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A Success Story: Failed Experiments with Productivity

A Success Story: Failed Experiments with Productivity
    In order to succeed, you've got to fail along the way.

    As someone who has spent a lot of time tinkering with productivity – with both the various systems and tools that are available – I’ve come across a lot of successful ones. But I’ve come across a lot of things that just didn’t work, either. I found that these failures seemed to be more plentiful in my early days of studying the art of being productive, and as time progressed my chances of success did as well. It wasn’t often about the system or tool either.

    It was all me.

    When you’re trying to figure out what will work best in boosting your productivity, you rarely know what will work for you at first. You may be a paper person, but using it just isn’t practical to track all you’ve got going. Even a paper prophet like Patrick Rhone (of Minimal Mac fame) spends time in the digital world in order to keep on track. And while you may be excited about what your devices can do to make you a more productive person, there’s a chance that when it comes to actually being productive that a pen and paper are best suited for you. That’s why it’s so difficult to teach someone how to be more productive; there’s more to it than the old “Just Do It” assertion. A number of factors have to be weighed, making it a very subjective thing.

    So if you’ve tried to become more productive through trial and error, you’re not alone. You’re more than not alone. Here are 3 of my own failed experiments with productivity. You may relate to some because you’ve given them a go or you may be inspired to try one of them because maybe your mind can wrap your head around it better than mine could. This isn’t an intervention or a warning; it’s an admission that even those who have lived in the world of productivity have fallen down. The trick is to keep looking for something until you’ve found something that allows you to get back up a whole lot faster and easier.

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    1. Two Systems: Personal and Professional

    Since I didn’t want to bring my work home with me back when I had a 9 to 5 job, I kept a planner at work for work stuff and had a planner that went with me everywhere for personal stuff. Anything that was work-related never went in my personal planner and vice versa. Turns out there would be problems with this strategy.

    By keeping two planners I was unable to be very nimble. I actually handcuffed my productivity rather than let it flourish. Instead of having one place to put stuff, I had two. And I had to decide on them with every action that came my way. I was working smarter…and harder.

    In addition, I had essentially created a separation that really wasn’t there. There was no fluidity between work and personal stuff, and there needs to be. Work is part of life. So are personal matters that need attending. These feed off each other as well – maybe not in a technical sense, but certainly in an emotional one.

    Time spent on this failed experiment: 4 months

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    2. Colour-Coded Paper Planner

    This seemed like a good idea at the time. I used to use coloured pens and highlighters that were associated with a legend so I could tell what each task was associated with and how far along they were to completion. Different coloured pens were used for the “context” of the tasks (keeping in mind I had no knowledge of how contexts are defined in most productivity systems at the time) and the different coloured highlighters were used to signify the progress of the tasks.

    One of the biggest problems with this experiment was that I was carrying around a pencil case for the first time since school. I also wound up using one of those multi-coloured pens that you had to flick to change colours. Not exactly the most pleasant writing tool.

    Furthermore, I had to keep tabs on what each aspect of the colour-coding represented. I was either pulling out the legend regularly to make sure I knew what was going on with certain tasks or I inadvertantly would use a wrong colour and throw everything out of whack. Well, at least it felt like everything was out of whack. What it really was: not the best solution for my personal productivity.

    Time spent on this failed experiment: 1 year (yes…1 whole year!)

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    3. Things

    When I first dove into using apps for productivity purposes, Things won out over OmniFocus. The price was cheaper and it seemed to have everything I needed. The user interface was simple and elegant, the developers had built a complementary iPhone app and I was able to use it with relative ease and get a whole lot done.

    Until I was away from my Mac for too long with my iPhone. Then “Things” wasnt working out so well. It had no over-the-air sync at the time. That was a problem for me. Others felt the same way.

    So I ditched Things for OmniFocus. Moving stuff over took time, but not nearly as long as reconciling Things between two devices would’ve taken me over the long haul.

    Time spent on this failed experiment: 6 months

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    Fail FTW

    As I was writing this there were several other failed experiments with productivity that came to mind. I’ve made note of them (in the trusted system I use today, which is a combination of different tools I use) and may revisit them in the future so I can share them with you. There’s a lot of material to work with.

    As for what I’m using now…well, that’s another post as well. But I can tell you that through these failed experiments I’ve been able to concoct my own winning productivity formula. It’s been the failures that have led me to my successes, which – when you put them into perspective – could indicate that perhaps they really weren’t failures after all.

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    Mike Vardy

    A productivity specialist who shows you how to define your day, funnel your focus, and make every moment matter.

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    Last Updated on July 21, 2021

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to Make a Reminder Works for You

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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