How To Make Your Productivity System Easy To Run (with Jake Desyllas)

How To Make Your Productivity System Easy To Run

So you’ve followed the advice my previous talk with Jake Desyllas and set up your own basic productivity system. You know that a system like that is not a pedantic badge of honour, but is in fact the best way to add actions to your ideals – to LIVE your values.

You also know the three components of any successful productivity system:

  1. Capture: Get things out of your head
  2. Review: Check everything regularly

Organize: Put things in their right place

You probably are in a happy place – so allow me to flame some dissatisfaction.

At this phase, your system can be quite clumsy. That means more effort. More effort is more fragility – will you be able to keep things going when you a hit a lower motivation cycle?

I’ve invited Jake Desyllas of The Voluntary Life podcast once again to help us sharpen the edges of this new set of tools we are building together.

Make Your Reviews Easier

How do you make sure everything’s covered in your weekly review? And how do you make sure you actually do it?

A Handy Checklist

Going through these steps will give you the confidence that you aren’t missing anything:

1. Clear the decks

Get all the emails, text messages (known as Inbox 0) and social media that slipped through. Everything relevant must be in your capture system (notebook, index cards, Evernote etc.) before you start. Remove old notes from the system itself if needed.

2. Look at your projects list

A project is anything composed of more than one step. It’s really helpful to keep a list of these so you know everything’s moving forward. Looking through it weekly will generate most of your next week’s tasks/to-do list.

3. Review your ideas

Now that the past and present is under control, look towards the future. It’s well-worth keeping lists of someday/maybe projects, to-read lists, ideas lists – this where things will go when the inspiration strikes for things you’d like to do in the future. Check on these as part of your weekly review – maybe the time is now for something and exciting!

Jake likes to do step one and then step two and three separately, since they require a different mindset – one is a more administrative kind, the other a more strategic and visionary one.

Making Sure You Actually Do It

As with everything else, habituation is very powerful (maybe necessary) to get this done week by week. Pick the time and day that makes sense in your life. This could be a great time to put some great work music on, or even go to a nice cafe (just don’t tell me about it).

I like pleasant company, so I’ve got a running weekly appointment with my buddy Nick Hazelton the Anarcho-Yakitalist where we do a large part of this process together. This has been by far the most successful approach that I took and it made not missing weeks really easy.

You can get some inspiration on how different people do this by looking up the early episode of the Getting Things Done Virtual Study Group podcast.

Not Just Weekly

Weekly reviews aren’t meant to cover everything. Different intervals make sense for different parts of your life.

Consider including a quick morning recap into your start of the day where you overview what you can accomplish today (if you are going to the city, check to see everything you need to get done there etc.) and pick out the most important tasks of the day (three is a popular number).

Jake’s and I both do financial reviews on a monthly basis – might as well have that in your system too! I also have month plans, prepared near the end of the month for the next one.

Yearly reviews are also a very powerful tool for big picture overview. Even the dreaded New Year’s resolutions are a form of recurring review.

Better Tools

There’s always a risk when adopting something more complicated. In Jake’s own words:

“when you feel you can trust them” (19s)

That said, there comes a time when you want something more organized and efficient than a simple notebook or note capturing software. In some cases, it’s about learning to use what you have better, other times it’s about learning about something entirely new.


I’m not a big fan of paper (my handwriting comes out pre-encrypted) but many prefer the simplicity, ease of use, and even elegance that comes with a physical, paper-based system.

Probably the biggest downside of simple using a notebook is that is very hard to quickly and easily overview what’s going on. Notebooks are designed to be used in a linear way, start to finish, where a good productivity system is more like Lego.

Inbox 0
Inbox 0


Index Cards

…to the rescue! They have been and are used to great effect – they’re easy to add in or discard, they are sturdy enough to written on almost anywhere. If you don’t mind a little bulk, consider transitioning your capture system to them.

Hipster PDA
Hipster PDA

Bullet Journal

On the other hand, bullet journals solve the problem of notes being lost in a notebook by implementing a very clever system of transfer and review and push the medium beyond what I though was possible:


Digital has some strong arguments for it too. Most people will have a smartphone on them at all times, whereas carrying paper has to be habituated. Your data in cloud is very unlikely to get lost, get wet or burned down.

The truly powerful benefits get unlocked with more learning though (and that’s a rabbit hole engineer-minded know all too well 😉 )

#call #Nick about the #yaks when I’m #sad

People who try contextual lists rarely go back. It’s really, really convenient to be able to look with one click at everything you want to do:

  • At a certain time (eg. everything I want to get done tomorrow)
  • At a certain place ( eg. when in Rome, ask for their to-do lists)
  • With a certain tool (eg. list of annoying neighbours when I’m driving my monster truck)
  • With a certain person (eg. everything I need to talk about with a coaching client)
  • In a certain mood (eg. things I can still make happen when low on energy after work) etc.

The problem is, I don’t want to copy and paste my yak consolation call idea on 5 different lists, digitally or otherwise.

That’s where something like Evernote‘s tagging system comes into play. I can take a single note, and add any number of contextual tags to it.

Feeling better already!
Feeling better already!

I got this idea from The Secret Weapon website. Brett Veinotte at School Sucks has also talked about his Evernote system.

And Finally: All Singing, All Dancing

If you are ready to take the leap, you could go all out and just purchase and learn to use a tool such as Omnifocus (Mac/iOS) or alternatives, such as MyLifeOrganized (Win/Mac/Android/iOS).

These tools can be quite overwhelming, but have a very wide range of features, which you can see in their sales copy on their websites. If you are into systems building, you will probably really enjoy these apps.

I’ve not yet tried these out, but Jake swears by Omnifocus.

Continue With

If you want a review of the basics of productivity as a laid out in conversation with Jake, you can choose to listen to p, or the audio-enhanced article based on it.

David Allen is the creator of Getting Things Done, and also of Ready For Anything and Making It All Work. Jake recommends all three of these for further reading.

Another book recommended by Jake is Manage Your Day to Day, as well as the Power of Less as a counterpoint to Getting Things Done.

And of course, if you haven’t already, see Jake’s own The Voluntary Life podcast for concise, high value productivity. He’ll teach you more in 20 minutes than others will in hours.

It’s All In Your Hands

If you’ve been hitting roadblocks with running a consistent productivity system, this is your opportunity to make it better. Cycles in life are natural,  but having a system see you through them makes the downturns a lot more manageable – even enjoyable?

I’ve found that the hardest times are not when I’m not creating as much as I’d like to, but when I lose my sense of being in control of my life. A productivity system that sticks with you even in the difficult times will help you take advantage of lulls, and turn them into great opportunities to relax and recreate without panic.

If you take Jake’s advice, you can improve what you are doing out of a desire for more efficiency and impact and also give a loving, caring gift to the future you that might need a little bit more help when the going gets rough.

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