The One Key to Optimizing Your Productivity

I spend a good deal of time around here talking about productivity. This is because I spend a good deal of my time elsewhere trying to figure out how to optimize my productivity.

Optimizing productivity is one way to help optimize your life. If you can be more productive during your working hours, you can make more money and save more time that you can spend on other endeavors or with your family and friends.

The key to all of my productivity hacks and tricks all centers on one cornerstone:

Write. Everything. Down.

This may seem overly simplistic or obvious, but don’t underestimate it!

Capture Everything

I read Getting Things Done by David Allen when I was in college. My only real takeaway from the book was the importance of writing things down and getting them out of your head.

Because this was before the age of smart phones, I bought some tiny notebooks and kept one in my pocket at all times.

If I told someone that I would do something for them, it went into the notebook. If I thought of a task that I needed (or wanted) to do, it went into the notebook. If a stray lyric or idea popped into my head that might work well in a song, it went into the notebook.

I soon added a Word document on my laptop for these notes. At the end of the day, everything from the little notebook got transcribed into my Word doc. Once there, I could cut and paste and move everything around for better organization.

Over time, my organizational structure within the Word doc became more and more customized. Short term tasks went in one section. Long term tasks went in another. Creative ideas got moved into an entirely separate document.

In the decade since, the means have changed a bit, but the structure remains the same.

Instead of carrying around little notepads, I have a notepad app on my phone.

The Word doc moved to Google Docs and then moved again to Evernote.

The document has split into a “this week” list, a longer term list, and a deadlines list.

But through it all, the most important thing has remained:

Write. Everything. Down.

Outsource Remembering

When faced with the idea of writing things down, it is easy to say “Oh, I’ll remember this.” And maybe you will! But why bother?

Computers remember better than we do. Hell, paper remembers better than we do. Why not outsource this task? Then you can dedicate your mental capacities towards problem solving and other areas where you are more adept than a computer.

Plus, if you really want the benefit of the system, you need to actually write everything down. If you decide to remember some things yourself and write other things down, then you won’t get much mental rest.

One of the benefits of having a system in which you write everything down is that you make it so automatic that you trust the system. If you trust the system, then you don’t need to second-guess yourself. You don’t need to wonder if you are forgetting something. You don’t need to feel that nagging anxiety that there is something you should be remembering. This has been the most noticeable benefit to me in writing everything down.

On top of all of this, trying to remember things triggers the Zeigarnik Effect. Essentially, your brain is continuously running the unfinished task of remembering something in the background as you go about your day. This limits your focus on other tasks and makes you more distractible.

Writing it down will get it out of your head and tell your brain that it can let go. This will free you up to give your full focus and attention to whatever needs to be done.

All of these combine to make writing everything down the number one productivity tip I could possibly convey.

You’ve heard my system. What’s yours? Do you write everything down? Do you use a different organizational structure? Talk to us in the comments!

18 thoughts on “The One Key to Optimizing Your Productivity”

  1. Like you, I’ve always written things done. I’m definitely not as organized though and it would be helpful to categorize them by long-term/short term tasks. I have great long-term memory but it’s easy to forget small tasks that you have to do in the short term. I few much more comfortable being able to refer to my list. I do have a problem looking at the list and often putting off tasks I don’t want to do…and it just stays there!
    Andrew@LivingRichCheaply recently posted…Overcome Your FearsMy Profile

    1. I have had a similar problem. I find that pulling tasks from the main list for a daily to do list helps. I still will sometimes bump it from one day to the next, but you start to feel more and more guilty with each bump until you finally just do it. I’m getting better at doing the things I feel the most resistance towards first, but in the meantime, this is a good stopgap.

      Thanks for stopping by, Andrew!
      Matt recently posted…On Quitting and Time ManagementMy Profile

  2. Mind blown. I’ve never been much of a list person, but that point about having to remember it taking up brain power and attention makes total sense, Matt.

    I’ve tried to-do list apps before, especially the ones that try to give you points like an RPG (I’m a nerd who can obsessively play games I don’t even like just to keep leveling up.) I haven’t tried one in a while, though. I might have to give it another go this week.
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Surprise! JohnJaneDoe Celebrates 2 Years of BloggingMy Profile

  3. I am the queen of sticky notes – in the form of to-do lists. I write EVERYTHING down to get it out of my head. And it generally works pretty well. But, I don’t organize my sticky notes very well. 🙁 Since we bought the fixer upper, I’ve kept all of my notes related to the project in a separate notebook. Though it doesn’t appear to be organized at all, it is all there and it’s in one place, so I can (usually) find what I need in a relatively short amount of time. 🙂
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…Ella Builds A Wall: A book that gives kids the power to stop bullyingMy Profile

    1. I have tended more towards notebooks rather than sticky notes because I don’t like my space looking chaotic and I always end up with chaos when I take notes on stickies. That said, I do have a couple of sticky notes in strategic places around my office to remind me of big picture concepts that I pull from Headspace.

      Thanks for the comment, Amanda!
      Matt recently posted…On Quitting and Time ManagementMy Profile

  4. I certainly want to avoid the Zeigarnik Effect! It’s funny when you don’t write something down, think of the time you spend trying to recall it later on. I’ve always been a big list maker. I have been using Trello to stay organized at work.
    Brian recently posted…Debt is a Four Letter WordMy Profile

  5. I think these are great tips that work for most people. I’ve struggled with the “write it down” thing though. Even through school – including college – I was never a good note taker. I found that if I didn’t “get” something the first run through, trying to memorize it from notes later didn’t help. I’m the same way now. I *DO* write some things down but I rarely go back to those notes. Unless there are some very specific tasks (often assigned by my wife :>) then writing things down doesn’t work well for me. I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority though because most people tell me this helps them.
    Brad – recently posted…5 Things Every College Freshman NeedsMy Profile

    1. I was never one for taking notes in class, either. I think there’s a difference between trying to learn and trying to be productive. When trying to learn, I am better when I engage more rather than take notes. When I am trying to be productive, it is important that I write down every task, goal, and deadline.

      Thanks for the comment, Brad!
      Matt recently posted…On Quitting and Time ManagementMy Profile

  6. Matt, thanks for sharing with us all these wonderful productivity keys. I’ve been working from home lately and sometime when I wake up I’m not motivated to do any work since I’m just at home. Anyways, keep up the great work and looking forward to more of your articles in the future!

  7. Hey Matt,
    Really enjoyed your post. Getting things out of my brain seems to clearly relate to my enjoyment of life, engagement in family life etc.
    The key you mention is a ‘trusted system’. Unless you can trust that the information will be retrievable, you will keep storing it in your brain which triggers our friend Ziegarnik.
    The Productive Physician recently posted…Finish: How to Defeat Perfectionism and Conquer Your GoalsMy Profile

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