Productivity : laying out the basics

I’m a productivity geek – I love looking at different methods to get things done. This is partly because I find process geeking (figuring out how things work, and how to make them work better) fun in general, but it’s also partly because I am much happier when I keep on top of it.

My job has a number of different parts. Some of my work is reactive: I am a librarian, someone asks me a question, I answer it. (But some answers take 3 minutes and some take 3 hours, and some might turn into a 3 month project.) Some of my work is ongoing projects. Some of it is other things that come up.

And then there’s my home life – I’ve got over 300 things in various lists I’d like to write some time (those are the article length things: the book-length projects aren’t broken down that far right now.) I have ritual I want to do. I have long term research projects (and some shorter-term ones.) And I’ve got all the usual household and health appointment tasks that go with being a human with a body.

Research is about the relationship we have with information, and productivity is a subset of that.

All the task lists and todos and so on are about how we interact with our world – both our intentions and our actions. Getting a handle on them makes us better researchers – and like research, while there are some general best practices, a lot of how we work best is going to be individual.

In this post, I’m going to lay out the basics of how I do things, talk about a few other options (and why they don’t work for me, but might work for you). Someone I know is trying to figure out how to make Todoist work better for them, so my next post will be some screenshots of the specifics, both over the weekend and on Monday.

Photo of fountain pen on a lined spiral bound notebook with a blank page. Text reads: "Productivity: laying out the basics"

A few notes about me:

I am actually a naturally organised person with good executive function. Except.

Oh, except.

In 2010, my health crashed badly, including what was eventually diagnosed as thyroid issues. That did a number on my ability to sequence tasks. It was really bad for about 6 months, and then not great for about another year. I’m now back – on reasonably good days – to about 90-95% of where I was before.

But on the bad days, when my head is all cotton wool, and I forget what I was working on if I’m interrupted even briefly? I really need the help.

I got along fine without a system until 2010, or at least anything beyond a Post-It note with a few things to do. But since then, I’ve really needed a structure where I can put things, find them again, and structure what I need to get done.

My health issues also come with exhaustion and stamina issues. I have structured my life so I can go to work (and the gym) and manage the basic household stuff and still have some energy and focus for writing and personal projects and just fun things, but I have to manage it pretty carefully or bad things happen.

In 2014-2015 (due to a shift in work location), I was having serious migraine issues – basically, six months of daily migraines. Mine aren’t so much about pain, as a lot of neurological glitchiness and that included having a horrible time getting back to tasks if interrupted, short term memory glitches, and a degree of dizziness and proprioception issues that lead to a couple of scary falls and a very limited range of cooking options for safety reasons.

In the middle of that, my job was cut, with six months notice. (Yay, union contract.) I’d already been job hunting, but I had to ramp it up very quickly, and because of where I was located at the time, basically every interview involved at least 6 hours of driving and travel, often more.

My system made it so I could juggle job interviews, tasks at work I was still doing (though thankfully some of the more difficult ones dropped off my list when they cut the job), and all the many tasks of relocation to another state, and not drop any pieces (at least not too badly.) That’s pretty impressive.

My system may well not work for you – you’re not me, your head doesn’t work like mine, chances are really good your set of tasks isn’t like mine. But I really encourage finding a system that does work for you. Chances are, sometime in your life, you’re going to need more help keeping things sorted, and having a system that works will make that so much easier.

These posts are going to talk about why I’ve chosen what I do, and some options that do different things, to help you find things that work for you.

My core tools

One of the things I think gets complicated for a lot of people with productivity is that we have different kinds of tasks and they require different kinds of tools.


I have an iPhone (the 5SE at the moment) which is in my pocket any time I’m not at home. I don’t use audio reminders because they drive me up a wall, so my phone is always on vibrate.

I use a Windows PC at work (with limited ability to add apps or make changes, which is why I’ve favoured web tool options) and a Mac at home. I had a hard drive failure in June, and got a new computer, so I’ve been rearranging things and doing a lot of tidying and reorganising as a result.


Todoist is my task list, and the place I put all the things I want to remember to do. (With a couple of exceptions.) I’ll be talking about how I structure my list in upcoming posts, but here are some different kinds of tasks in my lists.

  • Specific task I need to do (answer a reference question, review a file, write a blog post)
  • Things I want to do sometime (article ideas for Seeking, long-term projects, etc.)
  • Notes about things to remember (topics to discuss in my next meeting with my boss or my assistant, or mention in our next newsletter.)
  • Reminders for things on my calendar (so I remember to do them, prep for them, and can include them in the list of things I did that day).

There are lots of other approaches to task lists – I’ll be talking about bullet journaling in another post, for example. But because a lot of my task choices depend on changing circumstances or focus and energy levels, having a system where I can adjust on the fly turns out to be critical for me.

One of the paid options I use all the time is the ability to mark an email in Gmail as a Todoist task: it creates a task with a link to the email so I can click on it, open it, and answer it easily.  My basic sorting is an approach I’ve been using since January of 2017, which is based on the astrological associations of the planets. That’ll be getting its own post!

(Sometimes I intend to work on a project in the afternoon, and get a new reference question that’s going to take time. Sometimes I get home, and writing coherently is just not on the table.)


I use Google Calendar for personal things. Scheduled appointments live on my main calendar.

Here’s the thing, though – I often don’t remember to check it, and after missing an early morning appointment for a blood draw, I started putting appointments in Todoist for the day before, so I can remember to arrange my day for them better.

(I’ve set up Todoist to automatically pull new appointments on my calendar into a task.)


I’ve been trying to figure out how to arrange my day better (as part of an ongoing project to make better progress on long-term projects). In the past week or two, I’ve started using a service called Plan to do this – it lets you drag and drop tasks onto a schedule so I can figure out how I’m going to put work on a larger project in my day, or balance out different kinds of things I need to get done.

This is the newest addition, but so far I’m liking it a lot.

At work:

We’re currently using Outlook, but we’re about to transition to Gmail and the associated apps.

Since a lot of my reference work comes in by email (about 75% of it), I’m really excited about being able to add these tasks to Todoist without having to do a manual quick entry and then have to go find the email.

Tools for drafts, notes, and bookmarks:

Notes that just have to live on my computer at home (and not be accessed while I’m at work) are currently in Bear, which is a beautifully designed note app for Mac OS (it has iOS versions and syncing for a small monthly fee: I haven’t done that yet because I haven’t needed it.)

Large writing projects are in Scrivener, and that will let me sync portions to SimpleNote, so I use SimpleNote’s web access for other drafts and pieces I’m working on.

Bookmarks are in Pinboard, and my books are in Calibre (ebooks) and LibraryThing (catalog that includes the print books). I’m currently in the process of cleaning up all three of those.

I’m also using a bullet journal specifically for religious tracking and some kinds of notes.

More about all of these in future posts!

A few specific apps and a spreadsheet

I have a few things I don’t track in Todoist, and I also keep a spreadsheet of info I want to track over time. (And yes, there will be more about the spreadsheet, too.)

Here’s the quick rundown:

  • Medication reminders: I use an iOS app called Round that I really like. It lets you do multiple reminders, and will remind you over a period of time (hours, if you like) in a way that works really well for me. Also lets you track things you take as needed and build a record.
  • Pedometer : I use Human. I use it not for “I should walk more” as much as “I did a lot yesterday, there’s a reason I feel ouchy today”.  I’ve tried clip on options, but found having something on my phone that I have with me all the time works better.
  • Sleep : I use SleepCycle which will wake you up at a better point in your sleep cycle, but also tracks basic sleep data. I use it as a rough guide.

Those are my tools

Future posts will go into most of these in more detail – Todoist is first up on the list, for Tuesday.

If there’s something you’d particularly like to hear about, let me know!

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