As a productivity coach, instructor (and sometimes guru) I’m often asked a simple question:
I’ve got no system, where should I begin?
There are some unspoken assumptions baked into this question.
The question-asker has no desire to read David Allen’s 267-page classic Getting Things Done.
(They also tried eating the frog and it didn’t work.)
They have no desire to build a system from scratch using Notion.
And they want something free and simple.
A system they will use regularly.
And a system that will stick.
Here’s what I teach them…
Step 1: Create your project lists
Any productivity app will let you create lists of tasks. You’re probably already doing this, but haven’t given much thought to the actual design of each list. Many newbies have lists that are too general, like Personal and Work.
You’re going to need two types of lists – each with an increased level of specificity.
First, you’ll have a list of projects. This is a traditional task management list, defined by two key characteristics. First, the project has to have a specific end date and a specific deliverable. It’s a good idea to start your project list with a verb. Here are some ideas:
- Train for the NYC Marathon
- Hire a new intern
- File my 2021 taxes
Here’s what this would look like in Apple Reminders:
Advanced tip: Find the sweet spot of good project design. A project that is too small will become cumbersome to maintain. A project that’s too large will be daunting to complete.
Step 2: Add tasks to each project list
Next, we’ll add tasks to each project. Since projects are discrete, the tasks will be quite straightforward to add. For many projects, the tasks will also be sequential in nature. Here are a series of tasks related to Filing my 2021 Taxes:
- Download all my W-2s
- Download all my 1099s
- Collect all my charitable deductions
- Input the information into TurboTax
- File the return
- Check bank to see if refund hit
What makes projects so easy to manage is the specificity of their deliverables and end dates. Once you’ve completed all of these steps, you simply archive (or delete) the project. Then you’ll never see this project again. (Well, chances are you’ll see taxes in 2023.)
Advanced tip: At first it might feel strange to archive a completed project. But with time, the turnover of these projects will build your momentum and help you find the perfect project size. (In my experience, a project shouldn’t last more than a month and should have between 5 and 20 related tasks.)
Step 3: Create your domains list
This is where it starts to get dicey and systems start breaking down. There are so many parts of our lives that are not project-based. Our health, our skill development, our relationships and our finances are just a few examples. Let’s take “being a good dad” as an example.
There’s no deliverable to being a good dad.
There’s no end date to being a good dad.
And to further complicate things, being a good dad has some sneaky traits:
- It’s impossible to measure
- If you “hit snooze” on it for a while, there probably aren’t meaningful consequences
- But if you hit snooze for too long, then the consequences are nuclear
Furthermore, the tasks are not as clearly specified. For example, none of these tasks would work well in a traditional task-management system:
- Read bedtime story without distractions
- Check-in on math project
- Have 1-on-1 bonding activity
- Teach them about our family history
This is the classic conundrum of what’s “Important, but not Urgent.” It’s also why we fall into behavioral time traps, like the Present Bias in which we:
We give stronger weights to payoffs that are closer to the present. It’s the reason we procrastinate, eat too much sugar, and don’t invest in our retirement accounts.
Our first step is to create a list of Domains. These are the parts of our lives which have no end date and where we must maintain a minimum standard of excellence. (David Allen calls these Horizons of Focus and Tiago Forte calls them Areas of Responsibilities.)
Repeat after me, Domains have no end date and maintain a minimum standard of excellence. Here are some parts of your life that satisfy this criteria:
- My family
- My finances
- My health
- My personal growth
- My colleagues
- My hobbies
We’ll enter these into Apple Reminders as lists. I find it helpful to start domains with the word “My” to visually separate them from projects. You’ll also be able to group them together by editing the order (and creating some separation relative to projects).
Advanced tip: Like projects, identifying the right sub-groupings of your domains is a bit of an art (and specific to your life situation). A salesperson might treat each client as a domain. A CEO might have more precise domains such as: recruiting, culture-building and talent development. If this concept is new to you, err on the side of making a domain broad (and having less of them).
Step 4: Add tasks to your domains
As we start adding tasks to a domain, we start to see how tricky this gets. Using My Health as an example, you’ll see you might want to:
- Cut back on your sugar consumption
- Schedule your annual physical
- Find a nutritionist
- Research new supplements
- Learn more about the Whole 30 diet
- Take your daily fish oil pill
You’ll first realize that none of these tasks have true due dates. And by true due dates, I mean, they don’t have a direct and immediate penalty if you don’t complete them by a stated date. (Conversely, not paying your rent on time does have these penalties.)
This is why these tasks are so sneaky (and rarely get done with regularity). It’s why people try using fake due dates, but I promise you, those don’t work.
You’ll realize that calling these tasks is a bit of a misnomer. They’re a mix of goals, learning, habits and rituals (all beyond the scope of this post).
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t add these to our domain list.
The question then becomes, “How will I do these tasks if they don’t have due dates?” We’ll get to that in Step 6’s Weekly Reviews.
Advanced Tip: Keystone Habits are how to put your Domains on auto-pilot. For example, take a good “shutdown ritual” at night that starts with turning off your phone 90 minutes before bed. This lets you:
- Be present as you read your child a bedtime story
- Meditate before bed
- Close open loops using an analog tool (like a journal)
- Sleep deeper (since you’d be exposed to less blue light)
- Wake up more energized the next morning
Step 5: Categorize your tasks by $10K, $1K, $100 and $10 work
Now that we’ve established the architecture of our lists, we can revisit tasks. We’ll need to add meta-data or tags that help us organize, prioritize, and triage all of our tasks across our entire lives.
There are dozens of types of meta-data, but we’ll focus on Due Dates and $10K Prioritization. By now, you’ve got the $10K Matrix etched in your subconscious, so here’s the visual for the uninitiated.
Since we already established that we’ll use Due Dates sparingly, we’ll focus on tagging tasks by:
- $10K: High-leverage, high-skill (i.e. recruiting a CMO)
- $1,000: Low-leverage, high-skill (i.e. learning a new skill at work)
- $100: High-leverage, low-skill (i.e. reading this post)
- $10: Low-skill, low-leverage (i.e. getting to inbox zero)
In Apple Reminders, just add a hashtag to any task and you’ll be able to quickly see all tasks with that tag. The beauty of this approach is that it spans all of your projects and domains.
Advanced Tip: As you add more tags (i.e. metadata) you’ll discover a new tension. While it takes time to add tags, it improves the discoverability of a task. Many advanced task managers have advanced filtering tools to let you slice-and-dice all your tasks so that you can set up very targeted dashboards.
Step 6: The Weekly Review
You’ve probably realized a big gap in the system so far. How on earth will we complete these “Important, but not urgent” tasks if they don’t have due dates? Here’s why the Weekly Review is an indispensable part of any productivity system. The process is simple, once a week (ideally at the same time) you go through every Project and every Domain list and scrutinize each task.
As you go through the lists, ask yourself:
- Is this still relevant?
- Why is there resistance to this task/project?
- What tags can I add to improve discoverability?
- Am I actually doing my $10K Work?
Don’t worry if you realise during the Weekly Review that you’ve forgotten about an important task or are not as far along a project timeline as you’d like. Instead, use this Uh-Oh moments to reflect on your goal and plan your next actions to get back on track.
If the Weekly Review hasn’t become a habit yet, don’t worry – it can takes years. Instead, just schedule 30 minutes on your calendar (ideally at the same time/day to form the habit).
Advanced tip: As you become more comfortable with the Weekly Review, you can start to customize it to add more reflection and planning using the quadrants shown below:
Your purposeful productivity system is ready to go
You see how easy that was? It’s free. It’s fast. It’s simple.
It just requires consistency and intentionality.
Once you’ve nailed the basics, you’ll realize that tasks play a small role in a broader integrated system of designing a life rich with purpose and meaning. What we covered above is “the how” but the real magic takes occurs when you start examining “the why.” This pyramid shows the interconnected-ness of all the pieces:
During our 4-week live course Supercharge Your Productivity we teach and implement the entire system. Enrollment for Cohort 9 ends on Monday, January 24th. We’d love to have you join, enroll in the course today.