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A simple system to beat time and do more of what you love [2020 UPDATE]

2020 crept up and took us all by storm. I look at my calendar and whoa! It’s July! I’d written this post in 2019 and it seems like another time, another world. In India, we’ve had the world’s largest human lockdown in history from March 24. Some parts of the country are still locked down and the coronavirus causing COVID19 is still on the upswing.

Many have lost dear ones, many more are suffering around the world. A time like this is an opportunity to look at our lives and reconsider the direction we are headed. I’ve written previously on how humanity can come out stronger from this pandemic.

I’m also very keen on productivity tools to help me do more of what I love. Time after all is so precious, as the virus has shown us. I’ve been using Evernote for years as a tool to collect everything from ideas to emails, work documents to financial documents.

I was recently introduced to a productivity tool – Milanote and took it for a test drive. I am so stoked, thought I must update this 2019 post.

Read below for my thoughts on this productivity tool that seems a perfect tool for creatives, particularly the visual kind.

It’s that time of year. A time for spanking new resolutions for the New Year.

Exercise more. Write more. Pull out and dust that marketing plan.

Build a new website. Spend quality time with the family. Work on getting more time for meditation in the park.

The list goes on.

Come mid-January and work gets in the way. Tons of it. Soon you are overwhelmed. By February those spanking new resolutions are on the back burner. Things I should be doing if only I can get the time.

Less than three months into 2019 and its back to the old routine.

Until 2020.

If this sounds like the start of your year, it does not have to be this way. There is a simple system to get things done. And it never fails.

If you want your New Year’s resolutions to stick with you right through 2019 and beyond, here’s how.

Don’t Rely on your Mind

We rely too much on our mind to remember to get things done. But the brain is not a computer or a register. It works well to plan, to create, to visualise.

What we need is a simple system that can remind us of the things we need to do, when we need to do them.

The system needs to be simple enough, so we use it. We implement systems so complex that using them itself is a task.

Here’s my system that leaves my mind free to work on creative tasks.

Evernote with GTD: It’s like Superman and Wonderwoman

I came across David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) some years ago. I loved the simplicity of the system and tailored it to meet my needs. What makes the system different, is that it is flexible.

Prefer something offline with old-school paper and files? GTD can be tailored for that.

Are you a digital junky and have apps for everything? GTD can be tailored for that too.

Prefer an offline system with some digital help? You can implement such a system with GTD.

I use Evernote to implement the GTD system. I chose Evernote because it’s available where I am. There is a desktop version, an app for the smartphone (iOS and Android) and I can access it on the web through a web browser.

All devices are synced, so my notes are with me anywhere. Best of all, I can access my notes offline.

It’s a simple matter to set up Evernote with GTD.

Here’s how I did it.

Evernote-Notebook Structure

Create a default notebook called Inbox.

In Evernote, create one notebook and name it Inbox. Make this the default notebook. It is the first-line repository of anything you wish to remember. Any note you write will, by default, get saved in the Inbox notebook.

Next, I have notebooks called: Studio, Away, Home

My studio is in my home. I prefer to keep work tasks separate from home tasks. And I meet clients at cafes in the city. That’s why I needed three location notebooks.

If you wish, you can have more notebooks for other specific locations. For instance, if you work from a home studio two days a week and at shared office space for three days a week, you can add Office as another notebook, for tasks you need to do while you are working at the Office.

Just remember, one notebook for each location. Each of these notebooks will contain tasks you need to remember when you are at that location.

Evernote lets me stack notebooks into a related group. So I stack the Studio, Home and Away notebooks into a Next Actions stack.

I have two more notebooks: Waiting On and Someday/Maybe.

Now that we have our structure let’s see how it works.

Break down projects into tasks

Here’s the secret to getting things done.

We work on tasks, not projects. A task is something you can do. It’s actionable and will include a verb. A project is a collection of tasks. The mind can wrap around a job more efficiently and willingly than a project.

An example of a project could be Chasing Shadows documentary film edit.

It will take days/weeks to complete. Looking at the mountain of material before me can intimidate me. So I break it down into smaller tasks I can do in an hour or two.

For instance, I break down the Chasing Shadows documentary film edit project into these tasks:

  1. Segregate rushes into bins
  2. Analyse b-roll
  3. Analyse Interviews
  4. Select the best audio from interviews
  5. Select best b-roll
  6. Assemble selects into first Assembly Cut

And so on.

The trick is to break down the project into actionable tasks – actions you can do in a definite time.

This way, the mind is more open to doing the task instead of being confronted with a mountain that will take an indefinite amount of time.

Sometimes, a project may be simple and involves just one task, for instance, the project “500-word blog post for client X”. In this case, the project is the task: “write a 500-word blog post for X.”

Evernote-Notes in Someday

Enter tasks as they come

Now that you understand projects and tasks let’s see how we use Evernote to help move things along.

When a new project/task comes up, create a new note. You could be at work, at home, on the street or just about anywhere. Get into the habit of making a note with your desktop, smartphone app or web browser the moment you remember or get a new task.

Let’s say, I receive the contract to edit a documentary film. I make a note in Evernote. It gets saved in the Inbox. Later in the day, a client calls asking me to courier a hard drive. I make a note of that, and it gets saved in Inbox. I remember while watching television with the kids, I need to call my accountant to discuss advance taxes. I make a quick note, which also gets saved in my Inbox.

Keep this simple. Don’t bother to segregate tasks. With Evernote, you can type a note, handwrite or make an audio note. The easier it is, the more likely you will follow the system. So make a quick reminder that gets saved in the default notebook as soon as possible.

At least once or twice every day, it’s time to segregate the Inbox.

Here’s how.

Segregate tasks

Open the Inbox and break down larger projects into smaller tasks with finite time. Create a new note for each job. The title of the note could be the task, starting with a verb.

For instance:

  • Call Jason to schedule client meeting
  • Write a blog post for Organic World
  • Send an email to Client X with blogging proposal
  • Dispatch USB drive to client
  • Watch the Godfather trilogy

Now determine where you will be doing each of these tasks. If its something to do in the Studio, move the note to the Studio notebook. If its something you need to do while outdoors, enter it into the Away notebook.

So, “Call Jason”, “Write blog post”, and “Send email” would go into the Studio notebook. “Dispatch USB” will go into the Away notebook.
Finally, some of the tasks are not possible right away. You’d like to do it someday. These are tasks you can take up when you find yourself with time on your hands – i.e., your Next Actions are empty.

For instance, “Watch the Godfather trilogy” could go in the Home notebook if I absolutely must watch it or would go into your Someday/Maybe notebook if its something I would like to do, but not necessarily anytime soon.

Now, when you are in the Studio at the start of the day and need to know what to do, just open the Studio notebook. Pick a task, execute it and delete the note.

Since there is no priority, I pick the task that can be done, depending on the time I have at hand.

Let’s say, I’ve sent the blog proposal to Client X and am now waiting for a reply before I can begin writing the post.

I now have a task: “Write a blog post for Client X” but can only begin once I get client approval. So, I move the task into the Waiting For notebook.

This way, I can keep track of the tasks pending which need additional inputs from someone else.

Go get ’em!

So there it is. A simple system I’ve used for over 7 years now. It has kept me sane even with tons of work. I know what I need to do while I’m at different locations and never feel I’m forgetting something.

It has become a failproof system where my mind is not needlessly burdened with mundane remembering.

It’s always in the relevant notebook.

Since entering a note is simple with Evernote, I can make a new note virtually anywhere I find myself when a task arises. This is the most critical aspect of the GTD system with Evernote. A simple system makes using it second nature.

Try the GTD system with Evernote. Feel free to flex it according to your work style.

And 2019 will be a year when resolutions simply get done.

2020 UPDATE: Milanote – the productivity tool for creatives (not just)

I was introduced to Milanote recently. In times of the pandemic, I’ve been trying to simplify my life and workflows. I thought, well, just another app but I liked their homepage and decided to give it a test drive.

My project workflow involves a lot of visual representations using little cards (home made post-its). I’ve written about my process on creating story arcs when editing films.

Visual system using note cards
My Visual system of note cards

I also use Scrivener to organise my longform writing work and used it exclusively to work on my first fiction book project.

scrivener - longform writing
My system of cards in Scrivener for longform writing projects

As you can see, my process is very visual. As soon as I opened the Milanote app, I was intuitively drawn to its visual approach to organisation. At the time, I happened to be working on a proposal for a hyperlocal news platform. I decided to test Milanote using this project.

Everything is organised in boards in Milanote. Boards can contain notes, images, lists and even more boards. I found a lot of tutorials online on the functionality of the app. So I was able to quickly get up and running and created a board for the news platform project.

Building a proposal for a hyperlocal news platform

To keep things organised, Milanote also gives the option of uploading files (word docs, spreadsheets, images…) so all project files can be inside the Board. That’s useful, when compared to using note cards on the wall. Now, everything related to the project resides in one place.

Quick sketch of workflows

Little tools like linking arrows and colour coding of notes can make it super helpful when thinking through the creative process. I can quickly see how I could use Milanote to create basic outlines (the skeleton) with just notes and then over the life of the project, build the notes into entire narratives using “boards within boards”.

Milanote also has desktop and mobile app versions (for mac and Windows) and a web clipper to go with the web app. I’ve not used the mobile app or the web clipper but it would be handy where ever you find yourself with an idea. Besides, you can add your team members as editors to work on projects together – with WFF and remote working, this should be standard for all productivity apps today.

Boards within boards for multi-level organisation

As a filmmaker, film editor and writer, I can see how I would use Milanote to map my creative process right from inception to detailing each aspect of the project. But to think Milanote is just for creatives would be missing the point. I can easily see how the app could be used in classrooms (I’ve exposed my homeschooled children to the app) and in the boardrooms – for planning projects and building startups.

So there, two of my productivity tools, each with their strengths. For me, Evernote is a tried and tested robust storage system, kind of like a filing cabinet. I also use it with the GTD system to remember my to-dos.

Milanote, on the other hand, with its visual approach, is well suited for ideating and planning projects mimicking the real world creative process. Milanote is the digital version of jottings on the back of napkins to post-it notes, combined with a file cabinet.

Whatever tool you use, make sure it’s invisible. It’s easy to get caught up in the system, but the best systems are those that stand back and let you do your job.

More than ever before, the world needs passionate people. Stay safe and stay creative.

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