This is a bare-bones productivity system that anyone can do for very little money. It's pretty light on the philosophy to keep it under 1000 words.

This system borrows liberally from the work of David Allan, Michael Linenberger, Merlin Mann, and common sense.

You'll need:

  • At least 2 reliable pens
  • Staple-bound pocket notebook
  • Calendar (physical or virtual)
  • Some way to write and maintain lists, such as:
    • nvAlt (Mac) or ResophNotes (PC) and a Dropbox account or
    • Google Drive or
    • A Text editing application of your choice or
    • A loose-leaf notebook

Step 1: Get it out of your head

At the top of a sheet of paper, write "I am feeling stressed because...", and write at least 20 answers to that statement. It's no big deal if you can't come up with 20 answers, but you should try, even if you have to make stuff up.

Repeat the same process for the following statements:

  • I am upset because...
  • I wish I didn't...
  • I feel satisfied and fulfilled when I...
  • Every day I should...
  • I really need to finish...

The statements above are designed to address your life as it is today. Optionally, consider finishing the following lists, or making up lists of your own.

  • This year, I'd like to...
  • My kids would really love it if I...
  • My spouse would love it if I...
  • I'm really passionate about...
  • If I had unlimited time and resources, I'd...
  • If I didn't care about what people thought of me, I'd...

Step 2: Cull the herd

For each item on your lists ask the following questions:

  • What would happen if I didn't do this?
  • Is the payoff worth the investment?
  • Is this something I should really do, or something I feel I ought to do?

Based on your answers, cross though as many items on the lists as possible. Once they're gone, forget about them. Let go of them. They're just weighing you down.

Interlude: Tasks and projects

The difference between tasks and projects

A task is a physical action that can be completed in one session. A project is composed of two or more related tasks, and is often more abstract and conceptual than tasks.

Building a house is a project. Installing a door is a task, assuming you already have all of the tools and hardware. If not, it's a project, with tasks like: buy a door, buy hinges, find screwdriver, drink beer, ask John to help me hang the door, et cetera.

Be sure not to get too hung up in planning every possible task for each project. It ends up being counterproductive.

Writing actionable tasks

Write tasks as if you are giving them to a temporary assistant. Make them as specific as necessary and include any useful information.

Bad example:

Email Pete

Good example:

Email Pete ( re: potential freelance design work

A good format is verb + subject + reason.

Next Actions

According to David Allan, "a Next Action is your physical, visible next step. Some of these are project related, some are not."

Step 3: Sort into tasks and projects

Referencing the items left after the cull, create a list for tasks and another for projects. Be sure to write actionable tasks.

Look over your projects list again, and be sure that there is a next action for each project on your task list.

Step 4: Using the notebook

Master list/Inbox

Open your notebook to the centerfold (the middle spread where you can see the staples). Starting on the first page on the right, copy all of your tasks into your notebook.

From now on, write down every task, idea, phone number, book recommendation or whatever at the end of this list. It's okay if it gets messy.

If there's a due date associated with the item, write "DUE MM/DD" at the beginning of the line.

Once you've copied an item from your master list onto your daily list, mark it off.

Daily List

At the top of the first page of the notebook, write today's date. You'll do this on a new page every day.


Look at your task list. Is there anything you absolutely must do today? If so, write a heading like "Critical", "Hot", "Urgent & Important", or whatever effectively communicates that sense of urgency to you, and list those items here. You can put stars or exclamation marks in the margin for emphasis.

If you could possibly do it tomorrow do not post it here.

You should never have more than 5 items in this list. Ever. It's perfectly okay to not have any.


If there's anything on your master list that is due in the next week or two, write it under another heading called "Upcoming" along with any appropriate due dates.

Step 5: The Daily Ritual


  • Check your calendar
  • Work on something fun and/or fulfilling to get you started
  • Work on your critical items


  • Check your email (consider checking your email once a day, as late as possible) and enter any potential tasks into your master list
  • Spend no more than 2 minutes cleaning your desk


  • Write your list for the next day
    • Choose your critical items
    • Transfer any uncompleted tasks to the next page
    • Check your master list to see if anything is coming up in the next week or two
  • Enter events from your master list/inbox into your calendar


Say no whenever you can. The idea is to get your todo list as short as possible.

Delegate tasks whenever possible.

If something is really important to you, do it before lunch.

Be productive, don't "do productivity".

Consider keeping some index cards in your notebook for things like shopping lists and random notes.

You could keep a short list of active projects on one of those index cards.

Look into 30/30 Minute Work Cycle.

Look into the Seinfeld Streak Calendar.

Read "One Minute Todo List" by Michael Linenberger. It's a free ebook. You have to sign up for it, but it's not spammy, and totally worth the tiny effort.

AuthorBrennen Reece