Kilian Valkhof

Building tools that make developers awesome.

My productivity system from scratch

Life, 6 July 2017, 3 minute read

This article was originally published on The Human In The Machine.

I am not a big ‘productivity’ person. I mostly get by jotting down notes and keeping lists (for whatever I’m doing at the moment, or more general things-to-do-in-the-near-future lists.) It’s manageable enough to not have to adopt a Formal Productivity System. I’m pretty happy about that.

However, some time last year I ran into a problem: the way I dealt with my todo notes was no longer working for me. I used a todo text file that I simply always had open in my text editor that, because of my work, I also always had open. I changed text editors (for unrelated reasons) to a project based one. Having a separate tab for my todo text file was no longer easily possible, and I found myself keeping the old text editor open alongside it. Slowly I started using it less, forgetting to save, and eventually not looking at my todo as much as I should.

That was a problem: my todo list is a tremendous help in figuring out what I should focus on each day and plan ahead. I did not want to give up my new text editor, but I needed a way to keep my todo in sight.

This problem notched itself into my mind and I started thinking about what my ideal workflow would be. Throughout the years I tried many task list applications but I always came back to a simple text file. It gives me the most freedom in formatting, it works everywhere but it also saves me from doing “list management”. Any time you’re working on your list and not either removing or adding anything to it, you’re doing list management and it doesn’t actually help you get things done. It feels good, moving things around and creating categories and tags and links, but it’s not doing things.

So my first requirement was: any solution I come up with has to be “just” a text file. Having also learned from accidentally losing a days worth of to do’s, The second requirement was: I should not have to save. Lastly, a todo is only useful if you look at it, so it needed to be “around” whenever I was working.

Basically, I wanted a rectangle that I could alt-tab to, look at and type stuff into, and alt-tab back out of.

From this idea, FromScratch was born, a free and cross-platform autosaving notepad. Whenever I explain it, it sounds dumb: It’s a rectangle you can type into, and it automatically saves your notes. But that simplicity is what makes it so easy to stick with: forget about learning a system, or having a routine you need to go through every day. It’s there, it’s easy and usually that’s enough.

Right now, FromScratch has been downloaded well over twenty thousand times. That’s something I’m immensely proud of, and something that’s also deeply comforting: I’m not the only one that just wants their rectangle to type in.

Getting back to the list management though: unfortunately even in text files you need to do some of it. Priorities shift, tasks move up or down, or additional information needs to be recorded so you indent a line and write some more text. Minimizing the time spent on list management is important, so for all the management tasks I frequently use, there are shortcuts: You can move lines up or down using ctrl+up or ctrl+down, delete lines with ctrl+d (D for delete…or for DONE!) and quickly hide a list of indented subtasks with ctrl + [.

I hope this article has given you some insight into how I think about productivity. It’s very valuable to spend time analyzing and defining your “productivity system”. It helped me not just figure out how I work best, but also helped me realize where I could use technology to help me do it better. Think about how you want to be productive: it’s well worth your time. And, please try out FromScratch.

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