February 3, 2014

Productivity for Creatives

I get stuck managing tasks.

Over the years, I’ve tried many different solutions that were all variations on the theme of Listing Tasks & Checking Them Off. Turns out, that doesn’t work for me. David Allen calls this GTD, but Getting Things Done seems to be the last thing it helps me accomplish.


The scourge of productivity is meta-work, and this is where most of these systems fall flat for me. I end up spending more time managing my task list than actually completing items. I’m so focused on breaking things down into actionable steps that I waste time I should be spending actually doing something.

I find myself doing stupid things like re-organizing my task categories. Optimizing the structure and formatting of project tasks. Carefully assigning priorities to each task and subtask. Something like Things, beautiful as it is, introduces the slippery slope of tagging too.

At some point, I realized I was mostly just organizing my lists of lists. The productivity plan had backfired and I had gone off the deep end.

GTD is an enabler for my procrastination, in other words. Not good.

Back to the Drawing Book

When Bullet Journal was presented to me, I was charmed by the analogue approach of putting pen to paper in a notebook. Maybe it’s because I can’t really draw, but I’ve always been envious of the folks who carry around notebooks and can fill page after page with spectacular doodles.

Having an excuse to carry around a notebook seemed like a clever way to up my hipster cred and perhaps encourage me to practise drawing. Needless to say, my drawing skills did not improve.

Surprisingly though, my productivity did.

Changing Direction

Within a week of starting my Bullet Journal experiment, I stopped using Wunderlist. Despite being the finest balance of power and streamlining that I know of in the GTD app space, it too was more distracting than helpful.

Letting go was liberating.

Everything now lived in my Moleskine (I know, I know). As I acclimated to the Bullet Journal philosophy, I realized that what was appealing to me was not the notebook or the writing—after all, after so many years of practise, I type significantly faster than I can write—but the reversal of priorities.

I was no longer tracking tasks, I was tracking accomplishments. Events. Ideas. It was free-flowing and much more in tune with the way I think and work.

Two months was about the time it took me to realize what the final hurdle was: the notebook itself.

Cloudy, With a Chance of Productivity

Being a digital native, I’m more comfortable in the cloud than in a notebook. I’m also significantly faster and more adaptable, as I no longer have to worry about everything being tied to one physical book.

The middle ground was using Evernote to scan in each page of my journal as I finished it. This made sure it was backed up, but also searchable and easy to refer to from anywhere. You can see where this is going.

I dumped the notebook and ended up with a digital version of the Bullet Journal system, adapted to suit my own needs of course, and I put it all in OneNote.

Wait, OneNote?

Yes, OneNote. Not Evernote. This has less to do with any deficiency in Evernote and more to do with my preferences for how I like to do my Bullet Journal.

To me, Evernote is a second brain. I put things there that I want to learn, refer back to, keep track of, etc. It holds my web clippings, my research, my product manuals, my inspiration, and my bills. It’s messy in there, as brains often are.

OneNote is clean. It’s my pure space for notes. Meeting notes, course notes…for anything where the notebook” mentality is required, OneNote is my friend.

And it comes with me everywhere: it’s on my phone, it’s always open in a browser tab on my computer, it lives happily on all my tablets, and it works just fine whether I’m online or offline.

Tag, You’re It

Because it was designed for just such a task, OneNote offers some tools for my Bullet Journal that Evernote does not.

Specifically, the Tags. These aren’t tags” in the sense that most modern software uses; instead, OneNote’s tags are things like checkboxes, stars, and other iconography that helps me visually categorize each line item in my Bullet List.

Is it a task? Checkbox. Is it an idea? Lightbulb! An important event? Star! Saw a movie today? Film strip. And so on.

The complete list is comprehensive and very easy to access in the app, meaning that I can quickly enter a new Bullet Journal item and mark it appropriately.

Naturally, these tags are searchable too so I can instantly pull up a list of all my bright ideas without having to hunt through each day’s entries.

Reminders & Calendars

While my OneNote Bullet Journal keeps me organized and allows me to keep a record of day to day accomplishments, it falls prey to the same weakness that Bullet Journal as a whole is subject to: the future.

When tasks are due in the future, it becomes complicated to enter them. Do I create the page for the future day ahead of time? Do I make a note in today’s entry page to remind myself? Too messy.

Instead, I turn to the most barebones GTD-style app I know of for this: Reminders. Built into OS X and iOS, it’s useful for a number of specific cases where Bullet Journal and OneNote aren’t ideal.

Specifically, I have a list of scheduled tasks that have specific future dates attached. Actual events go in my calendar (appointments, etc.), but when I have to mail something next week or return a call when someone’s back from holiday, that goes into Reminders.

Reminders is also home to my grocery list, which is shared with my girlfriend so we can easily add and remove things as necessary.

Again, this isn’t to say I couldn’t make these things work in OneNote, but it’s not the best solution. I’m seeking streamlined productivity.

Being Productive

At last, I feel as though I’ve found productivity nirvana.

On the one hand, it’s frustrating because it doesn’t make it easy for me to procrastinate, but on the other hand it’s very rewarding to have a clear record of what I’ve accomplished each day, what ideas I had, what things I experienced, and even what I didn’t manage to do.

Tracking accomplishments instead of tasks is also inherently more positive. It’s motivational rather than depressing. Instead of thinking oh god I have 400 things left on my to-do list”, I think hey look, I got ten things done today—I’m on a roll!”

So that’s my current system. Productivity is a personal thing, and everyone has their own ideal solution, but what’s clear to me now is that actually spending time discovering what your ideal productivity system is makes a huge difference.

For years I laboured in frustration, hopping from app to app thinking that maybe it was just the interface that was in my way. It was the entire workflow though, and as soon as I changed that I was happier for it.

So do some exploring of your own. Keep going until it’s no longer tedious to manage tasks. And if you manage, come back and tell me how you did it!

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