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TB#21: Breaking Free from the Complexity Trap of Productivity Systems


People just love productivity systems.

Omnifocus! Habitica! Eisenhower Matrix!! Google Tasks! The Feynman Technique!

And I am no exception, of course. I have a personal Notion dashboard for keeping track of important things in my life. I have another one for the projects I’m working on or dreaming of working on. I also started one for our research group to manage our collective work processes. And, at any given time, chances are I’m also experimenting with a dozen todo-list solutions, AI tools, SaaS apps… and God only knows what all I have already forgotten!

It’s an addictive mess, really.

And at some point it becomes too much to manage.

Many people pursuing that “perfect personal productivity stack” fall into the same trap.

The system becomes a prison, holding you back rather than helping you move forward faster.

The Challenges of Complexity

The systems blow out of proportions for a simple reason: building is so much fun!

It’s like Legos for adults, just better and borderline magical. The tools are cheap and easy to use, and all the task flows, lists, tagging systems – they almost assemble themselves!

And oh how nice the dopamine feels when you have finished yet another plan of doing things more efficiently.

While the things themselves remain undone.

The system keeps getting bigger. Until you can’t remember what you were supposed to do with any of it. Too many apps. Too many categories.

Too much of everything.

Two things happen:

  1. Maintaining your productivity becomes way too much work
  2. Changing anything in the system leads to further problems

The only way to make it work is to re-evaluate.

Balancing Complexity and Simplicity

Earlier this week, I was putting together the module for systematizing content production for my BUILD28 course on building a side business.

After a lot of self-reflection of what has worked for me in the past, here’s what I ended up with:

1: Start with a simple system.

The simplest productivity system has three key functions: some kind of a list for things to be done, a scheduler and a way to take notes.

2: Automate on the go.

As you go about using your system, you will over time identify repetitive tasks that can be automated.

So learn to use tools like and Zapier that can do a lot of work for you! Less app-switching and less headache overall.

3: Every 2-3 months, review and declutter.

Set aside time on a regular basis to review your productivity system and declutter any unnecessary or outdated items.

Keep it lean!

But lean doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try something new!

Do try out new tools regularly. Don’t miss out on the newest and most advanced tools.

So, instead of sticking to pen and paper forever, experiment and see if you’d benefit from something more complicated (think of e.g. Basecamp or Monday).

Now, most likely you won’t, but experiment with them! Because if you happen to like them, you will unlock a lifetime of benefits. And you will not lose a lot by just trying them out.

It’s the same with everything in life: You must try things to figure out what works for you.

4: Do not feel guilty to use only a tiny subset of features.

It’s ok to just use what you need.

Just as an example, I’m using Todoist now. A lot.

But not as a todo app. I just use it for note-taking, with a Zapier integration that takes the notes to my Notion content creation page to a dedicated “idea inbox“.

It’s a tiny fraction of what all Todoist is capable of.

But that’s what works for me.

Keep it Simple

Don’t forget, these tools are meant to help you work, not just to show off.

A regular decluttering and reviewing operation will do wonders in helping you work smarter and not harder.

About the author 

Simo Hosio  -  Simo is an award-winning scientist, Academy Research Fellow, research group leader, professor, and digital builder. This site exists to empower people to build passion projects that support professional growth and make money.

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