Essential Workflow (or how I keep myself from exploding into an unproductive supernova)

I need to have a workflow or I will literally get nothing done. I have a lot of trouble focusing unless I force myself. And my brain is like a sieve most of the time. If I don’t record it somehow, I’ll forget about it until it’s too late. I’ve been looking for a good workflow since before I graduated high school. Unfortunately, there is no one-size solution and my situation is radically different from that of most productivity writers. College student, designer, husband, leader, and young professional all collide to make my daily life an exercise in chaos. I try to start every day at about the same time to give myself a well set but flexible routine. From there, it’s all a matter of what the day throws at me.

When I’m working online, I come across so many interesting things that I want to read, but stopping to read them sends me into a productivity tailspin— as I read article after article on topics ranging from astrophysics to typography. I use Instapaper to quickly save things to read later without breaking my workflow. Then I schedule myself reading time to go through everything I’ve saved. This is a huge focus saver for me. But watch out, Instapaper: Pocket has been winning me over lately.

When I need to record or save things that aren’t articles (think quick notes, homework assignments, briefs), Evernote has my back. Since I have an iPod touch for apps like this and an Android phone, compatibility with both is essential. Also, I move from computer to computer a lot, so being web-based is another essential feature. I type up meeting outlines and save them to Evernote, then I fill them out as we knock items out. By the end of a meeting, I have a pretty complete sheet of minutes that I can work from to create action items or to reference later. I can also attach pictures and sound clips when I need to.

That brings up another crucial part of my workflow: my iPod and phone. While sometimes I’d prefer that these be the same device, I think keeping the two separate helps me focus. I save my reading list to my iPod and keep it there, and I primarily use Evernote from the iPod as well (I like the bigger screen and the better keyboard, but the non-ubiquity of wifi can be problematic). The lack of constant internet connectivity seems to help me focus on just reading or writing, whichever I happen to be doing. Also, two devices takes twice as long to keel over from battery exhaustion and provides some redundancy in case anything happens.

In day to day getting-stuff-done mode, I have to use focus lists, otherwise I get overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of things I need to do. Just narrowing the day down to five or six things at a time really goes a long way. I don’t really like Clear as my primary to-do list, and there are several reasons for that. However, Clear is absolutely my favorite tool for making quick focus lists. The simplicity makes it easy to make for breaking an active project or hectic day down into a small handful of workable parts. The real limitation is that you can’t add a due date to tasks, so I usually end up forgetting about stuff that I put into Clear after a few days, but it is fantastic for lists of tasks-at-hand.

The most recent additions to my workflow are a hardcover Moleskine notebook and 18 month weekly planner that basically go everywhere with me. I use my planner as a to-do list as well as a calendar, but not a diary. Things that need to be done on a certain day get written on that day, non-specific tasks get written on the recto page and checked off as I do them. This way I have a list for everything I intend to do in a week, and at 34 lines, it’s the perfect length to keep me from getting too ambitious. The plain hard-cover notebook is my diary, journal, and notebook. Being hardcover, it also gives me a decent writing surface, so I use it behind my planner when I don’t have a table or a wall handy.

I have a few other tools for dealing with email and files or other specific tasks, but those are a little more detailed. I’ll cover my workflow for those in other posts. I hope that sharing my workflow will not only force me to evaluate and critique my own methods, but also help anyone looking for some pointers, even if it’s just a pointer for where not to start. I’ve been collecting ideas and testing them out for a while. I know how frustrating and time consuming it is to find a workflow. Bare with me, it’s my first attempt at writing something useful—let me know how I’m doing or what you’d like to see.


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