Eight years ago, I started taking productivity seriously. Reading, researching, experimenting.
It is not a subject that is taught in schools (though it absolutely should be) but it is absolutely a skill that is learned.
There are many different theories and different ways of getting things done – from timers, to apps, to dedicated blocks of time and literally everything in between.
Also, there is no “one size fits all”. People think differently. They have different life experiences and different personal goals. All of these things add up to vastly different ways of working – from the haphazard “all-over-the-place” to the regimented and structured.
However, there’s one common goal: to maximize your productivity. Roughly translated, this means “getting as much of your top priority items completed as possible in a single day”.
Usually, at the heart of any productivity system there is a “todo list”, which is usually helpful. I heard a great quote about lists once, it went like this: “lists help make sense out of the infinite” (source unknown, if you know, please drop a comment).
Lists help make sense out of the infinite.
Todo lists come in literally every shape, size and color with almost every feature imaginable. The choices are literally overwhelming. From the standard “notebook” to the sophisticated apps on the iTunes store – there are solutions abound.
After years of trying them all out – none really fit my needs. But I did find myself gravitating towards paper and writing things out by hand. There was something visceral about it that I enjoyed. I found that writing out my todo list every morning with a pen and placing it on my desk right next to my laptop did wonders for my productivity.
So how exactly does paper beat pixel in the todo list world?
- Paper can’t be “closed”. A piece of paper can’t be “closed” or “hidden” behind other windows the way a window on your smartphone can. It can, however, be shoved underneath other papers and such (if that’s the case, clean your damn desk already).
- Writing is different than typing. The act of physically writing something by hand has different psychological meaning. It’s real, we can see it. We felt the pen scrape on the paper and we saw the output. We didn’t just hit “post” and see it fly off into the ether. (Now, you may disagree here – which is totally fine, like I said, everyone’s different and the goal of productivity is to find your personal way of working).
- It’s a constant, visual reminder. By putting your todo list in your line of sight, it’s a constant reminder that you have things that you need to do today… and they’re important. Odds are, they’re more important than whatever you’re working on right now. So quit it and actually use your time to do what’s important today.
But paper has some draw backs (many of which I won’t go into) – but the big one is that there’s no “method” for organizing the information you put on a blank page. You can just jot down random thoughts and cross them off (which works well for a lot of people), but this method was definitely not my favorite. It was messy, incomprehensible and lacked key information that was essential in planning my day.
I set out to create a template that was well designed and simple, contained only the most important pieces of information on that todo list item and had a few extra perks as well that were suited to the way I liked to work.
Here’s what one panel of the folding DOit todo list looks like:
- Date and daily goals. The top section consists of the the date (obviously) usually written in MM/DD format (so Jan / 26, or 1 / 26 – however you fancy). Daily goals (see here as “exercise?” and “go outside?”) can be replaced with things that you’d like to do every day. For instance, do you want to drink a gallon of water? Do 100 push ups? Anything works here really, and this space works great as a reminder area.
- Life areas. Seen here as “Personal” and “Work”, these areas constitute major buckets of tasks. In the image pictured, I used the two life-area layout, but the template also comes with a three life-area layout (for instance “Side Project” could be your third). Grouping items like this helps to prioritize. Further more, putting your most important life area at the top of the list will further help visually prioritize your list.
- “In calendar” indicator. Contrary to what it may look like, this isn’t just a “done” box (but, yes, you can obviously use it as one). The checkbox seen on every line of todo list item is meant to indicate whether or not you’ve transferred this item to your daily calendar (e.g. Outlook, iCal or Google Calendar). This is a crucial step as it connects the dots between how you spend your day and your todo list. I highly recommend you complete this step. To mark an item as complete, simply draw a few lines through it (this is satisfying).
- Todo item entry line. This is where you write in your todo list item. Make sure that it’s something that you can actually complete. Good example: “Return those video tapes”. Bad example: “Work Project”. They need to be specific. If you can’t clearly answer the question “did I complete this today?” then it’s not specific enough.
- The time box. This is missing from almost every todo list I’ve seen and is hands down the thing that I find is the most helpful. In this box, write in the amount of time you think it will take to complete this task. 2 hours? Write 2H. 30 minutes? Write 30m – or whatever system you’d like. Just make it legible.
- Misc. reminder area. This is a wildcard. Feel free to use it for whatever you feel is missing from your list. I title this label “Reality Check” and make sure to put down a zen-like quote that keeps things in perspective throughout my day. It’s up to you!
- Scratchpad (not shown). DOit comes with an optional “scratchpad” layout to use on the flip side. This is an awesome place to collect random thoughts that need to be organized into action items.
How to use DOit in your workday.
- 1) Do it first thing in the morning. It’s best that your list for the day be filled out first thing in the morning before your daily routine begins. Be sure to also go over your Scratchpad items if you have any as well as transferring any uncompleted items from the day prior to today.
- 2) Give a time estimate to each item. Ensure that each todo list item has an estimated amount of time that you think it will take to complete the task – again, I can’t stress how important this step is.
- 3) Once your list is filled out, put your todo items in your calendar app. Transfer over all of your todo list items to your calendar program of choice – making sure that each calendar appointment takes the amount of time you allotted for on your list. This step is crucial as it bridges the gap between “i want to do this” and “now i’ve made time to do this and i know I’m available at that time”. This is especially for those heavily reliant on calendars (e.g. office workers with constant outlook invites).
- 4) Need to push something off? Circle it. Sometimes, it’s really hard to complete everything you’ve written on your list – or you need to prioritize certain items over other ones. Take the items that you need to push off to another day and circle them, drawing an arrow to the right. Make sure these incomplete items are transferred over to the new day when you’re doing your list in the morning.
- 5) Go over your list around 1pm (afternoon) and 7pm (evening). These two check ins are crucial, especially if you’ve been distracted all day and need a reminder of what’s really important.