Productivity Tools Review: Dave’s Basics

Productivity Tools Review: Dave’s Basics

As we get ready for the new year, we tell ourselves that we’d like to be more organized and more productive. That’s actually a pretty difficult problem to solve until you define what “organization” and “productivity” mean to you, and there is often an emotional component to it that takes time to figure out.

When I was getting started with my own time and task management, I had three basic questions:

  • Where is my time going?
  • How do I know what I should be doing?
  • How do I stay focused during the day?

Where is my time going?

Do you find yourself wondering where all your time went during the day? I have a diagnostic tool called the Emergent Task Timer (ETT), which combines a time tracking form with a physical timer set to chime every 15 minutes. Start the day by writing down what you WANT to get done. Every 15 minutes, you jot down what you ACTUALLY are doing. The results can be surprising, and after a couple of weeks you’ll get an idea of what’s going on.

Emergent Task Timer It’s great for developing awareness of time management, and it’s also helpful if you want to show your boss why you have so little time to get your work done when there are constant distractions. Others have found it helpful for billing time.

You can download the basic ETT forms here; I have some special lawyer billing versions available as well that I’ll find and put back up.

What should I be doing?

When I started doing more freelance design work, I loved the freedom. With freedom, though, comes the responsibility of deciding what to do, and with that responsibility comes the desire to do the right tasks. I start to wish that there was someone smart telling me what I should do, giving me feedback when I did something that truly benefited my business. Since I couldn’t hire a CEO, I made a stand-in tool called the Concrete Goals Tracker (CGT).

Concrete Goals Tracker The idea behind the CGT is that there is one critical element to a successful business: revenue! However, generating that revenue is dependent on a long chain of events. For a freelance business, the primary generator of new work is (1) making things and (2) showing them to other people. Supporting these tasks are (3) research/development (4) collateral development and (4) talking to people about your work. Anything else is NOT contributing to your business.

The CGT turns these activities into a daily game of earning points for doing these tasks. As you log your points every day, you’ll see what days are good. And, given the natural urge to maximize points, you’ll be tempted to think of new ways to reframing what you’re already doing. It’s not cheating…it’s out-of-the-box thinking!

There are several versions available to download and experiment with.

How to stay focused during the day?

When you have more than a little chaos in your day, there’s the popular Emergent Task Planner (ETP), which is designed to help you “plan your day as it happens”. You start each day by picking a few tasks that you’d like to get done, and then go for it. Refer to the sheet throughout the day, and make it your anchor for determining what to do next when something doesn’t go as planned.

Emergent Task Planner The form encourages you to pace yourself realistically by limiting the number of tasks and providing the means to visualize how much time you have. The ETP also provides plentiful room for you to keep notes on unexpected things, and it’s a good way to keep a log of your accomplishments through the week.

You can grab the free versions, and there are also pre-printed versions on amazon. I also provide a few special versions for people who want to print and bind their own planners on my online shop.

More Productivity Tools

I’ve got a number of other productivity tools that address other challenges, but the above are the most popular I believe. For 2014, I’m going to try to systemize the approach so it’s easier to know which tool might work for what situation. Good luck!


  1. mj 10 years ago

    good luck in 2014 David – yes I am a cheapo that does not purchase anything but all the above items I have printed and use and appreciate your creations.

  2. Lynn O'Connor 10 years ago

    Happy New Year Dave (and all your followers). Just for the record, time and time again I need to pull out the Emergent Task Timer to figure out what I’m doing and where is all my time going. And many (most) days I used the ETP (Emergent Task Planner) to map out my day, one day at a time. I think I remain a bit frivolous in my use of web/computer based tools, for example I go months without seriously reviewing my lists in OmniFocus –for the reason that often I have to do what is in front of me, period. If I’m teaching a “Professional Development Seminar” on Monday? Sunday I reread what I am having my students read, I read whatever papers they handed in the week before (if indeed they did that, it’s usually pieces of their dissertation proposals, or clinical notes or whatever). I make a few notes of what I think we should cover in the Monday seminar. Tuesday I’m seeing clients. Monday night and Tuesday morning i review notes, think about people (look over my schedule carefully), try to find any books or articles I told people I’d lend to them etc. It’s routine but not routine. I don’t get a lot of what I think I should get done, done. I spend way more time teaching than I realize. The ETT is the tool I always go back to when I’m trying to figure out why I’m not getting more done. Summary –I continue to use and love your forms, hand them out to my students. And Happy New Year, 2014

  3. Kosio Angelov 10 years ago

    Great planners Dave! I’ve downloaded the free versions and I’ll put them to use first thing tomorrow.

    Is there a reason to use a physical timer to track your time instead of an app?

  4. Cindy 10 years ago

    I’ve been a fan of your printable CEO series for years, although I have been on-and-off the tools and productivity systems in general.

    I currently discovered the Arc notebooks and have been using them to store my paper tools almost exclusively. I printed one month of the 2014 ETP in half-letter size on one side, with a dot grid on the other side, and put them in my Arc junior leather notebook as my planner. The bubbles correlate to tasks as I do them. I kept some of the original ruled pages on the back to keep my task inventory. Projects are recorded on TPT, stored on a separate, letter-size Arc notebook. Another letter-size Arc notebook serves as a scratchpad.

    I intended to use a third letter-size notebook to keep edited notes and book notes. However, as I am doing most of my book reading on a screen these days, I’m struggling to keep the notes in an easy-to-find manner–there is no definite page number and often no real way to correlate the “page number” between devices. I wonder if you have any plans for a new ebooks outlining tool like what the FBO does to paper book? Thanks!

  5. Alice 10 years ago

    I saw the 3 month spiral “Compact/Half letter” on Amazon, and liked the idea. I’m currently moving towards the Staples Arc system of planning and am going to buy a punch. I noticed that when the letter size was shrunk down to half letter, that the lines were now so small they were hard to write on.

    So I have two questions: 1) can you get the half size pages available as just a pad? (It’s possible to get a punch for either the Staples Arc or Levenger Circa and put the pages in)

    2) Have you thought about making the smaller size have fewer lines on the page? Like doing half hour blocks, or chopping off the top and bottom hour?

  6. Joe G. 10 years ago

    I have been using your forms for years and priniting them out. I just bought the ETP pad from amazon (love amazon prime). I would like to suggest that you create a higher end book bound version of the ETP (vs spiral..think journal/moleskine). I would further suggest that you create a similar quality Meeting Notes pad /book. I think one of you target audiences is the tech / business crowd who attend many meeting. In general I see people try to use laptops and tablets, spiral notebooks, yellow or white pads or moleskine type books (I have done all). Most return to just plain paper. Rambling a bit… My point is I think this is a great opportunity for you. There is no good system. People in this category have money and are willing to pay for nice items (revenue to support creative independence). Look at Levenger they are killing it. You could have a small focused business in this niche (already do but the note-taking specifically you haven’t focused on). There are C-level (CIO CTO CEO etc) folks in thousands of businesses. There is also a class of lawyers, marketers, engineers and sales types who attend 2-5 meetings a day. In my company alone we have 6000+ (fortune 500 company) people like this. Make them a nice high quality item and they would sell. Your value add is that you have a much better design sense and aesthetic. That alone would move the products. As a value add if you could add their company logo you could double your price. For me at least, if I had two attractive notebooks (one for notes and one for tasks) with attractive and effective design I would pay good money. Today I do that with roll your own hacked moleskins. Good luck with your business in 2014.

  7. Lynn O'Connor 10 years ago

    I ditto the above. I switch around my “meeting notes” notebook which is so disorganized –yuck. I think spiral binding is ok, but i really need that second notebook, and since we love moleskin why not make it that way too. I would also really like to see a spiral bound letter size notebook with the ETP on one page, and the opposite or facing page could be “notes.” So every day I would have the ETP in front of me, along with a whole letter size page for meeting notes. I meet with clients and students all the time, and not having the meeting notes easily findable is awful –I know it is my “fault” but but…. I need the ETP spiral bound, letter size, with facing page a meeting or meetings note page. I’ve been trying to use a really expensive moleskin “type” 8X5 book with super paper and each page comes already numbers, which I like. But the problem is I forget it because it doesn’t have the ETP with it. So I think I need these things combined. I know we all have slightly different needs, but you’re the creative who makes what we keep coming back to so why not have a bunch of options for us. I can see Levenger eventually picking up on this by the way.

    An aside, I agreed with whoever commented that you seemed depressed. I thought so too. Call me.


  8. Grant 10 years ago

    Could you please update your links to your “pceo” pages? It seems that all of them are currently not working.

  9. Author
    Dave Seah 10 years ago

    Grant: WordPress problem with permalinks temporarily freaking out. They should all be fixed.