July 3, 2020

Note Taking System Intro

My note taking system has been the most disorganized aspect of my productivity setup for a long time. The concept of “notes” is so ill-defined that can be difficult to get your arms around and create a system for. All aspects of our lives could potentially create notes and there are a lot of different options for where you can put them.

Most people I encounter don’t care nearly as much about notes as I do. If you are reading this, hopefully you are with me. I acknowledge that I might be over-thinking the whole situation.

This is an area where I hope to get clarity for myself by writing it out and defining it better.

To me, a note is a way of taking a thought that only exists inside of your head and externalizing it. It could be an original thought that came from you, or it could be somebody else’s thought that you were exposed to and it resonated with you in some way. By getting these thoughts out of our heads we can revisit them and look for ways they relate.

Having thoughts captured also helps you avoid the looping that your brain likes to do. You might have the same thought over and over again. Externalizing it helps you to separate it from your brain and expand upon it rather than dwelling on it.

I want to set up a note taking system that helps me to capitalize on the notes I have taken. They need to be useful, or there is little point to taking them. I want a system that creates continuity and allows me to expand on ideas and more forward. I also want a system that allows me to see relationships between concepts and fosters the creation of new ideas.
For me this results in two separate categories of notes.

Note Categories

For me, notes fit into 1 of 2 categories. My system for work generates the highest quantity of notes by far so I will use that as an example.

Structured Notes

A structured note is one that I am expecting to take and have established a structure in which to capture it. I have 1:1 meetings with everybody on my team, so I have created a place to put all those notes and keep them in chronological order. I know we are working on projects and there are going to be meetings, conversations, and ideas relevant to those projects I will want to capture. I create a note for those projects and fill up that bucket as those things occur.



My main note workflow starts with a page for each month of the year. Every day that I work I fill in the date and create a “daily log”. This is just a list of things I did that day, thoughts I had, or interesting things I came across. I keep it pretty loose. At the end of each day I look at my log and make some decisions. I might move notes out into a particular project, or create a brand new note where I can capture future items. I might find tasks that need to be moved over to Todoist. I fill in a few more sentences of detail based on a quick note I took earlier in the day.

I also like to use OneNote’s quick linking feature in my daily log. If on that day I had an important meeting about “Example Project”, where there is already a note started. I can easily use double brackets to create a link to that note.... “Example Project”. This functionality makes it so simple to reference other notes and topics in your workflow.

Once I review and process my notes for the day I try to have the discipline to create my note for the next day and write the top 3 things I want to get done. Those will be the first things I look at the next day when I go to start my log. It helps close out the day and create this sense of continuity of thought and priorities from one day to the next.

In my structured note system I also have an “Inbox”. In the heat of the moment I don’t want any friction or decision making holding me back from getting a thought down. If I don’t immediately know where something fits I just create a new note in the inbox and start typing away.

The key to the structured notes is to keep things under control. You need to know where your notes live (and what they are named) and get into the habit of reading back through the last few entires for a project or re-occurring meeting to make sure to build on your previous thoughts.

Unstructured Notes

This category seems like it would be messier that the other one just by nature of the title, but I’m not sure that is the case. My unstructured notes are what I use as my “second brain”. This is an area for thoughts and ideas. For unstructured notes I am not creating a hierarchy or system of notebooks and folders. Everything generally goes into the same place. Notes are usually short, and they are tagged with anything that might be relevant to that thought or idea in the future.

This is a place to explore connections between thoughts and find new ways of thinking about topics over time.

I started this system in OneNote but I’ve recently been playing a new app called Obsidian.

A screenshot of the graph view in Obsidian that shows how notes relate to one another.

Obsidian is very similar to another app called Roam Research. They are both geared at creating a Zettelcasten, or a slip-box. This is the initial concept of where the second brain comes from. I’d recommend the fairly quick read How to Take Smart Notes. It lines out the history and concept of the system pretty well. Or you can search YouTube and watch some great videos by Tiago Forte.

The recent discovery of the Second Brain has been huge for me. I have been taking these types of notes for a long time, but never had a good framework that would allow them to be very useful to me. These types of notes were also intermixed with what now lives in my structured notes. Keeping those things separate has been very helpful.

Conclusion

As with most personal productivity systems, you have to find something that works for you. Note-taking is such an ambiguous topic that it can be difficult to get started. You may waste a lot of time experimenting and get frustrated before it begins to click.

I’ve created a two tiered system with structured and unstructured notes. In the structured system you create containers for notes you will need to take, and then have a daily log that can act as in index, linking you to the relevant notes that you are using. Try to keep this as simple as possible and avoid creating a bunch of new notes. Tidy it up by archiving notes you no longer actively contribute to.

The unstructured note section is a place for random thoughts and ideas to live. Try to keep these notes short. Try to write them in your own words. Tag them with the relevant information that will help you find them later and look for possible connections. The more you build this personal “second brain” the more powerful it will become.

I plan to write a lot more about the topic of note taking and journaling. These are things that have been very important to my career and I believe help my thinking processes and performance.

June 5, 2020

Task Management System

For this post I wanted to move onto probably the most important aspect of any productivity system… the task list. A task manager is deceptively simple, yet the linchpin of any productivity workflow.
This category is flooded with tons of apps to help you keep your tasks organized. Most of them are similar, but they each have their own nuances. People typically have to try a few before they find one they really like.

I have played the to-do app game for a long time. I have switched my system at least 10 times over the last 15 years. I have created complicated hierarchies of projects and sub-projects. I have tried to build my own systems out of note taking apps or plain text editors.

About 5 years ago I started using Todoist and it has stuck. I have paid for a premium account for the last 3 years mostly to support the developers. The free version of the app is full-featured enough for most peoples’ needs.

Todoist is extremely flexible, but can be very simple if you want it to be. It works across any platform you can think of, which was important to me. I think it looks nice. It has proven to be a very effective tool at accommodating how I want to look at my tasks. It has allowed me to refine my system over time and create something that is comfortable and effective.

In Todoist I have built my trusted system. It is the first time I have ever felt like I had a good way to keep things under control.

I add tasks and thoughts to the Inbox all day long. I have a routine at the end of my day to process that inbox and categorize items appropriately. This follows Getting Things Done® - David Allen’s GTD® Methodology. I don’t necessarily follow it exactly, but it is a great philosophy to have have behind your task system.

I use a pretty simple project structure that aligns with areas of my life. I’ve found this system works best for me. I used to have a much more complex set of nested projects, but I have found that tagging is a better method. When I process my inbox I will move the tasks to the appropriate project/area and tag it so my filters will treat it appropriately.



With a task system I feel like you should use the mantra, “As simple as possible, but no simpler.” For some, a hand-written task list in a notebook is good enough to be their entire system. I still commonly use pen and paper to write out my tasks when I am feeling overwhelmed. The act of putting it on paper makes it better somehow. However, everything eventually goes into Todoist where I can make sure it gets prioritized and completed.

Favorite Features

My favorite features of Todoist are the language processing for task creation and the robust system for repeating tasks.

Language Processing

The language processing means it is extremely simple and fast for me to create a task and make it due at any time. I’m also able to quickly add tags and assign to projects all from the task entry box. Other apps were cumbersome. You had to use many taps/clicks and enter different menus and interfaces. Creating a task felt… bad. Todoist makes it clean.

For example, the other day I was talking to my employee and he gave me a heads up that there might be potential issues with a report when we switch years. I quickly opened Todoist and typed “Check on the Numbers report to make sure years are accounted for correctly Dec 1”. That created a tasks in my inbox. I could have simply added “#work” to categorize it in my work project, but I can easily do that later.

In just a couple of seconds I have ensured that I will see that task at the appropriate time in the future and be able to engage the right people. That ease and reliability makes Todoist so valuable to me.

Reoccurring Tasks

In my time using other task apps I always felt a friction between “normal” tasks and all the reoccurring tasks that I want to keep track of in my life. The first thing I did with Todoist was set up an extensive system of all my reoccurring tasks. This is made up of things like annual home maintenance and automotive tasks. I have all of my monthly payment due dates and annually reoccurring subscriptions.



It has a great feature where you can set a task up to reoccur a set duration from when you completed it the last time. This is great for home maintenance items like cleaning the washing machine or changing my air filters. Having all of those things in one system gives me a lot of peace of mind.
Todoist makes it simple to spin up projects quickly and archive them when they are done. I’ve created a new section called “Focus” where I can line out a project that I don’t want to get lost in another section. I find it easy to make Todoist work for me, and that is why I have stayed with it for so long.
I’m sure many other todo apps are just as good, but I not planning to experiment with anything else. I am happy with Todoist. A couple notable ones that I haven’t tried are Things & Omnifocus. I believe both of those are Mac only, so it is a non-starter for me. Microsoft bought Wunderlist and has created their own todo system. I have played around with it a little bit. It seems pretty basic and right now I have no reason to change over.

Todoist is lacking one thing that I would like to have in my task system… a kanban view. I’ve heard there is an update coming that will allow to manage a project via kanban, but I have no clue when we will see that. For this reason I still use Trello from time to time. I like the card visualization. For certain types of projects it makes it easier for me to conceptualize and execute.

New App

I’ve recently gone down the Notion rabbit hole. People have used it to build out their entire task management system but I don’t think I see the benefit to that. I do like the kanban board view and might start using it to replace what I’ve been using Trello for in the past. I am sure I will post more about Notion. It is an interesting app that can do so many different things. For me it is the best app that I’ve used for making personal databases. I will share more about how I am using it to organize and log several things in my life. I’ve quickly the value of the app.

I don’t see Notion altering anything about my Todoist or task management workflow. I used to try to organize goals in Todoist, but it never worked well for me. Notion is going to be a place where I can organize long-term goals and a “someday-maybe” list.

Conclusion

This post has turned into somewhat of a Todoist ad, but I want to make it clear that the tool or technology don’t matter, as long as you find something that works for you. For many people a pen and paper is sufficient for a task management system. The most important thing is to create a trusted system where everything can go and there is a framework for keeping it organized and prioritized.
It has taken me years to get into the habit of writing down every single task into a single inbox. It took me even longer to review that list and categorize it in a way that I could ensure the important things would get done.

I don’t know if there are any shortcuts to creating the habits and discipline, but it is really freeing to know that you can trust all of your important tasks are out of your head. I would highly recommend it.

May 14, 2020

Email Thoughts, Apps, & Workflow

I’m really not sure how to get started with this productivity series. There are 100 different directions I could go in. Before I dive into the details I thought I would expound on the different components of the productivity system that I listed out last time.

I’m going to start with the thing I am least excited about… email.

Whether we like it or not, email is a key tool in every company. It is everywhere, and it can feel like the emails are never-ending. My company uses the Microsoft 365 suite, so Outlook is my main email system. For my personal email I use Gmail. I’ve had an account since gmail came to be in the mid 2000’s. I rarely use personal email for communication. It is mostly mailing lists I’m subscribed to and lots of spam.

Overall I really like Outlook[1]. The Windows app is good. The iOS (& iPad OS) apps are excellent. I think the Mac app doesn’t look great, but it is workable. On all of my Apple devices I also use the Spark email app. I have both of my email accounts logged into both apps. I don’t have a good reason for using both. For the most part I use Outlook for work email and Spark for personal email.

My work email is mostly direct communication with coworkers. I keep that pretty clean. I usually end the day without any unread mail. Every now and then things might get backed up.In the past it wasn’t uncommon for me to have 300+ unread emails in my work inbox. There were a few examples of me missing something important, so now I don’t let that happen anymore.

The thing I struggle with most is keeping my inbox organized enough to quickly identify the emails that are associated with tasks and follow-ups. I don’t have a good system for that. I spend too much time searching for things that should be right at hand.

I’m torn on email. Communication is the most important thing in order to get effective work done. Yet, I definitely don’t feel like I am getting much done when I am wading through my inbox. I try not to send stupid emails. I try not to add to the noise. I try not to reply unless I can add something valuable.

My aspirational strategy right now is to go on 10 minute email blitzes and get through everything I can. I want to triage as quickly as possible. I will filter for unread mail and then quickly process that list for 10 minutes. I will delete the stuff I don’t need. I will archive the stuff that doesn’t require a response, but I might want to refer back to later. I will flag the emails that require me to respond, do something, or read something in more depth. I will then dedicate more focused time to that flagged list.

This workflow is good because I can easily do this from my computer, my phone, or my iPad. The phone or iPad can be particularly fast because of the swipe gestures. The way I have Spark set up it makes it easy to read a bunch of email and quickly take one of my three actions on it.

I say this is aspirational because I only achieve my objective about half of the time. My main goal with email is to get through it and act on the items I need to, while avoiding the time suck of living in your inbox. I don’t want to leave email open all day and screw around just waiting for that unread badge to show up.

For years I have turned off all email notifications. I am amazed by how many people have popups on their screen every time an email arrives. You are just asking for email to ruin your productivity if you allow it to interrupt you hundreds of times per day[2].

I do have alerts set up for certain people, namely my boss and several other important people that I work with. If they send me something I want to know about it. I used to use the VIP setting in the iOS email app to get an alert on my phone. I then set up a Microsoft Power Automate script to give me a push notification to my phone for a few senders. Ultimately the Power Automate is clunky, so I recently went back to the VIP method. It is literally the only thing I use Apple’s Mail app. It blows my mind that Outlook doesn’t have better built in functions for this. It is easy to set up with rules on the desktop app, but I want to get a push notification on my phone.

Email is really important. It is a key technology we use every day. It consumes a ton of my time. I am just not sure I have a lot to say about it. I don’t feel like I have a great system. I’m glad that I have enough discipline to stay out of my inbox at least until I have organized my own tasks first. Then I will open the floodgates and let everybody else have a say about what I should be doing.

Other than that simple philosophy, I am not great at email. I don’t have a good folder system. I am constantly losing emails. I let myself get sucked into threads. Sometimes I respond emotionally when I need to take a more measured approach.

I would like to develop a clearer workflow for how I deal with email. I would like to create a better system for keeping track of things I need to follow up on in the future. I’d like to explore those things further and look for some good articles and tips on how to handle them. I will plan to check back in with email later on.


  1. Outlook is a huge upgrade from Lotus Notes, which we were forced to use up until 3 years ago.  ↩

  2. Guess it depends on how much email you get every day. I easily get over 100 messages per day.  ↩

May 7, 2020

Productivity System Series Intro

For most of my working life I have been trying to figure out how to take effective notes. I’ve struggled to organize them in a way where they can be useful in the future. Over the last 15 years I have used several apps. I’ve had many false starts. I’ve been really frustrated.

I still struggle, but I am going to write about my productivity processes in hopes of clarifying them for myself. I’ve learned a lot over the last few years about what works for me. I want to bring it all together and hopefully sharing it with you will help make that happen.

There are so many productivity tools and apps out there. It can feel overwhelming. Most are very similar. Each one has its own strengths, weaknesses, and nuances. I have wasted a lot of time jumping from one to the next.

Ultimately the applications don’t really matter, but you need to have a general structure for how you want to keep your notes. Note-taking, and writing in general, is a major component of an overall productivity system.

I plan for this productivity series of blog posts to focus on note taking, but I do want to outline all of the different components of my productivity system.

  • An email system & workflow
  • Calendar System
  • Task Manager
  • Structured Note Taking System
  • Unstructured Note System
  • Journal

There are tons of productivity bloggers and YouTube-ers out there that do a great job. I will surely be linking to and referencing many of my favorites. I’m not going to pretend that I am adding anything new to all the great productivity content . However, I am sharing what has been most relevant to me. By taking the time to explain my process hopefully I can further clarify to myself what I am doing and why I am doing it.

I think it is helpful to observe how other people manage their own productivity. It is healthy to see how other people work effectively. You will almost never find the answer by merely copying what somebody else does. You need to make it work for you.

Our systems are only as good as the time we dedicate to them. Ideally we are trying to find a way to manage everything in as little time as possible. But you will have to dedicate time. Most people fail because they let the system sit for too long and it becomes irrelevant.

All of those tasks become a massive amount of work to go through, so we never do. Eventually we will get motivated and try starting with something new…. Rinse and repeat.

This is how I currently am with email. I still haven’t found something that Is helpful and easy to stick with.

I have felt better about my note taking systems, but there is still friction I want to work through. I am on the verge of trying some new apps[1], but before I do that I want to make sure I have clarity about what I need.

Whenever I step out of my cozy app system I get overwhelmed by how many tools are out there. With note-taking in particular, new apps are popping up all of the time. Notion & Roam Research look to be strong contenders that are new on the scene.

Join me as I try to make my productivity system seem coherent. Maybe you will be exposed to a new idea or app that will help you out.


  1. Or returning to my old friend Evernote!  ↩