Setting up a system

Like most people, I have struggled over the years to comes up with a organizational/productivity system that works for me.  Disclaimer: I do not yet have it down perfectly, and am not claiming guru status.  But I do have a few things that have worked pretty well, and I have noticed some things that others do that seem to work, so I will share those here.

I have a somewhat elaborate system which I will explain below, but at the end of the day it all boils down to a single strategy: getting things into my calendar.  The other main thing I try to solve for is simply not forgetting things.  I live in a constant stream of emails and meetings, and it’s easy to forget something important.  So a goal here is to help ensure that I don’t forget things and ultimately, that I’m focused on the most important thing most of the time.

I live by the calendar and generally obey it.  This is a trick I learned from Fred, who doesn’t use any productivity system except for brute force email and calendaring everything.  Getting something into my calendar is the most sure-fire way that it will get done — having a date and time attached to something gives it a lot more weight than a wishy-washy entry on a list of to-dos or “priorities”.

Working backwards from the calendar as ultimate do-place, I have a few tricks for capturing and prioritizing, loosely based on the “Getting Things Done” theory of capture/clarify/organize/etc.   As much as possible, I try to get big things out of my Inbox and into a place where I can see and organize.  For this I use Trello.  I have a board I use every day that looks like this:

From right to left:

The main show here is the “priorities” list, where I try to pluck out the important big things on my plate — this helps me make sure I am not forgetting something.  Roughly daily, I review this list, sort it, and make sure things are in my calendar to do.

Another list in my Trello is “meetings”.  I use this list to capture high-level takeaways from meetings.  I am a big believer in the concept of the “commonplace book” and the value of taking notes and reviewing them over time.  For me this step is more about just general processing rather than to-dos, though there is a to-do component.  I take meeting notes by hand in a small notebook (currently a moleskine but in the old days I used a spiral bound), and always mark follow-ups with a “F/U” with a circle around it — this is a trick I learned from Phil Myrick back when I worked at PPS.  As a way of processing the meeting notes, I make a card in trello for each meeting and add the follow-ups as checklist items (Dani has a system similar to this, using Notion, and I’m always impressed with how well it seems to help her process meetings).  For little things, I just do them right away, for bigger ones, I prioritize and calendar them.

On the left is the “Inbound” list.  I use this to capture fleeting thoughts, ideas and notes.  Things get on this list in two ways: 1) via Wunderlist, which I mainly use by phone — I have found this to be the easiest and quickest way for me to jot something down on the go.  I use Zapier to move things from my main list in Wunderlist into “inbound” on Trello.  2) I use Trello’s built-in email-to-board feature to get larger items out of my inbox and into Trello.   Again, the goal here is just to capture so I can process/prioritize later.

Another input into this system is my other notebook, the Ink+Volt Planner. I am on my third year of using this wonderful tool: it’s a structured goal and priorities setting notebook that helps you create and reach yearly, monthly and weekly goals.   I find that the Ink+Volt, like meditation, helps me cut through the noise and see what’s important more clearly.  I do a planner session every week (it’s in the calendar), and use that to inform all of the above.

Having now written all of this, it seems pretty clear that this is a lot of work, and may be excessively complex.  My wife would probably describe this as “planning to plan”, and just an elaborate mechanism for avoiding doing the actual stuff, or something like that.   That may indeed be so, and I often think about Fred’s simple strategy of blast relentlessly through email and calendar everything.  It is impressive and seems to work.  Mostly, I use this system so that I am not just at the whims of my inbox.

For sure, my biggest weakness is email, which I still struggle with.  Albert has a system here, which seems to work for him, which is: using a set of predefined gmail filters, clear the inbox daily.  Not the entire inbox, but a few filtered versions (family, USV team, his portfolio companies).  I’m not there yet.

So, there you have it.  That’s my system. It’s a work in progress.  What’s yours?

   

  • Nice setup.. I use GitHub’s Kanban Boards. At first blush, it looks and acts very similar to Trello’s Kanban Boards. But for someone who codes, manages projects, teams, etc, GitHub’s offering allows for a healthy balance of customization while keeping things simple. For me, it reduces the number of tools I have to use in a day.

    I do miss a few visual cues that Trello offers like image preview’s in cards, etc. That can be quite handy.

    But overall, my productivity level has gone up quite a bit since switching to GitHub’s Kanban Boards.

  • our team just started to use Monday.com – similar to Trello but easier/more intuitive I find and great visually

    • I’ve heard great things about Monday as well. Does it work well with code issues, etc.?

    • I have seen the ads

      Do you like it?

      • Yes – I have found it easy to use and the rest of the team took to it quickly.

      • jason wright

        i think we’ve all seen the ads! :) It gets annoying.

  • Thanks Nick. I like these topics to learn other ways and see how I can learn. I will look into Airtable as it sounds intersting and had heard of it, but not tried it.

    I use Evernote for daily planner but have it structured in the following manner…

    *******************************************NOW**************************************************

    ****************************************************************************************************

    MONDAY

    NIGHT

    TUESDAY

    NIGHT

    WEDNESDAY

    NIGHT

    THURSDAY

    NIGHT

    FRIDAY

    NIGHT

    WEEK END TO DO

    WEEK TO DO

    TO DO SOMETIME

    I place the then critical tasks in Now and in Week to do, items on my radar but not as time sensitive or as important as what goes into the day or night of each day. I spend 5-10 min each AM and PM moving things around, closing them out. This free form, along w Evernote’s pretty solid Mac App and Mobile integration works very well for me. I have 150+ Evernote folders that is my prosthetic memory. I also use my Google Cal extensively but only for meetings and deadlines (such as filing dates, contract expiry, etc…) that are > 1 month out.

    open to other ways to improve

    • Sounds like you have a system that is working for you, which is the important thing!

  • TamiMForman

    The Trello phone app is really great — you might consider that and nix Wunderlist, which seems to be creating an unnecessary step. I also use Wunderlist, but only for share shopping lists with my husband (we have a shared Target list so whoever is at Target — um, me — doesn’t have to ask “hey, what do we need at Target?”). That said I’m going to try to move him to Trello …

    • I do use the trello mobile app and it is nice

      I am happy w the Wunderlist setup as I find it to be the quickest way to capture things on mobile, and the trello integration is seamless

      I also use Wunderlist for shopping lists etc which is nice

  • jason wright

    Wow, that’s a very complicated system. If it’s a productive means to an end then all is good, but i wonder if it’s over engineered for the intended purpose(?) Do you use the telephone much (for voice) in your daily work process?

    • Yeah. The Fred approach if blast email + calendar everything is really crucial and simple. But I do like to have a space where I can view things all together and prioritize, So I don’t forget anything important

      I am on the phone constantly but don’t really use voice as part of any productivity workflow

      • jason wright

        I finally got my sticky little fingers on a Google Slate yesterday, the M3 processor version. It was quite nippy. I was pleasantly surprised by that. Not sure abut the keyboard though. I may give it a chance to impress me.

        Fred’s a bulldozer :)

        • Give the keyboard a chance! I like it now

          • jason wright

            I might :), but it just doesn’t seem very stable as a ‘laptop’ on my lap. That’s the one aspect of the design of these laptop substitutes that needs more work. I quibble.

  • Benjamin Zeitz

    I have a similar process that includes almost all of the tools that you use. I learned it from Mark Davis at Interplay (but adapted it for my own needs)

    Meetings all go on the calendar, which I do a decent job of obeying.

    I clear through my inbox top to bottom several times a day- if its small and I can handle it quickly (under 10 seconds) I do the task immediately, anything else goes to my ToDoIst list. I have ToDoIst to Trello zap through zapier for my biggest tasks, and everything big picture goes onto my trello board. I re-prioritize trello each morning, and ToDoIst top to bottom each time I add tasks to it.

    I use ToDoIst to tell me what’s important and what I need to do next. Trello gives me structure so I can see big picture. I may not get as many emails as you, but I hit inbox zero daily, and (when I stick to the framework) don’t miss very many tasks at all.

    • Very similar indeed!!

      I am not as good at the email part

  • Nick Kim

    I use the Trello widget to avoid the Wunderlist > Zapier > Trello move. Swipe left to get to widgets click add card and it adds right into what you call “Inbound.”