Over the course of the last 5 years, I've started taking the whole "productivity" thing a bit more seriously. More stuff to deal with at home (wife, kids, owning a house), more responsibilities at work, and less time to do the fun stuff that I want to do with my free time. (And I can't think of any two words whose meaning has changed more to me over the last ten years than "Free time".)
Like I recently said, I am lazy and stupid. Not all of the time – I would say that my ability to put together a 3 minute video in Final Cut, telling a story about a piece of work marks me out as not being stupid. Yet, the fact that my inability to spell meant that I wasted a couple of hours of my life would be pretty convincing evidence of my stupidity. Similarly, I'm not always lazy – since leaving a job I hated and starting a job I enjoy, I've surprised myself to discover that I'm actually very hard working. (But I've also discovered that I'm something of a perfectionist, and don't like working on something which I know I won't be proud of when it feels like my efforts will be wasted. Which, to the casual observer, is remarkably similar to being lazy and work shy when you're working on something that you really don't like and don't want to be associated with, and ultimately causes a very similar set of problems to laziness…)
I've realised that my brain is incapable of keeping track of everything I need to remember, deal with, think about, take some sort of action on, or generally "do". My "To-Do" list, if you like.
Two things I've done recently where I have taken myself a little by surprise; one is investing in "task management" software (specifically, Things for the iPhone, iPad and Mac.) That works out as quite a lot of money spent on software which, essentially, lets you make and manage lists. (ie. Very little.) It feels like that is a case where a pen and a piece of paper can do the job perfectly well, but you will have to trust me when I say that they don't (for me, at least.) Notes get lost or forgotten, or spread across different notepads/pieces of paper. 'Digitising' my to do list has helped – but only to the extent that it makes my 'making-it-up-as-I-go-along' approach to task management a bit less ineffective.
I have a personal nightmare, that there is something really important to just getting by at life that they teach you at school one day, but that I happened to be off sick, or on holiday, or maybe just too busy doodling spaceships or redesigning Batman's costume to pay attention. Occasionally, when I see the same behaviour across everyone I work with (ie. carrying around a notebook to every meeting, presentation etc.), I wonder if there is some common understanding and procedure about what you are supposed to actually do with it, and the best ways of using them. (ie. are you supposed to keep them after you're finished with them? Should you just have one, or different ones for different things - one for notes, one for action points, another for organising projects etc.)
The other is buying a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen. If you pay any attention to the world of 'productivity porn', then you probably will have heard of it — just about every task management software I've looked at boasts of being "GTD compliant", and just about every training course, speaker or blogger in the area of productivity talks about it. I can't quite believe that I've bought the kind of book that would look more at home on the desk of a corporate middle manager or office bookshelf than anywhere in my house, and I get the feeling that I should be hiding it inside the dust cover of something like 50 Shades of Grey when reading it in public to save myself embarrassment. (If I were the kind of person who reads ebooks, then I definitely would have bought an electronic edition… except, I'm not the kind of person who actually reads ebooks, so I probably wouldn't have actually read it if I had. With a title like that, not achieving the task of reading it would be the kind of thing that would probably be quite depressing.)
So, in a nutshell, the central idea is that "stuff" that is floating around in your head should not be in your head — it should be captured in a system, and organised according to a set of priorities, and where and when something should be done with it. The trick of the system comes from separating out the stuff that you're capturing just to get it out of your head (freeing yourself up to think of things in a more focused and productive way) and the stuff that sits on a "priority" list — to be done today/first/quickly/urgently.
Right now, I'm working on what that 'system' means – beyond apps and notebooks and lists. If I work out anything that might be useful, I'll share it here.