12 Steps That Will Make Your Productivity Soar

I did fairly well during high school and college (UCLA) and was accepted into a high-ranking medical school (UCSF). However, during medical school, I felt like the productivity system I had was reaching its limits. I was constantly stressed and tried to study every chance I got. Despite the constant amount of hours I put in, I still received average grades and clerkship evaluations. Even worse, I neglected my health and gained a significant amount of weight (went from 160 pounds to almost 200 pounds). 

In my fourth year of medical school, I was determined to improve my productivity and that was when I first read Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen. I have continued to try to optimize my productivity and have integrated other resources into the GTD framework over the past decade.  After going through many resources and trialing them on myself and others, I have found the following 12 steps are the most fundamental steps to creating a truly airtight productivity system that will allow you to be extremely productive and stress-free. 

I have trialed these exact steps (in order) with multiple medical students and physicians and have confirmed the benefits and utility of this system. The images shown in this blog post are actual photos of me implementing this process at a resident physician’s home workspace.  It will take approximately 1-2 weeks to implement (and possibly longer if you have many things accumulated).

Feel free to take your time however and carry out what you feel works best in your own life and workflow. The three environments I feel that need to be concentrated on are 1) The PHYSICAL workspace, 2) DIGITAL workspace 3) Mental workspace. If you can clear these things efficiently every day only ONCE or twice a day, I guarantee you will create time to do some of the most meaningful work in your life. The catch is that you NEED to be able to process these shallow tasks effieciently, and these 12-steps will let you achieve that. 

This post is just an introduction to all of the 12 steps. If it doesn’t make complete sense, don’t worry! This post is just a general overview of all of the steps. There will be a detailed blog post on each and every step in detail.

1. Gather the Essential Supplies for a Productive Physical Workspace

This step involves gathering all of the absolutely necessary items for creating a productive physical workspace. This includes obvious items such as a desk and chair. However, in this step, you will not only get things for your workspace, but you will also be getting rid of items that are not necessary. A productive workspace will have only one of each necessary item, anything additional will become a distraction and decrease your productivity. Store any extra items in its own place out of sight of your workspace. Here is a link to the full post I wrote on Step 1 and the list of items that I personally recommend

2. Declutter the Physical Workspace by Sorting and Purging

This step involves the total declutter of your current workspace by taking every single item (documents, stationary items, electronics, etc) and sorting them into three piles (Possibly Keep, Trash, and Donate). I recommend sorting them on the ground, so you have a clear picture of what you have been keeping in your workspace. 

Below is an example, of our resident physician who had 5 external hard drives, 3 graphing calculators, and multiple redundant items he had no clue were taking up his workspace! 

After sorting your environment into these three piles you will purge your workspace by throwing away things in the “trash” pile and decide who to donate these items from the “donate” pile. The only pile you will have left after your purge will be your “Possibly Keep” pile. You will organize your “Possibly Keep” pile in step 4. Read the full post HERE.

3. Create an Optimal Physical Workspace 

Now that you have totally cleared and decluttered your workspace, you can start adding all of the essential supplies from Step 1 systematically into your new workspace with each item serving a purpose. This will minimize distractions and allow you to have maximum productivity to perform true deep work. 

Create a blank framework

Once you have created the optimal workspace, now you will have a blank framework to reintroduce things from your “Possibly Keep” pile back into your physical workspace. 

Read the full post HERE.

4. Organize the Physical Workspace 

In this step, you will now have to decide exactly what needs to go into your physical workspace. This will involve deciding what you want to do with each item in your “Possibly Keep” pile. Things that may have meant something to you 15 years ago, may not have the same meaning and you may consider tossing them. Anything you don’t trash will need to be integrated into your workspace. 

Integrating your final pile will mainly involve organizing your documents. You will organize documents and journal articles in this step using a trusted A-Z filing system for your general reference items. You will also organize all of your electronic items in this step. 

Below is a sample of one of our Internal Medicine Senior Resident’s workspace at home before and after we decluttered and organized his workspace!! Yes, even the dog is happier after we decluttered!

Read the full post HERE.


5. Declutter the Digital Workspace by Sorting and Purging

Depending on how much you have accumulated in your computer and laptop over the years, this step may take some time. However, it is necessary. This step will involve purging any unnecessary digital files and sorting the remaining into three folders: Active Projects, General Reference, and Pending Review.

The sorting here will not involve any organizing (that will be the next step). The purpose here is to quickly put all digital files into one of these three folders. If something needs to be deleted just trash and purge it on the spot. 

The Active Projects folder will only contain folders that contain projects that are truly active and ongoing. 

The General Reference folder will contain all folders of completed projects or documents that need to be archived (taxes, scanned ID’s, passports, etc). 

The Pending Review folder contains all of the other documents that still need an action to be performed or it is undecided what to do with them. These will include recent downloads from your inbox, downloaded journal articles, scanned documents, etc). 

Read the full post HERE.

6. Organize the Digital Workspace

In this step you will now organize all of the files in your Active Projects and General Reference Folders using a systematic approach. 

After those folders have been organized you will go to your Pending Review folder and complete actions on any pending items and sort them into their appropriate folders in the Active Projects or General Reference folders. If the action for an item needs to be performed at a later date, then you will need to set a date for when you will complete that action. 

You should make a habit of clearing your Pending Review Folder Daily.

Read the full post HERE.

7. Clear and Organize Your Email – Inbox Zero

This is probably one of the toughest steps for most people with thousands of emails in their inbox. This step will be similar to dealing with your digital workspace above. 

You will need to purge any emails that are trash. The rest will be placed in an Active Projects Folder or General Reference Folder. Your actual inbox will serve as a “Pending Review” folder and should be cleared daily. 

I personally attempt to clear my inbox once a day, and if I need to reply to an email at a later date, I will set a reminder in my productivity system to deal with that specific email. 

I receive over 60-80 emails a day. I found that by processing ALL emails only once a day in the afternoon, I save a significant amount where I can use it to complete my most important tasks! It usually only takes me about 1 hour or less to clear all of my emails a day.

Read the full post HERE.

8. Clear your Mind by Defining all Projects and Next Actions

In this step you will clear your mind by listing every single project that is in your head. This will allow you to create more mental space for deep thinking and deep work. If you have so many unprocessed and pending things in your mind, it will be difficult to become productive. 

You need a process to dump any lingering thoughts in your mind into a trusted external environment where you can deal with it later. Your mental space is invaluable and should be used to create and cultivate ideas, so don’t waste it on just trying not to forget things. 

After you have listed all of your projects, you will then list the immediate next action for each project (this is the GTD philosophy). The key to productivity is to not think of the end result of a project but only to think of completing the immediate next step. Fortunately, the immediate next steps are usually something simple such as sending an email, looking something on the internet, giving someone a phone call, etc. 

Read the full post HERE.

9. Implement a Productivity System Using Apps

It can be tempting to think that using a productivity app will make you productive and that you can skip the previous 8 steps. I have seen countless people fail to achieve true productivity because they think a productivity “app” will make them more productive. However, they end up using these apps just like a grocery store checklist. 

A productivity app is extremely useful, only if used correctly. It should allow you to keep track of all of your current projects and next actions. It should also be used to sort and organize incoming projects as well as recurring actions. However, you won’t know all of your current projects and next actions if you did not define them in the previous 8 steps above. 

Read the full post HERE.

10. Effectively use Your Calendar

A calendar is like a commitment to yourself. Effective use of a calendar is always completing assigned tasks on dates you have determined. Over time people will trust you and your reliability. You will also learn to trust yourself and your calendar system over time. Read the full post HERE.

11. Track and Batch your Habits

This is something I learned to do more recently in the past few years, and I feel it can propel your productivity to extreme heights. This is a little more advanced but if you can learn how to track your daily habits as well as batch habits you will not waste time. Read the full post HERE.

12. Perform Weekly Reviews 

This is the last step but one of the most important steps. Very few people perform weekly reviews of all of their projects. Doing this properly however will save you countless hours. Performing weekly reviews will keep your projects up to date and make the most efficient use of your productivity system and apps. Read the full post HERE.


Video Summary of 12 Steps!

I hope you find this post useful. Don’t worry if this seems a little confusing or daunting for now. Let’s just go step by step. Each step has a significant purpose. I will be posting a detailed blog post on each of these steps in the upcoming weeks. Please sign up for our newsletter below if you would like to receive updates as each step comes out! I look forward to being part of your productive and stress-free life.

If you have ANY questions or comments please post below. Would love to hear your thoughts.

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EstherSamPhysician ZenDr. McFrugal Recent comment authors
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Dr. McFrugal

These are really great tips. I need to do a better job of organizing my digital space and clearing my emails. I like the idea of organizing emails in to general reference and active projects. One thing I also need to do a better job is unsubscribing to email lists that no longer bring value to me. I love the before and after pictures of the physical works space you displayed. It’s cute how the dog feels lost and depressed in the clutter then looks visibly happier and more free in the more neatly organized work space. I feel that… Read more »


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Love it! Thanks so much for sharing the 12 steps. What suggestion do you have for those with a lot of inertia In starting the 12 steps?

Asking for a friend 🙂


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Thank you for the tips! Being two weeks into med school classes, I have realized that the college-level systems I’ve relied on in the past need to morph into grad-school level.
My question is, how important is having a consistent work place? Lately, I’ve been bouncing back and forth between setting up camp at the library for a few hours, then coming home and working on my porch with my dog in the evening. I value both the semi-social environment of the library and spending time outdoors/with my lonely dog, so I’m hesitant to commit fully to either work place.


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