Recently, I was watching an interview by Sam Alman, the CEO of OpenAI and former President of YCombinator, where he touched upon a dozen topics, two of which were “experimentation” and “productivity.” He says [about the culture at OpenAI],
“Try lots of things, let people follow their intuitions, and when something starts working, put a lot more resources behind it.”
I think about productivity the same way. There are very, very few practices that can be called the “gold standard” when it comes to improving one’s productivity. Practices that can be applied by everyone the same way and have the same result.
You have to experiment. You have to try lots of things, follow your intuition, and when something starts working, put all your effort into strengthening that practice.
We all have our superpowers; I consider one of mine to be planning & execution (aka getting things done), where I would place myself in the top 5% of the population. This isn’t hubris speaking. It’s years of experimentation trying different practices. I’ve used diaries, post-its, Trello, OneNote, Notion, and more that I forget now. Finally, I feel confident enough to say that I found the tool and routine that seems to be working, and working well.
In this article, I’ll walk you through my custom-built planner and routine in Notion for GTD, share a template you can start using from today, and help you set your routine. If you realize by the end of this article that this isn’t for you, that’s okay. Think of this as another checkpoint in your experimentation journey. The point is: you tried.
I. First, What Is Notion & What Is GTD?
Notion is the name of a startup as well as its product — an all-in-one productivity app that lets you create everything from kanban boards to databases to to-do lists, with a minimalistic, conscious design and excellent user interface.
I have been using the app since Feb 2019, and have grown to consider it my second brain (along with Roam Research). I was also fortunate enough to visit the startup’s HQ back in March 2019, meet the team, and write a feature article on them that got published in Hackernoon.
Note: If you’re new to using Notion, consider signing up using my invite code.
GTD refers to Gettings Things Done, a term made popular by David Allen, through his book… well, Getting Things Done. The premise of the concept is to free up your limited mental energy by externalizing all the work you need to do in actionable chunks and ensuring that you do them.
“One of the basic assumptions of GTD is that you are dumb — or, rather, that your subconsciousness is quite dumb when it comes to thinking about things you should do. For example knowing you need to get your watch repaired, but instead of reminding you when you actually bike past the watch store, it implants an incessant feeling of “I need to remember … something” in your brain.” — A pretty good post on GTD
Figure: A rad illustration explaining GTD. Source: Hamberg.
GTD urges you to externalize by writing down a list of everything that comes to your mind at any point in time, and assign appropriate tags to them so you know when to do what. Every time you have a new task at hand, you either do it right away, defer it to be done later, delegate it to someone else (e.g. sending an email and waiting for their response), or just disregard it because it’s not useful or needed anymore.
I implement GTD in my own way in Notion, which retains the essence of the principle while adding more elements that make it more efficient for me. Let’s get into it now!
II. Introducing My Planner
I spent upwards of 10 hours thinking through and building this planner to ensure it makes the planning and execution process seamless for me. And I’ve iterated on it many times. I don’t expect you to use it exactly the way I do; but I hope, detailing its various components and how I use it will serve you as inspiration to figure out your seamless process.
Figure: Soundarya’s GTD Planner 2021
The planner itself, as you see above, is really just a database filled with the following columns: Task: The task you want to accomplish. If the task is too big, I recommend turning it into a template and adding more context inside the page. We will discuss more about this in section 3.2. Status: The status of the task. This can be:
- To-Do: Tasks yet to be accomplished.
- Delayed: Tasks that got delayed beyond their original deadline, but you still want to complete.
- This Week: Tasks that are being worked on in the current week.
- Done: Tasks that have been completed!
- Delayed & Done: Tasks that have been completed after being delayed for one or more weeks.
- Never: Tasks that were planned for a week but you chose not to work on anymore.
Vertical: The high-level umbrella under which the task lies. We will discuss more about this in section 4.2.
Project: The project associated with the task. We will discuss more about this in section 4.2.
Day: The day(s) of the week you ended up working on the task.
Week: The date of the week associated with the task. I always put down the date of Monday from that week.
# Hours: Number of hours you expect to spend on the task. We will discuss more about this in section 3.3. when I show you how I use my planner.
Due Date: Deadline for the task, if applicable.
Week No: The # of the week associated with the task. We will discuss more about this in section 3.3.
The beauty of the planner lies in how you use it, using the virtue of “views” and “linked database” features in Notion. The two views and one linked database you need are as follows:
2.1. Coming Up View
The Coming Up view is a table filled with all of your upcoming tasks. Think of this as the wish list of everything you wish you could do, if you had unlimited time and resources. Any time you think of a task you need to accomplish, add it to this view first along with the Status, Vertical, and Project.
2.2. This Week View
The This Week view is a kanban board-like arrangement of all the tasks you’re currently working on in the week, grouped by Day.
2.3. Retrospective Linked Database
The Retrospective is a separate table linked to the main planner, where you can record the feedback at the end of a week and keep track of your planned vs actual hours worked that week.
III. How I Use My Planner
So far, I spoke about the various components of the planner. Now it’s time to tie it together with how I specifically use it so it all makes sense to you. Every Sunday night, I block out 45-minutes to plan for the next week. In that time, I follow the following steps:
3.1. Evaluate Past Week
If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.
Peter Drucker said about that business. I feel it can be applied to anything.
Before I begin planning for the week ahead, I take some time to review the progress I made the past week. This is where the Retrospective table comes into picture. I ask myself three questions here.
How many hours did I plan to work vs actually work?
What am I proud of from the past week? What went well?
What is one experiment I can try for next week to improve my efficiency?
It’s important to record this feedback without it being an overkill. To me, the right balance stops at three questions, which takes me ~5 minutes to think through and fill.
Note: You don’t have to manually count the hours you planned to work vs actually work. The planner does it for you automatically. More on that in 3.3.
3.2. Create, Review & Prioritize Tasks
This step takes the most amount of time. This is where the Coming Up view comes into the picture. I perform three activities to create and finalize the tasks for the upcoming week:
Review last week’s tasks: Most tasks I perform are not one-off tasks. They take several weeks to complete. E.g. writing this article, working on a speech, performing a growth experiment for my book, reading a book, etc. So I first review the tasks I performed the past week closely to identify the ones that have more to be done to call it complete and create new tasks. I generally add a suffix to the end of the task to denote the continuation. e.g. Write Admitted self-publishing article Pt. 2.
Review tasks already present: As I mentioned earlier, the Coming Up view should contain the wish-list of all the tasks you hope to accomplish. Any time I think of something to be done during the week, I add it here. So aside from tasks that are a continuation of last week, I also prioritize the tasks already present in this view.
Add context for bigger tasks: Sometimes, tasks are not as simple as “read a book”, which doesn’t require much context. They can be complex and involve a certain amount of contextual knowledge, which if already present in it, would save ample time when you’re actually implementing it. For e.g., you can see that the Find a social media management tool and Transfer website domain to SiteGround tasks contain more information inside the page.
Transfering website domain, for example, is a slightly complex task that I knew requires navigating to different URLs. Rather than letting my future self figure out how to do it in the midst of a day that I knew would already have enough attention switching, I added instructions while creating it (when I was in a calm setting and state of mind) to save time for my future self. This is how the task’s page looks like:
With that, I generally have a good number of tasks planned for the coming week. Next comes the fun part!
3.3. Add Hours, Days, & Week
We’ve got all the pieces we need. Now it’s about assigning some more metadata to the Coming Up view to make the picture whole.
Hours: I added this column while looking back on my 2020 and finding ways to improve the planner. I wanted a way to measure the time I spent each week on all my tasks, and my ability in estimating it accurately. Once I create all the tasks, I assign a number against the “# Hours” field based on the size of the task, past numbers, and my intuition. Once it’s assigned for all, the total sum gets automatically populated in the Actual Hours column in the Retrospective table.
Now comes the non-intuitive part, so bear with me: I copy and paste the total sum into the Planned Hours column. This way, I know the total time I planned on working. Throughout the week, as I actually finish and close a task, I update the “# Hours” field to reflect the true number. So by the end of the week, the Actual Hours, which automatically sums the number across all tasks, shows the actual amount of time I worked which I can compare against the baseline Planned Hours.
Figure: A snapshot of Retrospective at the beginning of a week.
Days: After Hours, I begin assigning the “Day(s)” that I’ll be working on each of the tasks. Generally, I look at my calendar for the upcoming week and assign tasks based on the “bandwidth” available on a particular day. But of course this changes during the week sometimes, given the unpredictability of life.
Week: As a final step, I fill in both the “Week” and the “Week #” columns. What’s the difference? “Week” is a date-field where I input the monday’s date of the upcoming week, and “Week #” is the column that connects the main planner with the retrospective database. It has values such as Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, etc. Once hours, days, and week are assigned, my Coming Up view looks like the following:
3.4. Change Status & Begin!
If you’re still reading this, kudos to you! I know it must feel exhausting to read someone’s planning process, but I assure you, actually implementing it is a lot less taxing.
Once my tasks are created and metadata added, the only step left is to change the Status tag so the tasks move from the Coming Up view to the This Week view. Simply put, I change the Status column of my prioritized tasks from To Do to This Week and watch them disappear from one view and appear in another. Pure magic, I tell you.
Figure: This Week view at the end of this step.
And that’s the end of my planning process.
Once again, even if this seems long, the entire process takes me <= 45 minutes, with the average being 30 minutes. That’s it. By spending less than an hour thinking about nothing but my upcoming week, I can be assured that I’m working on exactly what I should be for the rest of the 7 days.
IV. Planning Your 2021
Alright then, it’s time to start planning your week, and year!
4.1. Get The Ingredients Ready
All you need to implement my planner is a Notion account and a template of the tables and views I displayed.
Notion: If you’re yet to create an account, you can sign up using my invite code. Notion made its personal plan free for all in May 2020, so you can sign up without fearing a future payment (unless you want the features in the Pro plan).
My custom template: I created a clean template of my planner with the Coming Up, This Week, and Retrospective views I walked you through. Please click here to access it.
Figure: Soundarya’s 2021 GTD planner template
Once you open the template, click on the Duplicate option present on the top right, and add it to your workspace. With that, you have all the ingredients!
4.2. Setting Your Goals
I’ve learned with time that it is so easy to feel a lot of movement without actually moving forward with your goals. A few examples here include checking and responding to emails, multitasking, attending status meetings, and even excessive planning.
All these activities make you feel busy without actually letting you progress on your goals (unless your goal in life is to respond to emails?). In fact, they act as a convenient excuse to keep you from reaching your goals. I call them “goal distractors”, for lack of a better term. Think back to your 2020. How many weeks do you feel you made genuine progress towards your yearly goals? How many weeks were consumed with these “goal distractors”? The truth is, it’s hard to answer that question without having the data in front of you. That’s what a planner like mine helps you with. But a planner is obsolete without having some concrete end goals. It’s akin to building a top-notch highway that leads to nowhere.
So even before you begin using the template, spend some time thinking about your dreams for 2021. I divided mine into “Verticals” and “Projects”. I suggest you come up with more creative names!
Verticals & Projects
In 2020, I attached my tasks to very specific goals such as publish two short ebooks, read 20 books, create an investment portfolio, etc. While looking back at the end of the year, I realized a few things: First, ~65% of my tasks weren’t attached to any goal, because I didn’t really work on just the goals I set at the beginning of the year. For e.g., I didn’t anticipate spending 9 months publishing my book Admitted. Second, being too specific in setting goals made me feel restricted (and guilty when I didn’t want to follow it anymore). Finally, a lot of the goals fell under the same bigger “umbrella”. For e.g. going to the gym 4/7 days and taking up a new sport both fall under the area of “physical fitness.”
So I changed my strategy in planning for 2021. I asked myself, “What are the 3-4 verticals I’d like to spend most of my next year on?” The answer was clear. I wanted to grow my book and its community, create more impactful content (in various forms), explore the world of entrepreneurship, and continue taking better care of myself. Once I had the 4 verticals, I asked myself, “What are a few projects I’d like to work on to make significant progress under this vertical?” This took me a while, but I could come up with 4-5 for each. For e.g., under the vertical Creative Pursuits, I put down Learning via books and courses, Publishing articles and videos, Launching second book, Launching first course, and RTB.
Note: RTB is business jargon for Run The Business. It encompasses all the tasks that relate to maintenance and operation of a business. They are the non-fun but required tasks. I created an RTB project under each vertical and recommend you do too. This has worked well so far over the past 5 weeks, but it might be too soon to tell.
In the end, whatever method you end up adopting, update the Vertical and Projects column in the planner with your goals. Begin with the end in mind.
4.3. Setting The Routine
If you’ve set your goals and customized the planner to your liking, you’re 90% there! The last 10% is about integrating this practice into your weekly routine. As I mentioned earlier, I generally have a “meeting” on my calendar with the title Planning for next week 🙂 for Sunday night. Since I like having everything I do on my calendar, this works best for me.
What about you? Ask yourself the following questions:
When does my week begin and end in my mind?
Is there something I currently do every week before my week begins?
What is the best way to remind myself to follow this practice before the next week begins?
The second question above can be useful if you currently have a weekly routine, in which case you can bind this new practice to your existing one.
If you read till here, I just want to take a moment and commend you on doing so! I am a huge champion of bringing order to life using digital tools and mental models. Knowing that there’s someone else out there who is too gives me a vicarious sense of happiness. =)
I will end this article the way I began: preaching the importance of experimentation, because it’s so unbelievably vital.
If I had a dollar for every time I felt guilty not following through on something, I’d be a thousandaire.
So let me save some of your future self’s time: If you read till here and feel that this is a lot of work, that’s okay. If you tried to adopt this and feel it doesn’t resonate with your true self, that’s okay. In fact, there’s a good chance I might move to a completely new planner in 2022, and that’s okay too.
You tried. I tried. That’s what matters.