There are dozens of productivity systems out there. Obviously there is not ONE best way but rather different methods that are helpful in different situations. Some people will have better results with certain techniques whereas the same technique might not prove beneficial for somebody else. Over the last few years I tried all kinds of things: committing to one big, important thing a day and blocking 3-4 hours out, working in parallel, using different organizing tools, using the Pomodoro Technique, working until I reached a certain amount of hours or a certain amount of words, tracking hours, working when I felt like it, working in libraries, in my bed or outside, working alone or together.

I literally went through all kinds of techniques and possible working scenarios. Step by step I am moving closer to a handful of techniques that work best for me. Today I will share one of the systems that proved to be tremendously effective. It is a combination of the Eisenhower System and the idea to consider your cognitive resources.

Probably one of the most famous and widely used productivity techniques and management ways is to distinguish between important and urgent, important and non-urgent, non-important but urgent and neither important nor urgent. This system was thought to be used by Eisenhower and therefore called the Eisenhower System.

The downside of this technique is, that you will sometimes get stuck with work that doesn’t require a lot of cognitive energy during your cognitive prime simply because it is urgent and important. And then at the end of the day you might get time to do something important which requires a high cognitive focus, but you depleted your cognitive energy before. Therefore I sort my work in three different categories before I apply the important/urgent classification. The three categories are:

High Cognitive Strain

In this category are things like writing, active learning, preparing for talks or designing a workshop. Usually you need a lot of cognitive resources to go about these tasks. Working on these things while not being in your cognitive prime is not smart. You make considerably more mistakes, are less creative and more prone to inefficiency. Therefore these things should be done when you are fully alert and awake.

For different people this is a different time of the day. As you can read in Mason Currey’s, Daily Rituals, different people prefer different times of the day to get this kind of work done. Sometimes you need to push through tiredness and laziness but generally there are certain times of the day when you are able to perform better.

You should consider to commit at least a certain amount of time for these tasks, since it often takes time to get into it. I commit at least three rounds of the Pomodoro Technique (25 minutes of work, followed by a 5 minute break) for this kind of work. Use your cognitive energy wisely and block the time when you are the most alert for these tasks.

Mild Cognitive Strain

In this category belongs tasks like responding to mail, doing research, skimming texts, organizing and planning, phone calls, editing text (only formal, not actual content) and things alike. Often these tasks don’t require much cognitive resources and don’t take very long. You can fill small spaces between meetings with it or when you notice you can’t do deep work anymore.

Low Cognitive Strain

There are a bunch of tasks which belong to this category for example: looking for pictures for articles, scheduling Facebook posts, decluttering your desktop, seeding posts and the like.

It is highly advisable to make a time constraint, as these tasks often tend to expand and require as much time as you allow them. Often you can do these things on the side while watching a TED talk, listing to music or talking to friends.

You can literally save this work for times when you don’t need to focus anymore. Filling your normal schedule with these kinds of tasks is a waste of valuable cognitive focus.

This system has a clear advantage of using your cognitive resources to its best. The downside (which sometimes can also be an upside) is that you are separating different work-steps. Therefore sometimes this system is not applicable if you want to get one big thing done as a whole (example: writing an article, editing it, uploading it, scheduling it or seeding it).

In the end you should try out different methods and see what works best for you. Don’t buy into a system or dismiss it without testing it first.

Featured photo credit: julietvanree via flickr.com

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