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Productivity Process – Part 2

In the previous post, I covered the Getting Things Done (GTD) method in general terms and mentioned some systems that I use to help me focus on getting useful work accomplished rather than remembering what work I have to do.

I felt that a single, longer post was warranted so that, if nothing else, it can serve as a single reference page in the event that you’d like to try this system yourself. Here’s what I aim to explain:

  • My choice of tools
  • The separation of project contexts
  • A dashboard for the system
  • Projects and their priorities
  • The day-to-day workflows for getting things done
  • Planning via agendas
  • The weekly review portion of GTD


Image credit: jesadaphorn

Choosing the tools

Remember the key to making GTD work: having a system (or systems) you trust where you can easily keep track of things so that your brain doesn’t have to.

Trello has a very intuitive interface for treating tasks as cards, is web-based, and has a good mobile app that supports being offline. I’m already a huge fan of Kanban, so the flow of cards through the lists resonated with me from the outset. Some other features I like:

  • I can define my own columns (and their order).
  • Cards are easily moved around:
    • Within the same column (changing priorities)
    • Between columns (work being done)
  • Cards can be copied, meaning I can set up templates for recurring tasks.
  • Cards can have checklists, attachments, comments, due dates, and can even be made visible to other Trello users.

Google Calendar comes with any Google account (i.e., if you use Gmail, you have a calendar). Here’s how I make use of Calendar:

  • Scheduling events that occur at a specific time (e.g., oil change next Monday at 8am)
  • Adding reminders for recurring tasks (e.g., board of trustees meeting on the first Sunday of each month)
  • Sharing calendars with others who may want to know if I’m busy at a certain time
  • Some other neat features of calendar events:
    • I can schedule reminders either to my phone or via e-mail ahead of time (e.g., e-mail me 1 day before my appointment). E-mail works well for me because I empty my inbox at the end of each day.
    • If I enter a street address (and because I have Google Now on my phone), I’ll get reminded when it’s time to leave (and if I’ll be delayed by traffic).

Evernote is a neat way of capturing bits of information and tagging them for quick retrieval. The desktop app comes with a browser plugin (Evernote Clipper) for snagging web content as notes, and the mobile app lets me retrieve those notes when I’m away from my computer. My particular setup for tags could be worthy of a separate post, but here are some things I file away:

  • Full-text copies of articles I’ve read that really resonated with me
  • Notes from conference sessions
  • Summaries of books I’ve read (kind of like Cliffs Notes)
  • Recipes
  • Coaching notes for my group fitness classes
  • Itineraries, reservation receipts, and to-bring lists for travel

Gmail probably needs no explanation. I treat this digital inbox as a queue of uncategorized things; however, because I practice Inbox Zero, by the end of each day the items get done, delegated, deferred, or deleted. Moving messages to folders (i.e., assigning labels) gets them out of my Inbox, yet I can keep them around for later reference.

Now that we’ve covered the tools, let’s get back to GTD.

Knowing the context

Another aspect of GTD that wasn’t mentioned in the previous post was context. Context usually has to do with where you are physically. For example, if you’re in front of a computer, that’s the place to write a reply e-mail. If you’re out and about in your car, that’s a place to run errands.

Here are my three contexts:

  • Home — things to do at home
  • Work — tasks to be done on the job
  • Planned Activities — appointments, errands

I find it easier to consider these contexts to be mutually exclusive (i.e., I tend not to work on personal projects at work and vice versa). Trello allows me to assign labels to cards; I use green for Home, blue for Work, and orange for Planned Activities.


Setting up the dashboard

I reviewed several ways of using Trello to implement GTD, and I ended up using something based on Peter Harkins‘ setup. My previous GTD system was implemented entirely in Evernote, but it lacked a “simple 10,000-foot view.” (Click the image to enlarge.)


The six main columns are:

  • Templates — recurring checklists of tasks for easy copying
  • This Week — chronological list of general tasks for the current week
  • Inbox — used for capturing quick ideas to be processed later
  • Today — chronological list of tasks for today only
  • Done — place for completed cards
  • Big Picture — cards that help with weekly reviews

At a quick glance I can tell what’s coming down the pipe today and this week, plus I can easily get at my priority lists and goals. We’ll cover more of the Big Picture cards in a later section where I explain my weekly review routine.

Next, let’s move on to how projects come into the picture.

Understanding projects and priorities

Project setup

Projects are groups of related tasks, which get their own Trello boards. (Click the image to enlarge.)


For most of the projects, the stock To Do / Doing / Done lists should be sufficient. I sometimes add a Blocked list for tasks I’ve delegated or that can’t be completed right now for some reason.

Also I have a special Projects Backlog board, which has lists for each category of project. Some examples include Professional Development, Leisure Reading, and Learning UI/UX. Within each list, I have cards for each task (e.g., read article XYZ, watch Pluralsight video JKL).

Priorities within a project

The magic here is to keep the lists of actionable cards sorted based on priority. This eliminates the guess work of what needs to be worked on after the current item is finished: Just pick the top card from the To Do list. And speaking of Kanban’s pull system, you are limiting your work-in-process, right?

Priorities among projects

Most of us have multiple projects, both personal and work-related. My current system involves creating a card in the Big Picture list on the Main Board for each context. This accomplishes two things for me:

  1. An overview of all projects for a context
  2. A list of the projects ranked by priority

My current system doesn’t follow a strict scheduling algorithm; but I’d say it’s close to having a priority queue with aging. I aim to spend a proportional percentage of my time on each project, with a higher percentage going toward higher-priority projects. I’m currently building up some baseline numbers about how much time I’m actually spending on each project. (There will be another post about that relatively soon.) These time totals will tell me whether my system is working.

Caution: If you only work on the highest priority project and that project has a steady flow of cards going into the To Do queue, you’ll never get to the other projects (a.k.a., starvation). This isn’t inherently good or bad; perhaps it’s an indicator that those other projects need to be shelved. A powerful component of GTD is the feedback cycle; change your priority scheduling if your current approach isn’t successful.

The tools are in place (including a dashboard), the projects have been created, and the priorities have been established. Now the planned work can begin.

Working the lists

My workflow

  • If a task takes less than 2 minutes, do it. I’ll have less psychic weight by dealing with the low-hanging fruit as I encounter it.
  • Start at the top of the Today list on the Main Board and do tasks until I get blocked by the next task. (An example of being blocked: I can’t go to that evening appointment because it’s currently 9:30am.)
  • Do a task for the chosen project for my context.
  • Once a task is completed…
    • Are there any blocked items that can now be dealt with in the Today list? If so, do them now.
    • Re-evaluate the priority to see if I should continue with the current project, or switch to another.

Interruptions and change

Because I’m not a mindless automaton doing the same rote work from start-time to end-time, my system needs to be robust enough to handle change and interruptions. Here’s where the power of inboxes and queues come in.

  • If I think of an additional task for a project, I add it to the To Do list for that project, then return to the task at hand
  • If there’s an item that doesn’t fit into one of the projects and needs more clarification, I add it in the Inbox list on the Main Board, then return to the task at hand

The important feature of the task management tool should be the ability to quickly add items wherever you are. Having Trello open in a browser tab and on my phone’s home screen makes this process almost frictionless. Remember that GTD helps you deal with these sporadic ideas for tasks by letting you rely on your system, not your memory.

End-of-day cleaning

Although I may do some maintenance on my inboxes during the day, I make sure to have the following done before heading to bed:

  • Delegate/defer/delete as needed for the Inbox list in Trello.
  • Process any e-mails in my Gmail inbox.
  • Tag/categorize any notes in my Collection Box in Evernote..

Most of the “cleaning” consists of creating new tasks for existing projects, scheduling things on the calendar, or filing things away for reference. This maintenance work keeps issue from rotting in the queues.

With the work process in place, I gain focus by planning in small batches.

Having agendas

As part of my weekly review, I create cards in the This Week list for everything on my calendar for the week. This involves assigning the label (based on context), and setting the due date. (Trello has a handy feature of updating the color of the date based on how close you are to it, or if you’ve passed it.) Perhaps this process is a bit laborious; however for me to slow down and really look at my week ahead lets me think about what’s coming up and see if I’ve maybe forgotten something.

Each morning I create my agenda for that specific day; it’s a variant of Benjamin Franklin’s approach. I start by dragging cards from the top of the This Week list and moving them to the Today list. (That’s another reason why I created all the cards at the beginning of the week.) Next, I’ll copy any recurring daily tasks from the Templates list into the Today list, updating the title to have today’s date.

Here’s why this system works for me:

  • I can quickly see what’s on tap for today (or what’s left).
  • I can get a feel for how much more is coming down the pipe for the week.
  • The lists are finite, which keeps me from being overwhelmed.

At the end of the day, my Today list should be empty. If it’s not, I’ll defer cards by putting them back on the This Week list. At the end of the week, my This Week list should be empty.

The last component of the system is the weekly feedback cycle, which keeps the machine oiled and tuned.

Performing a weekly review

The weekly review is my opportunity to reflect on the past week, prepare for the week ahead, and make tweaks to my system. Depending on how many projects and cards you have, this process should take less than 30 minutes. Here are my steps:

  1. Archive the Done list for last week, then create a new Done list for this week.
  2. Populate the This Week list based on Google Calendar entries.
  3. Review all cards in the Big Picture list. More specifically…
    1. Are my project priorities still correct? Did the work I did last week (either measured in tasks done or time spent) match those priorities?
    2. Am I still achieving my general goals?
    3. Is there anything that went really well last week that I’d like to incorporate into my routine?
    4. Are there any goals for this year that I can work on this week?
  4. Review the actionable cards for each project to ensure the correct priorities. It may be the case that some cards can get delegated, deferred, or deleted as well.


Trello, Google Calendar, Evernote, and Gmail are the systems I trust to help keep me organized. Having a mental separation of contexts combined with an overview dashboard helps me see where I need to focus without much fuss. With each project’s tasks contained in separate Trello boards and the to-do lists sorted by priority, I have a clear path so that I can apply my system of doing work. The weekly agenda helps frame my week, and starting each day by making an agenda keeps me from being distracted and overwhelmed. Lastly, the opportunity to review and plan with regular frequency keeps things in perspective and from falling through the cracks.

GTD has been part of my life for about five years now, and I’ve tweaked things along the way, especially as better tools have become available. Although the overall workflow may seem complex, the structure helps me stop thinking about managing my tasks so that my cognitive cycles can be better spent doing those tasks.


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