Thursday, August 3rd, 2023

How I improved my personal productivity using Apple Reminders

Screenshot of the Apple Reminders app, showing task lists and activities

Every few months I review my approach to personal productivity. It keeps me fresh and offers a different perspective on how to organise my work. The change also stops the process from becoming stale.

My last iteration involved a Ninox based database that wasn’t as easy to use as I hoped. Ever one to use whatever tools are freely available, I decided to adopt Apple Reminders. Reminders is a task app much the same as Microsoft’s ToDo, or Google’s Tasks. You add items to lists, which you can add notes, due dates and other bits of information to. It’s freely available across the Apple ecosystem and can sync between devices through iCloud.

Setting up lists 

I set up multiple task lists to suit my style of working. Reminders allows lists to be grouped together. I’ve used this to group together all my projects (each has its own list), content workflow and business activities (marketing, website design and so on). There’s also the obligatory “Personal” list, and one to capture the random things life throws at me.

On MacOS create groups by dragging lists on top of one another, or dropping a list into an existing group. On iPadOS / iOS you need to edit your lists first.

Every project, objective and task slips into one of these lists. Nothing gets a priority or a due date UNLESS absolutely necessary. I find adding them creates artificial stress, particularly when you forget all about it until the day it pops up as “due”. Better to filter through daily and pick out the work that makes most sense to do.

Morning routine (and a hardback journal)

Each morning I run through the tasks list and pull out what’s going to be done. If I’m working on it that day, it gets that day as its due date (unless it’s overdue, in which case I get a slap on the wrist). A few minutes of planning time makes life so much easier later.

Screenshot from the apple reminders app showing the tasks required to complete this article
Screenshot of the activities to complete this article, taken from Apple Reminders on MacOS. In my daily journal these are noted as “Edit Improved Productivity”.

Today’s activities are handwritten in a daily journal I keep in Apple Notes. These are what I work on until they’re done or I run out of time. Although this might seem clumsy, I have always found rewriting tasks focuses my mind more than dragging and dropping into lists, or letting due dates and priorities surface things.

Throughout the day various unexpected things happen, from interruptions to new ideas to blockers, and I’ll make a one line note about it in the journal. Again, I’ve found this helps with focus and stops me dwelling on distractions. I make a note – then I move on.

Screenshot from Apple Notes on iPad showing my daily journal with handwritten todo items at the top, and typed notes and sub tasks at the bottom
Screenshot of my daily journal in Apple Notes. The day’s activities are handwritten to aid memory, with typed notes and new tasks beneath. Any incomplete typed task gets added to Reminders.

It’s worth noting that just because my journal guides my work it doesn’t mean I never look at Reminders. I’ll often refer to it as a check on what the detail is behind the one-line “complete an article” is.

One limitation Apple Reminders has is there isn’t a simple way of seeing all the sub tasks associated with a task in the “Today” view on MacOS.

When it’s time to stop work

At the end of the working day, I flip back through Reminders. Anything finished gets tagged, anything blocked gets a note (and a task to unblock it), and new activities are added where they’re needed.

Ideas worth hang on to are added to Apple Notes, and I review them each week to decide which should be developed, which parked, and delete the rest (although I’m not so good at deleting the dross at the moment). Anything being developed into content goes in the Reminders list.

My productivity is already improving

A few days in and I’m already seeing some benefits. My day is much easier to manage and the workload is settling down. I also find focusing on outcomes far easier than the task driven world I’d created for myself in Ninox.

There is more work to do in how I write the items in Reminders. They’re still a little too task oriented, and not quite outcome focused. This I’m sure will help further as I have a habit of achieving the desired outcome in a way different to that the “task” suggests.

Overall, it seems this change is positive. A few minutes planning and recapping is helping, and the daily journal helps offset the fear of looking at more than 100 open items. Reminders is proving itself a useful tool, and I suspect much of what am doing can be replicated in Microsoft To Do, perhaps less so in Google.

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction. Find out more.