Actions not tools

Reading about other people solutions and tools is great way to gain some insights and learns different approaches. Yet there is a limit to how much you can gain from that as what really matters is finding your solutions to your own problems. 

If you’re stuck in loop of constantly searching for different apps and solutions listen to two podcasts from the ex 70Decibels and now 5by5 network. These should give enough food for thought and help to pin point where the issues are with your productivity system.

First is episode 203 of Enough with excellent Patrick Rhone.

Second is episode 69 of Mikes on Mics with Michael Schechter and Mike Vardy.

Happy listening!

Study Hacks – tackling big projects and creating work

I’ve been subscribing to Study Hacks blog for couple months now and over the last few weeks I’ve noticed an interesting trend there. Basically Cal Newport has been focusing on very interesting aspect of creating work, making progress on big projects and tackling huge assignments. What’s different on this blog is that it does not focus on tips and simple techniques. Post are more centered on pondering about the different approaches to work, looking at interesting research and conversations with people all that seem to go against conventional wisdom or so it would appear.

I won’t go into summarizing all of those posts but I would really encourage you to have a look at them and spend some time thinking about the lessons that Cal shares.

Study Hacks » Blog Archive » How to Write Six Important Papers a Year without Breaking a Sweat: The Deep Immersion Approach to Deep Work

Study Hacks » Blog Archive » You Need to Master the Rules Before You Can Reinvent Them 

Study Hacks » Blog Archive » The Single Number that Best Predicts Professor Tenure: A Case Study in Quantitative Career Planning

Study Hacks » Blog Archive » “Write Every Day” is Bad Advice: Hacking the Psychology of Big Projects

Structure and productivity

Structure du pont Corneille

A while ago I was listening to and older podcast with David Allen where he made a very interesting observation. Very often we are building a very complex structures to support our productivity by adding layers of tags, applications et. In effect we tie ourselves up and put more pressure on maintaining this system. It becomes a drag.

Something that’s opposite should be true. A good productivity system should be light and flexible allowing to fit it into changing events and requirements.

Continuing with this thought focus on keeping your system just right and fit for a purpose. It’s very easy to spend few hours organizing everything in your system. Adding locations, tags, links, making sure everything is clearly laid out. But is such approach sustainable on daily basis? Probably not.

When you look at how people get organized more often than not everything they have is halfway done. They had some free time so they decided to organise something they meant  to do a long time ago. They put up a very nice looking structure of A-Z folders, marked with different colours and labels. After a while only half of the documents are done this way, the demands of the work took over and there is no longer a time to maintain this structure.
The same will happen with tasks. You can go full on with various application and fill every possible text box, tag, notes and links so then you can dice and slice actions, projects the way you want. After initial hurray stage this structure weighs your down and becomes a drag.

It becomes apparent that filling all the boxes and setting up all the tags and folders is too time consuming. You could do it when you had extra free time but it can’t be sustained in normal day when things are flying at speed of light.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why a short lists of tasks is so effective. It’s simple, easy and serves as a great reference point.

To conclude the tools you use should support you enough to let you maintain the control of the day and be flexible to allow you to adjust to changing priorities. 

photo by zigazou76

Copying vs. learning. How to improve your setup.


I really enjoy listening to discussions about how other people stay productive, what tools do they use, what are their workflows like etc. This is good and interesting but the question is what do you do with it.

Recently I’ve caught myself trying to copy someone’s system it doesn’t matter whose workflows that was the important thing is the lesson learned.
I was feeling mine system was stuck  and not going anywhere so I thought this guy is very productive, you can see he’s doing a lot. It was super interesting and cool how with just couple of keyboard clicks he could do almost anything on a computer. I listened to that podcast couple more times, jotted down the tools he uses and the way he organises information. With in couple hours I had the major elements ready for action. Unfortunately this ended in total failure. I’ve used the system literally for couple more hours after setup and  give up.  It didn’t make sense to me, it was not way that I work.

The lesson for me was to learn from others not to copy their systems.
Over time I managed to develop my own workflow, settled on a number of tools that help me keep my productivity up. Switching to something completely new and throwing all this out the window is not the best solution. There is simply too much to change.

Now when I listen to podcasts like Pipeline or WorkAwesome I jot down interesting ideas, tools and approaches people take but always use my own judgement before implementing it.
I don’t make any drastic changes to my system, just incremental small bits an pieces here and there.
It saves me time in two ways, I don’t waste time on migrating to a new system and reverting back to previous. Secondly I can gain something just by adding something to existing setup.

It’s always interesting to listen how other people get things done and keep on top but always remember to filter that information through your own experiences and abilities before implementing. You might waste more time trying to copy someone’s setup.

Weekly Links post 14th March

A collection of posts and articles about productivity, time management, tools and technology.

Expertise triumphs Experience – Over at Productive flourishing Ali Luke explores the notion that experience may not be the best indication of the performance and ability to do the job. As she point out you may be cooking for twenty year using the same recipes but that does not make you a chef. What really matters is the expertise in the particular field gained through learning, testing and asking questions.

WorkAwesome Podcast: Episode 12 – Patrick Rhone – WorkAwesome site has a very interesting interview with Patrick Rhone. The interview focuses on topics like productivity, macs, software tools and minimalism.  I came across Patrick when he did a lot of writing about staying productive using pen and paper. His new area of focus is minimalism where runs two sites Minimal Mac and Enough – The Minimal Mac Podcast. Both places are worth visiting for some food for thought and inspiration even if your platform is Windows.

10 Awesome Videos On Idea Execution & The Creative Process – I think the title speaks for itself. This is a really great collection starting from Steve Jobs Stanford speech to JJ Rowling speaking at Harvard. Be sure to set a side at least 2h as these talks cover a lot of ground.

Developing Systems That Work – Over at Get Rich Slowly JD Roth writes that he found three ways of a successful system: routine, automation, and simplicity. Although the context of this post is very much focused on personal finance it’s very easy to draw parallels with personal productivity. In fact if you apply above three elements it’s almost certain that you will become more effective and organised.


If you have any interesting articles please share them in the comments section.

Building simple productivity system

Solar system

photo by  Ernst Vikne

Why/What you need

Before you can start building anything you need to know why are you doing and and what do you need it for. Simple answer to question why is to be more effective, to be more organised, to get the right things done, to have more time. You might have other reasons but above would be most common.

What you need in your system will depend on the methodology you’re subscribing to. Perhaps like me you may be a practitioner of David Allen’s Getting Things Done method or you might prefer Steven Covey 7 Habits of highly effective people, maybe Mark Forster’s Do it tomorrow has a greater appeal to you.

Regardless from the method you choose there are certain elements that are mentioned in every approach. They may appear under different name or in different combinations yet they all are referring to the same. The key categories include following items.

– actions/task list

– projects and project plans

– reference material

These three categories cover full spectrum of tasks you may encounter. Simple one off items get added to task list. More complex thing are broken down on project list. This way it’s keep stuff in control and don’t loose those multistep items. Once you are done and want to keep a record of your process and achievements you can save them in reference files along with interesting articles, ideas  etc.

There is a great number of applications used for managing this type of content.I’ve decided to use following services and programs.

  • Remember the Milk – tasks and lists that I use on regular basis.
  • Freeplane – project list, project action plans, goals, multi-step endeavours.
  • Evernote – reference material, project support documents.

Why I’ve chosen these products?

First off all they are simple to use and setup. Because they are good in their particular areas I can get better amount of focus. For example if I’m in Evernote I know there are no tasks for the to look at as any active action/task gets logged to Remember the Milk.

All applications come for free and provide enough features to make you a very productive person. If you want to support developers you can go pro and add couple more features which make the products ever better.

All programs are completely cross platform is some shape or form. This means I can access my tasks, reference material on my Android phone when ever I need. If I have new idea I can always add it to one of my lists. Remember the Milk and Evernote have great mobile clients. My Freeplane maps are compatible with ThinkingSpace application on Android which makes my projects fully accessible from any where.

What’s also important for me is the information flow between these application. Although there is no sync between these services thanks to email I can push some data from one service to another. Alternatively I can take snaps of my mind maps and add to my project files.

These there relatively simple applications allow me the create a system that’s simple, accessible anywhere and free*.

If you use different setup or can recommend other applications please share them in the comments section.


[*Just a little note of disclosure: I’m using a pro version of Remember the Milk and will be subscribing to Evernote Pro in next couple of weeks. I’m paying for both on my own.]

GTD series: Part 1 – Collect & Process

This is part one of three series about basic GTD elements. I hope to share with you some information different elements of GTD.
This post will focus on the first two steps of getting things done methodology. The collection and processing stages of the full process.

Getting things done diagram
(DIY Planner)


Have you ever tried to focus on 4-5 or more items at a time? What was happening with you while you were working on something, then phone rang, a co-worker stopped by, an email arrived? Have you manage do hold your focus, did you remember what the conversation was about?

Can you imagine juggle in the circus. At first he keeps 3 balls in the air then more balls are thrown at him, he add them in but after 6rd or 8th is added he reaches his capacity and needs to drop one to keep juggling. Human brain works the same way. Human brain can hold only a handful of items at the time. The more new impulses come our way the more difficult it is to get clear and produce quality work. Every time new thing arrives one is dropped.

To get clear and focused you need to capture all things that have your attention and put them outside of your brain where you can see them. If you keep them in your head they will clog your thinking as things get mulled over and over again without much progress. By externalising those items you can have an overview of all that needs to be done, could be done.

Ideas, co-workers, phone calls rarely show up when you are free with nothing to do. To maintain your focus you need to capture those things as they show up and leave them for later. The main idea here is to write everything down and route it into inbox and then process it. The two essential elements for good capture are "ubiquitous capture tool" and an inbox.

Ubiquitous means everywhere, so the tool should always be with you. The aim is to be able to capture things instantly with out a need to hold those thoughts for too long. Every time idea pops in you head, phone rings, co-worker stops by you can write it down or record it.

Capture usually takes two forms:

  • an adhoc collection any time an idea pops into your head or when you are out of control and need to clear your head
  • regular so called "mind sweep" during your weekly review. things that are on your mind are usually a great indicator of what’s important for you at this moment.

When it comes to capture quantity is king – capture all and capture everything leave the decisions about those things for later.

For capture I use variety of tools depending on the setting with Evernote and paper being on the top of the list. If you want to read how I capture things with Evernote then check out this post.


All of the items you’ve collected should be routed to Inbox. This is a temporary place where items await to be processed.
You already use a number of inboxes like your email inbox, voicemail inbox, letter box, a place in your house where your drop leaflets, post, bills etc. These are your inboxes.

How many inboxes should you have? David Allen says as many as you need and as few as you can go by. 
Collection places should be easily accessible so that the collected items can be left there but on the other hand keep those to minimum so the number does not overwhelm you. The more places to keep track of the more difficult it’s to make sure they get processed to zero. It’s very easy to create a one in the car, garage, computer, living room, kitchen etc. Having too many places will result in stuff being forgotten and inboxes not being checked/processed. 

Inbox works only as temporary holding place anything that ends up there should be reviewed and processed on regular basis.
Once you move into processing mode all you need is just refer to the inbox pick up an item and make a decision about it.


Capturing things doesn’t make sense if you don’t do anything with the items you’ve captured. This stage involves making decisions about the things that have entered your space/mind.
The crucial element is to ask yourself a question "is this actionable?".

This simple question separates projects/actions from other stuff that you might have collected. There are only two answers to this: yes and no.
If yes then then you need to establish what to do and when to do it. 

For example you’ve had a note "new printer". You’ve decided that you need one. So you log "buy new printer" on your project list. Further down the road you probably do some research and decide on the make, model, price etc.
If no, then you can do two things. Put it for later as you don’t know what to do now but want to keep it somewhere close or your can simply trash the thing.
Once you’re done with one thing move the the next one.

When to process?
Regular once a day maybe every two days at most.
It’s the nature of many inboxes that things are collected for us without our intervention (emails, voicemails etc.). It’s not surprising that inboxes can quickly overflow with stuff that need to be processed. Setting up regular review times help to deal with that.
I have set two processing times when I deal with all the email in my inbox. Once it’s around 10.30 so I can take care of the stuff that arrived during the night and early morning. Second processing time is around 15.30 so I can deal with stuff from the day and still be able to react if necessary.

Also every time you do a mind sweep then move to processing mode to look at each item individually and sort actionable items form non-actionable. I usually do it during the weekly review. I would list the things on my mind even though they might be on my lists. Then I process them as appropriate. If I see things are repeating I know this is something important that needs my attention.
Also if I get stuck or fall of the wagon I do a sweep and then process the results to kick start the system.

Processing should be a relatively quick exercise as there is no doing involved. Decisions should/are made based on single question is it actionable then parked appropriately. The main reason for separating processing from doing is to not get bog down in menial tasks or actions that prevent you from stopping and looking at all the things collected. If you start doing while processing the risk is that you will be constantly processing and doing quick and easy things. The more advanced, complicated projects, goals will never get done.

The only exception to that is something called "2 minute rule". Two minute rule "permits" you doing the task as you pick it up for  processing provided that the task will not take more than 2 min to do. The two minutes is not fixed period. If needs to be it can be extended based on your situation. If you have plenty of time available for processing and are not chased by deadlines you can focus on tasks that takes 10min or more if you want.

This contradicts the above but here is why it makes sense. Keeping track of things takes some time and effort. It may be more effective to do thing there on the spot rather than track it and come back to it in couple of hours or days. Examples? You noticed plants need watering, simply do it right now and be done. Putting this action through all the motions of GTD may be too long for them.

Two more things to remember when processing your inboxes.   

All things are equal. The stuff that ends up in your inbox is equal regardless whether it’s important deal, family holidays, change tyres, or clean up the garage. Until you made the decision about all those things they are the same. This might be a difficult thing to practice as it requires be detached from nature of things but it helps to make decisions.

Never put things back. There is only one way for stuff to get out of the inbox through processing. If you don’t know what to do with particular item don’t put it back as it completely defies the point. By putting things back you duplicate the number of inputs that you will have to deal with. Also you have to go through similar thinking process again. Both things make this ineffective strategy. If you really don’t know what to do make a note and put it into calendar to review in couple days.
This is the first part of 3 part series covering basic of GTD. If you want to know more or have some comments please let me know. 

Weekly Links Post 30/10/10

I decided to start to post on weekly basis a  collection of articles which might interest you.  I’ll try to cover a various spectrum of topics and areas but still in and around productivity, technology, sefl management.This is the first post of this type and I hope you will like it.