I'm often asked what I do to stay organized, what productivity tips I have and what apps I use to stay on top of things. I usually send a templated text or email with a dump of everything I do without more context to people who inquire. I've decided to write this piece as a living document of some of my productivity routines. I call them routines because over the course of my life I have realized the value in doing the same thing every time. Waking up at the same time, using the same tools, drinking the same drink. I hope you find these helpful.
Whenever I need to think, I reach for two genres of music. First Lied (Classic German singing with Piano accompaniment) and second 1960s Jazz. Over the course of a few years, I've settled on these two as the only music that actually helps me think clearly about the problems I'm working on. If I need to work on a design, do some planning or come up with some meaningful idea, I'll usually have these genres in my headphones or playing on my Sonos. I realize it's a little quirky, but It works for me.
I listen to a lot of Podcasts and audiobooks whenever I need to be entertained. This is mostly when I’m working out, driving or winding down. I'll also listen to my normal assortment of music when I want to be entertained.
When I’m deep into work I’ll usually ignore whatever I’m listening to. I’ve started opting for no audio just to give my ears a break when my brain isn’t even processing what I’m listening to.
I’ve got a note that is just a running list of ideas and todos that I will add to Evernote. I have a quick add widget on my iPhone and iPad that'll allow me to add to that list at will. It goes from full-on thoughts and ideas to just seemingly senseless bullet points. The whole point of this note is just to get things out of my brain and into somewhere less volatile. I will come back and revisit these notes and turn them into tasks, appointments and future research.
Every night I groom my Todoist lists. I’ll review my emails, my Evernote ideas list, and my Todoist backlog and plan my next day, or several days. It’s a simple system but it helps me get a grasp on what I have to do and helps me to reduce the number of things that fall through the cracks.
My Todoist lists include some recurring tasks like checking my email, taking the trash to the corner, paying my bills, writing for 15 minutes a day and writing in my journal. It also includes forwarded emails (Todoist has great support for forwarding emails to lists) and reminders to contact people.
I've tried quite a few Todo list apps and Todoist is the only one that has really stuck. There are some interesting apps but I'm so reliant on my routines that changing is a daunting task.
I honestly like email, but I like it too much. When I get an email I pay attention to details, read through them and start crafting a response immediately. Because of this, I've had to go to great lengths to reduce the volume of emails I receive. One of the most useful things I do to keep emails down is I subscribe to newsletters through my RSS feed. This puts newsletters in the same mental space as everything else in my RSS feed. I will read the headline and browser some content but not give it the same attention as email. Second, I dedicate a specific time window for responding to emails. This allows me to give the attention to emails I desire, but not make it so that I can spend my whole day responding to emails. I give myself 10 minutes to run through emails and craft any pending responses. Once the 10 minutes is over I'll have to wait 6 hours until the next 10-minute window.
Dedicated Email Checking Time
I check my email at 9:22 AM, 3:22 PM and 9:22 PM. Those times may seem odd, but they just happen to be when I set up my recurring reminder to check my email. It works out great because I get to work, get about an hour of meaningful work done and usually need a break around 9:30, I check my email then. The other two times are some of my least productive time (I have a system to track that but I won't get into that in this post) so using them to check email is a kind of boost to respond to friends and family and check on projects.
Turn off notifications
One of the best parts of email, SMS and chat systems is that it's meant to be asynchronous. For a long time, I thought that being easy to get a hold of was a valuable thing. If someone could email me or DM me I would drop everything and help them. I've learned there is limited wisdom in that approach. Once I turned off notifications, I got a good sense of the communication I cared about and the ones that didn't matter. I have a way for my wife to get a hold of me, and I check certain apps on a regular interval similar to how I check my email, but there are a lot of apps that use to buzz when I got a DM or comment that I just don't allow any more.
Spending time kicking around the house, going out to eat or going to the park is immensely valuable to my productivity. It’s a time when I can be myself and the guards of professionalism and self-preservation are no longer necessary. I often get my best ideas when playing with my daughter or preparing a meal with my wife. I'm sure there is some science behind this, but I've learned to take it at face value and do some of this every day.
I don’t play a lot of video games, but I will play for an hour whenever I have a particularly stressful day. I’m usually awake long after my family calls it a night so turning on my Xbox One™ and playing FIFA or NBA2K is usually enough to take my mind off of things and help me to fall asleep. Sometimes, a buffer between tackling homework on my computer, or a difficult work-related problem is needful. The alternative is spending my time in bed trying to solve my problems rather than sleeping and attacking my problems the next day.
I love movies. If I had the time I’d probably see a feature film every week, but I usually see 2 films a month in the theaters. I get a lot of good ideas from watching movies and it helps me work through a part of my brain I usually don’t when designing or writing software.
There is a wealth of great television programs and I spend a couple hours a week watching TV with my wife. It is entertaining and helps keep us in the pop culture loop that we are otherwise absent from.
Though it is at the bottom of this list, exercise is the most important of all my routines. It requires the most effort (waking up at 5:30 AM and pushing my body every day) but it has the largest payoff. On days when I exercise, my thinking is much clearer and my attitude is much more positive. I feel healthier and I make better choices. Exercise also helps it so that I am tired at the end of the day and ready to sleep. Finally, exercise makes it so I start my day on a positive note. There is something profoundly important about starting the day with a W, it gives me the confidence to feel like I can tackle anything.