A Productivity Journal: 2021 Edition

I’d like to continue the tradition of posting what I’m thinking about in regard to my personal productivity journey. It all started here:

I haven’t been journaling this out recently like I have in the past, so I’m going to try to make this an afternoon ritual on my Friday. This is my ask to the community: help keep me accountable to this! It helps me and I hope it can help you too.


After my 2020 themed ‘The Year of Stabilization’, where I had partially been focusing on making my productivity system stable, I’ve come to the realization that there are tools that work for me. And they keep calling back to me, over, and over, and over again.

Three such tools are:

  • The Bullet Journal – the rapid logging feature is what’s killer for me. Chronology, quick entry, and analog means thoughts, ideas, todos, and events stay organized in a way that makes the most sense to me.
  • Obsidian - I don’t foresee myself switching note-taking apps again for a very, very long time. Obsidian offers everything I want in a note-taking workflow, and allows me to contextualize information in very real, relevant ways to building further understanding of topics I’m interested in.

And the last one… OmniFocus.

There is something about this tool that any time I have more than just a few things going on in life, I feel the need to reintegrate it into my system. Plus, I just discovered a number of new features added to OmniFocus for Web.

I tried OF for Web a few months ago and it was… terrible. Extremely basic and missing nearly every useful feature from OmniFocus. Not as much anymore. Still not perfect, but not unusable (for me) now.

This is important because my main work machine is now a Linux desktop (running Arch Linux).

But I still have a Mac in my life, and run my mobile life off iOS/iPadOS. With OF for Web improving, there’s a strong case I can make for re-integrating this app into my life – with the caveat of I have to figure out how to use it with the Bullet Journal.

Here are my thoughts on pairing the two together, a set of principles, if you will:

  1. OmniFocus is just for project next actions, checklists, and recurring tasks.
  2. OmniFocus is not my daily workspace. It’s used only for planning and review. The Bullet Journal is my daily workspace.
  3. Only in-flight, committed actions go into OmniFocus. Someday/maybe or ideas go to Bullet Journal.
  4. I have a history of over-developing the structure I need in OmniFocus, which adds a ton of friction. This time, I’m going to intentionally start with minimal structure (folders for project areas, a waiting tag) and incrementally improve from there.
  5. Logging my day happens in Bullet Journal. I capture into Bullet Journal (or Drafts). Then during a review time, migrate to the appropriate spot.

This might give me a framework to build from, but it also might stress me out. That’s also been a difficulty when I use a digital tool as my primary workspace – stress. On paper, I know where everything is at, but in a digital tool, I have to browse or search for it. Somehow I worry about missing things. I think I need to find a workflow for review and stick with it. That will probably mitigate a bunch of difficulties.

Anyway, that’s the main thing on my mind this week in a productivity sense. I’ve also been looking at better ways of scheduling. Time blocking doesn’t work for me but I need to crank down and use my time more effectively than I have been, especially in light of wanting to spend more time slowing down this year.

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Week 2

I think I’m finding an appropriate place for OmniFocus in my workflow again. The key is being okay with duplication.

A lot of times in productivity workflows, duplication is seen as bad news. Information in two places means double the work! Well… kind of.

For example, I primarily work out of my Bullet Journal. I keep lists and log items daily in there. This approach helps me stay sane. However, as I mentioned last week, it doesn’t help me organize projects very well.

This is where duplication comes in. If there’s an item that belongs in a project, I mark a little ^ next to it. This signifies I’ve put the item into my task manager. Then, when I’m reviewing my journal, I know that task is part of something larger.

When embraced for specific purposes, I’m finding duplication is totally and 100% ok.

One thing I’m struggling with is routine. Everything has been thrown off schedule-wise this year. Kids are sleeping later which means I am too, but that also means I’m not exercising as much in the morning. It’s something I need to work on, but I’m sure I’ll get it sorted out in time.

I ended up being off work unexpectedly today so I’ll follow this up another day soon!

Week 3

Last week was a challenging week in some ways, and nice in others. I honestly don’t remember much about it, but I didn’t get a chance to do a weekly review, that’s for sure.

Week 4

I’m still trying to navigate a way to use the bullet journal and OmniFocus in a way that does not make me feel anxious. When I feel anxious, something needs to change. Productivity systems should help you feel on top of your game, not an added anxiety about getting work done.

Sometimes I feel anxious about using OF because I put too much stuff in there. I use OF to keep my projects on track primarily. But this week, I started adding little system nudges in, too. Any time I tie myself to particular timeframes for stuff that has zero timeframes involved is not helpful for me.

So I guess as I’m writing this, I’m removing the timeframe bound items from OmniFocus. In a way, sometimes I want a system to nag me to do stuff I find helpful, but sometimes, I need to just do it.

Week 5

I started an experiment with DEVONthink. Something clicked with me recently in regard to its use lately, and now I’m really exploring how to best use it. How deep do I want to go? It’s a really deep software! My main use case is a repository of important paperless docs (almost 1k of them as of now). I’m sure there will be more use cases as I go on.

This doesn’t invalidate my use of Obsidian by any means because I’m using DEVONthink for reference storage, not ideation and note-taking. I love what @Kourosh is doing with DEVONthink in this regard though. If you haven’t seen his talk with @timstringer yet, check it out.

In other news, I’ve settled into OmniFocus. I’ve found a workflow that’s making sense for me, which involves not using OF most of the day. It’s really a storage repository that helps remind myself of things I’ve determined I need to do. Nothing more than that. The bullet journal is a really helpful processing, capture, and thought space, and the system I devised to note something that’s been migrated to OmniFocus has worked wonderfully.

Actually it’s quite rare that I migrate anything to OmniFocus. Most often what gets captured in the bullet journal are one-off tasks, things I’m going to do away from the computer, or ideas that are not committed projects right now (or that I’m sitting on for a bit). Paper is the perfect incubation spot!

I’ve needed to remember to take breaks and not force myself to work longer than I’m mentally able to. When I force myself to keep going, I end up paying for days after because I’m not mentally recharged. Time off is important!

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Week 6

Pandemic fatigue has set in quite hard! Not to mention the frigid temperatures where I live. The combination has made it a bit difficult to focus, even though I’ve been attempting to balance my schedule with leisurely things (Zettelkasten work, music production, exercise).

More broadly, I’m exploring setting in some systems to help keep me on track in the major areas of responsibility in my life. I don’t have a lot of granular thought on these yet. The topic of time blocking has been coming up over and over, but I have not been able to successfully get myself to do it no matter how many times I’ve tried.

It’s a problem I have to ponder on!

On the bright side, my DEVONthink experiment is going well. I’m enjoying just how easy it is to scan an item to a folder in Dropbox and have DEVONthink pick it up using folder actions.

I scan on iOS using Scanner Pro, which automatically saves the scan to a specific folder in Dropbox. Then the file gets synced to my Mac mini, where DEVONthink picks it up and does its magic. I quite like it.

Right now I’m using DT for a paperless organizing system, but I plan to add other info in there too. To be continued…

Week 7

Timeblocking has been on my mind most of this week.

Been doing some research and attempting to implement it. It seems like there are two schools of thought:

  • Project/task blocking – block time for project or task specific work
  • Batch blocking – block time to work on tasks for a specific context of tasks (a la GTD)

I’m experimenting with project blocking to start, but I think a combo of project/batch blocking will be most helpful down the road. I’m realizing it would be good to leverage flow state a lot better than I am right now, or even just getting in the groove of doing a specific type of work (recording podcasts, for example).

Principle: Instead of letting urgency dictate my work, construct a schedule that drives what’s important forward.

I resist plans like this, but I’m hoping I can embrace it without overdoing it.

Week 8

Coming a day early this week due to some scheduling things!

My first week timeblocking was a relative success. I was keenly more aware of the time I am spending, which is both a good and bad thing. Good because I’m more focused in my use of the time. Bad because when I’m more aware of the time, I’m a little bit more stressed than normal.

I’ve stuck to project/task batching with a focus on 90 minute blocks followed by 30 minutes of margin. I like this approach, but what’s challenging is knowing what to do with a myriad of small tasks or blocks where I’m not focusing deeply. Probably need to schedule that in!

One ramification of relying heavily on my calendar is I’m using the bullet journal less. Wherever I plan my day tends to be wherever I’m focusing my attention. Blocking my day out in a digital calendar makes the most sense for me, as I can easily move blocks around. I’ve tried this on paper and it’s too messy for me.

I’ll keep this experiment going for another week or two and make a final evaluation. I may keep some of it, I may not! Jury is out yet.

Week 11

Skipped weeks 9 & 10 :sweat_smile: It’s been really busy!

I’ve basically abandoned my time blocking approach. Yep. It strikes again. Honestly, tracking time stresses me out too much. A big benefit that came out of it is a better understanding of time blocking and different ways I can do it if I need to.

A video is in production on it, too!

That being said, I’ve completely upended my productivity workflow in the process. I needed to. What I had going was not working for me. Sure, I was getting things done, but I was stressed out.

There are two major changes:

  1. Things – I’ve now switched to using Things 3 from OmniFocus for task management. Two major drivers of this include being able to schedule when I’m going to work on something (or not work on something with Someday), and being able to tag projects and filter by them. I was resistant to using Things at first, but even a week in, it’s beginning to click all the more for me. We’ll see how this plays out in the long run, but I’m not as stressed as I was prior with my cobbled together system.

  2. Starting My Day – Before, I’d start my day with a variety of things. Now, my mornings are for reflection and deep work. I have a new vault in Obsidian where I have a list of active ideas I’m shaping or working on. Every morning I visit these and just see if I have any new ideas or thoughts for them. Then I plan my top priority for the day, and get to work on it.

    I notice a significant difference if I do deep work first before touching things I need to catch up on. I’m less stimulated and more focused. I hope to continue this trend!

Week 12

Short update this week. Work’s been very busy so I haven’t hardly had a chance to slow down or reflect on anything.

I’ve been thinking and ideating a lot lately though. More to come on that later.

Week 13

The last couple of weeks have been very up and down for me. My schedule’s been all over the place for various reasons (some I can control, but most I can’t), and it’s thrown me out of routine and therefore, out of sorts.

Prime example of this: I’ve hardly used my bullet journal in the last week at all! And now I sort of dread catching it up.

Not a lot of bandwidth to experiment recently, either!

But, I can say using Things 3 seems to be working well for me thus far. The more I use it, the more I’m getting familiar with its thought processes and structures. Oddly enough, I feel I can put more information in it and feel less stressed than I did with OmniFocus. Still stewing on why for that one.

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