My Top 7 Personal Productivity Tricks

I had an opportunity this weekend to talk a little about personal productivity with some friends.

As a result, I wanted to share a few of the techniques I use to keep “on task” during my day, week and month.

A little background: I like David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology. I’m no expert and I probably use 50% of his techniques, but the things I do use are really helpful to me, and the more I use them, the more I get done.

Here are a few of my favorite productivity tricks:

to_do_list1) I keep three different “to do” lists.

First, I keep a “Master List” on my computer in Outlook (a la GTD) which has all of my medium-to-large sized task items.

I classify these tasks by several categories: Today, This Week, This Month, This Quarter and Sometime. I move things up the category list as they mature and come due.

I wish I was better able to classify them by project. (There are techniques for Outlook and third-party add-ins that do this, but I’ve tried some and never found one worth the time.)

Second, I keep a “Do Today or Tomorrow” list or Daily List by my side, which is hand-written and evolves throughout the day.

This is closer to what most people do, which is a basic daily to-do list of items or sub-tasks that need to get done today. I try to keep this at 4 to 8 items, max. More than that won’t get done in a day anyway. Anything larger gets put into the Master List.

Third, for organizing client billable work, and larger shared projects at one of the portfolio companies, we use Axosoft OnTime, which is focused on organizing software development projects. This is great for what it does and we use it to organize all of our billable client project work, but it doesn’t fit my need for managing daily business and personal tasks.

My first two lists are my “entrepreneur lists” while my third list is my “get the work done and deliver it to the client” list. I use different tools for different purposes.

This isn’t a perfect process.  Sometimes things don’t move effectively from the Master List to the Daily List, and then I’ve got to stop and re-align priorities and sync the two lists. But just using these lists helps to keep me organized and moving and helps enormously in driving priorities and getting projects through to completion.

2) I organize my e-mail by project.

I’m looking for automation tools to help with this (Xobni is popular). Right now, I do it manually and mostly just organize critical e-mails into folders. For example, recruiting e-mails, client project e-mails, tax and accounting e-mails, account password and related e-mails, etc.

I use the search features in Outlook extensively and I can usually find any e-mail I need in seconds.

I also keep an archive of e-mails going back years and it is searchable, but I keep that at the desktop, rather than on the server, so that it isn’t constantly syncing to the client e-mail software and/up trying to hit my phone with gigabytes of e-mail.

I have separate e-mail accounts and files for personal and business and separated by company (since I’m involved in multiple ventures).

Obviously, people cross those lines and send me personal e-mail at the business account, etc. I’ll drag and drop e-mails back and forth as needed.

With this method, 99% of my e-mail is in the right place. It allows me to archive entire folders when a project ends. I archive manually, rather than using the Outlook archiving wizard and I do it about once a year, in January.

3) I keep a daily “accomplishments journal.”

This one is different. I’ve taken it up recently and I love it. I keep a “What did I do today?” notebook on my desk.

Each day, I record a list of the items I completed, one line to an item. Some of these were on my task list and some weren’t. I mostly record items that were important and/or strategic in some way.

This notebook has helped me enormously.

We all keep forward-looking to-do lists, but how many of us take a few moments to recollect and celebrate what we got done?

This notebook helps me to focus by making me think at the beginning of the day about what I want to have written into that notebook by the end of the day.

It also helps me to understand that even on those days when I feel like I was putting out fires and got nothing done, I actually accomplished a lot of important tasks, even if they weren’t the tasks I wanted done.

4) I keep a minimum of paper.

If you looked at my office you’d never believe this, and I’m still training my new personal assistant / bookkeeper to understand my filing system, so there’s a little excess right now.

But I try not to print anything I don’t have to and I keep nothing that is better as an electronic archive or document.

I throw paper away obsessively. I always remember, keeping paper costs money! It costs money to organize, file, move, store, destroy, reproduce, etc. Electronic files must cost 1/10th or less to keep, so that’s what we do.

5) I keep archives from previous years off-site in storage and try to keep a maximum of 1 to 2 file boxes per year.

I learned this from my father who is an attorney. I try to keep about 1 to 2 boxes of critical banking, tax, project, personnel and legal records from each year.

If I’m trying to archive more than that, I go through and throw more stuff out. There just isn’t any excuse for keeping more. However, this means that I MUST backup my systems regularly, since so much of my life and business are in electronic files and e-mails. That’s the trade-off and my system won’t work for everyone.

6) We keep what I call a “single-file” system for our business records.

We don’t typically put more than one copy of any file anywhere in our paper filing system and we use our databases (QuickBooks general ledgers and accounts, Outlook for e-mail, our task and time management database for project info) as our index and authoritative record.

That means we have to keep those online systems organized, but it minimizes the about of paper we keep on hand. We stole parts of this system from our accountant, who has worked with small businesses for at least 30 years, and with QuickBooks for at least 15.


speed_dial7) We’ve moved most everything online and added automation.

We’ve moved our CRM system online. We’ve moved our time tracking and project task assignments online. We’ve moved our invoice mailing and reminders online to an outsourced service. We keep our calendars online.

We haven’t gone full “Google Apps” where everything is online, running in the cloud and shared. But we’re getting close. I think we’re always going to want slightly more specialized and professional products that we pay for, but if they’re hosted and running in the cloud, all the better, so long as we can back them up offline and customize and integrate as much as needed.

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This blog is dedicated to providing advice, tools and encouragement from one entrepreneur to another. I want to keep this practical and accessible for the new entrepreneur while also providing enough sophistication and depth to prove useful to the successful serial entrepreneur. My target rests somewhere between the garage and the board room, where the work gets done and the hockey stick emerges.

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