How To Be Productive When Things Keep Coming At You

June 28, 2011

After Mariana followed up with me after my last post, I decided to elaborate more on how to stay productive while managing all the information that we are bombarded with every day.

Be it email messages, “snail” mail, websites we come across, phone calls we receive, meetings we attend, etc, we are given an enormous amount of data every day.

Unless we have a relatively simple system to process all of it, they will accumulate in our “inboxes” (email inbox, kitchen countertops, desktop, that corner in the bathroom, etc).

This in turn means we will not get done what we need done, we’ll lose important information we should have filed, and will create stress since your subconscious is smart enough to know there’s all that “stuff” you haven’t taken care of.  You’ll be stressed, overworked, and disorganized.

Sounds familiar?

Well, I have to say I was in that situation.  I used to never finish projects, had way too much on my plate, was stressed all the time.  My lack of organization and poor memory were so bad my Occupational Therapist wife used to apply the same techniques she used on brain injury patients to try and help me.  It’s sad, but true.

So what I will share with you is a combination of known methodologies such as David Allen’s “Getting Things Done,” my  observations on how our brain works, and plain common sense.  If you apply these ideas to your own personal life, I guarantee you will accomplish more, be more organized, and less stressed.

As an introduction, I suggest you start with my post on Mariana’s question about Evernote. After she started using Evernote, she sent me this question:

Now I’m spending all my “extra time” clipping my crazy out-of-control websites from my favourites into Evernote. Btw, does Evernote have a reminder function (i.e. can you use it as a calendar?) For example, if I save a page that has info about the Blues Fest in Kingston, but that doesn’t happen ’till August, is there a function to remind me to look at it again at the beginning of August?

See, Mariana is slowly getting into the juicy part of personal productivity.  She has a tool that is helpful at filing things, and now she wants to be reminded of the things she is filing.  That touches the essence of my system.

Stuff will come at you fast.


All the “stuff” that comes our way every day can be separated into these categories:

  1. Things that will require our action
  2. Things that will require somebody else’s action
  3. Things that are to be filed away for reference
  4. Things that you might want to pursue someday
  5. Garbage

Think about it: you receive an email from your mother asking when you’ll come to visit her next.  This fits category 1.  It requires you to figure out when you can go over, and then answer the email.  If you are browsing the web and find a recipe that looks good, this recipe falls into category 4.  Spam and junk mail are category 5.  Think about all the things that clog your inbox, all the things floating around the house, sitting in that corner of your office collecting dust, that great kitchen you saw at that magazine, all of these things will fit into one of those categories.  This is what I call “stuff”.  Ideas that come into your head when you’re driving?  Stuff.  Bills in the mailbox?  Stuff.  That mouse problem in your attic?  Stuff.

Collect: What to do with “stuff”

What you should do is to collect stuff as they come to you, without giving it much thought.  Collect it all.  So the first thing is to have a place (or more than one, but not too many) to collect the “stuff.”  A paper folder, an Evernote notebook, a voice recorder, any of these will do.  In my set up, I have three stuff collectors: A folder I carry in my laptop bag, Evernote on my iPhone, and an “in” tray on my office desk.  That’s it.  Everything that comes to my mind, my desk, my email, and my life gets immediately put into one of those places.  The idea at this stage is just to put things in your stuff collector.  I’ll tell you how to take care of them later.  So if a great idea comes to your mind during that boring meeting, jot it down in a piece of paper, and put it into your “in” folder in your laptop bag.  Bam, it’s out of your mind and into your productivity system.  You can now relax and go back to your game of solitaire 🙂

note: Evernote for mobile is great as a stuff collector.  You can write texts, take pictures, and voice memos with it.  My default Evernote notebook is called “inbox” and everything I create with Evernote gets automatically saved there.  If I’m driving and I have a great idea about a blog post, for example, I press the “Voice memo” button on Evernote and record my thoughts for later review.

Process: Time to do some quick thinking

Once every day, or every few days, you will need to take a minute and go through your stuff collector.  The idea here is to look in there and decide which one of the 5 categories of stuff each item belongs to.  This is when you will be required to do some thinking.  The thinking should be done in a sequence (and here I freely borrowed from Mr. David Allen). If you’d like a more thorough explanation of the Getting Things Done process, I suggest you start by getting David Allen’s book.

In short you must look at each item in your stuff collector and decide:

  1. Is it actionable?  If so, decide whether you can do it quickly.  If you can, do it.  If you can’t, put it on your calendar or on your to-do list.  Remove it from your stuff collector.
  2. Is it not actionable? Decide whether it is trash, reference, or something you’d like to take at a look at someday.

Finally: To-Do Lists and Calendars

Here’s where your lists of actionable come into place.  If you decide that what you just processed is something you need to do, it goes on your list.  A simple to-do list will not cut it.  We all have them and slowly they turn into this collection of things that we wish we would do.  We need a smarter way of creating our lists so we actually do the things that are in them.

At the bare minimum, your lists should have at least the following categories:

  • The actual item that needs to be done

No needed explanation here.  Just put the item you need to do.

  • The context

When you think of your to-do item, think about actually doing it.  Where would you be? Home?  Office?  At the computer? With Jeff?  So when you create your item on your list, add the context for it.  For example, if the item is “clean litterbox,” you might want to add the context “home”.  That way, when you’re home and you want to get things done, you can sort your list by context and do all of the ones under “home.”

Notice that I did not say “due date.”  If something really needs to be done on a certain date, then it must go on your calendar.  If you think about it, most of the things don’t really have to be done by a certain date.  If that’s the case, assigning a date to them will only create anxiety as you are not able to do everything you need to do on a certain day.

Back to Mariana!

Mariana found a great website for an event and clipped it to Evernote. She did a great job at collecting something that came her way. What she needs to do now is go through the steps I laid out here:

  1. Collect: done!
  2. Process: She needs now to go through her Evernote account (stuff collector) and process all the stuff she’s collected.
  3. To-do List/Calendar: Once she processes her clipped website, she will put a note on her calendar.  Also, if there are any tasks associated with the event she’ll have to accomplish before hand, they can go on her to-do list, with a context associated with it.

If you implement this system, you will be well on your way to get started with getting things done.  Let me know if you have any questions and feel free to share with me what’s working for you.