The Build a Better Workflow Series


During the month of November I’ll be writing a weekly post as part of a series I’m dubbing Build A Better Workflow. In previous posts in this series, I’ve discussed apps and services, as well as habits and routines. But none of these are going to go nearly as far in building a better workflow than beginning with a solid foundation in place.

My quest for a more productive workflow didn’t start with starting a new habit or routine, and it certainly didn’t start with an app or service. It started with something that I could build those things on and know that even if I altered or replaced those components that my workflow would still be solid. I started building my better workflow with a solid foundation.

The foundation I used began what I already knew — and had used for years: paper. At my old place of employment I used a paper planner extensively, and my use of colours in that planner was one of the holdovers to my workflow today.

I added to that foundation by diving into the works of David Allen, Stephen Covey, and Tony Robbins. After spending time using every element of their respective systems (and in no particular order, I might add), I started to parse out what worked best from each and fostered those elements even more. I left some of the other elements aside. In the process, my foundation became not only stronger, it became more personal.

“Productivity is a very personal topic for me. At times it has gotten too personal, but that has helped me develop such a close understanding with the art and craft of personal productivity. It’s what has helped me become a productivityist.” — from A Case for Getting Personal with Productivity

Without a strong foundation you can’t have an efficient and effective workflow — and you need both to be at your best. Speed isn’t enough and it is the least important of the two qualities you want in a workflow. Effectiveness is far more important (just ask Todd Henry) because it assists you with creating things of quality rather than of quantity. Doing something efficiently gets it done, but doing something effectively gets it done well — and usually within a reasonable speed the better you get at it.

One of the best books I’ve ever read on workflow is essentially a master class in the building of one, and it definitely discusses building a foundation as being critical. This book is Workflow: Beyond Productivity by Kourosh Dini.1 You can read my review over at

The only way you’ll really want to make your workflow better is by building a solid foundation first. That means you need to make it yours — and yours alone. Take elements from systems you’ve done your homework on. Incorporate your pre-existing elements into your workflow where you can to better connect yourself with it (then use habits and routines to deepen that connection). Then no matter what apps you bring into the mix or what habits you adopt, you’ll always have something reliable for them to stand on: a foundation that is uniquely you.

Habits and Routines

Habits and routines are a means of creating a connection — either with a thing or with yourself. But in the best cases, habits and routines create a connection with both. It’s through the adopting and fostering of habits that you truly can build a better workflow because you’re adding something consistent, something you can really trust, to the mix.

An example of a habit that has really enhanced my workflow has been the adoption and fostering of my journaling habit. I start off my day with a journal entry and I close my day with another one. Every time I stick to that routine, I find i’m more effective during the day and that leads into the day to follow. I’m also able to connect with my weekly review process a lot better because I’m essentially doing a mini-review each day.

When habits or routines get left by the wayside, you’ll notice. If they aren’t good for you, you’ll see a positive impact. But if they are good for you, you’ll see a negative impact. I saw that over the past few days in my own life. I wasn’t journaling twice a day because I felt that I was too busy with work. I was in a different environment (New York City), so I used that as a justification of sorts.

I was, in the words of my friend Michael Schechter, crap rationalizing.

I know this because I did write entries once on each of the days I was away. They were at odd times and didn’t resolve much, but the fact they were getting done in even the smallest of ways signified to me that they were such an important part of my workflow that even doing them slightly had a noticeable impact.

Tomorrow I’ll get back on that horse and start my twice-daily journaling routine once more. And I’ll feel better for it.

But how do you track habits and routines in order to measure their effectiveness? You do it bit by bit – and you only do one at a time.

Leo Babauta has written about this before. He adopts one habit at a time so that he can give it the utmost of his attention. I suppose that my suggestion of theming your months can also be used in this sense. Gretchen Rubin themed months for her book The Happiness Project and she wrote about the successes and failures that came along with that.

Making marked progress with smaller steps will lead to marked progress with bigger strides. It will just take time, intention, and attention for that to happen. Habits don’t just happen to be firmly entrenched overnight. Neither do routines. They need to be given the proper time and attention to stick. Fostering habits and routines isn’t about efficiency first; it’s about effectiveness above all else. Efficiency will show up eventually, but it’s no good without effectiveness.

I’ve used some apps to track my habits, but it’s not necessary. Apps like Habits, Lift, Way of Life, and Clever Routines can certainly help. But even though these apps can handle a slew of habit-building all at once, steer clear of going overboard with adding too many at once. Focus on building one habit or routine a month at first, and you’ll get better at developing ones that will work for you over the long haul.

And that’s going to make your workflow — and your work — that much better.

Apps and Services

I talked about a lot of apps during my creativeLIVE course last week. I decided to assemble some information on some of them in a piece here today so that the overwhelm of “app overload” would be lessened just a little bit.

I also wanted to make sure I put the ones here that I’ve found to be the most useful for me to date. There are many others I touched on during my talk, but these ones have stuck with me over a longer period of time, so they deserve to have the spotlight more than others.

Hazel has been a big one for me as it acts as an automation tool more than anything else in my workflow. I’ve only scratched the surface with the rules that can be created and implemented with the app — David Sparks has gone far deeper than most on this front. While it may not be the first app that you’ll want to add to your workflow, it’ll be one to keep at top of mind for addition not too long after your system is established and firmly entrenched in your mind.

In terms of automation, IFTTT and Zapier are great services that you can use to automate tasks that you don’t really need (or want) to do on your own. Definitely worth exploring and slowly integrating over time.

There are a lot of “habit” apps, but the ones I discussed most were Lift, Way of Life, My Minutes, and Clever Routines. If these kind of apps are something you’ll use to not only augment your system but will actually help you stick with it, then give them a look.

TextExpander has been such a huge efficiency and effectiveness booster for me. It works in the background for me and adds so much value to my workflow — and my work as a result. I’d add this – or its Windows counterpart Breevy — to your toolbox sooner rather than later.

Asana is what I use for team-based task management. OmniFocus is my solo task management app of choice. There are many others out there, but I keep coming back to these. If you don’t have a task manager of choice yet and you work with teams and individually, then Asana and Flow are ones you should check out first. And if you’ve already got OmniFocus and don’t feel as if it’s working for you, try checking out OmniFocus Premium Posts and/or Creating Flow with OmniFocus. They are great resources for OmniFocus users of all skill and proficiency levels.

Evernote is a huge asset for me — but it wasn’t always that way. Once I set it up to work for me, it clicked. Before that, it was a mess. Evernote Essentials was a big help, but so was just stepping back and giving Evernote purpose. If you’ve already got an Evernote account, then try that. Add value to it, and it will add value right back.

My mail app of choice is Dispatch on iOS — and it is the app I use to process most of my emails. Why? Because I can get the emails in my email inbox where they really need to be quickly and effectively. If you’re an iPhone user, give it a look. It has saved me a ton of time and energy since I started using it as my primary email app.

One app that I didn’t mention, but was a huge help in getting me up and at ’em in the mornings of my talk was Sleep Cycle. I’ll offer up more thoughts on this in a future post, but if you don’t have an alarm clock app right now then you should check it out.

There’s a lot out there, and there’s nothing wrong with exploring to find what will work for you. It’s when that exploring becomes searching that you may wind up going off in a direction that is unfocused and far removed from why you were exploring in the first place. Hopefully what I’ve offered here will help you search less…and do more.

1 Kourosh is also the author of another stellar book, Creating Flow with OmniFocus, which is one of the best resources for OmniFocus out there. You can get that book here.

Photo credit: satty4u via SXC.HU

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