I’ve been a to-do list junkie throughout life. In school, I made exquisitely drawn out lists, often on mini yellow pads. Later in life, I used a computer, making lists in outlines or text files. I moved on to apps like OmniFocus and Things. I even spent almost four years working with the team that built Wunderlist and Microsoft To-Do in service of my fascination with productivity.
Here’s the bad news: No matter how hard we try, the secret of productivity isn’t found in any app. In fact, while the different apps have their differences and some are better than others at a particular style of organization, none of them are really all that much better or worse than the other.
The good news: The secret of productivity is found in spending just a bit of the very thing you’re trying to save: Time.
My most productive periods look like something this: I sit down in the morning with a cup of coffee and work through my lists of to-dos, refactoring them for the day. At the start of a week, I might take some more time and think about longer-term goals.
Inevitably, at some point, I’d fall out of the rhythm. Maybe my routine would change. Or perhaps I’d decide that the time was better spent somewhere else. Inevitably, however, my effectiveness would slide. I wouldn’t get it back until I decided to start some sort of new routine, usually with a shiny new app or notebook.
I did this off and on for years before I finally got it through my head that the benefit I saw didn’t come from the new app. It came from thinking about what I was going to do, what I needed to do, and what I could postpone for later or even not do at all.
Of course, David Allen writes about this in Getting Things Done. If only I’d fully internalized what he meant fifteen years ago when I read his book.
Pick a tool. Any tool. And use it every day.
So it’s easy, right? Just spend some time every day, right? Right. That’s much easier said than done. There’s only one thing I’ve ever found that makes sure I stay on track: a repeating calendar appointment that blocks out the time.
I have two repeating appointments that I block out:
- 15 minutes every weekday, to plan for the day.
- 30 additional minutes every week on Monday, to prepare for the week
If I turn up to these appointments with myself almost every day, my productivity benefits. If something comes up at the time I’ve booked, that’s OK. I’ll either reschedule or skip as appropriate. But I do that as a conscious decision so that I make sure only to cancel when it’s essential to do so. And if I do it too many times, it doesn’t take long before I see how things slow down.
That’s it. That’s the hack that works for me.