Hack Your Productivity by Adding Signs to Your Workflow

How do you know what to do when you start your workday? Do you use a to-do list? Do you leave a Post-It note on your computer monitor from the previous day? Do you let whatever emails are left in your inbox guide you to what to tackle first? Workers use all kinds of tricks to remind themselves of what tasks they need to get done. But with a few smart productivity tricks, you can build subtle reminders into your workflow and nearly eliminate the need for sticky notes, to-do lists, and unread messages.

Like most knowledge workers, I start my workday in front of a computer. What I see when the computer screen illuminates guides me toward what I need to get done.

Knowing what you need to do just by looking at your everyday computer screen is much more efficient than opening three or four other apps, such as your calendar, your email, a to-do list, and a project management platform or work-management app. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use these other tools at all. But I am saying you can build more efficient reminders into your natural workflow that will guide your initials actions every day so you can get started working quickly and efficiently and only rely on the other apps for more detailed information.

How Build Subtle But Powerful Nudges Into Your Workflow

I’ve described previously (in my book Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life and in my weekly Get Organized column PCMag.com) how I use year-month folders to organize my work. Every year has a folder. Every month has a folder. And within every month folder are subfolders for articles I’m writing.

These folders don’t just hold files, though. They also become cues as to which tasks I need to complete every day.

For example, it’s currently March 2016. When I start my workday, I open the folder labeled 1603 MAR. The “16” is for 2016, and “03” is for the third month. Writing the dates in this way makes sure the folders sit in chronological order. The subfolders contain the projects—in my case, articles—that are in progress. Each folder is coded with a color. If the folder is green, that means it’s basically done. If it’s gray, I haven’t started work on it yet. And a yellow folder means the work is in progress.

So every time I open my 1603 MAR folder, my eyes immediately go to the yellow folders. And there you have it. I know which articles are in the works but not yet completed, and I know I should work on tasks associated with those articles first before starting any new projects.

Researchers Wood and Neal (2007) note that habits can be tightly tied to the places where we do them. I’ve made it a habit to open my folder and see what work I need to do first as soon as I sit in front of my computer monitor in the morning. That habit grew on me quickly. I do it in the same places at the same time of day five days a week.

Beyond the folders, I keep a simple spreadsheet that acts like a checklist for all the necessary steps that have to be completed before an article can publish. It’s just one spreadsheet, but it has a synopsis of each article and its stage of completion. When I look in the 1603 folder, the color-coded sub-folders remind me which projects are currently open, and the spreadsheet gives me more detail about where I’ve left off with each individual project. Because I have this summary spreadsheet, I never have to look through the files to remember where I left off. The spreadsheet tells me.

One of my writing teams uses Asana, too, and I have a little bit of duplication in what I keep in the spreadsheet and what’s being tracked for each article listed in Asana. That’s okay. I don’t mind having double entries one bit. It helps me very quickly spot discrepancies.

My folders, color-coding, and spreadsheets are just some examples of how to build reminders into your day that automatically steer you toward doing the work you should be doing. No matter what system you come up with for your own work, just bear in mind you want reminders that are not mired in distractions. That’s one of the problems with using an email inbox as a to-do list. There is so much else going on in an email inbox that you’re likely to get distracted into doing work that isn’t your first priority.

Conserve Your Resources for the Hard Work

I’ve been working with this system in some form or another for more than 10 years. Starting my workday is automatic. I don’t think about what I need to do. I open the correct folder, and it tells me what to do. When we stop thinking about every move we need to make and instead rely on habits, we reserve brain power for the hard tasks. I barely use any resources whatsoever getting started with my workday. That means I have more resources for getting the actual work done.

That principle of conserving resources comes from Hobfoll’s Conservation of Resource Theory. It’s one productivity researchers call up often in explaining everything from why we need to take time-off from work, like vacations (Fritz 2006) to why relying on habits are more productive than thinking through every decision we need to make in a day.


Fritz, C., and Sonnentag, S. (2006). Recovery, well-being, and performance-related outcomes: The role of workload and vacation experiences. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 936–945. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.91.4.936

Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44, 513–524.

Wood, W., & Neal, D.T (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, Vol 114(4), 843-863.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.114.4.843

Image by Giampaolo Squarcina, CC.


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