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Navigating Productivity Advice: Finding What Actually Works

Navigating Productivity Advice: Finding What Actually Works

    I’ve been writing about productivity for years. I’ve reviewed books, audio courses and what feels like every piece of productivity advice out there. Along the way, I’ve discovered a secret: What works for David Allen doesn’t work for me, at least not exactly. The same goes for Steve Pavlina, Gina Trapani and every other productivity expert active online and in print. What’s more, they almost certainly don’t work perfectly for you, either.

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    Don’t get me wrong — odds are good that, over the years, you’ve found something that comes close. Maybe your system is very recognizable to someone who’s read up on your favorite productivity guru. But you’ve probably made a few tweaks and hacked the system a bit. It could be something small, like finding a way to force yourself to look at your task list on a regular schedule or giving your significant other a way to add tasks to your to-do list.

    Generalized Productivity Advice for Individuals

    While it may sound trite to say that we’re each unique snowflakes, it’s not entirely inaccurate when it comes to productivity advice. Different people process information differently, prioritize tasks differently, even procrastinate differently. That makes sorting through all the productivity advice out there both crucial and difficult. No one wants to try out every new system that comes along for organizing your task list — besides simply going crazy, you’d probably drop the ball on about half the tasks you wanted to complete as you shifted between systems.

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    The alternative seems to be finding something that generally works (although rarely works perfectly) and going with it, keeping the changes to a minimum. Making a major adjustment more than every year or so is too often. But that essentially means that most of us settle for the first half-way decent approach to managing tasks that comes along. There must be a reasonable compromise that doesn’t leave us limping along with a system that doesn’t quite work for us, but that we can’t afford to change.

    Narrowing Down the Hunt

    The first step to getting a grasp on everything you need to get done shouldn’t be to find a system that seems to work well for a lot of people. Instead, start with yourself. You have to know how you operate — how you think. Are you motivated by checking boxes off on your list? Do you need a physical reminder to check in on your next step? The more you know about how you function, the easier it is to be able to dismiss productivity advice that doesn’t work for you. The more you can dismiss, the better. It leaves far less to sort through.

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    You can also develop the ability to identify advice that will work without necessarily having to try it out. If you find a core system that allows you to function pretty well, you’ll be able to tweak it with the smaller pieces of productivity advice that comes along without having to scrap the whole system and start over. Finding the right core for your system lets you stay in charge, rather than letting an uppity organizer or web application run your life.

    Beyond the Standard Advice

    There is a certain amount of cross-pollination going on among the acknowledged productivity and self-development experts out there. One blogger may link to another’s post; one writer may use another’s idea as a principle in a new approach. That can be good, but it does mean that many of the systems out there look surprisingly similar when you get them out of the box and on to the table. If you can draw on ideas from outside the field, you can find some tips and help that may surprise you. Personally, I’ve found a lot of tricks that work well for my approach to getting my work done in how athletes train.

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    Be open to new perspectives on productivity, even when they don’t look like productivity on the surface. You may be surprised at how well new ideas will work.

    Image: Chirag D. Shah

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    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    The Gentle Art of Saying No

    No!

    It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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    But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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    What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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    But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

    1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
    2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
    3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
    4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
    5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
    6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
    7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
    8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
    9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
    10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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