Hey Andy and Emma,
I’m curious: How do you manage your time? What tools, apps, systems do you guys use?
Andy: Oh, this question really speaks to me. I was on the hunt for the perfect productivity system for so long, obsessed with productivity posts, new apps, systems, tools. It was part of my quest to optimize myself in every way possible — so I could do more, more easily. I once downloaded a speed reading plug-in for Chrome, Spreed, that would rapid-flash words at me, one at a time, so I could read my emails faster.
Emma: I did not know this about you, and I am delighted. I’m guessing that plug-in lasted….three days?
Andy: Definitely longer than it should have. You really had to hold your head still for it to work…
Emma: As much as we are the same, Andy, this was never a quest I shared with you. I am not a tools person at all, and “system” is a pretty generous way to describe how I put together my day. Any time I’ve radically changed that system, it’s been thrust upon me, often by a boss who probably read one of those productivity posts.
Andy: I’ll never forget how valiantly you tried to make Trello work for your non-Trello brain. You stared at those cards like they were going to mutate on their own. The communication system in Arrival was more effective for you than a Trello board.
Emma: It’s so simple! Why can’t I make it work?
Andy: I hear you. For a while, everyone I knew was using this super-powered to-do list app — I can’t even recall the name of it now, maybe something like Optilist? It was too much for me. I spent more time recategorizing my tasks than doing them.
Emma: Some things just don’t take!
Andy: I love this article in The Atlantic, The Productivity Obsession. It hits the nail on the head: the app store promises us a means to regain control of an out-of-control way of working. But productivity can be a trap. When will you know you’re productive enough? And, is “I’ll solve this by simply being more productive!” standing in the way of actually solving the problem at hand?
Emma: Yes! Every time I’ve tried a new style of working or a different tool, it’s rarely been attached to a concrete piece of feedback like, “Emma, to hit our goals we need you to produce 13% more work every week” or “Oh no, I forgot another task!” It’s always been because of the sheer potential for more.
Andy: Do I think there are tools in the world that can help make work and life easier? Of course. Should we try them? Let’s! Will the tools that work for me also work for you? Maybe, maybe not. What I do know is that a never-ending quest for more is a waste of time and productivity, not a boon to it.
Emma: I think over time you and I have balanced our way to a pretty neutral middle. You’ve toned down your hunger for more for the sake of more. I’ve gotten better at identifying where I actually want to see improvements in my life and then finding solutions that work for me.
Andy: Completely agree, and I gotta say: that middle ground is pretty great.
How We Manage Our Time
Combined, we’ve worked for over two decades and managed hundreds of people. We’ve survived holiday seasons, hiring pushes, product launches. We’re not perfect and we’re not superheroes, but we do accomplish a lot of work. (We also know how validating it is to learn that someone shares one of your habits.) This is what works for us.
Andy: When I’m at work, I always have three things: my laptop, my pen, and my notebook. I use a really crappy spiral notebook. It can’t be anything fancy and it must be in ready supply. It’s important that it’s this crappy kind so I can take notes without thinking about optimizing space or making them make sense. I’ve dabbled with Five Star and find them unnecessarily sturdy.
Emma: I’m also a notebook person! Apps like Evernote and Roam get me in trouble: I don’t always have my laptop open, and I can’t write fast enough on my phone, so at least a portion of my notes always end up floating around on some scrap of paper, ready to be lost.
I take notes because I don’t have a great memory — writing long-hand helps with retention, and if it’s not on paper, there’s a 63% chance that it’s gone forever. This is an important point. Other than project management tools, note-taking is the thing I’ve seen the most people try to “figure out” simply because they think they should do it. But if you’re my brother and have near-perfect recall for any event across his entire lifetime, taking my kind of notes would be absurd.
Andy: He might benefit more from an organizational tool that can help him plan or strategize or communicate his Sherlockian brain, like a mind map.
Andy: I keep my to-do lists on paper, even when there’s a project app that I work from (usually Asana for my own projects, plus whatever my employer uses). I fold a piece of my notebook paper in half. On the left, I do a brain dump of every to-do that’s on my mind, big and small, work and nonwork. If it’s on paper, I don’t have the burden of remembering it — something I learned from David Allen’s productivity classic Getting Things Done.
Emma: Some things do stick!
Andy: It’s true! On the right side of the paper, I list the hours of the day. Then, I slot the tasks from the to-do side onto the hours side. This is an act of prioritization and also honesty: What must get done today? What can be done today? What needs to wait until tomorrow?
Emma: I also use a paper to-do list, and it also is born out of every idea that bumbles its way into my head. Long-term goals tend to live in their own list and they get slotted in periodically; stuff that needs to get done is starred; anything that doesn’t get done is bumped to the next day or later in the week. From what I understand about Bullet Journaling, I think it might be that? My favorite form factor is one of those mini-legal pads that I carry stacked on top of my crappy spiral notebook.
Andy: I use GCal for meetings, of course, but I also use it for blocking out time to do my own work, and for adding in buffer time before and after things.
Emma: I will also use my calendar to set reminders for due dates, when to follow up with someone, when bills or services are due. And, since I stopped with Facebook, birthdays!
Andy: When I was a new manager, I could go the whole day answering questions and putting out fires and never getting any of my own work done. Finding the Pomodoro technique freed me: you work in 25 minute chunks of time, then take a 5 minute break. If I got an interruption during that 25 minutes, for example, a question from my boss, I could check its urgency. Often it could wait. The next pomodoro, I’d dedicate to answering that question and any other emails that came in. This technique helped me to complete one thought or action at a time. I used Tomato Timer to keep track of my time until eventually I could basically do it on my own.
Emma: At my first job out of college, the CEO read about sprints as a way to increase productivity and directed us all to start immediately. I hated timing myself then, and I continue to hate sprints today. If I had to guess, I think I max out at about 12-18 minutes of focused work before I take a break or move on to something new.
Rituals and routines
Andy: Nearly every morning, I handwrite three Morning Pages pages in another crappy spiral notebook that I leave at home. They’re where I complain, where I brainstorm, where I worry, where I wonder. The practice comes from The Artist’s Way, and there’s no wrong way to do them. You don’t have to be a writer or an artist.
Emma: I learned about Morning Pages from you! I loved the idea so much — I had visions of my mornings kick-starting with inspiration and creativity. Then I tried it and I hated it and quit after three weeks. That said, I do appreciate some sort of morning meditation. My version comes during my walk to work where I breathe air and drink a latte and think through the day before me. I talk to myself and practice the conversations and presentations I know are coming my way. It’s not as embarrassing as it sounds.