The seven starter tools you need for a simple productivity system

As you work to cultivate a productive workflow for yourself and set off to get some real work done, you’re likely to run into some sticking points on your journey. Don’t worry, it’s all normal.

Once you have more than one project to focus on, you’ll need something to help you keep track of them. Once your work takes you beyond your desk – to a meeting, or a new workplace, or traveling somewhere on a plane – you’ll need systems to keep you productive wherever you are. And as you continue on your work journey for weeks and months and years, and you face classic obstacles of disorganization, complacency, and overwhelm. In those moments, you could probably use some tools to help keep you grounded, and on track.

Luckily, there are tried-and-true tools and systems out there that have been proven to work for all types of work and all types of people. These aren’t the productivity-guru-snakeoil-app-type of tools you’ve been getting ads for on Facebook. These are the basics. The essentials. Your starter kit.

Here are a few of the most essential and helpful building blocks that can help your workflow take off.

1 – The humble to-do list

It’s deceptively simple, but the to-do list might be the single most important element to a productive person’s life. You could be forgiven for finding it almost too simplistic. But its value actually increases the more complicated one’s life gets.

The more responsibilities and activities that we take on in our lives, between work, school, play, and side hustles, the more chances we create for things to slip through the cracks. You’re probably familiar with the feeling of walking through your day in a bit of a fog, feeling unsettled, because you know that there’s something you need to do that you just can’t remember.

Or, you’ve been in a scenario at work or school where someone or something dumps a mountain of tasks on you in a matter of seconds or minutes. You’re probably familiar with the instinct to almost immediately start to cycle through them in your head as you walk away, to make sure you don’t forget one. Those memories always feel like dull panic and dread. And it’s not necessary.

The goal of a to-do list, and the reason it’s so important to your productive life, is simple. It’s about getting that mountain of tasks and ideas out of your head, where they’re swimming around loosely and clouding your focus, and into a singular place in the physical world.

Once they’re there, the list can be 200 items long. It might be a little unwieldy, but at least it’s complete. At least it’s centralized. It can be a list of tasks, a grocery list, or a checklist to consult each time before finishing a project. And now you can go through your life – to dinner, to work, on a walk – and not have to worry about forgetting something, or feeling that tip of the tongue feeling in your brain.

It’s all good. It’s all sorted. It’s all on your list, and it’s a complete document. If you think of something new, just add it to the list. Once you’ve created your list, you can go through and edit it, condense it, combine items, omit others – whatever you need. But the hard part will be done.

It’s important, though, that this is the one and only list. If it’s in any other place than the one place you’ve designated, you won’t have that same security of mind. If there are too many places it could be, including nowhere at all, it might as while be gone.

This system can take the form of a piece of a paper if you want. If you’re one of those people that actually carries around a physical notepad or moleskin, this is your time to shine. But the vast majority of us are looking for a smartphone app. I have two recommendations. First is Todoist, a full-featured and robust app with a lot of fun tricks like natural language processing (so you can type “coffee with Dave at 2pm Tuesday” and it will understand and add it your calendar without asking) and multi-layered folder and organization systems. It’s a favorite of many productivity warriors.

My personal favorite, though, is an app called MinimaList. As its name suggests, the experience is pretty…well, minimal. It’s a blank screen, you pull down anywhere to add an item, and press enter to submit it. Swipe across them to cross them off. That’s it. You can swipe around and do little gestures to find a couple extra hidden features and settings, but if you just wanted a simple app that was as plain as writing on a sheet of paper, this is the one for you. I love its simplicity. I just write whatever’s in my head and go. Figure it out later.

2 – Any and all writing

Writing apps are a little different than to-do lists, of course. They still often function as a way to quickly intake thoughts, but they’re more formless by design. You can write in any format you see fit. They can also expand to fit longer form documents, which, depending on your line of work, might be the most single most important element to your productivity suite. I know it is for mine.

So choosing your process here is really important. Props to you if you’re a pen and paper type here, but you’re still likely going to need a way to digitize what you write. Are you cool with re-typing it all after the fact? Many make that a part of their process by doing their first round of edits as they re-type.

On the digital side, there’s a wide swath to choose from. Literally untold millions are perfectly content with Microsoft Word. And if that’s you, that’s more than fine. But others need specific feature sets and formats for mediums like screenwriting. Others want something even more minimalistic. Consider what your needs are, and if you’ve ever felt frustrated by limitations of an app you’ve previously used.

I have two systems. One is for quick intake ideas, like “a TV show where all the firefighters are dogs” or whatever. File that away under “Genius Ideas, 2021,” and when you pull it out, take it into the second system: your longform writer of choice, where you can plot it out, structure it, and write it.

For that longer form work, where you’re going to spend hours in a particular computer window with the blinking cursor, your priority should be something that doesn’t interrupt your flow. And for your quick intake solution, you need something that, when an idea pops into your head, doesn’t make you wait staring at a loading screen or some other delay in those precious seconds where you might lose your thought. Humans are prodigious at forgetting things.

I’ve downloaded notes apps that were probably very good and deleted them immediately when I saw they had an ad at the bottom of the screen. Or worse, found a way to introduce some kind of payment plan to unlock more features or “unlimited” notes. A notes app has to be simple, and unaffected by the outside world. I need a blinking cursor, a perfunctory file-and-folder system, and nothing else to get in the way.

I’m a big proponent of Apple Notes, and its easy syncing across all devices. But, according to my RescueTime, my most-used writing app is the stock notepad TextEdit, which is overly simplistic almost to a fault. If you poke around on it, you might feel the limitations yourself. But all that matters to me is that, when I have an idea, all I have to do is go “command-spacebar-T-enter” and it’s there. It happens in less of a second nowadays. I wouldn’t trade that kind of speed for almost anything. So go with what you feel like.

My recommendation for longform writing is an app called Highland 2. It’s a gorgeous and vastly underrated writing experience. It was originally conceptualized as a screenwriting app, and that’s what it truly excels at, but it has modes for all kinds of writing. I do all my article and essay writing there too. I’m writing this article in it right now, in fact. (Sorry, it’s an Apple exclusive.)

3 – Dreaded email

Email overload lead

As I’m sure you’re aware, email has inserted itself into our corporate and productive lives so firmly over the last decade that no matter how many Slacks and Zooms and WhatsApps come along, I don’t foresee it going away for a very, very long time. So, while we’re here, you might as well embrace the process of optimizing and idealizing your email experience.

That starts with aggressively unsubscribing from shopping digests and other spam-like messages, and even newsletters that might be good but that you don’t read. Your inbox should be for things you either need to see or are excited to see. Not things that will sit around collecting dust.

Spend a few available hours working through at least the top layer of your emails. You hear people talk about “Inbox Zero” all the time, and for good reason. There are few things that feel so good as having your inbox completely cleared out, especially if you’ve been walking around with that “3000 unread emails” tag on your home screen for months and years. It’s like finishing a to-do list you started in middle school.

(If you’ve been buried in email as long as you remember and want to “cheat code” your way to a fresh start, you can at the very least “select-all and mark as read” for all the email in your inbox so that the huge red number will go away. Here’s how to do it in Gmail.)

The nice thing about email is that, if you use Gmail, and you probably do, you don’t need an app. The browser experience is simple and sturdy enough to handle anything you could need it to. Google-integrated search and indexing makes the experience a dream – especially if you’ve accumulated years of archived and sorted messages.

But if you’re itching for an app you can put on your dock and tab between, I recommend Spark. It’s got a beautiful layout, and is deeply customizable, especially with keyboard shortcuts.

So spend some time getting to Inbox Zero, or whatever your version of it looks like. Then, commit to a workflow with your email. You don’t have to delete everything once you’re done with it – I know firsthand the paralysis that digital packrat-ism can create with things like email. The archive button is your friend. Deal with things as they come in. Reply to emails immediately, or if they need a little extra time, mark them as unread so they stay highlighted. Now that red badge will be a low number like “6” and you’ll actually have an idea of what to do with it.

There’s a blankness to the feeling of true inbox zero that honestly is a jolt of energy. Gmail gives you a nice little picture when there’s nothing left in your inbox. And the app icon on your iPhone looks gorgeous without that garish red badge.

4 – A bird’s eye calendar

I used to float through life without a calendar. In college, I would have little sticky notes or scraps of paper dotted around my life that said, “meeting with professor Tuesday at 12:00.” I think I must have had a print-out of my schedule from the first syllabus day of each semester that would just sit on my desk, gathering folds and wrinkles, as I consulted it five times a day. Who knows how I pulled any of that off. (The real answer: I didn’t. A lot slipped through the cracks.)

Even when I started my career as a freelancer and had different jobs every week, each with their own details and schedules and stacks of paperwork, I tried to maintain the same charade. I made it a few months before I realized it was nearly impossible – professional life just begs for some kind of structure. So I went in the complete opposite direction.

Every time I get a job or a commitment, in my work life or personal life, it goes on the calendar. I have them color coded for “Work,” “Personal,” “Health,” “Family,” and “Travel.” “Work” is red because it stresses me out. “Travel” is grey because even at its most enjoyable, it’s still aggressively “neutral”-feeling time. “Health” is green because…salads are healthy?

I follow a philosophy I’ve heard others in the productivity community espouse: “if it’s not on my calendar, it didn’t happen.”

I can now see my life from a wonderful top-down perspective. A sea of red in the middle of the month? I’m working. I have no room for seeing a movie with a friend. Did I play basketball this month? Not seeing a lot of blue or green on the weekends – I should probably make room for that this week so I get some exercise and fresh air. And in a macro sense, I just get a really good idea of how my days are filling up, and what I’m devoting time to. Am I working enough? Am I working too much?

And once you get going doing this, you start to get addicted to adding things to your calendar. It feels endlessly productive, like you’re putting a stamp of official-ness on an activity – confirming it happened, or ensuring that it will happen. I’ve started to notice other people adopting similar dedication to their calendars and their days. Some of the more productive people in my life will plan a 15-minute meeting with me and then buzz my phone with a calendar invite two minutes later. My phone will buzz again two minutes before the event, just in case I forgot. And then when it’s over, and my day is over, it will still be there, burned onto the day on the calendar.

Google Calendar is my app of choice. It’s got lovely native layouts and design, but it also syncs effortlessly to your Apple or Windows-based stock calendars, so you can access them anywhere through any app. Google and Apple let you turn different categories on and off, so I can look at just my work life or just my personal life on their own, for example.

Try adding things to your calendar slowly, starting with work and super necessary-to-remember things, and see how you like it. There might be a subtle feeling of calm that comes with knowing that your day is laid out in front of you, and behind you, in perfect clarity. And you’ll probably miss less Tuesday meetings with professors.

5 – Tracking your time

improve focus burnout lead

If you’re a freelancer that bills by the hour, you’ve probably yearned for some kind of system that will take the guesswork and head-scratching memory spelunking that comes with having to remember in and out times and billable hours, at the end of a long work day no less. Luckily for you, there are more modern solutions than duck taping your kitchen timer and Sharpie-ing the word “work” on it.

The app Toggl allows you to simply press “Start” and “Stop” on a labeled timer to track the exact amount of time you spent on a task or project. For freelancers, this will allow you to split up your day and truly understand your hour-by-hour time breakdown.

There’s a special switch that goes off in your head when you press “Start” – in my experience I’m more inclined to work, and to work efficiently. It’s almost as if it makes you 10% or so less inclined to tab over to a time-wasting website – because you’re “on the clock.” It feels like you’re on camera even though you’re not. And if you feel yourself seriously committed to procrastinating, might as well make it official by pressing “Stop” on your timer. No more time fraud on either side of the equation.

And we can’t let the time tracking category pass without mentioning the time-tracking product we make here at RescueTime. RescueTime runs in the background of your computer or phone and tracks your activity – time spent on each app, and in each category of work. It will also periodically send you reports of your time spent: time spent on YouTube, or playing chess, or working broadly in the “Communication” category of email, Slack, and other messaging apps. It’s like getting a spotlight flashed on your activity – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the productive.

For accountability, and for a bird’s eye view of how you truly spend your time, use a combination of these apps and others like them. But RescueTime, because of the comprehensive view it provides of your activity, feels indispensable.

6 – Blocking out the fun

These are the least exciting part of the process, but if you’re like me (or, really, if you’re human) they’re becoming increasingly necessary during tough, dopamine-dependent stretches.

If you’re unfamiliar, there are apps out there that you can set to block you from accessing certain areas of the internet, or applications on your computer, or both, or everything, depending on how you set them.

Maybe you just need to block Reddit and YouTube. But maybe Wikipedia is your sneaky faux-productive procrastination tool. Or maybe you can’t even trust yourself to not turn the New York Times and National Geographic or, I don’t know, Microsoft Powerpoint into a distraction. The procrastinating brain is a powerful and sneaky force.

There are a couple options here that I’ve personally used and appreciate.

Freedom seems to be the industry standard and app of choice for many, especially in the productivity community. Its design is elegant and clean, and there’s an air about it that just makes you feel productive when you turn it on. It’s covered in a crisp, bright green, you’re accompanied by the image of a butterfly spreading its wings. Lovely stuff.

And I really like that it’s called Freedom. It’s not called “The Lockdown Blocker 3000.” Because that’s not what you’re doing here. Just because you’re keeping yourself from using TikTok for an hour doesn’t really mean you’re depriving yourself of anything. Rather, you’re giving yourself the freedom – from yourself, from your dopamine dependences, from that stupid algorithm – to do what you truly want to. It’s powerful stuff, honestly.

These can also extend to your mobile devices, if that’s where your pain points are.

For something a little simpler and utilitarian, there’s also Cold Turkey, which bills itself as “the toughest website blocker on the Internet.”

The balance here is something that is hard enough to turn off but also isn’t impossible. I find when there are sufficiently four or five annoying steps required to disable something, each one will kind of chip away at the power of my laziness until my resolve and will power and catch back up and stop. Play around with the level of torture you want to unleash on yourself, but remember to deploy discipline. This is important work we’re doing here.

7 – Build up your habits

daily habits lead

One of my favorite recent developments in the productivity space has been a renewed focus on the power of habit. Books like Atomic Habits by James Clear and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg have made the case that, without regular and consistent action, true change and achievement is much harder to make materialize.

For some of us, in our darkest days of un-productivity, or during quarantine, even the simplest things can fall off. And there’s no shame in needing a little help in getting your showering or teeth brushing habits back on track.

But for those looking to take the next step and add a writing habit, or meditation, or regular exercise, or even flossing to your routine, it can be a great help to have a helpful digital hand behind you, pushing you along the path.

Again, like in all of these instances, you can use paper and pen for this. Jerry Seinfeld famously used a massive year-long calendar that filled his entire wall and crossed off a big red “X” every day he dedicated time to writing. “You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt,” he says. “Your only job is to not break the chain.” After 100 days, you’d be amazed at the things you will do to not break the streak.

I’m currently at 972 days in a row flossing. I can’t wait till I get to 1000 days. At this point, I’ll rearrange whole aspects of my evening routine if I need to, to make sure it happens. If I ever have a weird night where I come home at 4am or something, flossing might be the only thing I do before hitting the pillow with my shoes still on. I will not break that chain, no matter what.

And it might sound silly, but the first bursts of momentum I needed to get over that hill were being able to cross off “day 10,” and “day 30,” and “50,” and “100,” on a system that I had ascribed meaning to and took seriously.

We have two options here for habit tracking applications.
First is a well-loved standard offering, aptly called Momentum. Swipe along with your habits and watch progress bars satisfyingly fill up with green. Get push notification reminders if you’re falling behind. And even export your data to Excel so you can get real nerdy with it.

And for a slightly more fun and “game-like” experience, there’s Habitica. This app creates a little pixelated avatar for you and gives you points when you accomplish a task or habit. You can use those points to level up your character or give it armor, or a pet, or go on an adventure. Basically it’s a whole new type of incentive system that those of us who grew up on Ocarina of Time will be comfortable with.

Take what you need

Every person, every workflow, and every situation is different. You might not need all seven of these things in your life to feel productive and organized in your work. But odds are good you’ll benefit from at least one or two of them being added categories listed here – or you might not need them all on a regular basis. Mix and match, and experiment, and design the perfect system that works for you. You can rest assured knowing that working and experimenting with these won’t waste your time. In fact, they’re likely to make your time a whole lot more productive, and enjoyable.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

5 comments

  1. Very useful article! I will share this inside my company because is a list of simple things that the team can do to be more productive.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I have always been somewhat manic, but I was finally after three decades of complaining diagnosed as bipolar. That’s not a problem. I’m just learning ways to work within this mental illness and remain as productive as possible without going overboard. One of the things that RescueTime helps me with is my chronic insomnia. It’s normal for me to pick up my iPad and start flicking through Twitter when I can’t sleep which can go into the wee hours of the morning. Living alone, there’s no one to me. I can block out the sites that are most distracting on my phone, iPad and MacBook, which forces me to do something else. Anything else. Take a warm bath. Read. That’s the strength of this app. Taking control when I am not in control.

  3. Well written article with approachable and practical suggestions. Bookmarked to return to on the days when I’m feeling too overwhelmed to make a start on things.

  4. Productivity is everything. If we are not productive, there’s no way we will achieve great result. Thanks for being my best personal improvement blog of the year!

Comments are closed.