How to set up a personal productivity system?

A working personal productivity system only needs five tools. Set them up and learn the routines and habits that prime you up for success.

Your personal producitivity system defines how your organize your work. As the name suggest, setting it up is a very personal thing. Thus there is no one best personal productivity system. There are rather principles to lean on to make your productivity system the perfect one for you.

Being systematic with your work is the only way to stay on top of the high levels of workload common today. One important advice is to have one system into which all your tasks, thoughts and ideas are integrated.

This system should be simple and easy to use. It should allow you to add stuff quickly. And it must be easy to retrieve everything whenever needed. Make sure to keep maintance time low. You do not want to be occupied more with the system than with your actual work.

It is a best practice to have exactly one system. However, this does not mean, that it all has to be in one software. In fact, trying to use one single software will lead to compromises. It will complicate processes for most people. It’s better to use specialized software to support the individual elements. You connect these tools with strong routines and habits.

What are the elements of a personal productivity system?

A working personal productiviy system only needs five tools:


Inboxes are the fuzzy part of your personal productivity system. They are all the channels on which you receive messages, information, requests and tasks. Try to limit the number of your inboxes as much as possible. It is easier to keep an overview if you don’t have to check a thousand places. Sometimes, you will be forced to use extra inboxes. This could be the case if a client uses a project management software or a team-chat. Try to keep these extra boxes to a minimum and make sure to shut them down when they are not needed anymore.

To make inboxes work for you and not against you, you need a clear schedule of when to check your inboxes. At these times, you process the content of your inboxes systematicaly. The rest of the time it is best, not to look at them at all.

The key is, to set up the tools of your personal productivity system in a way that allows you to process all inflow efficiently. All items in your inbox either need to be cleared right away (by deleting, doing or delegating it). Or they move into one of the following tools.


Your calender should store all time based appointments. It should store nothing else. To dos, tasks and reminders are better handled by the following tools of your personal productivity system. This way, your calender gives you a clear picture of where you have to be when. It also shows you on first sight where free time is available.

Calender blocking is a method to reserve time in your calender for dedicated tasks that need focused deep work. This is ok. You should consider this a meeting with yourself. But please, refrain from blocking your calender for small tasks and reminders in five minute increments. Put these in your tickler file or your to do list.

Tickler file

Your tickler file should act as your reminder and follow up system. The tickler setup of daily and monthly folders is easy to understand and to use. Our digital app automates all necessary processes.

The tickler file stores all deferred tasks, documents and information. It makes sure you see them again at the right time. Until then, they are hidden and don’t clog your focus on what you are actually working on.

To do list

The to do list is the oldest member of your personal productivity toolset. It is very simple: A list of what needs to be done. To do lists have the tendency to become way too long and act against you. That is why a to do list should be refrained to next actions (i.e. something you actually can and want to do).

I even strongly recommend to focus your to do list on things you want to do today. Starting a new list every will force you to set priorities. It reminds you not to stack undone tasks up unquestioned. If you have trouble keeping your to do list short, here are some tricks to make it appear shorter. That way you can trick your mind to focus better.

One possibility is to use your today’s folder in your tickler file as a to do list.

Reference system

The reference system is your place to store stuff: Invoices and receipts, interesting articles and the like. In the past, you needed to develop a sophisticated filing scheme to retreive this stuff agian later. Thanks to notetaking apps with powerfull search functions, these days are over. Just file the stuff in very broad category, tag them and you can be sure to find them again when needed.

How do you connect the tools to work as your individual productivity system?


The tools described above can be considered the skeleton of your personal productivity system. Your routines are the muscles that hold them together and allow you to move forward. Strong routines can make all the difference. The good news: Just like muscles, they can be trained. Routines and building productive habits is a whole topic of its own. I sometimes cover it in my “principles of work” category. Make sure to check it out.

The most important routines for your personal productivity system are: Your weekly and daily review, the times you check your inboxes, the way your process your inbox and your priority setting.


The main purpose of your personal productivity system is to make you more efficient. Your goals give you direction. They make clear what is important and what not. Without goals in your work and life you might be very efficient but still running circles and not moving ahead. This also includes your vision of what you want to achieve in your life.

I recommend you to set goals that support your vision on different time horizons. Define your goals for a year and then break them down to smaller fragments like monthly or weekly. Do this as detailed as needed to give you orientation. At the same time make, do not overdo it. Extremely detailed plans won’t help you. The time spent defining them would be much better invested into getting things done.

In your daily work, you use your goals in two ways. First, they are a criterion when prioritizing work. What does not support your goals should not be done, unless you are forced to to it by law or a superior. Secondly, you use them in your weekly and monthly reviews. There you define what needs to be done to further your goals and to advance on your track.

How can you incubate ideas in your personal productivity system?

I think these are best handled in a separte part of your reference system. Note taking apps are well suited here. I maintain lists of business ideas and other opportunities that I find interesting. Those are the things I might follow up on some day, but don’t have want to invest time and energy on right now. I also have a list of travel destinations i’d like to visit some day – a bucket list. Writing these things down helps to get them clearer. At the same time it frees your mind to focus on your current tasks.

You want to make sure to review them on a certain date. To ensure this just place a note “review ideas list” in your tickler file.