10 min read

(Don't) do all the things!

Can you be more productive by doing less?
(Don't) do all the things!

Hello, grownups!

I regard myself as something of a connoisseur of productivity systems. Implementing new productivity systems is my all-time favourite way to procrastinate. And hoo boy, I have tried THEM ALL. Over the years, I've Got Things Done, I've Bujo'd, I've Pomodoroed, I've Kanbanned, I've Omnifocussed, and I've Habit Stacked. I've Basecamped and Scrummed and Gantted. Heck, I've even Eaten the Frog. And if you have no idea what any of those things are, congratulations for having more interesting hobbies than I do.

I really don't believe there's a perfect strategy for being productive. There is no best system that works for everybody. No, friends, each of us is doomed to cobble together our own rickety collection of hacks, tools and rituals in a vain attempt to keep our lives together. And Neurodivergent/ADHD-types have to work harder than most.

So when I tell you about my productivity system, please do not mistake this for advice. I think my productivity system is insane. It's a weird Frankenblend of GTD, Bujo, CGP Grey and Kanban. It's far too complicated. But I need it. Deep down, I am an absolute mess of a person and my productivity systems are all that stand between me and the dark chaos of the universe. I need a bulletproof productivity system because without it I become this Golden Retriever:

The core wisdom I have gleaned from the seven billion productivity books I've read in my life:

  • Don't try to keep things in your head; build a system you can trust to remind you of what's important at the right time.
  • The routines you have are more important than the tools you use.
  • Don't keep things in your inbox.
  • Build a forgiving system that will not haunt you with undone tasks forever or make you feel like you are "never getting to the bottom of your infinite to do list". Make your to do list finite and fresh.
  • Find a way to connect what you're doing today with what you want to do with your life.

My productivity stack is made up of a five (FIVE!) different layers, from highest level to most granular:

  1. Four core values.
  2. One seasonal theme.
  3. A project list (and its shadow, the "maybe someday" dump)
  4. A master to do list.
  5. A weekly spread.

I know, insane. Oh, to be one of those people who just wake up in the morning saying, "Today? I don't know. I'll just do whatever seems important." and then somehow live perfectly happy and successful lives. I hate those people. I bet those people have perfect bed hair and impeccable bowel movements, too.

Core values

At the heart of my whole system are my core "deathbed values". Like, when I'm looking back at my life from my deathbed, I want to feel like my life embodied these things. I have four ("do good", "make things", "security for myself and my loved ones", "a life of beauty and adventures"). Yes, they're hand-wavey, but I set these values for myself over a decade ago, and they've not changed.

I try to keep my core values present in my productivity system by sorting all of my projects into them (with simple colour-coding). If a project doesn't fit into one of those categories or support one of those values, then I have to question why the heck I'm doing it.

Every year in December, I put aside one morning and reflect on whether I'm living up to my core values, and how I can do better. I've been doing this exercise together with my lifelong bestie for years and years, and it's wonderful. Often, new project ideas arise from doing this reflection.

Seasonal themes

A shorter-term challenge to myself. This is an idea I've taken from CGP Grey, and I wrote about how I think about themes here. I set a new theme at the beginning of each season. Currently, I'm doing a Spring of Apprenticeship.

Project list

A list of projects. Each one is written on a sticky note, and there are about 13 in total.
My colour-coded projects list

At the back of my notebook, I keep a list of active projects. These are colour-coded in line with my values, which is a great way to see at a glance where I'm not paying enough attention to one part of my life at the moment. And if I can't tell easily which colour a project should be, it should not be on the list!

This list is deceptively powerful, because what matters isn't what's on the list, it's what's not on the list. The trick to an effective projects list is that it must be limited in size. You are only allowed to do a handful of projects at once. I've got thirteen on my list right now, which is three more than I like to have (and I can feel it - I've been unusually fatigued recently). It helps to think of a projects list like you only have a certain number of slots available. I have ten. You might have three, or twenty, but there must be a limit.

So, where to projects go if they don't fit? They have to go into an overflow area. Mine is a tab on my tasks spreadsheet labelled "maybe someday". It's for all those things that I'd like to do, but can't right now. Things like "learn to play more than 4 chords on the Ukulele" and "write that story about a retirement home for superheroes" and "finally hang that bloody mirror" all get moved onto that list. And when they're there, you are giving yourself permission to stop thinking about them. They're not gone! But they are not important enough to have your attention right now, sorry! Honestly, a "maybe someday" list is one of the most beautiful gifts you can give yourself, because it keeps your actual TO DO list from becoming an infinite list of things you feel guilty about not having done.

This was probably the single most helpful thing I learned in all my productivity obsessing: productivity isn't about DOING ALL THE THINGS! It's about doing the right things. And the older I get, the more my productivity systems have become about finding ways to focus, and reminding me what I have said no to (for now).

I update my projects list every Friday, in my weekly review.

Master to do list + weekly review

My master to do list

My favourite productivity book ever is Getting Things Done by David Allen. The best gift I got from it is the idea of a weekly review. This is a two-hour slot I have blocked out in my diary every Friday, where I:

  • Clear out my inboxes. ALL of them. The first inbox to clear is my brain (writing down all the small tasks niggling at me), then I gather other tasks from my notebooks, email inbox, calendar, Downloads folder, messaging apps, open tabs in my browser... everywhere you keep little unconscious "notes to self". And I clear them. I capture all of my tasks in my master to do list (which is currently a Google Spreadsheet, but at other times has been an app). And ahhhh, the sweet sweet feeling of ending every week with fresh inboxes (yes, often I achieve this by just deleting stuff I can't be arsed to deal with, but this is another good way to filter out tasks that are not worth your time).
  • Review my projects. Go through my projects list. Ask myself if it does still reflect the projects that are actually important to me right now. For each project, ask what the next action is I need to take to progress it and add that to my master to do list.
  • Clear up my master to do list. Delete things that don't need to happen any more. Move tasks that feel stale onto the "maybe someday" list where they can stop staring at me accusingly.
  • Choose what tasks I'm actually going to try to do that week, and move them to my weekly spread.

I can do all this in 30 minutes if I need to, because usually a fair chunk of time is taken up by doing "2-minute" tasks like responding to emails.

My two hour weekly review is the linchpin that keeps my whole life functioning. On weeks when I skip it, I become as useless as Octodad.

Octodad is a video game where you play a caring father who is secretly a clumsy octopus, trying not to get caught

Periodically, I like to nuke my whole to do list and start a fresh one. It's like how moving house occasionally is the best way to force you to deal with the dusty boxes packed in your garage.

Weekly Spread

Hardly #bujo porn, but it works 

I'm an analog girl at heart, so the very last thing I do in my weekly review is choose just a tiny subset of tasks and write them down as a physical to-do list in my notebook. Some people create absolutely swoon-worthy versions of this, but the simple layout here pretty much works for me. I have my notebook with me constantly, and this becomes the thing I refer to throughout the day, and merrily cross tasks out / colour in bubbles when I complete things (if I had gold stars, I'd give them to myself).

The point of this is to curate a subset of the things that are most important. Success is a really short to-do list, filled with only impactful things. I usually aim to have just one or two chunky tasks that are my true focus for the week, and no more than five small things I can do when my energy flags late in the afternoon. Depending on what kind of work you do, other people might be able to tackle ten big things and thirty small ones, or even fewer things than I can. But trial and error has taught me that this is the realistic number of things that I can do in one week.

Sometimes extra things come up during the week (that's what the extra white space is for), but if it's not as urgent/important as what's already there, I try to put it in the Master List, not on this small focus list.

The point isn't to do all the things. It's to do the fewest things that will allow you to achieve your goals, leaving you with more time to look at flowers/go roller-skating/hang out with your mum and all the other non-task-based-things that make life worth living (I do sometimes try to put things like that on tasklists, but again, I am an insane person).

Figuring out what to do is an essential skill if you're self-employed or ever aspire to be. If you don't have a boss giving you direction, you get to pick directions for yourself.

But figuring out what's worth doing is what productivity really is. So, find a way to do that.

Don't try my way. It's a truly ridiculous system.

Wishing you colourful stationery, roller blades, and direction in life,


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Updates from Sam-Land

You know what's great? Being outside. You know what's even better? Being outside WITH PEOPLE (up to 6). So far, English Spring + the easing of lockdown restrictions is a delightful combo. Highly recommended. 10/10, would Spring again.

Here's what I've been up to:

  • Pitches, pitches, pitches. I've spent a lot of the past year trying to convince somebody to give me money to make a TV show with my friends. This is a big thing to ask people! But we're actually getting close to receiving an offer, I think. Crossing fingers!
  • Magpies... oh man. It was all going so well. I was literally finishing the epilogue of the draft that I thought was ready to start sending to book agents. And then... I realised that I needed to change the entire first act. It's so painful to go back and rip out a lot of words I really like, and restructure the whole skeleton of the thing, but I have to hope it will be worth it. Sometimes things just take longer than you thought they will. SIGH.
  • For those of you who tried to join me for the JSE Power Hour talk last week, I'm sorry that it was all such a disaster. My internet connection cut out about five minutes in, and I DID NOT NOTICE, and merrily did all 45 minutes of presentation to nobody. My apologies. We will reschedule!
  • There are these adorable little free book exchange boxes dotted around my neighbourhood. I picked up John Green's Looking for Alaska on Monday and tore through it in two days. It's a teen romance story that's equal parts funny and heartbreaking, and also features the most hilarious description of a blow job I've ever read.
  • My buddy Jon Keevy has this wonderful YouTube channel for South African nerds called Zarnia Games & Geekery. He recently interviewed comedian/actor Siv Ngesi (who is wonderful in Showmax's Tali's Baby Diary), who had a lot to say about money and hustling. The interview goes live at 6pm today, watch it here.

Finally, I wanted to share this little miracle of a poem Finuala Dowling wrote about the Cape Town fires last week, specifically, the UCT Library. My thoughts are with everyone who had their lives disrupted. I was watching from afar, aching with you.