Productivity Systems

Story of a long and iterative information architecture project
Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash
Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

Introduction

Building a “life”/“productivity” management system is an “information architecture” problem on steroids.

About 3 years ago, I started some experiments with managing productivity with the goal of applying a lot of software development process back to my life. I was able to evolve my experiments it into two blog posts with a promise of a 3rd one which never got completed because things in different areas of the processes were either evolving too quickly or too stagnant.

Since then, I have made a lot of progress on this subject. Moved from Trello to Notion and the system looks stable enough for the last 6 months now and I am again comfortable to write about it.

The system starts by implementing some of my learnings from books like “the 4-Hour Work Week”, mainly for dealing with information ingestion and from “The Miracle Morning” for health and growth and then evolves into a lot of workflows that I wanted to improve in my life and I kept on thinking and iterating on them for months, learning from the internet and talking to people.

Broadly, I cover the following things:

  1. Health and Fitness
  2. Journaling and Retrospections
  3. Continuous learning (both career and non-career oriented) and growth
  4. Life themes, friends, network, and relationships
  5. Information management — Dealing with the incoming information and moving it to a structure to avoid infinite lists and ability to random access information from this structure
  6. Progress: Improvement in the process itself

These processes also transitioned for me iteratively into an application that went from goal-based to a system based.

Evolution

I started small with solving my email list first with a 0 inbox and an attempt to turn it into a todo list. This hit its limitations pretty quickly and I moved on to using Trello as a productivity system (along with pocket, Instapaper for reading and some other tools).

Trello worked well for a while but I hit some hard limits on that like infinitely growing todo/reading lists, long term themes/learning polluting daily context and decision making, inability to represent information in a deep hierarchy and moving it around to shape information better (this is for me the superpower of Notion, the ease with which you can change the information architecture by moving the blocks).

Trello was great for short term things like focused themes in todos or daily journaling — like sprints in software development but had the above shortcomings and I was also pondering a long term question of “where do I see myself in the next 10 years?” which led to another trello board called “Creator” where I took a collection of people to follow, book to read, papers to read, project ideas, etc. It was a giant visualization board but hard to implement.

I kept on using this trello configuration for a year or so, invented various ways to deal with the shortcomings mentioned above and was looking to build a tool that helps me organize better. In the meantime, tried to use Evernote and other systems but they all have similar limitations.

Enter Notion, I saw them on product hunt about an year ago and tried it but since it starts almost with a blank slate and I hit a few bugs as soon as I started, I postponed exploring it for a while but then I gave it another chance after a few months and today, most of my workflows have moved to notion.

TL;DR this is how the current state looks like,

Snapshot of my notion processes in April 2019
Snapshot of my notion processes in April 2019

Note: There are more subsections but the top level sort of deals with what’s on my mind and what is more important than other sub-level stuff.

Note: Lifestyle Design is a residue from “4-hour work week” which was one of the first holistic ideas about thinking in this way for me about all aspects of life together.

Let’s dive right in around the points I already mentioned above.

Health and Fitness

I wanted to fix a bunch of stuff in this area because I feel health is the single most important metric that you should care about. I tried various things but what lastly is working for me is have a separate fitness journal.

My fitness calendar from February 2019
My fitness calendar from February 2019

Journaling and retrospections

Let us start with Journaling. I started journaling about 2+ years ago. I do it twice a day in bullet journal format. My journal is a mix of ideas from “The Miracle morning” and “Four-hour work week” and of course a pinch of what worked for me. It took a few iterations but this is how my template looks like now.

My bullet journal template
My bullet journal template

Journaling for me was amazing! When I started implementing ideas from “The Miracle Morning” into my life, I thought that journaling would be the most difficult from that list but it turned out to be easy and very valuable.

In the first fifteen days of me journaling in this formation, I was able to recognize a lot of micro-patterns that were causing friction for me on a daily basis like diet and sleeping. Without writing them down it was difficult to see the scale of impact that they have both in terms of daily friction and commutative friction.

Journaling gives me the focus for a day and an idea of how to win that day. Broadly, fixing your life is fixing it one day at a time.

Moving on to retrospections. The first time I did that, I wanted to evaluate ROI on my time in the last few months. Like, watching Netflix (which was deemed valuable at my usage of Netflix back then) for example and I learned that this is a very valuable exercise and I turned this into a process. I started with quarterly retrospection but now I do that monthly which suits me better.

I use the following template for retrospections and have monthly themes to guide myself in the right direction of things that matter.

My monthly retrospective template
My monthly retrospective template

I review action items from last month! Create the same template for next month as a running document and fill stuff into it through the month! Then a monthly calendar invite (on last Saturday of the month) serves as a personal 1–1.

Continuous learning and growth

I really really care about personal development, growth, and learning. I had a lot of patterns around learning new things and I made some processes to formalize them in my life. There were also some things that I fixed like content consumption (delete most social networks, reduce information ingestion) that collided with learning (not consuming might lead to not being up to date in a fast-moving industry like software, unless addressed).

I will list some of the processes here and their origins. Let me start with the learning process.

“Learning” process

I realized that at any given time I am learning multiple things — some due to interests (e.g. cooking/gardening/something related to software), some due to work (say compiler design), and some due to life skills (e.g. driving).

In my system, these learning opportunities are scattered and there is a lack of pattern on when and how I make progress on something. This causes two main problems:-

  1. Persisting the progress/calculating the time spent on sometime i.e. reading a long book. I need to save the context of where I stopped reading etc.
  2. Having an overview of all learnings together, to be aware of progress on all fronts otherwise, in normal workflows, work learning takes over everything else.

So, under the learning process,

To solve point 1, I maintain a list like this (learning Rust programming language for example). This format gives me a way to persist progress, take inline notes and track my time spent on learning this.

Snapshot of my Learning process
Snapshot of my Learning process

Such a table exists for anything I am learning at a given time. Yes, it takes some effort to maintain this but in my experience so far. It pays off.

To solve point 2, I simply move these things as hyperlinks to a single place.

Note that this process includes everything, including life skills like swimming or cooking.

“Lateral Thinking” process

At a point a few years ago, I realized that I was learning a lot about software and computer science and that a lot of domains (take any industry like music, automation et) touch this topic and I wanted to explore the domains.

Formalizing this gave birth to the “Lateral Thinking” process. While the original idea was to do a lateral thinking Saturday (usually 2nd) once a month and learn a new domain around software development. I learned in a few attempts that

  1. One day is too volatile for this process, both in terms of compressing a domain to a day is tough and it is hard to be available on a particular day in future
  2. This is much bigger than software development

I started observing it as a monthly theme and document my learning as I go. This is how it looks like, tracking stuff and giving space to persisting future topics. Couple this with some calendar invite magic and I have a process moving.

Snapshot of my lateral thinking process
Snapshot of my lateral thinking process

“Surprise” process

I wanted to be able to try out new products/experiences in a guilt-free manner. Earlier, I would either not spend “experiment” money or spend too much in one go. The solution was to simply organize and track these expenses into what I call the surprise process which revolves around products and experiences targeted towards learning and experimentation.

This also exists like a simple list of things with the ability to persist future “surprises”. I found this very effective albeit the process is still evolving (like surprise vs need classification or stopping myself from exploiting this process :D).

Snapshot of my Surprise process
Snapshot of my Surprise process

“Reading” process

This process is still broken for me, so, I will not share a lot of details about it. I am able to read ~12 to ~24 books a year and read a lot of content as well but I am still evolving this.

For reading online content, I set reminders for myself in the future distributing the content to my future self in small consumable chunks. This works very well (for the most part) and lives in a personal “slack” for now.

For books, I just pick a random book every now and then and just bulldoze through it. I have this OCD about finishing everything I started although I am working on fixing it and it has improved a lot.

Summary

Overall, I invest a lot into personal learning and development and I believe that there is a long way to go to polish and streamline these processes for myself.

P.S. I am working on re-doing a bunch of CS stuff for example (which is a major long-term learning undertaking). I hope to see the learning process do well in this test.

Life themes, friends, network, and relationships

This part of the processes is the roughest-edged at the moment. It involves the collaboration of multiple processes to steer myself into meaningful relations and life decisions.

I tried making a CRM process but it is miserably failing at the moment. I can only maintain natural relations and wrapping them in the CRM process was very very tedious for me! Today, CRM process has moved to “Progress — process factory” (more on this later).

I am working on automation of personal branding amongst other things.

This part of the process also contains “Life Ops” which deals with monotonous tasks like money management, taxes, and related shenanigans.

TL;DR I will have to write a follow-up post once I have made more “describable” progress in this domain. I do have progress but it is difficult to put that in words of me right now.

Information management

This is one of the most important aspects of productivity, learning, time management, creativity, and where you spend your time (doing/acting or consuming/learning).

This idea of “information management” touches almost all of my processes and the core of the idea is as follows:

When I run into any piece of “information”, I should be able to classify it as important or unimportant/contextual and non-contextual and sort it under a category/process/place (let us collectively refer to that as “memory” of the 2nd brain i.e. your productivity tool). The things that we are fighting here are:

  1. Infinite lists that no one has the time to read and eventually get dropped (looking at you reading list and bookmarks)
  2. Amount of content that is thrown at us — as marvelous as the internet is, there is simply more content than you can consume! Always be aggressive above the content you choose. Ideally, spend more time creating than consuming.

The storage of information, in this case, is a “heavy” operation as we have to think about classifying it up front. In the future, I might write a tool to automate this or make this workflow better but right now I pay this upfront cost.

The property of “memory” should be that it allows for random access. In my case, I use the “cmd+p” feature of notion to search the relevant top level and navigate to the information I need. When the classification boundaries are defined well (in my case the top-level processes), I can instantly reach any information without struggling too much to “search” it. While the search part surely happens every now and then. I do some crosslinking of content to make this better for myself in the future.

Processes like “Learning” or “Task list” are also just tools to make this search better by moving some deeply nested this to a top-level facade. Takes some time to get used to but works very well afterward.

Progress

This process is about “Improving the process itself!”. I call this the factory of creating and repairing processes and this is essentially a table that lists “current process frictions” and “quarantine area of new processes that I want to implement”.

I add friction points here to persist them, learn about them and have a central place to think about them.

This could be anything from a new process (like learning about nutrition for example) to mending an existing process — like how many times it happens to us that we used to do “something” that worked but doesn’t work anymore and dies. This is my area to fix things that would “die” otherwise by being aware of them, making changes and getting back on track.

Overall, this is one of the most important and creative processes that I have.

These processes did not evolve all at once or anything close. They evolved (and are still evolving) one process at a time over years! For example, the progress process was super ad-hoc before I realized that I need to persist the processes and process ideas to make them better like a nice CMMI level 5 company.

That is all from my end today! What are your life processes? I would love to catch up with you and talk about how you manage your life. Please reach out to me

.