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How Not to Impose Productivity Systems On Others

How Not to Impose Productivity Systems On Others
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    My baby sister visited me this weekend and brought along a stack of homework that I thought was unbelievable: she’s a junior in high school and her task list had something for every class — and projects in most of them. She keeps track of it in a planner that has such small spaces for recording appointments or tasks that I thought my eyes would fall out of my head from squinting so hard.

    So I did what any good big sister interested in productivity would do: I offered to set her up with something a little easier to use. Nothing fancy, of course: I was thinking of introducing her to Remember the Milk. I like RTM for a lot of reasons, although I know a lot of other people have their preferences — the fact that I can use plugins to integrate RTM with both Google Calendar and GMail do a lot for my productivity.

    My sister’s response? An immediate no. She relies on paper, not some fancy online gizmo. She proceeded to explain that she only goes online every couple of days, mostly to check her Hotmail email account. It was like an arrow straight into my Web 2.0-loving heart. Somehow, I survived and suggested that maybe a new planner — a bigger one — might be in order. I even offered a trip to the bookstore. I was again shot down, with a whole list of counter-arguments: she’d have to transfer everything over, she’s used to this particular planner and this planner was free, whereas a new one would cost money.

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    I don’t consider myself some sort of productivity evangelizer; I just think that her system could be improved upon, if only to protect her eyesight. It’s her schoolwork: she’s more than welcome to organize it however she wishes. I managed to keep my advice down to a short suggested reading list and making her promise to consider this whole newfangled internet thing.

    I did start thinking, though, about other situations where a person can be forced to adopt a productivity system that just flat out doesn’t work for her, and how to maybe work around it. It’s happened to me before, and I certainly didn’t like it. One of my past employers required us cubicle-dwellers to use a custom system based on Excel spreadsheets accessible across the network to track not only our ongoing tasks but our time cards, accomplishments and a host of other information. I was the employee who constantly forgot to update the spreadsheets and had to be reminded where to check for a given piece of information on a regular basis. It wasn’t a case of my not having the necessary data — I had everything my manager wanted at any given time — but I didn’t translate it into the company’s system very well. We finally managed to slip into an arrangement where I used my own methods to track my work and then filled out my spreadsheets once a week or so.

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    I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about calendars, task lists and other imposed time tracking and productivity systems (a surprising number of them include required use of Outlook, often in ways it wasn’t intended to be used). Most seem to boil down to the fact that a worker views the ‘productivity’ system as creating hours more work than he otherwise might face. A bad time-tracking system can quickly become as much of an aggravation as a payroll screw up.

    I’ve heard plenty of work-arounds, as well: there was the guy who wrote himself a little piece of software to translate between his employer’s task management system and his own, the girl who just refused to play along at a system that didn’t work for her and the guy who convinced his manager to change the whole company to suit his needs. There were varying degrees of success — the girl who wouldn’t knuckle under to her task manager wound up in a new workplace very quickly.

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    It seems like the best most of us can do with an imposed productivity system is to try our best to make it work for us — and often we can’t do much better than pretending to find it useful. My personal experience shows that most people have to find their own way of implementing time management — whether by adapting GTD to their lives or writing their own handbook. It’s a matter of knowing what solution works for your specific situation. Nobody else will face the exact same time management issues that you do, making your personal touch a necessity when implementing some sort of productivity system.

    For companies or organizations looking to create some sort of time management system, however, there is still hope. Bringing the people who will be using the system in on its planning can avoid a whole list of common problems: micromanagement interfering with work, requirements for recording minutia into the system taking up time that could be better spent on projects or poorly integrated systems that require time to shift between. Whether you’re tracking productivity, or just trying to make it easier for employees to get their work done, the employees will be the only people able to tell you if your system will help or hurt them.

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    And my sister? I managed to convince her to try out GMail since we both agreed that her 2cute4words Hotmail address might not impress college admissions offices.

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    Last Updated on January 13, 2020

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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