How I Get Things Done, Personally and Professionally

I get a lot of somewhat irregular reader questions like this:

What do you use to manage your to-do lists? Are you still using Todoist?

And this:

How do you use a pocket notebook? Do you use it for article ideas or something?

And this:

Not really understanding how you find time for hobbies on the weekend with all of the other things you claim you’re doing.

These questions are all really asking the same thing: How exactly do I get things done, personally and professionally?

Here’s what my life looks like:
+ I have a full time writing job that requires me to write 20K-25K words per week and at least lightly edit most of them, among other responsibilities. I’m also trying to squeeze in writing a book on top of that.
+ I have a wife and thus a marriage that needs attention and care.
+ I have three children of varying ages from “early teen” to “early elementary,” which means constant things like food prep, getting kids to practice, solving lots of small problems, and so on.
+ I want to keep my body physically healthy, at least to the best of my ability. That means things like sleep and exercise.
+ I want to keep my mind healthy, too.
+ I have a handful of community responsibilities that wax and wane depending on what committees and boards I happen to be on at the moment.
+ I have a house in which a family of five lives that requires constant upkeep.
+ I want to maintain some kind of social life, some kind of intellectual life, and some hobbies.

I’m juggling all of this without cease, and that doesn’t even include things like worrying about my aging parents. How do I juggle all of this without failing in some areas or just wearing myself out or simply falling back on a lot of paid services to take care of details like laundry?

This article describes how I get things done now. This has changed a lot over the years, but this is the arrangement that seems to allot me the best performance at all of those things.

Let’s start with the single most important thing.

I’ve Dredged Everything That Isn’t Purposeful Out of My Life

This doesn’t mean I have dredged everything enjoyable or everything fun out of my life. It means that I’ve removed everything that isn’t helping me achieve at least one thing on that list in a meaningful way.

My leisure time (and at least some of my intellectual time) center around three or four primary hobbies: reading, playing board games, hiking, and making foodstuffs. Notice the things that are not on that list.

Television isn’t on that list – I basically don’t watch television unless I’m engaged in family time (family movie night) or something similar.

Idle web browsing isn’t on that list – I don’t open up a web browser or a social media app without a distinct and specific professional or social or leisure-related purpose.

If I’m in a position where I’m tempted to idly watch television or play a smartphone game (that isn’t side-by-side with one of my kids) or idly surf social media or another website, then it’s a sign that I either need real rest (so I go take a nap) or that I’m trying to fill a small time gap (like five or 10 minutes).

That doesn’t mean I don’t see value in idling or clearing my mind – I do, and I’ll get back to how I do that in a bit. It’s just that many of the time-wasters of modern life just don’t help me live the life I want to have, so I consciously keep myself away from them.

This frees up incredible amounts of time. I used to spend lots of time watching television or surfing the web and over the last several years, I’ve basically cut that out of my life. It feels like I have an abundance of time compared to what I used to have. I consider this the single most valuable “hack” I use in terms of getting things done – I simply cut out the idle distractions.

If I catch myself falling into an idle moment, I try to notice it and then I turn to my “quick to-do” list.

But before I get to my “quick to-do” list, I wanted to talk a little bit about how I keep track of the bigger tasks in my life.

Managing Things To Be Done

I’m a big believer in getting as much out of my head as possible so I can focus on whatever I’m doing at the moment. Thus, I try, as much as I can, to write down everything I need to remember or need to be doing in some kind of trusted system.

For me, that trusted system is Omnifocus, at least for managing tasks. It contains everything I either need to do or want to do in the future.

Omnifocus is a very … deep to-do list manager. It handles lots of to-do lists at once, and it lets you add tags to items on those to-do lists so that you can pull out specialized views of those tagged items no matter what list they’re on. There are a lot of things you can do with it.

Within Omnifocus, I dump new things I need to do into my “inbox,” which is where I dump general tasks that need to be done or considered soon. Several times a day, I empty out that “inbox,” which means I either do the task (if it’s quick) or I put it somewhere else where it makes sense (like my “quick to-do” list, which I’ll discuss in a minute, or in a list related to a particular project of some kind).

Other than the “quick to-dos” and some specific checklists (another thing I’ll mention in a bit), I try not to be too “granular” with what I put in Omnifocus. The vast majority of things in Omnifocus are on the level of taking at least an hour to complete. For example, my entire process for writing an article is one item in Omnifocus. Doing a research session at the library is one item in Omnifocus. Meal prepping a bunch of meals for the week is one item in Omnifocus. I group them in projects that are either named after the general area of my life – like “Work,” “Marriage,” “Household,” and so on – or after a specific large project – like “Book #3.”

If I feel I ever need to break out one of those big items into smaller pieces, I’ll just stop and do that, adding the smaller items to the list where they belong. Often, this is me breaking off the first piece of a big task and putting it on my “quick to-do” list.

Speaking of which…

The “Quick To-Do” List

I keep a list of things that I need to do in my personal and professional life – I don’t really put in a boundary between the two – that take 10 minutes or less.

As I noted above, I manage this list in Omnifocus. I put items on it without any due dates into the projects where they make sense – “Household,” “Work,” “Parenting,” whatever – and tag the tasks with a “10min” tag. Then, I have a perspective set up that allows me to see just those tasks. (Omnifocus is my preferred task manager, as mentioned earlier; here’s how to set up custom perspectives in Omnifocus.)

So, if I have something I need to do that will just take five minutes or so, like ordering a birthday gift for my son or putting chili ingredients in the crock pot or washing martial arts uniforms, I just add it to my “quick to-do” list. Then, when I have a narrow window of time, like when I’m waiting on something or I need a short break from a more complex task, I look at that “quick to-do” list, grab something off of it, and do it.

One item that always remains at the top of my “quick to-do list” is to “process my pocket notebook.” I keep a pocket notebook with me at all times and whenever I have an idea of any kind or want to jot down someone’s contact information or I think of something I need to do, I just write it down there. Then, when I “process” it, I just go through those items, put them where they should be (or take action on them), and cross them out in my notebook.

For me, that little switch – glancing at my “quick to-do” list and just doing something that’s on there – has replaced things like idle web surfing or smartphone games.

What if that “quick to-do” list is empty? That basically never happens, but if it is empty, I’ll just read a novel for 10 minutes in the Kindle app on my phone. I legitimately cannot remember the last time that happened, though.

So, how do I handle the bigger tasks of the day and still find time for leisure and social activities?

Time Blocking

The most effective strategy I’ve found for making sure I have time for everything is what I call “time blocking.” Simply put, it means that I mark off significant blocks of contiguous time – at least an hour, but often several hours – to devote to specific activities in my life.

For example, my time blocks for today look like this:
5 AM – 7 AM – Morning Routine
7 AM – 8 AM – Family Time
8 AM – 3 PM – Work
3 PM – 4 PM – Family Time
4 PM – 8 PM – Evening Routine
8 PM – 9 PM – Catch-Up and Review
9 PM – 10 PM – Marital Time
10 PM – Sleep

This Sunday, my time looks like this:
5:30 AM – 7:30 AM – Morning Routine
7:30 AM – 8 AM – Weekly Review
8 AM – 11 AM – Family Time
11 AM – 2 PM – Household Time
2 PM – 5 PM – Family Time
5 PM – 9 PM – Leisure Time (community board game night)
9 PM – 10 PM – Marital Time
10 PM – Sleep

Those different blocks have different meanings.

My morning routine is a sequence of things I do to get ready for the day ahead. I’ll talk about that more in a bit.

Family time means I’m spending focused time on family members, usually my children. This will include things like helping kids with homework, encouraging everyone to have a bit of chill time after school where we sit down and read a book, going to a soccer game, taking a kid to practice, and so on.

Marital time involves time spent just with Sarah, usually after the kids are in bed. We’ll watch a television show together or read together while cuddled up or play a board game or do something romantic. During the school year, this ends up being work time about twice a week, but we do it in the same room, often sitting close to each other. I usually brainstorm ideas during that time.

My evening routine varies a lot from day to day, but it usually involves making dinner, cleaning up from dinner, reviewing the day, making sure family members are at their various activities and picked up, and so on. I often fit in a lot of those “10min” tasks mentioned earlier in this timeframe.

Leisure time is time set aside for my own intellectual growth and hobbies. I usually have two brief evening blocks for this during the week and a couple of longer blocks most weekends, though it’s sometimes supplanted by or overlaps with social time.

Household time means – you guessed it – cleaning house and doing minor household repairs. I’ll clean the kitchen or do dishes or change the bedsheets or fix a leaky faucet or something like that. I usually keep important but not vitally urgent household tasks on a checklist and burn through that checklist during household time.

I keep all of this straight using Google Calendar and Due. Google Calendar actually holds my full schedule with all of these blocks and my various appointments, which overlap the blocks of time.

However, Due fills a very interesting role for me. It gives me gentle reminders that a block of time is winding up or that I should be thinking about something specific.

Part of the goal of a long block of time, particularly for work, is that I want to fall into a flow state, which is both super-productive and feels really good. However, I don’t usually want to persist in that flow state outside of my time blocks, so I nudge myself out of them near the end of the time block so I can wrap up whatever it is I’m doing. I have Due give me a gentle chime about 10 minutes before a block of time is finished, and that bypasses my “do not disturb” settings that I often set up, especially during work blocks.

You’ll probably notice “weekly review” as one of my Sunday items, so let’s talk about weekly reviews a little bit. A weekly review is one where I go through everything in my main organizational tools to make sure everything there still makes sense, set up what I think my time blocks will look like for the week to come, figure out my biggest goals for the coming week, and do some big picture thinking. While my time block for it is 30 minutes long, I usually wind up starting it a little earlier, so it usually gets 45 minutes to an hour. This review is essential. I rely a ton on the outcomes of this review over the following week, as it often guides a lot of what I choose to do each day for that week.

As you may have noticed, I use checklists for some things, so let’s talk about that a little bit.

Routinizing the Time Blocks

For some of my time blocks, I use a checklist so that I take care of specific things in that block. The most clear example of this is my morning routine, where I work through several things each morning during that block.

My morning routine checklist consists of:
+ Fill and drink a water bottle
+ Do 10 minutes of stretching
+ Meditate for 10-15 minutes
+ Write “three morning pages” in my journal
+ Review my Google Calendar and make sure Due matches it
+ Review my to-do list for today
+ Do about 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, which is just a calisthenics routine (planks, push-ups, etc.) along with a bunch of taekwondo movements
+ Take a shower and get dressed
+ Brush my teeth
+ Make the bed
+ Take a few vitamins
+ Set up my workspace, which means refilling my electric tea kettle, getting out a coffee mug and putting it on my desk, setting up my iPad as a second monitor on my desk, opening up the working apps I use, and resetting my morning routine checklist for tomorrow

This takes a little less than two hours. Most weekday mornings, I finish this around 6:45 AM (though sometimes making the bed waits until the end, depending on when Sarah rises). I just go through this checklist each morning. I use Omnifocus for it most of the time as I tweak it occasionally, but it’s getting so fixed that I may print it off and laminate it, using a dry erase marker as I go through it.

The reason I use such a firm checklist is because I don’t want to have to think about what I’m doing in the morning. I want to think instead about the tasks themselves rather than trying to remember which task is next.

I have a shorter “evening routine” checklist. I also have a “household time” checklist that includes several things I want to at least consider doing every time I have a block of household time, things like “look at my house and auto maintenance schedule and see if anything needs to be done.”

What About Spontaneity?

When I’ve described this system to people in the recent past, they always ask about spontaneity. “Where is the room to do something unexpected?” they ask.

Honestly, a lot of weekdays don’t give me much room for spontaneity outside of a few narrow blocks of time during the day. It’s the weekend that usually affords a lot of spontaneity.

What I’ve found is that this whole system frees up a lot of time on the weekends, letting me have giant blocks of family and leisure time, and I fill those in a very spontaneous fashion. I can wake up on Saturday morning and we can decide to go to a state park two hours away, go on a long hike there, and have a picnic lunch, and I’m not abandoning anything of importance.

The thing is, I don’t want to be spontaneous when there are things that need to get done. All that spontaneity means in those situations is that I have to come back to an even bigger pile of stuff that needs to get done as soon as possible. It gives that spontaneity an underlying taste of bitter stress that can really ruin the whole thing for me. I’d rather have my spontaneity and leisure time when my plate is mostly clean so that I don’t feel subtly stressed about what is to come.

It’s also worth noting that I’m often at least somewhat spontaneous within each of those blocks. During my working blocks, for example, if I’m struggling with writing, I’ll go for a walk.

What About Overwhelming Days?

Another aspect that people often bring up when I mention this system to them is the sense of being overwhelmed by weekdays. I’ll be the first to admit that I stuff my weekdays to the gills, but there are a few key factors that make them manageable.

First, I prioritize sleep. I aim for seven to eight hours a night during the week and more than 8 a night on the weekends. I know quite well that I operate really poorly on five or six hours of sleep; I feel alert, but I’m not productive and extremely prone to wasting time. Good sleep is the difference maker.

Second, my morning routine is all about getting me physically and mentally ready to get things done all day long. I exercise. I get hydrated. I get myself in a great mental state. I prep for my day. That preparatory time is huge. On the occasions when I dive right into the tasks of the day rather than doing those things, I get less done – substantially less – even though I have two more hours to do things.

Third, at the end of a day where I got a lot of things done, I feel incredibly great going to bed. I don’t feel that way at the end of days where I wasted time or spent a lot of time idling without purpose. I also tend to sleep really well.

Finally, by staying on top of all of the spheres of my life, I am able to pretty easily handle the unexpected. Last week, I had a car repair issue that could have really disrupted a lot of things, but because I’m largely on top of the things I need to do, I was able to handle it really easily. All of my work was available on my laptop, I didn’t have anything that was incredibly pressing that needed to get done, and so I just rolled right through it.

A Summary of My Tools and Final Thoughts

I wanted to finish up this post with a list of the tools that I used to get things done, along with a brief summary of my system.

Omnifocus is my to-do list manager. Within it, I maintain a bunch of to-do lists and checklists of various kinds. Whenever there’s something I need to do, I put it in Omnifocus. Whenever I complete a task, I check Omnifocus to see what I need to do next. For a low-cost alternative that’s pretty good, I recommend Todoist.

Google Calendar is how I maintain my actual schedule. I put in actual appointments well in advance. At the start of each week, I set up “time blocks” in Google Calendar that take into account the scheduled appointments for the week. Each day, I review the time blocks for the day ahead, adjust them a little as needed, and set up alarms and such for the end of each block.

Due is kind of a supplement to Omnifocus and Google Calendar, but I don’t use it to track tasks or scheduled events. Rather, I use it for “nudges,” meaning that it reminds me of things I should be thinking about or aware of. For example, it usually nudges me near the end of a long block of time that I should be wrapping things up, or it nudges me around the time I should start thinking about supper prep. I usually set up these “nudges” at the start of the day when I’m reviewing the things I need to do for the day and the program will “nudge” me throughout the day at appropriate times. The key is to not have them be too repetitive or else they become easy to ignore.

Evernote is where I keep track of all of the pieces of information I want to return to later. It’s kind of like an electronic filing cabinet of ideas, brainstorms, and other things like that. When I have a to-do that relates to something I know is in Evernote, I give it an “en” tag. I have been dabbling with a couple of Evernote alternatives, namely Notion and DEVONThink, but I’m sticking with Evernote mostly because of the work it would take to switch systems.

A pocket notebook and a pen travel with me everywhere I go. I usually keep it open on the desk in front of me when I’m working – in fact, it’s open in front of me right now. When I have an idea or hear something I want to remember or get someone’s contact information, it goes into my pocket notebook. Pretty much anything that I want to think about again in the future goes into that pocket notebook with enough detail jotted down so that I’ll recall what it was when I see that note. A few times a day, I go through that pocket notebook and transfer everything to one of the appropriate places above (Omnifocus, Evernote, or Google Calendar, or sometimes a combination of the three).

A quick note about contact information: if I get someone’s contact info, I usually create a note in Evernote to store everything they gave me – a picture of their business card or just text that includes their name, email, social media handles, phone number, and so forth. I also include a bit of extra info about them – who they are, what I want to remember about them, things to touch base on, and so on. I’ll often follow that person right away on social media, add their email to my email program (Gmail), and add their phone number to my phone. I usually add a task to Omnifocus to follow up with that person in the next day or two, setting a due date on that task. At that point, I cross off that new contact info in my pocket notebook.

The reality of all of these digital and analog tools is that they form an “external brain” for me. They take a lot of stuff out of my head that would ordinarily be floating around in my head – tasks to do, information about people, ideas I have, things I should be thinking about, future plans, and so on – and gets them into a trusted system. The end result of that is that when I’m actively working on a task, those things aren’t cluttering up my brain. I know they’re in a trusted system of some kind – it’s in my pocket notebook, at the very least, and if it’s more than a few hours old, it’s in Omnifocus or Google Calendar or Evernote or some social app.

That enhanced ability to focus on the task at hand, to not have to actively think about what’s next when I’m doing something, and to always have the next step at the ready at the click of a mouse enables me to blow through a lot of tasks in a day. Separating the planning and consideration of what I’m going to do from the actual doing is a revelation.

In fact, there are really only two things that your system, whatever it might be, needs to be able to do. First, you have to absolutely trust that your contains everything you need to know and everything you need to do in places where you can find it easily. The system described above is just what happens to work for me; something less (or more) complex might work better for you. I have a good friend who keeps track of everything in Google Calendar and a paper notebook. Second, it needs to enable you to separate planning from doing and turn them into separate tasks, so that you’re not working on “planning” in the back of your mind when you should be giving your full focus to “doing.” The less you’re thinking about “planning,” the more efficiently you go about “doing,” the more likely you are to slip into a flow state while you’re doing it, and the faster you get done with better quality results.

Once you’ve done this, “planning” moves to a completely separate activity, and then you find yourself “planning” at higher and higher levels. Daily planning remains important, but then you start doing weekly planning and monthly planning. You start look at the amount of time, over long periods, that you devote to certain things in your life and you begin to wonder whether you’re getting value out of it. A few hours of television on a lazy night doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if it’s a daily occurrence, that’s 100 hours a month lost in front of the television. Imagine if you made yourself get up and take care of things during those periods – you’d have 100 hours of time a month to block off for deeply meaningful leisure on the weekends. For me, that became huge motivation to do a meal prep on a weeknight instead of browsing Netflix or browsing the internet, and if I was legitimately too tired to make that choice, well, then it’s time to go to bed.

This is the recipe. This is how I manage to have a career, a good marriage, three kids, a house that needs maintenance, older parents, a decent social life, some community commitments, and still find time for big blocks of leisure on the weekends without just throwing money at problems. It comes down to getting tasks and thoughts out of my head, genuinely resting when I’m tired, doing things when I’m not, and blocking off time for things that are meaningful to me. It’s an integrated system that works.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.