The main goal of a personal productivity system is not to manage your time, but rather to give you visibility into what is happening in your life. This enables planning work, tracking progress, and retrospecting. In this article I will talk about my personal productivity system, which is based on ideas from Getting Things Done and Personal Kanban. I will also show how to use a web application called Trello to implement it.
Ideas from Getting Things Done (GTD)
Even though I do not use GTD anymore, I had been a huge fan of it for many years, and I still find many of the ideas very useful.
Everything that you need to remember must be in your system. Only then you will trust it and won’t have to run through five notebooks to make sure that you have not forgotten anything. In practice, it means that the application you use has to be available on desktop and mobile. This is one of the main reasons I ended up using Trello. Since it is a Web application, I can access it from anywhere. Trello’s mobile story is excellent as well.
When an idea pops up in your head, you need to be able to capture it. This must be as effortless as possible. In GTD you use “inbox” for this purpose. Everything that needs to be captured goes there first. Then a few times a day you go through your inbox items and categorize them. I find this Alfred worfklow very handy. With it adding a card to my Trello board is just one shortcut away.
Seeing only relevant information is a big part of the GTD philosophy. One of the most effective ways to do that is to assign a context to every task. In Trello I use labels for this purpose. Trello can use labels to filter your board. So when I am at work, I see only work-related cards.
Ideas from Personal Kanban
Visualize Your Work
You should always have a clear picture of what you are doing, how well it is going, what is blocking you, and what you have already accomplished. Using boards and cards is a great way to visualize this information.
The visual aspect of it is extremely important. I, for example, only move cards left to right, which helps me to visualize the progress. I start my week with all of my cards in the ready column. And then, over time, I move them into “in-progress”, and finally into “done”. This creates a strong sense of accomplishment, which I never felt when using GTD. In a typical GTD setting you look at your list of next actions. And every time you complete an action, it gets replaced with another one, but the size of the list stays more-or-less the same.
Minimize Work in Progress (WIP)
Having a lot of things in progress generates waste. You have to constantly context switch, which makes you feel overwhelmed and not very productive. This is another example when using a Kanban board shines: you always know how many cards are in the “in-progress” column. What you can do is to set a limit of, let’s say, three cards. So when you want to take on another task, you can see if there is room. And if there is none, you have to finish one of the started tasks, or push it back till later.
Dealing with Stale Tasks
We tend to push back certain tasks till later, so they can be on our task list for months. Some of these tasks are important but unpleasant (e.g., filing taxes). They have to be dealt with, and it is better to do it sooner than later. Others are not important. We subconsciously know it and that is why they never get done. Trello has a nice feature called “Card Aging” that helps deal with this problem. It marks old cards, so you can see what has been on your board for a long time and decide which group these cards belong to.
Know What Not To Do
Many of these ideas help you avoid unnecessary work. Seeing stale cards is a good example. If something has been around on your board for many weeks, maybe it does not have to be done and can be deleted. Another one is having the WIP limit. Every time you drag something into “in-progress”, you ask yourself: do I really need to do it? After all, there are only three spots available.
Ideas from Agile
Backlog and Sprint
All the tasks and notes I may need someday I store in a board called “backlog”. There are many ways to organize “backlog” and I will not go into it in this post. “Sprint” is the board I use most day-to-day.
- Everything that I will working on during the sprint goes into the “ready” column.
- The “today” column is self-explanatory. This column is not strictly necessary, but I find the “ready” column to be too busy, especially at the beginning of a week. So having “today” narrows down what I have to look through every time I pick up another task.
- The next column is splitted into “wait” and “in-progress”. A card goes to “wait” when I have already started working on it, but got blocked by something that I am not in control of.
- The “done” is self-explanatory.
I do weekly retrospectives during which I go through all the completed tasks and label them with such stickers:
Once again, the visual aspect of it is crucial. You, for instance, might think that the week went fine, but seeing a bunch of sad faces can make you reflect a bit more. Another example would be seeing that most of the completed cards are work-related, which probably means that you should spend more time with your family.
I tweak my system almost every week. It is important to make your system truly work for you. Only then using it will become a habit.
I have used numerous personal productivity tools over the years (and even built one myself a long time ago), and I think Trello is one of the best I tried.
- It is easy to get started with.
- It works great on mobile.
- It is a web app, so it is accessible from anywhere.
- It supports collaboration, which my wife and I use when we need to work on something together.
- It is free! But if you want to support the product, you can subscribe to Trello Gold.
One thing that, in my opinion, needs some improvement is keyboard shortcuts. You will have to touch the mouse to use it.
Now some tips on using Trello.
Types of Projects
I categorize my projects into:
- Simple Tasks. I just use cards for them.
- Small Projects. I use cards with todo lists.
- Epic Projects.
Such projects might have dozens of smaller tasks and run for months. In my view, the best way to deal with them is to create a separate board with the “ready/in-progress/wait/done” structure. I usually do not work on more than one or two epic projects at a time. Not all long-running projects are epic and deserve their own boards. Many of them do not require a lot of attention and can be represented as a series of cards on the “Sprint” board.
Goals, Habits, Reminders
There are a few things that are not really tasks, and as a result I track them differently.
Finally, I would like talk about a typical week, so you can see how all these things come together.
- Retrospective. I go through my completed tasks to see if there are any action items that can come out of them. Then I archive the completed tasks. After that, I look at my habits and goals. If I did not meet some of them, I try to understand why.
- Planning. I go through my backlog to see if there is anything that should be done during the next sprint. I move such cards onto the “sprint” board. Then I set three goals and pick a few habits to track.
- Every day I go through all the cards in “ready” and drag some of them into “today”. Then I go through “waiting” to see if any action is required from me.
- When starting a new task, I drag it into “in-progress”.
- After I am done with a card, I move it into “done”.
I am pretty flexible about most parts of my process. For instance, I do not usually finish all the items planned for a sprint. Simple tasks might become small projects. Sometimes I create follow-up tasks if I did not think about something in time. The point is to get enough visibility to feel confident that everything is under control.
Design Your Own System
I like this system because I find the visual aspect very important. It gives me a sense of accomplishment, which I value. Since most of what I do is creative work, fighting procrastination and “resistance” is high on my list of priorities, and visual tools help me with that. On the other hand, I tend to have only a few things I work on in parallel. So if you manage dozens of projects context-switch a lot , the system may not work you. You may need something more structured.