Origins

I find myself fortunate to have grown up in the 1990s and 2000s. While computers came to my life in Mid-2000s and pulled me to the digital world of games and forums, I still got to have a taste of an analog childhood. Unfortunately, I got addicted to video games in my early teens, and this bad and unproductive lifestyle continued to my Mid-20s. Eventually, I happened to chance on a way to kickstart my life. In this post, I will talk about the tools and methods that I have picked up along the way to increased productivity. I have learned about many of these by reading, which is why I will also talk about books that have influenced me and taught me lessons about productivity.

Open Loops

Having organised my life with a to-do list for a couple of years now, I would find it difficult to live without one. It’s the core of my personal productivity system. My first taste of a to-do list goes back to 2013 when I was planning a holiday trip with my brother to Nice in the French Riviera. There arose a need to keep track of all the preparations, but I didn’t have a system to capture all the ‘open loops’. As a solution, I plotted a rough to-do list on a random piece of paper, and ticked the boxes as the preparations proceeded. The holiday was a success, and while the paper was lost somewhere amidst the chaos, the positive experience of using a to-do list stayed in the back of my mind.

In early 2018, I read Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity‎ by David Allen. In the book, Allen describes the GTD productivity method. Essentially, the method focuses on creating a system that helps you to keep track of your commitments without having to recall everything by yourself, thus releasing cognitive capacity and creativity. My biggest takeaway from the book was the to-do list, which can be divided into smaller lists to capture different aspects of your life. The GTD method is not, however, limited to to-do lists, and it is recommended to read the book regularly to find new perspectives that you might have missed during your previous reads.

Tracking

Since I was already using a physical planner at the time of learning about GTD, I made my first to-do list on its back cover. Despite being a student in an IT field, I was initially more comfortable with writing all the tasks and commitments down with my own hand. Ticking a box with a check mark after completing a task is always satisfying. Indeed, for around a year and a half, I tracked all my doings on physical to-do lists. It was only in late 2019 when the macOS Catalina update was released that I transitioned to digital productivity tools. Being an Apple user, I could now use the Reminders app as my to-do list, and it would sync all the tasks with my phone and even with my smart watch.

In around 9 months that I have used the Reminders app, I have completed 700 tasks, which would be around 2.5 tasks per day. I have four types of lists in my configuration, and each type consists of several lists: Projects (Personal, Professional), Action Steps (Personal, Professional, Relationship, Education Repeated), Waiting for (Personal, Others), and Others (One Day, Acute Purchases). A good aspect of using a digital tool is being able to change the configuration easily. Anyways, the number of ‘Uncompleted’ tasks usually hovers above 40, since I use the app to store long-term items. By the way, one day it would be cool to get some graphs for the app and also make it more gamified like the Todoist app.

Clarifying

One tool that I have never considered making digital is my diary. I have kept a diary on and off since early 2010s, and I have accumulated a big stack of old diaries. So what are the benefits of keeping a diary? Whereas a to-do list captures ‘open loops’ that are actionable, a diary captures and clarifies emotions. Both tools complement each other and help increase one’s mental clarity. In my experience, the secret to keeping a diary consistently is keeping the diary somewhere you can see it, and also making the writing habit a regular one but short in duration. In addition to writing in a diary, I also enjoy writing on this blog, which serves as my creative outlet.

Atomic Habits by James Clear is another influential book that I have read recently. Maintaining a productive lifestyle requires productive habits. Habits can be engineered to an extent by using various methods introduced in the book. This is an area where I still have lots of room to improve. One important takeaway from the book was the idea of an Annual Review. At the end of the year, you estimate how well you did in different areas of your life. I started using an adapted version of the Annual Review, and I also make Annual Goals in the beginning of the year plus an Integrity Report in the middle of the year. This is my first year using these tools, so I am curious to see what effect they will have.

Organising

Since I work in IT, it is easy for me to take advantage of various digital tools. Personally, I love making Excel spreadsheets. I track my personal budget and my 10 Year Plan on an Excel, I have Excels for interesting books and entertainment, and more. My friend once told me: “Teemu, you have an Excel for everything!”. I’m particularly proud about my budget spreadsheet that I have probably spent more than 100 hours working on. I can now easily plan my finances several years ahead with a great degree of accuracy. I’m also in the process of making an Excel inventory of my book and game collection, so I will know where everything is stored.

I’m a fanatic when it comes to storing digital files and backing them up. I have my full digital history backed up on encrypted external storages, which I store in multiple locations. It might seem like an overkill for an average person to have, but I see the value in preservering my digital footprint in this digital age. I also keep all my physical documents and letters, and store them in yearly folders. One project for the future would be to scan all the documents and make a digital backup of them. Maybe this would give me a peace of mind about them? In my opinion, being organised both in your physical life and digital life is an important aspect of being productive.

Experimenting

In early 2019, I was juggling my studies, a job, and other commitments. I had to spend more than twelve hours a day on my laptop each day of the week, and I was on the verge of a burnout. However, I had an idea. On Saturday evening, I would unplug all my electronics and hide all the clocks in the apartment. When I woke up on Sunday morning, I would have no idea what time it was, and I would go to sleep when it was dark. I would spend the day reading newspapers and doing other hobbies that didn’t require me to have an internet connection. While this extreme habit only lasted a couple of months amidst a busy part of my life, I still remember the increased sense of presence it gave me.

Right now, I’m looking into meditation. Meditation is another way to increase your sense of presence, and it also includes healthy breathing exercises. I recently downloaded the Headspace meditation app, and my plan is to meditate a couple of minutes each day before going to bed. Hopefully, this will result in a better quality of sleep and better productiveness the next day. I’m also experimenting with a new concept for Sundays. Instead of unplugging, I spend some time by chatting with my friends from all over the world. I call it the Social Sunday. Anyways, experimenting with new habits is a great way to find something that can work for you, and this open-minded attitude has brought me where I am now.

Learning

Being productive also requires finding a balance between being productive and being unproductive. In my opinion, both extremes are bad. Something that I would like to learn is to relax without feeling guilt. Sometimes you just want to do something, even while knowing that what you actually need is rest. When I feel tired but still want to use my time well, I usually like to learn something. Sometimes I end up on YouTube where I am subscribed to a ton of documentary channels, my favourites talking about big tech companies. Sometimes I open Steam and play a game, my current choice being Civilization VI: Gathering Storm. A little procrastination is not the end of the world, I think.