How to get the most out of Marvin
The best practices outlined below cover guidelines and tips that will help you to have the best possible experience and outcome when working with Marvin.
Setting yourself up for success is important at every step: creating good tasks, organizing tasks in a smart way, planning a great day, and finally working off your daily todo list the right way. We should always think about how we can help our future-self succeed.
If you incorporate all best practices below you will automatically set yourself up for success at every step of your workflow.
Different things work for different people
The best practices are based on behavioral psychology and have been carefully crafted based on our experience working with lots of different Marvin users.
However, if you find that for your particular situation it sometimes makes sense to go against the best practices, by all means go ahead. Ultimately, it is all about what works for you. These guidelines just happen to work best for most people.
Don't want to read through the entire guide? At the end of each topic you will find a summary or checklist that you can go through to make sure you get the main points.
Tasks are the basic unit of action and the meat of any workflow. Tasks describe what you want to get done, and how a task is written hugely influences whether or not you will actually do it. Therefore, in order to set yourself up for success, it is important that you master the skill of writing good tasks.
The goal is to create tasty tasks. A tasty task is one that you immediately want to do when you look at it — it's clear what the task entails and it looks very doable.
An icky task, on the other hand, puts you off doing it immediately, because it triggers feelings of uncertainty and/or overwhelm.
Here are three rules to stick to if you want to create a tasty task:
Every task should start with a verb. This makes it very easy for the brain to understand what “to do”. The more specific the verb, the better.
Here is a list of verbs that often appear in tasty tasks:
A task should take you at most 1 hour to complete. The bigger a task the more intimidating it will look to you when it’s time to get it done. You want a task to be bite-sized. Even a difficult task seems much more manageable if it only takes 15 minutes.
Practically any big task can be broken down into smaller steps, if necessary. Check out the tip at the end of this section to find out one way to break down a larger task.
Feel productive, Be Productive
Creating many bite-sized tasks instead of a few large ones has the advantage that you will feel a sense of accomplishment throughout your day as you get to check off lots of tasks. Feeling good and productive will give you momentum to keep going.
Natural breaks in between Tasks
It is very difficult to sustain focused attention for long periods of time. Your brain naturally wants to take a break after about 20-40 minutes of focus. Creating bite-sized tasks will give you a natural breather in between tasks. This will help you to work for longer periods of time overall.
Step by Step
Creating short and focused tasks forces you to think about the individual steps required for a larger task or project.
Having a clear outline of steps will not only help you with planning (e.g. How long will this take? What do I need to get it done?) but it also makes working more efficient. Once you are ready to get to work you can just follow the individual steps without having to always think about the big picture in order to decide what to do next.
If you need to do one activity for a long period of time, it's a good idea to break it up into multiple tasks and time box each one. Time boxing is when you add a time limit to a task. Like so: "Research CRM Software for 1h" or "Write on blog article for 40min". Time boxing can also help to keep an open-ended activity to a minimum (e.g. researching things).
No one likes feeling uncertain. So avoid creating vague or unclear tasks or you will feel a natural tendency to avoid them when they pop up in your todo list.
When looking at a task you should know immediately what to do. So make sure each task is specific and includes enough context so that it’s still clear what to do even when you look at the task a few days after having created it.
Brainstorm what goes on landing page for 40m
Schedule meeting with Jim for Friday
Read Chapter 4 for Intro of Psychology
Do Math Problems 2.1 and 2.2
Edit article “How to plan your day”
This quick checklist helps you to make sure that the tasks you have created are tasty tasks. If your tasks don't follow these guidelines, read up on how to create good tasks.
The master list is where you keep and organize all your tasks. Task organization has a big impact on several things. It affects how easy or difficult it will be to plan your days, how well you can take advantage of certain strategies (some work with categories, others with projects), and ultimately how likely you are to get your tasks done.
Tasks, Projects, and Categories
First, it's important to understand the difference and purpose behind each of the three different units in Marvin: tasks, projects, and categories.
Tasks are the basic unit of action. They are individual steps that describe a specific and single action to be taken. Click here for some examples of good examples of tasks.
Projects are collections of tasks that have a specific end. In other words, at some point a project is completed.
Categories help to group related tasks and projects together, so they are easier to find. Categories can not be completed, they are just containers that hold tasks and projects.
No Stress, It’s not permanent
No worries. It's very easy to re-arrange things in the master list anytime. As you use Marvin you will likely tweak your task organization as you settle into a good system. It takes some time to figure out what works best for you.
Some people find it very helpful to just write out all the different things they have to do first and then try to form projects and categories around those things. You can either do this on paper or use the "Inbox" to dump all your tasks.
If you already have your tasks organized somewhere this step might not be necessary or helpful. But keep in mind that Marvin organizes tasks differently than some other todo list apps so it's a good idea to read through this entire section first before you copy over your existing lists.
On the very left of your master list you can create your main categories. Do this first. The main categories represent the different areas of your life. The idea is to create a home for (almost) every task and project.
How many main categories should I have?
Most people have between 3-7. They should not be too broad so that you want to create a lot of subcategories inside of a main category. It’s also important to only create main categories that actually regularly have tasks and/or projects inside of them.
What is the category "Inbox" for?
There is a default category called "Inbox". The Inbox is a good place to store the odd task or project that just doesn't fit into any of your main categories. You can also treat this category as an inbox, where you can quickly capture incoming tasks to sort later.
Tasks that are created within a day without being assigned to any category or project also show up here when you move the task back to the master list.
Projects are extremely helpful when it comes to accomplishing more in life. You should try to group related tasks into projects as much as possible.
More projects, less categories
Long lists of tasks within main categories can be a problem. It is hard to have any sort of overview and to decide which tasks to schedule for your day. The solution is to group related tasks together and create another layer of organization.
Most people will instinctively want to create subcategories to solve this, but that is generally not a good idea. Instead try to create projects around groups of tasks.
You are much more likely to complete tasks when they are part of a project rather than just sorted in some category. Finishing a project gives a huge sense of accomplishment. Finishing tasks from a category that will always just fill up again is not nearly as satisfying.
Also, you can assign a due date to a project which makes the end goal more concrete. Projects with due dates will also show up on your dashboard to serve as a reminder that you want to get it done.
Finally, there are a lot of strategies that you can take advantage of when having tasks grouped in projects rather than subcategories (e.g. planning ahead, MIP etc.).
Subprojects/Milestones for very large projects
If you have a very large and/or complex project it's a good idea to create smaller subprojects (milestones) within that project. As a general rule, if a project spans more than one month of continuous work and has a fixed deadline, break it up into monthly milestones.
As discussed in the section on projects, subcategories have only limited usefulness and often hurt more than they help.
In some cases, however, it does make sense to use subcategories within your main categories. If you have a very large and complex main category it can be helpful to have a few subcategories. Make sure that you don't nest subcategories within other subcategories. Subcategories should only exist directly within main categories.
If you find yourself with a very long list of tasks try to create projects around them rather than sorting them into subcategories.
It’s difficult to get the Master list organized perfectly on your first try. Over time you will notice what works and what doesn't quite feel right yet and needs some tweaking. There are a couple of things to look out for that mean you should probably make some adjustments to your master list:
Very deep nesting
If you have to click more than 3 times to get to a task you likely have too deep of a hierarchy. A task that is buried deep within the master list is at risk of being forgotten.
Try to limit subcategories as much as possible and create projects instead. This will likely reduce the depth of your task tree as well.
Sometimes it's also a good idea to turn a very busy subcategory into a main category instead.
No or few Projects
Projects are extremely useful and should be used often. If you are used to another todo list application without projects, or are used to making very large tasks, this this will be an adjustment. But in Marvin we want to keep our individual tasks small, so we often group many tasks together to form a project.
Read through the section on how to make good projects to learn all the best practices around project creation.
Nearly Empty Categories
If you have categories with no or only very few tasks or projects inside of it you probably don’t need this category and can delete it.
A ton of Categories
There is a natural tendency to want to create a lot of categories. But categories (besides the main categories) have limited usefulness and should be used very sparingly in most cases. This will prevent an overly deep hierarchy and the reliance on categories instead or projects to group tasks. Read the section on projects and subcategories to learn more about this.
This quick checklist helps you to make sure that you are following best practices in the master list. If the answer is "no" for any of the points below, click on it to learn how to fix this.
Ultimately, the master list should help YOU feel organized and in control. Sometimes that means deviating from the best practices a bit. The best way to organize your unique life is also dependent on what strategies you use and need (especially time tracking is affected by your master list structure).
As you probably already know, at its very core, Marvin is a day planning application. Having a plan for the day and separating "planning" and "working" is what creates so many amazing advantages for you. But it's important to do it right.
Read on to learn how to plan the perfect day.
When you decide which tasks to schedule for your day, you will want to have some set of rules that you base your decisions on. Picking tasks at random is obviously not a good idea.
Having some simple rules to follow will also cut down on the energy and time it takes you to plan your day. In order to follow some rules we first need a way to categorize our tasks so we have something to apply our rules to:
A very popular system for categorizing and prioritizing tasks is the Eisenhower matrix. According to the Eisenhower matrix, each task has a level of importance and a level of urgency.
Importance is defined as what truly brings you forward towards your goals. Urgency is about how quickly a task needs to get done. Often urgent tasks have some kind of consequence when they are not finished on time.
It should be possible for you to place each task or project in your master list in one of the four quadrants in the Eisenhower matrix. You can do this in your head as you pick out tasks, attach labels to create a custom system, or use due dates and prioritization strategies to pre-categorize your tasks.
If you set up your master list correctly, you will mostly have projects in your master list. You can then assign levels of urgency and importance to entire projects. The "Project Priorities" strategy can help you to pre-categorize your projects by assigning a priority level ("high", "medium" or "low") to individual projects.
When planning your day you will have a much easier time picking out tasks, because you can just pick the first tasks from projects with the highest priority level.
Rules for picking out tasks for your day
Items that are urgent and important have highest priority and should be scheduled next.
Items that are neither important nor urgent have the lowest priority. Evaluate those tasks again at a later time (e.g. monthly review of tasks). Often times they can be delegated or even deleted.
When it comes to tasks that are either urgent or important you will have to use more complex reasoning to determine what has truly highest priority. A lot of people like to take care of urgent things first to get peace of mind so they can then focus on the important tasks.
Making sure the urgent things get done
When a task or project is truly urgent it is best to add a due date as soon as you create it. This will make it easier for us to see what's urgent and Marvin can help you stick to the deadline.
Urgent tasks get scheduled automatically into your day if they are due within a day. So if a task is due tomorrow and you haven't scheduled it yet, it will get scheduled automatically for you today and marked with a red bar on the side.
Projects that are due soon and tasks that are due soon will also show up on your dashboard. So you can always check there first when planning a day and schedule any urgent tasks directly from the dashboard into your day before you pick tasks from the master list.
How to ensure the important work gets done
A common dilemma is that people spend all their time doing urgent tasks and not enough time doing the things that are truly important, but not urgent. This often happens with side projects like building a business or learning a new skill. Those things are important to us, but since we don't have any external deadlines there is rarely a real sense of urgency and we never move forward.
Making an effort to have a few hours a day blocked out for the important work can do wonders. Even if just an hour a day, you will be amazed at the progress you can make in a month.
To ensure you move forward on your important work, make a decision how much you want to spend on it per day or week and make a conscious effort to schedule your important tasks into your day.
You could use Time Blocking to allocate an hour a day for your important tasks.
Summary - how do I know to schedule the right things into my day?
Ultimately, figuring out which tasks to schedule for the next day is a very important and sometimes complex decision. Thinking about the Eisenhower matrix and prioritizing tasks accordingly will yield the best results. Assigning levels of priorities to entire projects can make it easier to select the right tasks.
There will be more strategies in the future that will help with prioritization and "picking the right things" easier. Stay tuned!
If too much stuff feels important and urgent try to compare only two tasks or projects at a time and decide which one is more important of the two or has a more devastating consequence if late. Repeating this process will reveal a rank of true priorities for a list of tasks or projects.
One thing we want to avoid is looking at our daily todo list and not being sure where to start. So it's very helpful to not just pick the tasks but also specify some sort of order in which they need to get done.
The first task you want to get done should be at the top of your todo list. Below that the task you want to do next and so forth. This allows you to just work your way down your todo list the next day. You can drag and drop to reorder your tasks easily.
If deciding on the exact order for your tasks the night before seems daunting, don't despair. You do not have to come up with the entire order for all your tasks ahead of time. There are many ways to go about organizing your tasks for the day.
Deciding what to do first
Even if you don’t want to order all your tasks at the time of planning, it is always a good idea to at least have the first few tasks of the day figured out and ordered. This ensures productivity from the start and which can set the tone for the rest of the day.
This is one of those things where different things really work for different people. Try the different approaches described below and analyze what works for you.
Eat the frog first. There is a popular productivity strategy called "eat the frog" that says you should always do an important task that is very long or difficult first... So you start with the task you are most likely to procrastinate all day long. Marvin even has this implemented as a strategy.
Do important work first. Starting with your most important tasks for the day makes sense. This way you are ensuring that even if unexpected events come up later, you made progress on important work. Starting off your day with a real sense of accomplishment can also give you some momentum to stay productive throughout the rest of the day. You can prioritize important tasks with a star by using the "Priority Stars" Strategy and then move those to the top.
Do urgent things first. Tasks that are very urgent (due tomorrow or today) will have a red line next to them. Some people like to get those out of the way so they no longer have to worry about meeting a deadline.
Get things that weigh on you out of the way. This is similar to the "eat the frog" strategy but instead of focusing on any task that we are dreading and that is important, this focuses more on tasks that we are just dreading. Anything that just really makes us want to avoid the whole list entirely. Maybe a phone call we don't want to make or something we are not sure on how to start. Either way, if there are tasks that you are dreading on your list it can make sense to just get them out of the way first. Sometimes we can procrastinate on our entire list just because we want to avoid one task.
Start with a few quick wins to gain momentum. Some people like to start their day out with a bunch of "quick win" tasks. Quick wins are tasks that are very quick to complete and have a relatively big impact on our lives/projects. This approach can work well if you need some time to fully get going in the morning and want to "warm up" a bit.
Deciding on task order as you go
As mentioned above, you don't have to specify the order for every task in advance. Start with your first three tasks and after you are done decide on your next three tasks. Doing it this way can even have advantages as it allows you to be more flexible and adjust your task priority based on spontaneous events or even your mood.
Avoid analysis paralysis or what to do when you can't come up with a good order
In general, if you are noticing that you spend a lot of time figuring out what to do first and feel a bit paralyzed by the decision making, just start a task at random (perhaps whatever happens to be on top of the list). It's always better to do something and get going than to try and make the perfect order. Trying to get the order right can waste a lot of time and create unnecessary frustration and stress.
Similarly, It is possible that there will be a day where you have a list of tasks where it really doesn't matter much in what order you perform the tasks. You can either just always do whatever sounds most fun to you at the moment (from the tasks on your daily list of course!) or use the task jar strategy to draw tasks at random.
Productivity is just as much about managing your energy as it is about managing your time. We don’t have unlimited time in a day and we often have even less mental or physical energy available. Furthermore, energy levels are not constant throughout the day, instead they go up and down. This happens naturally due to our internal clock but it can also be influenced by what we eat and do.
Most people have a variety of tasks they want to get done in a day. Some require more focus than others. Some are creative in nature while others are more analytical. And then there are also tasks that are just pure rote work or only physically demanding.
The perfectly planned day takes into account at what time of the day we can perform what kinds of tasks most easily. It’s all about scheduling the right tasks for the right times.
This can feel a bit daunting when you first think about it. But there are a couple of straightforward tips that work for most people. And as you become more aware of your own energy fluctuations and start to automatically think of tasks in terms of what kind and how much energy they require, you will start to plan your day naturally according to this principle.
Doing creative tasks first
Most people have the most mental clarity and energy sometime within the morning. It makes sense to schedule your most important creative tasks for that time. During sleep or during your morning routine (e.g. in the shower) our brain makes new connections and wanders in a way that often leads to new creative insights. So get those ideas out into your work as quickly as possible.
If you are a night owl it might take you a couple hours to reach your first peak of the day. Schedule a few light tasks first to warm up your mental muscles.
Doing your hardest tasks first
Similarly, since our brain is the most fresh and our willpower often strongest during the morning, you should try to schedule difficult tasks into your morning. If you push difficult or dreaded task off too long you risk being too tired to do it efficiently later on or not doing being able to do it at all because you can’t get over the initial hurdle of getting started.
Easy tasks for your low points
What goes up must come down. Inevitably, there is will be a point in your day where you will have low energy and maybe even feel a bit tired (or super tired). For most people that is sometime after lunch or in the late afternoon. This is an ideal time to take care of some rote tasks or even a few physical tasks. This can be anything from cleaning, making some phone calls or paying bills. Physical activity in particular can help prevent your energy from dipping too low.
The principle of energy fluctuations dictates that for maximum productivity it is essential that you have a nice variety of tasks in your day so you always have something you can do well no matter what your energy levels are like.
Try to become more aware of your energy levels throughout the day. Some people use a small notepad to record their focus and energy levels throughout the day to notice trends.
To work in harmony with your energy levels it can be helpful to label tasks (use "Task Labels" strategy) based on how much energy or focus they require and then pick tasks based on how you feel at that moment.
One of the most common mistakes people make when it comes to planning their day is that they put way too much on their plate. I have seen daily todo lists that include enough work for three days.
The problem is that leaving your daily list unfinished feels really bad and creates a lot of stress. It can even trigger negative self talk and feelings of guilt and inadequacy. This can start a downward spiral that makes it even harder to be productive the next day. So it's important to try and avoid an unfinished list at the end of the day!
One of our main objectives should always be to plan a day that we can actually finish. Finishing an entire todo list feels amazing and really boosts our confidence and sense of competency. This will help us to feel energized the next day so we can be productive again.
There are several reasons why overscheduling happens. Below you find some of the most common reasons and what to do about them.
Thinking we have more time to get work done in a day
Sometimes we don't realize how little time we truly have during the day to actually get things done. It can be helpful to figure out exactly how many hours are available for us to work each day.
To do that subtract hours for sleep, commuting, hygiene, eating, breaks and other responsibilities from your 24 hours and see how much is left. You can also use the time blocking strategy to help you figure this out.
Underestimating how long tasks take
It is easy to underestimate how long a task takes. It's even easier to not realize how quickly a few tasks add up.
Sometimes when scheduling tasks we are just so focused on all the things we need to get done that we don't stop to consider how much time it takes to actually finish all those tasks. A super helpful strategy that will help you fix this is called "how long will this take". It allows you to add a time estimate to each task and then totals up all your tasks. It can be eye opening to see how few tasks truly fit into our days.
Thinking we have unlimited focus and energy
So you figured out that you have 12 hours available during your day to get work done. But scheduling 12 hours of work would definitely be a mistake. You probably don’t have 12 hours of energy and focus in you. At least not for most days.
Most people can only work for about a total of 6 hours each day. If you use time tracking and make sure to only track when you are actually engaged in a focused way on a task you will see that you can get a lot done in 6 hours of focused work and you will feel quite exhausted at the end of it.
Your mileage varies of course based on what kind of tasks you count as work. If you have a nice mix of some physical activity, some focused work and some rote work you can accumulate more than 6 hours of work in a day. It will also depend on your overall health and age.
Make sure to take regular breaks and account for those breaks in your day planning. Breaks are super important to help us recharge and ensure we can focus for large amounts of time during our day. If you don’t take breaks voluntarily, your brain will try to force you by making you feel tired, or unable to focus.
Not taking fixed and spontaneous tasks into account
When adding tasks to your day always check which tasks are already scheduled for that day. Tasks that are due within a day or recurring tasks get scheduled automatically.
There are also tasks that come up spontaneously during a day. Such as returning a phone call, emails, remembering an important task or emergencies. It’s always a good idea to leave a little (or a lot) of breathing room in your day to make sure you can take care of these tasks.
What to do when you regularly don’t finish your list
Besides just putting less on your list, a helpful strategy you could try is called "Just the essentials". This strategy allows you to make two sections for your tasks: "essential" and "bonus".
Try to only put a few tasks that you truly need to get done that day into the "essential" section and place the others into the bonus section. Now it's OK to not finish your entire todo list since you only have to finish all the essential tasks. And you get an extra feeling of satisfaction every time you manage to do an additional task from the bonus section.
You can also create a bonus section manually (strategy called "organize tasks your own way") and use it in combination with other sections ("morning" "afternoon" "evening" "bonus")