Like everyone else, I’m working on multiple, disparate things at any given time. As a Data Science Manager, I have got an 8-hour a day job that often becomes a 12-hours a day job. I take care of my finances myself. I read. I write. I create. I publish. I have things to remember. Tasks to be reminded of. Et Cetera… Like for most of us, the mind is not the right place to keep track of all these work items. Whether big or small, quick or multi-step, these items, if left to your conscious mind, would disappear. Like sand in your fist. Also, in your daily routine, all the small things that you do repeatedly … they take time and effort, which, if either automated or optimized, would reduce the cognition load. Removing these little things from your routine has a cumulative positive effect on your life.
In this article, I’ll focus on how I optimize my everyday workflow when I’m working on my computer. While it is limited to the computer, because I spend a huge chunk of my time on the computer, this covers a lot of ground.
The Guiding Principle here is minimalism and being distraction-free when I’m on my computer.
- There are many ways to get distracted when you are online or on your computer. Yes, your willpower can help you to avoid those distractions. But, if you can keep those distractions hidden, then you reserve your willpower, which is a finite resource, for productive pursuits. Mitigated decision fatigue as well
- Saves time. If you’re only a few clicks away from your priorities, then you get to those faster
My Desktop screen is completely clean (that rhymed!), except for 4 icons. Three shortcuts and Recycle Bin. I prefer to keep folders on-screen as shortcuts so that I can structure my folders in the way I want and I don’t delete something important by phantom finger magic. The folders are:
- LIFE - All my files are structured in a hierarchy under this root folder. They are categorized into certain ASPECTS. We will talk about ASPECTS in one of my future articles
- CURRENT - has shortcuts for all things that I’m currently working on. While the actual folders are in deep recesses of the LIFE root folder, these shortcuts help me get to those without looking at potential distraction
- TEMP - Any reading or research material that I will consume within the next few days and may not keep permanently goes here. This is synced to an online drive so that I can access it everywhere
Then there are pins to taskbars:
- Microsoft To Do - for taking quick thoughts. More about this later
- OneNote - Where I collect all my planning notes. More about this later
- Windows Explorer
- Mozilla Firefox - is my main browser for all personal accounts
- Google Chrome - For general browsing and research work
Last but not least - I use multiple desktops (a functionality in Windows 10). This has completely changed the way I compartmentalize. I have five desktops:
- Command Center: is where all my planning setup is done. I keep my OneNote and Microsoft To Do opened here along with my calendar so that I can refer it anytime to see what’s the next thing I should work on…
- Learning Zone: I’m a student for life. As a data scientist, I keep learning basics and what’s new and cutting-edge in the field of machine learning and AI. I do all that here.
- Workplace: Any general work happens here. Checking mail, financial investments, social media, etc.
- Entertainment: is reserved for watching serials, movies, and any other entertainment stuff
- Random: is for random things… I don’t linger here much
The sequence of these desktop windows is important. Instead of using ‘Task View’ to move from one window to another, I use my four-finger track-pad shortcut. That means I have to go through each of the windows in that very sequence. So, we start with ‘Command Center’ to see what’s on the list … and if I’m feeling like watching a movie (aka ‘Entertainment’ window), I have to go through ‘Learning’ and ‘Workplace’ windows before I get there. Sometimes, I end up in ‘Learning’ and ‘Workplace’. I’ll admit I haven’t perfected this, but something is better than nothing. One thing I wish they had: An ability to design each of the windows differently. Since each of my windows looks the same, there’s no way of telling them apart from other than through what’s open in that window. Having each window with a different look and feel would reduce the cognitive burden.
OneNote acts as my planning center. The guiding principle behind the choice:
- Accessible across my Windows laptop, Android phone, iPhone… and web if I don’t have access to any of my devices
- Multi-level hierarchy where I can structure my setup accordingly. OneNote gives me three levels hierarchy - NoteBook -> Tab -> Pages. Not enough, but I can live that (for now)
- Does not limit the amount of material or devices (cough Evernote cough)
- Is included with Microsoft Office suite
- Real-time syncing capability across devices
Now, what do I have in my OneNote?
I can’t share a lot of details or even snapshots, but the following should give you some sense of what’s there -
- Nishant’s Notebook: includes details about Yearly and Monthly Planning, Personal Growth topics, Career, and Health
- Personal Finance: includes links to learning material, future goals, and current state of my finance portfolio, ideas on developing passive income, research notes on stocks, MFs, industry, etc.
- IdeaBook: includes ideas, links, and details on what kind of product I can create, projects I can do, blogs I can write, courses I can create …
- Creations : IdeaBook is just about ideas. But when they start taking shape, it is moved to Creations. Here, I keep the details of what I’m working on
- Learn: contains links of learning material across multiple subjects like mathematics, statistics & probability, machine learning, artificial intelligence, data science, linear algebra … including study notes
- Temp Material: contains temporary material as a part of short-term research
All these notebooks are created in OneDrive and not locally so that it is available and safe in the cloud and accessible from anywhere. However, for all its value, OneNote does feel a bit lacking.
- Formatting ability - is limited. I find it hard to create structures that I need to create my notes
- Linking - feels limited, or at least a bit tortuous. I wish there was an easier way to connect different portions of the notes
This led me to look for alternatives. Still looking for a few viable ones but Notion seems to be coming on top as an option.
Microsoft To Do
While OneNote is something I use for planning purposes, I use Microsoft To Do as my to-do list. It is more than just that. It is where my inchoate, in-the-moment thoughts end up to be processed later. Like others, I get ideas and tasks when I’m busy or otherwise occupied. These ideas, if not penned down right away, disappear by the time I get around to act on them. When I try to keep a mental note, it just crowds up my mental space affecting my focus. To have very quick access to Microsoft To Do, I always have it open on my first desktop window (i.e. Command Center), as a pinned item on the taskbar (as mentioned in the Desktop section), and as an icon on my mobile front screen. So, whenever a thought occurs, it goes in my To-Do list as quickly as possible, to be processed later. This is one of the tricks I learned after reading ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen. I’ll talk about this more in one of my subsequent articles. I’ll also talk about how Microsoft To Do is structured in the same article (since it will make more sense then). For now, just have a look at the snapshot.
Google Calendar serves a dual purpose for me.
- To set up my ‘TimeBlocks’ so that I get notifications. TimeBlocks are a blocks of few hours scheduled on a daily/weekly basis for things like reading, writing, planning, etc. We will talk more about this in one of the future articles. Having the notifications on for these TimeBlocks helps remove the mental burden of remembering them. Once planned, this helps you go into an automatic mode and mitigates decision fatigue
- Scheduling some long term events like a yearly investment in PPF, NPS, etc; some non-periodic events like Meetups, etc
I have only two complaints with Google Calendar.
- I wish there was a desktop application
- Dark Mode! Why is there no dark mode?!… that should be easy enough, no?
Anyway, I’ll end this here. There are a few more tricks around online and offline syncing setup. It is not perfect, but I’ll share it in a more relevant article in the future about my folder structure.
Hope this was helpful.