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Why You Should Learn a Productivity System

Why You Should Learn a Productivity System

Why You Should Learn a Productivity System

    One of the biggest barrier to productivity in most people’s lives is their resistance to adopting a productivity system. Some read a lot of productivity books and sites like Lifehack and feel like they can take a little bit from here and a little bit from there and call it a day. Others hate the idea that someone like Stephen Covey or David Allen could know their own needs better than they do, and so reject the idea of using “someone else’s” system.

    Can’t we just create our own productivity system?

    Well, the short answer is yes, we can – or we could, maybe, if we could, but we can’t, so no. The long answer is this post.

    What do you do well?

    Consider an entrepreneur. Let’s call her “Vita Siddiqi”. Vita imports beautiful silken cloth from Bangladesh for the home sewing crowd. She not only knows all the characteristics that make a bolt of cloth a great bolt of cloth, she knows where and how to get it for the best possible price, how to arrange the shipping to minimize extra costs, and how to market and distribute her cloth so that it ends up in the hands of the men and women who use it, at the most desirable cost and convenience to them.

    Go Vita!

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    Now, do you think Vita should also write her own contracts, do her corporate taxes, design her company letterhead, and hand-print her brochures and catalogs? Should she also harvest the silk, weave the cloth, load it on the ship, pilot the  ship to the US, unload it at the docks, and hand-deliver it to her customers?

    If you’re a rational person, you probably agree with me that no, she should not. Vita should stick with the things she does well and let other  people who are better skilled at those other jobs handle them. Anyone who took every aspect of her business into her hands like I’ve just described would have to be crazy – and wouldn’t be in business very long.

    The fact is, all of us have certain things that we have defined as our core competencies and that we’ve learned to do very well, and trust other people with other competencies to handle the stuff we can’t do for ourselves.

    Productivity  is a Skill

    One of the things that’s rarely taught – and is thus largely learned only by those who willingly pursue its study – is the set of skills and  habits that lead to effective management of our time, tasks, and attention. It turns out that the mind is quite complex when it comes to matters of productivity, and that few of us have the leisure, background, or desire to pursue the intricacies of the mind, develop a system, test it, implement it, and refine it.

    Fortunately, there are some who have chosen that path. Just as David Allen probably shouldn’t do your job, you probably shouldn’t do his – compiling and synthesizing what we as a society have learned about what makes us productive into a set of principles and best practices that anyone can learn.

    Systems are systematic (duh!)

    Because folks like Stephen Covey have immersed themselves in the world of  productivity for years or decades, they’ve learned to minimize conflicts within their systems. While Covey’s 7 Habits may or may not appeal to you, they are at least internally consistent. Covey didn’t grab a little piece from here and a little piece from there, toss it all together with a dollop of his own famous Covey-style dressing, and dish it out.

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    As I said, the mind is a sensitive thing, and the tiniest of discrepancies can set up a wave of cognitive dissonance that can easily tear our productive lives to shreds. By adopting a tested and refined system, even if it’s not the perfect system for us, we at least minimize those dissonances.

    Systems create habits

    When we adopt a system, we start learning new habits. The commitment to a new set of principles and behaviors causes us to do things “by the book” and if we stick with it, after a fairly short time we start to follow its precepts automatically.

    We can’t get this from “our own” systems, since they’re already built around our existing habits – usually around our unexamined existing habits. They don’t challenge us  to stretch out, to explore the real meaning behind the various things we do, or to strive for improvement.

    Systems limit options

    It’s true, adopting someone else’s system isn’t very creative. It’s not an expression of your deepest self.

    Fortunately.

    Systems are a little autocratic. Authoritarian, even. They say “my way or the highway” and leave little room for creative experimentation (and fall apart fairly quickly when people start messing with them).

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    There’s a good reason for this. Assuming you want to do things, having options is the very worst thing. Research has shown repeatedly that when presented with two options, we are very good at maximizing our own self-interest. But when presented with more than two, we experience “decision paralysis” and often will resist acting at all. Which is not the road to greater productivity or greater happiness.

    Systems are conscious choices

    When we adopt a system, we make a conscious decision to learn the habits and skills set forth in that system. This is quite different from the way we normally pursue greater productivity.

    For example, at some point or other you’ve probably experienced the urge to “get organized”. Maybe you came into the office on a Saturday and spent the whole day getting everything neat and orderly, catching up your back filing, clearing your desk of clutter.

    But you never ask yourself why you put your files in a certain order, or why you’ve placed your office supplies on this shelf and not that one. Most likely, you cleared your desk by creating a place for all the fiddly little bits that don’t go anywhere at all, without wondering why you have fiddly little bits getting in your way.

    In short, you’ve let the same habits and thought-patterns that led to your disorganization in the first place determine the process of getting organized. As if! What you haven’t asked is why you got disorganized in the first place – maybe those books were on your desk and not “where they belong” because where they belong isn’t a place that feels natural to you – it’s too much work to retrieve them when you need them.

    Adopting a system forces you to face these tendencies, and to ask “why?” about all the things you do. And  if the system is well-designed, it gives you a good reason in answer to that “why?”

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    Learning a productivity systems teaches productivity

    In the process of implementing your chosen system, whatever it is, you learn how to put together and implement a system.

    That seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? But think about it – do you really know how to create and implement a productivity system? If you did, would you be looking for advice on being  more productive?

    That’s nothing against you. Like Vita, you don’t know how to make silk or drive a ship or create a productivity system. But the last, you can learn – by implementing a productivity system. By consciously embracing new, seemingly unnatural and unintuitive habits. By experiencing the way a well-designed system fits together.

    In fact, you’re probably learning enough that, once you‘ve implemented a system – whether it’s  Allen’s Getting Things Done or Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People or lesser-known systems like Leo Babauta’s Zen to Done or Nick Cernis’ Todoodlist or anything else – and lived with it for a while, you’ll probably start having a sense of what you need to do to create and implement a system that works better for you.

    And that is the real value of these systems – they teach us not only how to be more productive, but what our own specific needs are so that we can be even more  productive and, ultimately, fulfilled.

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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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