Facing Demons

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Recently my Calendar has started to look like a brightly coloured periodic table. Pre-scheduled tasks, meetings, calls and even emails have made it to my daily and weekly plan filling up 90% of my days. Finally it looks like I’m getting to grips with my productivity without it filling my head.

I’ve never been a person who has enjoyed too much structure before. I like the freedom to work on the tasks I choose at the time I choose. I’ve always found structure and planning to be a hinderance to creativity. Well that’s what I told myself anyway. Turns out that was BS.

As much as it pains me to admit defeat on this one, that was such an inefficient system. The truth of it looking back was that I was holding all the tasks and jobs in my head and wasn’t really choosing what to work on. I just worked on the next tasks when they were about to hit deadline and had become urgent. Looking back this is something I’ve always done and assumed it was my way of working –  at School and Uni I convinced myself that I worked better right up against deadlines and I’ve always crammed everything into the last couple of weeks for exams.

FINDING Productivity Tools & Systems

I’ve tried lots of different productivity tools, Workflowy, Todoist, Clear, Trello, Notion, Basecamp etc but always out with them fairly shortly after using them. The longest I stayed with a tool was Workflowy but I just used this as I used ever other tool – a giant list. Turns out lists are fine to a point. They get thoughts out of your head but they don’t help you structure, prioritise and plan your work without putting a bit more time into them.

So this year I started a new system in a notebook. I stuck with it and added additional bits to help me focus on the things I’m trying to improve.

Everyday I’d write down the 4 main tasks I had to get done that day and list out the same 7 things that I’m focused on improving. At the end of everyday I’d score myself against my 7 improvement areas (Drink less coffee, drink more water, exercise more, spend time with the family, get a good night sleep, eat less crappy food and complete my planned work for the day). I’d then average these out and get a percentage score for the day. I know some of these conflict with each other – spending time with the family is hard when working hard to get through tasks but it was a way of evaluating the things that matter to me and holding myself accountable.

The thing that I never seem to score highly on at the minute is exercise – seeing this every day really pushes home that I have to do something about this. I’m not sure quite how to fit this in at the minute. I don’t want it to cut into my time with the kids as that is too limited as it is but I need to find a way of fitting something in regularly – swimming or running would be good.

So this system worked fairly well but I was still having to hold tasks in my head and manually write my list and tasks out everyday.

The 90 Day Year

Shortly after I started this system I saw Dan Martell talking about the 90 Day Year. Now I’m not normally somebody who signs up to courses and workshops but this one came at the right time and claimed to help exactly with what I wanted to improve – productivity.

So I jumped in. It’s totally changed the way I work and made a huge difference to my productivity. I already have a clear defined system for tasks and projects on a daily/weekly basis and have a clear action plan to achieve what I need to over the next 90 days. It was at the point that early on I actually felt like I was cheating somehow. What used to feel like such a big job in my head was manageable to the point that it was no longer in my head. I have a clear focus for my 90 days which is broken down into smaller steps which are grouped into sprints. Once my plan is done I don’t have to think about it again.

I’ve adapted it slightly and I’m working on using the task prioritisation and time estimation elements better as this will help me take this all a step further. It turns out that the tools I was using before weren’t unsuited I just wasn’t using a good system. I’ve gone back to ToDoIst and that now basically runs my life. Everything goes in there. Every task no matter how big or small. I schedule it as soon as it goes in and label it by the project and type of work involved. This is where I’m also working on adding prioritisation and time estimates as well. Now I’m using it right I’ve got to admit, ToDoIst is awesome. It’s really simple but very powerful.

Using Productivity Tools as part of a System

ToDoIst has a 2 way sync with Google Calendar so this automatically updates my calendar – any changes I make there are also reflected in ToDoIst. And whilst I always thought that I’d hat to have my work mapped out and stacked up it’s actually far far better. I’m still in control – I can move tasks, group tasks, re-schedule tasks but it means I have cut a percentage of my day that was taken up with working out what I had to work on next. It also stops emails dropping in and taking priority just because they popped up in notifications. Everything gets scheduled.

It takes work to keep on top of the system and I do a daily round up at the end of every day, a weekly clear down on a Friday or a Sunday which includes getting everything in order for the week ahead but these are only short – a few minutes at most. The best thing I can say about running this system is I have a clear head at weekends – something I haven’t enjoyed for a long time. With a third little one on the way soon I had to find a way to sort myself out. I had to find a system that took my task lists out of my head and helped me be more strategic in what I was working towards. The by-product of this is it’s increased my productivity and given me a system that focuses on achieving long-term goals at the same time as fitting in daily tasks that pop up like through emails and social.

Whilst it is an investment I would certainly recommend the 90 Day Year – or finding your own system that works reliably. Having spent years trying to find a system or create one, for me this was the better option – a well structured system refined by Todd Herman over a number of years. I really wish this sort of thing was just part of our education system!

Version 2

So next for me is making sure I’m making time for swimming or running somewhere in my week. I also want to find a way of making the prioritisation and time estimates work within the system. I’ve adapted a couple of the sections of the 90 Day Year to fit in with how I work and tried to digitise some of the process so I just need to figure out how I integrate these other bits. I’m not wanting this to run my life in any way and that has not been the purpose of finding a way of managing my productivity. It is to give me time back and get on top of what I really should be working on. It’s helped me get a better understanding of juggling client work alongside Slidecraft and also helped me move forward with an idea we’ve been talking about for a long time to start planting trees.

Up to this point I’ve focused my 90 Day effort in terms of long-term planning around Slidecraft but in the next cycle I’ll integrate other aspect like the tree planting idea (I’ll talk more about this soon), FlipRSS which is getting some momentum, Little Walden and any client work. More work to do but it’s nice to have a clear head at the weekend and properly switch off and spend time with the family.

About the author

James Qualtrough

I live on the small but beautiful Isle of Man with my wife, Donna and our twin girls Ella & Erin. I'm Head of Digital Media at Home Strategic and Co-Founder of Slidecraft.

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James Qualtrough

I live on the small but beautiful Isle of Man with my wife, Donna and our twin girls Ella & Erin. I'm Head of Digital Media at Home Strategic and Co-Founder of Slidecraft.

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