Do you remember how you got started on your personal productivity journey? I know mine was a mess, I tried a combination of desktop and mobile apps, notepads, bullet journals, you name it. I tried everything without a compass and that’s why it took me long time to figure things out.

Today I’m not going into the details of any particular strategy. Many of us get caught up in using the latest app just because it is new or buy bullet journals that stay empty for months.

This article is about the fundamental principles on which all personal productivity tools and systems are based on. They can be implemented with a pen and paper, with your basic notes application on your phone or laptop, or you can use our very own all-in-one specialized productivity app.

These 5 steps that will take you from zero to productivity hero.

Step 1: Stop keeping things in your head

First step towards taking control of your personal productivity is to stop remembering things and start writing them down. Get everything out of your head.

Clear out your Friday or Saturday evening and write down everything you need to do. Most of the things we want to do in life fall into few general categories:

  • Things we are doing right now to make a living – going to work, doing freelance gigs, driving Uber etc.
  • Things we would like to do in the future – start a side project, take a course, start a blog, etc.
  • Maintenance or support for the body and the mind – productive healthy habits: waking up early, meditating, working out, eating healthy.
  • Lots of miscellaneous small things like errands, doctors appointments, etc.

The reason for listing these 4 categories, you might have more actually, is to make you probe deeper into your mind and get everything out of it. Otherwise you will end up with only 5 tasks on one todo list and stop there.

That is why it’s important to block out 2-3 hours on Friday or Saturday evening when you’re not rushing to do anything and have the time to explore all parts of your mind.

Once you put a task onto paper, and later into your system, you know it will get done eventually, this is such a relief. It frees up your brain to do creative work instead of keeping tabs on what needs to get done next.

Step 2: Organize into lists and projects

After the first step you will end up with many unfinished things that will seem quite overwhelming and chaotic.

Let’s start creating some order out of that chaos by grouping them into sections or projects. I personally have LifeHQ projects for all areas of my life: personal projects, work projects and side projects.

The hierarchy is Projects -> Todo Lists -> Tasks. Project is just a container for a few related todo lists at this point.

Examples of my projects:

Project: LifeHQ

  • List 1: New features
  • List 2: Improve landing page
  • List 3: User requests

Project: LifeHQ blog

  • List 1: Future article ideas
  • List 2: To contact for guest articles
  • List 3: Blog design improvements

Projects at LifeHQ

Your biggest personal productivity gains will come from putting everything in its place. This will help you think and prioritize much better.

Now that everything is in its place we can start moving forward by picking tasks from our projects and getting them done.

Step 3: Schedule and Prioritize

The most straightforward way to prioritize what to do on a given day is to have a separate todo list, which I like to call Master list. You pick the tasks you need to get done today from all your projects and put them in a separate list. This way you only see and focus on the 5 things for today, instead of looking at all 200 of them.

I separate mine into three lists: Urgent, Important and Extra. The theory behind this comes from The Eisenhower matrix:

The point of this matrix is to prioritize important work.

To keep things simpler I have three lists: Urgent, Important and Extra, pictured bellow.

Everything that is both Important and Urgent has the highest priority, these go in my Urgent list.

Things that are important but non-urgent should be done next, they are the ones that bring you closer to your long term goals. They go in the Important list.

You should delegate as much as possible from the non-important urgent ones, Quadrant III.

Eliminate almost all from Quadrant IV, not important and not urgent.

Everything that I can’t delegate or eliminate from Quadrants III and IV, I put in the Extra list.

In LifeHQ you can easily pick tasks from all your projects and add them to your daily lists, just sayin.

Be careful

Be careful not to overload your daily list and then not finish it. As a rule of thumb I put 3 tasks max in both the Urgent and Important sections. It is tempting to get overly ambitious and add 10 tasks just to have them laying  there for a week. This can easily be a trigger to procrastination and avoiding to look at your daily list altogether.

Step 4: Work productively

I’ve written about my favorite way of working productively, the customizable Pomodoro module. 

For the 3 people that don’t know what the Pomodoro technique is: You work 25 minutes and then take 5 minute break. Repeat that for 4 cycles then take a longer break. Of course with my Pomodoro module you can set your own work and break duration, and the length of your sessions.

This customization has many benefits most notably organizing your work cycles depending on the type of work you do at that moment. For deep work I work in longer focused session but for writing emails I keep to 25 minutes tops.

Main benefits of the Pomodoro technique

  1. You work on one thing at a time during your work cycles.
  2. You eliminate distractions because it’s a short time period.
  3. You take a break before getting too tired.

Step 5: Review and tidy up

Congratulations, you now have a personal productivity system.

Having everything you need to do written down, getting it organized into separate projects and lists, having a daily list of tasks and a technique for working productively, that is a productivity system. As time goes by you will start to adjust and mold this system to fit your working habits.

As you’re using the system in your daily work and study, many small tasks will start popping up that could overfill your daily schedule and mess up your system.

One rule of thumb is to finish everything small that comes up if it takes less than 2 minutes. Otherwise put it in a note, a separate list or somewhere not on your daily master list, for review later.

At the end of the day review these tasks and finish some of them or schedule them for tomorrow or just file them away under some of your projects.

I also like to keep a personal productivity journal both daily and weekly. I use this to log and review my daily productivity and to figure out how to optimize it. I have ready-made questions that help me to write very easily and to check if I’m moving my life in the direction I want. I highly recommend you read more about it as well.

Productivity optimization is not about being productive doing random things. Remembering to take the trash out or go the gym. You want to be proactive and move your life in the direction that you want.

Say you are passionate about hats and want to start a lifestyle blog. If you’re not writing or improving your blog every day then you’re not really being effective. You can be productive while still doing the wrong things.

Until next time,

Stay productive.