I love personal productivity. In fact, years ago I started my very own GTD-based task management service. But I have changed quite a bit my take on productivity over the years. These days I am not that passionate about GTD anymore. Instead, I try hard to have as few things to track as possible. At the same time, after trying them all, the software that works best for me is a super simple todo app.

Fewer things to do, fewer things to track

I learned many good lessons from GTD and, especially, from interacting with people that understood the method much better than me:

  • Importance of tracking things to do
  • Collecting things that might represent something to do for later processing
  • Having few inboxes I empty often
  • Focus on tracking next actions for projects. This is, in my opinion, much more important than long lists of pending tasks (vertical planning).
  • Usage of calendar only for things that need to happen on a given date, like appointments, not for deadlines or estimations. Time can’t be managed!
  • Importance of periodically making sure your tasks are aligned with your goals

A few years ago I made a decision that simplified my life enormously: changing jobs. I went from a managerial-ish position in a huge organization to a pure-developing role in a small product company. I went for having to deal with a bunch of emails, meetings, reports and people every day to just having to focus on coding tasks.

At some point, I realized how much I loved having fewer things to track, so I decided to double down on that and started to actively not tracking things to do unless they were really something that, not only I needed to get done, but that I intended to get done in the very near term.

My system used to include 50-60 tasks which, by the way, is not an unusually high number by any means. I typically only addressed a tiny subset of those and kept like 40 tasks stagnating.

I have always been a big fan of lean manufacturing principles applied to software development. In particular, I firmly believe long queues are waste (for example, that long list of bugs everyone adds to without constraints). I realized I could benefit from applying the very same principles to my life. A long list of pending stuff is a burden: it stresses you out and it interferes with the things you really want to get done.

It is curious. The thing that most people get from GTD is how good it feels to empty your mind and write down all your commitments. I think this is a doubled-edged sword. Writing things down and getting them done are two very different beasts. Don’t lie to yourself. Mind your commitments.

My working assignments are on Github and Basecamp. I consider those like sources that inform my system. When I am ready to work on something, I grab it from there and, if it is a big thing, I move it into my system where I focus on the immediate next steps for it.

To give you an idea, my current system looks like this:

  • 5 projects with 1 or 2 actions per project on average. I try to focus more on “what moves things forward” and less on being comprehensive with the list of pending tasks.
  • 4 pending actions without project

And I don’t want to go back. If anything, I would love to simplify things even further.

On task management software

Because of my personal preferences, I wanted a native app for managing my tasks. In MacOS, there are 2 wonderful picks: Omnifocus and Things. I used Omnifocus for a few months and liked it but not loved it. Then, I tried Things for a while, but it didn’t click for me, despite its beautiful design.

Then I switched to Taskpaper, an app I had used intermittently for tracking assorted lists. It matched perfectly with my needs and with my taste: simple, lean, keyboard-powered and flexible. I never looked back.

Taskpaper does not offer an official iOS app but I don’t really miss it. I only use my phone for collecting things, for which I mostly use Apple Notes these days.

Conclusion

If you have way too many things to do, instead of tracking them all, you might question whether you really intend to do so many things. Negotiate with yourself. Restating the problem can be a much better approach than looking for the ultimate productivity system.

When it comes to personal productivity, I love reviewing and changing things, but my current system has worked for me better and longer than anything else I have tried in the past. In particular, software might change but doing less is a safe bet for being more productive, as silly as it sounds.