Here Are Some Of My Favourite Thinking And Productivity Tools


Saturday, 8.14pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort. – Paul J. Meyer

I know the pandemic has been hard for lots of people but for many of us the opportunity of being locked indoors with nothing to do except sort out the filing has meant that we have, after a decade or so, sorted out the filing.

One of the reasons I had a go was because of home schooling. I never realised just how much paper schools still use. And I also never realised just how much less productive we have become as a society and as individuals over the last decade or so as the creeping influence of technology has taken paper away from the workplace as a productivity tool. Perhaps it’s just me but I moved away from paper to mostly digital tools over the decade and this last year has been an opportunity to rediscover the magic of paper, if only because I’ve had to print a ream or so a week of schoolwork for the kids.

In this post I’m going to spend a few minutes trying to find the approaches that I used way back when – and that I have rediscovered and re-implemented now.

Let’s start with Tufte and his forums. There used to be a discussion where Martin Ternouth described his system for managing projects using a paper based system. The forum seems to no longer exist but a copy is preserved here and I’ve saved a pdf for future reference.

In essence, this approach manages projects using a folder system. You take notes, slip them into folders and that’s about it. When you need to work on something you take out the folder with the stuff, pull everything in it out on your desk and you’re working with that one project. Everything else is out of sight and in the filing system – which can be a pile of folders in a tray or, my preference these days, filed in a lever arch file.

Now – why is this system better than todo lists or a Getting Things Done approach? Well, it’s because the best “reminder” you can have is the thing itself. If you have a folder that has what you need to do on a particular task – then you can pick that up and get on with the work. For example, we had to sort out a change of energy supplier and it was a matter of seconds to find the folder with the paperwork and get on with the task. Now, you could have a todo list with the item “change supplier” on it but without the filing system that lets you get to the information fast it all to easy to just put off sorting things out.

I don’t use a system just as Ternouth described – I’ve got a few tweaks that make it my own but the main point is that after ten years I’ve simply started to reuse the system that let me, in the old days, manage hundreds of projects without getting overwhelmed. And it works just as well now.

The other things that I have started to use have actually been learned from watching the kids and the way in which teachers teach now. For example, they are really very organised. It’s not about textbooks any more. You have material that’s customised for the learner, a clear idea of what’s going on and lots of scaffolding in the form of graphic organisers and reinforcing material. And they use lots of colours because kids like to draw.

And all that is so much nicer than doing everything electronically. I’m rediscovering the pleasure of making something by hand, colouring it in with bold colours and childish abandon. Not worrying about getting it perfect but just getting on with it and enjoying the act of creation. Of course I worry that it’s rubbish but that’s the point of school – not to be perfect but to learn new things and practice, trying to improve every day.

Sometimes I feel that we spend a lot of time and energy trying to work out new ways to do things that work just fine as they are. And then I remember that finding a new way to do something doesn’t always invalidate the old way – it just means you have one more way that may be useful in certain situations. I couldn’t do a lot of what I do now without technology but I do wonder we understand when technology works and when it doesn’t work. But that’s something for another day.

I suppose for many of us the one thing the pandemic has done for us is make us realise just how much we can do virtually. As we move increasingly to screens, however, perhaps we’re also starting to realise just how much we like to do physically.


Karthik Suresh

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