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4 text files that go from vague life goals down to concrete hourly tasks:

- todo-year.txt : all goals for the year

- todo-month.txt : track subset of annual goals to finish this month

- todo-week.txt : track all monthly high-level tasks to finish this week

- todo.txt : daily task plan based on weekly plan. Switch tasks every 1 hour. In a day, I plan for about 4 tasks, so each task ends up getting about 2 hours.

Self-employed consultant here who has suffered from chronic procrastination after my daily routine became disorganized and unsupervised for some years. If I focus on only one thing for days on end, I feel I'm not doing much. The system above has helped me reduce (but not eliminate) both procrastination and distractions, and given me some satisfaction that I'm being relatively more productive.

I do something very similar but I use a Trello board with columns like these. Specifically:

- Daily

- Weekly

- Monthly

- [YEAR] Completed

I like Trello because the cards support checklists, due dates, and comments which are great features for promoting habits associated with getting stuff done. Some cards are recurring (getting moved from monthly or weekly to daily column), others are finishable. I take a small but real pleasure in moving cards between columns and especially getting things over into the annual completed column.

One note on the due dates: I don't use due dates as deadlines. I use them as "check in on this no later than" dates. For me, the distinction is critical.

For any workflow, it is worth considering org-mode. It has certainly satisfied me after trying many different alternatives.

It is plain text, so you are not locked into a proprietary object format. Thus, you can edit it using any text editor in case Emacs is not around. In fact, Vim is on its way towards implementing a decent subset of org-mode. GitHub and GitLab also support org-mode syntax and can even render HTML from it. There are also decent mobile clients, and even some bridges to things like Trello.

Emacs has lots of org-mode primitives that can be used to deploy any workflow. Moving items across sections or files can be efficiently done using org-refile. Storing new items on the flight from many different places can be done using org-capture and org-protocol. More importantly, you can easily create alternative views of your files using org-agenda. org-mode also has timestamps, so you can set schedules, deadlines or simply record events.

I've just scratched the surface. My favorite workflow is Ivy Lee's Method, which is a very basic kanban with two states. Easy to implement in org-mode. Just two trees: Today and Inbox. Every morning I refile 6 tasks from Inbox to Today. I keep new thoughts and important items with deadlines, etc inside my Inbox. I can use org-agenda to quickly see if there are any incoming deadlines or events, which I store in a separate calendar file.

If you want to get fancy, you can use lots of trees, one per project. And create lots of tasks to plan things ahead. Then use task states to schedule things for today and get a clean view, again, using org-agenda or a sparse tree. There are infinite possibilities.

I have enough in my todo list without adding “learn emacs” to it.

Do you have an example you can share?

have the same setup actually although I use kanban zone a site I worked on instead =)

I use a 4 file system as well. I keep them in Evernote for easy access.

- health: things I need to do to improve my health. It goes from food recipes to medical appointments to exam results.

- future: I'm in my mid-forties, so I look ahead with more pragmatism in my eyes. In this file I put the kind of work (or projects) I want to be involved with until retirement (included). Info here serves as directives for all the things I need/want to do.

- want!: here I list the things I want to buy in order to "settle down" as a consumer. I put a total cost of things in the bottom line of the file. It shows $ 12,000 as of today.

- tasks: my consolidated to-do list.

I have a "want" list in evernote too! I think it helps me buy less stuff that I don't really need. I add stuff to it when I see something on the expensive side that I 'want' but am not sure about purchasing. I check on it every once in a while and think "why did I want a GoPro, I never would have used it". Boom saved $500.

I started something similar. I keep a list of all the money that I saved by either not buying some fancy thing, use a cheaper service, DIY/repair, etc. Then, I spend it on some cheap thrills. Funnily, This process has made me happier. I kinda have a good reason to say no!

Yes. What I do is I leave the item in the list but cross it out to indicate I have changed my mind. I have 7 different motorcycle models listed, all crossed out at the moment as I gave up the idea of buying one. I bought an XBOX instead of a PS4, I check marked the former and crossed out the latter.

Hoe do you review and decide what to move between places? And, how do you handle smaller todos: get milk, register domain, clean fridge, call dentist, etc

Do those go in the list, or are they handled elsewhere?

Review and menial tasks are the two things that trip up my efforts at a system.

Also, where do you keep working notes for tasks in these lists: in the list or elsewhere?

I'm very interested, it sounds like a good system.

Reviewing: I review the daily todo every morning and update it every night, and I do EOW and EOM status updates with detailed analyses for the weekly and monthly files. Why could I not finish something? What should I do next month to correct it? That kind of analysis.

Moving / Reprioritizing: It's a necessity for me, because unlike a salaried job, I have to balance between my revenue-earning work and my hobbies. I do have to defer tasks often, to a different week or even a different month, all the time. The EOW and EOM updates are when I decide what I should defer to later. But the ideal is to stick to the schedule as much as possible through self-discipline and willpower.

Working notes: Each project and idea gets its own directory. I maintain current status of each project in its directory along with detailed notes, so that I can pick it right back months later. These are stored and tracked outside the above todo system. Since I review even the yearly goals everyday, everything gets done to a reasonable extent even if it's some months later than planned.

Trivial tasks: When I started off, I had just the yearly and daily todos. It's precisely because of trivial tasks - esp tasks which are one-time but critical nonetheless - that I introduced weekly and monthly todos. Anything important that takes time and requires me to allocate time goes into one of these lists. Otherwise my mind is unable to allocate time efficiently. Very trivial tasks like "have lunch" don't go anywhere, but I keep buffers in the daily todo for all such daily routine tasks.

If you are into learning stuff, you have probably heard of "deliberate practice". Reviewing tasks daily/weekly/monthly, and explicitly analyzing and planning for them is my way of "deliberate practice" for my life goals. I have tried a lot of visual tools in the past - GTD tools, Trello, Mind mapping - but two problems all of them had was 1) writing detailed analysis is not possible in the given interface and 2) they are designed as store to remember tools which means review may be possible but deliberate practice of planning is not easy.

Thank you! I truly appreciate you taking the time to explain all that. I think this system could work for me. I've just added those four text files into a folder, a notes folder, and also found an ios app which lets me easily view and edit txt files via Dropbox. (Textor)

So, you review all four files each day? I'm guessing that if the review system is properly done, then daily and weekly files see the most change?

I've also had issues with trello and other apps, and agree it's hard to handle the analysis within the interface. I don't follow your second point though. What do you mean by store to remember, and how does it inhibit planning but allow review?

Am also self employed, so looking forward to this system. Self management required constant attention.

Also this is a trivial feature, but do you list things with asterisks and cut/paste them down to a "Done" area when finished? Or something else?

Reviewing: I read all 4 files everyday to motivate, reinforce my memory and also see if anything is off track. It can happen sometimes that I have ended up allocating too much time to one thing and not enough to another. Daily reading corrects helps correct that. I write end of day analysis every night, end of week analysis on Sunday nights, and end of month analysis on last day of the month. Daily file sees the most changes, weekly less so. Monthly and yearly typically change if I get a new idea or drop an idea or get approached with a new project.

Problems with other tools: Writing a daily plan from scratch helps me go into the details of the task for that day. My experience with those other tools was that they were ok for creating a high-level plan once, store it, modify it occasionally and even review it everyday. But the interfaces were not convenient to design a detailed daily plan everyday, which meant a lazy person like me would simply review the plan without much modification, and I'd also lose the history of the project. In my text file, I can easily see if I end up with a long sequence of partial or skipped tasks, and make some corrections, but in those tools I could not.

Done tasks: I just write [DONE] / [PARTIAL] / [SKIPPED] against the task, along with reasons for the latter two. If I accumulate too many partial or skipped tasks on consecutive days, something is wrong - typically I'd have underestimated complexity of some idea - and a correction is required at least in the weekly plan.

My best wishes for your system! Keep at it with systematic self-analysis, and you'll be able to find and correct your weaknesses.

Sorry if asking too much about the details, but I'm interested in how you track a task being delayed multiple times for consecutive days.

Do you just know it from daily analysis, or are you creating a new file for each day/week/month, and periodically look through those?

And how about weeks, new file for each week? or just clear it out every new week, and bring stuff back up to the year file?

I have exactly 4 files - no new files. At the end of the D/W/M/Y, I just add a new section on top and plan the period there. So each file has a record of all previous period plans. These are all cumulative files - I never clear out previous period's plans, just add a new section on top.

To see a task that's delayed multiple times, I just have to scroll down and look for [PARTIAL]/[SKIPPED] markers and their analyses. Usually, the daily analysis results in some corrective action that may also go into the weekly or monthly plans.

Thanks! that clears things up.

I'm going to run with this & iterate over the next few weeks. Last couple of days have already been nice, dumping all my disparate lists into these 4 files.

I do something similar.

It's similar to reverse engineering the year starting from the year end goals, although I personally think more in terms of building personal systems instead of setting annual goals.

The book "The One Thing" talks a bit more about that concept of breaking down the year into, quarters, then from quarters into months and then into weekly sprints and daily tasks.

I also wrote a little bit about my high level process here: https://juvoni.com/you-are-a-rocketship/

You have explained it beautifully in your blog! Matches a lot of my own thinking on the topic and workflows.

I have tried all sorts of methods and software, but in the end always ended up with a single "today.txt" file.

This year I have started to the same thing, split into today/this_week/this_month but also buy, sell, and for repetitive events, monthly (change passwords, upgrade comps, lubricate all the things), spring and autumn.

I try to review most weekly, with a special focus on this_week, this_month, buy and sell.

"4 text files that go from vague life goals down to concrete hourly tasks ..."

I do the same thing but I keep all of them in a single text file and hide sections with the "fold" feature of vim.

I tried last year to dive deep into markdown and emacs and evil mode, blah blah blah, but in the end the only thing I really needed was the folding feature of vim.

What makes it work for me is folding based on any kind of indent (tab or space) and fold-toggle with the 'tab' key.

The indent folding I use is at 0xRKTFUG[1] and the tab-as-fold-toggle (along with a few other folding items) is at 0x3HS2RD.

[1] https://0x.co/RKTFUG ... and so on ...

folding based on any kind of indent is great, and why I've used jEdit for years

The tiering of goals in the way you've done it is brilliant.

Do you consult upper-tier lists when making lower-tier assignments?

That is in fact the core of the idea. I suck at low-level planning. All the wishful annual life goals have to trickle down as concrete daily activity to get anywhere. My mind is excellent at building castle projects in the air and even good at high-level analysis of them using flowery language. What it sucks at is converting all that into concrete steps. That's why I have to explicitly break them down into monthly, weekly, daily, and even hourly chunks.

Was this a natural progression of your system, or did you have to try it to see that it works?

Good question - made me revisit my memories.

TLDR some aspects were a progression, but the planning part was something I had to try out over a year to convince myself that I finally have something that works.

I'd say I have always done the daily todo all my professional life. Started it as my daily work plan when I was a salaried employee. Only tracked work-related tasks with it, but it was necessary because I had multiple project responsibilities and deadlines then. I actually thought of myself back then as a very disciplined person.

Even the life goals thing is something I have been doing from my salaried years. An annual document where I wrote details about my career wishes and personal improvements for the coming year. There were plans in those docs, but they were rather nebulous and not tracked.

That system worked ok for my salaried life. But when I became a consultant, things fell apart. When I had client projects to work on, my work-life balance became terrible, I missed project deadlines constantly, missed out on hobbies, and felt stressed and demotivated. When I did not have client projects, I went the other extreme - making lots of plans but terribly distracted and not finishing anything. Until then, I had not realized just how much of my earlier discipline was not because of me alone, but actually because of the structured and supervised environment inside a company. When I went alone, much of my discipline disappeared, and along with it, my self-confidence. I had actually refused lucrative client projects because I wasn't confident of meeting any deadlines.

I tried many planning systems over those years. GTD, Trello, Mind mapping tools. It's taken me a lot of self-analysis, experimentation and tweaks to understand why I had planning problems, and what I should do to overcome them. The main evolution between the system I have now versus the system I had back then is that all life goals now trickle down into concrete hourly tasks. While 2015 was a terrible year professionally, this system helped me improve my situation in 2016, and more so in 2017-2018. It's working out for me, thankfully.

Thanks a lot for the answer.

Do you have a routine to (re)visit your plans and see if you're on the right track? Do you even have a concept of the wrong track under this system?

How does your work time, according to the `todo`, fare against leisure time? Is it similarly scheduled, or does it come whenever the work hours have been accomplished?

Do you ever miss your goals during the hours of work? What do you do if that happens?

Revisiting: Yes, all the time. The yearly plan would be framed at the start of the year, but new opportunities and personal ideas arise quite often and unexpectedly. If something can help me achieve my life goals better, the entire planning cascade gets reprioritized from that point on. I have done things like defer personal projects, drop ideas that turned out to be impractical after prototyping (an example of a wrong track), and renegotiate scope of client projects. It's a dynamic thing - the idea of the system is to force life goals to convert into concrete daily activities, but the goals themselves can and have changed.

Leisure time: Leisure time is very much part of the daily plan. I put tasks like jogging, workout, reading, going out in all my plans. Even have things like fitness annual goals and explicitly write them in my weekly schedule and daily plans. Anything that I should allocate time for goes into these files.

Missed goals: Yes, that happens. I'm quite bad at time estimation, and some ideas involve a lot of exploratory prototyping that may take much more time than anticipated. I mark incomplete tasks as [PARTIAL] or [SKIPPED], analyze at the end of the D/W/M what made me skip them, adjust scope if required, and modify my plans to correct the problem by next D/W/M.

> Leisure time is very much part of the daily plan. I put tasks like jogging, workout, reading, going out in all my plans.

This kind of discipline sounds impressive. (I don't think I can follow something quite so meticulous: it'll probably confuse me.)

How do you fill out a `todo`? Are they different for each category? are they mostly similar? under the same template?

You can be as meticulous or as high-level as you want, depending on your disposition.

Because my default state is one of procrastination and laziness, I have to explicitly plan such things. If I don't, the other work or distractions will just expand to fill my time, and I'll just keep perpetually delaying them only to find at the EOM that I didn't indulge in my favorite hobby for even 1 hour the entire month, and that feels really bad. My system has evolved to overcome my own mental handicaps.

But I personally know 5x times more productive people - with spouses and multiple kids and time sinks like house constructions - who don't do anything like what I do and still manage to fulfil all their professional and personal plans much better than I do.

I have only one daily, one weekly, one monthly and one yearly file. Each file covers all categories of life goals. Organizing categories into multiple files seems natural at first and I had tried it in the past with mind mapping tools, but quickly realized that tracking and updating them is inconvenient and didn't really help me with planning my day. Here's an excerpt[1] from my daily todo to show what 2 days daily plan looked like - maybe it gives a better idea of what I'm describing.

[1]: https://pastebin.com/tXtyXuEU

Thanks for sharing your view on this.

I feel, with a certain definitiveness, that I need a schedule. Rather than working on a strict task-to-task basis, I feel like what I need is an obligation: "Do project X at 10, for at least an hour, then take your time until project Y at 2" etc.

Just thinking out loud.

Best wishes to your progress.

I can't speak for OP, but I've been addressing "leisure planning" primarily with logging and reminders instead of planners: I received a Fitbit over the holidays which has done a great job of encouraging me to block out 10 minute activity breaks and to stick to a certain wake-up time. I just used break time to do some cleaning and often start chores like laundry and dishes on breaks too. When the "activity day" ends, it's functionally like "work is over, real leisure can begin," although since I am working independently I tend to spread everything across the day, just now I bias towards household chores and physical work early in the day, and mental work later. It works for me since I no longer have to feel disciplined about physical activity - it's simply built into the schedule that I will get up and do something, so something will get done at random, and when the break is over I can just put it down and come back to it.

For gym time I use the FitNotes Android app to track progress and set session goals. I have done this for about two years successfully. Since this has gotten me on a roll, most recently I installed ActivityWatch to correlate the sleep/activity/health metrics against my screen time. What I find most important for myself is closing the loop of goals/plans/feedback: if some part of it is missing then progress stops. Usually it's lack of feedback that causes the biggest problems.

I've been thinking about specified breaks. My idea was: a 5- or 10-minute break every hour, away from the laptop, doing anything at all. I've noticed that, once AFK, I have my mind back: it springs back, outputs ideas, regains its perspective...

I've also been thinking about implementing pre- and post-workday breaks, for 1 and 2 hours, respectively.

The former is about starting the day right: instead of diving into whatever web the Internet has for me (a web of my own making, don't get me wrong), I could take a walk, or do a little cleaning, or cook, or read, or...

The latter, preceded by an hour of review, is to wind down, in order to maintain a proper sleep pattern (which I have serious problems with at the moment: waking up at 1 PM is not good for me).

Let's see how it works for me.

Best wishes to you and your own scheduling. I hope it works out to an excellent result for you.

Me too! At least with the single TODO.txt.

Here are some other tips:

-- I sync my TODO.txt with Google Drive so when I switch computers, or I want to check on my phone it's sync'd.

-- I don't do weekly or monthly goals, but I do yearly check-ins with myself and every few weeks after I feel like I'm not as focused as I want to be. I keep those goals in Google Docs since those are things that I want a more permanent place.

I don't use these tiers, but in terms of tooling simple text files is definitely the way to go.

Yup. Command-line, git and a dumb text file editor are all that I use.

But I wasn't always this way. Used to be a Windows guy in the past and used to prefer specialized GUI tools over command-line or general tools. Have tried all kinds of planning tools - GTD tools, Trello, some Kanban stuff, multiple Mind mapping tools. All of them had some minor deficiency or the other which I'd end up obsessing over, instead of doing my actual freaking work. It's taken me years to satisfy myself that git and an editor are more than enough.

This is brilliant! Thanks!

You're welcome!

But I'd like to caution people here who are impressed with my system that in the past, I too have been very impressed by other people's planning systems. I have tried a bunch of systems and tools that have worked for others - GTD, Pomodoro, Mind mapping, Trello, Kanban. But they did not work for me, often for minor reasons. The problem was not with those systems, but with my mind. Understanding how my own brain works, knowing its quirks, and using something that gets out of the way is how I got here. Text files and simple command-line tools work and even motivate me, but may not work or motivate somebody else. I'd suggest focussing on knowing your own quirks, and on ways you know can improve your self-discipline. The tools are usually not the root problem.

How do you deal with dependencies and blockers?

Edit: for example if you are waiting on an update to a library or a new version of iOS/Xcode?

Blocker in client project : either DIY, or look for workarounds, or escalate to client and reduce scope. Planning gets suitably modified for rest of the week and month.

Blocker in personal projects : some of my ideas have turned out to be not as easily implementable as I had first imagined. I usually reduce scope - because the idea after all started off as part of some life goal - but I have also dropped some ideas entirely. I record the reasons in the project directory to revisit later. I deliberately avoid overanalyzing in such cases - as somebody prone to procrastination, overanalysis of a tough idea is like entering a blackhole for me.

What if you are traveling, and can't access your pc?

These are plain text files that I sync using a git repo on my private server. I don't need to travel much, but I do switch between 3 machines regularly, which means I have to sync them up often. I use git command line.

That seems _much_ more convoluted than a synced notes app. Worth the effort?

For anyone that already uses git for work, it doesn't seem like much of a difference from normal workflows.

I also use git to handling backup and syncing of a bunch of personal data.

One of my projects for the new year is I've started keeping a daily journal both for personal stuff and for work.

I have a git repo with two folders "Personal" and "Work". I run "vim `date -I`" to open a file for the current day and add to it periodically throughout the day. Each time I add something I just commit and push like I do already for work.

I've found that it has been helpful at work in particular for maintaining a running log of what I'm planning to do and what I've actually gotten around to.

Like all new years resolution things, time will tell if I actually keep it up.

But I guess circling back around: Git works really well for syncing things between machines. That's sort of what it's for after all.


Not a priority for me. I actually don't even own a smartphone. I'm not saying using git to manage things is the right solution for everyone, but it does make sense for a lot of use cases.

Most of the time, I'm on laptops or a desktop. All Linux. I'm comfortable with the command-line and have moved away from GUI tools. So, I don't find this workflow convoluted.

Not much of a mobile user and use very few apps. I especially don't use apps that store data on external servers. I use Evernote for storing some information, but not for any kind of planning. I'm sure good apps with self-hosted options exist, but this system works for me, is efficient, and so I don't feel like trying out anything else.

The elegance of any given tool or language doesn't matter. What matters is what you as a user are motivated to use to solve the problem.

I'm trying op's system. I put the text files in a top level folder in dropbox. So any machine of mine can access them.

For iphone/ipad, I use Textor to quickly access and edit them. It's faster than the dropbox app, which requires taps to get to the right place and a further tap for edit mode. Textor is about as fast as on my computer.

I'm guessing android has an equivalent app.

Check out syncthing or resiliosync

4 columns in Trello wouldn’t do the job?

The problem is that you don't want to see a lot of the other goals very often, you want to stay focused on what you want to do, so a primary TODO is a great way to do that.

I also find that the speed to setting your TODOs matters a lot, and nothing is faster than a TXT file, especially if you travel a lot and internet can be spotty.

As a mental trick, it also seems to help that the first thing I do is look at my TODO since it's the fastest and untethered from my web browser. Once I open my web browser, I need to check e-mail and other things and it's quick and easy to get distracted before you're focused on your short term goals for your working session.

But of course, if Trello works for you, but all means.

It's a subjective preference.

I have tried Trello in the past over an extended period, but it didn't motivate me to keep using it.

Elsewhere, I have talked about solving disorganization by knowing the quirks of one's own mind.

One of my quirks was internet distractions, and at one point, it got so bad that I'd simply keep my router switched off and use an inconvenient mobile for any research. No easy internet=less distractions, but also no trello.

Another quirk is that I like to write down my planning analyses and thoughts, sometimes in multiple paras. They help me to plan and correct plans. Trello or mind mapping interfaces are not convenient to satisfy that kind of quirk. TXT is ideal for it.

Thanks for your answer. I use something similar but in Trello. It is ok for me.

BTW: your method reminded me of this article which influenced my thinking around self organizing


That article really resonates with my thinking, thanks for the link. In the past, my planning used to be guided purely by what ideas I found exciting. Important, but unexciting tasks were deferred or left unattended. My system now allows me to work on tasks even on days when I don't particularly feel like working on them.

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