I have made a great deal of progress in my own productivity over the last couple of years. Whilst juggling my mental training and behavioural science studies, coaching, exercise, reading, and much more, I had no other option.
I’m sure I won’t have to tell you what it’s like to live a busy life. We all struggle with not having enough time for everything we want to pursue.
That’s why I thought I would put together this productivity guide — to help you achieve more in less time.
It’s not a perfect system (I don’t believe there is such a thing) and yet it has helped me save tons of time while still accomplishing everything that I want to do in a day. If you try it out, I’m sure it will do the same for you. 🙂
What You’ll Need: The 6 Essential Productivity Tools
I use a couple of excellent applications as part of my productivity system. There are several alternatives to all of these out there but, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll only list what I personally use.
1. A calendar: Pretty basic stuff but you would be amazed at how many people don’t actually use a calendar. I know I didn’t some three years back. You will be using your calendar to write down things that have to be completed by a particular date and/or time. I use iCal for this.
2. A To-Do list: It seems most people use some sort of To-Do list but for the most part, they are unsuccessful in getting it to work for them. Your To-Do list will be your ‘brain dump’ for things that will show up that need to get done. I’m a big fan of Wunderlist.
3. An idea list: This is where you will immediately write down ideas and insights as they come to you for later reflection. I use Evernote for this.
4. A habit tracker: This is where you will be keeping all the habits that you want to do on a daily basis. My weapon of choice is Coach.me.
5. A work timer: You will be working in predetermined periods of time. I like this Pomodoro clock.
6. A journal: Plato said the unexamined life isn’t worth living so I guess we’ll have to get to it. 🙂 Your journal is where you’ll do your weekly reflection and future planning. I use Day One.
Go ahead and install the apps on your phone and computer and sync them up. If you already have similar apps up and running – keep on reading!
Storing Your Tasks & Ideas
One of the biggest benefits of a system like this is that it allows your brain to focus on doing the work rather than remembering upcoming events. When you get into the habit of immediately putting your ideas and tasks into a trusted system, you free up the mental space allowing you to be truly creative and highly productive.
This means that, from now on, you will proactively react to thoughts such as “oh yeah, I need to remember to X”. Instead of letting this intention linger in your brain and use up space and energy, you instantly put it into a storage system so you can trust it will be carried out. When a thought pops into your head about something you need to do, you’ll immediately write it down in:
Your calendar – If it’s something that needs to be done on a specific date and/or time, make a note of it. If something needs to happen on a particular date but doesn’t have a time attached to it, put it at the top of the calendar, just above the time slots. Always allow for some extra time to avoid falling victim to the planning fallacy. Things almost always take longer than we anticipate.
Your To-Do list – If it’s something that needs to get done at a particular place. Make sure to have several To-Do lists for different places. For example:
- At home
- On the computer
- At work
- At the shops
- In the city
This way, you can complete all the tasks in one big swoop without having to look through one big To-Do list. The next time you go to the city or to work or sit down at your home computer, you can simply have a quick look in the relevant list for that particular place and know immediately what needs to be done.
Your idea list – All sudden bursts of insight and big ideas go here. It helps to have several lists here as well. As an example, I keep ideas for articles, such as this one, in one list and another for books I come across that I might want to read. Create lists that make sense for your personal goals. Do you have a lot of business ideas? Ideas for recipes? Maybe you have an idea for a novel you’re writing? Give them all a separate lists and always write down your ideas the second you have them. Our brains are (sometimes) great at generating ideas but, for the most part, not very good when it comes to remembering them!
Your Daily Workflow
By using this system, you can focus on your task at hand, knowing that you’ll get back to all new tasks or ideas later. This, in turn, leads to increased mindfulness, more flow and greater productivity across the board.
For your daily activities you will use:
Your habit tracker – We all have certain things we know will generate great results ‘down the road’ if we stick to them every day (or close to it) so they need to be entered into your habit tracker. For me they are:
For you, it could be a bunch of other habits. Add the behaviours you want to do on a consistent basis (without going overboard) and then start checking them off, every day, the moment you complete them.
Your journal – Writing down and reviewing your daily progress is a great way to stay on top of things and adjust your approach. When you write about your daily habits, successes and failures, you force yourself to acknowledge and feel good about what worked and to change those that didn’t work. Journaling has tons of other benefits as well so I highly recommend using yours daily. Adding it as a goal in your habit tracker is a great way to start.
Your work timer – Effective goals needs to be specific and measurable. That’s why I prefer to work in predetermined blocks of time whenever it’s possible. A great way to do this is to use the Pomodoro technique, which simply means you break down your work into intervals of 25 minutes with 5 minute breaks in between. The idea is that frequent breaks can improve mental agility (1). I’ve found 25 minute sessions to work well for me but I encourage you to experiment with the session and break lengths to find your personal sweet spot.
Your Weekly Planning
So far we’ve looked at the system in terms of daily use. Writing down your tasks and ideas is great, but only if you actually get back to them later. This is one of the reasons why you will be scheduling a weekly planning session. If you’re serious about your personal productivity I highly recommend you go ahead and do this right now. Block out 1-2 hours, ideally on a recurring date and time, to spend on your personal planning every week. If you do, you’ll win this time back many times over.
Make your weekly planning a time to look forward to – a weekly session you spend on yourself in order to make the most out of your days. Make a cup of tea, get some healthy snacks (or whatever you like), open up your journal and go through the following steps once a week:
1. Celebrate last week’s accomplishments
In general we rarely celebrate our successes. Do not skip this step. Acknowledging your accomplishments, big and small, is crucial in order to build the motivation and momentum to reinforce your desired behaviours. Start out your weekly planning by writing down at least 10 accomplishments from last week and pat yourself on the back for a job well done! Note that these don’t have to be life-changing events. Doing the dishes is a perfectly fine reason to celebrate. You’re not looking to judge your accomplishments – you’re reinforcing them.
2. Write down your biggest lessons
Do a quick review of what you’ve written in your journal in the past week. What were your ‘aha-moments’ and greatest insights? Also list meaningful quotes, sources of inspiration you came across as well as inspiring people you met or would like to meet at some point.
3. Analyse what didn’t happen
Look at last week’s planning session. What did you plan on doing that you didn’t get done? What got in the way? How can you use a different approach next time?
4. Clarify and commit to your most important goals
Write down the most important goals you want to accomplish this week. Do not commit to more than seven. Be wary of the planning fallacy in this step.
5. Schedule it all
Write down everything you’re going to do in your calendar. That which is scheduled is achieved far more often than unscheduled tasks).
6. Empty To-Do lists
Go through each of your lists and sort them according to the ’Eisenhower Box’ (2). If your task is…
- Important & Urgent- Schedule it as soon as possible.
- Important & Not Urgent – Schedule a later time to do it.
- Not important & Urgent – Delegate it to someone else. If that’s not possible then schedule it.
- Not important & Not Urgent – Delete it altogether!
Before you schedule your task always ask yourself: “What’s the next action?” The items that go onto your schedule need to be specific and actionable for you to get them done. If you’re doing a room makeover, don’t just write down ‘bedroom’. Take the time to figure out the next physical action needed. “Stop by the paint shop and get a colour pallet” is a specific and actionable step you can actually take. So is “Google the nearest paint shop”. Don’t allow vague tasks make it into your schedule – they won’t get done.
7. Empty your idea lists
Go through the ideas you’ve gathered during the week and see which of those still look appealing. Save your gems on an idea page in your journal.
8. Fill the gaps
What more do you need to do this week? Who can help you and who can you help? Write it down.
9. Review deadlines & important dates
This is your chance to get proactive! The following bullets are just examples of the things I do. Make sure you modify this step to fit you, personally.
- Empty email inboxes.
- Make sure all bills are paid.
- Schedule a time to return books to the library.
- Check which birthdays and other important occasions are coming up in the next two weeks.
- Check social networks.
10. Charge your electronics
Make sure all your electronics are ‘good to go’. Charge your ebook reader, mp3-player, electric toothbrush or whatever you’ll be using during the week.
11. Schedule your social stuff
This step may not seem very spontaneous but I’ve found it helps a great deal to take a moment to think about those friends and family members you would like to visit or call in the upcoming week.
12. Measure your progress
The last step is to collect the weekly results of your long-term goals. For me, this means writing down how many coaching clients I have and how many new subscribers found their way to the Selfication newsletter. It could also mean measuring your weight, muscle mass, guitar sessions completed, pages read, words written or something completely different depending on your personal goals.
When you’ve completed these steps you can be confident that you are on top of things and ready to hit the upcoming week in a proactive way. I do my weekly planning on Sundays but feel free to do it on some other day if that suits you better. I also encourage you to experiment with the different steps. Those I’ve outlined above are the steps I currently I use but I have switched them around many times and will continue to do so in order to make my planning as effective as possible.
Most people have a very reactive approach to life and as a result they are often late, keep forgetting things and aren’t very productive in general; I used to be one of them. The system I’ve described is a combination of a number of different productivity strategies I’ve come across over the years.
It has helped me become a lot better at getting things done in a lot less time and I’m sure it can do the same for you if you give it a shot. If there is anything I can help clarify feel free to send me a message. I want to make sure this guide is as helpful as possible. 🙂
”Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning and focused effort.”
– Paul J. Meyer
- Enhanced brain correlations during rest are related to memory for recent experiences
- How to be More Productive and Eliminate Time Wasting Activities by Using the “Eisenhower Box”
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen