Staying Productive 2021 Style

Staying Productive 2021 Style.

Productivity and creativity are super important to me and as my work and my life evolve, I'm constantly changing and tweaking the systems that I use to keep myself on track and motivated. Like most productivity nerds, I spend a fair bit of time trying and testing new apps and workflows that allow me to get more done in less time. In paying attention to what I actually do every day I'm able to recognize bottlenecks and inefficiencies that either eat up my time or creative brain space. After identifying these problem areas I'm able to then think of creative ways to automate processes that are either annoying, time consuming, or provide a wide margin for human error. Because I do this, every year I get a little faster, a little better, and I get a little more done with a little less stress. Every year around this time I start to see posts about the top skills in demand for the New Year. It doesn't matter what industry you are in or what you do. In our new world the killer skill is focus.

Here's an outline of my systems as we go into 2021.

As I've mentioned before, the foundation of all of this comes from the ideas David Allen presented in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity (GTD), published in December of 2002. I first caught wind of these principals from a short web series entitled "The Secret Weapon". In "The Secret Weapon", David Allen's principals were applied using specific tools that revolved around the then popular note taking service Evernote. At the time I remember obtaining a training budget from my employer to attend one of the David Allen Company's workshops, and I've never let go.

There are some fundamental beliefs that I have found to hold true throughout my pursuit of personal and communal productivity and they come from a mix of David Allen's principals, The 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, and The Agile Manifesto.

"The mind is for having ideas, not for holding them"

"Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion"

"Individuals and interactions over processes and tools"

"Principals before personalities"

"... we have come to value responding to change over following a plan"

Our human brains suck at storing data. We remember stuff randomly, at the wrong times, in disjointed and often inaccurate ways. Our brains are great at having ideas but are really terrible filing cabinets. Computers on the other hand, are fantastic filing cabinets that are infinitely searchable in a variety of ways. This idea of a second brain for storage frees up the mind to do what it's actually good at, which is survival and creative problem solving. I don't want to remember the milk at 11:30pm when I'm laying down to go to bed. That's not helpful at all. I want that notification when I'm passing by a store that sells milk.

There are a million tools, services, and methods designed to do this work, but the difficult part about using them is trusting that everything you need is in there. It takes a while to build trust in your systems. It's not hard to do, but it takes concerted effort to build the habits you need to sustain and really take advantage of a system like this. It all begins with a capture.

The backbone of the system.

I have 3 main buckets where I store things to get them out of my brain and somewhere I trust. These buckets are:

Screen Shot 2021 01 01 at 2 54 51 PM

Omnifocus - for storing todos, agendas, and any other commitments that I've made to myself and others. This is my personal task and project manager and I have it split up to reflect different areas of focus in my life like Home, Work, and Community. I review my entire omnifocus database routinely to ensure I'm doing what I said I would do and that all those things are still relevant. I set defer dates on things I need to remember later, and due dates on things that have real consequences if they are missed. I use omnifocus mainly on the Mac as a desktop application, because I mainly work from my desktop - however I also make extensive use of the iPhone and iPad apps. At the end of the week I sit on the couch with my iPad and review the omnifocus projects. I clarify anything I'm unsure about and make sure I have a plan going into the next week. I will buy Macs forever just so I can have this app. It is critical to me and if it were ever lost, it'd be a real problem.

Fantastical - for storing calendar events. Native calendaring apps can do the job, but I prefer to use Fantastical as my primary calendar. I like the way it looks. I look at it a lot. It's important that I like the way it looks! Also, Fantastical has an amazing natural language engine that does a great job at parsing dates like "The 3rd Tuesday in January at 6:00pm". This makes capturing calendar events faster and easier and I use it across my MacBook, iPhone, and iPad. It also has a new feature that will scrub your calendar for zoom links and put an actionable link in your menubar for the next zoom meeting. This is great.

DevonThink - for storing everything else. Up until recently, I used Evernote for this purpose, however going into 2021 I just don't really trust Evernote to store all of my personal data. I'd rather have full control of the encryption and sync services, and DevonThink allows me that. I run automations on my Mac to automatically send my documents and web clippings, screenshots and audio recordings right into my DevonThink database. It's own AI engine is then able to parse all the content I dump in there and it can help generate associations between notes - in much the way a human brain would, but you know - better. As long as I put all my stuff in it, I can always find all my stuff. I use a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner and it dumps pdfs of all my hardcopy documents directly into the database and I use various keyboard shortcuts and sharing tools to dump in emails, photos, documents, and anything else I deem worthy of storage.

Screen Shot 2021 01 01 at 2 57 06 PM

Some of the other automation tools I use to tie things together are:

Apple Watch - "Hey Siri, remind me to take out the trash when I get home". Enough said.

Drafts - I'm writing this very article in drafts as we speak. Drafts is the fastest entry point for text available on IOS. I don't always write entirely in drafts, but if I need to take a quick note - a phone number, a quick reference - I capture that very quickly using drafts. I love drafts so much that it occupies one of my 4 iPhone dock icons. After text is captured in drafts, the options are endless. Drafts can publish the text to nearly any platform, including omnifocus, devonthink, wordpress, fantastical, or really any other app you can think of. It's one of the most important apps on my phone, and I highly recommend it to everybody.

TextExpander - this is one of the most important apps that I have on my devices. TextExpander allows you to create shortcuts that expand into blocks of text. The uses for this are infinite. I type ";addr" for example, and that expands to my street address across any application I use. Designers often use a block of latin text called a 'lorem ipsum' to test designs before real copy has been written. With text expander I just type ";lorem" and it will expand the full text. You can create snippets for meeting note templates, email address lists, lengthy disclaimers - anything that you type more than once. It's a really, really great app that saves a lot of people a lot of time and reduces spelling errors and other mistakes.

Hazel - this app watches folders on my filesystem for events like file creation or modification and then runs actions that help me automate my capture and organization. A hazel rule that I use is as follows: If a jpg image is on my desktop and it's been there longer than a day then throw it in my DevonThink database, rename it with the date and move it to a "Daily Exports -> {Datestamp}" folder. If I've downloaded something to my desktop it's likely because I'm temporarily using it for a project. Hazel cleans all this up for me, it auto files my downloads, empties my trash cans. Very helpful.

Bartender - if you use a laptop or a smaller monitor, then you know how bad it sucks when your menu bar gets filled up with random stuff you don't necessarily need to be visible all the time. Bartender helps clean that up. It's a small thing, but it makes work a lot nicer.

Better Touch Tool - if you're using a modern mac laptop with the Touch Bar you know how useless it can be. Better Touch Tool gives you the ability to take full control over that amazing piece of tech and use it to do whatever you want. It's not just for the Touch Bar either. Using this app you can program gesture shortcuts using your touchpad, mouse, or other input device. Every person is unique and does different work with different apps, and BTT is built to accommodate that. It's pretty cool. A must have if you own a Touch Bar mac. I use Better Touch Tool with an extension called Golden Chaos and this gives me some pretty cool and sane defaults that I like.

Timing Timing is an app that runs on my mac and keeps track of the amount of time I spend in a particular application or project. I used timing last year to identify the largest thief of my productivity, Facebook. Having noted a trend in timing that I was spending 6-8 hours a day routinely scrolling social media gave me the data I needed to make a decision to step back and spend all that time on projects that actually advance my goals and improve my skills. It's also immensely helpful for billing, as it can automatically keep track of hours worked on a particular project.

Inoreader - this is an RSS aggregator service. It's a news reader. Social media is not a news source. The less time I spend on social media, the more time I have to read, you know - actual world and industry news. Inoreader collects all of the publications and blogs that I follow and puts them all into one client that I can organize, search, and view. Anything that catches my eye that I need to save for reference can be easily shared straight to DevonThink.

ChronoSync - As a digital content creator, my files are my inventory. Losing them would be catastrophic. Anyone that's worked with a computer... ever, realizes that tragedies happen. I use chronosync to keep archives of all my active projects and external disks. When I plug in my external drives, chronosync automatically synchronizes the data on them to my QNAP NAS ( I then transfer all of that to another remote NAS that I keep at my house), where my data is stored redundantly and offloaded to secure offsite long term storage. I use chronosync to keep projects in sync between locations and to back up my critical work as often as possible. I needed to access and restore these backups twice in the last month because of my own stupid stoner mistakes. Everyone accidentally formats the wrong disk or overwrites the important file once in a while. Really. That DOES and WILL happen to everyone. Gotta back up. If you don't have it stored in 3 locations, you don't really have it at all.

Backblaze - If you didn't get the point above, backups are important. Arguably more important than anything else. Because tragedies do happen, houses burn, things are stolen, and mistakes happen - it's prudent to store a copy of all of this critical data somewhere offsite. I use Backblaze personal on my mac, so that I have a normal everyday continuous encrypted offsite backup. I've never had to restore from this tertiary location, but if I ever do, I know it's there. Backblaze backs up my personal computer, but I also use it's Backblaze B2 service to back up all my other backups. With all of this redundancy, I sleep at night better knowing that all my most important data is safe against several concurrent catastrophes. Overkill? Only until you need it.


These are some of the resources that I review and enjoy throughout the year. They help me to stay focused and motivated, keep me informed about new tools and automation ideas, and I just like nerding out on this stuff. Usually I listen to them at 1.5x speed so I can cram a little more nerd time in a little less drive time.

Mac Power Users Podcast - David Sparks and Stephen Hackett host the Mac Power Users podcast which is a weekly show highlighting new apple hardware and software. There are frequent productivity nerd guests that share their experiences and workflows. I get a lot out of this podcast pretty frequently.

The Asian Efficiency Productivity Show - A podcast by Asian Efficiency explores different aspects like morning routines, weekly reviews, and productivity hacks.

Learn Omnifocus Tim Stringer hosts workshops and online courses that teach how omnifocus can be used to increase productivity. Tim interviews productive people and industry professions to see how they use omnifocus. Watching how other people set up their systems can be very helpful when setting up your own.


These are some of the creators that I follow for inspiration.

Unmesh Dinda - PixImperfect - Unmesh is one of the best educators I have come across on any subject. Unmesh teaches photoshop very well through his youtube channel and his work is much appreciated.

Peter McKinnon Ever see youtube with production value? You can thank Peter for that.

Daniel Schiffer A master of product videography and handheld camera transitions.

Josh Yeo - Make Art Now The MacGyver of content creation. Josh makes some of the most inspiring content I've seen. Technically, he's masterful - but it's his attitude and personality that make this one of the best youtube channels for creators.

Gerald Undone when it comes to the technical end of creative arts - Gerald has it covered.

[Aaron Nace - PHLEARN] ( - Aaron is one of the great photoshop teachers. I've learned a lot from phlearn and have subscribed to his pro content.

Ripple Training - Instruction on video editing, color grading, and motion graphics.

Giving back

The best way to solidify any skill is to absorb it enough to deliver to others through teaching. To this end I gave several seminars in 2020 related to photography and audio production. You're welcome to nerd out with me to your hearts content!

In Closing

My workflow is constantly changing and evolving as I and my work both evolve along side it. This is a highly personal practice but the pursuit of it can only make us better.
Let's go into 2021 stronger, more focused, and with more flow. Let us not drop balls, over commit, or forget responsibilities.

Make It Happen!


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Written by luke
I make stuff. You know me. You like me very much.
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