If you have been following my blog or journal or log you might know about numerous attempts at doing effective and efficient work. This document covers my most recent processes.

Since productivity could mean a lot of different things, I believe an important thing is to define your principles around the how of productivity. My recent realization around this has been that I want to focus on calmness in my work so that I have the mental space to produce really high quality outcomes. Some notes on that is kept here.

After many experiments (still ongoing), I have realized that it's important to define the core concepts to deconstruct productivity. I try to organize things in nouns and verbs and they see which techniques help in what. My current repertoire follows.

1. Nouns

Items here are not organized in a mutually exclusive manner. I feel it's hard to do that and so I am just going with whatever feels natural at the moment.

1.1. Scopes

Scopes are aspects of work. I tend to organize them in a two level heirarchy. First specifies very broad scope like work or personal. Second goes deeper in the directions of work.

1.2. Targets

Targets are checkpoints that define various goals for scopes. Many times they come with a deadline. As an example, you might want to target a certain body weight value by a certain date.

1.3. Tasks

Tasks lie under certain scope and usually have the following optional properties attached to them:

  • Task kind. Programming, reviewing, reading, thinking, etc.
  • Priority. Important, not important, and all gradations in between.
  • Effort and appetite. Efforts are estimate of time needed for task, appetite tells how much time I want to spend on the task.
  • Deadline and scheduled date times.

1.4. Rituals

Rituals are habits, processes, and recurring events. The motivation for them can come from targets or from promises of pleasure in the act.

Reading an hour everyday is an example of a ritual.

1.5. Events

Events are calendar bound items, like meetings. Sometimes items not strictly on calendar also get projected there and become events.

1.6. Time

Time is the currency you pay for execution.

The canonical unit here is number of hours but I like to think about different kinds of hours differently. Morning 1 hour slots during weekends are not the same as the ones during weekdays. Same task can have incredibly different execution efficiency in these two slots.

1.7. Notes

These are your unshaped ideas, reading notes, feedback, drafts, write-ups, and everything else text-like.

1.8. Interrupts

All external interrupts like incoming emails, notifications, etc.

2. Verbs

Here are my verbs, inspired by GTD:

2.1. Capture and Organize

Capturing means saving items in your system. If the items are tasks, then your list management tool's workflow will handle this. Good capture mechanisms cover all properties of the captured items, are efficient, well integrated with other verbs, and highly accessible.

Collection of items of all forms tend to move towards state of high entropy. More so if the capture mechanism is clumsy. Organizing comes to rescue here. It refers to massaging your collections so that the next stage of viewing becomes efficient and effective.

2.2. View and Work

Viewing means bringing up items from collections to do something about them. Effective viewing, for most part, involves smart usage of item properties and good filtering mechanisms.

For task like items, working covers everything involved from picking to executing them effectively.

2.3. Reflections

Reflections are periodic retrospectives. These are assisted by work logging methods and helpful dashboards.

3. Day to day method

Thoughts on a few common productivity methods. These are not all comparable but are also not all compose-able. So, like with nouns, I have kept them in a flat structure.

No single method works well for all aspects of your life and you will need to adapt a mixture of them for your own requirements. I have tried documenting my personal mixture next.

At the very top level, I maintain a plans file that defines my time allocation for various scopes. Allocation here is not strict and is mostly for helping me strike a balance between scopes.

Figure 1: Current plans file

In the same file, I keep two more items:

  1. Targets with date logs keeping current states. As mentioned earlier, not all scopes have targets.
  2. Notes about various things to be done in rituals. Breaking the ritual is important specially when it's not just a pleasure process but also involves learning of some sort. For example, 'programming your pet projects' could be fine as a ritual. But if you want to improve programming, you might want to look at adding things that explicitly make you learn new concepts.

3.1. Capturing and Organizing

For capturing and organizing tasks, I stick to Org Mode. The setup is based on Org Captures and can be found here. I also use orgzly for capturing items on the go. Here are my current capture templates:

(("p" "Personal task" entry (file ,(concat user-notes-dir "<>"))
  "* %?\nSCHEDULED: %^t\n%a" :empty-lines 1 :prepend t)
 ("w" "Work task" entry (file ,(concat user-notes-dir "<>"))
  "* %?\nSCHEDULED: %^t%^{effort}p\n%a" :empty-lines 1 :prepend t)
 ("l" "Weekly log" item (file+olp ,(concat user-notes-dir "<>") "Weekly review" "Done")
  "- %U %?" :empty-lines-after 1)
 ("t" "Team log" item (function org-team-visit-person-log)
  "- %U %?" :prepend t))

External events are captured on my work calendar. I do little bit of time blocking and reminders for rituals also on the same calendar.

3.1.1. Notes

Capturing notes is a weak spot at the moment. I have something for logging team notes and am looking to build something similar for book notes in org-books. But general note capturing is not that accessible or effective. My recent focus on tasks have made older notes related files go stale. I might try looking at this wiki itself for notes or might just give in to org-roam.

I am also missing a way to capture smaller pieces like articles read or videos watched. For heavier documents, I keep annotations in pdfs and in my documents page but am trying to do something to merge with Zotero since that's what our teams are starting to use now.

One other form of capture is private journals where I keep notes on events and track moods and other events. I wrote more about that here.

3.1.2. Interrupts

Interrupts for me are mostly emails and Slack messages. There are other places like Github notifications but I go there only occasionally. I handle emails using mu4e. While I try to keep inbox clear, I don't do it too aggressively since I think mailboxes can be tamed easily with flexible systems like mu4e . Additionally, unattended emails automatically get captured and show up in my Org agenda so missing properties of email tasks like 'priorities' are also handled.

I have no good way for working with Slack interrupts other using slackbot reminders and cleaning them periodically.

3.2. Viewing and Working

On a daily basis, I open up my Org note files and revisit the dates keeping weekly goals in mind.

Also I mark out one of the items that I want to do really well. This could either be a thing that make me uncomfortable—and I am inherently slacking on them—or things where I have potential to learn a lot more. Maybe these two categories are the same but I like to think about them separately. Doing well on this task makes me more satisfied from the day. Not surprisingly, this actually helps me do more.

Figure 2: Day's agenda

For tasks with set date time, reminders on orgzly help in bringing them to front, along with calendar popups for captured events.

For managing time, I tend to use org-pomodoro, goodtime, and chronos. I use timers only for setting restrictions on a few kinds of tasks. Everything else flows unrestricted.

3.3. Reflection

I use a GTD inspired reflection workflow. Key idea is to have layered goals and a checklist of basic things to run through. Here is a sketch of what happens:

  1. Capture everything that came up from last week.
  2. Reflect and write reflection notes for items at each level, starting with weekly goals to life.
  3. Write or modify plans going the other way, from life to weekly goals.
  4. Set up dates for weekly tasks to be done in the week.

Earlier, I used to do an open weekly review here. Additionally, I used to track time spent on tasks using org-analyzer but that was too strict for me.

For a few items, like for moods, I have built decent reviewing dashboards like below but rest need more work.

Figure 3: Mood tracking over personal journal

4. Resources

  • Here is a good guidebook that we use to onboard people on OKRs at work.
  • Todoist has good documents on many productivity methods here. I haven't read all of them. A few things in this document might change after that reading.

I have gone through many of the common methods and have few thoughts written next:

4.1. Time Blocking

Here you block you calendar with tasks. You calendar becomes your capturing, viewing, and working tool.

This is helpful for a lot of people, but doesn't work that well for me. I usually like a lot of flexibility and time blocking doesn't allow that.

4.2. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

A famous high level goal setting method. Usually good for teams since the scope is restricted and targets are important than rituals. Is good for organizing and reviewing. It's important to know the high level aspect of this. OKRs don't work well if you start shoving it down teams that are lower in the heirarchy.

I tried using OKRs for personal scope but I don't think they work well for situations where targets aren't everything.

4.3. Getting Things Done (GTD)

GTD provides a really solid way to think about personal productivity and planning. GTD covers almost every noun and verb.

Even though I can never go full GTD, I keep taking inspiration from this workflow.

4.4. Bullet Journal

Another framework that knits together most of the verbs and nouns. I haven't really tried it but I believe it's not adding anything new to my current workflow. Other than being completely analog, of course.

4.5. Ivy Lee Method

A short term method of picking and working on tasks. You write down few important things to do every day and do them. There are many variations and names for this. The one I like and currently use is defined in the section on personal methods.

4.6. Eisenhower Matrix

Simple way of organizing tasks in important and urgent matrix. I find this too simplistic for my purpose but this can work really well under restricted scopes.

4.7. Hipster PDA

One of the analog ways of writing down things to do. I used to use this by mixing bullet journal and Ivy Lee type restrictions on a daily basis.

4.8. Zettelkasten

Mostly for note capturing, organizing, and viewing. I tried this via org-roam but didn't go further. Maybe because I still haven't figured out that I need to improve my note taking workflow.

4.9. Inbox Zero

Way to capture and organize interrupts. I don't have any strong views here since I do a few things to automatically capture items from my inbox.

4.10. Pomodoro

A working technique that helps you stay focused and healthier. I use this mostly for appetite bound tasks where I don't want to spend more than a certain time.