February Newsletter: Rules and Tools

February 25, 2019

There’s an aggressive focus in the productivity world around tools. People frequently focus on mobile apps and other pieces of software as the starting point, or at least focal point, of a productivity solution. Software is alluring. It entices you with big promises, fancy designs, and online communities of users. I try very hard to push back against the tool-first instinct. Tools support your system, they don’t create it.

In spite of any pushback, the questions come early and often. “What’s your favorite to-do app? What do you use for notes?”. I’ll share my tools here, briefly, but first I’ll share the rules behind the tools. What’s right for me isn’t right for you. If you need help setting up your rules and then finding the tools to support them, please let me know.

The tools themselves are much less important than the rules that govern them. Ideally, if you have a solid productivity system, it should work well with almost any set of tools from paper & pencil to a spreadsheet to the fanciest suite of premium software. The rules for tools help you decide what’s right for you and how you’re going to get the best out of the things you choose to use every day.

My "Rules for Tools"

  1. Don’t over tool Use the fewest number of tools possible. I am always very wary of adding something new or trying to augment an existing tool with a new piece of software. Every node in your system is another thing you have to give a sliver of your attention. The goal is to be "in and out”, not bouncing from one app to the next.

  2. Don’t over integrate There’s an instinct to connect all of your apps together (and many of them encourage this). There’s a million tips on how to connect your to-do lists to your calendar to your notes to your Alexa and patching together automations with systems like IFTTT. This is a trap. In almost every case these connections are not additive and often times they are brittle and buggy and create another thing you need to maintain. Rule #1 for me makes these kinds of integrations unnecessary.

  3. Don’t over automate
    There’s also an instinct to offload decision-making to a piece of software, to let it decide what you should be doing next. Using your brain to review notes, lists, and calendars is core to being successful. The more you hand-off pieces of your creation and management to automation tools, the more you take away from your own ability to understand your own priorities and workload.

Those were my rules, here are my tools. There are only three main tools that handle all of my productivity needs. Everything else is a supporting system that’s fungible.

  • Todoist is my list manager for everything. I like it because it’s cross-platform, fast syncing, and very flexible. I recommend it to most people, although not everyone. There are some excellent alternatives out there that meet other people’s needs a little better.

  • Evernote is where I take and store about 90% of my notes. It’s got a great search engine and I find it generally easy to use. Also, I’ve been using it so long that switching away from it would be a bit of a project for me.

  • I have two different calendars: Google Calendar for my personal life and Microsoft Outlook at work. This comes closest to breaking my first rule, although integrating the two of them would definitely break my 2nd rule and I get way too much value out of making my personal calendar available to my wife so I stick with two.

I'd love to hear more about what you use, what works and what doesn't. If you struggle with productivity, I can help you change the way you work by developing your own productivity system and build your own rules and tools.

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