One of the biggest barrier to productivity in most people’s lives is their resistance to adopting a productivity system. Some read a lot of productivity books and sites like Lifehack and feel like they can take a little bit from here and a little bit from there and call it a day. Others hate the idea that someone like Stephen Covey or David Allen could know their own needs better than they do, and so reject the idea of using “someone else’s” system.
Can’t we just create our own productivity system?
Well, the short answer is yes, we can – or we could, maybe, if we could, but we can’t, so no. The long answer is this post.
Consider an entrepreneur. Let’s call her “Vita Siddiqi”. Vita imports beautiful silken cloth from Bangladesh for the home sewing crowd. She not only knows all the characteristics that make a bolt of cloth a great bolt of cloth, she knows where and how to get it for the best possible price, how to arrange the shipping to minimize extra costs, and how to market and distribute her cloth so that it ends up in the hands of the men and women who use it, at the most desirable cost and convenience to them.
Now, do you think Vita should also write her own contracts, do her corporate taxes, design her company letterhead, and hand-print her brochures and catalogs? Should she also harvest the silk, weave the cloth, load it on the ship, pilot the ship to the US, unload it at the docks, and hand-deliver it to her customers?
If you’re a rational person, you probably agree with me that no, she should not. Vita should stick with the things she does well and let other people who are better skilled at those other jobs handle them. Anyone who took every aspect of her business into her hands like I’ve just described would have to be crazy – and wouldn’t be in business very long.
The fact is, all of us have certain things that we have defined as our core competencies and that we’ve learned to do very well, and trust other people with other competencies to handle the stuff we can’t do for ourselves.
One of the things that’s rarely taught – and is thus largely learned only by those who willingly pursue its study – is the set of skills and habits that lead to effective management of our time, tasks, and attention. It turns out that the mind is quite complex when it comes to matters of productivity, and that few of us have the leisure, background, or desire to pursue the intricacies of the mind, develop a system, test it, implement it, and refine it.
Fortunately, there are some who have chosen that path. Just as David Allen probably shouldn’t do your job, you probably shouldn’t do his – compiling and synthesizing what we as a society have learned about what makes us productive into a set of principles and best practices that anyone can learn.
Because folks like Stephen Covey have immersed themselves in the world of productivity for years or decades, they’ve learned to minimize conflicts within their systems. While Covey’s 7 Habits may or may not appeal to you, they are at least internally consistent. Covey didn’t grab a little piece from here and a little piece from there, toss it all together with a dollop of his own famous Covey-style dressing, and dish it out.
As I said, the mind is a sensitive thing, and the tiniest of discrepancies can set up a wave of cognitive dissonance that can easily tear our productive lives to shreds. By adopting a tested and refined system, even if it’s not the perfect system for us, we at least minimize those dissonances.
When we adopt a system, we start learning new habits. The commitment to a new set of principles and behaviors causes us to do things “by the book” and if we stick with it, after a fairly short time we start to follow its precepts automatically.
We can’t get this from “our own” systems, since they’re already built around our existing habits – usually around our unexamined existing habits. They don’t challenge us to stretch out, to explore the real meaning behind the various things we do, or to strive for improvement.
It’s true, adopting someone else’s system isn’t very creative. It’s not an expression of your deepest self.
Systems are a little autocratic. Authoritarian, even. They say “my way or the highway” and leave little room for creative experimentation (and fall apart fairly quickly when people start messing with them).
There’s a good reason for this. Assuming you want to do things, having options is the very worst thing. Research has shown repeatedly that when presented with two options, we are very good at maximizing our own self-interest. But when presented with more than two, we experience “decision paralysis” and often will resist acting at all. Which is not the road to greater productivity or greater happiness.
When we adopt a system, we make a conscious decision to learn the habits and skills set forth in that system. This is quite different from the way we normally pursue greater productivity.
For example, at some point or other you’ve probably experienced the urge to “get organized”. Maybe you came into the office on a Saturday and spent the whole day getting everything neat and orderly, catching up your back filing, clearing your desk of clutter.
But you never ask yourself why you put your files in a certain order, or why you’ve placed your office supplies on this shelf and not that one. Most likely, you cleared your desk by creating a place for all the fiddly little bits that don’t go anywhere at all, without wondering why you have fiddly little bits getting in your way.
In short, you’ve let the same habits and thought-patterns that led to your disorganization in the first place determine the process of getting organized. As if! What you haven’t asked is why you got disorganized in the first place – maybe those books were on your desk and not “where they belong” because where they belong isn’t a place that feels natural to you – it’s too much work to retrieve them when you need them.
Adopting a system forces you to face these tendencies, and to ask “why?” about all the things you do. And if the system is well-designed, it gives you a good reason in answer to that “why?”
In the process of implementing your chosen system, whatever it is, you learn how to put together and implement a system.
That seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? But think about it – do you really know how to create and implement a productivity system? If you did, would you be looking for advice on being more productive?
That’s nothing against you. Like Vita, you don’t know how to make silk or drive a ship or create a productivity system. But the last, you can learn – by implementing a productivity system. By consciously embracing new, seemingly unnatural and unintuitive habits. By experiencing the way a well-designed system fits together.
In fact, you’re probably learning enough that, once you‘ve implemented a system – whether it’s Allen’s Getting Things Done or Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People or lesser-known systems like Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done or Nick Cernis’ Todoodlist or anything else – and lived with it for a while, you’ll probably start having a sense of what you need to do to create and implement a system that works better for you.
And that is the real value of these systems – they teach us not only how to be more productive, but what our own specific needs are so that we can be even more
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