The three productivity apps I use

Martin McBride
2022-07-06

There are many productivity systems, and probably even more apps that support them.

They all have pros and cons, so how do you choose?

It depends on your needs. In this article, I will list the apps I use, and why they suit my particular needs. If you are in a similar situation, I hope you find this helpful.

My work habits

I have quite a few side projects going on. Right now I have several websites that I try to update reasonably often and three Python open-source projects. I also usually have a book or course, or medium article I am working on as a background task.

Of course, I don't work on them all at the same time. In any given week I usually only work on one or two of them. Which ones depends mainly on what I feel enthusiastic about at the time. After all, these are side-projects ... my hobbies.

But even if I neglect a project for a while, I usually come back to it in the end, and the easier it is to pick it back up, the better.

What I need from a productivity system

These are the things I most need from my system. If any of these match your needs, perhaps some of the suggestions here might be useful:

  • Day-to-day tracking progress on whatever projects I am actively working on.
  • Keeping the other projects bubbling in the background, because at some point I will spend time on them and I want to be able to pick up where I left off.
  • At certain times, developing a detailed plan, for example for a new book or section of a website, or a new feature for a software project.
  • Capturing new ideas.
  • Saving useful information where I can find it easily.
  • Always knowing what to do next.

Some of these things might not strictly seem like productivity issues, but they can certainly slow you down if you don't have them.

App 1 - Obsidian

I currently use Obsidian and a loose version of the PARA system. I say currently because in the past I used MS OneNote. In fact, almost any note-taking or "second brain" app would do. The fact that Obsidian uses markdown files can be useful if you have a markdown-based workflow for your websites or books. Obsidian seems pretty good but I wouldn't call myself a power user.

The PARA system divides your notes into four sections.

Projects A project is a set of tasks that need to be completed to achieve a goal. A project should have a deadline, although that doesn't need to be taken too literally.

At a minimum, a project should be something that you are able to complete, rather than something that has unknown elements. If there are things that still need investigating to check if the project is even possible, consider creating a separate investigation project.

I like to keep projects small - a chapter of a book, a blog article, a new software feature, etc. I also limit the number of projects I have active at a time. If I want to start on something new, I try to finish one of the open projects first. That way things don't get left half done. It works as an incentive to finish off the last niggling bits of a project and put it to bed - you can't start on the next new and exciting thing until you have finished something else.

Often I find that a project is simply a todo list, or maybe a mind map, to detail what needs to be done.

Areas Areas are broader than projects. They cover overall topics, so writing a book might be an area, or maintaining a website. Areas can include multiple projects. For example, a book area might contain a project for each chapter, and maybe a release project, that will become active projects at a certain point.

Areas can also include possible projects, such as a list of ideas for potential future blog posts. These will either be padded out to become projects or maybe just dropped if they don't make sense.

Areas can contain other things, such as reminders to perform periodic maintenance tasks, learning goals, or habits you want to form.

Information that is directly relevant to an area can also be stored here.

Research This is a section for keeping any information that isn't directly related to any project or area. This is what some people call their second brain.

Depending on what tool you use, and your personal preference, you can structure these files in some way, or just keep them unstructured and rely on tags and search.

Archive This is the place to keep anything from the other sections that you no longer need. It avoids clogging up your thought processes by continuously having to deal with a lot of out-of-date stuff, but it means the information is still stored just in case.

The main thing I use it for is to store completed projects. I use a folder structure with a separate folder for each month of each year. When I complete a project I just move the project file from Projects to Archive. It is nice to look back at the end of each month and realise that you have actually achieved more than you might have thought.

I also use one more section - an Inbox. This is the area where I capture things that I don't want to lose but don't want to deal with immediately. For example, a random idea, or an interesting article that I might want to refer back to.

You should review the whole thing once in a while, maybe once a month, to check if there are any areas or projects that need a bit more attention, or if a random note you took weeks ago might inspire a whole new project, or conversely if something that seemed once like a great idea is now an obvious non-starter that can be deleted to keep your notes uncluttered.

App 2 - XMind

For planning more complex projects, I often use mind-mapping. There is something about being able to move elements around easily, and see the relationships, that makes this a lot better than trying to write a todo list in one go.

I find XMind to be the best mind-mapping app. It is efficient to use, it has extra features such as notes, labels, relationships, summaries, and boundaries that often come in useful. The maps look good, which I find oddly important for some reason, and it is easy to create maps using different styles and colour schemes. This helps to keep each project separate in your mind.

XMind also works on Windows and Linux (and it works on Apple, unlike me), and there is a web-based version that integrates with Dropbox or Google Drive. The same files work across all versions.

XMind isn't free, it costs about $50 a year. It is one of the few things I subscribe to, but there are free mind mapping applications that are perfectly adequate alternatives.

Typically I will use the mind map right at the start of a big project, and work on it until it is reasonably solid. I then export different parts of the map as text, that can be easily converted into markdown todo lists for Obsidian.

Sometimes that is it, but sometimes I go back to the mind map if I need to replan.

App 3 Google Calendar

The final cog in the machine is always knowing what to do next. Without that, I am prone to spending the first hour of my day trying to decide what to do, and often get distracted by something that really doesn't need doing at all.

To avoid that, I try to block out my time every few days. If I have all day available for side projects I typically split the day into morning, afternoon, and evening, and schedule work on three different projects. If I just have the evening, it is just one project.

But I am not a slave to it. If I am steaming ahead in the morning I can, of course, carry on working on the same project in the afternoon if I feel like it. The main point is to always have a default thing to do, and over a week to make progress on two or three projects.

So why Google Calendar? I've looked at other time management systems and they just seem like overkill for what I need. They all have Pomodoro timers or integrated billing systems or other nonsense. Or they cost money for something that I don't feel the need to pay for.

Summary

So those are the three systems I use for project management, project planning, and time management. They suit my working patterns and run on Windows, Linux or Macs.

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