Rediscovering GTD: the journey

Rediscovering GTD: the journey

My GTD organization has been a moving target for years.
GTD – Getting Things Done is a productivity method created by David Allen and I’ve been more or less applying its principles to my life for almost 6 years now.

7 months ago I wrote about sticking with one productivity system. At that point I had just started using Trello as my main app, applying Kanban principles and leaving Todoist behind.

But why?

Well, about a year ago my lists were overwhelming, I was trying to create filters in Todoist and apply the Eisenhower Matrix and it was a complete mess!

I started reading about Kanban and thought that that would be a good change for my organization system. Kanban is all about process and visualizing the work. It was created by Toyota as a scheduling system for cars lean manufacturing. Over the years it became a project management tool designed to help visualize work, limit work-in-progress, and maximize efficiency. Trello is a popular app that applies the Kanban board principles and it’s extremely user friendly.

I started using Trello and I liked it for a while. But I felt it lacked agility. See, I use GTD as a productivity method (which is list based) and Kanban is based on boards with focus of process flow. Using Kanban made me understand my process but adding next actions and processing them in Trello was too cumbersome. I spent more time organizing and making the system look beautiful than actually doing stuff. Trello is an amazing visual tool!

But after a few months with Trello I decided to go minimal. I understood the Kanban’s basic concepts of “backlog”, “doing” and “done” and I wanted a simple straightforward system but that still had some GTD structure.

I remembered testing an app called Nirvana HQ that was strictly based on GTD. So I started using Nirvana HQ again, which is a lovely app! It’s perfect for GTD and it’s the best digital implementation of GTD I’ve ever seen. Elegant, simple, to the point.
But there is not much customization you can make on the app and it’s lots of whites and light greys. Not too exciting. And there is almost none integration to other apps. It’s extremely bare bones.

Nirvana H

So after using Nirvana HQ in a minimal style I understood once more what GTD is all about. I had one of those Ah-Ha! moments just looking at Nirvana’s left menu. This menu is basically:

  • Inbox
  • Next
  • Waiting
  • Scheduled
  • Someday

And that’s GTD in a nutshell. Inbox collects any incoming information, Next is whatever needs to be done as soon as possible, Waiting are for things we are waiting for, Scheduled are things incubated that we will take a look in future date and Someday is for everything not current or not active in our defined time frame.

That’s the basics for GTD and on top of that we can create more granular lists with contexts, like: @home, @work, @errands, @calls, etc.

I discovered I don’t need too many contexts (@home, @work, @errands, @calls is all I need) and that a simple Next Actions list differentiating between Personal and Work areas of focus are enough for me.

Enter Todoist + Evernote (again)

I’ve decided to (ironically) go back to using Evernote and Todoist.

I’ve been an Evernote member since July 31st, 2010!
That’s a lot of time!
And when I decided this year to move to Onenote I exported the most important notes but basically left everything else in Evernote. I told myself I would reorganize, review and gradually move everything to Onenote (which never happened, all the old notes are still there).

The only reason I moved to Onenote was that at my new workplace I couldn’t install Evernote for desktop and Evernote’s web version was horrible. Now, a year later, Evernote Web has become quite similar to the desktop experience and I discovered last month that I could (finally) install Evernote on my work desktop. I don’t know what happened, but I got to the Windows Store and I could install and launch Evernote without any trouble.

So… I’m moving back to Evernote and Todoist!

I think I’ve been a Todoist user since 2016. It has been evolving since I saw it the first time and I was surprised to find out now that it only got better during all this time.
It’s sleek, simple and works well on all platforms. I did move my tasks from Nirvana to Todoist quite quickly because it provides a frictionless way of adding anything to its Inbox.

Todoist in July 2019

And this the list setup I’m now using on Todoist:

What about Nirvana HQ? (which is still awesome!)

So why I left Nirvana HQ?

I still think some Calendar reminders, specially for milestones, are useful to my workflow. The secret to not be overwhelmed using GTD is not going crazy scheduling all the tasks we see and adding them to a Calendar or adding dates in to-do list app. That will make the system extremely cluttered and you’ll discover that you underestimated the amount of tasks you accomplish in a single day. We are not good at estimating how much time a task will take.

So, only things that are taking place in space and time should go to the Calendar. Hard due dates can go to the Calendar or can be added a date in a To-Do. And that’s about it!
All the remaining tasks are simply: Next Actions. No hard due dates.

So Nirvana HQ made me understand this. Made me believe I don’t need to add a date to everything. If you’ve ever used Todoist or any other To-Do list app you know they are basically built on dates. They encourage you to put a date on every single task.

So Nirvana HQ is great if you just want neatly well organized GTD lists.
But if you’re like me who likes to have an integrated system with options to go to the Calendar, set reminders, link projects to notes… well, then Nirvana HQ might be a little bit disappointing. Also, I need this whole system to work in sync on at least 2 computers and my phone.

It’s all about being comfortable with the tools

Going back and forth using all these tools made me understand a little bit more about myself. It’s a process and whatever organization system is being used, some trial and error will always happen.

Some people will live happily without any need to organize ideas and actions in a board or to-do list. I’m not one of them. Lists and writing down ideas is essential to my well being.

One of the positive aspects of GTD is that it can be applied in any tool, it can be paper based and it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. You just have to understand the principles.

#productivity #GTD #trello #kanban #Todoist #NirvanaHQ

Sticking with one productivity system

This year I tested lots of task list managers, project managers and to-do list apps. I was not happy with my current system which consisted of Evernote + Todoist + Google Calendar and Google Drive to store files.

You see, I’ve been using the GTD method for 5 years now. It all started in a moment in my life when I was feeling extremely overwhelmed. I had a full time job and taking courses for a masters degree in Civil Engineering. I felt disorganized. I didn’t have a clear view of my life. And so I started looking for ways to get in control.

Phase 01: Evernote

I started having everything inside Evernote: contexts, references, projects lists, checklists, areas of focus and all the higher horizons of GTD. That worked for a while but soon I felt that I needed a dedicated app for task management. Evernote didn’t give me the satisfaction to cross off a task, per se. It was all done with tagging, so not very practical. I spent a lot of time tagging and untagging notes.

Phase 02: Todoist+Evernote

Then I started using Todoist. I kept my projects in Evernote and created the tasks in Todoist. In GTD actions are the most important part of the system: we only complete project by executing actions. So the “contexts” idea of GTD is kinda the central pillar of the system. Actions are always inside a context. And so I had a huge list of actions inside contexts, as we all do. And even though GTD tells us to prioritize actions based on context, time available and resources, I could never do it without getting overwhelmed.

The other issue I had was having the actions separate from its projects. There is a recommendation in GTD that it is better to keep actions separated from projects so that you keep focused and engaged on doing, rather than planning. Since I had all my projects in Evernote and tasks in Todoist I felt like this always created a duplicated effort: list the next actions inside the Evernote’s Master Project Note (MPN) and then copying them to Todoist. I’ve never thought this was a practical approach to project management.

So then I tried to use Todoist as a project management tool, with the tasks associated with each project. BUT, since the notes section in Todoist is quite simple, I still had the MPN’s inside Evernote. And it was not working well. The final straw for me was the inability to install Evernote on my computer at work when I got a new job. Long story short, 2018 was the year I started to desperately search for other solutions for my productivity system.

Testing Tools and Apps

Todoist-Filters-08-2018.jpg

First of all I tried to customize Todoist to my system. I read dozens of articles on how to create queries for filters in Todoist. I tried the Eisenhower Matrix method, I tried creating custom filters, combination of tags, minimal tags, priority flags and nothing seemed to work right for me.

I then went out on a frenzied testing sprint:

  • Nirvana HQ
    • Full GTD.
    • I like the minimalist look, simple and only focused on next action.
    • I like both the mobile app the web version.
    • I like that I can set up “Areas” and filter all tasks according to these areas. So I can have “PERSONAL” and “WORK” and “BLOG” or whatever. Seems nice! The advantage is that the filtering is already built into the software, so I don’t need to create specific filters.
    • Doesn’t have integration with Evernote or Google Drive. But I can add links to a task.
    • I like the schedule function (it’s the implementation of the “INCUBATE” in GTD.
    • Parallel vs Sequential tasks in a project: love this! It’s something I’ve always wanted to implement specially for sequential tasks. That way I don’t have unwanted tasks out of order showing up on my lists (I know I could solve this with tagging and weekly reviews, buy sometimes I had these tasks coming up during the week). It’s a very handy feature!
    • I like the “Zen” aspect of Nirvana. Really, I don’t feel overwhelmed with it (like I always did with Todoist).
    • Features:
    • Filter by area (it hides the rest)
    • Easy to tag and filter for context (I really hate Doit.im’s Context vision.)
    • project template
    • sequential/parallel options for projects
    • Reference Lists that can be turned into a project (eg. grocery list)
    • easy recurring task
    • the focus tab for actions with a deadline, or things you tag with a star (= things you will do today)
    • the Later tab, for things between Next and Someday
  • Doit.im
    • Full GTD.
    • The mobile app is okay.
    • Says it has integration with Evernote. I tried and it didn’t work.
    • Keeps saying I have to confirm my e-mail address but I never get their confirmation message.
    • Can’t export data.
    • The company is hosted in China.
    • Seems like they are not very active in developing the app.
  • Toodledo
    • List based.
    • Seems more complicated than it needs to be.
    • Lots of manual configuration/filters to be done to be a GTD system.
  • TickTick
    • Looks like a simplified version of Todoist. Very similar, with date based tasks.
  • Remember the Milk
    • So ugly!
    • I still had my account that I set up to try in 2012!
    • I hated the side bar menu.
  • GTDNext
    • GTD focused.
    • It seems it doesn’t have any mobile app yet.
    • Seems old fashioned.
    • Kinda ugly.
    • No new Twitter activity since April/2018
    • Lots of “problems” in the community forums.
  • Amazing Marvin
    • It’s more like a daily planner that you can customize.
    • It’s a different concept but I think that after years trying to get GTD right, I am going to go full GTD with the simplest and straightforward configuration possible.
  • Any.do
    • Too Simple.
    • Has a nice feature to filter by time or area of focus
    • But doesn’t have sub-tasks

Phase 03: Nirvana HQ

I really liked this app! I used for about 2 weeks but then the lack of a good notes field and no integration with Google Drive or Evernote let me down.

Phase 04: Enter Kanban and Trello

My-Work-Trello-Board.jpg

I have never used Kanban but I knew it was thing. So I decided to test Trello. And I read articles and the book about Personal Kanban.

I loved the approach!

Trello is easy to use and the visual aspect of it is great. I transferred my work and personal related projects to Trello. And I decided to stick with it.

Until today, when somehow I was curious to know how Asana and Meistertask worked. Just in case they were awesome and I was missing out. So I spent about 1 hour today testing those apps and reading articles about them. They aren’t for me. They are more business/teams oriented. But I had to see!

And so that made me wonder why am I always searching for a new productivity app? Why can’t I just be happy with the tools I have?

So I decided: I will stick with my latest Trello installment, which combines GTD principles with Kanban and be happy. I think 6 months is a reasonable amount of time to test my system and make it work for me.

We will see!

GTD helping me get to inbox Zero on GMail

GTD helping me get to inbox Zero on GMail

For the first time in years I have a true inbox Zero on GMail. I’ve been reorganizing my GTD (Getting Things Done) system and decided I should attack my email habits. I used to keep some important or waiting-for messages using the priority boxes of Gmail. And they were always visible.

Today I set up two new labels to use them as an action list and clear the clutter:

  • @To-answer calmly: For e-mails I have to answer that will take longer than 5 minutes.
  • @Waiting-reply: For those messages I am waiting for a reply so I can track them later.

All the rest gets deleted, clipped to Evernote (if it is something that will require starting a project or some action outside Gmail) or archived under one of my reference labels on Gmail. I sometimes clip to Evernote messages that I want to keep as References and that can be linked to any of my ongoing projects (support for projects).

I was inspired by the GTD Evernote for Windows setup guide by David Allen Company, 2017 edition. The guide gives two options:

  1. Use the e-mail as the reminder: This is my choice, meaning that the e-mail is also an action bucket that has to be checked regularly and acted upon.
  2. Use next action notebooks in Evernote or the calendar as the action reminder: This option only keeps the e-mail as a reference folder, and all the required action are registered into your next action folders.

And I even changed my Gmail theme to celebrate! I’ve always used the classic theme with no images. Now I have a reason to keep my inbox zero: I want to see the beautiful landscape with nothing over it!

Immediate outcomes:

  • I no longer re-process and think over the same e-mail message more than once. When I had read messages lying around in my inbox I used to open them again to see what they were about and got a bit lost inside the mess.
  • I no longer let e-mails pile up. I keep it clean and tidy!
  • I check my Inbox less. I am not a person that works all the time with e-mail, so I can have the luxury to check my e-mail only a few times a day. Before this change, I compulsively checked my Inbox waiting for some news, kinda like what we do scrolling down social media. This compulsive behavior disappeared!

So, I encourage everyone to test some kind of Inbox Zero strategy to see it if works for you! I’ve never truly implemented it because I thought I didn’t need it!

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168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think [Book Review]

168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think [Book Review]

“There are 168 hours in a week. This is your guide to getting the most out of them.” –Laura Vanderkam

  • by Laura Vanderkam

    Kindle Edition

  • Print Length: 271 pages
  • Publisher: Portfolio (May 26, 2010)
  • Publication Date: May 27, 2010
  • My Rating: 2/ 5 stars (it was okay)

My overall thoughts about the book:

I enjoyed the main approach of the book, which is to be aware of how we spend our 168 hours and identify how we can make better use of the time available for all of us. So far so good, but I found that the author addresses only a handful of life styles, specially couples with kids.

I didn’t agree with all the suggestions she gave. There was too much “delegating” to paid services tips and I am more into searching for a frugal or simple lifestyle. As far as I know hiring household services is usually more expensive than doing them ourselves, but the author affirms that this model could work for some people (if they have the money to afford it, of course).

I think it’s hard to try carve out more time out of our days if we don’t reduce the excess activities and stuff we accumulate over time. And I don’t remember the author addressing this side of the coin.

The Pros:

The main messages of the book that stuck in my brain and that I somewhat agree with were:

  1. Cut down TV time. And then cut some more. TV is not so relaxing as we might think.
  2. Block out time to exercise. Then fine more exercise more.
  3. Make a list of tasks you can do in 30 minutes. And another for 10 minutes. Remember these little things that can be done between tasks or while waiting something. For example: read a book in a waiting line, or do some push-ups or stay in plank position while you wait for the microwave. Reading while waiting or in public transport is totally okay, I do this all the time with my Kindle. Doing push-ups while the microwave: not so much because there are usually other things to take care of in the kitchen, in my case. But I think it’s doable.
  4. Identify our core competencies: that is a good exercise because we often forget our main goals amidst the various activities and responsibilities we are involved. When we know what are our core competencies we can plan out more time to develop these areas.

The Cons:

The following tips didn’t really resonate with my personal style:

  1. Carve out chunks of time during our work day to do the things we say we don’t have enough time to do. That’s the kind of tip that won’t work for everyone because not all of us have a flexible schedule or a work environment that encourages “off duty” activities or arriving a bit late.
  2. Hire services: Get someone else to do the things you don’t enjoy by delegating or hiring someone else: laundry, cooking, scheduling appointments. I don’t agree with this one because I truly prefer to live an independent life, and if I can’t find time or satisfaction from taking care of my stuff, I should consider minimizing.
  3. The writing style. I thought the chapters were too long and there were too many anecdotes about other peoples lives filled with excessive and unnecessary details to prove a point. Those parts really put me off the book and made me speed read them. I think the text lacked a bit of objectivity, since it’s about productivity and carving out precious time.

So, the book has a couple of good ideas and tips but the overall experience of reading it wasn’t fulfilling and I was a bit disappointed in the end. Maybe it was not directed at my simpler lifestyle. Sometimes doing less is the best option.

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366 Days of Journaling: the Journey!

366 Days of Journaling: the Journey!

How I managed to write on my journal every single day of 2016

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When journaling was a thing…and then it disappeared

For years during my adult life I struggled with starting a journal. You know, simple, personal daily journaling where we sit down and write about our day. It doesn’t need to be public. It is a space that is all ours, with our own reflections and sorrows.

The weird thing is that I remember having lots of “Diaries” when I was young. I enjoyed writing on my “Diary”. It was a daily practice that soothed my pre and adolescent despair. I decorated it with drawings. I even did collages with small souvenirs of my young adventures. By the end of the year, my diary was huge!! And kept them hidden from view, of course.

What happened to this habit? It has suddenly disappeared by the time I entered the “grown-up” stage of my life. I don’t remember when it was exactly, but it just happened. Poof! One day I was journaling, the other I was more interested in, what? Internet? Sometimes I wonder if the Internet destroyed some of my habits. It probably did… See, I grew up without internet and then this new amazing technology appeared and dominated me. It was fascinating. Maybe it is Internet’s fault…I don’t know.

Anyway, when I reached my 30’s and started to worry about productivity, I found out that there is such a thing as adult journaling!

Wait, what? Adults have diaries too?

I wondered how I could start this habit. There are tons of articles online stating that journaling is good for your brain, good for stress-management, good for creativity and so on.

How I started journaling: Evernote!

First, I convinced myself that journaling was a good habit to nurture, because I felt my life was passing too fast before my eyes. Journaling would help me with that!

Then, I did a little research and decided that I wanted:

  • a private journal (only I can access, I didn’t want the world to know about my frustrations)
  • in electronic form (let’s save trees)
  • accessible on all my devices (cellphone, desktop at home/work, tablet)

So, I started simple. Since I already used Evernote, I decided that I could create a notebook called “My Journal” and go from there. My first entry was 15th November 2012.

But I didn’t keep the daily routine. My entries were sporadic. And reading back these first entries, they are kinda depressing. I only sat down to write when I was feeling bad. I wrote when something went wrong in my day, when I felt disappointed. They were a way of trying to make the bad feelings go away.

So, from 2012 to 2015 I had an average of 36 entries per year. That’s pretty low when we are talking about a “Daily” Journal. I thought that writing was too difficult. I had to find an appropriate time to sit down and “drudge through the drudgery”.

It was not a habit. I knew I was having benefits from it, but I only bothered to write when I was really needing some mental relief. It was not consistent.

The quest for consistency: Miracle Morning + Five Minute Journal

Being a morning person

In the beginning of 2016, I decided I would change. By January I was journaling every other day, usually before bed. By this time I read the book “The Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod. I was searching for some incentive to do more things in the morning because I enjoy mornings. I’m convinced I’m a morning person.

Actually, the first article that caught my attention on the subject was this one here. And then I naturally stumbled upon Hal Elrod’s book. Well, I will not get into the book’s details here, but I’ll say that this book convinced me of the need of consistency and structure. And for a habit to stick, you gotta keep pushing. So, I completed the “30 day Miracle Morning Challenge” on 1st March, 2016! And I was ready to include journaling into my morning daily routine.

During March 2016 I wrote 30 journal entries! That was great! The habit stuck with me!! But I was still writing about the worst part of my life, I was missing shinny, happy thoughts in my musings.

Discovering the Five Minute Journal

Everything changed for me when I heard about the “Five Minute Journal” method! This a type of daily gratitude journal, where you write during 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes in the evening. It is straightforward and it was the perfect formula to my straightforward mind.

Originally, the Five Minute Journal is a physical journal, where you have the parts already printed out and you fill them in every day. Like this:

The Five Minute Journal

As I am an adopter of a more digital life, I found out that I could set up a template on Evernote and use IFTTT to create a note everyday for me to fill in. You can find a recipe here. My sections were the following:

MORNING:

  • Three things I am Grateful for… (ideas: past relationships, opportunity you have today,something great that happened yesterday,something simple near you)
  • What Would Make Today Great?
  • Daily Affirmations, I am…

EVENING:

  • Three Amazing Things That Happened Today…
  • How Could I Have Made Today Better?
  • Other:
  • 10 ideas:

The optimized version to keep it up: “What have I learned today?”

After a while I tweaked the structure a little and created my own version of the Five Minute Journal.

First, I never used the space for the “10 ideas”. I (un)fortunately don’t have too many ideas in a day. So, I changed it to 3 daily ideas and that was more than enough.

Second, I used to have the question “How Could I Have Made Today Better?” as one of the entries of my journal. And I could never answer this question, I always skipped it. Week after week this space was left blank. Why was that?

I write on my journal in two moments of the day: early morning, after I meditate, and right before bed, when I’m usually tired.

In the evening, thinking about what I could have changed in my day tires me. It frustrates me. I prefer to go to sleep in a more positive vibe.

I don’t want to think about what might have happened. The past stays in the past and there’s nothing we can do about it. Answering this question was making me feel depressed.

As a matter of fact, I know that the purpose of this question is to make us reflect on our actions and then pursue better habits. But this question wasn’t working for me because I felt like I had failed. Maybe this question is not compatible with my introverted personality type (INTJ) with perfectionist tendencies.

Then, one day, a light came down on me while I was listening to this podcast episode about journaling: The Productivityist Podcast: Zachary Sexton. (Thanks Zachary Sexton!) His structure of journaling includes a question: “What have I learned today?”.

So, instead of asking myself “How Could I Have Made Today Better” I decided to ask “What have I learned today?”. That small change makes so much more sense to my brain! I LOVE learning! Learning is something I do constantly, I crave for it everyday. So that was decided!

My journal entries look like this:

My Journal Template on Evernote

I replaced the “pessimist” question with a more “constructive” one for my good old brain. And this reflexive final moment keeps me wanting to get back to it daily. It helped me stick with the habit.

Result: 366 days of journaling!

It turns out I wrote 366 journal entries in 2016! Achievement unlocked! The result of all these strategies is visible on the following graph:

My Journal Entries from 2012–2016

So, in a nutshell, the strategy that worked was:

  1. Finding an automated tool to create a template with inspiring sections, that compels me to write;
  2. Building a daily habit by doing a challenge and pushing through the first 30 days;
  3. Focusing on the rewards to keep it up!

I’m using The Five Minute Journal template since March 2016 and I can say it had positive effects in my life. The daily gratitude habit brings me inner peace and makes me a more generous person. I recommend it!

What about you? Do you have any journaling habits and tips? What works for you?

Thanks for reading!

References:

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Reading matter(s) of the month: September, 2016

Last month I focused on re-reading the new edition of the productivity classic “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. It’s the method I use since 2012 and recently I decided to implement the system on a new tool: Todoist. So, I felt the need to review the GTD concepts and re-reading the book brought me valuable new insights!

On the other hand, I added 8 books to my “future read” endless pile! Many of the tiles were cited in the GTD book, I couldn’t help it, sorry!

“So many books, so little time” by Amanda Tipton is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The “Read” list of September, 2016:


  1. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity by David Allen: It was my second read of this edition. I noticed that I have missed many things the first time through, and it really seemed like a whole new book. I learned a lot and I realized how many details I haven’t implemented on my own system because I was still so focused on the Ground and Projects level.
  2. Romancing the Duke (Castles Ever After, #1) by Tessa Dare: a funny light romance to relax because, who wouldn’t?
  3. The Cozy Life: Rediscover the Joy of the Simple Things Through the Danish Concept of Hygge by Pia Edberg: a short and uplifting book about a Danish concept that can be understood “as creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people”.

The added “To-Read” list of September, 2016:


  1. Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older
  2. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly
  3. The 4 Hour Workweek, Expanded And Updated: Expanded And Updated, With Over 100 New Pages Of Cutting Edge Content. by Timothy Ferriss
  4. On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
  5. A Philosopher’s Notes On Optimal Living, Creating An Authentically Awesome Life And Other Such Goodness by Brian Johnson
  6. The Irresistible Introvert: Harness the Power of Quiet Charisma in a Loud World by Michaela Chung
  7. The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline by Jonathan Tepperman
  8. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney

The “I am still reading and haven’t finished yet” pile:

Contact by Carl Sagan

And what is next?

I am inclined to read two books about productivity: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experienceby Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and “The 4 Hour Workweek” by Timothy Ferriss because I’ve seen countless recommendations for them.

And, for my French practice, maybe: “Stupeur et tremblements by Amélie Nothomb

See you next month! Happy reading!

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