049: Building a System of Multiple Tools



Common productivity advice often states, “Throw everything you can into one tool to rule them all!” In practice, that doesn’t work well. This week, Justin shares how it’s better to build a system of many tools to offer greater flexibility and strength while on your productivity journey.


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023: Essential Habits - The Regular Review

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Thanks Justin, another great episode. While I can understand why some people want to use one tool, I cannot. I use a task manager and a calendar to organize my thoughts. My task manager of choice at the moment is Omnifocus, yet I do not use the Forecast perspective because I assign myself due dates on a very select amount of tasks, the rest are usually deferred to a specific time at which point they are completed or deferred again.

One thing I am really stuck on is how to handle follow up on emails. My office uses outlook so I am stuck at that end. I really dislike Outlook’s organizational model, from my very limited understanding of Outlook, it appears to lack the ability the automatically move flagged messages to a folder. I have tried to use Omnifocus but it gets a little to cumbersome, I have a lot of email traffic that requires follow up. I have recently experimented with Microsoft’s To-Do simply for the email follow up function, but i have concerns over their app’s organization of follow up tasks.

Do you or anyone else have suggestions on how I can easily manage follow up emails?


Hi Brian! My office uses Outlook as well, and I’m equally frustrated by the way it organizes things (a general complaint of mine with Microsoft products). Have you tried using Quick Steps? You could create one that flagged an email, then moved it out of your inbox to another folder you create for this purpose (“Waiting on…” or “Follow Up”, for example). I’d also encourage you to experiment with “Categories”. I’ve made one called “Follow Up” and made a quick step to categorize the email and move it. Categories don’t give you the option to set a particular date like flagging, so you need to create a system of regularly checking it, or you need to add a dated task/reminder as well. Depending on your task management system, you can also build this into your Quick Step (eg- forward to ToDoist, categorize as Follow Up, move to other folder). There’s one more option I’ve found that you might find useful, if you don’t mind using your inbox a little differently. Whether you flag or categorize, you can keep them in the Inbox but sort it by flags/categories so that they move to the bottom. That way any “unprocessed” emails will appear at the top of your inbox, while at the bottom, you’ll have a visible reminder of the items you’re waiting to hear back on or need to follow up about. Hope that helps!

Thanks for the suggestions regarding organizing in Outlook. I am not familiar with Quick Steps, can you enlighten me on how to apply these? I’ve attempted to create “rules” to move messages, but there are struggles with those, apparently “rules” are more for sending and receiving emails, and not organizing.

Sure, Brian. Check out Microsoft’s guide to start. Then play around with one of the default quick steps to get used to it. The creating/editing interface is pretty straightforward: choose an action to add, adjust parameters, repeat until it does all the things you want. Two things to note: 1) the drop down menu of actions is dynamic and will change based on actions already chosen, and 2) there’s no option to rearrange actions. If, for example, you’re 3 steps into building a quick step and you realize that the “Move to Folder” action should be first, you might have to delete all the steps and start over. Annoying, but not too bad. You can change the icon and name, which is helpful when picking the quick step you want from a menu. There’s also a (limited) option to assign a keyboard shortcut to your quick step. Hope that helps!

I feel like a handyman. I prefer having a toolbox full of tools that take a different approach. I wished I could have one text editor to do everything but I realized I like different apps for different silos.

  • Ulysses for most of my writing.
  • Drafts for my inbox capturing. The text files gets sent to different destinations such as email, Ulysses, Day One, or other text editors.
  • Day One for my personal journal.
  • Agenda app for meeting notes, client histories, and project histories
  • Pages for letters that needs to be printed and mailed out at the local post office

All of these apps are text editors but with a different purpose. I’ve tried to use Drafts as my “everything” text editor app but it didn’t feel quite right. With these different text editors, each app has a different purpose. My text are in different silos and easily available when I have different situations. Sure, I can try to use Drafts as my journal and meeting notes app. But it doesn’t feel quite right for me. Maybe I’m hardwired differently?

Like my apps toolbox, my home toolbox has an assortment of screwdrivers, wrenches, hammers, drill bits, etc. I like my Swiss Army knife but I know I’m better off with a toolbox that can handle different situations and needs.

I wouldn’t worry about not using every feature available in an app. I also don’t use the Forecast tag myself. I also never visit the Flagged perspective because I have other perspectives that takes care of my Flagged tasks.

I have Microsoft Excel and I think I’ll probably barely use even 10% of its capabilities.

If I don’t have a need for a feature, I won’t use it. It’s nice to know it’s there. But I’ll wait for a situation when I truly will need that feature.

I wrestled with this same issue when I was working corporate and limited to Outlook on desktop. Let’s be honest – there just aren’t any mail clients on Windows that pull their weight against Outlook.

That’s part of the reason I made a script to Capture OmniFocus Tasks on Windows with AutoHotKey. But that’s not for everyone.

Question 1 - Do you have the ability to use a software like Spark on your iOS device to snooze emails, or is that restricted by IT policy? Snoozing could be helpful feature to keep email tasks in email.

Question 2 - How are you handling email process-wise? There may be a better way to handle it based on your process versus tooling.

For example, I tried to limit processing email to three times per day, which was really to help stay out of email all day. But during those processing sessions, I’d make sure to reply to every email, even if it was “Hey, I got this. I’ll work through this later this week and get back to you.”

The key that helped me there was not clipping emails to OmniFocus, per say, but rather adding tasks. If I wasn’t able to fully reply to an email during a processing session (which I did not limit to the GTD 2 minute rule, by the way), it usually meant there was an additional task I needed to complete, something like filling out a form, thinking through an idea, or something of the sort. That’s what I’d save to OmniFocus, which makes a lot more sense.

You could tag items like this in OF “From Email” or something like that to make sure you have them in a single list. And you could review it every week to make sure it’s cleared out.

During my processing sessions, if I wasn’t able to get to an email, I’d simply leave it in the inbox. I’d always start from oldest to newest.

Thanks for this list! I have a similar one (but using other apps), which probably means I’ve stopped trying to move everything into the One App to Conquer Them All (I tried to use Evernote for this many years back and failed).

Now I use the following:

  • Things 3 - main task manager app
  • Trello - for collaboration work with clients and project management (I’m an Organisational Design/Development consultant).
  • GoodNotes (on ipad) - this is what eventually killed Evernote for me. I use this not just as my go to notepad, but as a repository for all receipts, warranties, and documents that I may need to document for later use. I use its notebook feature for organisation. My brain still thinks in folders and notebooks and so this organisational system works best for me.
  • I stopped my Ulysses subscription and now use a free app called INK for writing.

With regards the podcast (how do I manage my time), I made my own bootstrapped googlesheet dashboard using a hybrid of David Seah’s Emergent Task Planning system and a semi-automated system of putting values to how much time I spend. For example: Business Dev gets a value of 12, Billable Time – 10, Life-Giving tasks get 7.5, Family Time gets 7.5, Continuing Education (listening to educational podcasts for example) get 5, Time-Wasters get -2, Repetitive Tasks get -1. This is all automated in the googlesheet and so during weekly reviews, I can check whether my week was spent productively or not, and make changes accordingly. Just putting values to each task category is a great exercise in prioritisation and clarifying what is important. I’ve attached how my Feb went for example. (A score more than 6 means I’ve spent my time productively.) It’s manual, but there’s something about putting things on sheets and databases that make you feel accomplished. LOL.

I’d like to know what you think! I’m a recovering productivity addict (I enjoy tweaking my processes even more than actually doing them sometimes!), and need all the help I can get. So far, this is what I had for the past year, and it’s been a good experience.


Sounds like you have a good handle on your tools there, which is awesome! Systems should be able to flex, and that’s a pretty flexible setup.

During my weekly, monthly, seasonal, and annual reviews, I handwrite answers to some questions about how things went. The process of physically writing these versus typing them really helps me get clarity. I’d imagine filling out this spreadsheet helps you through a process like that too.

We like to automate our systems to do a lot, but sometimes the manual work of thought is what brings it all together.

I agree. I have my Long-Term, 5 Year, and Annual Plans handwritten on GoodNotes. Writing is clarifying. Putting things on the googlesheet dashboard is a similar process, with another value: it helps me do a quick triage-like process of my activities: that last xx mins, was it spent on a project? Was that project of value? Was it part of a bigger Goal? The process is also clarifying in terms of how I spend my time and while that level of granularity might not work for some people, I find that going through that thought process of Project/Value/Goal helps me spend time in a more meaningful way. :slight_smile:


That particular process might not be for everyone, but the general idea of processing and purposefully reviewing is absolutely essential :smiley: I think we all can glean some principles whether we copy it exactly or not.


That’s the idea that we’re all discovering! Find examples of what other people have done such as Seah’s EPT and adapt it to our own use.

I loved Seah’s EPT and adapted his templates to my workflow. Good to hear you using Google Sheets and EPT to make it work for you. Tracking the hours spent on a project also helps us decide where we spend our future hours as well.


Hi @wilsonng, how did you adapt Seah’s templates? What I have now is a hybrid GTD/ETP/ZTD (Leo Baubata’s Zen to Done). When friends and clients ask me what I do, I just say I call it “LifeFlow.” :smiley:


Yes, I did a restart ages ago using ZTD learning one habit at a time. I’ve loved ZTD’s simplicity and it helped me slowly get around to working all the widgets in my system.

I used EPT as a template for my own. I was getting tired of hand-drawing each page in my BuJo and decided to go to a DiscBound notebook to create my own template based on my needs. My day is too random with walk-in customers and I couldn’t reliably use time blocking and I took out the daily schedule. Maybe, one day, my life changes and I can have “office hours” then I can re-incorporate the daily schedule for time blocking to help me.

I do try to reserve a 45-90 minute morning block and another 45-90 minute afternoon block to get work done. That’s one of my 2 MITs (Most Important Tasks) that I choose the day before. The MIT can be either a Big Rock project or a context (doing administrative paperwork for one hour or computer work for one hour).

This was my beginning attempt at BuJo.

At the time I wrote this post, I was drawing my templates. The basic concepts are still the same but I’ve added a few things since then.

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I think the first emergent task he needs to look at is the the massive amount of javascript and css blocking the loading of the site. It made it unusable for me as it would not even load.

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