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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 July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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