It feels like the world and his dog has an opinion on what makes a great productivity system. The internet is full of productivity tips and tricks, many of which will claim they can make you as productive as Elon Musk or several other high-profile, highly successful people. The thing is, most of that stuff is designed to keep you reading. Filled with complicated systems and practices, guaranteed to leave you feeling deflated when you realise they just don’t work for you.

This article is going to tell you to ignore all those other articles. A real person has written this article (spoiler alert, it’s me). ¬†Who by the very nature of their job, must achieve a high level of productivity. I mean, I work for Ali Abdaal, someone who’s known for his productivity. So here are some practical, helpful productivity tips that anyone can implement.

Stop reading / watching productivity content

All those articles and videos you’ve seen and read about productivity. They all share the same dirty little secret. They are designed to keep you reading / watching for as long as possible and make money. ‘But Dan, how can they possibly make money from me consuming their content’ I hear you ask. Well, the answer to that is really simple. Advertising. Those ads you see at the start of a YouTube video (and sometimes during), each time you watch one of those, the content creator gets paid. Those links in articles to premium software and products that are promised to help you achieve productivity zen? Those are probably affiliate links, if you click them and buy whatever is on the other end, the writer gets paid.

Now I’m all for people getting paid for their work. After all, if my boss didn’t get paid in this way, I’d be out of a job. My issue here is that the content can often be intentionally inflated. Filled with things that all sound great but are really impractical for the average person to implement. This kind of content is inflated to keep people engaged so they get paid.

The other significant downside to content promising productivity tips – it’s going to leave you feeling like a failure. Maybe not right away. But at some point, when the system they recommended you build comes crashing down. You might even start feeling that way while you’re consuming the content. I’d even say in some cases, leaving you feeling like a failure is the end goal. When you feel like you’re failing at being productive, you’re more likely to go back and consume more of their content to figure out where you went wrong.

‘Productivity gurus’ will have you believe they spend every minute of the day achieving their goals, making money, ticking off tasks and just generally being a productivity superhero (with a pinch of smugness). A little secret for you… it’s not true. It’s a persona designed to keep an audience engaged. I’d wager every productivity guru on the internet spends an unhealthy amount of time scrolling Instagram at some point in their week. Don’t be fooled or drawn in by it.

Scrap the fancy systems

This productivity tip is as simple as it sounds. You don’t need a big, flashy system to be productive. Complex systems have their place. I have a fairly complex system for project management. But to achieve my day-to-day productivity needs, I don’t need it. In fact, unless I have a big project on, I don’t even touch it most days.

There’s lots of stuff on the internet that’ll teach you how to build a productivity system. A lot of it involves using fancy software, building Notion databases, and multiple to-do lists. You don’t need any of this. If you’re looking for quick relief to make you feel better about your lack of productivity, then procrastinating and building out a complex, fancy system is a sure way to get that. Don’t fool yourself; it’s most definitely procrastination. And of the worst kind. You’ll feel like you’ve achieved something, but all you’ve really done is waste time building something you’ll forget about in a week’s time.

So keep it simple, drop the fancy system. Don’t build anything complicated. You’ll feel great about it as you’re doing it and maybe even for the first week or two. But before you know it, using your flashy system will start to feel like a chore, and in no time at all, you’ll drop it altogether. Leaving you back to feeling like you’re not productive enough.

My top productivity tip… fix your calendar

Probably one of the most underrated productivity tips out there. Fix your calendar and learn to use it productively. Some people might hate the idea of living their life based on a calendar. You’re going to struggle if you are relying on memory alone to keep track of everything.

For me, if it’s not on my calendar, it won’t happen. Calendar blocking isn’t a new concept. The general idea is to block out time on your calendar for everything you want to do. Everything from answering emails to taking the kids to school. This way, you can have a birds-eye view of your day, knowing exactly where you need to be and what you need to be doing.

This is what an average week looks like in my calendar. Sometimes I leave empty gaps to allow people to book in meetings on my booking system, during that time, I usually work on my to-do list (pro productivity tip)

You can use whatever calendar you like. I prefer to use Google Calendar simply because it’s free and it syncs across all my devices. So I literally never leave the house without it. It also means I can share it, invite people to events and all those fancy things (that you don’t really need). If you have multiple calendars (say one for personal stuff and another for work), get them showing up on the same view, so you only need to check one place to know exactly what’s going on. If you want to be a bit retro, use a physical calendar.

Got your calendars all in one place? Great. Block out time in your calendar for anything you need. Appointments, meetings, large tasks, going to the gym – it should all have a slot. This will help keep you on track and accountable. For me, I give all big and important tasks their own block on my calendar, estimating the time needed to complete them (and getting it wrong often). Smaller tasks stay on my to-do list, which gets its own block. I block out time for everything I want / need to do.

Get a to-do list (this is probably on every productivity tips list)

Now, this might sound obvious, but it always amazes me the number of people that don’t have one or use them temporarily when they’ve got a lot to do in a day. I use my to-do list daily. I’m constantly adding, removing and completing things on it. Again, it really doesn’t matter what form of list you use, the key thing is to make sure you use it, and you keep it simple.

Todoist is packed full of features (that you don’t need). The most beneficial is its ability to sync across all your devices. Installed on my computer, laptop, phone, smartwatch, and tablet and even have the Chrome extension. This means no matter where I am or what device I have with me; I can always see what’s on my list and add things to it. You might feel that’s overkill, you might also be the kind of person who spent 20 hours building a productivity system is Notion to never look at it again.

What goes on my to-do list? Exactly what you might expect. Any task I need to complete. That could be returning a call, sending a specific email or creating a new project in my more complicated system. It’s perfect for single tasks that just need to get done. When I sit down to sort my calendar, I make sure to enter a time block for clearing my to-do list.

A hand written to-do list is still a perfectly acceptable way to manage your tasks. And there’s something quite satisfying about crossing things out once completed.

Todoist has a ton of features, some of which are really useful (like reminders, due dates, projects and sharing). But again, you don’t actually need any of this. All you need is a to-do list that you can access and use. Don’t rely on your memory, it will fail you. As soon as something comes up that you need to do, get it on your list. If you’re using paper and pen (old school but cool), make sure you take it with you or have a digital version so you can always add to it.

Take meaningful notes

Note-taking is one of those things that can so easily get out of hand. There’s lots of talk about building second brains and such online, but really, what does the average person need that for? The idea of building a second brain is so you never forget anything, but I genuinely wonder how often people refer back to these notes. Instead, I’d much rather keep it simple.

Taking notes shouldn’t be a chore; it should be quick and simple. Now depending on what you’re doing, you might want to get a bit fancy here. Generally, I use three things for taking my notes. Google Keep (for on the go), Notion (for longer note taking, usually written up after the fact) and a notebook and pen (for when I’m physically in person and don’t want to come across as rude or distracted by using a device).

The key thing with capturing notes is only to capture what you need. It’s a skill that evolves over time. In a previous job, I had to capture word-for-word notes on meetings, writing exactly what each person said. This is great for reference but so impractical for real-world situations. Instead, I now use bullet points almost exclusively. The aim is to capture the most important stuff and nothing else. Trying to note too much is almost certainly going to make you miss key details.

I block out time on my calendar once a week (sometimes more often if needed) to centralise and tidy my notes. This might involve expanding on them, applying context, or just removing some fluff. The idea is to eventually get them all in one place. Where you choose to keep them is entirely up to you. Notion is awesome for this stuff (because of those databases), but you really don’t need to learn a new bit of software. Google Keep, Apple Notes, Microsoft OneNote, a notebook are all suitable and can do everything most people need.

Don’t beat yourself up (a highly underrated productivity tip)

Even with all these productivity tips, you’ll still miss stuff.¬† Don’t beat yourself up about it. Sucking us in and keeping us there for as long as possible is exactly what Social Media is supposed to do. Even the best of us will succumb to it at times (have you seen Elon Musks Twitter account?). And don’t worry if you get distracted by other stuff. It happens; no amount of productivity tips can help you.

Let’s wrap it up then with some key takeaways (that’s usually how these articles end right?)

  1. Get a calendar and get good at using it. Block out time for everything in your life. Work tasks, hobbies, meetings, dinner with friends. It should all be on your calendar.
  2. Get a to-do list going and use it daily. It’s not enough to just check it, you need to actively use it. Use whatever type of list is going to be easiest for you to manage.
  3. Learn to take meaningful, practical notes. You don’t need to write everything down, you don’t need a second brain, you don’t need word-for-word. You need notes that you can refer back to and will actually use.
  4. Drop the fancy software and complex systems. You don’t need them. Just thinking about them might leave you fatigued.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up about having an off day. It happens to everyone (insider knowledge here).

My productivity system, utilising all my productivity tips

Let’s actually wrap these productivity tips up now. Here’s a list of everything I use in my productivity system and a summary of how I use it.

Google Calendar – used to block out time for big things, little things and everything in between. As a rule, if it’s not on my calendar, it won’t happen.

Todoist – for single tasks that just need to get done. It’s always with me so I can use it no matter where I am.

Google Keep – basically used for on-the-fly note taking. Imagine you’re on a train or walking down the street and something comes to mind you want to remember. This is perfect for that (As an alternative, there’s always Apple Notes to Samsung Notes).

Notebook and pen – for note-taking when I’m talking to someone in person. I don’t find this to be the most practical thing, and it usually means I have to spend some time making digital versions of my notes. But it’s far less rude to write in a notebook than typing on a laptop or worse yet, on your phone.

Notion – For bigger notes and project management. Again, there are so many simpler alternatives for this. You don’t need this, and there are many simpler alternatives.