“It’s the smartest individuals who realize they are only randomly in their smarts and inspired. They are the ones who intelligently build in systems and processes to take advantages of the brilliance that often simply lies sleeping behind the dullness required to deal with the brutish world we inhabit.” —David Allen

I’m a systems junkie. There, I said it. 

I love implementing systems in my life to help me remember things, be productive, be healthy, find clarity, and generally help to give my higher-order brain leverage against my monkey brain in order to do more, and do better. 


For example, I geek out on spreadsheets to track my word count when writing and revising my novel, which allows me to easily see my progress and make strategic goals. But my systems are not all technology-based. For another example, without a notepad to write down all the things I need to remember, I’d be like that guy in the movie Memento who suffers a complete memory wipe every 15 minutes.

Whenever I encounter a new system, the hamster in the back of my brain starts running on its wheel. My mind races and I ask myself: How could I use this to organize my life, or save time, or be more proficient?

As a naturally disorganized and generally scattered person, I lean heavily on systems to help me function as a human being. Here are a few of my top systems at the moment.


Habit Tracking 

I recently implemented a habit tracking system for myself that works a lot like the good-behavior star chart we’ve considered using for our 5 year-old.

I try to come up with habits and little things I want to do every day, like do pushups, walk the dog, get to bed by 10:30pm. I like to keep these things pretty low-stakes—and that’s just the point of tracking them. They are all so low-stakes that it’s so easy for me to talk myself out of doing them. But over time, getting to bed at a decent time every night can really change the quality of your life!

I track these things by hand, Bullet Journal-style, in a physical journal. The tactile feel of checking things off that I’ve accomplished gives me deep satisfaction. Wouldn’t be the same if I just clicked a button in a habit tracking app. 

But I don’t just track my habits. I’ve built in a reward system where I can “earn” privileges for good behavior. Because apparently my brain’s reward system is wired just like a 5-year-old’s. Here’s how my system works: if I do 75% of all self-improvement-y things I set out to do that week, I get to watch my stories on the weekends. Pretty simple. But it works because I’m highly motivated by Netflix and HBO.


GTD for Work-related Project and Task Management

I just read David Allen’s Getting Things Done. There are many blog posts and YouTube videos that summarize the jist of this system, so I won’t go over it here. But after reading it, I decided I needed a GTD system in my life.

So for the past few weeks, trying to find the perfect task and project management solution has been a Goldilocks situation for me. I tried out Google Sheets, where I could manipulate data in any way I wanted, but it was too labor intensive (I have the template in GDrive, which I’m happy to share if anyone is interested). I tried iOS Reminders, but it was too bare bones (even with the recent updates). Finally, I settled on OmniFocus, and so far it fits my needs (and my way of thinking) just right!

And while OmniFocus can do pretty much everything except your taxes (or maybe it can?) I use it mostly just as a repository for my projects, and all the tasks, next actions, and things I’m waiting on that are associated with each project. You can set up reminders with OmniFocus, but I don’t care for reminders unless it’s a hard and fast appointment.

The final step in my makeshift GTD process is transferring next actions from my lump of projects in OmniFocus to my pen and paper journal. It’s a very simple journal, just a 3-ring binder with special pages I designed, BuJo-style. Each spread is the same in the journal. On the left side I track my habits (the sheet I use for habit tracking I mentioned above) and tasks to do every day. On the right side I have a daily planner section and a weekly tasks list.

Click here to download the template for the sheets I print out on standard 8.5” x 11” paper. Here is a screenshot to give you the idea:

Through much trail and error, I’ve discovered that I prefer to work from a hand-written list of what I need to do. I list the estimated duration of each task, and then I add it all up to make sure it squares with my available work day hours for the day.

Somehow, a handwritten list feels more real than a digital list. When I complete tasks in my journal, go back and complete them in OmniFocus, too. This seems like it is double the work, but on the other hand, I get to tick off twice as many things! There should be joy in whatever system you use, I think, and I get joy from clearing out my items.


Time tracking with iOS Shortcuts

I have a hard time using my calendar for scheduling things I ought to be working on. Instead, I prefer to work from a task list with an estimated duration for each task (discussed above).

I find that calendars serve me best as reminders for hard and fast appointments. But recently I’ve been finding another helpful use for calendars: time tracking.

After reading 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam last year, I got on a big time tracking kick for about a day and a half before I gave up. Because time tracking kind of sucks. It’s hard to keep up with, I feel de-motivated when I forget to do it, and then I don’t really know what to do with all that inconsistently-gathered data after I’ve got it.

But with iOS reminders, I’ve implemented a time tracking system that solves at least the problem of keeping it up.

Shortcuts is an awesome iOS feature that has been around for a year or so. It’s like IFTTT for the apps on your iPhone. You can build recipes to make your various apps work together to achieve complex actions with the touch of a button.

So here’s how I use it: I have a recipe that automatically adds a 30 minute block of time to a dedicated calendar for time tracking. I just push the shortcut button, a pop-up asks me what I want to name that block of time, and voila! I’ve just logged my last 30 minutes of whatever I was doing. This shortcut also automatically sets a 30 minute timer. When that timer is up, I rinse and repeat, logging whatever I’ve done for the last 30 minutes.

 Here’s the specific recipe I use:

This process not only helps me log my time, it keeps me on track. It’s like having a little assistant tap me on the shoulder every half hour, asking me if what I’m doing is mission critical. Many times, I’ve been caught by the timer only to realize realized I’ve fallen down a Wikipedia research rabbit hole for the past 30 minutes, at which point I can easily correct and get back to the more important things on my list.


The Dark Side of Systems

As much as I rely on systems to be my external brain and digital assistant, I also enjoy them. Sometimes a little too much. I don’t just adopt a new system and then run with it, knocking items off my to-do list with renewed vigor. Alas, my tendency is to fiddle with a system until I’ve got everything set up just so. The problem with this is that it takes a lot of time. Time that would be much better spent actually DOING the thing I’m trying to organize my system around. I have to be extra mindful of my time in order to avoid this counter-productive trap.

 Or maybe there’s a system out there to save me from my systems?

I’d love to hear about other people’s systems. How do you leverage the tools at your disposal to maintain an external brain, or tap into your own brilliance? Let me know in the comments!

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I help authors bring their books into the world with advice about book design, self-publishing, and creative productivity.