An update to my productivity system

Failed systems and why they failed:

  • Eisenhower matrix: A system that gives you insights - but it isn't good enough as a holistic system
  • Time-blocking: Great - but we tend to get overzealous with it - the popular rule is to not time-block more than 60% of your calendar - but that is hard to do once you get into the flow of things
  • Pure GTD: Tends to direct our attention on completing several trivial jobs while not necessarily focusing on the "frog". Capture + Weekly review are the 2 best parts of GTD with universal applicability.
  • Horizons of Focus (introduced by David Allen in Making it All Work) feels like it should work - but it just ends up being a bucket list or higher-order bucket lists in practice.
  • Eat the frog: Ends up with you looking bad because some trivial tasks given to you fall through the cracks though you may be making progress in some major area - while this may not look like much, people may stop trusting you with things because say, you forgot to verify and close a bug and instead focused on getting to the root of a challenging modelling problem that has been nagging you for days.
  • Time-tracking: Without a reason to track time, this is meaningless overhead - time-tracking by itself might induce shame and make you work if you aren't doing enough - but it serves better in the feedback loop of a larger system.

My hybrid method:

Understand what you need to do

My understanding of Eisenhower quadrants

  • Urgent/Important: Do ASAP
  • Urgent/Not-Important: Try-to-delegate - but more often than not these are small tasks - so task-jar/batch them together
  • Not Urgent/Important: This is where the most value comes from - includes things like "Find and read interesting papers from ASPLOS this year". No one at work is finding fault with you for not working on this because NVIDIA is extremely execution driven and there are enough tasks from the previous 2 categories to overwhelm a typical employee. But if you aren't doing this, you aren't growing but merely adjusting for inflation in your career trajectory.
  • Not Urgent/Not Important: Eliminate or put in a calendar entry when you feel they will become important again.

Use roles:

I have 3 Trello boards - Work,Self-Improvement,Personal. I don't keep a separate board for each work project etc. Each of them is a role and serves a distinct purpose. Personal board is only before 10AM and after 6:30PM. (barring a quick glance at lunch). Work board stays open between 10 and 6:30 with a quick glance before going to bed just in case there is something I need to get done by the next day. One more thing that I do is mark administrative tasks that are Quadrant 3 with  separate label. In Cal Newport's terms, I hire myself as an assistant to get these things done in batches. This is where time-tracking comes in. In a typical day I try to ensure "assistant" me doesn't get more than 20% of the time.

Workflow states:

In Trello, I have the following columns

  • Breakdown: Ill-defined tasks that may need multiple steps
  • Backlog: Well-defined takss - either steps after breaking them down or single-step tasks directly added
  • WIP: Things I am juggling between at this point (limited to one from each project; 4 overall)
  • Delegated/Blocked: I add a comment in the card mentioning what it is waiting for
  • Done: Meant for review (next section)

Weekly Review: (straight from GTD - with a twist)

Get clear

  1. Look at the Done list in Trello and write out a status mail from that. Then archive each card as they are processed - this is something missing in most todo list apps - they squash all completed tasks together so it is hard to find out what you did in a given week (at least in the free tier - ticktick for instance provides a backlog, but that is for another day)
  2. Process all email inboxes/slack and add cards to the Backlog/Breakdown given how well defined they are.
  3. Process your previous week's calendar - see if you forgot to add anything to the backlog. Add things to your status

Get current

  1. Process upcoming week's calendar - add tasks (I do keep things like vaccination schedules/birthdays etc on the calendar)
  2. Process waiting for - send mails out asking for progress if required

Get calendaring (this is the twist)

  1. Find out things that fall under Quadrant 3 of the Eisenhower matrix - Time block them in the calendar. These are never going to be urgent - so you need to be self-driven - something I am bad at. Adding to the calendar is a way of subtly signalling that they are now urgent too. On heavy weeks, keep at least 1 hour per day for this still - lighter weeks could involve time-blocking a few hours for this each day.
  2. Create admin-blocks - 30 minutes each day for processing incrementally added tasks/mail etc. 1 hour for batched up Quadrant 2 jobs.
  3. Don't time block anything else - just get to them in the Trello card order

Get clocking (I started this only this week)

I use clockify.me as a free clock - I only have 4 projects there. 1. Work 2. Admin 3. Personal 4. Self-improvement. This aligns with the Trello boards (except for Admin which is interleaved with work in Trello so as to provide contexts). I only track time from 9AM to 7PM since I want to minimize use of my phone when with my family. I want to ensure the following:

  • Work: 40%
  • Self improv: 30%
  • Admin: 20%
  • Personal: 10% (interruptions/this comment/shopping etc. during work hours)

Wind-down ritual

At the end of the work-day

  1. Finalize changes on Trello boards like adding comments, moving columns etc.
  2. Close all apps in the laptop and actually shut it down rather than suspend it so that each day starts with a fresh slate

Before sleep

  1. Quickly glance at the next day's calendar and set an alarm on my phone if needed
  2. Keep my Kindle near the bed and keep my headphones away in my work-room so that I am dissuaded from wanting to quickly watch a few videos.

Miscellany

  1. Do one thing that stretches your limit a little - haven't put this into action yet - but this would fall under self-improv/quad3 as I do
  2. Use Youtube as a library and not as a channel - use https://www.musicforprogramming.net/ or psytrance for ambient music - I attempt to do this and then get lost in some rabbit-hole on youtube - I have disabled autoplay though and bought a youtube subscription to avoid ads.
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