A Creative Productivity System for 2021

This is a post that I am writing as a quick guide for my friend Shams Faure, that after a short Zoom tour on how my current system works, I thought it would be cool to have it written down and share it with other people.

An Introduction to Productivity Systems

First of all this needs to be clear: the software/app is not a solution by itself.

You only get results with a good system that works for you.

There is no universal productivity tool, it is something that requires a lot of trial and error until you figure out what works for you.

Your productivity system should be flexible because your life is flexible, and there are some moments that you are more engaged and some moments that you are more prone to feel overwhelmed by the chaos happening around you.

I have tried a lot of productivity apps and always trying to figure out which one is the perfect app, or the perfect system, and my little dopamine hit always comes from trying to figure out the magic key that will unlock my productivity potential or change my life or whatever.

Getting Things Done

I was introduced to ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen, after watching a conversation from Ali Abdaal’s YouTube Channel, where he interviews Khe Hy and explains how to use GTD and Notion framework that I found super smart. In that conversation they also touch upon OmniFocus and other apps, but what it stuck was that Khe states that he’s followed GTD since he was very young and that has been transformative in his life.

From Wikipedia: Getting Things Done (GTD) is a process for increasing your own productivity. In his book the author states that it is not a time management system but instead is a process for bringing order and action to our typically chaotic and random individual worlds. The system and process for achieving this is described in the book of the same title[1] by productivity consultant David Allen.

There is always an american guru that has coaches and consults with the top executives and seems to have found out the magic formula, but how they talked about GTD made me curious and I bought the book and decided to give it a shot.

The system is actually pretty well thought.

My main takeaway is that the mind is not a place for storing tasks and ideas but a space that should remain empty for generating more.

Every idea that one has needs to be logged into an inbox and later on catalogued into projects and actionable steps. If a tasks takes less than 2 minutes, then you should do it immediately and forget about it, therefore leaving room for more important tasks.

When you download your thoughts into paper or digital, you can classify them (using tags for example) into home, office, person, mobile, desktop computer, etc.

So much so, that when you are waiting in line for your favourite caffeine fix, you can pull out your list and check what things you can accomplish on your mobile and smash your tasks like a champ.

The system was thought out to be performed in “analogue” and since then it has collected a very loyal following, and there are apps such as OmniFocus and Things3 for example that draw from these principles.

This is as compact as I can put it, GTD has a whole level of depths regarding weekly reviews, calendar use and long term goal setting. I might go more into detail on that in another post.

GTD Task Management Algorithm Source: Wikipedia

Notion, Life Operating System and productivity suicide.

Once you get sucked into YouTube’s productivity rabbit whole, you might come across August Bradley’s Life Operating System based on his Project, Pipelines and Vaults system.

He has a whole YouTube channel dedicated on creating a life operating system in Notion. Which I have build with the help of his templates and videos. He has embraced the productivity guru even on how he dresses and presents himself.

His hyper-obsessive approach, got me into one of my productive months of my life, in between the first and the second lockdown I was handling a full time job, 2 huge side projects, training CrossFit 3x per week, being a father and loving husband and a mediocre (at best) YouTuber/Podcaster and I almost forgot, finish an MBA.

One of my most productive periods of my life.

The Notion system, still has some of my favorite features. It includes interconnected databases for all your projects, goals and habits. You can store information and cross link the themes and topics in order to gather information. He even teaches you how to process books, connect your Kindle with your Notion and how to highlight information so that you can retain more of what you read.

Mr. Bradley is keen into daily, weekly, quarterly and yearly reviews. How you approach your goals seems to have taken methodologies such as OKRs, and you can keep track of everything you are doing.

The system is great, while I was doing it, I was studying German consistently and that gave me the confidence to speak at home with my wife, I was PRing my deadlifts and being able to stay in a squat position for 3 minutes.

The downside is that the system -at least for me- is that it is very high maintenance. I’m currently in a quest to simplify my life, and if I missed a day or if I had a bad week I would feel miserable.

After two months I couldn’t keep up with myself, I was drained, and when the second lockdown came and my son’s sleeping habits changed, I got expelled out of my own system, and I just couldn’t come back to commit to it.

I also found that there is a point with Notion that it gets so complex, that is overkill, and there is something on the flexibility of the design that just messes up with me, and generates too much noise that converts into friction and stress.

Systems Design

We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training (systems).” Atomic Habits – James Clear

I added the systems part myself. This is for me one of the “magic keys” that I got from August Bradley’s system design for productivity and that is so well crafted in James Clear’s quote.

The key at some point was not to copy someone else’s system, but to generate what works for me at my current point in life.

Is the secret to maximum productivity having the most sophisticated system in the world?

The answer I think relies on what you need at that particular point in life. If you are an obsessive type of personality, that needs to create Gantt Charts to go to the supermarket, then maybe.. but the point i’m trying to convey here is that you need to figure out what works for you today and up to what degree of flexibility you want to maintain if you need to expand or simplify.

For me there are things I need.

  1. A Knowledge Database
  2. A powerful Task Manager that I can track simple projects
  3. Calendar

One can argue that Notion can handle all these in a very interconnected and flexible way, but as mentioned before, I find that Notion becomes just to noisy and generates me a lot of micro-stress that accumulates and I get saturated and once I do that, then I’m done for good and it takes me months to go back.

What works for me today.

Knowledge Database
Evernote

I’ve reverted from Notion to Evernote to handle my database. I think the new Evernote design is looking pretty cool and they have taken some serious steps into improving the product. Its super fast and it transmits that feeling of reliability.

Evernote’s new design. Source: evernote.com

The web clipper is great if you organise it with a proper inbox and store there articles. I use a very basic PARA (Projects Areas Resources and Archives) structure based on Thiago Forte’s knowledge management system which I share with my Dropbox.

My Dropbox Files
My Evernote Organization System

The synergy is not perfect but it helps to have certain order among my different software.

I still have Notion with databases (or Vaults) but since I’m trying to streamline instead of hoard information, for the time being Evernote is doing the trick.

Task Manager
Things3

Things 3. Source: https://culturedcode.com/things/whats-new/

I was a bit hesitant about paying 50$ for a productivity app (plus 10$ on the iPhone and the $20 for iPad that still need to purchase), but I decided that at least the momentum from the expense might give me the kick that I needed to move things forward at a moment where I needed a better and simpler solution for my life.

Things 3 is great because it is created around GTD. I’ve been a Todoist user for some time, specially because it works well switching between MAC and PC, I love the design and the colour combination but for some reason it never stuck to me. Perhaps it gets too complex too fast, and it’s very easy to kick some tasks forward in the future. I don’t really know…

todoist for the web and mobile user interface
Todoist App Source: Todoist.com

Things3 has some constrains but I think they keep them there to keep you aware of your tasks since its very easy to just push things for tomorrow ad eternum.

It’s overall very simple and easy to use. For some reason it’s non intrusive and it doesn’t make me feel that guilty or overwhelmed if my to do list gets stalled for one reason or another. I guess the best design is the one that is functional, the invisible type of design…

Also the Mac Shortcut CTRL + Spacebar comes in pretty handy for just logging in information to your Inbox.

The way it works with the Inbox and the ‘Anytime’ and ‘Someday’ is perfect for taking information out of your head and know that it’s safely stored somewhere. At the same time, its simple integration with iCal is great to get a good overview of your day to day as a constant flow. I’ve found this a bit cumbersome in other to-do apps, and specially Notion where there is no real integration with any calendar.

Things 3 Upcoming View Mixture between iCal and Todo’s.

A very simple task, for example, organise the books on my bookshelf, is stored in one of the folders, and I feel I need to take action and I just do it.

If you follow GTD, then your head is clear and everything you need to do now or later, or some time in the future is secure, whether it consists of a simple chore or something that is project related. The beauty of the system is that it removes guilt or micro-pressure from your subconscious that ruminates since weeks that you have to organize your tax folders alphabetically.

There is obviously a million ways to make Notion work with GTD, and perhaps even customise and/or script one or two awesome functionalities that Things doesn’t offer, but for some reason I feel overwhelmed because is a database of a database of a database and unless you are in a mode that you need to juggle 20 projects at the same time, and you can predict what happens hour after hour then notion just feels like it explodes in your face.

Calendar
iCal / Google Calendar

Since upgrading my 2011 MacBook Pro into a 2020 MacBook Air, I have finally got up to date with the ecosystem and don’t use my PC as much. iCal has obviously a great integration between all my apple gear and if you do proper calendar blocking, then you can.

I know there are some more interesting options for calendar use. Google Calendar is my go to web calendar and it syncs well with iCal, and iCal obviously works great with all Apple’s OS’s. As I write this I am downloading Fantastical, I will give it a shot and perhaps write a review later.

The science behind calendar use is to check your to do list, prioritize, and schedule your day accordingly the night before.

I’m trying to set up 90 minute sprints for each batch of tasks, since I’ve recently heard from Andrew Huberman’s Huberman Lab Podcast, about these 90 minute deep work sessions. I’m not used to them yet. 25 minute Pomodoro’s are easier to manage, but it really depends what needs to be done that day, and also with this home office situation it’s not always possible to keep up with the schedules.

Caveats & Closing Thoughts

Productivity can be a form of passive procrastination. Always looking for the latest app, trick, system, will become something that gives you the illusion of being “productive” but in the end its just a mastubatory experience. After all who doesn’t want to have it all figured it out. It took me about 3 to 4 weeks to get my PPV system from August Bradley going, the return on that investment payed off, but the situations around myself changed very fast. It is difficult to stick to a new system. As long as you are constnatly improving and moving forwards, refine your workflow, and have a minimum degree of consistency, then I think you are safe. Don’t overcomplicate things. Even though you might be more engaged with a particular workflow here and there, if you keep consistency with one way of organizing your life, then you will be able to make room for bigger things.

Overall all productivty systems end up touching on similar points. The most popular tend to hit a nerve, and there are also other concepts such as Eat That Frog that complimient the way one tackles personal and professional projects.

I hope this was helpful, it is more an overview guide on what is out there and how I combine it to get the most out of my day. Knowing myself I will try different things forever, and hopefully the good habits will stick around, and with minor improvements, I will be feeling less overwhelmed when tackling big projects.

Update

Literally the next day I posted this little guide, I saw this video from one of my favorite up and coming YouTubers “Firm Learning” and he actually debunks everything I just said, and moves the productivity question into a new space.

Essentially what he says is: You want to do more? Do more stuff, the pressure will take care of things by itself. And I agree, as I said before, some of these productivity systems can be a form of procrastination by itself. And as my friend Hans-Christoph Schultheiss told me once.

“If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person”

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