I friend surprised me recently. She was interested to hear about my personal productivity system. I almost didn’t know where to start – and moreover, I didn’t understand why she wanted to hear from me of all people. Aren’t there enough productivity gurus out there?
It seems we’re always looking for answers on productivity and it’s a deeply personal thing. Some productivity systems, methods, and frameworks would fit you more than others. And this is precisely why I thought sharing some thoughts on the topic might be interesting – I hope it’s valuable to you!
Productivity systems I use
Originally, I thought I’d simply share with you the tools I use. But in the course of writing, it one thing became clear. Even the best tools will do you little good if you’re not familiar with some productivity basics. This is why I ditched the tool stack for a completely separate post and here I’ll focus on the underlying principles that make my process work.Even the best tools will do you little good if you’re not familiar with some productivity basics.Click To Tweet
My personal productivity philosophy looks like a quilted blanket. There are countless productivity models, books, and frameworks out there. I’ve tried quite a few of them over the years and some parts stuck with me more than others. What I use now is a sort of an amalgamation of a few of them.
Capture everything in a trusted system
Let’s start with productivity father David Allen. His Getting Things Done method wasn’t quite the right fit, but there is one key thing I learned from him:
Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.
Whenever there’s a tiny task that I need to finish off, it will stay with me over the whole day, not letting me focus on the task at hand. This is why it needs to go out of my brain and onto paper. And how do you that? Have a trusted system.
A trusted system can be anything – a paper journal, a filing cabinet (hey, I’m not judging!), a project management app, a Kanban board. The main goal is to have something that can bring all your tasks together.
Safe for the sheer utility benefit, a trusted system will do something else, as well. It will reduce anxiety. If you can trust your system, there’s no more (well, a lot less) waking up with a start and remembering you forgot to answer an important email or call your doctor for an appointment.
For my trusted system, I use three tools:
- Todoist for tasks, big or small;
- Calendar for scheduling events and managing my week;
- Evernote for capturing non-actionable things I want to keep.
The most important task
If your day is anything like mine, there are countless tasks waiting for you at any moment. With the right prioritization skills you will know what to focus on, but you may still feel no satisfaction. After all, that long list is a reminder about everything you’re leaving on the table, unfinished.
I fight my inner critic by setting a Most Important Task (MIT) that I need to get done that day. It’s a conscious decision taken while planning my day. Whatever else happens, whatever new tasks arise, if I’ve done my MIT, I’ve succeeded. On the flip side, not doing my MIT calls for some analysis on why that happened. In either case, you don’t lie to yourself that you’ve been productive while having the wrong priorities. You also won’t automatically go for the easiest tasks.
Can you manage more than one MIT per day? Early 20th century consultant Ivy Lee seemed to think so. But I wouldn’t go there – or at least, I’d clearly set one top thing and one “bonus MIT” that I feel no obligation to complete during the day. The goal is to not feel overwhelmed and having six priorities in a day seems like a recipe for disaster.
To finish off that MIT, you need dedicated time. Clear, uninterrupted time to focus and create. If whenever you sit down to focus on that task, you get messaged on Slack, interrupted by a call or involved into a friendly discussion about the best German dog breed by the colleagues you share a desk with in your open office, you need to set Maker time.
Maker time was first introduced by Paul Graham and then became very popular through a letter by a Google employee. It basically means “uninterrupted time to create”. It doesn’t matter when you schedule your Maker time, as long as you actually do.
For me, it’s time marked off in my calendar and strengthened by going into another part of the office, working from a coffee place or just using my headphones as a shield against interruption. Close off Slack, don’t check email. And if someone comes and stands next to your desk like a statue of requests upcoming, hear them out, take note and politely explain you’ll get back to them at a later point during the day. Usually it’s not more complicated than that. If it is, you should talk to your manager about putting some asynchronous communication rules in your company. Take some inspiration from Automattic, the creators of WordPress.
Manage both time and energy
Most of the frameworks we talk about have to do with managing time. Yet, we think about managing energy much more rarely – if at all.
Maybe you’ve come across the early bird vs. night owl dichotomy, but managing energy goes way beyond that. It’s the careful observation of your efficiency peaks and troughs and planning your day around them. I leave low energy dynamic (short and diverse) tasks like replying to emails, sorting documents or helping teammates for the time after lunch. I can’t really focus on a big chunk of work then, anyway – so I use my energy accordingly. Since I’m a morning person, I’d do bigger tasks right at the start of the day when my concentration capacity is high.
Finally, managing energy is also about being kind to yourself. There’s nothing more detrimental to motivation and stress levels than trying to power through a task when you’re just not feeling focused. That doesn’t mean I’m giving you a card blanche to procrastinate on the important stuff! But sometimes it’s better to finish off your day early, go for a walk and recharge, then come back the next morning ready to rumble.
Add tasks mindfully
There was this tool called Teamweek we used to manage the projects our content writers were working on. You set the time a task will take and you stack up tasks according to a person’s daily schedule. Every time you added a new task that has to be done now, all the others get pushed back.
I haven’t used Teamweek for a long time, but that concept stuck with me. When you add a task to your list, do you keep in mind the rest will get pushed back?
Acknowledging this fact can do a lot. First, it will help you manage the expectations of anyone waiting for your deliverables. If your team lead comes and says “I need this done today,” rise to the challenge but clearly state what will get pushed back. Second, it will help you manage your own expectations towards yourself.
Put it in your calendar
In the list of tools I mention further in the file, you will see my calendar holding a prominent place. It is not only a place to get reminded for meetings and appointments. It’s also a place that helps me structure my day. In short:
All the important things should go in your calendar – including dedicated time to work on most important tasks, planning before a big meetings, and follow ups after.
All the things you know you should do, but don’t find time for, should go in your calendar. This may include just blocking time to do your weekly running, spend time with your significant other and so on. I have a couple of weekly check-ins with myself like time set aside to write blog posts and go through the latest marketing articles I may have missed. Having that in my calendar keeps me accountable and reminds me about the priorities I have set.
There are a bunch of ways to use your calendar for time management and the best ones are explained in this post by Noah Kagan.
Your productivity method: Mix and match accordingly
I don’t want this to sound like a laundry list of frameworks I’m just throwing at you. They truly are the things I use most often to organize my time. You can test them out and you should also test the myriad of other frameworks I’m not actively using. The answer to the personal productivity equation is different for everyone.
In next week’s post, I’ll share how these ideas are applied into a robust set of tools. Stay tuned for my productivity stack! 🙂