The Holy Grail.
Finding the perfect system for tracking tasks and to-dos is a Holy Grail of sorts. There are countless books, websites, blogs, seminars and Reddit subs dedicated to the topic. The tough part about “perfect anything” is that it doesn’t actually exist … it’s a mythical productivity unicorn that dances a four-hoofed jig that’s just out of your reach, taunting you to touch it’s sparkly horn 😜👉🦄. But you can never quite touch that sparkly horn 😢.
Trusted vs. Perfect.
There’s an opportunity to shift the target from perfect to trusted. My system is by no means perfect, but it’s perfect for me. I trust it. I know that when thoughts, ideas and to-dos go in, they’ll be waiting for me when I need them. Has it always been this way? Heck no! I’ve hit countless productivity walls in the past where the same unfinished 5-6 to-dos start to roll over from one day to the next … and then to the next day … and then the list grows to 9-10 … and then I start looking for a new task management tool because this one must be broken! What I’ve found is that you can make just about any tool work … but if you don’t have a trusted system in place, it’s doomed to fail eventually.
Trust Starts with Your Inbox.
The most critical component of any trusted productivity system is the Inbox. This is where thoughts and ideas can be safely nestled for later recall. If you don’t have somewhere you trust to put all the things that float through your head throughout the day, you end up unconsciously chewing on those thoughts … like, incessantly … and in situations and moments where you should be in the NOW (like when you’re waiting for the school bus with your kids or sitting down to dinner with your family or during a 1on1 with an employee). Rather than be present, you find yourself stuck in a perpetual state of ponder and worry: did I reply to that email? Did I forget to…?! What was that thing my boss asked me to do!? By taking control of your Inbox, you can squash all of that noise and not only climb into the NOW, you can stay for a while!
My Productivity Toolkit.
Have I invented some sort of new fangled methodology to rival the likes of David Allen’s GTD framework? Heck no again, I say! My system actually uses the main tenants of GTD (although I’ve tweaked it a bit to fit my flow). I use Things3 by Cultured Code as my true “Inbox” and day-to-day task and project management tool. I’ve tried a number of other to-do apps but this one is the bomb … easy to navigate, super flexible and downright fun to use. To get a sense of how I use Things3, check out this summary, it frames the flow up nicely (I very much use the app as it’s intended). I use Bear to Journal (more about this later!), capture notes (for all aspects of my life), for writing (I wrote this post in Bear) and to track details for my projects (which live in Things3). I’m also an Apple geek 🤓 … so my MacBook, iPad Pro, iPhone & Apple Watch all play a huge role in my day to day. As I mentioned, just about any tool will work … the key is that you can squish your habits and tools together into a system that you trust where you are able to produce what you need, when you need it.
I’m Not Saying: “Do Exactly This.”
I want to share the pieces parts of my trusted system. But to be clear, I’m not suggesting you do exactly what I do (that’s not the point!) … instead, I encourage you to explore how these battle-tested tactics may help you enhance your flow and get you one step closer to trusting your system. And as a bonus, snap the often missing Purpose piece into your productivity puzzle.
The Ultimate Collection Tool.
My Inbox sits at the top of my trusted system. In Things3, the Inbox is where I collect everything … every idea and thought that rumbles through my brain, every email that I can’t address right now, every website or bit of content that I stumble on that I may want to re-visit later. Over time, I’ve created some pretty strong habits (that have become reflexes) around getting info out of my head and into my Inbox, regardless of where I am or what I’m doing. Once secured in the Inbox, I am locked and loaded, clear headed and no longer pelting myself with panicky and constant “did I remember to … ?!” thoughts. Trusting your system starts with your Inbox … which puts you one step closer to being Productive with a Purpose where you are free to be in the NOW … and stay there!
Quick Entry for Thoughts & Ideas.
When I use my MacBook, the quickest and easiest way to get a thought or idea into the Things3 Inbox is to use a keyboard shortcut: control + space bar. This works regardless of what I’m doing, what I’m working on or what app I’m in. I use this method 20+ times throughout my workday to capture quick ideas and thoughts as they hit me.
When I use my iPad, my iPhone or just have my Apple Watch on, Siri is the quickest way to get something into my Things3 Inbox. I simply say, “Hey Siri, remind me to … “ or “Remind me to think about … “. This creates a reminder in Apple’s Reminders app which automatically pulls into my Things3 Inbox. You can also use Siri to create to-dos directly in Things3 (i.e. skip Apple’s reminders app), but I personally think it’s easier to go the Reminders route (it’s a little less wordy and more natural for me at least!). If you haven’t used Siri (or Alexa) much, it’s admittedly a little awkward at first. But, once you get the phrasing right and you start to see your Siri requests magically land in your Things3 Inbox, it’s a total game changer.
I also use Siri when I listen to music on my HomePod or in my car (where my iPhone is connected via Bluetooth) … “Hey Siri, remind me to …” or “Remind me to think about …” The key is that regardless of where I am or what I’m doing (work, home, driving, on a run, at the grocery story, walking the dog, etc) I have a dead simple way to get thoughts 🤔 and ideas💡into my Things3 Inbox immediately so I can do something amazing with them later.
On my MacBook, iPad and iPhone, I use the Add to Things Extension to quickly send website links and details from other apps into my Things3 Inbox. This is an awesome sort of “grab bag” tool that snags links or info from the hundred websites and apps that you might interact with throughout your day and catapults the info into your Inbox with a link back to the source.
When I need to Follow-up on an Email.
The Old (Bad) Way: I often get emails that I need to review or take action on, but I may not have time to focus on them right now. Back in the day, I’d either flag them or leave then as “unread” and come back to them later. This ultimately led to a giant, messy list of flagged and unread emails (that weren’t really unread) … my email system was an unorganized catastrophe and I constantly found myself thinking about these emails (did I reply to that email? … have I followed up on that one yet?) … I couldn’t ever really be in the NOW because I didn’t trust my system. I was constantly second guessing what was what, what was done vs. undone and what I needed to do next.
The New (Good!) Way: Since enabling Mail to Things, Things3 has become my one true, shining version of Inbox truth! When I come across an email that I need to review or take action on later (whether I’m on my MacBook, iPad or iPhone), I can simply forward it to my Things3 Inbox. Boom. And there’s a link to the source email in the Things3 to-do so I can quickly get back to the actual email when I need to. Now, my email system is pristine and I leave each day with zero flagged or unread emails. More importantly, I’m not spending my day second guessing what emails are read vs. not and did I or didn’t I respond to that one yet? … I trust that when I’m ready to summon an email for review or follow up, it’ll be waiting for me in Things3.
Your Inbox, Your Choice.
I don’t want this post to feel like a walking Things3 billboard. I love it but YMMV (your mileage may vary, as they say!) … so I would suggest trying different tools until you land on one that works for you … until you land on one that you can trust. I know that pen and paper works best for some folks or you can Google “Productivity apps” or “Todo apps” and you’ll find a million that you can play with (that’s all part of the journey!). As I’ve said, the tool you use isn’t important. What is important is having an Inbox tool. A tool that serves as your single, trusted collection and holding area for anything and everything that comes across your brain’s desk throughout the day. It’s the #1 thing you can do to keep your head clear and stay in the NOW! And it’s the first step towards becoming Productive with a Purpose where “in the NOW” becomes your permanent residence.
So, Now What?!
Wait! But, what do you do with that Inbox that’s all full of … stuff?! Thoughts, ideas, emails, follow up items, there’s probably some junk floating around in there and there’s definitely some stuff that you have no idea what to do with. What do you do now!? OK, let’s slow our collective roll just a bit. Step 1 is nailing the Inbox … without that piece in place, nothing else matters. Step 2 is the Daily Review and it’s the next key component of my trusted productivity system … but that is a topic for another time (as Mr. Rogers puts his sweater on and sings us out … ).
Please share your experiences and perspective in the comments! What does your trusted Inbox flow look like? … What’s your go-to Inbox collection tool and why? … Have you struggled to get an Inbox solution to stick? … What ah-ha moment pulled the Inbox puzzle together for you?!