Systems I have tried: an overview

I have used various organization and productivity systems in the past few years – this is an overview of what worked and what didn’t.

Main systems I currently use:

  1. Follow Up Then: Sends an email to a future self, with the date and time specified in the email address, e.g. I use it for delaying tasks, recurring reminders, and following up on email threads. This reduces clutter in my todo list, calendar and inbox, and frees my working memory. Lately, I noticed myself remembering a thing shortly before receiving a follow up about it – probably due to the same mechanism that sometimes wakes me up a few minutes before the morning alarm.
  2. Complice: Daily to-do list organized according to goals, with archives and regular reviews. Helpful for specifying the next action to take at a given time, and for tracking progress on individual goals. Downside: I sometimes hesitate to enter tasks into the list, because entered tasks cannot be erased, and leaving a task unfinished is aversive, so often end up entering tasks after they are done instead.
  3. Workflowy: Nested list structure – searchable, with collapsible and sharable sublists. I keep my ongoing todo list (in GTD form) and most of my notes here. Downside: doesn’t work for goal factoring, since it only supports tree structures.
  4. Google Calendar: Self-explanatory. I have recently started adding tentative meeting slots, indicated by a question mark, e.g. “dinner with Janos?”. This has been helpful for keeping track of which time slots I’ve offered to someone. I also added a calendar that shows Facebook events that I’ve been invited to, which is handy.
  5. 42 Goals: Goal tracking with summary graphs and cute symbols. I use this for tracking habits (like exercise and meditation) and other random things (like insomnia occurrences). The graphs are useful – this is how I know that I have the most insomnia on Mondays! Downsides: doesn’t allow non-binary categories, and the phone app is so unreliable that I never use it – if you know good alternative tracking systems, let me know!

Systems I no longer use:

  • Beeminder: Goal tracking with nice graphs, and goal setting with reminders and financial penalties in case of failure. I liked the graphs and reminders, but the penalties made me feel even more overwhelmed than usual, and sometimes induced suboptimal short-term priorities. I decided to obtain the different benefits separately, setting recurring reminders for habits on Follow Up Then, and using 42 Goals for tracking.
  • Toggl: Time tracking for activities and tasks, organized by project or goal, with an option for retroactive time entries. I started out using it to track all my time, and though I stopped after about a month due to the excessive overhead of tracking and categorizing short activities, I learned a lot about where my time was going. I used it for about a year after that to track work hours, and eventually stopped because of overhead and redundancy with Complice.
  • Paper checklist: Checklist for daily habits. Worked well in terms of catching my eye in the morning, but was often forgotten when traveling. It was redundant with 42 Goals, and required double data entry, so I eventually gave up on the paper version.
  • Habit tracking with reminders, with a pretty good phone app. I found it particularly useful for several-times-a-week habits. It also has built-in habit programs like building up to a certain number of chinups. I mostly stopped using it because I had too many other systems that were redundant with it.
  • Pomodoros: Setting a timer to focus on a specific task for 25-40 minutes, followed by a break of 5 minutes. I found it unpleasant to be forced to take breaks, developed a habit of ignoring the break signal, and gave up on using pomodoros altogether.

Over the past couple of years, I have become less willing to force myself to do things or overwhelm myself with instructions or data entry overhead, which has led me to reduce the number of systems I use, and to prefer gently guiding systems to strict ones.


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