top of page

The Foundations of Productivity

Updated: Feb 9

A picture of a man organising his thoughts

Introduction on How To Be Productive.


From ancient meditation practices to modern cognitive therapy, the idea of clearing the mind has always been a sought-after goal. In our age of constant notifications, endless apps, and information overload, mental decluttering has become more crucial than ever.


When it comes to organising yourself, the first thing that needs to happen is to clear your thoughts and achieve a 'mind like water'.


We tend to build up a mental 'to do' list that follows us around all day, nagging at us, with the tasks fighting each other for attention. Some keep nagging away at us, and others decide to retreat into the shadows of our memory and attempt to get themselves overlooked.


So, we need to start with a mental decluttering and capturing all those tasks somewhere that we can look at them and start to categorise them.


Much of what I will refer to here is from a mixture of books and techniques I've picked up along the way. I'll create summaries of these books and provide links to them here.


So, we must strap on our proton pack and capture those whirlwind thoughts.


a ghostbuster

Why Our Minds Need Decluttering


If your mind is anything like mine, I get a tornado of thoughts and jobs swirling around in there and sometimes find it physically uncomfortable to manage.


I feel like I'm going to overlook something important, or sometimes I focus on the thing I want to do rather than what I should be doing.


At its worst it can lead to us feeling anxious, overwhelmed and without a sense of direction.


Brace yourself for the science.


A chap called John Sweller in the 1980s came up with the concept of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), which posits that our working memory has a limited capacity. When we try to process too much information simultaneously, it can become overloaded, leading to errors, decreased understanding, or inability to retain information. We don't like these things to happen in our heads, so we start to get anxious.


I doubt we need to dig too deeply into this, as it stands to reason. We all feel it to greater or lesser degrees at times.


We also have a short-term memory issue which suggests that if we are given a piece of new information and then are interrupted in the next 20-30 seconds, that information doesn't get filed in the brain. This leads to those situations where we walk into the kitchen to do something, and can't for the life of us remember why. Somewhere in the last minute, we've distracted ourselves internally or externally and haven't fully formed the thought.


Ever read a paragraph of something but thought about something else and had to go back and re-read it? That's your short-term memory getting hacked.


That's why it's so important to capture these things and get them out of our heads before they start fluttering around uncontrollably or forgotten entirely.


The Importance of Organising Our Workspaces


If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?
- Albert Einstein

Einstein's Desk
Einstein's Desk

It's not as simple as saying a de-cluttered desk or working environment is part of the recipe for successful self-management. It's more about what works for you. Some of us like keeping everything we are working on at hand.


Many successful and creative people have had desks piled high with paperwork and books, from Steve Jobs to Einstein. You only have to google for the evidence.


But did they succeed in their field because of, or despite, their environment?


The problem is... time.


As time moves on, the old stuff, the obsolete stuff, sits amongst the new and leads to a snowballing 'clutter' effect. My son claims to know where everything is in his room, but couldn't find his phone for two days, which begs the question if his system is somewhat flawed. Or, maybe he's just displaying his genius to me.


Evidence suggests through MRI scans that constant visual reminders of disorganisation drain our cognitive resources and reduce our ability to focus, and conversely, a less cluttered working environment made people better able to focus and process information, and their productivity increased.


Clutter also tends to trigger procrastination and avoidance strategies.


So, it boils down to this; If you believe your environment is lending itself to your personal chaos, then you might wish to consider organising it.


Techniques for tidying your work environment


  • Implement a 'clean desk' policy and make sure that at the end of a working session, you reset your environment.

  • Consider the old 'inbox' and filing technique.

  • Tidy as you go. Little and often.

  • Schedule regular 'spring cleans' where you go through everything and see what's relevant.

  • See what sparks joy, and if not then.. just joking!


How Should I Capture My Thoughts?


So, getting those thoughts out of the old noggin' box, and into something else is really important. There are a myriad of ways for maintaining mental clarity and productivity. The method you choose should be one that resonates with your personal style and fits seamlessly into your life.


Here are some popular methods:


Traditional Note-taking

Sometimes, the simplest methods are the most effective.


Carrying a small notebook or journal allows you to jot down thoughts, ideas, or tasks as they occur. This method is perfect for those who prefer a tactile approach and find the act of writing by hand to be a mindful process in itself. The downside is you'll struggle to keep list maintained without having to constantly recreate them as they get obsolete and messy.


I, favour a digital notepad called the Remarkable (just for note, it's much better than the Amazon Kindle Scribe). There are no frills, no internet apps, just writing like it was on a notepad, but the ability to cut, paste, erase and organise your notes.


Digital Note-taking Apps

For the tech-savvy, numerous apps are available that sync across devices.

Evernote and OneNote, for instance, are great for organising different types of information, from text notes to web clippings and audio recordings. These apps are ideal for those who are always on the go and need to access their notes from multiple devices.


Voice Recording

If you are a detective from the 1980s, or find yourself overwhelmed by typing or writing, why not speak your thoughts?


Smartphones come with built-in voice recording apps, and many dedicated apps are available too.


This method is particularly useful for capturing thoughts while driving or when your hands are otherwise occupied (stop it!).


Mind Mapping

Gosh, I like a good mind map.


For the visually inclined, mind mapping can be a powerful tool. It allows you to visually organise your thoughts, ideas, and tasks non-linearly. This method is particularly effective for brainstorming sessions or when working on complex projects with multiple interconnected components.

An example of a mind map


Task Management Apps

Apps like Todoist or Asana are designed to capture and organise tasks efficiently. They allow you to categorise tasks, set deadlines, and collaborate. These are particularly useful for those managing multiple projects or delegating tasks within a team.


I'll add a quick summary of options at the end of the article for those interested.


Email Yourself

It might sound old-fashioned, but sending yourself an email is a quick and effective way to capture a thought or task, especially if you spend a significant portion of your day with an email client. This method ensures that your idea is stored in a place you will likely revisit.


I use this technique a lot. I know that if I'm out and about, and something comes to me, that I want to capture it quickly, then the best way is to do it in an email to myself. In fact, many email systems and tools, like Slack, realise this and automatically package the content as a 'note to self'.


Use a Whiteboard

If you are tracking a serial killer and want the maximum effect, with lines connecting words, then having a whiteboard in your workspace lets you write down thoughts and ideas quickly. It's also a great tool for visualising workflows or projects. Plus, there's a certain satisfaction in physically erasing completed tasks or ideas.


The best method is one that you'll consistently use. It's worth experimenting with several methods to see which aligns best with your working style and lifestyle.


Methods of Organisations


A man putting his thoughts into boxes

So, I want to summarise some ways in which I organise my personal workload, in the hope that there maybe something in here that you haven't yet tried and you think about giving it a go.


The reality is, I actually use a variety of these approaches, intermixed, not any particular one, but a complimentary mix.






Inbox Zero

Developed by productivity expert Merlin Mann, Inbox Zero is primarily an email management method but can be extended to task organisation.


The core principle is to keep your email inbox (or task list) empty—or almost empty—at all times. This is achieved by acting on emails immediately upon reading them. Actions include deleting, delegating, responding, deferring, or doing the task if it's quick. This method reduces clutter and decision fatigue, ensuring you only focus on what's essential.


And while I'm talking about this, don't use folders in your email to file things away. It's such a burn on your time - just move everything into a single archive folder when its done, so you can still access it. With hundreds, if not thousands of emails a month, mutliplied out by a year - estimate how much time you might save by not carefully dropping each email into a folder. Seriously, you'll thank me for it. Just use 'search' when you need to find something.


Getting Things Done (GTD)

Created by David Allen, Getting Things Done (or GTD as us cool guys call it) is a comprehensive approach to task management. It involves five key stages: capture, clarify, organise, reflect, and engage.


You start by capturing every task or piece of information that comes your way in a trusted system. Next, clarify what each item means and what action it requires. Organise these tasks based on categories and priorities. Regularly review your task list to update and prioritise, and finally, engage by actually doing the tasks.


GTD's strength lies in its thoroughness, ensuring nothing gets overlooked.


The Eisenhower Matrix

Popularised by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, apparently, this method involves categorising tasks based on their urgency and importance.


The matrix has four quadrants: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and neither urgent nor important. This method helps in prioritising tasks effectively, ensuring that you're working on what truly matters.


The eisenhower matrix


Kanban

Originating from the Japanese manufacturing sector, Kanban has become a popular task management tool in various fields. It uses a board and cards to represent tasks.


The board is typically divided into columns such as 'To Do', 'In Progress', and 'Done'. This visual approach helps in tracking progress and managing workflow effectively.





Time Blocking

Now, I'm new to this, but find it incredibly effective, especially when we try to juggle so many things at once; Time blocking involves allocating specific blocks of time to individual tasks or types of work.


I find it really effective to help me focus on the right things by setting time aside to make sure I'm moving them forward, but it also helps me not jump on teams to respond to things immediately or pick up that quick email. I also tend to complete things faster by saying, 'I'm focusing on this for the next two hours', and I may actually overrun that because I'm doing so well, but the output will be worth it.


This method, favoured by figures like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, helps in dedicating focused time to tasks without distractions. It's particularly effective for complex projects requiring deep work.





So, there you have it. I've decluttered my brain of all the things I wanted to throw out there that might be of help to others in terms of organisation.


Below are some suggestions on Task Management tools I've used, but you probably have your own favorite, so I'll leave you to it.


Take care,


Alan.


 

Additional Content:

Task Management Apps - Some Suggestions


Trello

Trello is a Kanban style app that is free for personal use, but requires licences for team usage. It's really simple and great for simply capturing, prioritising and progressing tasks.


As the task moves from one status to the next, it progresses across the columns of the kanban board, giving a visual representation of where things are at.



Strengths of Trello

Weaknesses of Trello





Todoist

So, here's another app that people love - Todoist.

The initial view is pretty simple and traditional - enter a task, track it on a list. B



Todoist Strengths

  • Easy to use: Todoist has a simple and intuitive interface that makes it easy to get started.

  • Cross-platform: Todoist is available on all major platforms, including web, desktop, and mobile. This makes it easy to access your tasks from anywhere.

  • Flexible: Todoist offers a variety of features that allow you to customize it to your workflow. For example, you can create subtasks, set due dates and priorities, and add labels and notes.

  • Collaborative: Todoist makes it easy to collaborate with others on tasks. You can assign tasks to people, add comments, and share projects.

  • Affordable: Todoist offers a free plan with a generous feature set. Paid plans offer even more features, such as subtask priorities and project templates.

Todoist Weaknesses


Microsoft To-Do

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a Microsoft solution here, as so many people are part of the ecosystem.


If you are already using 365 or outlook, and you just want something that is already at hand, then you probably should consider Microsoft's To-Do.





ToDo Strengths

  • Simple and easy to use interface

  • Cross-platform availability

  • Integration with other Microsoft products, such as Outlook and Calendar

  • Free with a generous feature set

  • Ability to create subtasks, set due dates and priorities, and add labels and notes

  • Ability to collaborate with others on tasks

ToDo Weaknesses


Google Tasks

And then, for balance, because people already buy into the eco-system there's Google Tasks.


It is a simple and easy-to-use app that allows you to create and manage to-do lists. Google Tasks is integrated with other Google products, such as Gmail and Calendar, making it easy to add tasks to your list from anywhere.


Google Tasks is available on all major platforms, including web, desktop, and mobile. It also has a free plan with a generous feature set.



Google Tasks Strengths

  • Simple and easy to use

  • Cross-platform availability

  • Integration with other Google products

  • Free with a generous feature set

  • Ability to create subtasks, set due dates and priorities, and add notes

  • Ability to collaborate with others on tasks

Google Tasks Weaknesses









Comments


About the author

Hi, I'm Alan, and have been working within the IT sector for over 30 years.

For the last 15 years, I've focused on IT Governance, Information Security, Projects and Service Management across various styles of organisations and markets.

I hold a degree in Information Systems, ITIL Expert certificate, PRINCE2 Practitioner and CISMP (Information Security Management).

More...

bottom of page