My Return to Productivity—The 3 Keys To Being Productive

Last week I talked a little about my experience with productivity systems, particularly GTD, and the apps I used to manage my work.

I told you how after finding both helpful for a few years they ceased to make me more productive. Instead I felt I was spending more time and energy managing my work than actually doing it and how the changing nature of my work made the systems and apps less helpful in my getting things done.

At least that’s what I thought right up until late in the year when an ordinary list convinced me to jump back on the productivity train.

Seems Like This Productivity Thing Works After All

In 2017 I felt like I worked a lot. I spent time each and every day making progress on whatever writing projects I was working on, but I didn’t feel like I was able to do as much as I would have liked.

I had my routine and knew what I would work on next without any apps to tell me, but some smaller tasks fell through the cracks and my routines were hard to change once set. I scheduled my day as several chunks of writing time and once I established daily routines and weekly patterns, I found it difficult to add any additional work into the mix.

Projects like improvements to this site or the development of a new one about writing, never could break through my daily patterns and habits. I carved up my day and had pre-filled all the time slots so there wasn’t time for anything else.

Worse, the routine made it easier never to do more than I’d scheduled. If I set 2:00 to 4:00 to write something and I finished at 3:30, I was more likely to spend the last half hour working on something that wasn’t too important. I might check email longer than required or read a few articles to kill the time until 4:00 and the next writing slot.

I did write a lot and I did work hard. I just didn’t feel I was working on the right things much of the time. Projects I’d tell me myself were important I didn’t work on, while others I thought should garner less of my attention, I was able to consistently complete.

In November I took time off to visit my family in New York. I knew I’d be there a couple of weeks and that I wouldn’t work while there. I didn’t want to return home to imminent deadlines so I wanted to make sure to finish a few writing projects in the three or four weeks prior to flying east.

One weekend in late October I made a list of everything I wanted to do before leaving for New York. Most of the list was centered around the writing projects I wanted to finish.

I broke each project down into tasks based on my writing process. Organize notes for project one, write draft for the first post in project two. The tasks were fuzzier than productivity systems like, but this was just a simple To Do list for me to stay on track for a few weeks.

I had a calendar open as I made the list so I could figure out when I would need to have each stage of each project finished if I wanted to have everything complete before I left.

Next to each fuzzy task I added a date. It was an estimate of when I thought I could complete the task. I tended toward being conservative with my estimates knowing things don’t always go as planned.

As I did the same for each of my writing projects, I’d have to adjust the dates for previous projects. I shifted one date earlier by a day and another back a couple of days. In the end I scheduled time for all the tasks in each of the projects more in a “you better get this done by this date” sort of fashion.

If I thought of another task I needed to work on, I’d add it to the list immediately and then I’d go back later and organize the new tasks by assigning dates. I was GTDifying my list to a degree I suppose.

Over the next few weeks, I started my work day by looking at my list and checking to see what I thought I should finish that day. Some days I made adjustments. Some days I worked off the list as is.

At the end of the week, I looked over what I accomplished, checked to see if I was still on schedule, and planed what I would work on the following week. As my flight grew nearer, I added all the Home based tasks I needed to do. Clean this. Run that errand. Pack.

You can see what was happening. Even though I worked off a list in Apples’s Notes app, I was working a productivity system for a few weeks. As you might expect, I was able to do everything I wanted to do before the day of my flight and I felt like I had a very productive few weeks.

I thought about it while I was away and when I returned to Colorado, I decided to give Things another try. The latest version added a few features and it looked like you could view your tasks as though they were a list, which seemed like just what I wanted. I know, I know, back to another productivity app, but I’ve been using Things ever since I installed a demo of the new version to give it a try.

The Keys to Being More Productive

I hope I wasn’t too hard on GTD last week or this one. I think it’s an excellent system for doing exactly what it says, Getting Things Done. However, it was designed for a certain kind of work and while it generally applies to any work you have, the specifics of the system work better for projects that can be broken down into smaller chunks with very well-defined start and end points.

Not everyone’s work, including mine, is made up of the types of tasks and projects GTD is best at helping you complete. I think creative work tends to sit on the opposite end of the spectrum. It tends to be harder to break down and what you can break down is usually fuzzy as opposed to well-defined.

That doesn’t mean you can’t manage creative work in a way that makes you more productive. What I think more important than following the specific details of GTD (or any system) are three general principles that are the backbone to any productivity system

  • Record
  • Process
  • Review


One of the things I like about GTD is the idea to get things out of your head and into a system. Recording what comes to mind as soon as you can and later processing everything that’s in your inbox gets a lot off your mind so you don’t waste mental energy thinking about it. It also ensures you won’t forget about the particular tasks you’ve recorded.

How you do this, where you store tasks for processing, is entirely up to you. You can use a productivity app. You can maintain a list. You can collect scraps of paper in an physical inbox. I don’t think the how matters much. It’s the recording part that’s important.


I also like that GTD suggests you organize your work from task to project to areas of focus. Our work spans from the micro to the macro, from the 5 minute tasks to much larger projects and long term goals that might span several years.

You want to spend time each week processing all the stuff you added to your inbox in whatever way makes sense to you. Organize it into projects or tag it with meta data about how long it takes or the kind of mental energy the task requires from you.

A system like GTD will give you ideas for how best to process all you have to do. It talks about how tasks work within projects and how projects work within the areas of life we consistently maintain.

A system can also help you understand what kind of meta data might help you choose what to work on next. I might find how long something will take less helpful for myself and my work, but that won’t be the same for everyone.

I think in the end it’s up to you how to process your work. We’re all different. We all have different kinds of work to do. We function ideally under different conditions. Only you know how you work best and in the end it’s up to you how to process what you have to do whether that means following a system to the letter or creating one just for you.

Try the way a system recommends, but don’t feel like you have to follow it religiously. Ultimately it’s up to you to figure out what works best for you, what you should work on next, and how you do your best work.


What I’ve come to like most, though I didn’t realize it for a long time, is the reviewv part of GTD. I’ve come to the conclusion that the reviews are the most vital part of any productivity system, including GTD

Every day I look over what I thought I should work on and I spend a few minutes reorganizing tasks if needed. Maybe something came up or maybe I’m not feeling particularly well. Maybe something I thought I needed to work on is no longer something I plan to finish and maybe I woke up with a ton of energy and desire to work. It does happen occasionally.

When I finish a task I check it as complete and watch it fade from view. I don’t know why, but seeing the tasks disappear throughout the day as I finish them feels good. It makes me feel productive.

Every Friday I spend a little time at the end of the day to plan the following week. Things has an Upcoming section that shows you the tasks you have assigned for the next seven days and then for the weeks following though not by day. I look over the work I expect to do the following week and adjust it as needed.

The review is a weekly modification to the way you’ve processed what you have to do and it’s also a daily look and sometimes modification of a small subset of all your work.

The review is really a continuation of the processing, which never ends. As long as you keep up with the review, you’re continually aware of what you need and want to do and I think that knowledge alone (along with a desire to actually work) is the key to productivity.

Productivity doesn’t have to be all that complicated with different systems and super apps and tools that do everything and automate everything. No question, both are nice to have, but I think the key to productivity is about keeping on top of the work you have to do.

As long as you spend time daily and weekly looking over the work in front of you, you can plan out your day and week and month and whatever. You don’t have to agonize over whether or not you’re following a system correctly or using an app to its full capabilities. Go for both if they help, but don’t stress about either.

If you want to be more productive, the most important thing is to be aware of all the work you have to do.

Closing Thoughts

I’m back to managing my work and my productivity after taking a year or so off. The year away helped me see that I do get more done when I stay on top of the work I want to do.

I’m using a lot of advice from the Getting Things Done book, but I don’t use the entire system exactly as intended. I use one that borrows a lot from GTD, but one that’s a little more flexible and a little more in tune with the way I work best.

I think the most important aspects to managing your work is to record and process everything and to regularly and consistently review what you’ve recorded and processed. More than anything I think it’s the act of paying attention to what you want to accomplish that puts you in the best position to successfully accomplish as much as you can.

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