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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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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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