What does a good productivity system look like?

I know you want to find the right tool to get your job done. That one magical thing that fits your mode of working and suddenly you’re getting all your tasks done all the time.

In this quest we all end up searching around trying whatever new thing shines the brightest. Each of these options feels great at first. We are on the ball but then…

The latest greatest productivity system

The problem with abandoning your old system and changing to some new system is that you haven’t actually fixed the issue with the old system.

The issue was you.

Yes the new system looks nice and streamlined, but that may be an artificial perception. The new system isn’t burdened with 50,000 things in it because you decided to wipe the slate clean and start again. This perception of a clean slate just means you were unwilling to make the same decision when working with the old tool. You felt some sort of social guilt looking at things you said you’d do and never got around to and this new shiny system somehow absolved you of that guilt.

What’s the difference in simply resolving everything in the old system? You’d still have a clean slate and I hear you saying that your new tool has some amazing feature you need.

The truth is, 99.9% of the time you’re simply fooling yourself. You didn’t need that feature no matter what you tell yourself.

Now is the time to stop changing tools. Stick with what you have but get smarter about how you use it. Start making those hard decisions in your weekly review to cut things that you are never going to do. I had a friend ask about a guest post and I said yes, months ago. I emailed them today to say I obviously wasn’t getting to it so I’m sorry but don’t expect anything.

Was it a bit odd to write the email? Sure it was, but the response I got back was:

Oh yeah I forgot about that. I’ve changed focus anyway and I’m not taking content like you write anymore. Don’t sweat it.

I’ve been dealing with guilt for weeks each time I did my weekly review and it turns out it didn’t matter to my friend at all. Even if it did and it ruined our friendship, it obviously wasn’t a great friendship if a blog post wrecked it.

I’m not saying that you should never switch systems, just that most people most of the time don’t switch for the right reasons. If you do switch systems, be sure you think it through and make a change for legitimate reasons. Here are the things that I look for in a personal task manager.

My priorities in a system

First up my system needs to allow me to make entries from anywhere. Now that doesn’t mean the specific application needs to offer me every feature, everywhere. I’m conscious of the fact that I don’t take my phone to the couch when I’m reading. It’s simply too big a distraction so I take a paper notebook instead and later copy handwritten notes into my task manager.

You always need to write things down and close those open loops — or in psychology terms, defeat the Zeigarnik effect. If you’ve got some thing rattling around in your head that you should remember then you’re slowing your brain down and being less productive all around.

Second, you need to have as many inboxes as you need but no more. I have two real inboxes and a third for some things. My first inbox is my task manager software OmniFocus. My second real inbox is my paper notebook, though nothing in there is ever time critical so I only process it every couple weeks.

My third ‘sort of’ inbox is Evernote. Here is where all my receipts and client files end up and I process through that every day throughout the day as I add things.

My third and final big thing is that a good task manager needs to make review easy. I’m partial to how OmniFocus does it. Specifically I love that I can set a project to only get review every six weeks (or whatever interval) and then I don’t get it in the review at all. That simple fact reduces my cognitive load.

There are a few things I’m taking for granted as well here. First you should be able to trust your system. If you put data in and can’t find it then the system can’t be trusted and you won’t use it. Second it’s easy to tell what’s due on a given day. A task system that doesn’t have these last two things wouldn’t even make it in the running. Like a car that had no tires wouldn’t be a purchase off a new lot.

What are your top requirements for a personal task system?

photo credit: clement127 cc

2 thoughts on “What does a good productivity system look like?

  1. I’d like to reply to the first half of your post regarding new systems and the like.

    There are millions (or tens of millions) of teams across the world, working in different environments and solving different problems. In addition to that, a certain individual or a team involves – takes on new challenges, larger projects, tackling different types of activities (say, marketing, promotions, server management to name a few), which sometimes means that existing systems may no longer be a great fit for a given environment.

    For example, when I used to do remote development for a US company in EU hours, using Pomodoro was a great way to allocate and block time entirely for 25 minutes, several times a day, regardless of whatever else was happening, simply because I was working solo and there was no one else awake during my productive hours. Nowadays my team of 20+ is around during EU hours and communication is number one priority, different urgent notifications pop up at all times (server malfunctioning, a demo required in the middle of a meeting etc) which requires immediate action and interruptions a few times on a daily basis.

    On top of that psychology research evolves, and successful entrepreneurs also find new and innovative ways to hack time and productivity – keeping old tools in new times is no longer as practical as it used to be, especially given new gadgets and tools that could drastically save your time.

    Admittedly, often people find excuses and try to switch to something else simply because they can’t control their own distraction and urges, but often there are other systems aligned to different mindsets. Think of Trello – boards are not for everyone, which is why some people are excited and productive using them while others aren’t. That’s why we have the waterfall model for some teams and organizations, and agile for others, which branches into Scrum, XP, Kanban that are a good fit for different teams (and not globally for each and every team out there).

    Not experimenting and trying out new tools and systems may be apocalyptic to some, especially in a growing and every expanding business and technological era that we happen to live in.

    1. I agreed that there are reasons to try new tools. Most people I talk to about changing tools don’t have any good reasons though outside of the tool being ‘new’. The first thing to fix in most scenarios is yourself, then see if the tools really are a problem.

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