I’m a productive person. I’m organized, and I get more stuff done than the average joe. The biggest compliment someone can ever pay me is, “do you ever sleep?” In fact, I sleep a solid 7.5 hours a night on average.
But I wasn’t always this way. In fact, upon entering law school, and then even moreso upon exiting law school, I struggled mightily with stress and anxiety that stemmed from having too much to do, and not nearly enough time to do it in. I searched high and low for ways to do things more efficiently, and eventually started spending hours and hours reading up on “life hacks.”
Over the course of more than a decade I’ve developed a personal productivity system that has helped me get more done than I have ever done before, and more importantly, has helped me deal with the stress and anxiety that was once crippling to me.
Now, I’m going to share that productivity system with you. Every last detail of it. But you know what?
It won’t help you.
Neither will any single productivity system you can read about. Don’t believe me? Read on. Try it out. I bet you anything that you won’t be able to be nearly as productive as me using this system.
There are a number of productivity systems out there that promise to make you more efficient, happier, richer, and better looking. The bibles of these systems are The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Getting Things Done, The Pomodoro Technique, and while not technically a productivity system, I’m going to throw The 4-Hour Workweek into this list as well, because it was my introduction to the world of productivity.
I have read each of these books, some more than once, and I would recommend them all. There have been hundreds of books written on this topic, if not thousands, but those are the most well-known and the best. They are better written than most. They’re structured. They’re logical. And the techniques contained within them have worked for a lot of people.
However, if being productive were as simple as reading a single book, you wouldn’t have an entire industry that’s popped up around it.
The problem with productivity systems is that they usually work for a while, but after some time, if these systems don’t align with what works for the individual, for you, you get tired of applying them, and they ultimately fail.
The Details of a Productivity System
The other reason that productivity systems contained in these types of books generally fail is because they’re too detailed and complex. I don’t blame any of these authors for this.
When you coach someone at something, you tailor your coaching to the individual. You start by explaining the broad concept, demonstrating, then adapting your approach as you see whether or not the student is getting it. We all do this on a daily basis, whether we know it or not. Every time you explain something to someone, this is what you’re doing.
However, if you take that same explanation and you now need to write it down so that anyone can understand it, you now need to go into excruciating detail.
Don’t believe me? Try this experiment. Pick a single friend/co-worker/family member/whoever, and explain to them how to do a simple task. It could be frying an egg, shooting a basket, preparing a TPS report or changing a diaper. The task doesn’t matter. For most people, this will be relatively straightforward, and you should be able to explain how to do this in a few minutes.
Now, take that same task and write it down. But, not just so that your friend can do it, but so that ANYONE can do it, including people who have never used a stove before, touched a basketball or seen a three letter acronym. Go ahead, try it out, just for fun.
Writing something for the masses means that you need to answer all the questions that could be asked by anyone right there in the instructions, so even if one reader is more advanced than other, you’re always writing for the lowest common denominator.
This is the same thing that happens in productivity books. Because they need to answer everyone’s possible questions, they get into nitty gritty details that make every system incredibly complex. As an exercise, you can try to summarize David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. It probably sounds something like this:
- Anything that takes less than two minutes to do should get done right away
- Capture everything else that needs to be done outside of your head – like on a piece of paper
- On a daily basis, take everything you captured and put it into a to-do list with priorities and context (when and where)
- On a weekly basis review what you accomplished, and what you need to accomplish
- Adjust your approach based on what you learn in your weekly review
That’s about it. That’s pretty much the entire productivity method, and yet David Allen wrote a nearly-300-page book, and has a thriving coaching business. How is that possible? Because answering every single question associated to those previous bullet points takes a lot more time than writing them down.
For this reason, because these productivity methods are over-written, they get into details that make the system less flexible, and as a result, they become systems that are less adapted to individual profiles. The end result is that finding a single system that works for an individual is nearly impossible.
The only way around this is to use multiple systems and pick and choose what works. That is why my personal productivity system is a combination of GTD and the Pomodoro technique with plenty of things added and subtracted from both.
Once you figure out a system that works for you, the next step is to figure out what tools you can use to facilitate your system. Tools are the real place where you can spiral down the rabbit hole of productivity porn.
Over the years, I’ve used the following tools as part of my productivity system:
- pen and paper
- index cards
- white boards
- cork boards
- egg timer
* excel files
- the action method
- google docs
- google calendar and tasks
- the pomodoro app (discontinued?)
- ms outlook
- notational velocity
And those are only the ones that I could think of in about ten to fifteen minutes. There are probably a ton of other tools that I’ve tried and discarded over the years. Each one had a use that was different. Some lasted for a long time (I’ve been using Evernote since it launched), and others I used for a week (I really wanted to like Asana and Azendoo, but they were too powerful for my needs).
I used to believe that if only I could find the right set of tools, I’d be infinitely more productive. Take about one second to think that and you realize how absurd it is. Da Vinci didn’t have Photoshop and a drawing tablet. Hemingway didn’t have Scrivener. Winston Churchill didn’t have MS Outlook. Giving a man a hammer and a saw does not make him a carpenter. Similarly, giving him a smartphone and a laptop does not make him a more productive person.
My System (It Won’t Work for You)
So, to prove a point, I’m going to lay out, in excruciating detail my productivity system that I use to be a reasonably successful, moderately productive, generally happy person. Here is the system that you could essentially use as a checklist.
Take time to figure out where I’m going
At least once a year, but often even moreso, I checkin with myself to see what my goals in life are, what’s important to me, and to see if what I’m doing on a daily basis is aligned with that. I did this exercise for the first time after graduating university and having no idea what my direction in life was. Since then, it’s been an important part of how I stay focused and productive.
This gives me the broad context on whether or not I’m on the right track in my life, as well as figuring out if my day-to-day jives with what I should be doing. Often, I’ll write this down in a journal entry, but sometimes, I’ll just reflect on it.
Once, after reading an interview with 50 Cent in GQ, I even created a vision board on Pinterest. I know that sounds like the weirdest sentence ever, but the article was extremely well-written, and the vision board was a fun exercise!
Create goals for the year
Every year, around Christmas, I take a few hours to set my goals for the years. This is sort of like a New Year’s resolution, but with the difference being that I set multiple goals, and I treat them as if they were professional objectives – that is to say I make them SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Timely). The idea behind these annual goals is that they should align with my broader value system. If I’ve got goals that aren’t going to make me happier, or that don’t bring me closer to my core values, I’m not setting the right goals.
To give you an idea of how different annual goals are from New Year’s resolutions, most people set one New Year’s Resolution and have abandoned it before the end of January. For the last three years, I’ve set between 6 and 10 goals per year, and accomplished over 90% of them. It’s not because I’m super human, it’s because of what comes next.
Break down my goals by quarter
Once I have my goals for the year, I break them down into quarterly milestones. These quarterly milestones do two things. First, they allow me to break my larger goals into more manageable pieces so that they don’t seem unattainable. Second, milestones are my quarterly checkpoints to see if I’m on track with my annual goals. Those annual goals being aligned with my core values.
Break milestones into the tasks necessary to accomplish each
Next is where the rubber starts to hit the road. For each milestone, I break down that milestone into tasks that I need to do to hit that milestone. A task is something that has to be concrete enough that I know exactly what needs to be done, and I can estimate how long it will take. For instance, a goal can be, “Write book on cheese.” A milestone would be, “Research complete,” or “First draft complete.“ A task would be, “Make initial list of 25 pieces of reference material,” or “Write 1,000 words.”
Divide those tasks into months
Now that I’ve got a list of tasks for the quarter, I divvy those tasks up into the three months.
Schedule tasks for each month at the beginning of the month
With your list of tasks for the month defined, take a few minutes at the beginning of each month to schedule those tasks. Some may be daily tasks, some may be weekly, some may be one-time tasks. Either way, every task you have to do that for that month should have a due date.
Review successes and failures at the beginning of every month
At the same time as you’re setting your tasks for the upcoming month, take a moment to review your tasks for the previous month. Evaluate what you accomplished, take a moment to congratulate yourself, and push anything that you didn’t accomplish into the next month.
Create a set weekly schedule that applies to every week
Your basic schedule for the week involves all of the recurring tasks that need to get accomplished in that week. In my world, my weekly schedule involves house chores, writing, exercise, financial checkins, a weekly review and daily rituals.
Once a week, set your weekly schedule with regular tasks and goal oriented tasks
At the beginning of each week, I will look at what I have planned for that week with recurring tasks as well as tasks that are tied to my goals and see if it makes sense. At this point, I may move some things are if certain days look particularly heavy, or if there are other life events that conflict (like having a social life for instance, which you’ll notice I do not schedule)
As new tasks come in, send them to an inbox
On a daily basis new things you need to do will come to your attention. Just like in the GTD methodology, I believe it’s important to capture these outside of my own head. These tasks go to inboxes, a spot that’s easy to capture so that you don’t need to stop whatever you’re doing to see when you can fit that in. The important thing is to know what your inboxes are so that you know where to look when scheduling new tasks. In my case, I have both physical and electronic inboxes to capture tasks depending on where they’re coming from.
At the end of everyday, clear all your inboxes and create tasks with due dates
This is where you take all those tasks in your inbox(es) and add them to your task list with a due date. This can be done at the beginning or the end of the day, but I prefer to do it at the end of the day, so that I can go to sleep knowing that nothing is pending.
At the end of everyday, create your task list for the next day
If you’ve already scheduled all your tasks, then the process of setting your task list should be relatively straightforward, because you’ll know what needs to get done the next day. However, the more important part will be, the next step.
Prioritize your tasks by importance of achieving your goals
This is a step that a lot of fans of lists skip. The idea is that if i can get everything done, what difference does it make if I put everything in order? I think this is important for two reasons. First, I don’t think anyone gets everything done always. Life just doesn’t work that way, so this way you make sure you get the most important stuff done first. Second, once your most important tasks are done, the rest of your day is easy, because you can at the very least feel that you’ve accomplished something, and you don’t need to really stress out about the rest of your to-do list. As for determining which tasks are the most important? In my mind, that’s easy. The tasks that advance your goals are the most important ones…
Work at completing your tasks in 25 minute intervals with a timer
This is another blatant theft from an existing productivity system: the Pomodoro technique. I’ve experimented with different lengths of work sprints, but twenty-five minutes seems to be the sweet spot for me. it’s long enough that I can accomplish a fair amount, but not so long that my ADD kicks in and I lose focus completely. The other side effect of working in 25 minute sprints with a timer is that the moment that timer begins, you can no longer procrastinate. So, for a chronic procrastinator like myself, the only action I need to force myself to take is to turn on that timer, and the rest flows.
Whatever you can’t finish, push to the next day
This will happen…
Repeat daily until you accomplish your goals
Do not skip.
Enjoy the ride
The most important part.
The Tools I Use Today (It’s Not About the Tools)
- architect’s wallet
- mailbox / outlook
Global goal tracking:
- MS excel
The Principles (These Will Work for Everyone):
So, the above is all the stuff that I do that’s specific to me that if you try to adopt a wholesale, might help you in the short term, but that you will never be able to keep up with. Because it’s meant for me. Actually writing down my productivity system was the first time I realized how heavy it is, and yet, I don’t even think about it. It comes naturally to me, because that’s what works for me. This system may not work for you.
However, these general principles will work for everyone, and they are principles that every productivity system applies.
Clear your mind
The reason I became a productivity junkie wasn’t because I wanted to accomplish more. Rather, it was that when I had a lot to do, I got stressed. For me, stress occurred when there were a lot of things that needed to get done that were floating around in my head, and I felt like I would just jump from one to the other, feeling overwhelmed and as a result, I was never able to properly cope with anything.
This is why the first time I heard about David Allen’s imperative to get everything out of your head, it was a revelation. It allowed me to stop living in my own head. Once everything is outside of your head, it can still look daunting (especially when your to-do list starts to look more like an airline flight manual), but at least it’s finite and it’s concrete. In your head, you go around in circles, but once everything you need to get done lives outside your head, you can start to see yourself making progress.
It doesn’t matter if you do this on a pad of paper, in one of a dozen applications, or if you write it on your hand. The important thing here is to clear your mind.
Focus on one thing at a time
Once your mind is clear and you have a good understanding of what you need to do, the next important principle to keep in mind is that you can only do one thing at a time. By now, the notion of multi-tasking has been thouroughly debunked, and now pretty much everyone is a proponent of “monotasking” or “unitasking” or whatever we’re calling it this week. However, it still remains important to understand that in order to move forward, you really do need to focus on a single thing for a specific period of time.
The pomodoro technique suggests using 25 minute increments, followed by 5 minute breaks, and then swapping in a 15 minute break after four rounds of that. Personally, that’s too intense for me. However, I do use a 25 minute timer for every single task I need to focus on. When I write, I do it in 25 minute sprints. When I’m creating a presentation, I do it in 25 minute sprints. When I’m brainstorming, I do it in 25 minute sprints. I even sometimes do chores in 25 minute sprints. However, I’ve never completed 4 sprints of 25 minutes consecutively. I’ve never needed to.
The period of time doesn’t matter, as long as you can set aside a chunk of time to focus on one thing. That is the only way you will make progress on your list.
Find a way to create habits
I used to be the worst procrastinator the world has ever seen. In school, I wouldn’t just wait until the night before to start cramming, I would actually start the morning of. I was incapable of achieving anything without a hard deadline. There’s only one thing that I’ve found that has been able to break me of my procrastination, and that is the creation of habits.
The old procrastinating me would never be able to write a minimum of 1,000 words per day. However, older, wiser Adam has learned that if he sits down to write first thing in the morning, with a cup of coffee, before checking email, and before even having breakfast, he will almost always have achieved something in his day.
But you don’t need to be a morning person. A lot of people will try to tell you when the best time to do things is. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’ve created habits that allow you to move things along. I’ve also created other habits: Daily mediation, a weekly planning session to set my agenda for the week, as well as a monthly review to make sure I’m on track with my broader goals.
It doesn’t matter what your schedule is, where you do it, what tools you use to do it, as long as you create habits that work for you.
Set yourself up for success
A key to productivity is being ready to get down to it as soon as the time comes. I’m a big believer in advanced preparation. Every morning (or as often as I can), I start my day with my to-do list already on my desk. My desk is set-up to be the most comfortable writing and working space I can make it.
When I run, I make sure that the day before i’ve set my running gear up right by the door, so that the moment I’m ready to go for a run, I don’t waste any time searching for the right socks or whatever.
What your rituals are, and how you prepare them, is going to vary depending on what you need to get done, but the point is to make sure that you’ve set your physical and mental space up for success. I once talked to an aspiring artist who was having a hard time committing the time necessary to do what needed to get done for his art. When I asked him where he did his work, his answer was, “Oh you know, here and there. I set up wherever I can.”
No, I don’t know! It seems to me that if every time I needed to get to work painting I had to take the time to figure out where I was going to set up, then actually set my easel, paints, brushes and other equipment up, the task would be too daunting to ever begin!
Don’t beat yourself up over failure
I’ve always had a hard time applying this principle, but as I gain experience in life, I realize that no one is successful 100% of the time. When we hear about the greats, we only hear about the positives, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find failures. Don’t believe me? Read any well written biography of a great man or woman from Jobs to Churchill and you’ll find that these mythical figures are far less perfect than we have made them out to be.
On a smaller scale, sticking to a productivity system, or not completing your to-do list for the day is very similar. It happens. It will happen. So prepare for it. Create contingency plans. Expect failure and know what to do when it occurs. As productive as I am, the number of times I’ve curled up on the couch and done a Netflix marathon is embarrassing to admit (even more embarrassing would be what I’m marathoning, but I digress).
Bottom line: Failure happens. Expect it. Learn from it. Bounce back better for it.
Remember the big picture
The biggest trap of any productive person is getting things done for the sake of getting things done. Crossing something off of a to-do list might be gratifying, but if you’re not tying that back to a broader goal, or better yet, a value that’s important to you, then you will eventually hit a wall and wonder why you’re doing it all. Without a purpose, this will happen. And you know what, even with a purpose, it will happen, but that’s why taking that time to reflect on why you’re doing it all is so important. It helps in those moments of crushing self-doubt to be able to take a step back and ask, “why am I doing this again?” Oh yeah, because X is important to me, and this will help me accomplish Y, which will further X.
Remembering the bigger picture is also a great way to remember not to beat yourself up over failure. When you get out of your own head and recall that you’re a small piece of a much larger world, suddenly your to-do list seems much less significant. The goal of this isn’t to depress you, but rather to relieve some pressure from you. If you don’t sweep the floors today, will the world stop turning? Will someone die?
The Goal of Productivity
At the end of it all, this comes down to the ultimate goal of productivity. The reason why you’ve made it this far in this absurdly long article.
It’s not about getting more done. Doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff is worse than useless, it’s counter-productive. It’s not even about getting more important stuff done, because you know what, if it’s really that important, it’s going to get done one way or another. It might be painful, and it might not be as good as it could be, but anything that’s truly important will get done one way or another.
The goal of productivity is to be happier and be less stressed.
Did you ever think that maybe, every single time you were looking for ways to be more productive, more efficient, etc, all you were really looking for were ways to improve the quality of your life? You, just like me, have been looking for ways to increase your happiness, and decrease the negative emotions in your life, like stress. Keep that ultimate goal in mind as you bounce through this journey of finding the ways to be more productive, and suddenly, all of these different systems and tools become a lot easier to asses.
“Is using this new productivity app going to make me productive?” is a difficult question to answer.
“Is using this new productivity app going to contribute to my happiness?” is a far easier question to answer.
So, there you have it, my entire system that works pretty well for me, but probably won’t work at all for you. But maybe, just maybe, there was something buried in there that can help you live a happier, less stressful life. If there was, then I’d say the last few minutes of your day reading this have been a pretty productive use of your time.
Image courtesy of Rob and Stephanie Levy.