My 2023 Digital Life in Practice – Part 1: Productivity Methods

I love tinkering with new apps and productivity tools, especially if they’re customizable and have a strong community behind them. The bright spot of my current non-work situation is the time I have to feed my tinkering habit.

My productivity habits haven’t changed all that much over the years since starting Fight Colorectal Cancer in 2005. I’m proud of my reputation for being reliable, responsible, and organized (digitally, at least). I’ve been asked often to share my methodology and tools. I finally have the time and space to do that here on this blog.

I initially planned to have one post outlining my productivity process/methodologies and how I apply them to the technology tools I use. It was proving impossible to edit down to a reasonable length. Instead, I’m going to share my approach to productivity in 3 posts:

  • Part 1: Methodology (you are here)
  • Part 2: Apps & Tools
  • Part 3: Process & Workflow

The most important takeaway of this series is: Adopt the methodology and practice that works for you first, then find and adopt the tool(s) that automates and eases the friction of living the practice. You will fail if you try and let the tool define your method.

My approach to productivity could best be described as what it would look like if “Getting Things Done” and “Building a Second Brain” had a baby in my head. I’m doing neither “perfectly,” but the meld works quite nicely for me. Everything is broken down into three time blocks. Day, Week, Month. Will I focus on and do it today? This week? This month?

Getting Things Done

You know the book by David Allen. GTD has been around forever and has spawned so many tools and adherents. All of these practices center around the same basic rule:

Capture fleeting thoughts or ideas quickly and accessibly, then remove them from your head.

CleanShot 2023 02 15 at 18 55 27 2xInbox zero. Stop rolling your eyes. It works. As you practice and fine-tune your inbox filters (and there are many more inboxes than email), you’ll be amazed at how quickly you can do it and stick with it. The trick is to resist the urge to dive in when you’re in the capture or organize modes.

  • If it can be done in under a minute or two, do it, then archive. Don’t let a couple of minutes become 30.
  • If you know exactly what needs to happen next, but it’s going to take more than a minute or two, then schedule it. Realistically. Set a time on the calendar. File it in an active collection area for easy access at the right time.
  • If you know something has to be done within the next month but are unsure what, when, or who, then flag it with some tags and a sentence or two and file it in the right area or resource (see below) for more attention during a daily or weekly review.
  • If it’s relevant to you, but there’s no apparent next action or timeline, archive it.
  • For everything else, find the Unsubscribe link at the bottom and click it, then delete.

Have a system for what’s close and at your fingertips and a bucket for everything else you don’t need to think about until it’s needed. I tend to go into email/notification “process mode” 3-4x a day, which takes no more than 5 minutes at a time. An excellent way to break up the day, as long as you’re not doing it in the middle of a task.

In later posts, I’ll share the tools I use that make this much easier than it looks.

As long-standing and excellent as GTD is, I found my “junk drawers” piling up… I needed a system for the structure that wasn’t reliant on a single tool or workflow. Enter…

Building a Second Brain

Building a Second Brain (BASB) is a book that’s part of a larger system built and marketed by Tiago Forte. It’s similar to Getting Things Done in that capturing and getting ideas and tasks out of your brain and into a system as soon as possible is critical.

BASB didn’t change how I think about productivity, but it did help me to streamline how I use tools and technology and how I think about my daily workflow. I’m spending less time collecting for the sake of collecting and more time collecting for the sake of output and action.

BASB takes a step further than GTD in thinking about the output. It’s easily remembered as: CODE (Capture, Organize, Distill, Express).

This is my interpretation, not necessarily a strict adherence to the book:

  • Capture – Get this out of my head ASAP and record it to retrieve later.
  • Organize – Where exactly are you putting it so it rises to the top at the right time in the right way? You’ll need to find this later, and you’ll want to waste no time in the retrieval. How often do you set aside time to work on something and take half of that time to remember where everything is and get set up to work?
  • Distill – What exactly is it about what I’ve captured that will be relevant to the work I need to do? I try and write a few words at the time of capture to make this easier. I admit there are times I want to distill what I’ve captured, and I can’t remember the point for the life of me. Distilling an idea to its essence takes time and collecting related ideas, so I find it essential to have somewhere to start.
  • Express – how will this action I plan to do show up to others in my work and move me forward in the world? To be a better community leader? Member of society? Manager? Parent? Friend? Daughter? Wife? Knitter?

I try to capture everything with my daily and weekly reviews in mind. How will this matter tomorrow? or next week? or next month? More on daily and weekly reviews in later posts focused on tooling. In short: Trust that your daily and weekly reviews will keep you on track and moving forward.

Now that you’ve thought about what you’ll capture and when, where do you put it?

For this, I rely (somewhat loosely) on the PARA Organization Method, also by Tiago Forte. PARA is not about a specific tool, which is what I love about it. The approach encourages using the best tool for the task, not the shiniest or most comprehensive. The key is the consistency of the structure. My email labels, bookmark labels, collections, Evernote notebooks, Obsidian Folders, etc., all map to the same structure. Tags are consistent as well.

PARA: Projects, Areas, Resources, and Archives. 

This is not a hierarchy. These categories are interconnected. Areas are often my top-level folder/notebook. These are my “areas of responsibility.” The standards I follow for capture and response vary depending on the areas I’ve defined over time. For example, how I handle my mother’s financial and health affairs is very different from how I handle things for my children. Or how I organize and show up for work (or looking for work, which is now my full-time job). It’s also not just about responsibility. “Knitting” is an Area for me. I define an Area as anything I show up for that requires planning, time, action, building expertise, or collecting information.

Projects have an exit point. They’re not ongoing and will be finished when a set milestone is reached. Having an end objective is not enough. My guiding rule is that every project must have a “next action” reasonably attainable. “I can do this next piece of the project if I had 3 hours of uninterrupted time on a sunny day” is within reach. “I can do this task if I had $100,000” is not so much. The former is using a weather app and a calendar to block time. The task is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound). A goal without the next action isn’t a plan. It’s a dream.

Projects tend to fall under Areas in my organization system, but not always. Projects and/or Areas are the top-level folder, notebook, or label in my tools, and I try to keep them consistent between the tools.

Resources are ongoing themes of interest. I’m excited by productivity apps, so new information tends to go to Resources as I learn everything I can about them. This is where I capture tips & tricks, documentation, blogs, work through examples and ideas, etc. They typically connect to a Project or Area.

Archives are the out-of-sight, out-of-mind things that I don’t want to delete, but I don’t want to see them every day either, and they’re not part of my daily or weekly reviews anymore. If they’re meant to be active again, they’ll surface. I may be intensively interested in a topic for a while, and then in the daily and weekly review, I realize that the timing is not suitable to continue. Those things move to the archive. Finished projects also go to archives, typically in an “Archive” folder within the Area.

This whole system may seem overly complex and time-consuming. It’s not. It’s instinctual for me and somewhat flexible. I can quickly evaluate a new tool or workflow and immediately assess whether it fits into my system.

In Part 2, I’ll share the tools and workflow I’m actively using now in my new career in 2023 of looking for a new career. In Part 3, I’ll walk through my Daily and Weekly review process and templates in Obsidian, which is critical for keeping me on track and resilient. It’s too easy to let tweaking the system become the work. There’s a word for that: procrastination. I admit I can be guilty of that, too.

I’d love to hear about what you’re using to manage your world…does it work within or around a prescribed framework, or do you make it up as you go based on what resonates? Let me know in the comments!


4 responses to “My 2023 Digital Life in Practice – Part 1: Productivity Methods”

  1. I saw some of this from you earlier, when you were commenting on Obsidian. You inspired me to check out BASB and the PARA method, which I investigated and instantly adopted, reviving my Evernote account in the process. I’m (mostly) retired and still active with a major volunteer responsibility. What I love about BASB: Areas, Archive, C.O.D.E., flexibility of tool use, and the understanding that the tool is of use to one’s method, not shaping one’s method. Thanks for the heads-up, Judi!

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