How I Force Myself to be Productive (or else)

If you were around right now, you would see me hanging my head in shame. Why?

Because I’m a productivity junkie. Of the worst sort.

Name one productivity-related app or trick, I’ve tried it. Name one unorthodox time management method, I’ve been there.

Just a handful of tools fit my lifestyle & workflow. The reason is simple: most of them are so high maintenance I don’t even see the point of complicating my life so much just to feel productive.

Which are the three chosen ones, though? Without further ado, I give you the three that stuck™:

High-level Planning: The Hit List

Ah, The Hit List. Elusive. Almost vapourware. So notorious but oh so good. It’s the only task management app that fits my workflow, even after all these years of testing productivity apps. Most Mac users swear by Things, but I find it nowhere as flexible and easy to use as The Hit List (or THL, from now on, since there is a thing called carpal syndrome).

The main advantage of THL is that it doesn’t make you work in a specific way, instead it completely adapts to your needs. Are you looking for a simple list maker? Check. Are you a hardcore GTD fan that’s looking for the perfect tool for the job? Also check.

My favourite THL features are:

  • Infinite nesting of tasks. A task can have a subtask that can have a sub-subtask, ad infinitum. Seriously, Things, how hard can it be?
  • Any task you add can be “full-viewed” by pressing ⌘-2. BEST THING EVER. Any task, no matter how small, has a page where you can store stuff like text and links. I love this feature for quickly scribbling blog posts when inspiration hits.
  • The lovely sound effects when you complete tasks or hide completed tasks. So satisfying.
  • A special Today list that shows you all the stuff you have to do, well, today. It sounds trivial but it’s amazing how many task management apps get this wrong.
  • Keyboard shortcuts. I’m no Vim or Emacs maven, since my OCD makes me mad when an app has tons of shortcuts that I can’t possibly remember. THL shortcuts make so much sense though! Enter to add task, Space to complete, Tab to edit it, WASD to move it and/or nest it. Bliss!
  • It’s lightweight and (mostly) bug-free.

I have serious love for this app. I’ve also tried OmniFocus in the past, but ohmigawd, the amount of hoops you have to jump through just to “properly” add a task is too much for me. The Hit List is so simple there’s literally no learning curve.

Daily Planning: Desk Diary & Pen

One problem I always encounter while using task management apps is that most of them don’t have a decent way to add trivial, one-off tasks like “pay the bills” or “go to the gym”. I don’t want these tasks to clutter my precious todo list! No need to remember them. I know I have to do them but there’s no need to waste bytes for them.

That’s where my trusty purple Moleskine diary comes in. It’s a basic daily planner, one page per day.

In one of the myriad productivity posts I’ve bookmarked, I’ve read about a method of dividing a day page into your main areas, like home and work, and just add the relevant tasks to each context. No weird markup, no digital intervention, just scribbling a task list on a piece of paper using your favourite pen.

My diary (and most of them, I guess) has markings for the most common work hours, but I never use those to add time-specific tasks. I just divide the page into two sections: Home and Work (or Work and Home, in my case. I clearly have a priorities problem.) I then proceed to writing down my task list.

I gather all the one-off chores I need to do for the day as well as the work tasks I want to accomplish from my THL projects. I then start getting things done, crossing them as I go. If I don’t manage to finish a task, I add a circle around it to review it later, then I delegate it or tweak it to make it doable in the next workday. I try to accomplish at least 3 tasks daily for each area. On good days, my diary has about 5 items crossed off in each section – those are the days I go to sleep feeling content.

I’ve also been known to add tasks like “Read book X for 1 hour” to my Work list, or “Go out with friends” to my Home list. That’s because I have a major personality flaw: I’ll always wait till I finish everything I have to do before doing something I want to do. What this basically means is that, left unchecked, I can and will work myself to a pulp. I recently found out that adding fun stuff as todo items on my diary gives me the willpower to stop working and have fun.

Please tell me I’m not alone in this pathetic little club.


Time Management: Pomodoro

We’ve all been there: having a minor but annoying task to finish but not finding the will to start working on it. Lo and behold, our good old friend procrastination knocks the door, bringing funny cat .gifs and 9gag and self-pity.

That’s where time blocking comes in. There are various ways to implement time blocking, some of them quite fancy, but it essentially boils down to two things: you need a timer and the will to finish that damn thing.

My favourite time blocking method is Pomodoro. Its core idea is pretty simple: you work for 25 minutes, then you rest for 5 minutes. Every 1 hour, you give yourself a longer break of 15 minutes. Rinse and repeat. It fits my workflow perfectly because I’m very, very reward-driven. How hard can it be to work for 25 minutes, if you can harass your cat for the next 5 minutes?

To keep track of time, I use the focus booster Adobe Air app, just because it works just fine and I didn’t bother to do any more research. Of course, if you’re the analog kind, you can use your favourite kitchen timer, or your watch. Next step: find the annoying little bugger of a task you have to work on and press the button.

For this to work, I try to eliminate distractions like e-mail and Twitter. I give myself 25 minutes to work on the task and then a 5 minute break to walk around, check Twitter, do the dishes (it doesn’t sound like a reward, but after sitting on your butt all day, believe me it feels like one) or just goof around with my cat.

Bonus: if I keep doing light house chores during my breaks, after I finish work, my house is mostly clean as well! Double win!

Onwards and… upwards?

That’s my workflow, in a nutshell. If this helps you somehow, do let me know! And please share your tips, because clearly, all I need right now is to read another pile of productivity blog posts. Glee!

Photo credits
  1. Part of my sad & tired Single Actions/Sometime/Maybe/Maybe Never/Who Knows THL list
  2. Pomodoro Technique (illustration) by Michael Mayer
  3. Moleskine diary by lovemoleskine
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