24 Jan 2018

The 999th Productivity Guide The Internet Has But Never Wanted

The most comprehensive productivity guide you'll come across on the interwebs.

If you’re the type of person who gets an idea and actually has the willpower/internal motivation/discipline to get it done —- then great! You can X right out of this guide because you really don’t need it.

But if you’re someone like me, who has a TON of projects and ideas but often little motivation to follow through and actually do them, then this guide is for you.

I generally have a ton of projects I love the idea of doing, but on a day-to-day implementation level, have little motivation to follow through. In those cases, I use the system below to get around that. This includes doing the hardest intro to coding course, Harvard’s CS 50 as a side project while doing a full courseload at Oxford University, waking up at 8:30 am on average in college despite having a natural tendency to wake up at 11 am, and following through on a bunch of side projects (like this blog!).

What this guide is

This guide has 4 parts. Jump around to what’s most useful for you.

I’m also going to temporarily invent the word ‘unproductivity’, because it’s not a word when it really should be 😛.

What this guide isn’t

It’s not a quick skim or a list of 10 tips.

It’s a long-form description of 3 full blown systems. Getting through the full guide will likely take a couple hours and setting up the system will take even more time. Proceed only if you’re willing to put in that time.

It’s not a cure-all.

Everyone responds to expectations and work differently — that’s why there are so many different organization systems and productivity guides out there. Gretchen Rubin describes 4 different categories in which people fall into based on how they respond to expectations:

  • Upholders meet both inner and outer expectations.

In other words, if an upholder is assigned a work project (an outer expectation, held by his boss), they’ll surely get it done and get it done on time. If they make a commitment to themselves (an inner expectation) to make progress on a personal project, they’ll follow through on that too. Example: Hermione Granger.

  • Obligers meet outer expectations but not inner expectations.

Most people are obligers. If an obliger is asked to turn in an assignment by X date and time, they’ll surely turn it in by then. But if they give themselves an assignment by X date and time, they’ll have a hard time getting it done. Obligers work best when there’s some sort of external accountability present.

  • Questioners follow through on inner expectations and outer expectations which make sense to them.

They’re constantly asking ‘why’ and digging 5 levels deeper into things to fully understand them before accepting or following through. In other words, if they want to do something, they will, but only if they fully understand why they’re doing the task at hand.

  • Rebels resist both inner and outer expectations.

They hate being told what to do and often times giving them a directive will make them disobey. When they do choose to follow through on something, it’s because they genuinely want to do something or because they feel it’s an important component of their identity. Example: Steve Jobs.

This guide is written very much for obligers, and to some extent, questioners. If you’re an upholder or rebel, this guide is likely not for you.

This guide isn’t about building motivation or self-control.

Is it possible to build self-discipline or motivation? I have no idea. What I do know is that developing self-discipline, self-control, or perseverance is hard and takes time. Time that we don’t have when we have X, Y, and Z things to do.

Instead of placing so much importance on willpower and motivation, I think the better route is to find a way to change your environment or habits to make the change easier. This guide is about exactly that — accepting one’s lack of internal motivation and still getting stuff done by changing one’s environment through self-imposed accountability.

Let’s get started - De-constructing Productivity

We can deconstruct productivity by identifying the environments in which we are most productive versus the ones in which we are not. I think we can all admit our most productive intervals happen in the context of either work or school. But why? Why do we tend to get an enormous amount of work done at work and school despite having little internal motivation to do so?

I’d argue it’s because we have 3 key elements:

1. Clarity in what needs to be done.

When we’re not sure what needs to be done on a school assignment or problem set, we ask the professor or the TA until we have a clear sense of what needs to be done. In a work context, we’d ask our bosses or colleagues what a deliverable entails if there’s any amount of confusion. This clarity then allows us to better de-construct a goal or deliverable into more actionable tasks that we then proceed to work on.

2. Clarity in when a deliverable is due.

If our boss or professor hasn’t provided a deadline for a deliverable, it tends to get put on the backburner in favor of other action items.

More on this later, but suffice to say, having a clear notion of when something is due increases the likelihood it will be completed soon. Indeed deadlines can be incredibly motivating.

3. The presence and awareness of consequences if an action item isn’t done.

In the context of school, these consequences of non-action present themselves as really bad grades (a consequence of not studying) and at work as a lack of respect from co-workers, a lower work evaluation, letting others down, etc. In both cases, the consequences are both understood beforehand and severe.

This guide focuses on creating these 3 elements to get shit done.

Accountability as a Solution

Simply put, when you’re not getting stuff done it’s usually because of one of these reasons:

1. A lack of clarity of what needs to be done - The Goal Organization Guide focuses on this.

2. A lack of clarity of the time one has to set aside for a task - The Time Organization Guide focuses on this.

3. A lack of accountability for deadlines & quality of work

Accountability is the invisible magical force that gets us to be productive in school and work despite lackluster motivation.

Sure, we end up working right up till the deadline and the night before, but we get it done.

3 Elements of Accountability

  • A strict deadline.
  • A set of consequences if a deliverable isn’t completed on time.
  • A figure of authority enforcing the deadline and consequences.

By nature, our home environments and personal projects lack all 3 of these elements. As a result, these projects get ignored when in competition with work or school deadlines.

Why? Because the latter has strict consequences for incompletion and a deadline, both of which we know will be enforced, unlike our personal projects which are er. . . more flexible.

So the solution is fairly simple: we need to introduce these elements into the achievement of personal projects.

Using accountability to get things done

The crux of this system is having a friend hold us accountable to ‘turning in’ a set of deliverables by a specified date. If we don’t, we have to pay up the pre-determined consequences.

To do this, we need the following elements:

I. An Accountability Buddy who’s willing to hold you accountable.

This friend needs to be willing to enforce a deadline and a set of consequences.

Make sure your friend isn’t too close to you that they’ll let you off the hook easily. Sometimes, our friends are so close to us that they transform into inner expectations. If your friend/loved one is likely to let you off the hook if you don’t perform well, find someone else to hold you accountable. If you’re serious about getting things done, you have to be serious about the consequences if you don’t get it done. That simply makes getting your tasks done more likely.

II. Strict, pre-agreed upon consequences if deliverables are not done by a given time or by a certain standard.

What motivates you to get something done? Use that as a consequence. Financial incentives (e.g. paying a friend $10) work really well here. Why? Because it makes you more likely to do it.

Sometimes the shame of not meeting a promise is sufficient – it really depends on what motivates you personally and what impact your friend’s view of you has on you and your motivation. Try it without money if you’re curious, ideally with someone who’s opinion of you matters to you. If that doesn’t work though, money almost always will ;)

If you think you might be unwilling to actually pay if you fail to meet the deadline or deliverable standard, you can pay your friend in the beginning (when setting up the accountability sprint) and have them return you the money only when you’ve met the standards. This is a lot less awkward than forcing your friend to make you pay them money.

III. Explicitly written tangible deliverables with fail-proof ways of measuring success.

More explicit deliverables make it easier to check if you’ve actually followed through on what you intended to do.

Your friend won’t truly be able to measure your success if your deliverable is, ‘study for Calculus test’ or ‘read up on starting a startup’.

Making the deliverable more specific, like ‘Read chapters 7-10’ is better, but still sub-par; how will your friend truly check if you’ve read?

Instead, setting a deliverable of ‘Done problems 1-30 on pages 400, 450, and 438 each (90 problems)’ or ‘Read and took notes on chapters 7-10’ are far better.

IV. An explicitly written form of submission.

What format is the deliverable? Some good examples:

  • An email containing 4 graphs . . .
  • A URL to X, Y, Z finished articles . . .
  • A Fitbit heart-rate tracking graph as proof I exercised for 20 minutes
  • A screenshot of 20 sent networking emails

V. Explicitly written deadlines.

This one’s pretty easy — something along the lines of 11:59 pm EST +/- 5 minutes.

It’s generally a good idea to include a 5 minute grace period. The last thing you want is to lose $20 because you finished something 1 minute late.

Implementing an Accountability Sprint

Cool. Now that we have the ingredients of our accountability framework, we’re ready for an:

  • Accountability Sprint — a period of time when your friend is holding you to a deadline, and you’re in the productive zone of ‘sprinting’ to meet the deadline and deliverable standards and avoid the negative consequences.
  • Accountability Declaration — this is the formal write-up of the deliverables, due date, and consequences that you’ll message or email your Accountability Buddy.

To give you a better sense of how to implement this well, I’ll run through an example of converting a bad Accountability Declaration into a good one. I’d recommend you take a moment now to figure out what you’re trying to work towards and have a draft that you can modify as you read through this.

Setting up an Accountability Declaration

A Bad Declaration

“I’ll email you statistics on distribution of wage/salary income of people with college degrees in metropolitan centers.”

Why it’s Bad

It’s Vague

So what exactly does checking for “distribution of wage/salary income”” mean? How do you quantify ‘statistics’ into something checkable? How many metropolitan centers? There’s a lot of ambiguity that creates unnecessary wiggle room.

No Deadline

There’s no due date associated with the task. By when? What time? You want the accountability declaration to be as specific as possible so that there’s absolutely no wiggle room (unless pre-outlined) on your end.

No Concrete Deliverable

What tangible element is the friend going to check for? It’s unclear.

It’s Too Esoteric

It’s not in layman/easy-to-check terms. Unless your friend is a labor economics and statistics expert, she’s going to have a really hard time figuring out if you really did all of the items above. And if she’s not sure, most people will likely let you off the hook, which is really bad because it compromises the integrity of the system.

Plus, you irritate your friend by asking them to parse through rather dense material, rather than giving them an easy set of things to check for.

A Good Accountability Declaration

A better accountability declaration would be the following:

Overall Topic: Distribution of Wage/Salary Income

Deliverable I: 4 bar graphs of the distribution of wage/salary income of Americans.

  • Delivery method: A PDF report, sent via email.
  • Rubric: Check all 4 bar graphs are there, emailed on time, complete with detailed legend and a short paragraph explaining the data.
  • Consequence/Due Date: $10 penalty paid by Venmo if not emailed by 11:59 pm EST.

Deliverable II. A set of 4 mean, median, and quartile information blocks for each of the graphs

  • Delivery method: Sent in body of email.
  • Rubric: Check all 4 sets of data are there (12 in total), emailed on time.
  • Consequence/Due Date: $5 penalty for each of the 12 data blocks, paid by Venmo if not emailed by 11:59 pm EST.

Do you see what a huge change in specificity that is from the original declaration? Specifically, we parsed ambiguous terms like “statistics” into very checkable elements (mean, median, and mode information blocks) along with fixing all the problems listed above.

A Template for Accountability Declarations

Use the following template when writing out declarations and mirror the specificity of the example above when writing Accountability Declarations:

Overall Topic:

Deliverable I:

  • Delivery method:
  • Rubric:
  • Consequence/Due Date:

Other Important Implementation Tips

Aim for week long accountability sprints, not longer (at least in the beginning).

My accountability sprints are never more than 1-2 weeks long. If you’re just starting out, it’s especially important to have shorter accountability sprints for 2 reasons:

  • If you fail or mess up, you have less money on the line to lose. You don’t want to make a month long accountability declaration, get sick and thrown off schedule, and ended up owing a ton of money for missed deadlines. With shorter, week-long deadlines you have far less to lose.

  • Shorter accountability sprints allow for more fine-tuning. The shorter the cycle, the more quickly you can change up what is and isn’t working (see the next tip).

  • Shorter feedback cycles can be more rewarding. You meet the deadline quicker and therefore feel the euphoria of accomplishment more often. It’s pretty energizing.

Fine-tune your system as you set up further accountability sprints.

Did you overestimate how much you had to finish the first sprint? Then fix that for the next one. Were you not specific enough in describing deliverables? Fix that in the next one.

Since your sprints are only 1 week long, you can easily fix something that’s off.

Eliminate as much ambiguity and wiggle room in your description of the deliverable as possible.

The point of accountability declarations is to remove all possible wiggle room.

Why? When we have trouble meeting a deadline, we look for wiggle room. We look for cracks in the veneer, for ambiguity, for the minimum possible we can do to still get credit. That’s just human nature and it’s totally okay – it simply means we have to put in more effort in limiting the wiggle room at the beginning.

When I was in college, I desperately wanted to wake up earlier. So I told my friend I’d send her a photo of a “Hopkins workspace by 8:30 am +/- 5 minutes.” The problem with this declaration was that I was able to take a photo of a building 2 minutes away which was technically on campus masked as a workspace — this was invisible wiggle room that resulted in me getting to my real workspace at 8:45 or 9 am. Instead, the next time around, I became way more specific, pointing out that I’d send her a photo of “Brody reading room” — aka the actual workspace I meant to be in, thereby getting rid of the ambiguity and wiggle room.

In the last few minutes when you’re rushing to meet a deadline, you’ll look for all the possible ways you can undercut the deliverable while still getting credit. Acknowledge this habit in the beginning and address it by making water-tight accountability declarations.

Cool Accountability Examples

Using accountability to wake up early.

Using accountability to meet specific personal project & social goals.

Using accountability to exercise daily.

Troubleshooting

My friend let me off the hook. Is this really that bad?

Yes. yes. yes.

When people let you off the hook for missing a deadline or a deliverable standard, it compromises the integrity of the system.

In the short run, it’s good, because you save how much ever money you put on the line. But in the long run, if you know you’ll be off the hook this time, you’ll figure you’ll be off the hook in the future, leaving room for you to slack off in future accountability declarations. This fundamentally compromises the very thing that makes the system work – an expectation of performance.

So if you tried it, and it failed, no problem. I’d recommend trying again, making sure you’re following all the tips above.

This helps me get work done, but how do I make sure what I’m doing is high quality work?

We’ve all experienced that feeling of cramming before a deadline — heck that may just be a routine for us. The fact of the matter is, accountability frameworks can guarantee that you’ll get something done well, but not necessarily done well.

Sometimes you can quantify what it means for a deliverable to be done well – for example, specifying “4 bar charts” and further details about the charts, but often, it’s hard to perfectly quantify what our best work is.

This is a weakness of the accountability framework largely because quality is largely dependent on internal motivation.

The best way to try and maximize both quantity and quality is to:

  • Perform an accountability sprint to get as much as I can done.
  • Once the work is done, go back to add to the quality.

Time Organization Guide

Note: same content as The Ultimate Guide on Organizing Time.

Welcome to the Time Organization Guide! This guide is specifically for:

  • Feeling like you have time under your control.
  • Have a better grasp of the time you have to get work done.
  • Not having to remember what you’re doing by when and outsourcing that information so you can focus on the things you actually need to do.

The Basics

Time organization is one of those things that’s highly idiosyncratic; some people have phenomenal systems using paper calendars while others love bullet journaling, while still are fine without even having a time organization system at all.

So do what works for you, and it may not be the system I describe here. That being said, if you’re like me, and like having things 1000% organized and laid out so you can focus on the tasks themselves, what you’ll read below is likely to be incredibly useful.

Different views of time

In this guide, I’ll layout:

  • Multiple time layouts I find the most useful
  • How to set up a central time organization system around Google Calendar
  • How to maintain your central time hub

A Cautionary Note

Setting up these different views and methods of planning takes time. If you’re not willing to take the 3 hours or so it takes to set it up, you might be better off opting for a simpler system. That being said, I wouldn’t do it regularly if it wasn’t so, so, so worth it.

Macro Level Views

Conventionally, most people maintain solely a weekly and daily view on time. And while you can map things out like this, I find it incredibly useful to have both macro level (multi-month/month) views and micro level (weekly/daily) views. This is for a couple reasons:

I. Time simply looks different from a multi-month/monthly perspective.

It’s far easier to get a sense of how each week translates to progress on major milestones (test, big deadlines, etc.,) than on a sole week view.

II. It helps you translate larger goals to smaller ones.

Consider the goal of studying for a test — it’s way easier to outline achieving this seeing a monthly calendar than solely the week leading up to the test.

III. It’s a wake-up call of how fast time moves.

As they say, “the days are long but the years are short”. The same goes for months and semesters; before you know it, it’s the end of the month or that massive deadline is approaching. In this sense, having a monthly view will keep you aware of how time passes on a macro level, rather than having it hit you in that final week.

Different macro level views

Based on what period of time I’m in (for example, in school versus on summer break) I’ll maintain different macro level views. Below I’ve included 2 examples:

  • Macro views during school
  • Macro views while on extended break

Example I | Macro Views while in School

_I’m currently backpacking Italy and don’t have access to my hard drive with these spreadsheets LOL. Will upload soon.__

Example II | Macro Views on Extended Breaks

Now that I have an 8 month break, this is my current multi-month view on time, laying out where I’ll be in which month.

In addition to that, I’ll have a view of the current month, which includes my whereabouts and often, what I plan to do on a bi-weekly basis in terms of goal-setting.

Setting up multi-month and month views

Use Excel

I highly recommend setting up multi-month and month views in Excel. It’s versatile, looks nice, and you can dedicate separate sheets to separate views and purposes. On top of that, if you use this system in conjunction with the Goal Organization Guide, you can also have your goals laid out in Excel as well. For example, have your multi-month view on one sheet, your month view on another, and your goals laid out on yet another sheet.

Bam! Your entire productivity system is now centralized between Excel and Google Calendar. Sometimes, it helps to print these views to PDF if you want an application that will open quickly, but otherwise, an exclusive Google Calendar and Excel system is perfect.

Templates

Below are some templates which may be useful. If you end up downloading any of them, as a small favor back, comment that ya did so below! It makes a big difference to hear from you guys.

2-Week Template — download here.

Monthly Template — download here.

Year Template — download here.

From there, customize it by filling in the right dates. Enter major events like tests, major milestones, due dates, major problem sets, extracurricular events, etc.

Micro Level Views | Google Calendar

For weekly and daily views, ALL HAIL GOOGLE CALENDAR!

Google Calendar will take care of your:

  • Weekly view
  • Daily view
  • Meetings with people
  • Your day-to-day tasks and events

This is an example of how my calendar looked like in college:

Google Calendar isn’t that great for a monthly view as all the day-to-day events cloud out the big picture. That being said, if you wanted to use Google Calendar on a monthly basis, you could enter in big project due dates, tests, significant events, etc., as ‘all-day events’ in a calendar with a bright red color; this would make the important milestone events stand out, making the Google Calendar monthly view more usable.

Setting up the system

Why Google Calendar over other calendar services?

Google Calendar generally transfers better across devices and apps (for example switching from an iPhone to an Android phone is seamless via Google Calendar), is universally supported by every calendar add-on, plugin, or application, and has a number of import, export, sharing, and customizing options that Apple calendar or other services just don’t have.

If you’re already set up on Apple calendar or a written calendar journal and your setup is extensive, stick with that calendar platform. If you have a minimal setup or no setup, use Google Calendar.

Step 1 | Logistics of Google Calendar

Head to Google Calendar here and login or signup.

Step 2 | Set up individual calendars

Individual calendars segment which events go into which ‘bucket of your life’.

I used to maintain as many as 10 calendars for different elements of my life (e.g. exercise, school, friends, meetings, classes, etc.,) but I’ve found this is way too many. The transaction costs of A) deciding which calendar it should be in and B) clicking and setting up the event in that calendar way undermined the worth of having that many calendars.

I now maintain 3-4 active calendars which works way better:

  • Commanding Center — This is the default calendar , used for any meetings with people or generic events. Unless my events fit better into a different calendar, they’ll go in here.
  • Classes — All recurring classes and tests go in here.
  • Me Time — This is a calendar I use for any ‘self-decided’ activities — for example working on projects, sleeping, eating food, etc., are all classified as ‘me time’.
  • (Career/Exercise/Social) — In addition to the calendars above, it’s likely useful to have some calendars corresponding to things you value highly. During the job recruiting season, for example, I maintained a career calendar to distinguish all the recruiting events from the regular ones. If you’re super into exercise, on the other hand, it might be worthy to have a calendar dedicated solely to workout schedules. This is for you to customize and play around with. Other useful calendars may include: side project, learning music, office hours, etc.

Go ahead and make which ever individual calendars you think will be the most useful. If you need guidance on how to create the calendar, check out this help link).

Step 3 | Set up Google Calendar on the go

Download a mobile calendar app for mobile access – every major calendar app is compatible with Google Calendar. I use the native Google Calendar app.

Set up your mobile app to default to the day view; this way you can refer to your phone’s calendar for your day-to-day schedule (and presumably your laptop for the week and month view).

Step 4 | Maintaining the system

Everything should go into your Google Calendar for 3 reasons:

  1. The whole purpose of organization is to have clearer focus on the hard tasks at hand. This is 10000x easier when you aren’t trying to remember which event you need to be at by when.

  2. By laying everything on your Google Calendar, you get an accurate sense of the free time you have. If half your events are off your calendar, there’s really little clarity gained with the items you do put in your calendar.

  3. You avoid decision fatigue of whether to put it in the calendar or not — instead, don’t waste time deciding – just take 30 seconds to enter it in and forget about it!

All formal events should be added to Google Calendar. This includes classes, hangouts, videochats, office hours, work meetings, etc. In other words, anything which involves a commitment to another person should go into your Google Calendar — this way, as soon as you make the decision to meet up, you can literally forget about it, as long as it’s in your Google Calendar and you check your calendar frequently.

Build the habit of always entering an event into your calendar and checking Google Calendar for your schedule.

Conclusion

And that’s it for the time organization guide! If you follow those guidelines, you’re new and upgraded time organization system is ready to go. If you liked the Excel templates above, email me at [email protected] and I can send more over. Otherwise, make your own, get started, and have a ton of fun! Fill in below with any advice you might have that wasn’t otherwise said.

Goal Organization Guide

Introduction

Goal organization refers to 2 elements:

  • Awareness of macro-level and micro-level goals and how the two relate.
  • Having clarity in how to achieve both goal levels.

Goal organization is as idiosyncratic as time organization; some people have phenomenal systems using apps like Omnifocus or Wunderlist while others have equally great systems with just pen and paper.

In this guide, I’ll go over my system — again, not necessarily the best one, but one that has worked well for me. If you have useful (or better?) tips, leave them in the comments below.

The purpose of this piece is to lay out different ways of representing goals and action items. If this is a system you’d like to adopt, remember that you don’t have to use all the methods described in this guide – the idea is to do only as much as you need to achieve clarity in what needs to be done at various scales in time – a semester, 3 months, a week, etc.

And that’s pretty much it by way of introduction. So with that, onwards, friend!

Excel Spreadsheets, Ahoy!

As you’ll see below, I do all of my major goal, project, and multi-month planning in Excel spreadsheets. It’s versatile, free form, great for lists, and combined with my multi-month and month views, allows me to centralize all my productivity tools around Google Calendar and Excel.

If you want any of the Excel templates of the layouts below, email me at [email protected] and I’ll send them right over.

Macro Level Goal Planning

I love macro level goal planning.

It just feels super optimistic/inspiring/awesome — kind of like the start of a semester. Macro level planning is particularly great at the beginning of any new phase – a new semester, before starting a job, before a vacation, etc.

I. Retrospective Reflection

My favorite method of macro level planning is imagining myself in the future, and thinking retrospectively about what I’d feel great having done or achieved. I ask myself:

“Imagine it’s 8 months in the future and you’re thinking back over the last 8 months. You have a wide grin on your face because you’ve accomplished everything you set out to accomplish. What did you accomplish?

Is it cheesy? Yep.

Does it work well? Yep.

I’ll then go ahead and outline some vague goals underneath which might look like this:

  • Newsletter in motion
  • Have a successful website up and running.
    • Works and doesn’t shut down all the time.
    • Has a significant number of viewers/readers (>50-100/day).
    • Incorporated into daily life – I naturally seek to write.
  • (and more goals)

Prioritizing & Organizing

At this point, you’ll likely have a number of goals – maybe as many as 7 or 10 depending on how optimistic you are.

Being really straightforward and honest about why you want to get something done can be an insightful tool of getting to know yourself better and prioritizing goals. So for each goal, I often find it incredibly helpful to dig deeper into each goal with the following chart:

Mission Why is this important? Generic ways to accomplish mission
Build a successful blog    

When creating missions, it’s better if your missions are task oriented rather than outcome oriented. So instead of ‘Give a TED talk’ (something determined largely by the external forces of the selection committee), you could write, ‘Write a TED worthy compelling narrative / story’ or ‘Reach out to 100 TED selection committees’.

You can identify which of these goals are priorities by asking yourself:

“Say you could only accomplish 5 of these. Which would it be and why?”

Other Macro Level Views

Sometimes, in addition to the reflective process above, I’ll lay out vague projects/goals/habits as they occur to me like the example above. Then, at the start of each month or at the end of a project, I’ll pick a to-do/project/thing-to-learn/habit to implement that month, and focus then on hammering out the details during that month.

Micro Level Goal Planning

So, at this point, I have a great sense of the larger goals I want to achieve, but little idea how to actually achieve them in terms of day-to-day tasks. It’s time to make each goals actionable.

Each project has an associated list of actionable to-do items. ‘Build a website’, for example translates into a 100 different action items, from ‘Research and pick a platform to develop on’ to ‘Get the favicon working’ to ‘Fill out about page’.

In other words, we need to streamline action on a project by listing out the more finely grained day-to-day actions that achieve a giant project. These tasks need to be written in such a way that you could physically do them with no ambiguity about how to do them. Below are a couple examples of non-actionable tasks made actionable.

Bad “Actionable Task” Example Good “Actionable Task” Example
Study for Italian test Do 3 sets of Duolingo flash cards, read chapters 4 & 5 of textbook.
Exercise Do the 25 minute Jillian “Killer Buns” workout everyday for the next 6 days.

After a macro planning session I like to lay out goals/action items per project with the following template:

Each project has a set of actionable tasks, arranged by how long it takes to complete each task.

A couple quick notes:

  • You can highlight cells of more pressing tasks in yellow.
  • I usually order the tasks logically, so what needs to get done first is listed at the top.
  • If you have a lot of action items in the 5-8 hour column, it’s likely because they aren’t broken down into actionable sub-tasks. For example, ‘study for Data Structures test’ can be broken down into “Read Chapter 5, read chapter 6, etc.,” each of which go in one of the first three columns.

I like this setup for a few reasons.

It’s great if you have multiple projects you’re managing.

Organized by project/class allows you to pick and choose which projects are more pressing or which you’re more in the mood for.

It’s helpful for seeing what you can get done in a given time period.

Breaking tasks down by the time it takes to do them is helpful when deciding what to do on a day-to-day basis. If I have small blocks of time, I know I can grab tasks from the Quick column and quickly finish them off during those small time blocks.

Plus, if you’re on the go, you can quickly see which projects you can complete on a train or in a different work environment. If you travel a lot, you could even add ‘Mobile Tasks’ as a column for each project.

This view gives you a sense of 2-3 week action items, allowing you to perfectly filter out which of the tasks you want to take care of this week.

Weekly Planning

From the Project Pipeline view above, I’ll usually pick out all the action items I need to get done this week as a sort of free-form list of tasks.

By that I mean, I’ll literally cut and paste the task’s cell from the project view into a separate ‘weekly to-do’ area. From there, I make sure each task is:

  1. Incredibly actionable (e.g. no ambiguity of what needs to be done in order to cross it off the list)
  2. Able to be completed within a 0-4 hour block. If it isn’t, I’ll try and break the task down into sub-tasks.

I don’t have a set platform for weekly planning – sometimes I’ll use paper lists, other times I’ll use my Mac Stickies app, other times I’ll plan each task out per day on my Google Calendar.

Other Cool Views & Planning Tools

A ‘Done’ Category

I maintain a “Done” Column to copy tasks into once I’ve finished them. Even though it’s easier deleting them, it’s nice looking back after a couple months and seeing your progress. Suffice to say, it’s a friendly reminder that achievement is simply the summation of small, seemingly unimportant tasks.

Brain Dumps

Brain dumps involve racking your brain for every existing project and action item, and getting it all on paper. They’re particularly great to do during a macro level planning session or in transitory periods (e.g. start or end of a work/school period).

The benefit of this is simply not having to remember a million tasks in your head. There’s a huge amount of ‘carrying cost’ to store tasks, reminders, and to-dos in one’s head and it’s often times incredibly relieving to just sort of write them down and remove them from one’s internal memory storage. Use this list as a starting point for your brain dump.

If you live a more free-form life. . .

These past few months for me have been interesting simply because I have 8 months off to make progress on whatever goals I see fit before starting work at Microsoft. I’ve taken to listing out the general projects I’ll be working on each month, and then drilling down the actionable tasks that month itself.



Conclusion

And that’s pretty much it! If you have any questions at all about implementing this, improving it, walking through accountability declarations — literally anything — email me at [email protected]. I love talking about this stuff and helping you work through it would literally be a hobby for me.

If you liked this guide, check out the next page: The Note Organization Guide — how to actually organize the million notes you have.

and the post after: The Most Useful Productivity Insights I’ve Come Across.


This guide is part of the 5-Part Productivity Guide.

Check out all parts together in the Productivity Guide, or see the individual pages below:

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You can also email me at [email protected] - I’m happy to help out in really any way.

– Neha