What’s the point in all this productivity anyway?

We all have different reasons for wanting to be more productive. Some want to be more efficient so they can get more work done in the same amount of time. Some want to be more efficient to free up more time for other activities. Me, I got into this to save my sanity.

I was a fairly late arriver to the Cult of Productivity. It all began when I came across Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders blog a year ago which in turn led to me discovering GTD and The Flylady. This couldn’t have come at a better time. I had lost control of the house – piles of washing, messy floors, toothpaste all over the sinks. Urgh, it makes me shudder to think of it. I was disorganised at work too and repeatedly would wake in the middle of the night realising I’d forgotten to do something. I crave order (there’s certainly a touch of OCD going on here!) and when things aren’t organised I get horribly stressed. As you can imagine, GTD’s promise of “stress-free productivity” was really quite seductive.

Around the same time my husband was going through a particularly difficult and stressful time at work. And then he’d come home at 6 o’clock and have to cook because I’d not got dinner organised. (I should point out, he is generally a better cook than me. Especially when it comes to throwing random ingredients together from the fridge. He makes a mean stir fry.)

I decided to do something about it. I read Getting Things Done, adopted the Flylady routines and started reading productivity blogs. So my initial reasons for being more productive were to relieve my stress, stop CHAOS (Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome – a fantastic Flylady acronym) and make my husband’s life as easy as possible at home. 

The whole experience has been life changing. I no longer forget to do things at work. My house is usually presentable – it’s clean although it might not always be tidy. It has certainly made my husband’s life easier. And a happy Dylan makes for a happy Rachel! (I am aware that wanting to be a better housewife to make my husband happier isn’t exactly how things are supposed to be in this modern age. But frankly, I can’t be doing with any of this PC stuff. And anyway, he works full-time and I’m part-time so the housework should be my job.)

Back to the topic in hand. My reasons for being productive have now altered. I want to be more efficient to create time. To spend with my family. To rediscover old hobbies and take up new ones. To do the things that are actually important to me.

Over the last few weeks while I have been reassessing my productivity needs and goals there has been a shift in feeling in a number of the blogs I read. A move away from the traditional “here’s how to be productive” post towards a more holistic “make the most of your life” post. Merlin Mann has written a couple of really good posts this week on making his life better and how he is going to change 43 Folders to reflect this. The Weekly Review and Patrick Rhone have written on related themes. This change in feel to my favourite blogs couldn’t have come at a better time for me and I’m very interested to see where they lead.


Creating a garden notebook with Evernote

Here in the far north of Scotland we’ve had a pretty good summer (unlike the rest of Britain) which has meant I have been able to spend a lot of time in my garden. We started it 6 years ago when our house was built and have slowly increased the number of plants. For years I have been intending to start a garden notebook or log to record what plants we have, when they were planted and other useful information. This summer I finally got it off my someday/maybe list.

I had initially planned to use a Moleskine notebook. However I also wanted to include photos of my plants so realised this wasn’t terribly practical. Instead I have created a digital notebook using Evernote.

Its iPhone app makes Evernote ideal to use for a garden notebook. I can take a photo of a plant with my iPhone and instantly turn it into a note. I add a title (the name of the plant) while still out in the garden with the plant (and its label) in front of me. 

Once I get back indoors I may add a link to a relevant webpage on Wikipedia or The Royal Horticultural Society. I record where the plant came from and when it was planted. I also include other useful information such as whether it needs extra watering and its eventual size.

A number of plants that we have bought had sticky labels on the pot with details about the plant. These pots have been piling up in the garage for years waiting for me to copy down the information from all the labels. Rather than write them down I have now begun photographing each label and adding it to the appropriate note. (Unfortunately my iPhone camera isn’t up to this job as is unable to do macro shots so I use my normal camera and drag the pictures in.) Evernote has the ability to read text in photos but it doesn’t seem to work too well for the labels. Possibly because they are a bit dirty.

I’m hoping this notebook is going to help me keep the garden a bit more organised. We’re not terribly good at planning where plants should go. We just see something we like, buy it and put it in where we see a gap. We often fail to leave enough space for plants to grow, forgetting that over the following years they will become considerably larger. Now that I am recording what size plants are likely to reach I’m hoping that next year when I add more plants I will choose more appropriate locations for them. I’m also keeping a note of which plants have grown so big (because I didn’t plan properly!) that they will need divided next year. By having a photo of them now in full bloom I will be able to plan how much to section off next spring.

I’ve only just begun cataloguing plants and still have dozens to do but it’s fun and I’m enjoying it. I suspect there are many more ways I could enhance my garden notebook. Any tips or comments would be appreciated.

Taking an axe to my to-do list

Recently I felt my productivity slipping. In fact, I found myself becoming increasing apathetic towards the tasks on my lists. GTD was no longer working for me and I wasn’t sure why.

A thread on the Work.Life.Creativity forum made me realise what the problem was. My lists were far to long to the point of becoming overwhelming. For example, my “Things to read for work” list had 63 items on it. I would estimate I was adding at least five items every week but I only managing to read two or three. The list was becoming longer and longer and the chance of me ever clearing it was becoming increasingly unlikely. The realisation that I couldn’t complete everything I had set myself was utterly demoralising.

I decided to thoroughly review all my lists. How important was each item? How likely was I to actually complete it? If I never did it would it matter? I managed to delete quite a number to to-dos – forty from my work reading list alone. I was quite nervous initially, wondering if I had done the right thing, sending so many tasks to the trash. But once I was left with a manageable list of realistically attainable tasks I felt quite liberated. My interest was renewed once I realised I could actually clear all the items and I’ve been more productive over the last week or so than I had been for the whole of the previous month.

There are two underlying problems here. The first is that I am not good enough at processing. I am very good at capture. Initially I struggled with it, regularly forgetting to write down to-dos. But over time and with practice it became a habit – especially once I started using a Moleskine notebook which is such a pleasure to write in. I am also good at remembering to transfer my to-dos into Things. What I’m not good at is not transferring items. Something that seemed important in the morning may not be so important later in the day. I certainly have a tendency to over estimate the importance of tasks without considering whether it is feasible for me to do them. Now that I have developed a good capture habit I need to concentrate on improving my processing skills.

The second problem is that although I always do a weekly review I have a tendency to concentrate on adding new to-dos and ticking off items that have already been completed. I need to spend more time considering each item and whether it still belongs on my list. Hopefully with more efficient processing and reviewing my to-do list will remain manageable.

A new productivity website

A new productivity website went public today: Work.Life.Creativity. It has been organised by some of the big names in productivity blogs and I just wanted to give it a quick plug.

The website has a blog and a fantastic forum. Its aim is to create a community of people interested in all types of productivity from a simple to-do list on paper to more complex schemes such as GTD.

I highly recommend taking a look. Yours truly has already contributed a number of posts.

How I use Things by Cultured Code

I am currently using Things by Cultured Code to store and organise my to-do lists. My usage of it is based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done but Things can just as easily be used by someone who isn’t into GTD. Here I describe how I use Things.

Adding to-dos

I usually add to-dos using the Quick Entry panel.


I have this mapped to F2 and it can be activated no matter what application I am in (so long as Things is running). I don’t usually add any details such as tags at this point. I just click return, the to-do will be sent to the Things Inbox, and I can get on with whatever I am doing.

I often turn emails into to-dos. If you drag an email onto the Things dock icon it will open the Quick Entry panel with a link to the email as a note. (There is a bug in Things at the moment – you have to drag the email onto the dock icon twice.) Similarly a URL can be dragged onto the dock icon to create a to-do with the link as a note.

And of course I sometimes create to-dos directly within Things.

Organising to-dos

Next I add tags which are analogous  to GTD contexts. I find tags most useful for keeping track anything I want to read. I then add a work or leisure tag and another with an estimate of how long it will take to read. Then, say I find myself with a half hour spare that I’d like to spend reading. I select reading, 30min and either leisure or work depending on the mood I’m in. And, hey presto, I have a list of suitable articles to peruse.


If a to-do is part of a project I drag it to the appropriate project in the Projects list in the sidebar. If it is a single task I drag it to the Next list. The Next list contains all active to-dos (whether individual or part of a project), not just next actions. I have my Next list set to display only the top item in a project thus creating a Next Action list. Read the rest of this entry »

Yojimbo vs Together vs Evernote: a review

I have been trying to choose an information collector and organiser for the last few weeks. There are quite a few available for the Mac and I thought I would write about how I came to my final decision.

What exactly is an information organiser? Basically it is an application that can collect and store pieces of information as notes. Little bits of text, web page archives, snippets from a web page, photos, PDFs, all sorts. These applications are enormously versatile with as many uses as there are users.

What do I need it to do?

I have three main uses.

  • I want to be able to store little snippets of text, such as a reference number for something I just bought online. The type of things I could write in a notebook but could more quickly add to the computer if I’m already sitting here.
  • I buy loads of stuff online. Almost everything except groceries. (And the only reason I don’t do that is because the service isn’t available where I live.) When I’m researching something I want to buy I want to keep track of all the items I’m considering. For example, last week we bought a new TV. (It’s not arrived yet but that’s a whole other story!) I looked at multiple websites comparing plasma and LCD, features and cost. I could have bookmarked each page (or kept multiple tabs open) but I would have ended up with a large number of pages, flipping back and forth all the time. Instead, it is much easier to save relevant snippets of each webpage (or sometimes an archive of the whole page). I want to be able to save web archives, with a link to the original page and have the ability to add my own comments.
  • I need to keep track of reading material I use for work. I read a number of online journals and websites and need to record and archive anything I have read – a mixture of web archives, bookmarks and PDFs. They need to be kept well organised – I have an annual appraisal where I have to present evidence of what I have read with comments that I may have added.

Features I consider important

  • Add a URL or web clipping with only one mouse click (or an easy keyboard shortcut)
  • Preview a web archive or PDF within the application
  • Tags for organisation
  • iPhone or web access (only necessary to access my reading material at work)

Having looked at a few applications I decided to trial Yojimbo from Bare Bones Software, Together from Reinvented Software and Evernote. Read the rest of this entry »

My implementation of GTD

I started using David Allen’s Getting Things Done system to keep me organised over 7 months ago. I have tried many different implementations, regularly fiddling when it hasn’t felt right. My current system seems to be working well for me and I haven’t felt the need to tweak it for a few weeks.

Although in the book David Allen mainly talks about keeping lists on paper I love technology and liked the idea of keeping lists on my Mac. Having tried almost every GTD application available, both web-based and desktop, I have settled on Things from Cultured Code.

My current implementation of GTD is based mostly on the book but also takes inspiration from Zen Habits, Patrick Rhone, The Weekly Review, 43 Folders and Organize IT, amongst others.


I have four buckets in which to collect “stuff”. I have a basket on my desk at home into which I put physical items that need dealt with, such as post and receipts.

Email comes into Apple Mail.

If I’m at my computer I put tasks straight into Things, either directly or more often using the quick entry dialogue box which I have mapped to F2.

When not at the computer I use a Moleskine pocket notebook to capture thoughts and tasks. For a long time I used disposable Pilot V fountain pens. They are convenient but over time the cost fairly mounts up. I’m now writing with a Pilot Prera fountain pen (£25 from Cyberpens). It’s lovely to write with and has a nice narrow nib.

Process and Organise

I usually sit down mid-afternoon with a cup of tea and empty my buckets. First I sort out my basket. Anything that can be done in under two minutes I just do. If it’s to be deferred to another time a to-do is added to Things. Anything that needs to be kept for reference is scanned or filed. Read the rest of this entry »