For a long time I’ve wanted to share personal and team productivity techniques I and others I work with have found useful.  I’ve probably hesitated on this because there are so many excellent tools I use and I always think I should boil it down to just a few and explain all my reasons for using this or that app.

It’s seems there is also a constant stream of new technologies to help confound the issue further.  Productivity isn’t just about what apps you use, rather your discipline and routines of working to fullest capacity.

There are so many sub-topics in the realm of productivity to cover.  Personal, work, medical practice/office, team members, project based, task lists – and on and on.

So I’m jumping in and will attempt to launch the “Productivity” category on this blog, and hope you find it useful.

Email Zero

This is my goal for each morning:

empty email inbox


Now I’m an early riser, usually by 5 or 6 AM I’m getting started, this AM it was 3:30.  I find these early morning hours to be among my most productive when there is no one else around, it’s quiet, and it’s all mine.  I use some of this as my “thinking time” where I reflect on all the different projects going on and brainstorm and strategize on specific goals.  I’ll cover goal setting and project planning in other posts.

But here I want to cover getting to zero emails in your inbox.  I generally follow GTD (Getting Things Done) practices made popular by David Allen and similar techniques like the Eisenhower 4 quadrant system (I won’t cover detailed accounts of these philosophies, they are covered quite well by an easy google search).  Basically for the 4 quadrants you are looking at those tasks that are:

  1. Important/Urgent
  2. Important/Not Urgent
  3. Not Important/Urgent
  4. Not Important/Not Urgent

The basic GTD principle is to get everything swimming around in your head out of there and written down into different lists based on priorities and contexts.  Once everything has a place, your stress level about dwelling on all your tasks and projects is reduced because they all are being dealt with appropriately.

Now back to the inbox.  Most of the tasks and projects we need to do come to us through emails, so this is the first place you need to get control of.  What really helps me is using gmail’s inbox categories, because now right away you can focus on the primary inbox for most of your “urgent/important” items.  The Social and promotion buckets I’ll quickly scan, select all and delete/archive.  In social there are generally some LinkedIn messages or invites I’ll accept or respond to.

The primary inbox is where most of the hard work is.  If I’ve emptied my inbox the afternoon or evening before, there should only be a few messages left in the AM.  I will process these in the morning, create my task list for the day, then avoid constantly checking the inbox throughout the day.  Rather, work from my task lists, attend to my scheduled appointments, then have some scheduled time late morning and late afternoon to again process emails.

I go through the oldest messages first (which lately have been within hours, not days or weeks).  Here is the process:

  • If it is Important/Urgent and can be done in less than 2 minutes, do it now.  Otherwise it must go on my high priority list (more on this in a bit)
  • Important/Not Urgent items are those that move you towards your goals or responsibilities.  These go on my medium priority list.
  • Not Important/Urgent means items that are not your specific areas of responsibility and should be delegated to others or reply with recommendations or resources to allow the sender to solve the issue themselves.  These should also be in the “less than 2 minutes” category.  If it will take longer than that, put it on your medium priority list.
  • Not Important/Not Urgent – most of these are in your social and promotion buckets and can be deleted/archived.  If there are some items you still want to do, put them on your low priority list.
  • The updates bucket similarly are mostly informational and quickly read and archived, but if you use project planning apps, many of those task oriented messages will reside in this bucket, so they will need to be processed similar to the primary inbox.

Now your inbox is empty!  That’s it!

Project Management, To-Do and Task list apps

Ah, but you haven’t really dealt with all your tasks.  You’ve moved them to several lists.  How do you do that and where are those?  There are many, many task list, to-do, and project management apps and I feel like I’ve trialed or used most of the popular apps out there, personal and team, free to expensive.  Not going to name them all because there are too many and not my purpose to do a comparison.

The simplest way to put those items in their respective lists is just to make gmail or outlook folders labeled appropriately by priority.  Once your inbox is empty, you go to the “high priority” list and start working those items before moving on to medium and low.

But OK, I’ll divulge the one project/task management tool I mainly use now is TeamWork.  This gives me a widget right on my gmail toolbar so I can assign any email to any of my projects and task lists:

teamwork google widget

I can choose any of my projects, tasklists in those projects, describe what needs to be done, assign to myself or someone else, assign a priority, start and due dates.  Even more detail is available once I click “create task” I have the option to go to the task directly in the teamwork app and add it there.

create teamwork task in gmail


After all my emails are processed, I go to my account, and sort all my tasks by priority.  I will assign a time estimate to each of my high priority tasks and reconcile this total time with my scheduled appts throughout the day, then work down through my medium and low priority tasks.  If there are truly high priority items but not enough time in the day, this tells me I may have to reschedule an existing appointment of less importance/urgency.  When I am meeting with any of my team members I can filter the list to see all of their tasks I’ve assigned them in any or all projects/tasklists and record progress.  Of course they will receive all these via an email and can update their progress avoiding unnecessary time chasing down what’s been done, who’s doing it and when.

There are many, many other features of this particular app that I love, from managing simple task lists to major complex projects with dependencies and gantt charts and the whole lot, but really beyond the scope of this discussion.  The important thing is to get all of your tasks boiled down to prioritized, management chunks on lists that work for you.

If you find you can’t get through your emails or your to-do lists are ever enlarging, you have a different problem.  You will either need to learn how to delegate better, or focus more on your specific goals and responsibilities and learn how to politely decline those tasks that do not move you towards those goals.

I hope this first installment of “productivity” is helpful to you, please let me know by comment here if there are particular productivity issues you are interested in learning more about.


8-26-16 Update – I still like Teamwork, but for the last year or so I’ve been using Wrike – see this next article for details!