Often the systems we want to help us find peace of mind only get us stressed out. In this week’s episode, Justin discusses some mindsets on how productivity can lead us to peace of mind.
Justin wraps up the discussion from last week on lesson’s he’s learned working from home over the last seven years.
In part 1 of a 2 part series, Justin shares five lessons he’s learned in the last seven years of working from home.
A Different Approach to Note Taking
It takes time for an app to find its place in one’s life. That’s what happened with my flirtation with the Agenda app. When I first downloaded Agenda, I didn’t understand it because I didn’t have a place for it in my life. Little did I know, my life changed and my current note-taking setup didn’t feel like it was more streamlined to fit my new needs.
I was using OmniOutliner as a note-taking app for my parents’ medical history. I can collapse or expand each outline item or focus on a particular section. But it becomes a mess when I try to hunt down to-do items that may have been forgotten and buried in a nested outline. I needed a better way to take notes and to be able to present a history for my parents to read easily. Giving them a printed report with a long outline didn’t jive well with them. Neither did a mind map that I attempted earlier. I tried to give project notes using a mind map but I got a groan and roll of the eyes. My parents just wanted a simple, easy to read list instead of a beautiful mind map that I spent hours on 😢. It was time to try Agenda once again and I was very pleased with what I was able to do.
An Elegant New Take On Notes
Agenda uses a timeline approach to notes. Notes are assigned a date and can be individually linked to an event in my Apple Calendar. I needed to make meeting notes that could be easily read by my parents.
Task managers are great for holding tasks but not so good at keeping notes and project history. I can look up a list of completed tasks but sometimes it helps to lay the tasks in the context of events in my life. I can read a story and see how a project unfolds over time. Agenda allows me to record events and tasks in each entry. There are many unique features that makes it stand out from the mind mappers, general file storage, and outliners available.
Surprising Benefits of the Agenda Subscription model
Agenda comes with enough basic features to keep most people happy. The developers have come up with a unique subscription method for Agenda customers. If you buy a one year app subscription, you will get any new features that will be added in the next 12 months. When the 12 months expires, you can elect to keep your subscription and gain new features or cancel and keep the features you’ve acquired since your first purchase. You won’t lose the features you received during the 12 month period. You keep what you have even if you decide to cancel your subscription.
Here is a link to the Agenda Community which discusses the Agenda Premium features.
This thread is updated when the developers add new features. They’ve been on a very consistent schedule and I look forward to new developments.
I was amazed at how the new features that don’t seem like much really adds to the overall user experience. Pinning notes, integrating my Apple Calendar events with Agenda, and saved searches has been very helpful.
Categories, Projects, and Notes
Agenda uses “categories” (or folders) to group a series of projects.
Inside each project, I have notes sorted by date.
I can connect a note to a calendar event or date.
I create a note for every meeting I attend.
Here are some tasks that I entered directly in the body of my meeting note:
An upcoming premium feature is the ability to link Agenda tasks to Apple Reminders. Check off an Apple Reminder task and it will also be marked as checked in Agenda. That would make Agenda a better task manager with tighter integration with Apple Reminders.
On The Agenda
When I’m juggling with many projects in a wide group of categories, I can narrow my focus to what is on my agenda. My projects will contain all my notes. If I have specific notes that are considered open loops (pending items that I haven’t dealt with yet), I can mark these notes as On the Agenda.
The On the Agenda view gathers up all notes that I have marked as “On the Agenda.” This is the equivalent of flagging a note and bringing it to my attention when I visit the On the Agenda view. I like to keep some notes on the agenda for future meetings or if there are any pending questions or tasks left to do.
When I am done with a note, I can remove the note from the On the Agenda view. When a note is removed from the agenda, it remains in its parent project.
Sometimes I need to link one note to another note. Linking a series of notes together helps me follow a chain of events/notes that might be in another note or another project. I can also use URL links to web sites or callback URL to open a link in another app.
Associate a note to a calendar event
I can link to a note to an existing appointment or create a new Apple Calendar appointment inside the Agenda app. The newly created calendar appointment will have a callback URL to link back to the original note. This is a very handy feature when I have a busy schedule and need to quickly visit a note during an appointment.
Overviews (Saved Searches)
I can create defined searches based on text, tags, or people. Then I can narrow it down further by searching with a specific time frame such as this week, next week, or last month. Creating commonly used searches allows me to search for specific notes within a certain date range. It’s very handy when I want to see any agenda notes that are coming up in the next month or look for notes about a person within the last few weeks.
Exporting my Agenda Notes
Using a timeline based system, I can go through a project’s history or client notes and see my project evolve over time. It’s a great way to document progress in an easy to read format. My parents didn’t like my mind maps and my outlines just looked like one long blob of text on a page when I printed it out for them. I easily exported my notes into a PDF document, RTF (Rich Text File), or a Markdown file for other users who don’t have the Agenda app. My progress reports were nice and clean.
A Different Note Taking App – Agenda
I’ve been looking for a note taking app that I’ve felt comfortable with. I’ve had DEVONthink, Evernote, mind maps, and outliners but none of them ever stuck with me. Using Agenda has been a pleasant experience for my daily use. I can create beautiful PDF reports or RTF files to document any interactions with my clients ass well as keep track of projects such as my parents’ medical history.
Agenda’s subscription model frees me from worrying about getting locked out of my notes. Any new features I get within my 12 month subscription will remain unlocked even if I don’t re-subscribe. It’s a new business model that helps developers with technical support and promotes new app features. At the same time, I’m not worried about my app going into read-only mode and I won’t be able to make new notes.
I did brush off this app as just another text editor but its approach to note taking has given me a new tool whenever I’m at a meeting or recording project notes with a client.
Note taking is a process that I took for granted. Agenda has helped me streamline my note taking work flowing and produce elegantly designed reports for my clients and projects.
If you have other workflows for note taking, I’d like to hear about how you do it.
Justin continues to work through this major life transition, and along the way has been thinking a lot about all the open loops in his life. He boils open loops down to four categories.
Justin gives an update on how he’s liking the Bullet Journal after using it for a week.
I’ve been thinking of all the friction points in my life and wondering what could I do to grease the wheels. I’ve been looking at the different areas of resistance I encountered and looked for workflows or systems to handle them.
Charles Duuhig has mentioned that our life is a series of habits that takes up 40% of our day. That’s a big chunk of tasks to think about! If an event happens at least three times, it’s time to create a checklist to refine the process. The Bookworm podcast discusses the book, The Checklist Manifesto. Eliminate decision-making ahead of time by creating a checklist. I no longer worry about missing a step and creating a mess that I have to clean up later.
Reviewing the checklist gives us a chance to see where we can refine the process even further. I like getting my friends’ input and let them see if there is something else that can be refined and I may have missed it. A fresh set of eyes can reveal other paths that I may not have thought of.
The Annoyance List
I keep an annoyance list with me. It’s a list of all the little things that bothers me. Perhaps it’s a leaking toilet. It might be a loose screw that keeps coming out of a device and I would have to screw it back in every once in a while. I had a friend whose car was always leaking power steering fluid in his junk car. He would buy a box of power steering fluid and keep it in his car trunk. He would occasionally add power steering fluid whenever his dashboard light turned on. I’m sure it irritated him but he didn’t want to take the time out of his busy to get rid of this nuisance. He probably didn’t have an annoyance list and he just lived with this annoyance. Keeping an annoyance list gives me a nice list of things that I should be taking care of. I create new projects and tasks to care of the small friction points in life.
Combining two unrelated tasks
I used to hate mowing my lawn. It was a brain-dead activity for me. But I’m changing my attitude towards brain-dead tasks by combining it with something I like to do.When I’m cutting my grass, I often start listening to podcasts and audiobooks inside my ear mufflers. Other times, I might just put on the ear mufflers and just let my mind wander. Those are the best times for ideas to spring up out of nowhere.
Simplify My Life
I have a lot of duties to take care of. And sometimes it overwhelms me and I bite off more than I can chew. I’ve recently started to simplify my life and dedicate myself towards projects and tasks that align more closely with my personal goals and values.
I automate tasks where I can. Automatic bill paying helps to take reminder tasks out of my task manager. Apps such as Keyboard Maestro, TextExpander, and AppleScript helps reduce time spent on tasks by automating repeated actions. Some of my favorite resources to learn more about automation are:
- Automators Forum
- Automation Orchard
- Keyboard Maestro Forum
- The Alfred App forum
- Omni Automation for Omni Group products
- Siri User Guide
- Macsparky Siri Shortcuts Guide
It is certainly worth the effort to learn a little automation. The initial investment may be heavy and intimidating at first but it can quickly build enough momentum to make the effort worthwhile. I don’t have to learn everything about Keyboard Maestro. When I have a problem that needs a Keyboard Maestro macro, I will find out what commands I need and build a macro that works for me. I can build on the first few simple macros and start creating more complex solutions. I have a nice handful of Keyboard Maestro macros and I’m sure I’ll level up and figure out more complicated scripts.
Letting go of responsibilities is a challenge I still face nowadays. Delegating tasks to others (if possible) also reduces the size of my task manager’s database. The less I need to track in my task manager, the happier I am.
Delegating tasks may also require initial investment and can pay itself back many times in the future. Training another person to take over your duties on an interment or permanent basis relieves me from one duty so that I can concentrate on another duty. It can be frustrating trying to teach someone the ropes but the dividends will pay off in the end.
Delegating even half of a process can shorten the amount of time needed to finish. If you’re a podcaster, delegate postproduction work to someone else. If you’re a manager, you don’t have to be the one that has to count all the coffee beans. Let someone else do that.
Master My Tools
As a beginner, I’m slow as molasses as I try to learn a new workflow or master a new app. I remembered trying to use OmniFocus. It was a monster. Hard to tame but once I got my hooks on it, it became a powerful tool in my fight against un-productivity. I am also interested in other tools of the trade that will make my life easier. Photography, Photoshop, carpentry, and Siri Shortcuts are other subjects that I’m interested in mastering. One way to master a tool quickly is through online tutorials. There are many available for free on YouTube and Vimeo But there are also some worthwhile resources to look into.
They are well worth the price of membership. It’s like having a personal coach who can jumpstart your nascent talents. The initial cost is more than made up when you can reduce the time needed to learn a new skill and get you on your feet and running quickly.
Keyboard apps such as TextExpander, Keyboard Maestro, and Drafts can create templates at the stroke of a key. I love having automatic responses available at the touch of my hand. I have macros to automatically type today’s date, my address, canned responses, and help me fill in oft-repeated forms. I use Drafts to quickly create OmniFocus projects and fill in details such as name, start date, due date, and a few other details. TextExpander has a nifty little statistic panel that shows you how many hours and keystrokes you’ve saved by using TextExpander.
Document my workflows and create a script
It is easier to follow a script than it is to try to improvise on the spot. Using the Checklist Manifesto idea, I document a lot of my repeating workflows for my co-workers. I have been recording and refining many of my office routines. If I ever get sick and can’t come into the office, I know that I have a prepared work manual for others to follow and the office won’t skip a beat. My co-workers won’t need to guess at what I did because I already have detailed instructions for them.
Every day, I set aside 20 minutes to work on documentation. I write it as if I’m writing for a 6th grader. A typical U.S. newspaper is written at the 7th or 8th grade level. This ensures clear instructions. If a 7th grader can’t read it then I know I have some issues and need to rewrite it.
A call operator at a call center will have an app or binder filled with scripts. When the customer replies to a question, there are detailed scripts that allows the call operator to follow along on multiple branches. When they hit a dead end, they can call a supervisor for further instructions.
When I perform a repeating task, I take notes of possible obstacles and what I did to overcome them. Any possible issues and problems that may be encountered along the way are easily answered. I update my workflow documentation quite frequently because I will always encounter a new situation that requires adaptation.
For more complicated matters, I’ll record a video detailing the steps. You can see many examples on YouTube. You can learn how to change the toilet, how to maintain a bicycle, and even how to efficiently peel a hard boiled egg on YouTube. Everybody has a different learning style. Some people may gain more benefits from watching a video instead of reading an outline of steps.
Planning for tomorrow
I like to do a daily review at the end of day to update my task manager, look at tomorrow’s schedule, and try to schedule a few MITs (Most Important Tasks) and a Big Rock project. Having a game plan for the next day gives me comfort. I know what I want to do tomorrow and I put time blocks into tomorrow’s schedule. Friction comes from trying to decide what to do next. I don’t want to spend any more time trying to figure out what the next "best task" to work on. I don’t worry about it anymore. I hit the ground running tomorrow morning and know what I will be doing. That’s such a breath of relief instead of wasting time trying to figure out the next task to tackle.
Trying to grease the Wheels of My Life can be tough to start in the beginning. There is some initial startup costs in terms of money or time spent but they repay dividends easily.
Create checklists for routines.
Keep an annoyance list of all the things that bug you. Identifying the enemy is the first step in taking action towards defeating it.
Combine two unrelated tasks can ease the friction with doing an unpleasant task.
Simplify my life with automated actions such as auto bill-pay.
Simplify my life with automation apps such as Keyboard Maestro, TextExpander, Siri Shortcuts, and AppleScript to speed up tedious repeating processes.
Simplify my life by delegating duties and responsibilities to others. Train others to do some of the work that is your responsibility.
Master my tools by using online resources to teach me new workflows and techniques that will improve my final product.
Create pre-prepared templates for e-mails, correspondences, or notes. Reduce the time needed to prepare with templates.
Creating scripts and workflows. Documenting the steps needed to complete a process opens up the doors to delegate some of your duties to others.
Prepare tomorrow’s schedule so that much of the decision-making is taken out of the day.
I’m always looking for ways to make my life easier. If you have any ideas of what you can do to reduce your friction points in life, comment below!
Justin finds himself in a task management (and life) crisis, switches up the show format for the short term, and discusses his options for nuke and paving his system.
This week, Justin talks through the thought process of picking (or changing) a task manager.
Justin discusses Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism and how it impacts personal productivity.