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How to Keep Productivity Simple

This post is part of a series called Build Your Own Productivity System .
How to Create Your Own Productivity System
How to Maintain a Razor Sharp Focus

Have you ever met people who enjoy working behind the scenes? They're natural helpers and organizers. They're the ideal addition to any team. They love making big things happen, but they never take center stage. They let the results they create do all the talking.

Productivity System
Manage Your To Do List With a Simple Productivity System (Image source: Envato Elements)

Good productivity systems are "behind the scenes" characters. They help you do your work better and make big things happen. But they never become your work. If your productivity system is a prima donna, it's time you fired her and started over.

Let's look at it another way. Consider the philosophy tool known as Occam's Razor. William of Ockham was a 14th century philosopher who noticed that the best solution to a problem is usually the simplest. This is certainly the case when it comes to productivity.

In other words, a good productivity system should be as simple as possible. It should do everything you need it to do and no more. And it should never stand in the way of your work.

How do you become so naturally productive that it's as instinctive as breathing? First, you create a productivity system that fits best with your life circumstances and that's able to adapt to any changes that happen in your life. Second, you turn your productive behaviors into habits. That way, you do them without paying attention to them. They just happen, behind the scenes.

Let's take a look at how you can develop habits and simplify your productivity, step by step.

Step 1: Start with a Productivity System

Before you can simplify your productivity system, you'll need a system to work on.

You've got a couple of options for finding a base system.

You could take a ready-made system. We've covered plenty in this series, including the Pomodoro technique, Don't Break the Chain, and Getting Things Done.® We also have some simplified habit systems in the second half of this article that you might like to try. Alternatively, you could create and tweak your own system

Don't just choose any system and hope it works for you. Find or create a system that fits with your lifestyle as much as possible. There may be (and probably will be) some hiccups in the system, but by and large it should work for you.

Step 2: Put Your System on Auto-Pilot

Once you've found a system that works for you, it's time to move the system to the background of your life. You do this by making it automatic.

Stick with the system for a couple of months, using it as best you can every day. The daily part is key here. This will make following your productivity system a habitual part of your life. Habit researcher professor Jane Ward says:

If you do something everyday in the same situation, it will become an automatic reaction in response to those situational cues, a habit.

Ward's research shows it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit if you practice that habit on a daily basis.

Once your productivity system becomes a habit, you'll follow it instinctively, almost without thinking.

As well as helping you develop a productivity habit, sticking with your system for two months will give you a good idea of what's working in your system and what could be improved.

Finally, remember that a simple approach to productivity means keeping your learning process as simple as possible. If your system involves integrating several new behaviors into your life, consider turning these behaviors into habits one at a time. That way, you can build habits one upon the other. Because you're adding them in small doses, you're more likely to stick with them. It takes longer, but it's more effective.

Step 3: Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

You've created this productivity system because it's right for you. You've put it on autopilot so you work it without too much thought.

But as you've worked the system, you've probably noticed things that could be improved. These are most likely aspects of your system that still take concentration and focus. As much as you'd like them to be automatic, they don't quite work for you. They're a clunk in your productivity engine.

Perhaps you forget about them half the time. Or maybe you've found it's easier to leave them out of your day. It's time to apply Occam's Razor to your system and start pruning what's not working.

As you do this, it's helpful to follow the Japanese philosophy of kaizen. Kaizen is Japanese for "improvement" or "change for the best." When you follow the philosophy of kaizen, you make small, incremental changes. Over time, these small changes stack up, which is one way you find you've made a big change without realizing how far you've come.

To start the process of simplifying, take the one aspect of your system that's causing you the most bother. Ask yourself:

  • Could I dump this completely? You may not know the answer to this until you run a trial of dropping it from your system. If you find that you can live without it or even that dropping it improves your productivity, then you can leave it dropped. Otherwise, continue with the next question.
  • What's the aim of this behavior? Could I achieve the aim in a simpler way? Have an idea storm of different techniques you could use to achieve the same aim. For example, the Pomodoro Technique focuses your attention by making you work to a timer. While the timer is ticking, you give your full attention to your work. Internet-blocking software, on the other hand, forces you to focus by removing distractions. If working to a timer stresses you out, could you improve your focus by removing distractions instead?
  • What's Causing the Problem? Knowing the cause of the problem can help you make subtle improvements. Do you always forget your capture notebook when leaving the house? If so, could you simplify things by having a notebook that's permanently in your jacket pocket?
  • Could I combine this with another behavior? For example, let's say you use GTD to capture tasks and create to-do lists. Then you use the Pomodoro Technique to work through your to-do lists, which means re-creating your lists Pomodoro-style. Could you tweak your to-do list creation system, so you create Pomodoro-ready to-do lists the first time around?

As you practice this over various iterations, you'll come up with a super-simple system that fits like a glove.

Are you wondering what the system you develop might look like? Let's take a look at some examples.

Simple Productivity Systems

Simplicity is a beautiful thing. As you boil down your productivity system to its essence, you'll come up with something that's completely unique. It's just right for youbut it would also be really helpful for other people to see how you do things.

Here are three examples of simplified productivity systems. Let them inspire you as you create your own system. You could even use one of them as the basis for your own system.

Zen to Done

One of the best-known simplified productivity systems is Leo Babauta's Zen to Done (ZTD). Babauta created ZTD by tweaking the Getting Things Done (GTD®) system to fit his life.

ZTD tackled the specific problems Babauta had with GTD. These were:

  • GTD helped him with task planning but not with focusing on tasks while completed them.
  • GTD didn't help him decide what to do next at any given moment.
  • Because GTD captured everything in his life, he ended up feeling overwhelmed.
  • GTD led him to focus on urgent tasks rather than important goals (for more on this, check out the Eisenhower Matrix).

ZTD is similar to GTD. Three aspects of ZTD we haven't covered in this productivity series include:

  • Having a place for everything in your office and home, so you keep your desk clear. An empty desk means a Zen mind.
  • Pruning back projects as far as possible, so you do the minimum you can to achieve your goals.
  • Using only one tool for capturing your tasks. Babauta recommends pen and paper:

Either use a simple notebook or index cards for your lists, or use the simplest list program possible. You don’t need a planner or a PDA or Outlook.

You can read a full overview of the ZTD system.

Personal Kanban

Kanbans were developed by the Japanese car manufacturer Toyota as a visual tool for showing what work was being done and what still needed doing. (Incidentally, Toyota was also at least partly responsible for popularizing the concept of kaizen.)

As such, the Personal Kanban system involves creating a visual tool, so you can see your work in progress. At heart, the system has only two rules:

  1. Visualize your work.
  2. Limit your work in progress.

By visualizing your work, you maintain focus on what needs doing and what you're working on. You also see what you've achieved, which helps you maintain a positive mindset.

You can create your Personal Kanban in any way you likeincluding drawing pictures. That said, a Personal Kanban typically means writing each of your tasks (Works in Progress/WIPs) on a post-it note. Your post-it notes are then organized into three columns:

  1. Backlog
  2. Doing
  3. Done

That's it! Of course you can change the columns to fit your needs or amend the system in any way you want.

You can read more about Personal Kanban, including ideas for developing it into your own system.

Big Rocks (or 1-3-5)

Fill a bucket with sand, and you'll find there's no room for anything elsecertainly not any big rocks. Fill a bucket with big rocks, and there's still plenty of space for sand.

Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People popularized the idea of big rocks in productivity. Covey writes:

What are the big rocks in your life? A project that you want to accomplish? Time with your loved ones? Your faith, your education, your finances? A cause? Teaching or mentoring others? Remember to put these Big Rocks in first or you’ll never get them in at all.

The concept was further developed by Leo Babauta (of ZTD fame). He recommends having one "big rock" task per day and focusing on that task before you do anything else. Then you can move on to the pebble and sand tasks.

This approach recently resurfaced as the 1-3-5 rule. The founder of The Daily Muse, Alex Cavoulacos, explains how this works:

On any given day, assume that you can only accomplish one big thing, three medium things, and five small things. Before leaving work, take a few minutes to define your 1-3-5 for the next day, so you’re ready to hit the ground running in the morning. If your position is one where each day brings lots of unexpected tasks, try leaving one medium and two small tasks blank, in preparation for the last-minute requests from your boss.

By limiting your to-do list in this way, you improve your chances of getting through it. After that, success builds upon success.

Now that you have some ideas for what a simplified productivity system could look like, have fun developing your own!


Graphic Credit: Lotus Flower designed  by Carlos Andujar from the Noun Project.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in April of 2014. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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