How the CEO of Amplenote chooses what to work on every day

Now that I have finished explaining why CEOs are useless for productivity advice, I want to share my professional CEO advice on productivity. I created this post to share personal examples from an ambitious person using Amplenote to maximize their personal productivity and happiness. The first half will describe the high-level thought process I use to organize my 5,000+ tasks. The second half will offer screenshots and examples of how I try to organize my complicated life as CEO and Programmer for two growing products.

If we're being honest, when our small team started building Amplenote back in 2018, it wasn't because we were inspired to create an app with the perfect Idea Execution Funnel. That concept was years from being backfilled as our raison d'être. Like many of the people who discover Amplenote, we decided to move note apps out of frustration with Evernote.

Aside from Evernote's many shortcomings, I seriously needed a better way to organize tasks. As a CEO, I've often read how essential it is to "spend more time on important tasks, less time on urgent ones." But my daily task selection was a haphazard mess. The barrier to working on more important tasks was the sheer volume of disparate stuff on my todo list. We had at least 10 projects underway at any given time between our companies. It was both time- and willpower-intensive to choose which of them was "most important" on a given morning.

By the time we started building Amplenote, there were already lots of apps that made it easy to collect a list of ideas. But, at the end of the day, nobody needs that. Paper is fine for collecting a list of ideas. To beat paper, we needed to aim higher. The spark that inspired us most: what if the list could pick out which of its ideas are best to work on today? That would be a significant advantage over the venerable notepad.

Granted, nobody has done this before. It can't be easy. But, it turns out, there is one source we can tap into to reliably predict which tasks are probably "best to work on today?"

That source: past versions of the list-maker. By harvesting all the decisions of your past selves, Task Score gradually sifts out which tasks matter most to you. Many (like productivity expert Shu Omi) consider it our signature feature. The gist is that, the more times you look at a prospective task, the more chances you have to refine it, dismiss it, or do it. Especially if the task is quick to get done, or Important, it deserves repeat consideration.

link🏝️ Evaluating "the best stuff to work on" requires context

Task Score gives you a head start on making smart choices about which tasks will have the highest ROI. But it is an incomplete solution for choosing what to work on during a given day, because it doesn't have the context that you do. To make a truly optimal choice about "where to spend time," one must think about circumstantial factors like:

Where is my willpower at today? Do I feel like taking over the world, or am I tired?

Who is depending on me to deliver? Are there clients, employees or team members that need my sign off to proceed?

Am I feeling creative? If so, better to work on abstract tasks, if not, better to work on getting pre-planned stuff done

Some people think that "peak productivity" comes from being disciplined about what to work on. Others find it difficult to be disciplined when they're bored or tired. My experience is that it's essential to mix in 🤡 fun 🤡 tasks to bring about a good-enough mental state to be disciplined.

Whatever your disposition, you will almost certainly find that your productivity runs highest when mixing together (over the course of a week) the "important" with the "fun," and the "pre-planned" with the "spontaneous." The mix helps working from a list feel not just satisfying but even energizing.

If you think about it, every passing day is tantamount to casting your vote for "what is most important to experience in life?" There is no more meaningful question to consider. So, let's look at how one CEO grapples with the challenge of extracting the most value from each day.

linkExample Amplenote system used by the CEO

My productivity system circa 2023 involves using Jots, Notes and Calendar every day.

linkStarting point: Check daily jot, check calendar

My daily jot is where I put the tasks that I want to stay top-of-mind at all times.

I try with all my might not to let this list grow longer than 10 items. If the tasks are at least moderately complicated, I'll often use the Double Brackets syntax to create a linked note with more tasks and research on the topic. When possible, I will !move a task from here to my Inbox Note (more on that below) or some other project-specific note.

Checking up on the calendar reminds me if there are any events scheduled for today. On the infrequent days where I have sketched out my daily plan in advance (usually the night before), checking the calendar refreshes my memory about my prior intentions.

linkGather tasks by browsing email inbox and Inbox Note

After confirming that the calendar doesn't call for anything urgent, the next step is to check my email inboxes and my "Inbox Note," which is a note I check daily that contains all of the tasks that either 1) I haven't yet filed into other notes or 2) are small enough (1 hour or less) to imagine I could get them done on any given day 3) are important enough that I want to see them daily.

My inbox note is a mishmash of unfiled tasks at the top, followed by up to 50 tasks that I haven't hidden or moved to another note

Since the Inbox Note is first stop for most random ideas that I have (often generated via discussions with coworkers), it is a daily battle to keep it <= 50 tasks. My top 3 tactics, aside from actually getting the stuff done, to keep the inbox note from sprawling to infinity:

Move tasks to project-specific notes. I have a note for "GitClear Programming Tasks" and a note for "Amplenote Programming Tasks." I don't open those notes as often, so moving a task to those means it might take longer to get done, but that's usually OK. I tend to complete 5-ish tasks from those "Programming Tasks" notes per week. The task command !move

Snooze it. !hide (aliased as !snooze) lets me hide tasks for some days, until I might plausibly have more time to think about or act on it. Usually I snooze tasks for 10, 20 or 30 days.

🔪. The shortcut key for dismissing tasks is a close friend of mine. If the idea is truly important, it usually comes to mind repeatedly, so dismissing a task doesn't exclude the possibility it still might get done later.

linkPick the best few, get to work

Reviewing my email inbox, Inbox Note, Slack, Daily Jots and calendar usually takes around 20 minutes. With all that context loaded into memory, it's usually clear where to begin. But if I'm feeling saucy, sometimes I take planning a step further and make an explicit sketch of how my day should go. I use the Peek Viewer for this "day sketch":

Sometimes it is useful to split the day's aspirations into 3 categories

linkProgress becomes tangible via calendar

As I'm working on tasks throughout the day, I have lately gotten into the habit of adding them to the calendar. This habit saves me brainpower at the end of the week when I need to remember what I worked on to share it with my coworkers.

Shit, the boss is coming, look busy

I strongly suspect that the most productive people are the ones who learn to zoom out and "meta-optimize" how their time is spent. Since every week gets split into different levels of time per activity (e.g., strategizing, coding, inbox), I make it a point to contemplate how my ratios correlate with my satisfaction. For example, if I lean heavy into coding, does product growth seem to pick up or slow down?

Currently there are a few Task Commands that I use in order to schedule my day post hoc:

The !move and !duration Task Commands make it quick to get color-coded history on calendar

Using !move lets me put the task into a note that will apply proper coloring (via its tags) without leaving the keyboard.

linkOther Details

In case your curiosity runs wild as the jackalope.

What to do when lists get stressfully long?

I try to go easy on myself, remembering that "overflowing" is the default state of any daily to-do list that hasn't been pared back lately.

I especially strive not to feel guilty about dismissing old tasks that have grown less relevant. "Which tasks can I maybe dismiss?" is a question I ask a few times per week.

Beyond that, I look for opportunities to !move tasks to my teammates to-do lists, delegating anything that doesn't require my particular blend of talents.

What's your idea capture system?

Out in the world, I rely on the Quick Task Bar on Amplenote's mobile app. When browsing web sites, I use Amplecap to make to-dos out of screenshot + url + annotation. In the desktop app, I usually just open my Inbox Note and drop new tasks there.

I also get tasks incoming from email and Slack. I discourage my teammates from sending me tasks in Slack, but since they still sometimes do, I copy them into a todo list if they can't be acted on immediately. For email, I keep a Priority inbox of up to 10 items that I will clean out at least once per week.

I don't have any system for capturing/snoozing text messages yet, which is annoying.

How do you track long-term projects?

I usually set up a flexible recurring todo when I want to make steady progress on a goal over weeks or months, making it Important and designating it to take a max of 60 mins. Knowing I only have to work on the recurring task for a max of 60 mins makes it more palatable to get started.

How much has your approach changed in the last 12 months?

Plenty! It really depends on my main project, but I go through long stretches of hardly using todo lists at all, and then using them to make the most important decisions about which opportunities our many businesses should choose to pursue next.

What specific thresholds set off your alarm bells?

What a weirdly specific question to ask, doesn't it seem presumptuous to assume that I could name specific numbers for "how many tasks is too many?" Ok fine of course I have specific numbers.

Too many red tasks in "Work" Task Domain of Calendar: 10

Too many overall tasks in inbox note: 60

Too many tasks in the daily jot: 10

Too many tasks in the "today's plan" note: 5

When any of these sources exceed this "comfort threshold," I get to work with dismissing tasks (Ctrl-Cmd-Space), !sleep ing tasks, and !reset ing the value of the task so it has to climb back up the Task Score mountain before I consider doing it again. Or, I suppose, sometimes actually doing the task is another viable path to make it go away. 🙃