Productivity is a market, a subculture, a philosophy, and the bane of everyone’s existence. Perhaps you struggle with prioritizing your tasks. Perhaps you feel like you chug and chug along but can’t get enough time. Perhaps you’re easily distracted. Perhaps you can never remember where you saved your notes or files.
Rest assured, there is a solution. It takes some hard work, but you can and will find a productivity system that actually helps you be productive.
Here’s our process for finding your perfect productivity system.
Step 1: Do a brain dump.
Open a blank text document or pull out a blank sheet of paper. Write down everything on your mind: things you have to do for work, chores to do around the house, ideas that come to mind, things you’ve been meaning to explore, upcoming events, groceries you need to buy…all of it. Take your time. It took me about an hour, but there’s no right or wrong amount of time.
Once you’ve finished, set the list/scribbles aside.
Step 2: Audit your task lists.
You’ve probably been listing your to-dos somewhere: Todoist? Evernote? Napkins? Go through them and ask yourself these questions:
- Could this task be broken down into subtasks?
- Is this task actionable? For example, “productivity blog” means nothing. “Write productivity blog” is actionable. And as per number 1, you could break that down into multiple tasks, e.g. “Research,” “Draft,” “Review,” “Publish,” and “Promote.”
- Does this task depend on other tasks to be done?
- Does this task need to be done by a certain date? If not, do you want it off your plate by a certain date?
Depending on what type of tasks you’re looking at, you may also want to ask:
- Does this task require other people to complete?
- Will this task repeat at any point in the future?
If you find that you need to fix the way you’ve been naming or organizing your tasks, hold on. We first must do Step 3.
Step 3: Think about what helps you get things done.
Do you need to be reminded on a regular basis? (It’s okay if you do!) Do you need to be able to view today’s tasks in a separate list? Do you need to associate tasks with a certain context (e.g. Home, Work, School)? Do you need to have a progress bar or milestones to help motivate you?
Answering these questions will help you decide the overall shape of your productivity system. You can choose from existing methodologies or develop your own. The most common methodologies are Getting Things Done (GTD), Pomodoro, Zen to Done, and Don’t Break the Chain.
Read the full version of this article on Medium for a quick-and-dirty guide to these methodologies.
Whichever system you choose, your custom system should take the following factors into account:
Do you need reminders for your tasks? Whether you’re forgetful or need a motivator, you can incorporate reminders into your system by using an app devoted to this, a task manager app that sends reminders, or a combination of both.
Do you need to schedule blocks of time where you work on certain things? It can help to do an audit of the times you can more easily get into the flow and the times you need to just sit and do nothing. Once you understand your tendencies, you can try scheduling appropriate tasks into these blocks.
Do you have long-term goals, short-term goals, or a mix of both? For long-term goals, a system that breaks down your work into “stages” or assigns priorities to a certain day, week, or month can be helpful. For short-term goals, your system should favor a chain-like progression such as daily to-dos. For a mix, a productivity app that shows tasks, events, and notes together would be ideal.
Do you need to feel like you’ve knocked out a bunch of tasks each day, or are you okay with carrying some things over? If you’re the type to feel uneasy if you haven’t completed your to-do list, you need to be sure you’ve broken down work that takes a longer time. If you’re more of a progressive worker, you might prefer a system that shows milestones or overall progress.
Step 4: Fix your task naming scheme
No matter which methodology you choose, it’s best practice to name your task an actionable thing and define its scope. Start with a verb and end with a noun.
If you’re using GTD, add a context or location, and the time you’ll do it. Your app might allow you to do this separately (more on that below).
Bad example: “new blog post”
Good example: “write new blog post @ home tomorrow”
If you’re using ZTD, add a next step or a project. Your app might allow you to tag the task or add it to a list to help provide it with context or connect it to a greater plan.
Bad example: “productivity system story”
Good example: “write productivity system story for #blog tomorrow”
If you’re using Pomodoro, you might consider naming the tasks according to what you can accomplish in 25 minutes.
Bad example: “blog article”
Good example: “create outline for blog article”
Step 5: Research an app that will work for you
There are a zillion productivity apps under the sun. Some are full-fledged project management systems that are great for teams (or can be hacked to suit an individual’s needs — check out my story on that, linked at the bottom of this piece). Some are simply places to collect notes, tasks, and events — the three types of things you would store in such a system — in your organizational scheme. Check out our app recommendations on Medium. We also encourage you to check out our free comparison chart on Airtable. (Note: I didn’t include apps for Pomodoro because you really only need a timer.)
Step 6: Pour your tasks into your system.
Phew! We’re almost done. Now that you’ve decided upon your methodology and app(s), it’s time to enter your tasks, events, and notes into the system. Set aside at least a few hours to do this.
Once you’re done, you might feel inspired to start doing stuff. That’s great! But hold on one more second.
Step 7: Automate as much as possible.
You will be infinitely happier and more productive if you automate as much of your life as possible. While apps like Productive will automate task creation for you, some systems need a little extra love.
That’s where Zapier comes in. It connects apps to each other to save you the trouble of data entry. For example, if you’re a freelancer who collects leads through Typeform, Zapier can go ahead and pump those leads into Trello (or wherever). Check out some sample Zaps on Medium.
Are you ready?
I’ve got good news…
We’ve made it!
You’re ready to be a productivity powerhouse.
The perfect productivity system is one that’s custom-tailored to your quirks. You may find your answer in one app or a combination of several. Remember: It takes time to get used to a new system, so aim to use it consistently for 30 days. I find it helpful to set a reminder on my phone to check your app(s) of choice if the app doesn’t bug you automatically (most of them do).
Now, go forth and get stuff done!