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Why Complicated Productivity Tools Will Get You Stuck

Why Complicated Productivity Tools Will Get You Stuck

    I had a relapse a couple of weeks back. After full bore sobriety from all things productivity porn, I couldn’t help myself any longer. When I see an update to a “GTD” app or see something new online that looks like it can be a “GTD” app, I get the itch to try it out. What pulls us to do this?

    I’ve tried everything from simple paper, pencil and a paper filing system to the robust yet complicated systems like OmniFocus and even Microsoft Project. I’ve found that the more complicated the tool tends to be, the more I end up tweaking it and entering into the “cool thing to do on a Saturday afternoon” type of mentality that Dave Allen speaks of. Everything looks great about my system when I’m tweaking, but when I’m in the “heat of battle” on Monday morning, how will it stand up?

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    I’ve found a couple of things about these productivity tools over the past 5 or 6 years that I want to let you in on.

    Productivity tools suck when they use you

    The problem with super complicated productivity tools is that they tend to only work when you work them. If you let them lay stagnant for any period of time and have set up reminders, due dates, and notifications, there will come the day when all of the little “boops and beeps” will repel rather than attract you.

    Have you opened up a digital productivity tool and been overwhelmed by the tasks that you have assigned to yourself? Couldn’t believe how many tasks had due dates that didn’t really matter if they were due? If so, then you have been used by your productivity tool.

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    It’s a dirty feeling. I know.

    The worst thing is that if you don’t do something drastic, even as drastic as erasing all tasks and projects from the tool, your time enjoying the use of the productivity tool will soon come to an end. You will probably end up resenting it.

    If you spend more time organizing than doing

    The reason that your tools end up using you is that you probably tend to spend more time organizing your work than actually doing your work. I know that is the case with myself.

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    I love OmniFocus. It’s probably one of the best productivity apps around, but you can really get down in the weeds with it. And when you do, you will find yourself making decisions about how to organize tasks in a more “intuitive manner” and trying to figure out which GTD contexts better suit you as a human.

    All of these tools tell us they are made for getting stuff done, but don’t let their robustness fool you. If you are a “tinkerer” or someone that likes to organize things into their proper “buckets”, complex tools will be your own productivity’s kryptonite.

    Completely simple tools aren’t the answer

    If you think that paper and pencil is the answer, think again. While the benefits of paper are many (and we sure have talked about that a lot here at Lifehack) it lacks in important things like sorting, rearranging, filtering and alerting.

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    Rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, try to find a tool that doesn’t get in your way and use you while still having support for your large amounts of tasks, priorities, and deadlines.

    How to get unstuck

    The easiest and most straight-forward way to get unstuck from the wrath of complicated productivity tools is to start fresh. That’s right. Start over.

    If you have any decent productivity tool you will be able to easily export or save your current data and start with a clean slate. This is the only way that I have found to take control of a complicated system that has gone stagnant and to get myself unstuck and doing the right things again.

    When you are setting up your system, make sure to not get too particular about naming conventions, tagging, etc. Also, try really hard not to set “fake due dates” for your projects. After that, instead of thinking of the 20 ways your productivity tool could be better, starting working and checking items off your lists.

    Remember, your productivity tools are only as good as you keep them. If they are a dumping ground and not current, your productivity will suffer.

    More by this author

    CM Smith

    A technologist and writer who shares advice on personal productivity, creativity and how to use technology to get things done.

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    Last Updated on July 13, 2020

    How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

    How Not to Feel Overwhelmed at Work & Take Control of Your Day

    Overwhelm is a pernicious state largely caused by the ever-increasing demands on our time and the distractions that exist all around us. It creeps up on us and can, in its extreme form, leave us feeling anxious, stressed and exhausted.

    If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, here are 6 strategies you can follow that will reduce the feeling of overwhelm; leaving you calmer, in control and a lot less stressed.

    1. Write Everything down to Offload Your Mind

    The first thing you can do when you begin to feel overwhelmed is to write everything down that is on your mind.

    Often people just write down all the things they think they have to do. This does help, but a more effective way to reduce overwhelm is to also write down everything that’s on your mind.

    For example, you may have had an argument with your colleague or a loved one. If it’s on your mind write it down. A good way to do this is to draw a line down the middle of the page and title one section “things to do” and the other “what’s on my mind”.

    The act of writing all this down and getting it out of your head will begin the process of removing your feeling of overwhelm. Writing things down can really change your life.

    2. Decide How Long It Will Take to Complete Your To-Dos

    Once you have ‘emptied your head,’ go through your list and estimate how long it will take to complete each to-do.

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    As you go through your list, you will find quite a few to-dos will only take you five or ten minutes. Others will take longer, often up to several hours.

    Do not worry about that at this stage. Just focus on estimating how long you will need to complete each task to the best of your ability. Here’s How to Cultivate a More Meaningful To Do List.

    3. Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

    Now here’s a little trick I learned a long time ago. Parkinson’s Law states that work will fill the time you have available to complete it, and us humans are terrible at estimating how long something will take:((Odhable: Genesis of Parkinson’s Law))

      This is why many people are always late. They think it will only take them thirty minutes to drive across town when previous experience has taught them it usually takes forty-five minutes to do so because traffic is often bad but they stick to the belief it will only take thirty minutes. It’s more wishful thinking than good judgment.

      We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage. If you have estimated that to write five emails that desperately need a reply to be ninety minutes, then reduce it down to one hour. Likewise, if you have estimated it will take you three hours to prepare your upcoming presentation, reduce it down to two hours.

      Reducing the time you estimate something will take gives you two advantages. The first is you get your work done quicker, obviously. The second is you put yourself under a little time pressure and in doing so you reduce the likelihood you will be distracted or allow yourself to procrastinate.

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      When we overestimate how long something will take, subconsciously our brains know we have plenty of time and so it plays tricks on us and we end up checking reviews of the Apple Watch 4 or allow our colleagues to interrupt us with the latest office gossip.

      Applying a little time pressure prevents this from happening and we get more focused and more work done.

      4. Use the Power of Your Calendar

      Once you have your time estimates done, open up your calendar and schedule your to-dos. Go through your to-dos and schedule time on your calendar for doing those tasks. Group tasks up into similar tasks.

      For emails that need attention on your to-do list, schedule time on your calendar to deal with all your emails at once. Likewise, if you have a report to write or a presentation to prepare, add these to your calendar using your estimated time as a guide for how long each will take.

      Seeing these items on your calendar eases your mind because you know you have allocated time to get them done and you no longer feel you have no time. Grouping similar tasks together keeps you in a focused state longer and it’s amazing how much work you get done when you do this.

      5. Make Decisions

      For those things you wrote down that are on your mind but are not tasks, make a decision about what you will do with each one. These things are on your mind because you have not made a decision about them.

      If you have an issue with a colleague, a friend or a loved one, take a little time to think about what would be the best way to resolve the problem. More often than not just talking with the person involved will clear the air and resolve the problem.

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      If it is a more serious issue, then decide how best to deal with it. Talk to your boss, a colleague and get advice.

      Whatever you do, do not allow it to fester. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. You need to make a decision to deal with it and the sooner you do so the sooner the problem will be resolved. (You can take a look at this guide on How To Make Good Decisions All The Time.)

      I remember long ago, when I was in my early twenties and had gone mad with my newly acquired credit cards. I discovered I didn’t have the money to pay my monthly bills. I worried about it for days, got stressed and really didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I told a good friend of mine of the problem. He suggested I called the credit card company to explain my problem. The next day, I plucked up the courage to call the company, explained my problem and the wonderful person the other end listened and then suggested I paid a smaller amount for a couple of months.

      This one phone call took no more than ten minutes to make, yet it solved my problem and took away a lot of the stress I was feeling at the time. I learned two very valuable lessons from that experience:

      The first, don’t go mad with newly acquired credit cards! And the second, there’s always a solution to every problem if you just talk to the right person.

      6. Take Some Form of Action

      Because overwhelm is something that creeps up on us, once we feel overwhelmed (and stressed as the two often go together), the key is to take some form of action.

      The act of writing everything down that is bothering you and causing you to feel overwhelmed is a great place to start. Being able to see what it is that is bothering you in a list form, no matter how long that list is, eases the mind. You have externalized it.

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      It also means rather than these worries floating around in a jumbled mess inside your head, they are now visible and you can make decisions easier about what to do about them. Often it could be asking a colleague for a little help, or it could be you see you need to allocate some focused time to get the work done. The important thing is you make a decision on what to do next.

      Overwhelm is not always caused by a feeling of having a lack of time or too much work, it can also be caused by avoiding a decision about what to do next.

      The Bottom Line

      Make a decision, even if it is to just talk to someone about what to do next. Making a decision about how you will resolve something on its own will reduce your feelings of overwhelm and start you down the path to a resolution one way or another.

      When you follow these strategies to can say goodbye to your overwhelm and gain much more control over your day.

      More Tips for Reducing Work Stress

      Featured photo credit: Andrei Lazarev via unsplash.com

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