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Why people are so busy but do so little

Know that feeling when you open your inbox and the counter says "256 unread emails"? (Never really had it, but a lot of my friends do) Maybe you don't read all messages, or perhaps you are flooded with email. And what about those days where you do so many things but at the end of the day you look back and don't see a difference in the amount of work you still need to do? That is no way to organize your day... The problem is simple: people are productivity idiots They spend time doing things that make no sense. Common practices are:

  • Spending a long time managing email
  • Reading useless emails or overlooking ones that have priority
  • Not knowing what to do (often turning to things like facebook)
  • Forgetting things they have started but not finished
  • Basically they try and make their heads manage their day

This results in the feeling of being very busy while in fact you are doing nothing at all. This behavior is found in students, workers, managers and CEO's alike. Humans are terrible at mentally self-organizing. The brain simply does not like linear thinking and processing. That is what technology does, so clear your head and let technology do the work for you!

Productivity warfare: Weapons in the digital age

A lot of the problems people have with productivity and organization are easy to solve. Once you take a minute to set up a digital productivity system you will get infinitely more work done. What we are going to do is set up such a system using 3 main elements:

  • An easy to-do note system that is backed up into the cloud so you never lose it
  • Optimizing your email inbox by filtering out junk with a single click and starting good email habits
  • Using a digital calendar and importing all your activities (like facebook events)

But that will take so much work!

Stop being melodramatic, I am the laziest person on the planet. I set this up within half an hour and was watching a tv series at the same time. it might take you longer since you don't know what you are doing yet, but it is no rocket science. This stuff is easy and will make every second of work after doing it easier.

To those who already have part of this in place:

Perhaps you are not a total productivity idiot and already have a digital calendar or evernote account. If you do, awesome. But don't think that is all there is to it. Skim the sections you think you already have down to make sure you don't miss anything. Remember, you only have to set this up once.  

To do list v2.0

What we will do is simple. We are going to create a structured to do system. It will contain 6 notebooks:

  • Do within 24H
  • Do Within a Week
  • Do Sometime
  • Read or Look up
  • Pending
  • Done

In real life that would mean 6 annoying physical paper binders. In the digital works you can drag tasks from one to the other. Before we go into how to use the system. Let's first build it.

Create and/or log into your Evernote account

Evernote is a digital notebook service. You can download the application on your computer and cellphone or use it through your web browser. Everything you add to your notebooks on one device is backed up to the cloud and appears on the other devices as well. Please register an account with them or log into the account you already have. To all of you who don't like the idea of a digital notebook: neither did my girlfriend. I asked her to use it for one day, and it is now chronically open and hooked up to her webbrowser. Please do the following:

  • Register an account
    • Go to their website and follow instructions
  • Install the software on all devices you use daily
    • The download links are on the website. You will find the app in the appstore of your phone.
  • Log into your account in all the installed software
    • You only have to do this once, but remember your password

Setting up the notebooks

Adding notebooks works differently in the apps and desktop software, but it is easy nonetheless. If you want to mess around feel free, but you can also just right click the "notebooks" in the left column and press "create notebook".

Screenshot of the Evernote program on windows[/caption] Poweruser tip: you can add "stacks" which are like physical notebook stacks. In the software you can group notebooks under a stack to keep it organised. in the image above you can see that I have stacks for "Journals" and "Leisure". You don't need to do this, but if you might use evernote for more things (like tracking movies you need to watch) they come in handy. Go ahead and create the aforementioned notebooks:

  • Do within 24H
  • Do Within a Week
  • Do Sometime
  • Read or Look up
  • Pending
  • Done

Alternative structure (I've switched to this as of August '14): The above structure worked ok for my work style back then. My current work makes it easier to work with tags and save searches. Go ahead and do this if you are versed in evernote already.


  • Todo Tags
  • Important / Not important (for me tage "imp" and "nimp")
  • Urgent / Not urgent (for me "urg" and "nurg")
  • Long, middle, short (time to complete task) Saved searches
  • Important and urgent
  • Important but not urgent
  • Not ¬†important but urgent
  • Not ¬†important and not urgent
  • Long
  • Middle
  • Short

The Art of OCD: Managing Tasks

Using the notebooks is as easy as it looks. For every task, create a new note. This note may contain some details, but try to keep it as short as possible. Examples are "Do Laundry" or "Read Chapter 5 of Book X". Don't use vague terms like "Study" or "Work". Write your tasks in such a way that anyone can see the notes and do the work for you.

LIST MAKER WARNING: Under no circumstance are you to make a do do list in a note. Every note is a task. That way they can be given different statuses.

In the workflow of task managing, you will work as follows:

  • Add your task to the appropriate notebook
    • For example add "Write an Article" to "To Do Within 24H"
  • When your task changes priority, move it
    • For example move the above task from within 24H to within a week
    • What your task is waiting for the actions of someone else add it to "Pending"
    • Perhaps you are waiting for interview answers to be sent to you for the article
  • This notebook is a way to not forget things you are working on but need others for as well
  • When a task is done, add it to "Done"

Interesting things or light bulbs:

  • Add articles you find on the web or in your mail to "Read or Look up"
  • Read them after you have done the work you need to do. As interesting as "5 Places to See Before You Die" is, it will not get work done. Do it in your self-schedule break, or put it off to the weekend.
  • Wait, how do pineapples grow?
    • Add things you want to look up to "Read or Look up" as well.

Calendar: Easy and Automatic Planning

Physical calendars are pretty, they feel nice and look professional on a desk. They also get lost/damaged, have no search function, can't send invitations to contacts and can't have things automatically added to them. From a geek perspective, they are shit.

A digital calendar can do all the above, my personal time savers are:

  • Importing appointments (from facebook or university classes)
  • Sending invites to people (making sure is is automatically added to their calendar)
  • A search function (handy when trying to remember when you did task x)
  • Synchronization¬†across all devices (in my case my pc, phone and tablet)

Setting up the calendar

You probably already have a calendar account, but simple don't know about it. If you have gmail (or a general google account), you already have google calendar. Go ahead and navigate to calendar.google.com and have a look. If you do not have an account yet, you can sign up for a google account that works for all of their services. Go ahead and do the following:

  • Log into google at account.google.com (or any of their services like gmail/calendar)
    • Once you log into one of their services, you are logged into all of them
    • Or create an account at account.google.com
    • Click the "Sign Up" button on the right top
    • Log into your account on all of your devices
    • Pretty much all smart phones can log into your google account
  • Log into your account through your calendar app
    • If you have android, you are already logged into a google account and have both gmail and calendar

Import your Facebook events

Have a look at the calendar screenshot of my calendar above. I'll give you a little insight into my color code:

  • Green: actual appointment
  • Dark blue: Facebook event
  • Light blue: automatically logged actions and finished to-do's (we'll get into that later)

Importing your calendar is easy. It also means that anything on which you click "join" or "maybe" will show up in your calendar. Why would you want that? Well, it shows you what events are going on in your town and friend circles in your calendar. You won't need to actively look it up, it will simple be in your daily overview.

Facebook has a function where you can export your events as a URL (webpage link). To find it follow these steps:

  • Log into your¬†Facebook
  • On the left click "events"
  • On the right top, click the gear
  • Click "export"
  • Right click the text "upcoming events"
  • Select "copy link address"
    • The exact command may differ on your browser, the idea is to copy the link
  • Paste this link in a temporary place
    • For example in an evernote note in the notebook called "To do Within 24H"

The link you just copied is an auto updated webpage written in a way that your calendar knows how to use it. Now let's add your event feed (fancy word for automatically updating list) to Google calendar:

  • Open your Google calendar
  • Under "Other calendars" press the little arrow
  • Select "Add by URL"
  • Paste the link into the box
  • Press ok
  • Have a little patience

Poweruser tip: you can change the calendar colors by clicking the arrow next to a specific calendar. That way you can see which events belong to which calendars without having to looking at it in detail. Also, you can temporarily hide the calendar from your overview by clicking the colored square. Clicking the now empty square will bring it back.

Managing your Facebook feed

Again such a fancy phrase... In essence all you need to know is that you should respond to all Facebook event invited you get. If you want them to show up in your calendar, at least say you will "Maybe" attend. I do this with almost all events, because I like knowing what events go on around town.

Importing other calendars (like work or university)

Your job/uni calendar probably have an export function, you just don't know it. There are 2 ways to export a calendar:

  • Dynamic feed: like the Facebook event feed, it auto updates
    • This is often called an ical feed
  • Static package: you import this once and add it to your calendar
    • It is a file you download and re upload to your calendar

The "iCalendar Subscription" is a dynamic feed you can add in the same way as the Facebook event list. The iCalendar one-time export works differently.

Importing static iCalendar or CSV files

If you don't know where to find your schedule data for work/university your helpdesk probably knows. It pays off to go to them to find it since it will save you a lot of writing and confusion.

Once you have downloaded your file, let's import it into your calendar.

  • Open Google calendar
  • Click the gear on the top right next to the button "More"
  • Click "Settings"
  • In the top tabs select "Calendars" next to "General"
  • Next to "Create new calendar" click "Import Calendar"
  • In the popup screen (like the image above) upload your file
  • Be sure to import the events into the calendar you want them in using the drop down menu next to "Calendar:"
  • Press "Import"

Note: You can modify events you have imported, but now those that are in a dynamic feed like the Facebook event list or iCalendar subscriptions.

Email: the Biggest Productivity Killer

Inboxes need to be empty, period. Inboxes were designed as a box on a desk where people would put in memos and tasks. They were meant to be processed on that day or referred to the person who should do it. Too many times do I see people who have dozens of unread emails and hundreds or thousands of read emails in their inbox. Imagine that in a physical box on a desk...

One account to rule them all

I have many email accounts. One for personal use, one for university, one for work, one for this blog etc etc. Having to log into different email boxes is hell. Plus it means you get kind of neuritic since there is always an email in one of them. Luckily Gmail has a function to import all of your accounts, not only letting you receive from all of them but also send on behalf of multiple ones.

The Google account you just created includes a Gmail account. Go ahead and set it up (or log into the one you already have):

  • Go to Gmail.com
  • Log in if you have an account there
  • Set it up if you don't have one (log in with the Google account you created above)

Step 1: send all email to your Gmail address

The first thing you want to do is make sure your other email accounts forward your emails to your Gmail address. Usually you just want to configure a forwarder. We will walk through some options, but if you don't know how to do it in your system, ask your helpdesk.

Scenario 1: Web based outlook

Many organisations (like my university) use an Outlook based email system. This is a relatively inflexible system, but we can work with it.

In this case the setting up of a forward service is done using "rules". There is one important thing when configuring these: use internet explorer. Why? Well, in this case Microsoft only plays nice with Microsoft products. Don't ask questions, just swallow your pride and use it for 5 minutes.

  • Log into your email using internet explorer
  • In the right top corner, press "Options"
  • In the left tab click "Rules"
  • Select "New Rule" and click the "Make new rule for arriving messages" (see image below)
  • Under the heading "Do the Following" click "Forward or Redirect"
  • Select the "Redirect Messages" option
  • On the left now click "people or distribution lists"
  • in the "To:" field add your Gmail address
  • Now just save rule a navigate back and close internet explorer
  • It may take some minutes before the rule takes effect

Scenario 2: you own a domain/website

If you have your own domain you can get awesome addresses. Basically what you want to do is configure an email forwarder to your Gmail. How you do this depends on your webhost. Most webhosts use cPanel or Directadmin. In both cases just log into your domain and find the "Forwarder" option under the Email header. Do not make an email account! Make a forwarder.

  • Log into your domain panel
  • Example: yourwebsite.com/cpanel
  • This depends on your webhost, they sent it to you
  • Find the option "Forwarder" under the email options
  • Do not create an email box!
  • Configure the forwarder the way you want it
  • For example info@yourdomain.com or yourname@yourdomain.com
  • Forward it to youremail@gmail.com
  • Test it by sending an email to it, sometimes to takes some minutes to take effect

Scenario 3: you have no idea

Long story short, ask the helpdesk of your company/institution. Sometimes a more geek inclined friend can help you. Remember to ask nicely.

Step 2: set up your Gmail to send email from your other addresses

Now all your email is arriving in your almighty inbox. But what is the point if you have to reply with your Gmail address? Not very professional indeed. That's why we will make sure we can send from the other emails as well.

  • Open your Gmail inbox

  • Open your settings page by clicking the gear on the right top and selecting "Settings"

  • In the settings, open the "Accounts and Import" tab

  • Under "Send email as:" click "Add another email address you own"

  • In the dialogue that pops up, add the email you want to send as

  • Click next step select "Send through Gmail (easier to set up)" and click next

  • Click "Send verification message"

    • This is to check whether you actually own the address you want to send on behalf as
    • You will now receive an activation link on the email you just entered
  • Note: in outlook based addresses for some reason sometimes you need to do the verification through the original login. This is probably just because I was too much in a hurry, but if you don't get the email check your Outlook box. After that everything works.

  • Now when you compose a message you can click the "From:" email and select which you want to send from

All your email can now be received and sent from your Gmail. This will save you a lot of time and provide peace of mind. As an added bonus you get everything on your mobile phone in the same box as well.

Apply color labels for easy sorting

One of the things with one box for all your mail is that you might get confused what arrived on what address. But not to worry, you can easily apply color labels to your mails. Basically the coming in emails will have a colored label on them with a short description. Examples are a blue "Work" or green "Personal". You can of course use any colors you want.

  • ¬†Go back to the settings panel described before
  • Click the tab "Filters"
  • On the bottom click "Create new filter"
  • In the popup type the email address you are making a label for in the "From" field.
  • For example add myname@company.com
  • in the right bottom corner of the popup click "Create filter with this search"
  • You will see a number of tickboxes, select "Apply Label:"
  • In the dropdown select "Create New Label"
  • Give your label a name
  • The option "Nest label under" is used to group labels. Disregard it for now.
  • Examples of label names are "Work" or "Personal", you should keep the names as short as you can
  • Press the blue "Create Filter" button
  • Repeat this for all email addresses

Note to powerusers: you may have noticed the filter options. You can go wild with these. For my company mail I have a whole stack of labels like "Support", "Finance" and "Automatic Messages". In this case consider nesting labels. The previous three would be nested under "Work".

An automatic daily digest of subscriptions and automatic emails

For many people a big portion of their inboxes if filled with automatic emails like newsletters, notification messages and promotions. Getting rid of these all together is a lot of work. So we are going to take the easy way and go for the 1-click solution.

There is a service called unroll.me which analyses your email and puts all automatic emails in 1 email you receive in the morning. In my case that means getting an email at 6AM with all newsletters, promotions, updates (like LinkedIn) and other automatic emails. That way you still see them but don't get spammed. The service also allows you to unsubscribe from the ones you don't want.

The only catch is that is only works with Gmail (they recently updated to include Yahoo), but hey if you listened to me so far you have that. That means all automatic messages from all your accounts are now not going to be bothering you any more.

  • Go to www.unroll.me
  • Click the "Signup Now!" button
  • Log in with your Gmail account
  • Unroll.me will take a while analyzing your account, but it is worth the wait
  • In your daily digest Unroll.me will tell you if they found new subscriptions and ask what you want to do with them
  • You can change the status up certain subscriptions if you want
  • Rollup emails appear in the digest
  • Unsubscribed emails will be hidden
  • "Inbox" status mails will be received as a normal mail
  • "New Items" in the screen above are the subscriptions you have not labeled yet

Empty Inbox Policy

Inboxes are supposed to be empty. If there is an email in your inbox, there is something for you to do. Right now select your entire inbox and press "Archive" (of course after you read the emails you still need to). Start working from this black slate. The emails will still be in your archive. Your email box is huge, don't delete stuff. Just archive it. if you need it later just use the search function.

There is a clear workflow when an email comes in. When you open an email, commit to doing either one of the following things:

  • If the email contains a task, add it to your "To do Within X" evernote notebook
  • If the email contains things you need to read, add it to the "Read or Look Up" notebook
  • If it contains an invitation or event details, add it to your calendar
  • NEVER read an email and leave it unprocessed longer than a day
    • Try to do it immediately unless circumstance don't allow it for some reason (e.g. internet problems)
    • NEVER leave a processed email in your inbox
    • NEVER delete an email, only archive it for future reference
    • Gmail actually presents the Archive button before the Delete button