My Seven Levels of Personal Productivity
Is there really one productivity system to rule them all? Millions of words have been written on the best ways to get things done, but that doesn’t mean there’s a right way. Productivity, after all, is dependent on the will of the individual. Just because David Allen says “do it my way”, it doesn’t mean everyone will experience the same results; you’ve got to make personal productivity tips work for you, after all.
I’m a productivity hack junkie. I’ll try just about anything to improve the way I get things done. From apps to ideas, sweeping lifestyle changes to tiny tweaks to my routine, I’ve wholeheartedly embraced “the next big things” in productivity every time they’ve appeared.
What have I learned? Being productive isn’t about finding the perfect app or system, it’s about finding your system, then finding the tools that fit.
The result? A personal productivity system that borrows my favourite elements from those books and merges them with lifestyle tweaks and hacks garnered from years of trawling time management blogs and articles.
Here’s what my system currently looks like:
Level One — Capture Everything
One of the greatest pieces of advice in Getting Things Done is the concept of ubiquitous capture. I’ve never been good at keeping things in my head. Capturing thoughts, tasks, projects and ideas as they happen frees my mind to focus on the job in hand; on getting things done.
Capturing everything in a trusted system (I use a Moleskine notebook in meetings and Evernote when I’m at a computer or have my phone to hand) means I know I’m not going to lose sight of an important task, great idea or interesting bit of info I’d like to follow up on later. I process my “inboxes” at least once a day to make sure everything finds its way into the right place in my digital organiser.
Level Two — Personal Mission & Roles
Prolific blogger and speaker Scott Hanselman has talked at length about the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Being productive isn’t just about ticking off your todos, it’s about making sure you’re doing the right things. The best way to do this is to define your personal mission and roles, then make sure your daily work drives you towards them.
I have a note starred in Evernote that outlines my personal mission, roles, values and priorities; I read through it every morning and try to make sure my daily tactics are always geared to help me deliver on my personal strategy for success.
Level Three — Goals
I’m a big fan of the 12-week-year. Setting annual goals is ineffective; what you need are shorter term goals that are genuinely achievable. I’m also a big fan of the “rule of three”; I’ll set three goals for the quarter (one professional, one personal and one to “sharpen the saw”), three for the month and three for the week.
I take the same approach to my goals as I do to my personal mission and roles; I have another saved note that I refer to first thing to ensure my plan for the day is always geared toward my goals. Also, when I’m formulating them (at the start of the quarter, the month, or the week) I make sure they’re tied into my longer-term priorities.
Level Four — Projects
Alongside my goals are also all the projects I’m currently working on. In the David Allen sense, these are things that I’ve got on my plate that will take more than one action to complete. I divide them into professional, personal and “sharpen the saw” in a similar way to my goals.
Projects, for me, are the groups of activities I need to complete to make sure I’m delivering on my goals and priorities. I set them up in Evernote and give each its own purpose, objectives and milestones that I track on a daily basis.
Level Five — Next Actions
Underpinning my projects and goals are the next actions I need to complete. This also includes everything that lands on my “capture” list that’s actionable. I use contexts, but I’m not precious about it; I’ll jump between contexts depending on where I am and what I’m planning to work on.
Instead of tagging my tasks based on location, I use contexts based on how I’m feeling at the time:
- Agendas— stuff I need to pick up with different people
- Braindead — when I’m feeling burnt-out and need something easy to work on
- Calls— any phonecalls I need to make
- Dashes— tasks that will take less than 30 minutes
- Downtime — tasks I can knock off my list when I’m waiting around; at the doctors, in a queue, on the bus etc
- Errands— any errands I need to run
- Focus— the “big ticket tasks” which need my undivided attention for a couple of hours or so
- Home — everything I need to do at home
- Office— everything I need to do in the office
- Planning— any pre-planning I need to do (for meetings, outlining projects and the like)
- Thinking— stuff I just need to do some thinking about before I commit to action
I'm sure these contexts will continue to evolve (I hardly use @Office anymore now that I can work completely remotely) but at the moment they're good enough to support my productivity, not work against it, which is all I really need.
Level Six — Prioritisation
Do it, Defer it, Delegate it, Drop it
Dwight D. Eisenhower knew how to get things done. From leading the largest amphibious landing in military history to becoming the President of the United States, he always delivered. One of the keys to his success was the Eisenhower Matrix. Made famous by Stephen Covey in Seven Habits, it’s a really simple system for prioritizing everything that comes into your life.
- If it’s urgent, and it’s important — do it now
- If it’s important, but it’s not urgent — defer it, but make sure you make time for it
- If it’s urgent, but it’s not important — get someone else to do it
- If it’s not urgent, and it’s not important — drop it; why bother wasting your time?
To remain at your most effective, Covey advises that you spent the majority of your time focusing on the important, but not urgent; this is where you’ll really take the biggest strides towards delivering on your goals.
Level Seven — Getting It Done
I’ve used to be an avid reader of Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog. I really love his approach to life and have taken much of his advice on board to improve mine. One of the most powerful, though, is the idea of defining your “most important tasks”. If, like me, you’ve got what feels like a million things on your plate, you’ll never get them all done at once.
The trick, it seems, is to prioritise your tasks on a daily basis and choose a handful that you’ll absolutely commit to getting done. The number isn’t important; Babauta and Scott Hanselman say three, which I agree with, but really it’s up to you. What is important, though, is to absolutely ensure that you get those done.
Distractions are a killer when it comes to being productive. All too often, we’ll find that the day gets in the way of getting things done. From phone calls to meeting requests, emails to social media notifications, from the minute we wake up we’re bombarded with “stuff” that threatens to derail all our well-made plans.
The solution? Block out time in your calendar for your MITs and get them done early. A firm believer in the 80/20 Rule, I book a 90-minute meeting with myself every morning to focus on my most important tasks. I turn off all distractions and spend that first 20% of the day delivering on my goals. If I do that, it’s gravy all the way till home time.
The Pomodoro Technique
To make the most of my 20%, I also wrap in the Pomodoro Technique. For those who don’t know it, the Pomodoro Technique is about focusing on one important task for 25 minutes then taking a five-minute break. I work through three pomodoros every morning and, by the time the buzzer rings on the third, I expect to have completed all my MITs.
I’ve got a limited attention span. As a child, I was diagnosed with attention issues and I’m easily distracted by the next new thing. By employing the Pomodoro Technique, I’m better able to focus on what I actually need to get done.
I’ve talked a lot about how mobile phones are the biggest productivity killers out there. From endless social media notifications, to the ability to trawl the internet for as long as our batteries will hold out, the little computers we all carry in our pockets haven’t made our lives easier; if anything they’ve made them more complicated.
In order to stay on target, you’ve got to minimise distractions. Turn off non-essential notifications, limit use of your smartphone or tablet and make sure you’re using them for getting things done. I’ve spent a lot of time setting up my phone so that it’s helping me be productive, not wasting my time.
The Email Question
Developed as a way of making communication easier, email has become the bane of many people’s lives. Before I took the time to address it, I felt like my job had become one of answering and deleting email. Really, though, it’s a distraction. Of all the emails that land in your inbox every day, how many are really important? So important that you need to reply to them as soon as they land?
There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there on how to deal with email in the most productive way. Do you religiously stay away from your email client until the afternoon? Or do you scan it for urgent messages as soon as you can, then process the rest ar a time that’s more convenient? To be honest, my approach changes depending on the work I’ve got on. Some days, I’ll have Gmail open on my desktop all day; on others, I’ll hardly look at it at all. While I feel it pays to be flexible about it, there are a few email rules I still try to live by:
- Filter out everything I’m CC’ed in; why waste time on messages that are “for information only?”
- Set up filters for my boss and important clients; that way I can make sure I don’t miss anything I urgently need to action
- Scan my inbox in the morning for anything I need to do something about immediately
- Make sure I get to “Inbox Zero” twice a day, once after lunch and once before I head home at the end of the day
- Turn off all email notifications; if someone wants to reach me urgently they can get me on the phone
Learning to Say No
One of the biggest productivity killers is having too much on your plate. Uber-successful investor Warren Buffett argues you should keep two lists; one of your “top five” goals and another of your next 20-or-so less important goals. He then says you should focus on the first list and avoid everything on the second list at all costs. Why? Getting rid of everything but your most important life goals radically improves your chances of achieving them.
Now, for those of us who aren’t our own bosses, it can be difficult to avoid work that isn’t on our most important list. That doesn’t mean we have to say “yes” to everything that comes your way, though. Learn to apply Eisenhower’s matrix to everything you do and learn to say “no” more often. If a task isn’t going to drive my own, my team’s or my company’s goals forward then I’ll eliminate it as quickly as I can.