Having a productivity system is crucial to ensure you can work as effective and efficiently as possible, but what is a productivity system?
Having a process in place, that you follow almost religiously, is important to making sure you’re on top of your life.
Productivity shouldn’t only be considered in relation to your work, but every part of your daily life. The things you do on a regular basis. Or even an irregular basis.
How do you manage them?
Where do you store everything?
I recently started to consider my productivity system and immediately wondered “where do I start”?
Is it with the storage?
Or the task management?
Should I review the note-taking first or the email app?
In the end, I decided that there isn’t a right or wrong place to start.
Everyone has their own system, and this is about the apps that make it work - for me.
Read on to find out about my system, why I use the apps I have and how I use them. Remember, everyone is different and what works for me might be slightly different for you.
There are five “pillars” to my system:
2. Note taking
We all need somewhere to store our documents. Whether that’s physical items, clippings from the web, images, documents we write ourselves - anything.
I use Google Drive as my filing cabinet, to store all my documents and to create new ones.
Google automatically gives 15GB of storage space with each account - probably the most generous of any provided. With past promotions I have added a further 25GB to that; giving me 40GB in total.
It holds spreadsheets, documents, presentations plus audio and visual files for my podcasts, blog and website, and lots more.
Any hard copies that need to be stored, that I may have received in the post (and that doesn’t happen very often) I scan using Scanner Pro - this is an app by Readdle, the same company behind Spark mail.
Once scanned using Scanner Pro, the images are automatically converted to PDF format and uploaded to a folder in Google Drive. I have a weekly task to review the documents and move them to the relevant folder within Google Drive. I will then make the decision to either keep the physical copy (and mark on it, that it’s been scanned, before filing), or I’ll put it into the recycling bin.
I also use the integration that Spark mail has with Google Drive, and save important documents directly from the email. Or the email itself can be saved as a PDF.
Recently, I spent some time re-organising my folder structure; getting rid of some really old files. It’s always a good idea to have a spring clean. You won’t need to keep every document forever - for example, insurance documents are usually only valid for the year, after that, they’re no longer needed.
Of course, there will be many files that you’ll want to keep forever - scanned homework your children have done, or artwork they created - it’s lovely to be able to look back.
With the upcoming changes to how Google measure Drive usage - from June 2021,Google Photos will no longer be free, neither will their Doc, Slides, Sheets etc - this means the free quota will be used up much more quickly, before I need to start paying. At the time of writing this, I still have about 24GB of storage left, so no major urgency.
I do also have a Microsoft Office365 account and may consider moving everything to Microsoft OneDrive, as I have 1TB of storage space there. However, it’s not a system I’m really happy with - and I find Microsoft is quite clunky compared to Google.
The other option that I have is Apple iCloud, but there are a couple of issues with that. Firstly, you only get 5GB to start with, and secondly I’d be tied into the Apple ecosystem, which doesn’t provide much future proofing.
2. Note Taking
I’ve been an Evernote user for a number of years, but I must admit that following the “upgrade” to their new version 10, I have taken the decision to downgrade my account to Basic, and started to use Bear.
The main reason I've moved away from Evernote is due to the instability I experienced. I know there are workarounds, but I lost confidence whenever I opened the app, or looked on the web-version and notes were missing. Or worse, complete notebooks were no longer visible.
I want to know that my notes are safe, synchronised and available when I need them.
There are tons of note-taking apps in the market, and as an Apple user, I also looked at Apple Notes; but the experience didn’t quite do it for me. I also considered Microsoft OneNote (for the umpteenth time) but I just don't get on with it!
Bear is not as fully featured as Evernote, but it does offer something I need over and above function. Stability.
I had tried Bear in the past, rather half-heartedly, and initially having trouble with markdown; so I looked again, got my head around the markdown and and realised it was for me.
The main benefit is that Bear has a much cleaner user interface - no bells and whistles. The formatting is done primarily through markdown, or a simple menu of formatting functions.
There’s cross-note linking, in-note links too (e.g. for a table of contents) and you can add images and photos - although you can’t adjust the size, yet.
There are lots of themes to choose from too, and multiple export options.
One of the best features is in the tagging. Using Hashtags, it’s possible to create a structure for storing notes, and since you have use multiple tags in each note, your notes can be found in more than one place.
With nested tags, you can create a folder-like structure, without it being too onerous to manage.
Further to that; when you remove a tag, from the notes, the tag disappears from the sidebar; reducing the clutter.
I should add that, whilst I don't store documents in Bear, I do include links to the location in Google Drive, which helps to quickly find something.
I like Bear and enjoy working with it. It’s quick. It’s simple and it gets the job done.
3. Task Management
Task management is the backbone to my entire productivity setup.
Everything that I need to do is in Todoist.
And I mean everything.
Todoist is a task manager which I’ve been using for over 2 years.
I always say that when you have a job to do, get it out of your head and into a system. This means you’ll never forget it.
As a task manager, Todoist is perfect for that. I can add notes, attachments and also links.
I may have a note in Bear that needs following up, so I can add a direct link in the comments.
Likewise, there may be an email that demands further attention (or a reply). I can add a link to the email directly into Todoist and when it’s time, I can open the email and continue.
It makes the process smoother, as I don’t need to go hunting for the email or note.
Todoist is also integrated with my calendar app (Fantastical) so the tasks show up there, and can be managed there too. This reduces the inertia from moving between apps - it makes it seamless.
Using a keyboard shortcut on my MacBook allows me to enter a task without leaving my current place. CRTL+CMD+A will open a small window to capture the task. Click “Add Task” and it’s logged. I can continue what I’m doing without much interruption.
Creating a task is a breeze, using natural language, even for recurring tasks; such as "Check Inbox every day at 10:30pm". Or, "Water the plants on the first of every month". Todoist will understand and create the tasks accordingly.
Within Todoist itself, I have a number of projects set up; a Routines project, for all my daily, weekly and monthly tasks; each with a reminder set.
I have a project for work, the Cubs and Scouts that I’m involved with, and others. These help to compartmentalise the work.
Each day I review all the Upcoming tasks for the next day, and review any new ones I might have added to the inbox. These are then prioritised, updated with due dates, or reminders. Or deleted, if they’re no longer relevant.
Remember that tasks within a task manager (or written in your notebook) don’t HAVE to be completed; but it makes certain you’ve considered everything.
Todoist employs gamification in the form of Karma. You earn points when:
You add tasks.
You complete tasks on time.
You use advanced features such as labels, recurring due dates, and reminders.
You reach self-set goals regarding the number of tasks you want to complete either daily or weekly.
You achieve ongoing “streaks” by attaining your goals for several days/weeks in a row.
Earning points helps you to work your way through 8 levels, to the top level of “Enlightened”.
Email. It’s been around for years and isn’t going anywhere soon! So, it’s important to use a tool that helps you manage them.
I have been using Spark for a couple of years, ever since the previous app I used started to slow down, and become less reliable.
So far there have been no such issues, and Spark offers so much that I find handy.
Apart from having all my email accounts in one place; I can decide which one sends notifications, and the use of the Smart Inbox really helps to keep the noise to a minimum.
I can pin emails easily, as a reminder of emails that need action, although the integration with Todoist means that I can simply swipe to add the email (with a clickable link back to Spark) into a task in Todoist. My Inbox can then be emptied.
There’s not much more to write about an email app. I like that Spark has the integrations I need, both to Todoist also to Bear. Once more, an example of reducing the inertia to getting things done.
The final “pillar” in my productivity setup is my calendar -Fantastical 2.
I’ve been using Fantastical for almost 5 years, and it’s changed a lot (for the good) over the years.
In 2020 they introduced an annual subscription model, which I considered carefully.
At £39 per year (just over £3 per month) then this is roughly equivalent to other major apps, and it’s soooo beautiful to use, with such a deep level of customisation, I decided it is totally worth the money.
I love that entries can be made using natural language for the date and time. Locations, URLS, notes and since I have a number of accounts, I can decide which one to use too.
You can create different calendar sets to display at certain times or locations, I have integrated Todoist, which depending on the set I’m using shows different task lists - work ones at work, and personal ones at home. The beauty here is that Todoist is a 2-way integration, which means I can create and complete tasks within Fantastical and it synchronises back to Todoist.
I have Zoom and Google Meet integrated too, so I can launch meetings directly from the calendar app, without needing to find the relevant video call app. Yet another way to improve efficiency.
The menu bar on my MacBook has the next appointment (or task) displayed, so I don’t even need to go to the calendar. Plus the widgets on iOS and MacOS are sublime to use too.
Like email, there’s not much more to add for a calendar. Everything I need to do is in here - making it, I suppose, the one stop place for task and time management.
I am quite averse to changing apps for the sake of it, which is why I have been using these for a while (with the exception of Bear, but then I’ve been using Evernote for over 10 years, so I guess this doesn’t count!)
Constantly changing apps can have an adverse effect on your productivity, simply due to the time it takes to learn a new app, and get the most from it.
Spend time really getting to know the ones you have, and unless there is a very valid reason to change, then stick with it. Of course, it’s important to remain open-minded, and to review your system periodically, to make sure you’re getting the best from it.
An effective system will become second-nature.
You’ll be able to keep on top of everything without actually thinking about it.
Do you have a system already in place? I’d love to hear about what you do. Leave a comment.
This article contains affiliate links, which means that if purchase anything from them I might earn a small commission. This will not affect the price you will pay. Thank you.