On Productivity

Like you, I’m busy! I have a family that includes a 3- and 4-year-old, a fun (but demanding) job at Riot, I’m a student in the Berkeley-Haas MBA for Executives program, I volunteer work as both a mentor at Techstars and a director at a non-profit organization called Potential Energy, and I have a bunch of other hobbies that range from hacking on side projects to learning German to training for a marathon. I list those commitments purely in an attempt to convince you that my survival hinges on my ability to squeeze every minute out of every day. I get asked about time management and my personal productivity system fairly often, so I’m taking the time to describe the way that I operate here in a blog post for three reasons: in case others can learn from my system, in hopes that I can get feedback and improve my system based on what’s working for others, and to give me a place to point people in the future instead of offering a slightly half-assed verbal brain dump on the spot.

If you just want a tl;dr of the high-level best practices that I’ve based my own system on, they are:

  • Get your life’s backlog into a tool. Groom regularly, and setup short (daily?) sprints.
  • Keep yourself off of the endless email treadmill.
  • Track and update your personal growth in a lightweight artifact that you look at on a regular basis.
  • Be extremely tactical about the setup of your workstation when you go heads down.
  • Exercise and eat healthy, so your body isn’t working against you.

With that said, let’s dig into the deets.

I keep my whole life in Evernote, following a sort of Scrum-like system that was inspired by The Secret Weapon and has been customized over the years. Keeping everything in one place gives me the freedom to focus on particular tasks and sleep well at night while knowing that I’m not dropping anything on the floor. I have three primary notebooks in Evernote: Action, Done, and Reference. I have email forwarding set up so that I can forward email to Evernote from both my personal and work email, and I have Evernote’s web clipper add-on installed in Chrome for capturing web pages. I use a tagging system that includes tags for the place that the item pertains to (@home, @riot, @haas, @techstars, @potentialenergy, etc.), the priority of the item (0-Critical, 1-Urgent, 2-Important, 3-Average, 4-Trivial, 5-Irrelevant), and a special tag for when I will tackle the item (Today, Soon, Daily, Recurring). Everything that first comes into Evernote goes into my full backlog, which I can view with a saved search for everything in Action. Once per day, I pull items from my full backlog into my daily backlog by adding the Today tag; I can also view this backlog with a saved search.

I only check my work email once per day, at the end of the workday. I assume that if anything high priority comes up I can be tracked down in real-time via either IM or in-person communication (and thus far, this has only bitten me once or twice). Closing the email window during the day has been a massive win for me both in terms of time savings and a reduction in context switching, although as a brief aside I’m concerned that the migration to Slack for a lot of communication may make this kind of firewalling more challenging moving forward. When I clear email, I make a bottom-to-top sweep of everything in my inbox, and for each mail I take one of a few actions: I mark it read if it requires no action, I reply to it or take the necessary action if it will take me less than a few minutes, or I forward it to Evernote so that it shows up in my full backlog.

At the end of each evening before I read and call it a night, I go through my full backlog in Evernote and add tags (including a priority, and in some cases the Soon or Today tag) to all the new items that have come in. I then take a few minutes to pull the necessary tasks into my daily backlog for the following day (starting with tasks that had the Soon label), and I look at my calendar to be sure that I can accomplish everything in my daily backlog and that I’ve identified the right set of priorities.

I also keep a Personal Development Plan (PDP) in Google Docs, using a lightweight format called the Agile PDP format that was created by a fellow Rioter named Andre Ben-Hamou. The format probably warrants a post of its own, but it essentially involves identifying three to five high-level focus areas along with a list of backlog items that relate to those focus areas. The difference between the backlog items on my PDP and those that make it into my full backlog from other sources is that these items are intentionally growth focused. Once a week I do a deeper sweep of my entire full backlog to be sure that everything is still relevant and prioritized correctly. After that I review my PDP, add new items as appropriate, and pull items into my full backlog in Evernote as appropriate.

During the day I take great pains to be sure that my work environment is setup correctly. I start by making sure that my desk is clutter-free, and that I have both a snack and some water. I close everything except for Google Calendar (so I know what meetings are coming up) and Evernote, and I disable most notifications on my phone. My desk is in an open team environment, so I usually have headphones on playing music from Digitally Imported along with some very light white noise from A Soft Murmur to help drown out background conversations in the area.

To keep my energy level up throughout the day and help me focus, I make sure that my mind and body are both healthy and in a good place. I spend 10–15 minutes practicing mindfulness through meditation in the afternoon, typically following a guided meditation from Calm. I’ve created a personalized DIY Soylent recipe that I use to augment/replace my meals and ensure that I’m getting the nutrients that I need. I also typically exercise three or four times per week, typically either cycling to work or going for a jog in the morning or the evening.

There are a lot of other nuances to the way that I work, but the above is a fairly comprehensive bird’s-eye view of the artifacts and rituals that I’ve developed to keep me sane and productive. I think effective personal work systems are highly specific to people and environments so I’m not certainly not advocating that you should adopt my system out of the box, but I hope that you will find pieces of my routine helpful. Please take advantage of the comments to let me know what’s working for you in your own routine so that I can consider adopting it as well. Thanks!