Getting things done has always been a challenge for me. Getting the right things done in the right time frame has often felt near impossible. After years of experimenting with different approaches, and different tools, I feel like I have finally developed a system that works for me.

Productivity systems are deeply personal. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you. I’m going to outline mine here, and hopefully, you can take something away. But to be the most productive, you’ll have to figure out a system that works for you.

For years, I was obsessed with the idea that one tool should do it all and cover all my productivity needs. I have since realised that that is totally unrealistic. Tools are good at specific things, and most tools aren’t good at everything. I’ve also realised that there are 3 distinct productivity levels that I need to be concerned about, and each level has its approach and set of tools.

The 3 levels in productivity system consists of:

  1. Long term: Doing the right things with planning
  2. Medium term: Managing a task backlog
  3. Short term: Conquering the week

Long term: Doing the correct things with planning

I don’t set new year’s resolutions, or annual goals (I have tried and failed many times). Instead, I plan one quarter at a time. A quarter is short enough to have focus, and long enough to achieve major milestones.

My quarterly planning is loosely based on the fabulous book: The 12-Week Year. This is roughly how it works.

Aspirational vision

My aspirational vision is how I want my life to be. It’s ambitious and worth fighting for. It isn’t necessarily achievable right now, but it’s where I’m aiming for.

3 year vision

The 3-year vision cuts the aspirational vision down into something more manageable. As the name suggests, it’s where I’m heading in the next 3 years.

12-week plan

The 12-week plan is where I define concrete, achievable goals. I set 3 or 4 for the quarter. The 12-Week Year book recommends that these should be achievable enough to be realistic, but also ambitious enough to stretch you. I look at my 3-year vision and then ask myself: where would I like to be in 12 week time that will move me closer to this vision?

Which each goal, I write a high-level action plan. These are steps or tasks that I can complete to reach the goal. They could be a one-off step, which will have a date for the week I’ll do it. Or they could be something that I’ll do every week or day.

The 12-week goal shouldn’t be overly complex or detailed. It’s just enough so that I know what I want to achieve for the quarter and a rough plan of how I’m going to get there.

The 12-Week Year book also talks about planning your time with strategic work and buffer work. Strategic work is the work that is helping you achieve your strategic goals. Buffer work is work that has to happen, but isn’t strategic or goal orientated. Things like emails, calls, admin.

Medium term: Managing a task backlog

Tasks come in all shapes and sizes and from all directions. Some are from the 12-week plan, some from client projects, some from my inbox and some from life. It’s important to have a place to put these tasks, or organise them, prioritise them and decide when they will get done.

There are all sorts of ways you can do this. I have used tools like Trello, Things 3, Noteplan in the past. I’m currently using Todoist.

When choosing a tool, I ask myself, how does this tool fit into my overall system? Does it connect to the other tools? Does it help me create one fused system or hinder that?

I actually prefer Things 3 as a task management tool. But Todoist has much better integrations, so it is easier to get tasks in and out from other tools. This enables me to use Todoist as part of my overall systems, not just a stand-alone tool that is on its own island.

And, despite preferring Things 3, I do like Todoist, for these reasons:

  • It’s an effortless tool to use.
  • It integrates with another vital tool in my system, Sunsama (more on that shortly).
  • It has Kanban boards and filters, which enables me to turn it into a system.
  • It has amazing predictive text, which makes adding tasks a breeze.
  • It’s constantly being developed and improved.

I have Todoist setup as a series of areas.

  • One for each main client
  • Strategic work
  • Buffer work
  • Learning

I use the Todoist priorities to indicate if a task is a priority for the current week.

  • P1: must get done this week
  • P2: nice to get done this week

And then I have a filter that displays my P1 and P2 tasks from all the products.

Short term: Conquering the week

This is where action happens. I treat each week as a sprint, and each sprint has a few objectives and then a list of tasks that I can realistically achieve. I plan the week in advance and lock in those objectives and tasks. I don’t want new things coming in while the week is in progress, unless it’s a genuine emergency. Instead, I want to achieve everything as I set out to do for that week.

I use Sunsama as the tool of choice for this. Sunsama has its own weekly planning process, which is perfect for my needs.

It allows me to add objectives for the week, and then assign each task to an objective.

It connects to Todoist, so I can grab in the tasks from the filter into the week. I can also add emails to Sunsama.

When triaging my inbox, I give an email a label of Sunsama if I require time to action it. Sunsama then gives me a list of emails with that label, that I can drag into the week.

And then once in Sunsama, I can estimate how much time I think each task will take, and assign it a day of the week. Sunsama will tell me if I have over committed on any particular day, so it’s easy to set up an achievable week.

The problem with using a normal to-do list for this step is that they generally don’t stop you over committing. You can add as many tasks as you want to each day, and I find myself with tasks just piling up. Whereas, Sunsama doesn’t let this happen.

Sunsama also has a daily planning process. If you have over committed, it gives you the opportunity to push tasks out. It also tells you when your expected finish time is (based on your time estimate), which is highly motivating.

Sunsama also has a built-in time tracker, so I can focus on a task and run the timer.

Wrapping up

The key thing for me is the separation between each of these 3 levels. This is critical for me to be able to focus.

Having my weekly plan in a separate tool to my task backlog is critical for me. It means I don’t get side tracked or overwhelmed with other tasks that I shouldn’t be focusing on right now. I’m only looking at the current sprint (week) and what I’ve already decided I need to get done for it.

And the same goes for the quarterly planning. I would rather not see all my tasks when doing planning. I want to think about my bigger goals, and where I intend to head in life and business.

All of these 3 layers, each with their own tools, gives me a cohesive system to work with. My system will look different to your system, and you need to find something that works for you. But I encourage you to have a system.

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