The Best Productivity System There Is

To-do list

“Hi Celes, I have a problem tracking down the tasks I need to be done and the deadlines… I’ve tried several software solutions but haven’t found yet one that is good for me. I am looking for a place where i can keep my notes and personal information as well as my errands and tasks together. And of course the events on a calendar. Which ones do you use? Which ones do you recommend?” – Mário

After a long period of trying out different methods and software to track my information, from your traditional pen and paper, organizers/handbooks, online to-do lists, sticky notes, GTD productivity software (modeled after David Allen’s Getting Things Done) and what not, I realized there’s no one size fits all solution.

For example, when I was using traditional pen and paper as my to-do list, it was easy to dump out my to-do items and check them off as I go along. But after a while it got very messy. I’d have multiple pieces of paper all over my task, and on each piece of paper there were words and scribbles sprawled all over it. It was difficult keeping track. Also, I had to rewrite every time I wanted to restructure the content, which was tedious.

When I was using hand-held organizers, it was easy to input the tasks according to their deadlines. My focus was to just get the tasks done of the day done. However it is difficult to see the big picture when your only guide is a daily schedule. It’s good as a day-to-day managing system, but not for long-term goal management.

Sticky notes software – It’s very useful to have tasks at the click of a mouse but it doesn’t take long before you get some 8-10 notes cluttered on your desktop, with huge chunks of information on each note. Just tidying the notes and keeping track of what you have to do becomes a chore. Also, sticky notes have limited formatting functions since they are meant more to store quick snippets of information.

Then I tried GTD software. As part of running a personal development blog, I often get free copies of books and software to review on my blog if I like them. I tried a GTD system based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It helps you plan out your projects from conceptualization to execution, through the use of  Goals, Projects, Tasks, Checklists, Schedules and Calendar. After about a week of earnestly trying to make it work, I stopped using it. I had a hard time drawing a meaningful difference between Goals and Projects, and I spent more time clicking around and organizing my stuff in the system than really getting things done! I’m sure it’s a fantastic system for some, but it just didn’t work for me.

I also tried some online to-do lists. While they were fun at the beginning, after a while it became a real hassle to have to login, input/update/delete my tasks day-in and day-out.

The Best Productivity System

What I found out from all these experiences is that there is no one best productivity system out there for you or me. I have my specific way of doing things, and with each system I tried in the past, I felt I was changing myself to make the system work out rather than being truly productive with it. Each system made me feel boxed in. The more complex GTD systems had learning curves of their own.

The best productivity system is one that makes your productivity flow, not obstruct it.

After all these, I realized it’s time to stop looking for a one-size fits all productivity system for me. It doesn’t exist. All of us have our individual styles and preferences, and to have a system that suits all our needs comes nothing short of hiring a software developer to build a customized system for us and us only. Even then, it’s hardly a solution. Not only will it cost a bomb, we’ll probably outgrow the system as we change.

Creating My Productivity System

So then, I started off with my own tracking sheet, using MS Excel / Openoffice (it’s like a replica of MS Office except it’s free). It started off as a simple list of what I need to do, listed by their dates. Over time I began building on it, adding goals and projects. Then I started to arrange them by priority within the goals. Soon, I introduced long-term goals into the system.

Today it has evolved into a full workbook with individual sheets on future goals, monthly goals, weekly goals, key projects, action steps, strategies, daily to-do lists, information and other miscellaneous info. It helps me manage between seeing the big picture and managing the nitty gritty. (Those who read how to create your life handbook will know that I use excel for my handbook too. This is a different workbook from my life handbook.)

My Add-on Productivity Tools

I don’t use just this workbook alone – I use a few other software as part of my productivity system, namely:

  1. Google Calendar (gcal) – For calendar/time specific events
  2. Morun Free Sticky Notes – Post-in notes to store snippets of information I use regularly
  3. Pen and paper – For brainstorming, writing down ideas, or simply writing down my to-do’s for the day so I can just focus on them
  4. Notepad - Nothing like the simple notepad to take down notes immediately, then organize later on.
  5. My mobile phone – To take down notes while I’m on the go. I transfer them to my workbook when I get back to my computer. I’m using Active Notes in Nokia E63 at the moment, though any mobile phone will do the trick, really. Just type up a sms and save it as a draft.

Once every week and every month, I review my productivity system and update it with my focus for the week/month. I continue to make tweaks here and there, and overall it’s a very robust system for my needs. It’ll probably continue to change and evolve as I change too. That’s the beauty of creating your own productivity system – you revise it to fit your needs as you change.

Most importantly, it works very well for me. It’s effective, I can click around easily and get my information, and I can edit with ease. I can’t say the same if others try to use my system. They might get overwhelmed with the amount of information, or it might be too complex for their comprehension. And that’s why there’s no one-size fits all solution.

Nowadays I continue to get requests to try out productivity applications, but I don’t do that anymore as I have already found the best productivity system for myself. For that same reason, I recommend you to create your own system as nothing will fit your needs better than something you create yourself.

Create Your Own Productivity System

My recommendation is to build your own system, via Excel / Open Office, word processor, traditional organizers, or some other tool. It doesn’t have to be excel, though I highly recommend it since it’s already built to collect and organize large amounts of information in a systematic fashion. It’s intuitive and highly customizable too. You might have to experiment with different software to find what works for you. It might take a period of time, but once you find the right tool for you, it becomes really simple as you use it to enhance your workflow.

Softwares You Can Use To Create Your Productivity System

Productivity Tools

Of course, if you don’t have much experience using productivity systems/software, it’s better for you to try around with different systems so you get a sense of what works for you and what doesn’t, before you start creating your own productivity system. Here are some good tools to start off with:

  1. Calendar: Google calendar is the best calendar option out there. It has basic calendar functions for event management (title, location, description, option to repeat) and other add-on functions like an addendum task-list and different calendars for different purposes (i.e. Work, Personal, Exercise, etc – you can color code them to distinguish between them). You can also share your calendar with others who use Gcal too, making it a collaborative tool.
  2. Sticky Notes: After trying a good number of sticky notes software, I concluded I love Morun Free Sticky Notes the most because it’s so user-friendly and light on resources. You can have multiple notes for different purposes, and differentiate based on the note title and the color. Within each note, you can do simple formatting (bold, italics, underline, change font color). Best of all, it’s free!
  3. To-Do Lists: There are quite a number of great online to-do lists. I’ve listed the most popular and highly rated lists below. Each of them has its own positive points, so be sure to try them to see how they work out for you. They are ordered from simple to advance:
    • Ta-da Lists – Minimalists’ type of to-do list. If you are just looking for the simplest to-do list there is, where you just list items and check them off, this is the one. Can be integrated with iPhone.
    • Todoist – Simple interface, comes with a calendar, lets you create hierarchies among your tasks (i.e. prioritized items), along with gmail integration, mobile access, reminders, and more. Has mobile support as well.
    • Remember the Milk – With Milk, you can create deadlines, set tasks to recur, set priority among tasks, have reminders and more. It’s integrated with gmail and gcal. It’s been voted as the best to-do list manager on Lifehacker.com. There’s also mobile phone support.
    • Toodledo.com – More than just a to-do list, it’s more like a to-do system, complete with tagging, time tracking, goal setting, calendar and more. It offers all the functions that leading to-do list software have, and more.
  4. Project Management: For higher level organization and management.
    • Tiddly Wiki -  Imagine a wiki site (complete with the functionality of tagging, editing, saving, searching) but for your own personal use to track your personal projects. What’s more, you also get to port it from computer to computer.
    • PB Works – Similar to Tiddly Wiki, except PB Works is more geared toward team collaboration.
    • Goals on Track – Online, paid
    • Vitalist - Online, free with paid version
    • Nirvana - Online, free
    • Thinking Rock - cross-platform, free with paid version
    • OmniFocus – for Mac users only, free

Ready Made Productivity Systems For You

I recognize some of you may be fully contented with using ready made productivity systems, and if so you can check out the following. I’ve listed the best GTD systems as rated by the web community.

What Is Your Productivity System Like?

Do you use any software to manage your events, tasks, and calendar? Which ones would you recommend? Feel free to share in the comments section :)

Image: Journal


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  • agv

    I have tried a lot of systems too. I am a big fan of Microsoft Outlook 2007/2010 for quite some time now. Having a hosted account on an Exchange server (it’s rather cheap nowadays but not totally free) can create an unbeatable combination. Outlook keeps calendar, tasks, notes, contacts, email, (lately RSS but not too good) all together in one place and in context. Searchable too. The hosted exchange allows me to sync on the go both ways and get reminders just in time. Even if am not close to my computer I can log to OWA for some serious planning (read: item editing) You can have all the views (day/work week/week/month) and create some nice views too. Be advised it’s not perfect; there are still some drawbacks (like price, it does not run on non-Microsoft platforms, the RSS part needs quite some more work).

    And my productivity tip: I don’t use a to-do list; any task is either planned on the calendar for a specific date and time or it’s not a task at all. I tend to ignore an open-dated to-do list because more “urgent” stuff pop on my calendar.

    I too agree on the main point of the article; there is no “perfect” system for everyone but everyone can create her/his “perfect” system. And then, revise it often :-D

  • http://onewithnow.com Manal

    Great advice Celes.

    My experience is similar to yours. I experimented with a lot of stuff and now I use google docs I use one spreadsheet/workbook for action steps, appointments and projects list.

  • Zach P

    This is great advice.

    I find that the Google Calendar tasks feature is my favorite to do list. It is right inside of Google calendar which allows you to quickly add due dates for each task and find open time slots to complete them. (It also syncs to the task list inside Gmail) Additionally, it has a mobile site so it’s easy to access from your phone. I would definitely recommend it to someone that is already using other Google services.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/koalazymonkey/sets/72157614803589073/ Justin See

    Hi Celestine,
    I have been working on different system for the past few years, and I hope my contributions can help your readers gain some insight of the individual system i used.

    1) Hipster PDA
    - Using of recycle paper, cut them into 4s, and bind the paper together with a clip.
    - I use it as my TDL (To-Do List), as well as notebook to take down random information
    - I am still using it coz its cheap and it is handy to bring around.

    2) Index Card (4 X 6)
    - I allow each card for 1 day.
    - On 1 side, it is the TDL, and on the other, it is the appoints for the day.
    - I discard the system because it is hard to bring the stack of index cards around, it eventually got messy.

    3) Notebook (at the moment, a cheap slim B5 size notebook)
    - I am using a cheap notebook now, which i break the notebook into 4 parts (using index tag): (a) calendar; (b) Next Action; (c) Projects; (d) Somedays.
    - It allows me to pen everything – my brainstorms ideas, upcoming appt, TDL – into a book.
    - I am still testing the system, and see what are the areas that I can modify to suit my needs.

    4) Planner
    - I use an expensive planner so that I can keep track of my appointments.
    - An expensive planner makes me want to bring them out (to make myself feels good).

    5) Quarters-TDL (QTDL)
    - As TDL is just for me to pen down the things i need to do, so eventually, I will throw away the paper.
    - So i used recycled paper, fold them into quarters, and I pen down the things i need to do on each side.
    - Once, 1 side is finished, i will switch to the next side.
    - This can totally make full use of the recycle paper.

    Hope my contributions help :)

  • http://www.writerontheverge.com JD McCoy

    Great Post. I personally have tried the GTD process by found it to be a little too daunting. So now I just use the Post-It’s that come with the windows toolbar. Each night before I go to bed I write all my goals down on separate post its. And if I need help with a particualr goal then I will use I trigger to help me. An example of this is tapping your thigh twice; which I have programed to help me get a clear mind. Whenever my thoughts are too rampant I will tap my leg twice and almost instantaneously have a clear head. I also have programed a trigger for motivation. When I need motivation I will rub my upper thigh once and feel the motivation just start flowing into me. I know it sounds a little silly but it works. Thanks again;
    JD McCoy

    Life Hacking isn’t just a philosophy; its a way of life.

  • http://www.blog.iqmatrix.com Adam Sicinski

    Hi Celes,

    Over the years I have utilized many software tools. What works best for me these days is a combination of 2 applications:

    - http://www.hitask.com/
    - http://www.goalscape.com/

    HiTask is an fantastic task management system that suits the way I work. And Goalscape is by far the best application I have found for setting and keeping track of Goals. They utilize a very unique process that is ideal for Life Coaching. What I do with my clients is I ask them to insert their Personal Legend in the middle (vision + mission). From here we branch out with the following categories: Family, Health, Wealth, Career, Growth Adventure. More can also be added. But I prefer to work with these to begin with. Then we look at Goals that they want to achieve in each of these categories.

    It’s an absolutely brilliant application that I cannot speak more highly about. And it’s wonderful for Life Coaching purposes.

    Hope you get a chance to check Goalscape out for yourself. I would love to get your feedback.

    • http://www.writerontheverge.com Jace McCoy

      Wow both of those programs are solid. I have been looking for programs that could help me organize my tasks and goals. I also stopped by your website and have to say I am impressed. I read on your personal blog that you developed a photographic memory. I would be interested to know the process of going about that. Thank You for sharing these two programs.
      Thanks;
      JD

      Life Hacking isn’t just a philosophy; its a way of life.

      • http://www.blog.iqmatrix.com Adam Sicinski

        Thanks for dropping by the website Jace.

        I developed photographic recall through the use of Mind Mapping. When I map out a subject I can learn the material in a very short period of time. It’s a great tool that helped me develop my visual thinking ability — which was quite poor before I started mapping. That’s how I got through University :)

        HiTask and Goalscape are indispensable tools. Hope you get the most out of them.

  • http://bluelambda.com.sg Francis Teo

    Glad to know I’m not the only one who obsesses over productivity.

    Currently I’m using:
    1. Todo list: remember the milk
    2. Calendar: google calendar (with SMS alerts!)

    Another angle to this is to automate as much as possible. On the mac there are tools such as Hazel to automate a lot of file management, and there are built in tools such as automator which can do so much (e.g. batch resizing photos, apply effects). Stuff like password management tools (with autofill – eg 1password) save a few minutes here and there, and pays off in the long term.

    Been meaning to try out “Things” as well as the feature set is right up my alley, as well as mailplane, to manage my 10 odd email accounts across my business and personal life.

    One thing I do with regards to the todo list is to write out on a notepad the tasks for today, with priorities and time estimates, and check them off one by one. Not too GTD, but works well for me as it allows me to focus.

  • http://myforexhome.biz/4x Steve Seykota

    Hi,

    Nice post I had same feelings.
    I follow the work of Mark Foster . http://www.markforster.net/autofocus-index/

    very active forum on his site and I like the way he think about Time Management.

    His last works is called DMW.

    Best Regards from Sun in Sweden
    Sey.

  • http://personalexcellence.co/blog/ Celes

    This is fantastic; thanks so much everyone for sharing! It’s very interesting reading about all your productivity systems; again drives the point that there’s no one size fits all system.

    @Adam – Goalscape does look very impressive – Thanks so much for sharing! I’ll give it a try soon to see how it’s like.

  • Jason Burnett

    I’ve tried notebooks, day planners, and online systems (Google calendar plus Remember the Milk), the system that works best for me right now is Pocket Informant for iPhone (http://www.pocketinformant.com/products_info.php?p_id=pocketinformant_iphone), which I run on an iPod Touch. It lets me integrate my calendar, to-do lists, and contacts all in one place, with GTD functionality built in and the ability to sync with a number of other software packages. There’s a free version you can download to try it out, and if you like it, the full version is only $12.99 – probably the best $12.99 I’ve ever spent on software.

  • bliz

    Ha! I have the same trouble with organisation. I even went as far as getting 43 paper folders (now recycled). It was difficult to stick to GTD probably as I’ve not finished the book (stopped reading and have not resumed since then), and it’s a system I’m not used to.

    Right now my organisation comprises of Google Calendar (great!), internet bookmarks, pieces of paper, a notebook and txt documents strewed all over my hard disk and room.

    I intend to re-read GTD (not that I’ve actually read it end-to-end) and complete the book and come up with a system that suits me using the insight gained, coupled with my own experience with personal productivity.

    Meanwhile, I will experiment with wikidpad (http://wikidpad.sourceforge.net/), excel, MS onenote and chandler (http://chandlerproject.org/) to see if they suit my needs.

    I believe a good system is one which one can stick to, and is easily accessible anywhere you go. Storing files on a flash drive is good. But what if you forget to bring it: Store a copy online too. What if you lose it: gotta encrypt sensitive data, no excuse. What if you have no flash drive nor internet access: use a paper notebook.. nah, too troublesome. perhaps just write some tasks to do for the day on paper to put it in your wallet……….. or use your memory once in a while.

  • http://www.joshuanoerr.com Joshua Noerr

    I find the best way to be more productive is to strip down any and all to do lists to no more than three items in any given day. Anymore than this and I feel I am working for the sake of working.
    These three items are my top priorities for the day.

    At the end of the day, I ask, “What results did I produce today?” Notice I did not say what did I do. I could do a lot of things, but if they don’t produce results what is the point?

  • http://www.stradivarius29.blogspot.com SKZY

    I am using Outlook too. I find it easy and since I am accessing it everytime in the office so I can get track of my things to do, meetings/appointments, etc.

    • http://personalexcellence.co/blog/ Celes

      I used Outlook back in my previous workplace and I liked it a lot. I especially love the color flagging option and automatic filter that came with the new version of outlook. :D

  • http://calmgrowth.com/ Marko — Calm Growth

    Good idea… Pardon me, amazing idea!

    I’ve also learned a lot about the systems for productivity… Each is useful in its own way, but also something is wrong with each….

    However, as time passed, I came up with self-fabricated methods. I must add that this “system” is not complete, because I will not talk about it.

    I really like the idea behind this article… outstanding!

  • http://www.finansium.se Henrik Ekenberg

    Hi,

    Thanks for all comments and the nice post.
    I have tested different wiki software but the one I prefere is.
    http://wiki.squeak.org/swiki/ because I run it on a usb drive ( no installation needed just uncompress the file).

    Then I sync my usb drive with dropbox so I get my personal wiki anywhere.

    B.R
    Henrik

  • http://permaculturepioneers.wordpress.com/ Dan

    I find that lazy days (when my mind can wander and clear itself out) alternating with active days (when my mind can really focus and bring my lazy day ideas to fruition) makes me the most productive. Otherwise I just become a busy idiot.

  • http://wealthwisdomandsuccess.com Leisa | Wealth, Wisdom and Success

    I found that my system tends to need an update or an entire face lift when my roles change. I used to use the Franklin Day planner and that worked very, very well for many years when I worked in the corporate world. But then I began homeschooling, and tried to maintain a few of my own businesses and I found that my system needed tweaking.

    Once I started spending a bulk of my time on the computer I found I needed to switch it again. Now I find I use a system I put together using a variety of online tools. The online tools I primarily use are Remember the Milk, Evernote, a project management system, and Google calendar.

  • Sam

    I use Ribbit.com. I call my self and leave myself a message. Ribbit generates a email message reminder.

  • http://www.time-management-success.com Tim Wilson

    “The best productivity system is one that makes your productivity flow, not obstruct it.”

    This is so true, and it follows that there really is no one size fits all solution.

    I’ve found Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow system to be the most effective in terms of productivity. I use paper and pen to record what I’m committed to doing because, for me, they’re the simplest, most flexible and reliable tools around.

  • http://SourcesOfInsight.com J.D. Meier

    I call it Getting Results the Agile Way — it’s a simple system for meaningful results.

    It’s a synthesis of best practices to improve focus, manage time, improve energy, and achieve work-life balance, while playing to your strengths.

    The heart of it is three things:
    1. The Rule of 3
    2. Monday Vision, Daily Outcomes, and Friday Reflection
    3. Hot Spots (Mind, Body, Emotions, Career, Financial, Relationships, and Fun)

    It’s the same system I use to drive results at Microsoft, as well as to coach individuals, teams, and leaders. I’ve basically evolved it over more than 10 years, and simplified it down into a simple set of principles, practices, and values.