There are two ways to approach productivity: start by having a grand goal, a big vision, an unshakable believe in something. Or, start by setting up a system which helps you to achieve more. A solid set of tools and a way of working that allow you to achieve anything you want.

I believe in setting up your system first, before thinking about big goals.

Stop keeping things in your head

You brain is a brilliant machine. It is able to come up with the craziest ideas. There is one thing your brain cannot do: remind you about something exactly the moment you need to remember it. To fix this, your brain will remind you regularly about something you shouldn’t forget. Most of the times the timing will be off. You’ll be thinking of emptying the trash when you’re already on the train to work, for example. These thoughts are distracting and can be really annoying.

Getting Things Done by David Allen is built around the concept of “a mind like water”. It is the absolute opposite than what I’ve described earlier. His concept is really simple:

Stop keeping things in your head and store them in a trusted place.

The nice thing about your brain is that it’s actually pretty easy to please. As soon as it is sure something is taken care of, it will stop sending you these “local notifications”. Obviously you want to store all of your things in a system where you’re sure you’ll get back to at the right time. There is a lot of software to help you with this, but a simple notepad and a pencil will work great too.

It will only work when there is NOTHING that is not in your trusted system. David Allen provides a framework to make sure this won’t happen and doesn’t creep back in. If you want to be more effective, read this book.

Picking a task manager

Want to earn trust from the people in your team, from your boss and from your clients? Commit to tasks and actually follow through with them. Make sure nothing slips trough the cracks.

I covered this previously: you really shouldn’t keep things in your head. Your brain is simply not created to remind you about things that should happen at a specific time. In today’s post I want to list a couple of things I think are important in a todo application. It might help you to pick the right one and get new ideas to use your existing tools to be more effective.

  1. Global hotkeys: For me, this is the absolute most important feature. I need to be able to capture a new task, regardless of the current thing I’m working on. A global hotkey does just this: it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, I can summon a dialog with input to jot down what I don’t want to forget.

  2. (Optional) due dates: As a professional with lots of things to do, it is impossible to finish all your tasks as they will come up. Some things are tied to a date and a todo application needs to have a way to attach a date to a task and will remind you to it.

  3. Projects: You probably have more than one project you’re working on. Next to professional projects, you’ll want to use a tool that is able to capture multiple projects and attach tasks to the project.

There are a number of other features that complete a great todo app, like review mode (to help with a GTD weekly review), easy filtering, mobile access, the ability to add tasks by sending an email and obviously you should never have to wait for your tool to launch or to process something before you can continue using it. For me, OmniFocus is the absolute right tool for the job. There are a number of other (cheaper) alternatives, like Wunderlist, Todoist or Be sure to check out OmniFocus or one of the alternatives if you’re not already using a tool like this.

Sticking to your calendar

Nothing helps more to clear your head than an external system for storing all the things you still need to do. This is a great first step. The very next thing is to decide when you’re actually going to do all those tasks you gathered.

One of my most important principles is that I’m using my calendar only for things I absolutely have to do. This allows me to schedule large blocks of time to work on big things where I need a fresh mind and this is the backbone of my system I’m using to make sure I meet the deadlines I’ve communicated.

When you have lots of things going, it is easy to get overwhelmed. If you don’t know what to work on next, you’ll probably pick the easiest thing. By creating a strict order in my systems, I always know I’m working on the right thing.

This is my strategy:

  • On Friday, during my weekly review, I review my projects and schedule blocks of time in the next week. Whenever big things need to be done, I add this as blocks of time to my calendar as well.
  • By adding this stuff to my calendar, I’m also sure I’m not over-promising.
  • As soon as I’m done with my task, I’m looking at my calendar first. If there is nothing planned, I’m moving to OmniFocus to work on the tasks scheduled there. As soon as they are done, I’m shifting to email.

Whatever your strategy for managing your tasks, you should start treating your calendar as holy ground. Anything that is on there should be something you’re absolutely going to do. As soon as you have that process in place, you can really trust it. If you have a system you trust, other people are going to trust you with more things as well.

Further reading