Productivity Overview

My second most popular post ever describes my Emacs Writing Setup. (My most popular post, if you’re interested, is this one.)

I wrote five novels and about thirty short stories using the method described in my Emacs Writing Setup, all the while experimenting with other methods. For example, I replicated some Scrivener features in Emacs and wrote about them here.

But over the past year all this has changed. So much so that I’m rewriting my Emacs Writing Setup from scratch.

So what’s changed? Briefly, I’ve started using org-roam and Doom Emacs for my writing flow. This has had a knock on effect for my productivity flow in general.

I think that I’m a productive person. I’m an assistant head teacher. I’ve had 8 novels and around 70 short stories short stories published. I maintain three blogs. I play jazz piano, accordion and baritone horn and am a member of two bands. Most importantly I’m a husband, carer and father to two children.

My two secrets? I watch very little TV and I rely heavily on productivity systems. I think if you’re not using a system then you’re not meeting your full potential.

The systems I use are GTD and Zettelkasten. I’ve experimented with others, but these are the two that best match my needs and personality.

I’ve also experimented with various software applications over the years. I’ve yet to find one piece of software that meets all my needs, although Emacs comes close. If I were to work solely on a laptop, that’s all I would use, but like most people I also rely on a phone and browser.

Orgzly and beorg do a good job of replicating the Emacs experience on a phone, but Emacs without a proper keyboard is always unsatisfying. And, as yet, I’ve not found a satisfactory way of using Emacs via a browser.

So my current productivity system relies on three ‘applications’

  • Emacs
  • Evernote
  • Notebook and pen (I use Leuchtturm1917 notebooks and Uniball Jetstream pens for preference)

I use Emacs for most things, principally org-mode for writing and org-roam for Zettelkasten

Why do I use Evernote when I have Emacs? Remember, Zettelkasten is a tool for thinking, it’s not a reference tool. One of the principles of Zettelkasten is that you should separate your notes from your reference materials.

Evernote is ideal for reference, it’s also more suited for phone and browser access. The newly added Evernote Tasks feature goes some way to replicating org-agenda. Okay, it’s got a long way to go to match Emacs but I can live with it for the convenience. (I experimented with Todoist for a while before Evernote tasks came out. I liked Todoist so much I almost feel guilty for not using it. It’s an excellent piece of software, but I like to have all my to dos in one place)

Finally, I use a notebook for ideas and thinking things through.

As word documents are the de facto standard in the publishing world , I still use LibreOffice Writer for submissions and editing, but I would say that I spend 99% of my time on Emacs, Evernote and in my Notebook.

This series of posts describe how I use these Emacs, Evernote and my notepad to implement GTD and Zettelkasten, particularly to support my writing process. As I don’t have the patience to watch videos, as I’m not interested in personal anecdotes or dubious research to support self evident points I won’t be including any of those things here. I will include How Tos and config files for those who are interested.

If there’s anything missing, let me know.

Productivity 2021

My second most popular post ever describes my Emacs Writing Setup. (My most popular post, if you’re interested, is this one.)

I wrote five novels and about thirty short stories using the method described in my Emacs Writing Setup, all the while experimenting with other methods. For example, I replicated some Scrivener features in Emacs and wrote about them here.

But over the past year all this has changed. So much so that I’m rewriting my Emacs Writing Setup from scratch.

So what’s changed? Briefly, I’ve started using Zettelkasten, org-roam and Doom Emacs for my writing flow. This has had a knock on effect for my productivity flow in general.

Over the next few months I’ll be going over my new set up. Let me know what you think.

You’re using folders and tags the wrong way round

According to Ian Small, CEO of Evernote, only 5% of Evernote users use tags. Evernote is not the only application that uses tags and folders, and I suspect the picture is similar in other applications. Most users rely on folders alone to categorize their work. I can understand this. Everyone has used paper folders in real life, the folders in applications replicate this experience.

However I think tagging is better, the reason being that although a note can only be in one folder, it can have more than one tag.

Here’s an example. Suppose you have personal notes and work notes. Some of those notes are just regular notes, some notes outline projects. You could tag your notes as follows:

  • Holiday (personal, project)
  • Shopping (personal)
  • User Manual (work, project)
  • Presentation (work)

Tagging like this gives you more flexibility. You can now filter for all of your projects, or filter for work projects only. By adding additional tags for things such as year 2021, 2022 you can then find, for example, all the personal projects you started in 2021.  Tagging gives your searches a granularity you don’t get by using folders.

Does that mean folders are no use? No. Folders are useful when something can only be on one state. A good example is :

  • Todo
  • In Progress
  • Done

You can set up those three folders and move notes between them. This is the opposite of the commonly recommended practice that you tag work with Todos.

Why are folders better? Because notes can only be in one folder at a time. It’s possible to accidentally tag a note as both Todo and Done. There’s also something quite satisfying about dragging a note from the In Progress to the Done folder…

What if you want to separate your work and personal to-dos? There are two ways. You can go to the Todo folder and filter by work or personal tags. Or it might be easier just to have two sets of folders

  • Work Todo
  • Work in Progress

And

  • Personal Todo
  • Personal in progress

Does it matter if you’re using folders and tags the wrong way round? Of course not. If you can find the right note at the right time, your system is fine. My suggestion is that using tags correctly adds flexibility.

7 GTD: Doing

  • If you’re not totally sure what your job is it will always feel overwhelmed
  • Lack of time is not the major issue. Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time, they get stuck because the doing of them has not been defined
  • You can’t do a project, you can only do the action steps it involves

It’s very easy to get caught up in your GTD system and to forget about the actual doing part.

Decide what to do according to the following four criteria:
– Context
– Time Available
– Energy Available
– Priority

If you’ve tagged your tasks properly you’ll have, for example:

Context: a list of phone calls to make when you’re on the phone, or emails to browse whilst sitting on a train

Time Available: A list of quick jobs to do when you have the odd five minutes

Energy Available: A list of jobs requiring little mental or creative horsepower

Priority: A calendar telling you what you must do today

I find it especially useful to tag the five minute jobs and the low energy jobs. I usually do the five minute jobs when I’ve got a little spare time before teaching a class, the low energy jobs can be fun things to read or enjoy.

Related Links

6 GTD: Reviewing

Now that you’ve got yourself organised, you need to remind yourself what the jobs are that you need to do.

Review appropriate lists at appropriate times. For example

  • Check Calendar at the start of the day
  • Look at General Tasks to be done
  • When on the phone, look for tasks marked phone
  • When in a meeting, look at the tasks for that meeting

Review your whole system once a week.

  • Check Calendar for forthcoming events
  • Check projects have a Next Action
  • Check Next Actions are being performed
  • Check Wait list to see if anything needs chasing
  • Check Maybe list to see if anything is ready to proceed
  • Pause or drop projects that aren’t going ahead

If you’re not up to date at the weekly review you won’t be able to convince yourself that your system is remembering for you. You’ll go back to worrying that you’ve forgotten something.

Related Links

5 GTD: Organize

One mistake I made at the beginning was to try and process and organize as I collected. What I mean by this is I’d try and write jobs under different headings in my GTD file as I was collecting them. This is a mistake. One of the key principles of GTD is you only do one thing at a time. If you’re collecting, you shouldn’t be organizing.  Collecting is dealt with in a previous post.  Let’s assume you’ve collected, now it’s time to organize.

Organizing involves putting the jobs into the appropriate categories: writing them under the appropriate heading, if you like.

Here are example headings I use for my general GTD file:

  • General Tasks
  • Dated (Scheduled) Tasks
  • Waiting Tasks
  • Meeting with Julie
  • Meeting with Links
  • Meeting with Craig
  • Maybe
  • View, Watch, Read
  • Long Term

The Dated Tasks should go in your calendar.

The Waiting Tasks are those for which I’m awaiting a response. For example, a reply to an email or an answer to a query.

Note how I have separate headings for regular meetings with different people.

The View, Watch, Read heading is for books, video clips, articles I would like to read if I had more time. I look at the things here when I have the odd ten minutes.

The Maybe heading is for things I don’t have time to do at the moment. I review this occasionally, and may get round to them someday.

Long Term tasks are mainly reminders of things that will happen in at least a year’s time: reminders of contract renewals etc.

I also have a reference file and a projects file. These two have a section all to themselves, later on in this tutorial.

Organising is important. It might seem from the above that all you’ve done is simply moved your todo list around, but what you’ve really done is separated out your “inbox”. You’ve separated the reference from the actions, and eliminated the chaff. This is the secret of GTD. It’s simple but effective.

Related Links

4 GTD: Process

Processing means going through the jobs you’ve collected and getting them into a suitable format. If the job is one which would be quicker to do right away than to process, then do it.

Rules for Processing

  • Go through your list of unprocessed tasks
  • Process the top item first
  • Process one item at a time
  • Never put anything back into “in”

The key question when processing is to think what’s the Next Action? Too many jobs don’t get done because people aren’t clear about what the Next Action is. For example, you might want to tidy your office. What’s stopping you doing that? Perhaps you’ve nowhere to put the rubbish. In that case the Next Action is “Get Bin Bags”

Perhaps you need to arrange a meeting. “Arrange a meeting” is not a suitable Next Action. To arrange a meeting you need to find out when people are free. A more suitable Next Action would be “Phone Steve”

Taking a moment to decide the Next Action removes one cause of stress. If you have a job that’s preying on your mind it’s usually because you haven’t decided what the Next Action is.

Related Links

3 GTD: Collect

  • You can’t organize what’s incoming, you can only collect it and process it.
  • You don’t manage priorities, you have them

Collection is the key to the whole process of GTD.

Collection means writing down everything you have to do, and this means everything.

If you have a good memory, and I do, the temptation is not to bother, but this means that you’re not trusting the system. If the system doesn’t have everything you need to do in it, then you won’t trust it and you’ll go back to worrying that you’re not doing all your tasks.

You also won’t be able to plan properly.

I’m getting more and more in the habit of capturing things I need to do, even jobs I know I’ll do in a short time.

Here are some jobs I’ve captured

  • Email Harold about Films
  • Watch Epilepsy Video
  • Write UCAS reports
  • Buy birthday card
  • Organise VLE training for September
  • Investigate Trello software

I use Emacs org-mode capture to capture my tasks, but that’s just my preference. Evernote is good, but the system works perfectly adequately using pen and paper.

Related Links

2 GTD: Overview

There are five parts to GTD

  • Collect
  • Process
  • Organize
  • Reviewing
  • Do
You should only ever be doing one of these things at any one time: 95% of your time should be spent doing.

The basic principles of GTD are just common sense.

First, collect all the things you have to do and write them down.  If your tasks are all recorded you know that they won’t be forgotten. If you know you’re not going to forget things you’ve just removed one cause of stress.

Next, organize your work so that jobs get done at the right time.  This stops the feeling that you’re drowning in trivial jobs when should be doing something more important.

Having done that, do the work. If you have all your tasks organized properly you can look up a couple of five minute tasks when you have ten minutes spare, when you have a longer stretch of time you can get down to a more challenging task.

Review your system every so often.  Priorities will change, you’ll need to reorganize your work to take this into account.

GTD involves writing down all your jobs.  It doesn’t matter whether you do it on paper or use an IT solution such as Evernote or my preferred solution, Emacs.  Everything you have to do – making a phone call; sending a birthday card; starting a big project;  buying a book to read… write it down.

Related Links

1 GTD Example: Clear your inbox

Getting Things Done, or GTD, is a time-management methodology.  It’s basically just common sense, but I’ve used it for some time now to keep track of jobs and projects.

I first encountered GTD through its various implementations in Emacs org-mode, it seemed like a sensible system to adopt so I gave it a try.  Note however that GTD is not a computer based system: I use Emacs because I use Emacs.  Beginners are advised to start by using a paper based system; you can use Evernote just as well.

The following is just an overview.  To find out more, read the book: Getting Things Done by David Allen

Here’s a simple introduction to the principles behind GTD.

Is your email inbox full?  If so, the reason isn’t what you might expect.  It’s not that you’re not processing and deleting them as fast as you might.  Modern email systems can hold an indefinite number of emails, there’s no reason to delete anything you don’t want to.

The real reason your inbox is full is because it’s a mixture of different sorts of emails:   emails left as a reminder you have a job to do, emails you’ve left there for reference, emails you might need in the future, emails you might read later on.  Your inbox is confused because you don’t know which email is which.
Here’s the GTD solution: create some additional folders

  • Action
  • Bacn
  • Reference
  • To Read

Go down your inbox, processing each email one at a time.  Start at the top and don’t move onto the next email until you’ve processed the current one.
Process the emails as follows

  • If you don’t need the email, delete it.
  • If it will take less than 2 minutes to deal with, deal with it.
  • If you need to keep the email for reference, put it in the email folder called Reference (or in a more suitable folder you’ve already created)
  • If it’s something you want to read at leisure. put it in the To Read folder
  • If it’s an email list you’ve subscribed to, like a pizza deal or a voucher site, put it in the Bacn folder.  Bacn is like spam, except you asked for it.  It’s nice to have, but too much is bad for you.

Work your way down the list until you have an empty inbox.  Once it’s empty, it will probably stay that way.

It might seem that all you’ve done is move your list elsewhere, but what you’ve really done is separated things out. You’ve separated reference materials from the actions, and eliminated the chaff.  That’s GTD, simple but effective.

Related Links