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9 Wonderful Ways to Get Started in the World of Personal Productivity

9 Wonderful Ways to Get Started in the World of Personal Productivity

    One day, an innocent worker goes online and decides to see if there are any tips out in the big wide world on getting more done, more quickly, more often. But soon, the poor sod becomes entangled in a complicated trail of information; a few quadzillion blogs on the subject, millions of books, and a whole lot of fancy terms like “ubiquitous capture” and strange rituals such as weekly reviews and inbox processing.

    It’s easy to get lost in the world of personal productivity. It’s hard to get started, and we get that. It’s a jungle of information and not all of it makes sense, and a whole lot of it is in direct conflict: do you go the Inbox Zero approach (that is, clearing out your inbox completely in regular processing sessions), or use Gmail with labels and let things sit in your inbox, with older messages found with the assistance of search?

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    All of this conflicting information makes it tempting to find one person’s philosophy and latch onto it religiously. I mean, check out the Getting Things Done fanclub. But just because all of that information is conflicting doesn’t mean it’s all useless; there’s a lot of excellent advice and the tough part is in forming a basic understanding of personal productivity and developing your own basic system, a framework with which to process that avalanche of words.

    Here you’ll find a few of the blogs and books you should read to get a grip on it all, if you’re serious about getting this part of your life under control. For the most part I recommend starting with the books to get a good overall idea rather than the piece-by-piece approach of blogs, with one exception I’ll mention in a moment.

    Blogs

    There are many great blogs on the subject out there; I read many more than those listed below, but it would be unwise to overload you with new sites when we’re trying to help you find out what’s what. Here are some of the best blogs to get started with.

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    Lifehack — I’d probably be out of a job if I didn’t recommend Lifehack to you in this list, eh? But I don’t do it for the sake of the Overlords. Lifehack provides a whole bunch of great information and helps hundreds of thousands of people get their productivity under control.

    Now for that exception I was talking about: a few months ago, our own Dustin Wax started the Back to Basics series. This is honestly one of the best concise overviews of the whole personal productivity thing I know of and I’ve stopped recommending books as one’s first foray into this area. They’re in second place. Now, I recommend this excellent series, which you can get into here.

    Lifehacker — Often confused with Lifehack thanks to the difference of only a syllable in name, Lifehacker is actually quite a different site. It’s filled with a stream of tips, tricks and software recommendations that can help you make life a little bit easier. Very cool site if you want information in bite-sized chunks (at least most of the time).

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    Zen Habits — Leo Babauta, a former Lifehack contributor, runs Zen Habits, a site that discusses all sorts of things in all areas of personal development. His productivity advice is sound and his writing is engaging. If you like thoughtful, useful advice, this is a great site to read.

    Put Things Off — When I first came across Put Things Off, I admit that it was the funky images in Nick’s Inbox Heaven piece that pulled me in. No surprises that the guy is a graphic designer by day and a productivity guru by night. But the advice is not only good reading and practical, the author is funny as all hell. There’s no more comedic way to get productivity advice out there.

    43 Folders — 43 Folders was one of the pioneers in the productivity blogging sphere, and to this day many people getting started flock to Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero and Making Time to Make pieces as starting points and foundational items in their systems. The writing is engaging and very often, it’s immediately practicable.

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    Books

    Just as with blogs, there are plenty of excellent books on the subject of personal productivity. However, a limited list of some of the best to get started with will be much more useful than a list of every great book that ever existed. If you have other books in your “Must Read” list, let us know in the comments.

    Getting Things Done — Many would consider Getting Things Done the book on personal productivity principles. It offers a great system and is so influential that many people who’ve never even read the back cover of the book are implementing concepts and techniques discussed in it.

    The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — Where Getting Things Done’s focus is more on systems and methods, Stephen Covey’s book focuses more on principles and habits that make you more effective and productive. Seven Habits and Getting Things Done are well-known as “the” productivity books, and it’s probably because their focuses compliment each other well while being great books in their own right.

    4 Hour Work Week — this book by Tim Ferriss is one of the most recent popular books on productivity topics and talks about a whole range of things from outsourcing to firewalling incoming information. It’s definitely a must-read that is very relevant to the times we live in.

    Zen to Done — I’ve heard this ebook described as Getting Things Done without the complication; as you’d imagine from a book with the word “Zen” in the name, it’s about getting things done with simplicity. It’s a short and readable ebook with a great price and is definitely worth the penny. It’s not short on info just because it’s an ebook, but it doesn’t inflate and pad out information to meet some editor’s word count. If you’re looking for a book you can get in and out of quickly, grab this one.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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