So far in this series on productivity, we've looked at a diverse range of productivity systems and techniques. Here's a quick recap:
- The Eisenhower Matrix helps you prioritize tasks on your to-do list based on their urgency and importance.
- The Pomodoro Technique teaches you to focus on the task at hand by chunking your day in 5 to 25 minute sections.
- Getting into a state of flow allows you to find your best energy, so you're naturally productive. Practicing mindfulness has a similar effect.
- The Unschedule helps you banish procrastination by taking the guilt out of play and making you a perpetual starter rather than a one-time finisher.
- Brian Tracy's Eat that Frog method helps you start each day productively by tackling the most difficult tasks first.
- Mark Forster's Final Version helps you make productive, positive decisions that allow you to start digging into your to-do list.
- The Don't Break the Chain technique helps you build productive habits into your life through small wins every day.
- David Allen's Getting Things Done technique helps you clear your mind of distractions with a system for capturing and processing every task and idea that crosses your mind.
Our aim in introducing you to all these productivity methods wasn't that you should use all of them. Implementing all of them would be a full-time job in itself! Also, it would probably drive you crazy. Rather, we hope you'll try the techniques that appeal to you or that tackle the specific productivity issues you face. As you find what works for you, you'll develop your own productivity system.
Think of it this way: if you're an artist, it's helpful to know a wide range of art styles and techniques to draw on as you develop your own style. Writers are encouraged to read a lot because it builds their vocabulary and helps them develop new ideas. Likewise, entrepreneurs typically draw on their experience of business when coming up with new ideas.
So if you want to maximize your productivity, it's a good idea to know various systems you could use, as this gives you more options when developing a system that works for you.
Talking of developing your own productivity system, here's how to do it:
Step 1: Identify Your Productivity Drains
The purpose of developing your own productivity system is that it allows you to be productive, whoever you are and whatever your situation. Using a custom system means you can build on your strengths and improve upon your weaknesses.
Your weaknesses are a great place to start when building a productivity system because they show you what you most need help with.
Ask yourself: "What do I struggle with when it comes to being productive?"
To help you get started, it could be any of the following:
- You struggle to focus on the task at hand. You find yourself constantly distracted by social media, the Internet, or talking to co-workers.
- You procrastinate by putting off must-do tasks until the last minute.
- You never complete your to-do list. You've got items on there that have lingered for more than a month.
- Your email inbox is overflowing, and you've missed important emails.
- You feel anxious about everything that needs to be done, which distracts you from getting on with your work.
Now, it's possible that you're not as productive as you'd like to be, but you can't see the problem. If this is you, your bad productivity habits have become so deeply ingrained that you can't even see them. You've got a few options:
- Go ahead and try out some productivity approaches (check out the list in the introduction of this tutorial to get started). By seeing which approach makes a difference, you'll get an idea of what your productivity drains are.
- Spend your next three days tracking yourself. Track everything you do and how long it takes, from the moment you get up to when you fall asleep. This will help you answer the question, "Where is all my time going?" You'll also notice where tasks are taking you longer than they should or where you're getting distracted.
- Go ahead and read the next step, which will show you what should be in a productivity system. This will help you see where you fall short.
Step 2: Know the Ingredients of an Effective Productivity System
Before you can create a productivity system to tackle your weaknesses, you need to know what a productivity system should do. In other words, you need to know the purpose of your productivity system.
Not all systems need to include all of the following components. What you include depends on your weaknesses you identified in Step 1. Additionally, there are undoubtedly other components a productivity system could include, so don't be afraid to add to this list (and share your additions in the comments below and let others benefit from your discoveries).
What are some of the components your system should consider?
When a new task comes your way—whether that's a request from someone else or an idea you've thought of—how do you make sure it gets noted? A capturing system could be as simple as carrying a notepad and pen with you everywhere. It could involve emailing yourself or sending yourself a voicemail for new tasks. Or you could use a dedicated app. The Getting Things Done system is the most comprehensive productivity tool for capturing tasks.
Once you've captured tasks, what next? You could add them all to your to-do list, but that's likely to overwhelm you. None of us can do everything. Filtering tasks allows you to:
- Discard. You can get rid of tasks that aren't urgent or don't contribute to your goals. Or you can save them in a "one day" list.
- Delegate. A big part of being productive is knowing when to ask for help—and having the humility to do so.
- Do. If tasks can't be discarded or delegated, you can add them to your to-do list.
You've got a to-do list of items, but which should you do first? There are a range of different approaches here, from tackling important tasks first (The Eisenhower Matrix) to doing the task you least want to do first (Eat that Frog). Finding a way to prioritize that works for you is key to developing an effective productivity system.
Note: Filtering is a form of prioritizing, so these can be done together.
When you're working, how do you stay focused on the task at hand? How do you avoid distractions and beat procrastination? The Pomodoro technique is a good way to get started if you struggle to focus. If the Internet or social media are the biggest problems for you, then Internet-blocking tools will help, too.
Focus also includes limiting the number of tasks you choose to work on, and managing your time well.
All work requires energy. The more positive energy you bring to your work, the more you'll get done. Conversely, the more negative energy you bring to your work, the more you'll struggle to be productive.
In your productivity system, it's a good idea to find ways to manage your energy and maintain a positive attitude. In this respect, activities seemingly unrelated to work—such as exercising regularly, eating healthily, and getting enough sleep—can be integral to a productivity system.
Another big energy drain is resentment at feeling forced to do tasks you don't want to do. While you're unlikely to have complete control over what you're required to do at work, it's worth considering how you can build choices about the work you do into your workday.
Observing your thoughts and feelings through mindfulness can also help you maintain a healthy, positive attitude to your work.
Step 3: Bodge Together a Productivity System
As you've learned from reading this series on productivity, perfectionism is the enemy of being productive. So instead of creating a perfect productivity system, you're going to bodge one together.
Bodge is a British word for creating something using whatever materials are available. In French culture, this is called bricolage. Americans might call it a hack together or a quick-and-dirty solution.
Why am I using such an unusual word here? Partly because it's the best word for describing what I want to say. But also to point out that building a productivity system is not a science. There's no right or perfect answer. It's about creatively working with the resources you have available to find what works for you.
In other words, it's about finding an approach that's good enough for your needs. You're not a robot, and you shouldn't expect yourself to be one.
How can you bodge together a productivity system?
A productivity system is a collection of productivity tools. So use the productivity tools you've got to hand. Start by reading the articles in this series. This will give you access to plenty of tools. Chances are, you've probably got a few tricks of your own, too.
The important thing is to try various techniques. Start with those you're naturally drawn to and those that address your productivity weaknesses. Only by putting them into action and giving them a try will you see whether they work for you.
Step 4: Use Your System
You've created a system. Great job! Now comes the hard part of using it.
I recommend setting aside half a day to set up your system. This allows you to create and print out any worksheets you need, pick up supplies from the store, and install any apps or browser plugins you need.
Then, put your system into practice. Do your work according to your system.
You will encounter teething problems. To start with, your productivity system may mean you get less done. Don't panic, and don't be tempted to give up right away. Stick with your system for at least a week before you evaluate how it's working. Only by giving your system a proper trial can you fully assess its strengths and weaknesses.
Step 5: Tweak Your System
You've already done the hard work of creating and implementing a productivity system. From here on out, things will only get easier. You'll just be making small changes to your system, so it becomes the best it can be.
The two most important things to consider as you evaluate your system are:
- How much work you get done. Is your system making you more productive?
- How you feel about your work. Is your system helping you approach your work in a positive, upbeat way?
And what do you want to change? Pay attention to the aspects of your system that you notice. After its initial settling-in period, a good productivity system integrates into your life without too much fanfare. It should oil the wheels of your work, rather than be a bother. In particular, ask yourself: "Are there parts of my system I avoid or that always frustrate me?" These are the parts that need changing
It's worth bearing in mind that the tweaks you make are experiments. You don't have to stick with them forever.
Here are some examples of problems in a system and tweaks you could trial:
- You've implemented the Pomodoro technique. It helps you focus, but you wish there were longer breaks between each 25-minute chunk. After a series of Pomodoros, you feel exhausted. How about adjusting a Pomodoro to be 40 minutes of work followed by a 20-minute break?
- You've set up a Facebook block using a web browser plugin. But your Facebook addiction encourages you to check Facebook on your phone. Is it time to uninstall Facebook from your phone or log your phone out of Facebook while your working?
- You try Eat that Frog, but after a few early successes, you find it makes you miserable to do the worst task at the beginning of the day. Your procrastination problem has gotten worse. How about trying the Final Version system instead, where you start with the task you most feel like doing?
A word of warning: Before you blame all your problems on flaws in your system, make sure you've given the system a fair trial. Yes, life works best when what you want to do aligns with what you need to do. But this isn't always the case. All productivity systems require at least some measure of willpower. It's about finding the system that helps you maximize your willpower best.
Finally, creating an effective system is a lifetime's work. What's right for you today will change in the future as you move careers, as your personal circumstances change, and as you develop new skills.