Simple to-do lists and calendars are no match for today’s complex productivity needs. Productivity expert Jeff Porten walks you step by step through a system that helps you manage personal and business tasks fluidly, without having to worry that something might fall through the cracks.
All Take Control books are delivered in three ebook formats—PDF, EPUB, and Mobipocket (Kindle)—and can be read on nearly any device.
Being productive is never as simple as putting items on a calendar or to do list and checking them off. Most of us struggle with too much to do, too little time, and only a vague idea of how to plan each day so we can achieve the best results with the least stress. If that sounds like you (and especially if you’ve tried a bunch of productivity systems and found them lacking), Jeff Porten’s expert guidance may be just what you need.
As a professional technology consultant and an early adopter of both hardware and software, Jeff has tried nearly every productivity management system out there, and experimented with dozens of implementation styles. He brings his decades of experience to this book, helping you create a customized strategy that’s ideal for your needs, and—crucially—avoid common mistakes. Whether you’re a productivity junkie or someone who has struggled for years with a cobbled-together, informal task-management system, this book will help you get a much better grip on your personal and business time.
In this book, you’ll:
Review the principles of successful planning—whether for immediate projects or for long-term and someday goals.
Understand your natural working style and preferences, including comfortable habits that may not be productive but that you don’t want to change, and create a more effective workflow that fits you.
Discover the best ways to think about projects, tasks, events, due dates, flags, contexts, and more.
Choose a task-management app that’s appropriate for your needs, no matter what devices and operating systems you use, and that integrates with your calendar, reminders, notes, and the apps you use to actually do things.
Develop a step-by-step process for tracking all your events and tasks and ensuring that everything happens in the right order.
Transition from an old system to your new system without worrying that anything will fall through the cracks.
Learn exactly how to keep track of all the things you need to remember throughout the day.
Improve your time-estimation skills when planning how long future tasks and projects will take.
Solve the problem of “10-minute tasks” that become all-day projects because they have a dozen things you discover you need to do first.
Get better at managing other people (and their expectations of you).
Review how well your productivity system has worked over time, using feedback loops and suggested best practices to continually improve your workflow.
Fail successfully! If something goes wrong—from a derailing large project to a life-changing crisis—learn how to recover gracefully and improve your system the next time around.
Know when and how to make changes to meet any new needs you have, and to ensure that what you do every Tuesday at 2 PM contributes to your overarching goals and most important roles in life.
Although many of the examples in the book refer to Mac productivity tools, the advice is platform-neutral. The book contains tips applicable to any combination of operating systems, and a companion webpage provides additional details on apps running on Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, and the web.
Jeff Porten has 25 years of experience as an independent consultant to small businesses and nonprofits, concentrating on information technologies, business planning, and personal and organizational workflow management.
I just gave an interview on Brett Terpstra’s Systematic podcast, when this AppleScript I’ve written came up. It creates a link for any email you’ve selected in Mac Mail and puts it on the clipboard. You can then paste it into any notes field or document elsewhere—in most apps, it’ll automatically be treated as a link and clickable. Opening it takes you to the message. This is better than most systems of copying-and-pasting text, or forwarding email to other apps, because it’ll show you the message in its original context.
There are various tools to launch AppleScripts, but the easiest (which doesn’t require any additional software) is the Script Menu. Instructions here. Once it’s turned on, open the Script menu (right side of the menu bar) and choose Open Scripts Folder > Open User Scripts Folder. Create a folder there named “Applications”, then one inside it named “Mail”. Put this AppleScript in that folder—the script will only show up in the menu when Mail is the front application.
Select a message, choose the Get Message URL script, switch to any other app, and paste the clipboard into any text field. Done. Usually you’ll see something like this:
…but some apps (like Mac Calendar) interpret the link; Calendar shows “Show in Mail…” if you paste it into the URL field, which is really weird because you need a script like this one to get the link in the first place. You’d think Apple would have set that up as a Mail command by now. If the link isn’t clickable, almost always you can select it, right-click on it, and choose Open URL from the contextual menu.
Just now realizing I can’t post attachments here, so head over to my website to pick up the script. It’s free for anyone who’s bought the book.
Unfortunately this didn’t come to my attention in time to include in the book, but OmniFocus 3 for Mac is due in September. No official word yet on when it’ll be available in the limited web version for other devices.
Try these two statements on for size, and how you would react to hearing them:
“I have diabetes, and every day I take insulin and watch my diet. If I get really sick, I might need to go to the hospital.”
“I have mental illness, and every day I take medication and watch my mood. If I get really sick, I might need to go to the hospital.”
Not quite the same, was it? Sure, you probably felt sympathy in both cases—but let’s say you heard that from two teenagers applying to be your babysitter. You’d treat them both the same? If your answer is yes, congratulations—you have better attitudes about mental illness than many of the mentally ill do.
Note: If you just thought to yourself, “Well, diabetes won’t affect my kid, but a crazy person might,” guess what? Diabetes can make you crazy. It’s true! So perhaps think twice about using that word next time?
Fact: Your Brain Lives in Your Body
It’s not a universal cultural thing, but it’s definitely American: we take physical illnesses seriously, but treat mental illnesses as if they’re personality quirks.
Just look at the words we use. “Physical” illness. “Mental” illness. “Mental” things live in your mind—by definition, a surgeon can’t get to them, so everyone thinks it’s more of a touchy-feely gray area. But turns out, your brain is made of meat, just like the rest of you, excepting the grisly and bony bits. We don’t have much of a clue how minds arise from the electrical activity in our brains, but the best current guess: it’s a naturally emergent effect, and it’s not accurate to think of our minds as non-physical.
When the average person thinks mental illnesses are less important or valid than “real” illnesses, that’s an annoying societal quirk, which makes the lives of the mentally ill more difficult in hundreds of major and minor ways. But the real damage is that the mentally ill live with those people, and unconsciously pick up the same attitudes.
Note: Humans are wonderful creatures capable of amazing things. We’re also astonishingly ignorant, and completely unaware that we are. This is true of most people’s understanding of mental illness. With few exceptions, if someone is not medically trained, diagnosed themselves, or has not personally cared for someone with mental illness, they are at worst dangerously wrong, and at best, not knowledgable at a level of detail that could be useful.
You’ve heard of that phenomenon where middle-aged men are too stubborn for their own good? When they experience chest pain they tough it out, instead of doing the sensible thing and going to a hospital? It’s ten times worse for mental illness. Here’s the horrible, horrible process most people go through:
First, you realize that awful feeling, or lack of capability, or inability to see things blindingly obvious to people around you, dovetails a bit with what you’ve heard about a particular mental illness.
You roll this idea around for a while, trying it on for size. Maybe you do some research on the internet. This takes months.
Eventually, things have gotten worse, but by now you’ve read a dozen internet articles, and heard from a dozen friends, telling you how to “manage” your self-diagnosis through diet, exercise, crystals, and—no kidding—wishing it away with a better mental attitude. Or you’ve found naturopathic and homeopathic “cures,” because drinking teas brewed from a dozen physiologically-significant herbs that may or may not match what it says on the bottle, and were made in Chinese factories with no oversight and no attention to dosage or adulterants, sounds safer than “Western for-profit medicine.”
Note: There is a scientific term for any alternative medicine that has been researched and proven to work. It’s called “medicine.” Anything that is still “alternative,” by definition, hasn’t been proven to a rigorous standard (which is usually a polite way of saying “to any standard”). Also note: some peddlers of alternative medicine refer to science as “allopathic medicine;” when you hear this, substitute “medicine that is proven to work.”
You try some of these things, especially the easy ones that don’t hurt or cause much inconvenience. When they fail, and they almost always do (dietary and behavioral changes certainly can help, but after diagnosis and in addition to proper care), you didn’t do it “right” or “hard enough.” There’s always a reason why a quack therapy is still perfect, and the problem is you.
Finally, after all of this—and sometimes, it’s several years later—something gives. You can’t tell yourself you’re not broken anymore. Maybe you’ve tasted, or gorged upon, some flavor of “hitting bottom.” If you hit bottom really spectacularly, you’re forced to seek help by a spouse ready to leave, or by a court.
You seek help.
Here’s the same process for physical illness:
Something hurts more than an Advil can handle, or your body just “feels weird” in an unfamiliar way.
You see a doctor, maybe two.
You get a diagnosis.
You get treatment.
Have I made my point about how fundamentally silly this is yet?
The two common disorders that I mention in the book—because they’re the ones I know best, for self-serving reasons—are depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are both poorly named, and these misnomers have radically dangerous effects for those who suffer from them.
The problem with “depression” is that we use the same word for all sorts of mental states. You’re depressed your favorite show was canceled. You’re depressed a friend can’t show up at your party. You’re depressed your dog died. You’re depressed for no obvious reason and you don’t get out of bed or shower for two months.
Note: On the topic of one word having two different meanings, with adverse effects, see also “theory:” the word for your opinions about the next season of Star Trek: Discovery; also the word for a scientific principle so well-established that we non-experts should treat it as a certainty, until a consensus of experts say otherwise for a few decades running. (When scientists have an informed opinion they’re still testing, it’s called a “hypothesis,” not a theory.)
This is called a “category error:” you think you’re talking about one thing, but you’re talking about something else entirely. Everyone’s an expert on their own “normal” depression, and fewer have experience with the clinical type; by definition, then, you’re going to hear much more often from people who think they’re experts on clinical depression, as opposed to people who have some idea what the hell you’re going through.
Meanwhile, the same thing happens for ADHD, thanks to both the word “attention” and the word “hyperactive.” Everyone has an attention span, and everyone loses focus from time to time, so they’re brimming with advice: “Go jogging, it’s wonderful!” My response to such people: “That’s great. Call me when you’re three hours late to your own wedding, you’ve repeatedly dropped out of college, or you’ve held 30 jobs in six years.”
Regarding hyperactivity, we have a different problem. At the risk of stating an unpopular opinion, ADHD in the early 21st century is likely extremely overdiagnosed in children, and extremely underdiagnosed in any adult old enough to have missed the grade school window we’ve established to look for it. (Of course that kid is full of energy and unfocused; he’s a child. Medicate him if he is suffering, not because his parents or teachers are.)
But hyperactivity is sometimes only a symptom in children; adults may grow out of the uncontrollable and inappropriate energy, while retaining the mental issues. As a result, they no longer identify with the most well-known symptoms, and this can lead to misunderstanding the problem. Or they simply think that ADHD is a kid thing and they’re immune.
Note: Some mental illnesses have a genetic component. If a family member is diagnosed with one of these, you’re more at risk for it. When it’s your parent who has it, it’s something you might get later. When it’s your child, it’s something you may have had for decades, and have gotten so good at masking you’re not even aware you’re compensating for anything.
For most mental illnesses, the afflicted are physiologically incapable of achieving a mental state that everyone else takes so completely for granted, they’re not aware it is a mental state.
The list of things that can ruin your life doesn’t stop there, of course. Agoraphobia, panic attacks, extreme shyness, some kinds of fatigue syndromes (for which the jury is out whether they’re physical or psychological—which for our purposes doesn’t matter); there are many wild and inventive ways a brain can break.
When to Seek Help
If you’re nodding your head while you’re reading this? Right now.
No, really. Around 20% of you are recognizing yourselves, or are being reminded of that time when you started the “trying it on” stage of considering whether you had a problem. 20% more of you are thinking about the family member or close friend who really needs to read this.
Seeing a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist for the first time is scary, no different than seeing an oncologist, because there’s only one thing you want to hear and it’s two words long. The thing is, here’s what happens in your first session if you don’t have anything wrong with you:
You talk for a while. A psychiatrist will likely walk you through a questionnaire. A psychotherapist may do that as well, or ask you a bunch of free-form questions.
The mental health expert you’re talking to comes to an initial hypothesis regarding your diagnosis, starting with whether you have one at all. At worst, this takes an additional session or two. (Mine took 30 minutes.)
If you don’t have a clinical problem, you get excellent advice about how to deal with the problems that brought you there, from someone with years of intensive education, and the experience of talking to 1,000 patients with problems similar to yours, perhaps much more severe or debilitating.
You go home and do those things. If you need more advice, you can go back. Most people kind of like it after they get comfortable.
“But wait,” you might say. “Sure, it’s easy if everything’s fine. But what if there’s something seriously wrong with me? That’s scary.”
Yes. Yes, it is. But please note: if that happens, there is something seriously wrong with you. Which other chronic, incurable, life-destroying illnesses do you apply this strategy to?
Please refer to the bullet point earlier, the one that said, “First, you realize you might have a mental illness.” That moment, the one that comes at the beginning of wasted years and needless pain? That’s when you seek help.
For my male readers: Meanwhile, if you have chest pains, go see a frickin’ doctor. And get your colon examined, schmuck.
As I write this, the book is getting published within hours and I’m still finalizing what’s going into the web materials. Unfortunately, this post is the one for which I have the least prepared right now, which I’ll fix as soon as I can.
In the meantime, here are the Big Three books about which I’ll have much to say later:
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
When I first outlined the book, I planned an entire chapter talking about productivity applications so you would be able to pick one out of a menu. But then it turned out that I had plenty of other things to say, Joe Kissell (head honcho at Take Control) didn’t want the book to be 500 pages, and the easiest thing to cut was a chapter of which most of you would only need a few paragraphs.
Even so, a menu is useful, because the apps I mention in the book aren’t necessarily right for you. Here are some other good ones. Note that a listing here does not necessarily mean it’s recommended; read the description before trying it out. But everything here is best-in-class for at least one feature, and if that’s the key thing you’re looking for, maybe you’ll overlook any drawbacks.
Remember: web apps are usually compatible with both Windows and Mac, and sometimes with mobile devices—it’s always better when a web app developer ships a native app for mobile platforms, though. If an entry says “Mac, Windows, web,” that means that there are native apps for those platforms in addition to a web app.
Platform: web Complexity: high, but with an attractive interface that hides it well Best for: teams, including very large ones
Asana is way too large for me to be able to give it an effective review, so I’ll just say that I’ve included it because I’ve repeatedly heard it mentioned as having traction in large companies. Most of the other team tools I’m mentioning are primarily for smaller ones; this one, you can apparently throw an army into. Fastest way to acquaint yourself: check out their tour, where they apparently agree with my large-team assessment, as a sample project is “Mission to the Moon.”
Platform: web Complexity: simple to medium Best for: teams
Monday (formerly called “dapulse,” and yes, that’s the capitalization they used) is a team management app that values simplicity and visualization over an extensive feature set. The website doesn’t try to describe much about it (and neither will I), as it’s much faster to watch this one-minute video demonstrating how it works. Reviews of the software are mixed: either so fawning I suspect a paid placement or noting showstopping drawbacks while still giving it a middling rating. (No recurring tasks? Really?)
I haven’t tested this software, primarily because I would have preferred they invested in actually describing their software with words rather than the rock music soundtrack of the video—for example, while a review said they have mobile apps available, Monday doesn’t believe that’s worth mentioning on their own website. Very annoying for anyone trying to, I don’t know, evaluate the software.
Also, in the five minutes I’ve been writing this paragraph, the Monday.com browser page has flipped into an ad asking me to give them my email address three times, and minor annoyances like that are not a good idea when I’m deciding whether to spend time kicking the tires. They’re here because there’s one thing notably in their favor: if you like simple Gantt charting, the video seems to indicate they’ve nailed it.
Outlook and OneNote
Platform: Multiple, but really, it’s mainly Windows Complexity: Depends Best for: individuals
I’ve never heard of anyone seeking out Outlook; it’s more the app that people end up using because everyone else in their office does. I hear there are Microsoft Office gurus who can make these apps turn on a dime and give you eight cents change—and I believe it, because for a long time Microsoft Entourage (now Outlook for Mac) was one of the best tools available. I’m just not in a Microsoft environment enough to know how well it works—and the reason I said its complexity “depends” is because you have to get to know a bunch of Office apps pretty well in order to really make use of Outlook’s integrations.
That all said, I’ve seen several people saying that Outlook plus OneNote is a fantastically powerful toolset. If you’re spending all your time in Office apps already, maybe you already have the tools you need.
Remember the Milk
Platform: Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, web, others Complexity: simple to medium Best for: individuals
Remember the Milk makes the cut because: 1) its attention to additional platforms—you can also get the app for Linux, Blackberry 10, and Kindle Fire tablets, and 2) it seemingly integrates with nearly everything else you might use, including Google apps, Outlook, Evernote, Alexa, Siri, Twitter, IFTTT automation, and email. Rapid task capture and metadata-on-the-fly (such as repeats, tags, and priorities) seem to be a strong suit; less so complex projects and organizational needs.
A top contender as a great app to use in addition to your task app, as you can use it to pull data from nearly everywhere and see it on nearly everything; it could also be a decent task app if your structuring isn’t too complex, and you’re willing to give up some management features.
Platform: web with mobile apps Complexity: I’ve been trying to learn it for three years and can still barely use it Best for: teams the size of, say, Google
If you want to see why I was so effusive in the book about Daylite, the CRM software for Mac, just give Salesforce a spin. I’ve been working with CRM and productivity software for over two decades, I’ve spent three years trying to learn Salesforce (I’m on the board of a nonprofit that uses it), and every time I use the site it takes me 15 minutes to do the simplest things.
Apparently, the way most people use Salesforce is either with out-of-the-box solutions (which apparently, no one has ever bolted onto what I’ve tried to use), or with bespoke custom applications created by very expensive consultants. As I understand it, there’s almost nothing Salesforce can’t do, if you have a deep enough checkbook. But the problem with Salesforce is mainly that I don’t understand it—and I’m usually really good at understanding software.
Platform: Mac, but see below Complexity: simple to medium Best for: individuals
TaskPaper is a Mac app with an important wrinkle: all of its data is written to plain text files in an attractive way, which you can then open and edit on anything else. When you view these files in TaskPaper, you get various bells and whistles (such as collating your Due list into one place), but when you’re looking at the same files elsewhere you can get similar functionality with a text search. Toss your files into Dropbox or another cloud service, and boom, instant everywhere. Edit these files in a way that TaskPaper understands, and when you re-open them in the app you’ll get the bells and whistles.
The drawback to this method is that you have to learn the “language” of how to format what you write so TaskPaper can understand it; programmers and techie people will understand this instantly, but it’s a bit fiddly for the general public. Check out their videos to see if it’s your cup of tea.
Note: TaskPaper doesn’t have much complexity baked in, but because you can come up with whatever text tagging you can imagine, and spread out your data over as many text files as you like, it’s possible to build a great deal of complexity—provided you’re the kind of person who can memorize the text formatting you have to invent to create it.
Platform: Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, web, and others Complexity: simple interface covering better-than-medium complexity Best for: individuals or teams
TickTick didn’t come to my attention until late in the book’s production (I heard about it on the Back to Work podcast), but my initial impression is solid enough that I might promote it to a top app in the next edition of the book.
It looks like a simple Reminders-style app, but has tons of features beneath the hood at a reasonable price. Notably: team delegation, tracking of each person’s activities on a task, deeply nested tasks, multiple alarms per task, a monthly calendar and timeline view for your due dates, widgets for mobile devices, smart lists generated from rules, and intelligent parsing of both spoken words and text for rapid task entry. There’s even a white noise feature on mobile apps, so you can drown out distracting noises while working.
Platform: Mac Complexity: insanely high Best for: individuals
Tinderbox isn’t so much a task management app as it is the kind of tool you’d use to organize all of your research if you wanted to write the Encyclopedia Britannica. For that kind of thing, it’s simply ridiculously powerful, and as such, could also be used to do ridiculously complex planning. But based on its home page, I can’t tell if it understands the concept of a repeating task out of the box—although I’m fairly certain you can build a data structure for that.
I’ve kicked the tires on a few trials over the years, and it’s the kind of software I’d love to use—if you’re the type who wants to full-text search every website you read 14 years ago when you don’t have an Internet connection, like I am, this is for you. But at $250 it’s also ridiculously expensive; I’ve never used it longer than a free trial. Mentioned primarily because for what it can do, I don’t know of any other software that does it as well.
Platform: Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, web, and others Complexity: simple with a few extras Best for: individuals
Todoist is below my threshold for “complex enough to satisfy most of my readers,” but gets listed here because it’s mentioned very often in glowing terms by people discussing productivity in my podcast feed. It’s a multiplatform simple task manager featuring rapid data capture and natural language parsing; its flashiest feature is a graphic visualizer that shows you how productive you’ve been.