Over the last week I’ve had a couple of detailed discussions with people about how we approach our todo lists and in particular how we ensure that we feel good about what we’ve accomplished during the day. A common concern seems to be “I’ve been really busy all day doing stuff, but I don’t seem to have got anything significant done”.
For me, Productivity is not a goal – it’s simply a set of habits aimed at helping me get my most important stuff done in the most efficient way. While tools are important, they won’t make you more productive by themselves; nor will they tell you what your goals are. However they can support you in developing better habits and making better choices.
Over the years I’ve tried a multitude of productivity tools and task management apps. My current favourite is Todoist, but you need to find whatever support works best for you – and a paper notebook is just fine if that’s what works for you. However I thought you might find it helpful if I went into a little detail on my Todoist setup – I hope it might provide you with a few ideas. And you may be able to provide me with some ideas too 🙂
The main components of Todoist (and most other Task Management apps) are:
- Labels (often called Contexts in other apps)
Let me explain my setup around each of these in turn.
As discussed in my previous post, I have defined 5 Areas of Focus for myself – Customer Work, Marketing activities to promote my business, Selling activities to develop my next set of customers, Administrative activities to do primarily with expenses and invoicing, and all the Personal activities to do with my life beyond work.
As you can see in the picture above, I use the Areas of Focus as the top level of my project hierarchy. The next levels vary depending on the focus area:
- I create a separate project for each active customer
- In some customers there are several discrete projects I want to keep tabs on (eg the Beano Industries example). In such cases I create a further level of project but prefix each project name with the first 3 letters of the Customer name. I do this so that when I am allocating tasks to projects, as I type “#Bea” I will be presented with all the Beano-related projects.
- Here I create separate Projects for the different areas of my marketing activity (Blog, Website, Campaigns, Offering Development, etc). Again I use the “Mar” prefix to make it easy to be presented with all my Marketing projects.
- In this area I track all my Prospect activities with separate project for each potential deal.
- I also include Pipeline stage in project title in parentheses. I do this so that I can build separate filters to track all the outstanding activities by sales stage – a bit like a primitive CRM. The pipeline stages I use are:
- 10% – Stalled / Not Engaged
- 20% – Actively Engaged / Appointment Scheduled
- 40% – BANT Qualified
- 60% – Decision Maker Bought In
- 70% – Proposal Sent
- 80% – Negotiating
- I only use a few project categories here: Skills Development, Business Admin, My Productivity Setup, and items to Read.
- Again I have separate Projects for various areas of my non-work life – Family, Fun, Garden, Home Maintenance, Errands, Movies to Watch / Books to Read
- P1 – ABSOLUTELY MUST be done today (I use this very sparingly)
- P2 – THIS WEEK. These are items that I intend to complete this week. This is my core working list. In an ideal week, everything in P2 would get completed before the next weekly review. In practice, this rarely happens – but that’s OK so long as things don’t stay in P2 for too long, and so long as P2 doesn’t simply grow longer and longer (this is part of my weekly review discipline)
- P3 – NEXT WEEK. Items to be completed sometime next week. I don’t need to worry about these until my next weekly review, when most of these should be reset to P2
- P4 – NO PRIORITY. This simply means that there is no priority defined. Ideally only items in my inbox (that have not yet been fully categorised) are likely to be in this state
It’s a shame that I can’t add a few more Priorities in Todoist for items I intend to focus on after next week. However a simple workaround is to use labels (you can have as many of these as you like!). Therefore I use the following 2 additional labels to supplement my priorities:
- @later. Things that I am committed to but not in the immediate next couple of weeks. “Buy Advent calendar for the kids” might be an example here. I don’t need to worry about it in March, but so long as I review my @later list every month or so, the task shouldn’t get overlooked.
- @someday/maybe. This is similar to @later but with a little less commitment. “Cycle to John O’Groats” might go here.
We’ve already seen a couple of labels. Many other task apps refer to this as Contexts (or Tags), but basically it’s the same thing. One of the strengths of Todoist, in my opinion, is the fact that it can support multiple labels. They provide a great way of breaking your monster list down to a much shorter list depending on the criteria that you select.
Some people like to use labels/contexts to denote the location that the work could be done (e.g. @office, @home, @computer) but I don’t find that provides me a great deal of value. For me, I find the most useful way to break down tasks is by the energy or time required. I use the following labels to denote the energy needed:
- 1. Full Focus (Things that need my full attention and are likely to take an hour or more)
- 1. Twenty Minutes
- 1. Five Minutes
- 1. Brain Dead (These are filing tasks and other menial activities for when there’s very little energy left in the tank!)
The “1.” prefix is not necessary – however it’s handy if you want to use multiple labels. That way you can separate Energy labels from Location labels etc. When you start typing “@1” Todoist’s type-ahead feature will mean that all the Energy labels get presented as a dropdown.
I also use a couple of other labels to help me find appropriate things to do at the right time:
- @waiting. This allows me to keep tabs on all of the items where I’m waiting on some form of response from somebody else.
- @read. I use this to mark things that I come across that I want to read later – really handy when you’ve got five minutes when you’re waiting for a train…
- @calls. This allows me to pull up a list of telephone calls I need to make.
- @London. I live 70 miles from London. Whenever I go into London I try to use the day for as many meetings as possible, so I use this label to tag people to meet when I’m next there.
For the most part, I try to avoid setting due dates for tasks, unless there is a REAL due date. “Finish Buying Christmas Presents” needs to have a due date of December 24th – completing this task a week later does not make for an harmonious household. For the rest, using my Priority flags is usually sufficient to achieve the focus I need.
Another essential part of my productivity arsenal recently has been the habit I’ve developed around Theming my Week. Monday and Wednesday are Themed for my Customer Area of Focus, Tuesday for Marketing, Thursday for Selling and Friday for Administration. While not sacrosanct I find it’s phenomenally powerful to have these as a backdrop for my day’s intentions. The greatest impact for me is that I find that all of my Areas of Focus now get greater attention through the working week.
Up to now this post has all been about how I capture and categorise tasks. The Filters capability of Todoist now allows me to slice and dice my tasks in as many different ways as is useful. The filtering syntax for Todoist is very straightforward but can be built into some pretty powerful combinations. I use filters to help me define may tasks for each day. I use a filter for each day of the week (aligned to my themes) and also to provide various maintenance views as part of my weekly review.
Here are some of my favourites, along with the associated syntax (you may need to adapt this to your own implementation)
1-3-5 List Every Day
Pulling all this together, I now have a system built around Todoist to help me focus on the most appropriate things every day to help me move towards my goals.The last piece of the puzzle is to restrict the number of things I allow onto my task list for every day. I restrict my list to a maximum of 9 Items (may well be less, depending on my calendar commitments). Of those 9 I plan for:
- 1 Full Focus task (this blog post was today’s!)
- 3 Medium tasks (from my “Twenty Minutes” list)
- 5 Quick tasks
Any more than that I reprioritise to another day. I find it important to give me a fighting chance if achieving what I set out to accomplish at the beginning of the day – so there’s no point in putting 30 things on my todo list and beating myself up at the end of the day.
At that point I leave the digital world and print the list. I have found that if I use the Todoist application to drive my day, it tends to get buried behind windows and I lose my focus. Printing of the list (or even rewriting the list onto a post-it note) means I can keep it in front of me for the whole day. Furthermore it means I can enjoy the very satisfying task of drawing a line through actions as I complete them, and I can easily see at the end of the day what I’ve actually accomplished.
Well that’s how I do it anyway. While I use Todoist and love it, you could do most of this with alternative apps, a spreadsheet or good old-fashioned paper. For me the important thing is to build a system that works for you, and once you get it working well enough – STICK WITH IT AND RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO TINKER!
Getting a system that works for you is a very personal endeavour and it takes time to build new habits. But when it works, it helps you focus better, avoid distractions, get the right things done, and be a little more happy and less stressed.
I hope this helps – I’d love to hear your comments.