The Perfect Productivity System Doesn't Exist

A musing on my trials to create a frictionless productivity system that works.

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien; Dit que le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.
(In his writings, a wise Italian; says that the best is the enemy of the good)
Voltaire, 1772

I've thought a lot about productivity over the past couple of years - how to be the most efficient with the time that we have. Especially as I grow older, I've realized that there's a lot of merit to the statement "the only truly non-renewable resource is time".

Earlier in life, I didn't really see a need to manage my time. Things just sort of... happened. A project popped up in class, homework came due, or an extracurricular had a meeting. I would keep it all in my head. Maybe I would check the calendar once or twice for a refresher, but it would have to be a pretty important date for me to write it down.

It was by no means perfect. I would forget due dates. I would spend too long on one thing and then realize that I had no time left for the other. Other times I would procrastinate so long that the items just left my head, and it wasn't until a really inopportune moment that I would remember it. I always felt like I was reacting, never getting out in front of what I had to do.

Unfortunately, this broken system worked. And it worked well enough for long enough that I got by.

Then I went off to college.

I know that it's a cliché at this point to say that college is a big shift in your life. Usually, it really is. You're in a new environment with a bunch of people that you've never met before. You're not going to school, you're taking classes you chose. You're not getting taught by teachers, but by professors. Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention the most important one!

You're not finishing your first year there, you're going back home due to the plague.

The initial news of COVID-19 was a big shift for everybody. What I realized, however, was that newly off to college mixed with a dash of a global pandemic, folded in with my non-existent productivity system was, you guessed it, a recipe for disaster.

Friction #

Willpower is for losers. Or rather, our environment has a profound effect on us. As much as we would like to think that we are machines or disembodied consciousnesses that are unaffected by where they are, we are not. We physically exist in an environment, and that environment can present certain "frictions" to achieving certain goals.

Being sent home my first year of college shoved this fact straight into my face. Having no method for managing your time is one thing when you absolutely have to be in a certain place at a certain time. The friction to do anything other than focus and learn is incredibly high. It's an entirely other thing when all of your classes’ lectures are pre-recorded and you can watch them at any time. There's practically no friction at all to prevent you from distractions.

I came to realize a couple of things:

  1. My "rolling with the punches" system had to go.
  2. I needed to find or create a robust system that could handle whatever I threw at it
  3. This system needed to be as frictionless as possible in order to keep me centered through times of stress

Unfortunately for me, there's a deluge of different productivity apps these days. OneNote, Notion, TiddlyWiki, Zim, CherryTree, org-mode, etc... And it certainly doesn't help that "the frontier between 'note taking' and 'personal project management’, or 'todo list' is blurry as they're usually done with (the) same tools". On top of that, there are so many different productivity systems out there that take advantage of these tools. GTD, PARA, Bullet Journal, etc...

I literally tried them all. Every time something didn't feel quite right, I would jump ship and change systems. Some systems used tagging, but I felt like some things needed more structure. Other times I locked my stuff into a hierarchical structure and missed the freeform nature tags. I wanted all of the features in my system. I thought that the freedom that this would allow me, would allow me to be the most productive version of myself.

However, this is a well-known problem, that no matter how hard a system tries, after it gets large enough everything becomes miscellaneous. Once I realized this, I had an epiphany. If all the systems are garbage in their own way, I might as well have a simple one (though maybe not as simple as a single text file).

And so what follows is what I've come up with

My system #

My system consists of 4 lists, in the same vein as a bullet journal.

The first list is my inbox. Any time I had an idea, or a task that I wanted to do, I put it in my inbox. This was the biggest help by far. I know it seems trivial, but it really changed my whole world. No longer did I have to worry about forgetting something that I thought about. I could just write it down and come back to it later.

The next 3 lists are the week, month, and quarter lists. Anything that I want to keep track of for these time periods are transferred from the inbox to these lists when I have the time. (If the thing takes less than 2 minutes, I just go ahead and do it, then remove it from the inbox). Every time I create a new one of these lists (at the beginning of the week/month/quarter) I'll take the unfinished tasks and migrate them over if they're important, or if they're not I'll erase them.

Notice how I haven't mentioned any tool or system? If you must know, I use Google Keep to store my lists. The biggest reasons were: easy data backup, accessible on my phone, and excellent search tool. But really, this system could be used on pen and paper just as well.

And that's literally it. If I need to be at a certain place at a certain time, I'll put it on my calendar. If I need to take some notes for a specific project, I'll bust out a separate list for it, but the main tasks stay on these 4 lists.

Finishing up #

With this ridiculously simple system, I'm finding that I'm forgetting to do things less. I feel like I have control of what I'm doing, and feeling better about the things that I'm not doing. In fact, it's so simple and so helpful that I'm wondering why I didn't start this years ago.