Systems and Habits for Focus and Productivity

27 min read

Want extra hours every day to focus on what's important and get things done? This is how I carve out roughly two extra, productive hours and an extra productive day out of my weekdays.

Pick Systems over Goals, and... Track!

From both Scott Adam (yes, the Dilbert guy) and James Clear (Atomic Habits), think systems and habits rather than goals. Goals are the good for direction, systems create progress. Habits compound, goals fade (or get achieved).

If you want to be honest with yourself, and you need to be if you are earnest in improving, you need to track. Yes, it sounds OCD, but you can make it simple and painless and you will surprise yourself with both how you aren't, and are, doing the things you set out to do (I certainly was when I started.). There's that not-so-old adage of what gets measured gets managed, but to define progress you need to know where you are, where you're going, and how you're traveling. Tracking lets you know how you're traveling.

I have three thing here which help: a journal, a note taker, a habit tracker, and a GTD app.

A Journal

The journal is the most important.

If you can start just one thing which will make your life that much better, I'd recommend a journal. I've kept one for 15 years now (though as a habit it's only the last 5 years where I've become much better at it being a tool for reflection, tracking, and planning rather than a container to pour my angst into). Journalling ends up both being a record of your life which is useful to reflect on and see how you've grown, but also a private place to think about how it's going and reflect on how you want it to be going. You can easily fold other habits like gratitude into its pages.

A key thing is that the journal must be easy to search, browse, and reflect upon. Just writing something cathartically and then burying it forever doesn't work. You need to go back and review it - or find things that make you curious (what did I think when I met them?). And if you use a digital one, make sure it is portable so you can switch apps easily and maintain continuity as technology changes (this becomes a much bigger issues than you think over years). For the longest time, I used I used a long hand journal for the longest time (until I discovered someone reading mine, so do think about something you can encrypt/secure.), where I switched to something digital and supporting encryption.

Currently, I'm using Day One though I think it has a lot of shortfalls and the newer versions are worse (imho) than the original (which allowed you to use Dropbox and saved files in a portable text formats and was a one of payment rather than subscription.). I'm still not convinced its superior now to using org-journal in emacs if I could just add in a photo feature and it had an iOS app.) and sadly, I think the only reason I keep using it is because of the iOS client (which I find I use rarely anyway), pictures view, and the fact it does nice things like record my location and the weather automagically.

Other good choices over the years have been the command line app jrnl (though its search capabilities leave much to be desired), org-journal in emacs which ends up working surprisingly well for me, and a long way in the past, the venerable MacJournal. I also, back in the day hacked together a set of rake scripts to do much the same in simple markdown files with yaml frontmatter, which tbh, worked a lot better than I like to admit.

Logging and Note taking

I log explicitly separate from journalling which may be a bit unusual.

Journalling is for long hand thought and reflection, logging is more for quick summaries, meeting notes, and actions to transfer to my GTD system. I guess also, logging feels like something where I separate work out from my personal thoughts which are handled in the journal. That may simply have something to do with separating out contexts, but that seems to work for me though I freely admit it would be better if I put everything in org-journal.

I use Deft in emacs (a Notational Velocity implementation that allows very fast capture and/or search) to take text based notes all the time.

You can use anything here, but the key thing is it needs to allow you to rapidly capture, browse, filter, and editing notes. I've seen people use Evernote, OneNote, Notes, Notion, and a bevy of other apps here, though I prefer using Deft due to the fact I separate out each day's logging via a file named yyyy-mm-dd.org and is in a plain text format which works well for me with other power tools.

The way I have this work is that, in emacs, o create an org-journal new daily entry via an CTRL-j hotkey each day. I then have a "log" template linked to my snippets in Alfred I hotkey-paste into the org-journal file and fill it in every day. As it's in a directory Deft knows about, it's easily searchable via a CMD-d and some typing.

So far, I'm surprisingly great at the recording part, but have yet to put the processor together to see how I track on things. It is also good for note taking on things though which is the important thing since it's also so easily searchable. In addition to the yyyy-mm-dd.org file, I keep a long-running file for each direct report I have where I record (and link things like their 1:1 meetings and such from the day file when we have them), and then separate files for things I'm working on like charters, communiqués etc. I find it works a lot better for me than throwing things into Google docs all the time though obviously not as good for collaboration as those things (I desperately searched for a way to be able to push/pull from the Google Docs API for this, but to no avail.) Shockingly, this system works great though. I cycle the daily files every year just to keep the system fast and because I rarely find I'm going back past the start of the year to look at things.

Also, unusually (and reasonably new) I use org-mode formatted documents instead of straight up markdown. Org-mode has some slight hierarchical advantages to markdown, in particular, emacs org-mode docs allow the ability to quickly fold and unfold sections which makes things ridiculously fast for me to manipulate and navigate the doc. YMMV. Use whatever works for you, though I am a big believer in using plain text documents to get things done (Bear is also an excellent alternative though I find it not as versatile and after experimenting with it, mostly use it now as a note taking app on the iPhone and then transfer things into emacs when back at my laptop.).

Habit and Systems Tracking

I massively simplified this some time back after failing with a number of iOS habit trackers (Way of Life etc). I also used org-mode's org-habit feature after experimenting with org-agenda, which is very impressive actually, but did not work as well as my current GTD system.

Currently, I'm using the excellent and dead simple command line tracker called habitctl which you can use in terminal (and super handy if you're the type of person who has terminal always like a developer, data scientist, devps, sysadmin etc.). I like it because of its simplicity, the fact it records everything in plain text files (very portable and amenable to analysis - cuz, I'm a data scientist) and gives a unambiguous graph of long time showing how things have been going with my habits. This works for me way better than I thought it would and versus more complex apps though it lacks a way to handle things via a mobile app and there are a few features missing I'd love (skips, bad habits, ability to specify habits like "once a month" rather than 30 days etc). habitctl is Rust based so you need a working Rust environment on your computer to install, but if you've ever compiled a program and are comfy on the command line, you'll be just fine (I've put in an Github Issue to ask for brew and apt packages.)

GTD app

A productivity and GTD (Getting Things Done) app is critical. Number one fail I see for most people: Do not use your email inbox (or god help you, Slack) as a TODO tracker. It is death. A critical good habit you need is to get things out of your inbox, notebook, notes and centralize them into some sort of GTD Inbox you can process, prioritize, do, and cross-off.

I've written a few too many words about my Taskpaper system already, but the weird thing is I keep coming back to it despite trying other things. It also (with Alfred's help) gives me ubiquitous task capture, allows me to quickly filter and prioritize (or re-prioritize) tasks in context, and let's me know how I should run my days and weeks (as well as track direct report tasks). As a bonus, it's also simply a text file which makes it ridiculously portable and future proof (and also lets you know what you get done week to week - at least in my system).

Other people use Things, OmniFocus, or Notion (I used org-agenda for a while too if you like emacs and text files. It's very good in its own right.). Use what works for you, just use something and stick to a productivity system you can master and makes you effective. If you haven't, I highly recommend reading David Allen's classic Getting Things Done. Don't worry about implementing the whole system. Take what you can from it, and incrementally improve on where you are. Productivity improvements compound more than anything else over time.

Minimize Distractions

It's called the "Attention Economy" for a reason. An entire world of monetizable clicks and advertising exists to try to distract and sell you something. You need to fight back if you want to actually focus.

Your Phone

The iPhone revolutionized the world, but smartphones are attention and focus killers undisciplined. Archaeologists years from now will look back and marvel how we squandered our time staring at teeny screens.

These have worked really well for me. Use what you can.

  1. Turn off phone notifications.
    Turn them all off. And then, selectively, miserly... turn back on only the ones which need to actually alert you of something. Especially keep off notifications for mail, social media, and other social apps. Most notifications are not notifying you of anything useful, they're vying for your attention to engage with them.
  2. Turn your ringer off.
    Set your ringer to silent so it will buzz rather than ring (this also has the nice side effect of being much less stressful when it does goes off.). I have this down to such an exercise now that only recruiters or telemarketers call me on the phone which makes for a calmer life.
  3. Rest your phone face down
    When in meetings, lunches, and anywhere where your attention is needed, put your phone face down wherever you rest it. This alone makes people feel you are more present and if you can't see the screen lighting up you are much more present.
  4. Use the DND (Do Not Disturb) settings
    from between 9 pm and 8am. You'll sleep better (most phone OSes have emergency override settings such as allowing favourites through if you have parents, kids, dramatic friends etc.)
  5. Use the DNC registry
    If your country has a "Do Not Call" registry, get yourself added to it pronto. You might have one and not know about it. Doing this has cut down on roughly 90% of robo and telemarketing calls. If you do get a telemarketing call, cut them off and ask how they are calling you since you are on the DNC registry. They are likely rogue or a scam and will hang up pronto if you press it.
  6. Train people to get you on messaging (or sms) for things that are urgent
    Make sure they understand the meaning of the word urgent (Training other people is much, much harder than training yourself, as a side note.)
  7. Limit your interaction with social media to specific times.
    I find Slack and WhatsApp bad for being time vampires workwise. Slack is terrible for being high noise, low signal, and is expected to require immediate attention all the time and synchronous, and personally, I find it breaks everything about my systems (I actually had someone complain once about me not noticing a link in an 82 item exchange in a subthread on which I was not tagged. No joke.). Obviously, my "one inbox" productivity system breaks when I have 112 inboxes, all requiring instant attention and focus. I also wish WhatsApp was not tied to my phone number or had a personal, work, and quarantine feature for people pinging you out of the blue.

Sort of a bonus tip, because I find it ends up setting the tone for the day in terms of how you interact with your phone: First thing in the morning when you turn off your phone alarm or first thing when you get into work, *do not look at your email, Slack or Social Media.* If you feel the urge to do this try and break the habit. If you have trouble with this, consider getting a separate alarm clock so when you turn it off you're not tempted to look at your phone.

Mail

It's still hard to stay focused even on your desktop, even with a quiet phone. Mail and SLack are generally the worst offenders, but there's a bunch of things you can do to make sure you stay focused.

  1. Turn off notifications
    Much like the phone, turn off virtually all notifications. Turn off mail and instant messaging notifications so you're not looking as soon as new messages come in. Trust me, 95% of them can wait till you decide to get to them.
  2. Set polling to a longer time interval or manual
    Set mail poll times if you use an app to something like every hour, twice a day, or better yet, manually, so you are dealing with and processing new mail on your own terms rather than when it randomly lands in your inbox.
  3. Do not send mail out of hours or on weekends
    Do not send email to your staff or colleagues on the weekend or out of hours. I find this is a death spiral (especially if you're in charge or a boss). You set the expectation that sending and responding to email out of hours is the norm and suddenly everyone is working weekends and after work (and yes, I have been guilty of this myself which is why I mentioned it.). Use tools that allow send later or bulk draft everything and then send out in the morning during regular work hours.
  4. Use your mail in the browser
    If you can, do not use specialized mail apps. If the email system you use has a good web browser version, and supports keyboard shortcuts (like gmail), use a browser tab instead pinned to the left side of your browser. Being able to close that for focus is not just good for you, but surprisingly cathartic and therapeutic.
  5. Three things on your Inbox

    1. Schedule mail time
      Schedule time to process your email Inbox a la GTD. Ignore your mail at other times and resist the temptation to look at it whenever you sow down on your existing system.
    2. Use an email system and keep your inbox at zero
      I use a modified "holy trio" system for mail so your inbox is as near as at zero as you can manage it.
    3. Get a separate GTD app and extract Todo items out of your mail
      Do not use your email inbox as a todo list. Use what works for you, I have a specific system using Taskpaper I like, but Things and OmniFocus are also popular choices on OSX. If you can hot key adding a new task and linking the mail together in the GTD app, that's a nice feature you should abuse.
  6. Use keyboard shortcuts
    Most mail clients have keyboard shortcuts. Gmail, even in the browser version, has a bunch of shortcuts that will make mail processing noticeably faster once you have finger muscle memory trained

Browsing

The internet is a den of pretty, pretty distractions. You could rabbit-hole forever chasing linked pages or clicking on email newsletters' links. If your job or proclivities have you doing a lot of "research" online or going through technical email newsletters with links, you need a way to manage all the reading in a time-boxed and purposeful way. I use a capture and collect system so I don't feel I'm losing something and have something to process when I do have time to slam through a lot of reading.

  1. One Tab extension
    I use this on Firefox, but this has been superb for avoiding tab clutter, making me feel like I am not losing anything, and giving me a way to come back to items later when I have time (as well as improving browser performance). It takes all your open tabs that aren't pinned and saves them in a list noted by date. So useful. It also auto removes them as you click on them and open tabs again which helps you as a second reading List. Love it. I pin the tab for right after mail. Great extension.
  2. Pocket
    More in a "to read later" thing and when not at the laptop, I've started using Pocket as a collect system as well. I'll open an article, tag it as 2read and then get kill it on my mobile browser or in firefox to get back to what I was doing. So far, this is not working as seamlessly as OneTab as a system but I also like the idea I can tag things and the premium version of Pocket (which I subscribe to) also allows full page saves of the content which is super handy as a "junk drawer" system to replace tools I've used in the past like Evernote or Bear for this.
  3. Reading List mode
    If you do use Safari on OSX I highly recommend "Reading List" mode. Very underappreciated feature. My big beef was that I had problems getting back to the Reading List and processing it for some reason, so it became a sort of ersatz bookmarking system which worked less well. It's a very nice feature though and could work for you if you're on Safari (Pocket also works on Safari).

Desktop productivity

  1. Learn to use Keyboard shortcuts.
    I have to admit, I resisted this one for a long time (and still sometimes fall from grace) but this will actually make you a lot faster as muscle memory kicks in. ⌘-TAB (or CTRL-TAB on PCs) for fast switching applications is your friend. If you use Alfred o OSX,find ways to set a bunch of common tasks to Workflows so you can ⌘-SPACE a number of things (my Taskpaper Inbox captures work this way). In emacs, I have CTRL-d set to bring up my Notational Velocity clone, Deft (I actually think Deft is a better reason to use emacs than org-agenda) and CTRL-j set up to hotkey my daily log and journal entry in org-journal. In the Gmail web client, knowing how to use the keyboard shortcuts there will make you much quicker when processing mail (especially if you use the holy trio system I mentioned.).
  2. Use a GTD system and app.
    I've written about the mail and GTD system I use to remain productive. This works by having one place everything goes in, gets processed, and then uses a 4D system a la David Allen's classic "Getting Things Done.". It's not enough to have an app. You need a system to go along with it or you will fall of the wagon at some point and fail. Systems trump goals, good intentions, and apps.
  3. Use a ubiquitous Capture and Process system.
    This is something totally under-rated that more people should do (and again, stolen from GTD guru David Allen) Stuff always comes up. Or, when you do get distracted mentally, a distraction walks up to your desk, you want to make sure you can get something out of your head, deal with it later, and make sure it is not taking up valuable mental cycles and cognitive load. I have three things I use for this.

    1. Alfred's Taskpaper Workflow
      I'm a big fan of Alfred in general, but some of the community developed Workflows just make you better. I hacked one someone had built so that I can simply ⌘-Space and type todo Write a blog post on information diet, focus, and productivity hit return and it gets sent to my Inbox in Taskpaper for later processing.
    2. Emacs Deft mode
      There are lots of things that work here. The important thing is to be fast to capture, and fast to find. I can switch over to emacs via hotkey, CTRL-d for a topical note (someone's buffer, information I've stored etc) or my daily log for notes on whatever is going on, filter to the info I want (or start a new note), and be typing quicker than almost anything. It is fast, super efficient, and keeps things at my fingertips and organized. Sure, emacs is scary to get started with, but I'm a big fan.
    3. On my phone strangely, I'm still looking for a good way to do this. While there is a Taskpaper app called Taskmator, I find it doesn't do so well with my "everything in one file" system (the file is on Dropbox) I have. And, what I really want is just something to handle ubiquitous todo and note capture, send it to my Inbox or Deft and not cause a sync conflict in Dropbox. Anyone who has a better idea or suggestion here than me programming an iOS app (which I may do), please let me know. Right now, I use an Inbox note pinned in Bear and then just transfer things over manually.

Defensive Calendaring and Deep Work Days

Taken almost wholesale from Cal Newport's book Deep Work, the idea here is simple: carve off an entire day with no meetings and dedicated only to purposeful work with no distractions.

Scarily, at my current workplace, this has now become the single day I seem to get any real work done during the week (Wednesday, btw). This was a game changer for me as my department pushed above 100 people and I did not have immediately enough Heads to delegate to safely. Simply block off your calendar for that day. Guard it zealously. Do not let people book into it no matter what the temptation and except in extreme and dire emergencies.

I've also started bracketing my working hours. I have a:

  1. "Write and Commute" block in the morning before work starts,
  2. a proper "Lunch+Read" hour marked in (where I leave the office to lunch outside and read books) marked in,
  3. a "Shutdown ritual", a
  4. and clearly marked time after work for "Gym" time.

While that sort of sets the habit for work and making sure I prioritize and people can't steal that time, I also schedule in "TIL" (Today I Learned) night every Monday evening (which has worked better than any other weekday. YMMV.) for hacking, coding, learning new computer or data science skills, technologies or hacking on personal projects that involve tech.

My biggest issue on using calendar block-offs are people scheduling meetings over already booked time (and often cannot even use the excuse of needing to coordinate multiple peoples' at once). I now just refuse them and ask people to find an open slot in my calendar (or propose a new time in GCal.).

Another suggestion is to move your calendar setting to show Free/Buy and not the actual meetings. For the longest time have I kept my calendar public in the interests of transparency, but I started realizing people were ignoring block-offs and scheduling over existing meetings they felt were less important than theirs, during my lunchtime, or after work and then pressing me on how important "their meetings" were. So, now I keep the default setting private. This almost instantly fixed the problem with people doing that.

A Quality Information Diet

Limiting the information tools which steal focus and attention is insufficient. You need to also make sure the information you do consume is nutritious and worth the attention you're giving it (though we all need some mental candy once in a while. Be selective is all I'm saying.). Try to make sure what does have your attention is high quality and nourishing or you've purposefully chosen to let your mind go akimbo.

  1. Stop watching network TV news
    Just stop. It's mostly driven by sensationalism and keeping your attention rather than informing you, so try to go for high-quality, in-depth information sources you can control interaction with. For me, that ends up being digital subscriptions to the New York Times and The Economist. Newsletters I subscribe to often link to the WSJ, Guardian, New Yorker, Atlantic or Medium (though Medium is a dice roll), but overall I feel very well informed, and more informed on the story behind the story on most major issues than the vast majority of my peers when I combine this with the reading I do (though, to be fair, I would probably lose most pub trivia nights if a celebrity or sports category came up.).
  2. Netflix wisely
    If you do use Netflix and enjoy it, change the settings so it does not autoplay next episodes. I have a terrible habit of having Netflix on in the background while I work so the house is not too quiet, and it subtly steals attention while also not necessarily being completely unproductive (which makes it the more insidious.). Turning off the "Autoplay next episode" was actually interesting since if I was working on something I would generally take a long while before I broke and played the next episode. Also, let's face it, a lot of Netflix is crap despite the fact there is some great stuff on there (better than most blockbuster movies these days.). Be deliberate and try to guard your attention.
  3. Unsubscribe
    If you're in tech you're probably subscribed to a lot of newsletters. Unsubscribe from all but 3 tech newsletters. Got for depth and diversity. Ruthlessly cut ones which aren't that useful, you note you don't read very often, or simply link collections that aren't rigorously curated (a good idea is to track which ones you actually read)..
  4. Schedule reading time for industry reading
    If you run across something in your travels and browsing, add it to Pocket in a 2read tag and get back to what you were doing (and from above, OneTab or Reading List mode is also a great alternative to this as well.)
  5. Delete Facebook
    Seriously, you will feel better. I do not notice its absence at all. I avoided doing this for a long time because I believed there were people I know, who change phone numbers irregularly or who don't use email who I thought I'd fall out of touch with. I realized that those people could easily get in touch with me if they wanted (I'm rather easy to find on the internet), and that if I needed to depend on Facebook to convince myself there was a link between us, there probably wasn't. To be honest, I feel like getting rid of FB (and I didn't even use it that much in last 5 years) ended up being a net benefit to my life. I highly recommend it. I'd also recommend doing the same to Instagram (I still keep twitter around, but realize that has become much more of a "tell people what I'm doing" thing than even looking through tweets anymore.)
  6. Schedule reading time. Keep a Reading List
    Schedule time for serious reading and curate a reading list of books you want to enqueue and get through. I developed this into the following habit: I leave my office with my Kindle at lunch hour and go read for an hour. That, plane rides, people being late for meetings or dinners (I always carry my Kindle Oasis), and a sometimes lazy day on the weekend allowed me to complete 40 books in 2018 and 48 in 2017.
  7. RSS/Atom Feed Reader
    While it's not considered cool anymore (and numbers of sites have deprecated atom and rss), the fact is that this is a great async way to poll articles from places that would otherwise send you newsletters, and shred through them in a focused, disciplined way. I use a fast, stripped down terminal rss reader called newsboat which lets me rip through newsfeeds and focus on extracting useful info. I process, tag in Pocket, and then move on.

Those are most of the core wins that have allowed me to carve out lots of "extra time" that I adds up to more time working out, writing, reading, have meals with friends, and well, lead a more robust productive life. For some reason, it also does great things for your self-esteem when you're getting things done. Switching around my habit tracking into things that were actually going to make a difference in my life at the top of the year has actually made me feel like I have my crap together.

As with all things in life, your mileage may vary.

Start with subtracting first (notifications, alerts, network news), then add things in. Some of these are much harder than others. Cutting network news out, deleting facebook, or turning off all notifications or mail polling is vastly easier than implementing Inbox Zero or a new GTD system. So, try to subtract two things and then add in one new thing. I built all these slowly over time which helps make them seem more impressive when presented all at once, but they were all added incrementally to get to the point where they are now (and hey, sometimes I fall off the wagon with most of them. No one is perfect. Be gentle on yourself when at least one of these will inevitably fail, brush yourself off, and try again.). Once you develop a lot of these as a habit and infuse them into your identity (hey, I'm a writer, an athlete, a builder of useful, clever things) they become ingrained.

Good luck! I hope any one of these things helps (and I'd love to hear back via @mention on twitter @awws or via my blog mail address if they do.).