Rebooting my productivity without technology

Early last year I ran to Target on a Sunday morning on the spur of the moment. I wanted a Moleskin notebook, the small one that fits in your back pocket.

I wanted to get in a habit of writing down everything, especially ideas for writing prompts.

That lasted about a week for me. This is typical for me, especially when I try to create a new habit impulsively.

For the last couple of years, I’ve also been a huge fan of Wunderlist as a to-do application. It has great app support, working on the web, Mac, Android and iOS with instant sync. I had a number of lists and sub-lists within those and would capture all of the to-do items for each category.

It even worked great when we were selling the house late last year. My wife installed the apps and we shared a to-do list by room for everything that had to get done in order to sell the house. This was a big deal as she is a big fan of writing everything down and gets great pleasure in physically crossing off each action item.

The challenge I have is that I use Wunderlist in fits and spurts. I don’t capture everything I want to do as it happens. When I’m on top of my game, I’ll do two things. At the beginning of each week, I’ll first review all of my lists and the action items in them. I’ll update and check off anything that is done and I’ll add everything I want to get done. Each morning after that, I’ll sit down and review the lists, making sure to add anything I want to get done that day. The challenge I had is there were some days where I’d have the Mac app open and check things off as I would get things done. But I lacked discipline and wouldn’t do it every day and then weeks would go by and I’d have to start over. The bigger challenge for me was that I wasn’t adding things to my to-do list during the day. I was using it as a tool to get things done that I had already planned.

I’ve always been a big fan of Getting Things Done by David Allen. I read the book years ago and I took away three things:

  1. As soon as the idea hits you, write it down. Keep your mind uncluttered.
  2. If it takes less than five minutes, write it down and then just do it.
  3. Create a tickler file aka a long term file for things you want to get done in the someday pile. But write it down and get it out of your head.

That’s why Wunderlist wasn’t working for me – I wasn’t reaching for the Mac app or my phone the moment something hit me that I needed or wanted to do. I don’t always have my phone on me. I don’t take it to meetings when I’m in the office and if I’m at my home office, I’ll leave it there when I go to the kitchen or if I go for a walk. If I think of something at a particular moment, I’m not writing it down right then and there.

So now I’m going old school. I grabbed the small Moleskin notebook I had abandoned and over the last couple of weeks, I’m filling it as fast I think of something that I want to do or needs to be done.

I have also added two tabs to my notebook. The first 70% of the notebook will be dedicated to my to-do list (and crossing them off!). I then have a tab for “Big Projects”, things that aren’t going to be done on a specific day. It needs to be more than a “someday” list, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Then there is a third tab, a “notes” tab. This tab is for anything I want to capture – ideas that I might want to write about; story ideas; or just random thoughts. Anything goes.

I think my wife might be on to something – the mental pleasure you get by crossing something off. Wunderlist makes a nice little ding when you check something as done and then archives it, making it disappear. Having the ability to see a page of things that have been done and crossed off makes you feel more productive. (Though there is an advanced feature in Wunderlist to make them not disappear, it would quickly be cluttered).

Like any productivity tip or tool, it’s about what works for you – and then sticking with it. I’m finding that not using technology for the first time in a long time is making me even more productive.

Paul Cutler
Father. Husband. Vinyl Music Lover. Football fan. Python student. He / him.