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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 November 18, 2020

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It)

    It’s okay, you can finally admit it. It’s been two months since you’ve seen the inside of the gym. Getting sick, family crisis, overtime at work and school papers that needed to get finished all kept you for exercising. Now, the question is: how do you start again?
    Once you have an exercise habit, it becomes automatic. You just go to the gym, there is no force involved. But after a month, two months or possibly a year off, it can be hard to get started again. Here are some tips to climb back on that treadmill after you’ve fallen off.

    1. Don’t Break the Habit – The easiest way to keep things going is simply not to stop. Avoid long breaks in exercising or rebuilding the habit will take some effort. This may be advice a little too late for some people. But if you have an exercise habit going, don’t drop it at the first sign of trouble.
    2. Reward Showing Up – Woody Allen once said that, “Half of life is showing up.” I’d argue that 90% of making a habit is just making the effort to get there. You can worry about your weight, amount of laps you run or the amount you can bench press later.
    3. Commit for Thirty Days – Make a commitment to go every day (even just for 20 minutes) for one month. This will solidify the exercise habit. By making a commitment you also take pressure off yourself in the first weeks back of deciding whether to go.
    4. Make it Fun – If you don’t enjoy yourself at the gym, it is going to be hard to keep it a habit. There are thousands of ways you can move your body and exercise, so don’t give up if you’ve decided lifting weights or doing crunches isn’t for you. Many large fitness centers will offer a range of programs that can suit your tastes.
    5. Schedule During Quiet Hours – Don’t put exercise time in a place where it will easily be pushed aside by something more important. Right after work or first thing in the morning are often good places to put it. Lunch-hour workouts might be too easy to skip if work demands start mounting.
    6. Get a Buddy – Grab a friend to join you. Having a social aspect to exercising can boost your commitment to the exercise habit.
    7. X Your Calendar – One person I know has the habit of drawing a red “X” through any day on the calendar he goes to the gym. The benefit of this is it quickly shows how long it has been since you’ve gone to the gym. Keeping a steady amount of X’s on your calendar is an easy way to motivate yourself.
    8. Enjoyment Before Effort – After you finish any work out, ask yourself what parts you enjoyed and what parts you did not. As a rule, the enjoyable aspects of your workout will get done and the rest will be avoided. By focusing on how you can make workouts more enjoyable, you can make sure you want to keep going to the gym.
    9. Create a Ritual – Your workout routine should become so ingrained that it becomes a ritual. This means that the time of day, place or cue automatically starts you towards grabbing your bag and heading out. If your workout times are completely random, it will be harder to benefit from the momentum of a ritual.
    10. Stress Relief – What do you do when your stressed? Chances are it isn’t running. But exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, releasing endorphin which will improve your mood. The next time you feel stressed or tired, try doing an exercise you enjoy. When stress relief is linked to exercise, it is easy to regain the habit even after a leave of absence.
    11. Measure Fitness – Weight isn’t always the best number to track. Increase in muscle can offset decreases in fat so the scale doesn’t change even if your body is. But fitness improvements are a great way to stay motivated. Recording simple numbers such as the number of push-ups, sit-ups or speed you can run can help you see that the exercise is making you stronger and faster.
    12. Habits First, Equipment Later – Fancy equipment doesn’t create a habit for exercise. Despite this, some people still believe that buying a thousand dollar machine will make up for their inactivity. It won’t. Start building the exercise habit first, only afterwards should you worry about having a personal gym.
    13. Isolate Your Weakness – If falling off the exercise wagon is a common occurrence for you, find out why. Do you not enjoy exercising? Is it a lack of time? Is it feeling self-conscious at the gym? Is it a lack of fitness know-how? As soon as you can isolate your weakness, you can make steps to improve the situation.
    14. Start Small – Trying to run fifteen miles your first workout isn’t a good way to build a habit. Work below your capacity for the first few weeks to build the habit. Otherwise you might scare yourself off after a brutal workout.
    15. Go for Yourself, Not to Impress – Going to the gym with the only goal of looking great is like starting a business with only the goal to make money. The effort can’t justify the results. But if you go to the gym to push yourself, gain energy and have a good time, then you can keep going even when results are slow.

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