While browsing the archives on Nat Eliason’s site, I stumbled upon this article about his system for being “really, really, ridiculously productive.” At the end he hoped that others would follow suit, but his buddy Ryan remains the lone warrior.
Like Nat, I’m also interested in the nuts and bolts of what drives top-notch productivity, so I thought I’d take a stab at this and see if my methods make the cut.
My productivity system is somewhat unique in that I’m not a full-time entrepreneur – I’m a product manager for an OEM company that engineers train equipment (the choo-choo kind), and I also write and work on various projects on the side.
Though I’ve only been with my current company for a couple years, I’ve rapidly worked my way into promotions and a comfortable 6-figure salary.
My day job keeps me insanely busy (min. 40 hours per week), and I’m often putting out fires while juggling various projects, which means come 5pm I’m mentally spent, and it’s easy to walk through the door, say “meh, did enough for today” and push off my entrepreneurial work ‘til another time.
But the further I delve into my own projects, the less satisfied I’ve become earning my twice monthly paycheck – I’d much rather fund my own life as an entrepreneur and pursue projects I’m deeply interested in.
Since my job expects me to keep producing at a high level, it’s key to maintain a healthy balance so I don’t burn out. I suspect many of you may be in the same boat, so perhaps this could be useful to you.
Let’s start with the basics – the fundamental principles behind what I do.
- Productivity isn’t complicated, and it shouldn’t be made that way. I ignore most of the stupid advice from the internet, except when it’s from someone who’s actually doing something.
- Strong incentives are key (e.g. more money, self-fulfillment, not letting others down) UNLESS I absolutely love what I do. My day job falls under the former and my writing/side-projects in the latter. Loving the writing I do makes it much easier to wake up earlier or come home after a long day and still do the work that matters to me.
- It’s not about the tools, it’s all about the system. Systems provide structure and yield consistent results. The fact that I even have a system – and use it – has put me lightyears ahead of most 9-to-5 colleagues.
- Don’t force a system you hate. A few years back I worked with Adam Bornstein as my personal trainer who taught me that the best system is one I can actually stick to, which holds true in both dieting and productivity.
- Personal accountability is the name of the game. This has been an evolution for me ever since reading The 4-Hour Workweek. I wasn’t born with the“entrepreneur’s mentality”. I’ve had to train myself to take myself seriously as an entrepreneur and be the type of person who drives his own actions and rewards.
(bill of materials)
- MacBook Pro(Retina, 13-inch, Early 2015) –where I do the bulk of my writing
- Self-built desktop computer with dual-screen monitors (1 wide, 1 tall) – for home office work and losing video games
- Whiteboard (23” x 35”) – for yearly planning and focus areas
- Trello – for weekly planning and my running task list
- Notecards (3”x 5” index cards) – for daily tasks
- Outlook (begrudgingly)and Google Calendar – for appointments, recurring tasks, and reminders
- Dropbox – file storage and syncing across multiple devices
- Evernote – my second brain
- Sony noise-canceling headphones (WH-1000XM3, wireless, silver) – for head-down work, blocking out distractions, and conference calls; highly recommended 👍
I earned peanuts my first few years of writing (started in 2015) but have since increased my side income to an average MRR of $1,500 /month and trending up. The whiteboard is what changed the game for me.
Everything I do starts with what’s on this board. At the beginning of each year I have a brainstorming session with myself where I identify the goals I’d like to achieve in the various sectors of my work and life. These become my focus areas for the year.
I never used to do this and I don’t know why – it’s pretty hard to hit a bullseye without a target. This process of identifying my focus areas added the direction I previously lacked.
Before settling on the whiteboard, I fumbled around with various tools (e.g. spreadsheets, asana, apps, etc.) but found that the whiteboard works best for what I do. It’s simple, feels good to write on, allows me to quickly pivot throughout the year, and it hangs on my office wall where I see it daily.
Something new I adopted this year was writing down the first/next steps associated with each goal (h/t to Nat for the idea). So far I’ve found that it helps mitigate the friction of starting and feeling like I don’t know what to do.
If you notice, some of my focus areas are circled. These are the items I’m currently working on. At the beginning of each quarter, I circle the goals and (usually) one project that I want to hone-in on.
I’ve found that quarterly deadlines have their pros and cons. The longer time frame takes some of the pressure off completing projects, especially when things at my day job blow up. However, three months is quite a long time to accomplish most projects, which puts me in a prime situation for Parkinson’s Law to takeover.
I’ll likely revisit this part of my productivity system as I continue to evolve into a better entrepreneur, but for now this works fine with the balance I try to maintain.
My whiteboard defines the macro-level targets, but Trello is where I identify and manage the tasks to get there. Without this level of clarity, I’d procrastinate and get nothing done.
My tasks typically range anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours. If one is too long I’ll break it down into smaller chunks.
All tasks get listed on one of two boards – work or personal. The ‘work’ board contains the tasks for my product manager role. The ‘personal’ board covers all my writing and entrepreneurial efforts.
There were too many items to blur out on my work board, so here’s my personal one (high-res image here):
The general idea is the same across both boards. They’re broken down into three groups of lists:
- Focus areas (~4 lists)– corresponding to what’s on the whiteboard
- Parking lot (1 list)– miscellaneous ideas that I’m not sure what to do with yet
- DONE! (1 list) – self-explanatory
Under each list I have two groups of tasks:
- Need to do
- Nice to do
As new tasks pop up, I immediately add them to whichever list they belong under the ‘nice to do’ category. Sometimes if they’re urgent they’ll go under ‘need to do’.
On Monday mornings I spend ~30 minutes doing a weekly review, where I update my two boards and move the tasks that I absolutely have to do into the ‘need to do’ sections, thus creating my plan for the week.
As I complete tasks, they get moved to the DONE! list. Every couple weeks I do a purge and archive to keep clutter low.
If you see me walking around the office, you might notice a little 3x5 index card sticking out of my back pocket. This is not a cute fashion statement, it’s how I manage daily execution.
Each day (usually the night before), I review my Trello boards and write down three to five critical tasks I need to do that day. These come almost exclusively from the ‘need to do’ items across my boards.
At least two of my daily tasks are for my side hustle. Morning writing is a staple, followed by either a Medium post, my newsletter, or one of the other projects I’ve chosen to focus on. The rest are for my day job.
I live and die by my notecards. What goes on ‘em gets done and what doesn’t gets saved for another day. Consider me the opposite of Tony Stark.
“Just stick to the cards, Tony.”
Sometimes, an emergency pops up at work and I have to pivot hard. Fortunately my most important work (my writing) is already done at this point, so I just roll with the punches.
After I finish what’s on the cards, I’ll work on ‘nice to do’s’ or fuck off for the rest of the day, which usually corresponds to some sort of productive hobby (e.g. lifting weights, sauna, cooking, practicing archery) but also video games, board games, or hanging out with friends.
I use my calendar a lot. Outlook is a necessary evil for my job, which is where I keep track of my work meetings and the tasks that I need to block out time for (so no one will bother me).
Google calendar is what I use for literally everything else. And I mean everything – one-off tasks, recurring personal tasks, scheduled events (e.g. vacations, trips, weddings, parties, virtual game nights), also appointments and reminders (e.g. calling my mom, buying eggs from the grocery store, taking out the trash).
I used to manage the two calendars separately, but that got annoying fast, so I overlaid the two and mainly look at my Outlook calendar.
If something’s not on my calendar, that doesn’t mean I won’t do it, but it means I probably won’t remember. The older I get the less capacity I have in my human brain to keep track of everything, so I outsource that job to my calendar or Evernote.
Also, since I don’t have Facebook, my Google calendar is my "trick” for how I remember all my friends’ and family’s birthdays.
I thought I’d quickly go through a few other key aspects of my daily system, starting with Evernote.
Evernote’s a big one because it’s basically my second brain. I use the free version and have it synced to my laptop and phone. It’s where I keep all my notes, ideas for articles and projects, web clippings for my newsletter, and whatever else I need to jot down.
My brain can’t handle the storing, categorizing, and on-demand retrieval of beaucoups of information – but Evernote can. So I let it tackle the administrative stuff while I relish the extra headspace to focus on creating.
Once or twice a year I read an article that motivates me to finally achieve inbox zero. An hour of reading and sorting emails later, I remember why I think it’s stupid and give up.
I don’t need folders to find most emails I look for – I can quickly find them using keyword searches and sorting by senders’ names.
Plus, the “clutter” in my inbox doesn’t really phase me.
So I only keep a few folders for “stickies” (travel confirmations, online course credentials, etc.) and business invoices/inquiries. And then the rest just sit in my inbox.
I do ruthlessly unsubscribe from emails and leave a lot of "junk” in my social/promotions folders.
At some point as my business grows, I’ll have to take another look at email management, but for now it’s not something I’m worried about.
Dropbox is what I use for cloud storage. It’s got all the space I need and syncs across multiple devices, plus I can always access it anywhere through a web browser.
My desktop is kept clean except for a couple of folders for stickies and shortcuts to my most-used folders.
Unlike my inbox, clutter in my files and desktop distracts me. Probably because I have to look at it often while trying to work.
The same thing goes for dishes in the sink and my actual desk. The less clutter in front of me, the less clutter in my brain and the more I can focus.
I’ve had two phones (work and personal) for the past ten years and it sucks. Since I loathe this dynamic, I started using my work phone full-time but keep my personal activated just in case.
I do my best not to look at my phone during my morning writing or while doing head-down work. Every now and then, mini-procrastinations get the best of me. To combat this as much as possible, I keep my phone out of sight out of mind – either in my backpack or pocket on silent.
Music helps me work and prevents distractions (and deters coworkers from bothering me).
When I need to get shit done, I throw on my noise cancelers and put on a focus playlist from Spotify. My favorites are Brain Food and Lo-Fi Beats, but I’ll occasionally switch it up and go for some classical or try something new.
To find these, go to browse > genres & moods > focus. If on your phone, do the same thing but start at the search tab on the bottom.
Oh, and if I’m doing data-crunching or something mindless, I’m rocking out to whatever 🤘.
Other things I do throughout the day that enhance my productivity:
- I protect my sleep religiously – by far my most powerful tool and honestly the best thing anyone can do for their health + productivity
- I wake up earlier to do my work – my favorite time to work is while the rest of the world is sleeping. The quiet time is important to me, plus I know myself and my tendencies. I can’t save my most important work ‘til the end of the day because it looms over me, and there’s always a chance I’ll convince myself that it can wait until the next day.
- I drink coffee and a good bit of tea
- I almost always exercise over lunch. Good way to break up the day, get the blood flowing, take out some aggression, and reinvigorate for the afternoon.
- I don’t let myself full-blown procrastinate. I used to get down on myself for checking twitter/messages while working until Nat talked about mini-procrastinations so now I’m embracing that. If I dive into something fully like a video game or Netflix it’s game over man and MUCH harder to get back to work.
- If I have to procrastinate, I try to make it productive – working out, washing the dishes, doing laundry, cleaning, etc. Sometimes knocking out a task like the dishes helps to refocus me and my efforts.
- I read at night before bed – the things you do and the information you consume changes how you think. What you read (or don’t read) matters.
- I use the weekends to make up for shitty weekdays. Some nights I suck. Other nights I let loose and do something fun. I try not to beat myself up and instead use the weekends to my advantage. Lots of people protect their weekends religiously and stay away from work. I say if you enjoy what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.
(my ideal day)
This is what I shoot for 90% of the time and it’s what happens about 70% of the time. Days tend to be dynamic with a full-time job and I gotta do what’s needed.
- 6 am – wake up, pee, athletic greens, coffee
- 630 am – write, usually a long-form article for my website
- 830 am – start work, aim to tackle the most important/mentally taxing items
- 12 pm – break for gym/lunch
- 1 pm – resume work, aim for meetings, recurring tasks, “busy” work
- 5 pm – head home, breather/relax
- 6 pm – other work, fuck-around time (e.g. board games, video games, Netflix, browsing the internet)
- 8 pm – workout (if I missed it earlier), hop in the sauna
- 830 pm – dinner
- 930 pm – bed, read, sleep
The system’s not perfect and certainly has room for improvement, but it’s simple, effective, and offers me the flexibility I need to maintain balance between engineering work, personal projects, and having a life.
I feel like many people view having a full-time job as being a bad thing – an obstacle that prevents them from pursuing their dreams. But for me it’s the opposite. I can work calmly and stress-free without having to worry about where my next paycheck’s coming from (a situation I've dealt with in the past). Plus, I can be looser with deadlines, have dirt cheap/high-quality health insurance, and a 401(k) with a solid company match.
Like I said in the beginning, entrepreneurship is the ultimate goal, and at some point I’ll make it happen. Right now though, I’m making the most out of the situation and building the habits I need to succeed.
My productivity system is a hell of a good start, and hopefully others will feel inspired to share their methods for being productive too.