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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 August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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