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This is the blog of Adam Kalsey. Unusual depth and complexity. Rich, full body with a hint of nutty earthiness.

Management & Leadership

My productivity operating system

How do you get things done? How do you decide what needs to be done? An operating system that gives you a repeatable process can be the difference between a productive day and a day wasted reacting to whatever comes up.

Here’s the operating system I use to organize my work. I’ve taught this to others who have found this system effective.


It starts with a vision. What big thing are you trying to accomplish? Imagine that a year from now you’re successful at something. What do you imagine that you accomplished? It’s hard to plan if you don’t have something to plan toward.

The vision isn’t some touchy-feely social-media-friendly statement. It’s not an inspirational poster you’d see on the wall of your most annoying friend. It’s not bumper sticker philosophy. The vision is a concrete forward-looking idea of something you want to complete, do, or become. “Lose some weight” isn’t concrete, but “Lose 40 pounds” is. So is “get into shape to run a marathon.”

The vision is an outcome, not a thing you did. What’s changed about the world or yourself because of what you did?

The vision can be longer or shorter than one year. The exact time frame isn’t important. It’s not even important that you land it within your expected timeframe. It’s only important that it be long enough that you envision something big, but short enough that you can see a plausible path toward achieving it.

Quarterly OKRs

A vision is only useful when turned into action. The vision statement is too vague and distant to take direct action on.

To make the vision actionable, break down the long-term vision into a series of three-month goals. What work will you do in the next few months to reach your vision? With an 18-month vision, think of this as the six big chunks of work you can do in sequence that will get you to your vision.

I like the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) format for this. If you want a primer on OKRs, read the book, “Radical Focus.” There are three important parts of OKRs for this operating system:

  • Only establish a single OKR for the next three months.
  • Your KRs must be objective, measurable statements of outcomes.
  • Your KRs should all seem slightly unachievable.

It’s tempting to plan the entire year at once. Don’t do that. Leave yourself the flexibility to adjust every few months. Three months is long enough to make meaningful progress. It’s short enough that you’ll create more achievable goals and that you can adjust your trajectory as needed.

Sticking to a single OKR helps maintain focus. If you create three, six, or ten OKRs to tackle all at once, you’ll be spread thin and won’t complete any of them.

The KRs need to be objectively measurable. They must be outcomes, not tasks you complete. For this operating system, a good KR isn’t something you did, it’s what happened because of what you did. “Excercise every day” isn’t a good KR. “Do 75 situps in 3 minutes” could be a good KR. If you can only complete 5 situps at a time at the starting point, you’ll need to do a lot of work to get to 75 in three minutes by the end of three months.

Your KRs should be a little out of reach. If you aim further than you think is possible, you’ll tend to achieve more than if you pick an easier goal. But don’t go too far. The KRs cannot be so hard they’ll be completely impossible.

Weekly Priorities

OKRs will give you actionable, measurable goals to reach your vision, but three months is too long to make things happen daily.

The Weekly Priorities list is your weekly plan for nailing your OKR.

At the start of each week, list your priorities for the week. What things will you do this week to advance your OKRs? I like to make this list on Sunday nights.

The weekly priorities list is your entire plan for the week. It should contain OKR work, important deadlines, and anything you need to do that may take over a week to accomplish. For example, when doing annual employee reviews at a big company, I’d break up my reviews into a few reviews each week. My weekly priorities would include “complete 3 reviews” for several weeks in a row.

Your OKRs are outcomes, but these weekly priorities are outputs. The OKRs are what happened because of what you did. The weekly priorities are the things you’ll do to create those outcomes. Measuring these priorities is a yes/no decision about whether you completed it or not.

The weekly priorities aren’t a list of everything you will do that week. “Keep the ship running” tasks aren’t going on there. Your weekly 1:1 with your boss doesn’t belong there. I don’t list scheduled meetings unless I have some presentation prep to do beforehand.

At the end of each week, review your priorities list. Celebrate your accomplishments. Evaluate your progress toward your OKRs. Are you on schedule? Will you need to change anything in future weeks to get back on track?

Look at any priorities that didn’t get done and decide if they’re still important. Perhaps you learned something new that made a priority obsolete.

Then the following week, start fresh with a new set of priorities. Don’t copy last week’s incomplete ones over unless your Friday reflection said it is still important.

Daily To-do and I-Did

Keep the week moving by turning the weekly priorities into daily to-do lists.

I keep two lists for each day. One is a to-do list I make first thing in the morning (or sometimes the evening before). It’s a fresh sheet of paper each day containing the tasks I will complete that day to finish a weekly priority. Tasks I need to complete that day that aren’t on my weekly priority list go here too. The daily to-do list will often have the “keep the ship afloat” tasks on them.

Like the weekly priorities, the daily to-do is a list of outputs. What things will you do today to create the outcomes from your OKRs?

The second list I make every day is an “I-did” list. When I do something that wasn’t planned, I put it on this list. Get pulled into an hour-long conversation about a customer issue? Waste 45 minutes on a Wikipedia rabbit hole? Write it here. I’ll only write things that take a significant chunk of time. I don’t define significant, I go by feel. If it feels like it soaked up a lot of my day or energy, then I note it.

At the end of each day, I review my “I-Did” list and score each item according to the Eisenhower Matrix. How important was it? How urgent was it?

I do this to help me recognize when I’m spending a lot of time on things that seem urgent but don’t end up being that important. For me, those are my biggest productivity killers.

I don’t do anything with the Eisenhower scores. The act of scoring them is enough for me. Some people find it useful to aggregate their scores on a weekly or monthly basis.

Final tips

This operating system is designed to be a light framework, not a prescriptive instruction manual. Make it your own by taking the parts that work and customizing the rest. As implement your own version, the following tips wil help you avoid the mistakes I’ve made.

For every stage of list, don’t carry over previous items. An incomplete OKR from three months ago isn’t copied to the current period. A task from yesterday doesn’t automatically end up on today’s list If it’s still important, rewrite it. This helps you avoid creating a never-ending to-do list that expands until it’s useless.

I sometimes get partly through the quarter, week, or day and realize I haven’t made my list. It’s usually because I was too busy and didn’t get around to the list. On reflection, I always find I spent too much time reacting to urgent, unimportant things and I feel unproductive. On Wednesday if I realize I haven’t made a weekly priority, I’ll do it then, just for the rest of the week. This always gets me back on track.

Don’t skip the Friday celebration and reflection. It’s crucial to keep you moving. Without it, you’ll get to the end of the three months and discover you didn’t come anywhere close to completing the OKRs.

During the day, refer to the daily to-do and weekly priorities constantly. I do it after each meeting and when I finish doing anything else. This keeps your focus on the plan and helps you avoid slipping into interrupt-driven behavior that prioritizes the urgent.

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