email inbox is like a living room where your children dump a bucket of toys. Your life is much easier and more effective if you take the time to sort those toys and clean them up rather than just perpetually staring at a floor covered in a million building blocks and action figures.
Get your email distilled into action lists and folders. Then throw it back into offline mode and work your plan while taking steps back to ask yourself if your plan is even a good one.
Everything has to be organized and stored somewhere. Reference material is anything I want to keep beyond a specific project duration. It is information I want to keep for use later. For this purpose, I primarily use two tools.
Professionally, the organization I work for currently uses Box to store all our files in the cloud. Box allows you to sync folders with your desktop and makes all files and file content completely searchable. As I store things for the future, I have two main folders in Box:
- Current Project Support Material
- Reference Material
Projects are subfolders for things I'm working on filled with material related to the specific project itself.
Current Project Support Material is a folder filled with shortcuts to projects currently in motion.
Reference material is a folder filled with subfolders named by topic.
When an HR email comes through Outlook about benefits, I save the email file into an HR folder in Reference Material. When I create an Excel file to track event attendee status, it goes in the event's project folder.
If an email is important, I don't store it in an Outlook folder. I save it to a Reference Material folder in Box. Outlook's search just isn't as good, and Box can search within emails themselves.
Personally, almost everything lives in Evernote. Many people organize Evernote differently to similar levels of effectiveness. I've chosen to use a minimal number of notebooks and primarily organize notes with tags. I also heavily use shortcuts to quickly link to frequently-used notes.
The four primary notebooks I use:
- Current Projects
- Reference Material
Throughout a week, almost everything goes in here. If I take a picture at an event and want to remember it forever, it goes in here. All my notebook entries scanned through the Scannable app go here. Hyperlinks to sites I want to remember--inbox. Screenshots, articles, random thoughts, anything. It all starts in the inbox. During my weekly review, I delete the irrelevant notes, add tags to the ones I'm keeping, and push them to their appropriate notebooks.
This is a notebook for all notes I'm currently using. The tags never change, but when the project is over or the note is no longer in current use, I move it to the Reference Material notebook.
I have Chad Hall at Todoist to thank for this method. He uses OneNote instead of Evernote to store his journal using the same premise. The journal is a notebook stack of every month in the year. Each month has a note for the day of the year. Each day of the year acts as an index linking to important to that specific day. Evernote allows you to hyperlink to your other notes, so during my weekly review I add each day's journal entry, photos, articles, important notes I've gotten, etc. to do the day's journal after adding a year heading.
Doing this means every memory, thought, or insight I capture on a day will be revisited at least once a year. When I've made it through a year doing this practice, I'll make it a part of my morning routine to review notes & memories from that day in my history.
Keeping a journal like this may seem tedious, but it's a great way to remember where you've been and what you've learned over time.
If it isn't in the inbox, isn't currently being worked on, or isn't a day in the journal, it lives in Reference Material.
In general, I follow Michael Hyatt's tag structure. Go read his post to gain a more full picture of this. I have tag categories organizing notes with each of the following:
Each of these headings contains nested within them many, many tags. As Michael Hyatt suggests, the punctuation at the beginning is only used to keep them in proper order as Evernote automatically alphabetizes categories.
I tag almost all notes with a what, when, and who. ^reference holds all tags with articles related to a specific discipline. For instance, if I have a sound recording of my son singing a song yesterday, I'll tag it like this:
^rivers (all names in .who start with ^), memorabilia, 2018, audio
Because Evernote's search functionality is so amazing, tags are simply a way to more narrowly categorize content. But searching to find anything is a breeze. Evernote even searches PDFs and images of my journal entries, able to crawl handwritten notes to search that content as well.
My Weekly Review
Everything above falls apart without a Weekly Review. Life gets crazy, you go on a week-long trip, you leave your journal at home, and then you find yourself letting the system come apart. When your system comes apart for too long, you lose faith in it. When you lose faith in it, you don't use it. And when you don't use it, you think your brain is more reliable. It's not.
In David Allen's Getting Things Done system, the Weekly Review is one of the most important parts. I've found this to be true. Without it, everything goes off the rails.
A Weekly Review is simply a regular time to reconcile the system. It's a time to process things and set everything straight. David Allen offers a PDF agenda of a Weekly Review you can download it for free here. I have this document printed and put in the back of my journal. Each week, I pull this paper out and follow through each of the steps.
- I collect all the loose papers from the basket hanging next to my desk. This is usually things like important mail or slips of paper where I've written things. I get my journal and phone out and boot my computer up.
- I clear all my inboxes in this order.
- Metal basket. All the papers from the metal basket are either thrown away, scanned into Evernote with the Scannable app or a scanner on my desk and thrown away, or scanned and kept in a physical filing system.
- Email inboxes. I get both my work and personal emails to inbox zero, saving or filing important reference messages, distilling actionable emails into action steps put into my Todoist inbox, and responding to messages that can be handled in just a couple minutes. With the Outlook application, I usually do this in offline mode.
- Journal. I scan each day's entry from the week with the Scannable app into my Evernote inbox. After information has been put into Evernote from my journal, I write [EV *DATE*] in the journal to signify the chunk of information has been archived.
- Phone. I go through all my text messages to make sure they've been handled. I check all my voicemails, missed calls, applications I maintain, and anything else happening in my phone. Any action items go into the Todoist inbox.
- Evernote. I then tag all the notes in my Evernote inbox, link them to a day's journal entry when applicable, and then move them all into either the Reference Material or Current Projects notebooks.
- Todoist. I clear out the Todoist inbox by moving tasks to projects and assigning them the appropriate labels, projects, and/or due dates. If something is a single action, it gets associated with an existing project or list. If it's something that actually requires two or more steps, I create a project under Current Projects and define an outcome and the very next thing that needs to happen to start making progress toward the goal.
- I spend time thinking through anything else not captured by my system. A thought like, "I should probably get my teeth cleaned," creates a task: "Research a new dentist and make an appointment" tagged with Computer, assigned to the Fitness project. A thought like, "I need to clean the garage this week," would then create a new project under personal Current Projects called "Clean the garage." I'd then define the outcome as something like, "Have a clean garage where everything is organized and gives me space to park my car." Then, I'd define a next step as something like, "Move garbage to the street," tagged with Home, left int he project, "Clean the garage" and given a Monday due date.
- I go through all my labels to see what actions I've completed but haven't marked off, what actions are missing, and what I still need to do.
- I go through the last seven days on my calendar, looking at each event and asking myself, "Have I captured or completed every actionable thing triggered from that event?" If not, I put it into my system or complete it if it only takes a couple minutes.
- I look at the next seven days on my calendar and think through any preparation that needs to happen for anything going on in the next week.
- I look through the list and email folder of things I've delegated or am waiting for a response on and decide whether or not I need to reach out to the person as a reminder.
- I go through all the projects in Todoist and make sure each project has at least one next step and a defined outcome.
- I look at my Someday/Maybe list and decide if there's anything that should be deleted or turned into a Current Project.
- I think through anything else I'm missing.
This whole process can take two hours, and at the end of it--it feels like you're on top of the world. Your mind is clear, your priorities are in order, and ambiguity now has clarity. Many people say they don't have time to do a Weekly Review. I feel like I can't afford to miss it. This time each week is essential to my work and life. It keeps things from falling through the cracks. It defines what I need to be working on and, more importantly, what I don't need to be working on. It gives me capacity to better steward my energy, time, and attention on things I'm proactively working toward rather than reactively responding to all the time.
This isn't about the system itself. In fact, this isn't the full scale of the system (but I'm happy to answer any further questions). This is about what the system makes possible. Happening to your life rather than letting your life happen to you means you experience greater clarity around your priorities and commitments. It lessens your anxiety. It makes greater space for relationships, creativity, and progress on what matters. This system isn't for everyone, but I firmly believe everyone needs a system. You'll be amazed at the meaningful progress you can make on things that matter when you have one and implement it consistently.
Header image sourced from Pexels via Creative Commons.