A Minimalist Set of Apps for Getting Things Done

By Nat Eliason in Productivity

I’m a productivity porn addict.

If you’re not familiar with the term, “productivity porn” refers to all of the articles, books, apps, websites, infographics, and so on that try to help you be more productive.

I had to get out of the bad habit of trying every single popular new app out there to see if it fits into my workflow, or can help me get more things done. If you’re reading this you might have the same habit.

I also had to get myself to stop reading wasteful websites like LifeHacker, LifeHack, 99U, Pick the Brain, etc. They all profit on productivity porn addictions, which is why they spew out the same useless content week after week.

What’s So Bad About Productivity Porn Though?

Producivity tools and methods should be treated like a tool, not like a drug. A toolamplifies your existing ability to do something, or lets you do something you’d not be otherwise capable of on your own. A tool doesn’t do all of the work for you. A drug is a complete solution to a problem–something you can just “take” and have your problem go away.

The reason productivity porn is so popular is that the readers are looking for drugs: that one productivity trick that will solve all of their life problems, let them write that book, let them run that marathon, let them start that company, etc.

But apps and methods have to be used as tools. If you already have bad habits then apps and methods will simply amplify your bad habits, or help you channel your bad habits in slightly different ways.

The Apps Don’t Matter That Much

You could use a pen and paper for 99% of what all productivity apps out there do (aside from social components). The good productivity apps simply do the best job of providing a better experience than pen and paper.

While the specific apps don’t matter that much, I’m a big advocate for using as few as possible. If your life and work is only living in 3 or 4 apps, it’s much easier to keep track of everything than if you’re using 10 or even 20.

You could download a new app for every single thing in your life you want to work on… but it’s better to find one that can be very broadly applied and then hack it into working for a bunch of different categories. I’ll explain that more below.

My Productivity Stack

I keep everything I’m doing in three apps: Trello, Evernote, and Lift. There are the occasional few other apps I’ll use for one-off things (like Anki for learning new words, people’s names, etc.) but I don’t consider those to be part of my “suite.”

Trello

The Method

If you’re familiar with the “Scrum” method of software development, that’s what I base my productivity around. If not, then you might want to check out this book or just go to the Wikipedia page. The book that I got this original idea from is called Getting Results the Agile Way.

First I have my overarching goals. These are the big goals, which usually will take anywhere from 1-3 months, that help me set my smaller goals. They include things like “reach 100,000 personal blog views,” “Weigh 185lbs with < 12% bodyfat,” “Complete Ryan Holiday’s “Mastery of Marketing Reading List,”” as well as goals for work and school. I generally don’t like setting goals for longer than 3 months… but if I do have a big goal like that I’ll chunk it down into smaller pieces.

From those goals, I set aside some time each Sunday night to decide on my goals for the week, as well as reflect on how the past week went. My weekly goals are usually based on smaller chunks of the overarching goals, unless some other small things come up. Then each evening I take a few minutes to set my top 3-5 goals for the next day based on chunks of my weekly goals.

Where Trello Comes In

The great thing about Trello is that its design is actually based on Agile software development, though a slightly different version from Scrum called “Kanban.”

Think of the whole Trello app as a giant whiteboard. This whiteboard is then divided into columns, into which you can place sticky notes and move them around.

I’ll explain how I organize it, and you can see an example of how it’s setup here: Example Trello Board

I put all of my life goals and tasks into a single board. This board is divided into a few columns:

  • “Goal Backlog,” which is the list of possible future overarching goals that I’m not currently working on
  • “Overarching Goals,” which is the list of big goals that I am currently working on. These are the 1-3 month long goals
  • “Weekly Goals,” my goals for this week
  • “Daily Goals,” my goals for today
  • “Daily Other Tasks,” miscellaneous other things I need to do that are less important than the big goals
  • “Today’s Accomplishments,” the things I’ve gotten done each day so I can see how much I’m accomplishing, and
  • “Weekly Accomplishments,” everything I’ve completed in a week to make my Sunday night reflections much easier.

Then I create cards within each column, add checklists as necessary, and move cards around as I start working on them and finish them.

Before I started using Trello though, I was doing this system with pen, paper, and a whiteboard. It didn’t solve my productivity problems, it just gave me a much better tool for managing my existing system.

Evernote

At its core, Evernote is a note taking app. It’s broken down by notes, which live in notebooks, which in turn live in notebook stacks. These notes can be anything: pieces of text, pictures, audio files, videos, articles, checklists, reminders, but using it just to take notes misses some of its potential: I use it as my catch-all knowledge repository.

Ways You Can Use Evernote

These are just some of the things I’ve adapted Evernote to work for:

1. Writing. Before publishing anything online, I’ll write at least the outline in Evernote. I’ll also capture all of my ideas for future articles here.

2. Taking Notes in Classes. Since the notebooks and notebook stacks provide an easy way to stay organized, I have a notebook stack for all of my classes and then a notebook for each class. Within each class’s notebook, I’ll have my notes from each class as well as notes on the readings and copies of any material that’s handed out. I try not to use any paper with my classes.

3. Tracking My Health. I could use apps like MyFitnessPal, Fitocracy, and SleepTime to track my diet, exercise, sleep, health, and so on, but I prefer to do it using tables in Evernote. It’s a little less intuitive, and there’s no social feature, but it lets me keep all of my data in one place and uses significantly fewer apps.

4. Saving Online Articles. Instead of using an app like Pocket, I clip any article I find interesting into Evernote. It’s easier to keep everything in one place, and this lets me mark up and add notes to the articles.

5. Journaling. I’m sure there are other journaling apps out there, but again I like having everything in one place. I simply create a new note for each day where something interesting happened.

6. Any Other Note Taking. Whenever I have ideas, or learn something new, I make sure to make a note of it. This could range from new teas I discover, to great marketing articles, to entrepreneurship ideas, to how to play poker, to new experiments to run on myself, and tons of other things. I have a bit over 1,400 notes despite using it for only a year.

Lift.do

Lift is the best app for tracking your habits and helping you stick to them. I’m usually trying to adopt at least one new habit, if not more, at any time, and Lift is a great way to keep yourself accountable.

You simply sign up, select the habits you want to start tracking, and then check in every day to log whether or not you got it done. As habits become ingrained you can archive them, and you can always add new ones. One great additional feature is that there’s a thriving community around the most popular habits, so people will give you props and support you along the way.

If you install the app you’re also able to have it remind you each day at different times of the habits you need to keep working on, just to make sure you don’t forget.

One More Thing: RescueTime

This is less of a tool, since you don’t need to actively use it every day, but rather a robust way to track where your time is going. I use Evernote for all of my other types of tracking, but when it comes to where my time is actually going, it’d be too tedious to do on my own.

RescueTime monitors your computer activity, and if you go premium, also lets you log offline time. Then each week it sends you a rundown of how you did, where you lost the most time, and where you spent the most. It’s extremely useful to see where your biggest time sucks are coming from, to help you figure out what you need to work on. If you’re reaching the end of your week and wondering where all of your time went, RescueTime is for you.

Making Your Own Stack

It’s tempting to simply adopt a system like mine since it’s been tested and vetted, but I don’t recommend that. My system works for me because I developed a functioning system with hardly any tools, then found the tools that let me do it better and faster. I recommend you go about it the same way. Don’t try new tools just for the sake of seeing if it makes you more effective; that hardly ever works, and you just end up wasting a lot of time trying new productivity software.

Footnotes

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.