When one has a lot of interests, passions, and therefore a lot to actually work on and work towards, it is exceedingly helpful to have some sort of explicitly defined personal productivity system. While I’ve always been fairly productive in school (not that being in school taught me much useful about the subject) what I found this past year is that there is a whole new level of clarity and consistency that can arise in one’s “working” life. I put working in quotes because work doesn’t happen only at one’s job, but happens in all contexts of life. It happens at home, it happens outside of work when we are working on our personal projects, and happens at work where we are expected to get a certain amount of stuff done. Whenever there is action happening, and we are trying to move toward some sort of completion we are being productive (or in many cases, we are trying hopelessly to be productive but just aren’t able to stay focused and follow through).
In my own case I’ve been consciously practicing the art of productivity for the past several months, and it became particularly prescient when I helped start my second business. In this post I wanted to share with you the specific components of the productivity system I’ve been using, and point you to the resources I’ve found most useful, and perhaps even inspire others to begin experimenting with these types of systems. If you do, I think you’ll find that you can actually do much more then you’d ever thought, and do so in a much more clear and purposeful way.
My first book on productivity was Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload. The main premise of the book is that we live in a world of bits, and that we are constantly being bombarded (and in some cases overloaded) with these bits. The only answer then is to work with these bits in a more skillful way, and to “let the bits go.” It was an easy, quick read and had tons of extremely practical suggestions and tools. Here are the one’s I adopted and have continued to use:
- E-mail Inbox to Zero – Everyday I make sure that I bring my e-mail inbox to a 0 count. Basically, that means that I don’t leave anything in the inbox. Everything gets filed away, moved to in todo list, or deleted as needed.
- Hibernated, Web-based ToDos – I use a web-based todo system called GooToDo that allows me to move my actions to a central place online. Hibernated refers to the fact that I can have an action set to happen on any day that I choose, so that I can do something next wednesday, and on that day it will show up on my daily todo list. In essence I don’t have to think about it until it needs to get done.
- 2-minute rule – The two-minute rule, which you also see in Getting Things Done, basically means that if you have an action that will take you 2 minutes or less you just go ahead and do it right there on the spot. This helps one avoid procrastination, and keeps your system free from clutter.
- The Media Diet – This suggestion basically has to do with ruthlessly trimming and cutting the amount of media that you intake. It’s easy to spend hours reading stuff on the web, when %90 of the material turns out to be irrelevant. Mark’s suggestion is to keep the amount of media you injest down to a manageable amount, of only the highest quality and relevant material. This becomes a little harder to do when you actually help run a media company, and it’s part of your job in partake in media, but even so I keep my Blog reader down to under 15 blogs at a time, and very rarely spend my free time taking in pointless material.
- File Naming & Storing – I adopted some suggested protocols from Bit Literacy on how to name and store my digital files. The protocols themselves aren’t as important, I think, as simply having some that make sense. Digital files become easier to find, and share when they are named and stored in a way that is easy to related to.
Getting Things Done
Getting Things Done (GTD), by David Allen, is one of the most well-known productivity books around today (and for good reason). The complexity of his system of the usefulness of his ideas make this a rich (and sometimes overwhelming) productivity system. Here are some of the brilliant ideas that I’ve ended up adopting from GTD:
- Multiple Inboxes – Where Bit Literacy deals primarily with one’s e-mail inbox, GTD recognizes that there can be multiple ways that we collect information that then needs to be processed. Besides my e-mail inbox, I also have a paper inbox (one at work and one at home), a desktop inbox (a folder that sits on my computer’s desktop that collects all the files I download), and my cellphone voicemail. I try and empty out all of these inboxes at least once a week (and sometimes multiple times each week).
- Next Actions – David Allen makes a powerful distinction between a project (which takes multiple next physical actions to complete) and a next action, which is the next visible, physical action that can be taken (ex. “Call Ronya about holiday trip”). The next action serves to breakdown a project into the very next thing that can happen, and by doing so it simplifies things and reduces the amount of time we spend paralyzed not knowing what we should do next.
- Waiting For – By reminder ourselves that there is something we are waiting for, and by setting that at the proper date (I use GooToDo for this) it becomes easier to follow-up with people in a way that ensures that do everything we can to move things along in projects where we may depend on other people.
- Multiple Altitudes – David’s system deals mostly with the day-to-day management of projects and actions, but he also pays attention to the fact that we operate at multiple altitudes in our lives. Actions and projects happen at the lower altitudes, but goals (which happen on a 12-18 month cycle), our vision (which happens at a much longer interval, some 3-5 years out), and finally our purpose (which rarely changes) all serve to connect the things we do on a daily level to the bigger reasons that we do these things at all. I keep a mindmap where I’ve done my best to define each of these altitudes and it’s also where I check in with my current projects each week while I’m doing my weekly review.
- Weekly Review – In David’s system one takes time to actually clean out their system, and make sure everything is running smoothly. One takes this time to do routine things, like clearing out all one’s inboxes, as well as checking back in to one’s projects and identify the current status of projects, removing projects that are completed, and initiating new projects. The weekly review serves to keep the system running smoothly, much like a tune-up.
- The Natural Planning Method – The natural planning method is a simple way to break down the planning/brainstorming process into it’s naturally flowing steps. One identifies the purpose, then the intended outcome, goes through a process of brainstorming any and all ideas related to the topic, organizes that material, and then identifies any next actions. I use that method for many of my projects (including planning this post) and we often use it at work as a meeting format for things that we are collaborating on together. This method alone makes GTD worth reading.
In Part 2 of this series I share some more of the tools and techniques that I’ve found useful, as well as discuss the importance of simply being.