11 Simple Things I Did to Improve my Productivity

I’m constantly experimenting with different ways to improve my productivity.

For a long time in my career I was consistently, horribly distracted. I didn’t have any systems in place to keep myself on track and my productivity ebbed and flowed from week-to-week and even hour-to-hour.

I can’t say I have it all figured out. I go through phases where I’m really productive and phases where a fall into a rut. But lately I’ve been able to keep myself consistently productive and when I see a rut coming, my systems help keep me on track.

The entire CMX team works remotely and we often work different hours, so it’s really important that we develop the individual discipline to stay productive and get our work done.

Here are a few simple changes I’ve made that helped me become more productive in the last year.

1. Limit and condense meetings

I love meeting new people. As a result, I have a hard time saying no to meetings.

I used to just accept all meeting requests that came my way and I’d let the other person choose the time and place. This caused a lot of issues as I’d find myself hopping from meeting to meeting throughout the day, running all over the city with just small chunks of time in between to actually do work.

I realized I needed to gain some control over my meetings. I did this in three ways:

1. I try (sometimes I bend the rules) to book all of my meetings from 12-2pm every day. That’s it. I’ve been doing this for several months now and it’s completely changed the game.

2. I started saying no to meetings when I feel that we can accomplish the same goal over email. So if someone wants to grab coffee to ask me questions, I might ask them to send questions over email instead.

3. I started controlling the time and place by…

2. Using Assistant.to

In order to control the timing of your meetings, it’s important that you can be the first one to offer up potential times.

This app, assistant.to, has been the best new tool I’ve discovered in years.

Basically whenever someone emails me asking for a meeting, I can say “Sure, let me know if any of these times work”. With just a few clicks, assistant.to plugs in the times I have specified are available (12-2 every day) and the other person can simply click on one of the times to book the meeting and have a calendar invite sent.

It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-16 at 5.30.30 PM

That means I control the times that we can meet. It also means I can often control the location since assistant.to lets you put in a location.

As a result I spend less time going back and forth on scheduling, I have better control over the timing of my meetings and I don’t have to travel to meetings as much.

3. Organizing my emails into buckets (inspired by Andreas Klinger)

I’ve admittedly only been experimenting with this for a couple weeks but it’s already been working out really well.

I was inspired by Andreas Klinger’s article about how to use gmail more efficiently. I tried his system and the format didn’t work perfectly, but I was able to adapt it to work for my needs.

This is what his system looks like:

klinger email

I basically adapted this by putting the buckets below my inbox instead of the side and I changed the purpose of each bucket to fit me needs.

As emails come in I can sort them into 4 different buckets:

  • Needs a response that will take more than 2 minutes
  • I need to follow up on this later
  • This has information I need later (travel plans, event tickets, etc)
  • Reading list (articles or links I want to check out later)

The unique thing I learned from Andreas is using stars or other symbols to organize the emails instead of folders, which really streamlines the process.

4. Optimized my todo list using a notebook and my own system

I’ve tried SO many todo apps in my career and nothing has ever really stuck. Eventually I started just using a simple notebook and over time adapted my system for keeping track of everything.

I’ve now been using this system for about a year and I love it. It’s perfect for me.

Here’s what it looks like:

todo list

  • Every time I want to add a new task, I just add it to the bottom of the list
  • I add an empty circle to the right if I intent to do it today
  • I can only have 3 empty circles at a time (this is the most important part)
  • When I finish a task, I fill in the circle (feels great!) and cross out the task
  • If I need to prioritize the circles, I can fill them in with numbers
  • Sometimes if I have a lot of tasks and I want to wrap my head around how long everything will take, I’ll write a little number all the way to the right making how many minutes it will take (like where I wrote 30 in the picture)
  • Every Monday, I take all the tasks that haven’t been done and I start a new sheet in my notebook (always on the left side….the right side is used for goals, reflection and planning)

5. Writing down my ideal daily schedule and keeping it in front of me at all times

This is something new I’m trying this year that has worked as well. I wrote out my ideal daily schedule on a sheet of notebook paper, along with my goals for this year.

I keep it on my desk in my room so I see it every morning when I wake up. I need to make another copy to keep at my desk at work.

Basically, it’s my default.  I don’t always keep to that schedule exactly but when I feel overwhelmed with the day, or I’m not sure what to do next, I can refer back to that daily schedule.

Here’s what it looks like:

daily schedule

6. Taking time to reflect and plan, every day

As you can see in my schedule, every morning I take 15 minutes to just review my todo list, my goals, and set a plan for the day.

I make sure to do this before I open my computer, before I start responding to emails and before I start doing any real work.

This way, I take a proactive first step in my workday, I can identify the things I know I definitely want to get done above all else, and I don’t start my day catering to other people’s needs.

7. Start every week fresh and revisit goals

As I mentioned earlier, every Monday I take all my tasks that weren’t completed and I move it to a new sheet in the notebook.

I’ll also revisit my goals for the week and write them down. These goals are what set the priority for my tasks. So every time I add a new task to my list and I have to decide whether to do it today or put it off, I look at the goals I wrote down and ask myself if this task will help achieve that goal.

I think this is really important, starting every week with a fresh mind.

Often, I end up just crossing off tasks because I realize they weren’t that important. Or I’ll find that my goals have changed since the last week and I need to adjust my priorities.

By looking at every week as a fresh start, I’ve been able to focus on the right things instead of just doing things because they were on my list last week.

8. Write down everything looming in your head

There will *always* be something looming.

That task that you just don’t want to do. That hard talk that you’ve been putting off with someone. That big decision that you have to make but you don’t have a strong opinion either way.

It’s these things that just loom over us throughout the workday that can really drain our mental energy and cause an incredible amount of stress.

One way that I’ve been able to deal with this is to just write down everything that’s on my mind. Sometimes I’ll actually write down “What’s looming?” on the right side of my notebook and try to think specifically about the things that have been bothering me.

This way, it’s out of my mind and onto the paper. And once it’s on the paper I have the choice to face it right there or put it off longer. Either way, I can address it instead of keeping it as this vague ongoing struggle in my mind.

9. Using Slack to communicate with my team

Slack has been a huge productivity booster for our team. It’s greatly cut down the amount of email we send each other.

And if there’s any way to improve productivity, it’s to reduce the amount of email you have to sort through.

I highly recommend using slack or some sort of simple chat application for your team to discuss the smaller things that come up throughout the day. We only use email to discuss larger projects that we need to plan and structure in depth.

10. Got a consistent desk at a coworking space

For most of my career I’ve worked from home or from coffee shops. I’ve had a lot of fun with it and I’m actually really productive at coffee shops.

But recently we got a couple desks at Galvanize, an amazing new coworking space in SF. I have to say, I really enjoy working at an office.

It all comes down to creating routines and consistency. If I had to boil down all productivity advice into two words, it would be those two.

So having the same office and desk to come to every day, having a space where you can focus and not having to make a decision every morning about where to work can be a huge boost to productivity.

The CMX team has the option of working remotely and we can all work whenever we want. So for me it’s not necessarily about having to have your team in the same office. It’s more about creating consistency for yourself.

11. Meditate every day

I’ve experimented with meditation for a long time but only recently did I make it a part of my daily morning routine.

I can’t say enough about how helpful it’s been. When I wake up, my mind immediately starts racing. All the tasks I have in front of my, the decisions I’m facing, the challenges ahead all come rushing in at once. It’s a tough way to start the day.

Meditation has really helped manage that. I only take about 10 minutes to sit quietly in my room after doing a quick workout and rest my mind. I let each of those thoughts come, I acknowledge them, then I let them settle.

The best meditation advice I’ve read in a long time came in this really short story (read the last two paragraphs of that page). That’s how I think of meditation now, letting my thoughts all settle to the bottom so my mind can be clear and address them in turn.

If my mind is really going crazy, I turn to calm.com to help guide me through meditation exercises.

Those are just some of the things I’ve recently been doing to improve my productivity and mental health.

What have you tried? What worked? What didn’t?

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