You’re only as productive as your system allows you to be
Almost a year ago, I “set out” on my productivity journey. Along the way, I encountered a variety of seemingly arcane acronyms—like GTD, PPV, and PARA—and even learned a little German along the way. (For those wondering, Zettelkasten means “note box”.)
What I failed to realize at the time was that I didn’t actually know what I was looking for. I conflated the purposes of the systems I came across, and I tried to integrate each one into my life until I was met with friction. It didn’t help that I was experimenting with different platforms and technologies, such as Obsidian and Notion, to implement these systems in a way that worked for my life. And finding insight online was difficult at best, given that much of the information was either disparate or contradictory.
It was only recently that I stopped looking for the perfect system—instead, cobbling together pieces of the different systems I had tried in order to build something that worked for my specific needs. But it took a lot of trial and error on my part to truly understand what the essence of each system is.
When I refer to a system, I’m referring to a group of organizing principles, activities, and associated technologies that comprise a framework meant to achieve a particular goal. These goals might include:
- Task management: tracking, managing, prioritizing, and executing a series of to-dos
- Project management: tracking, managing, prioritizing, and executing a collection of to-dos that work towards a particular goal
- Personal knowledge management (PKM): gathering, classifying, storing, searching for, retrieving, and sharing or activating acquired knowledge (i.e. from books, articles, podcasts, etc.)
- Notetaking: capturing information from a variety of sources
- Digital file management: tracking and managing digital files in such a way that they’re easy to retrieve when needed
- Habit tracking: tracking and maintaining the activities that you’re trying to habitualize
- Life management: tracking, managing, prioritizing, and managing all aspects of your life (i.e. includes everything from PKM to task management)
With these goals in mind, let’s take a look at the use cases and supporting technologies for some common systems.
Getting Things Done (GTD) — Task and Project Management
Developed by American productivity consultant David Allen, GTD is a “personal productivity methodology that redefines how you approach your life and work.” Allen’s methodology consists of five steps:
- Capture: “Write, record, or gather any and everything that has your attention into a collection tool.”
- Clarify: “Is it actionable? If so, decide the next action and project (if more than one action is required). If not, decide if it is trash, reference, or something to put on hold.”
- Organize: “Park reminders of your categorized content in appropriate places.”
- Reflect: “Update and review all pertinent system contents to regain control and focus.”
- Engage: “Use your trusted system to make action decisions with confidence and clarity.”
The beauty of this system is that nothing is ever missed. From random shower thoughts and conversations with friends to client meetings and work emails, GTD funnels all incoming information (e.g. events, to-dos, ideas, book recommendations) from different sources so you don’t miss anything. This takes the cognitive load off of you for remembering everything and makes it easier for executing what you need to do.
Platforms to Try
Zettelkasten — PKM and Notetaking
Pioneered by German sociologist Niklas Luhman, Zettelkasten is an emergent system of notetaking and personal knowledge management that helps you capture, organize, and link information. Notes within this system fall under one of three categories:
- Fleeting notes: Fleeting notes capture the raw information you encounter throughout the day, like something memorable you hear on a podcast, a random idea you have while walking your dog, or quotes from an article. These notes are meant to be temporary, and are either transformed into permanent notes or discarded.
- Literature notes: Literature notes are create from a specific source, like a book or web article. These notes are the ideas of an author/creator written in your own words. Writing notes in your own words ensures you understand the content.
- Permanent notes: Permanent (or evergreen) notes are often a single sentence or idea derived from a fleeting note or literature note. Over time, you link different permanent notes together, making it easy to see the relationships between different ideas. Because the notes express discrete ideas that you’ve come up with, they are modular, allowing you to reuse them across content that you might be writing.
Zettelkasten is undoubtedly a complex system, and many people have their own variations on it. It’s value becomes apparent when you’re working with a large volume of information, like in academia.
Platforms to Try
The PARA Method — Digital File Management and Project Management
Developed by YouTuber Tiago Forte, PARA—or Projects, Areas, Resources, Archives—is a method for organizing digital information across all of your devices and platforms. Having all of your files grouped into these four categories makes it easy to retrieve the information you need, whenever are wherever you need it.
Let’s take a look at each of the categories:
- Project: “A series of tasks linked to a goal, with a deadline.” These are projects that you are currently working on now (e.g. a report for work, a podcast episode, kitchen renovation, saving up for a vacation, etc.).
- Areas of Responsibility: “A sphere of activity with a standard to be maintained over time.” These are areas of your life where projects often originate (e.g. work, personal blog, parenting, travel, finances, etc.). Areas of Responsibility can become Resources if they are no longer immediately relevant to your current life. Items in the Areas of Responsibility can also be added to a Project folder until the project is complete.
- Resource: “A topic of theme of ongoing interest.” These are areas of your life that are of interest to you, but don’t have tasks or projects associated with them (e.g. video games, books, cooking, cryptocurrency, etc.). Resources can become Areas of Responsibility if they become immediately relevant to your current life. Items in Resources can also be added to a Project folder until the project is complete.
- Archives: “Inactive items from the other 3 categories.” Once you’re finished with a project, or if an area or resource is no longer relevant, you move it to the Archives. Items in the Archives can always be moved elsewhere if and when they become relevant to you again.
The PARA method is built to be platform-agnostic, which accounts for the fact that everyone uses a variety of different platforms for different purposes. With PARA, you’re supposed to replicate the same folder structure across all platforms. This means your email inbox, Google Drive, laptop file system, task manager, and all other digital platforms will have a folders or groupings for Projects, Areas, Resources folder, and Archives.
Platforms to Try
- Google Drive — cloud storage
- Spark — email client
- Things 3 — task manager
- DEVONthink — digital file manager
The PPV Method — Life Management
August Bradley has often referred to his PPV—Pillars, Pipelines, and Vaults—method as a LifeOS. His system is a catch-all methodology for managing all aspects of your life, from project management and notetaking to habit tracking and goal-setting. Like Zettelkasten, PPV is complex and has a steep learning curve. But once you have the foundations in place and understand the system, you can “[identify] your true priorities, [align] your life aspirations with daily actions, [activate] massive focus, [break] old habits, and [build] growth feedback loops.”
Bradley’s system is built around the features and capabilities of Notion, leveraging the power of the platforms relational databases to create a dynamic and integrated system. While there are many foundational elements that comprise the method, these are the three main ones:
- Pillars: Pillars are elements that sustain and define our life (e.g. work, family, personal growth). Ideally, everything that we do should be in service of one of our Pillars.
- Pipelines: These are the sub-systems that connect all necessarily elements to our pillars. Pipelines are the goals, projects, and tasks that support our Pillars.
- Vaults: Vaults are where we collect information and consolidate knowledge to help us execute the Pipeline elements.
Platforms to Try
- Notion (NB: given PPV’s reliance on Notion’s features and capabilities, this is the recommended platform)
- AnyType (not out yet)
The productivity field is a tricky one to navigate—there really is no one-size-fits-all method. My best suggestion is to explore as many different systems as you can, and experiment with different pairings of technologies. And if you decide to commit to a particular system, keep an open mind. There’s no reason why you can’t take the PPV method and pair it with GTD. The end goal is to make yourself more productive, so you shouldn’t let the limitations of one system or platform restrict you.
If you’re looking for more purpose-technology pairings, try these: