Finding out your own productivity systems is one of the most important things you can do in your lifetime. After all, our time is limited and we want to make the best out of it. We all use one method or another to organize the things we have to do, whether it is a paper to-do-list or an advanced mobile application, but very few of us have actually tried to learn about the principles behind them. The following productivity tips should get you well equipped.
Keeping in mind these basic -almost common sense- principles can help us have a better understanding of the tools we use and hopefully, find our own methods which work best with our specific and unique needs. We need to trust our productivity system for it to be successful.
Every product or application out there is the personal productivity system of someone else. Whilst I’m convinced that you can benefit from them, it’s important to be aware that you are basically adapting to someone else’s ideas on how to get things done. That’s why it’s important to constantly iterate in the way you work and build on top of others’ ideas.
Some principles might be strongly connected but I hope I express the differences clearly enough for you to see their individual value.
1. Just start
I will start with the most important principle even though it might be too obvious. Just start. I’ve just put this advise into action with this very blog post. I’ve been wanting to put down a few lines on small productivity tips I benefit from for too long, and it was just now that I started writing because I read “just start” (yeah! This is the first paragraph I wrote for this blog post!). Motivation is a collateral effect of just starting. Sometimes, motivation gets you started, but some other times, starting gets you motivated. Once your hands are dirty, you got to finish the job. If you are reading this, it means it worked for me, so, enough analysis paralysis and just start!
2. Divide and conquer
This motto, frequently associated to Julius Caesar but apparently ‘officially’ attributed to Philip of Macedonia (yay! Alexander the Great’s father), might sound belligerent, but it’s a very handy concept to bear in mind when facing big projects or daunting tasks.
Problems that look challenging at first, might become feasible to our eyes once we have broken them down into smaller problems. Then, it is just a matter of tackling them separately.
Of course it is for you to choose how much you divide your tasks, but my recommendation is to break them down, at least, to tasks you estimate you can do in 2 hours max. The more you break them, the better, but again, don’t take this too far, you don’t want to spend more time organizing yourself than actually getting things done!
When working on a task, you should still keep the mindset of dividing everything into smaller tasks, for example if your task is to write a blog post on productivity principles, think of each principle as a mini-milestone.
3. Clearly define the tasks
This rule goes hand in hand with ‘divide and conquer’, since the more you divide a task, more specific it becomes. However, by clearly defining tasks I mean that you must make sure that the tasks are defined in a way that it’s easy for you to understand immediately what you have to do. Sounds obvious right? We still fail at this. For example, I have a task called “chrome extension”. It’s been there for a little while. Why? Because I don’t really know what it means. Every time I read it I have to do the extra effort of thinking “What am I expected to do here? What was I thinking when I wrote it down?” Be specific.
4. Define sprints
Sprints are a set period of time during which specific work has to be completed. In other words, with sprints we divide time and define what we will do during that time. Dividing time is very powerful because it’s like having natural cyclic deadlines.
The creation of calendars, weeks, etcetera, made a difference to the productivity of early civilizations, and we are now so used to them that we don’t appreciate their benefits anymore. Modern calendars have optimized for productivity.
You are free to choose your sprints, 3 days, 2 weeks, 21 hours. However, why reinvent the wheel? What works best for me is 1 day, 1 week, 1 month. Define what you will do today and what you will do this week. Every week, you have a new opportunity to get everything done. Weekly sprints allow for quite a lot while keeping the amount of work as something feasible to your own eyes. It also allows for flexibility when unexpected new tasks appear.
By the way, prioritizing your tasks doesn’t matter too much since you have a collection of very well defined tasks and a defined time (week, day) in which they all should be done.
5. Limit work in progress
It is very important that once you define a sprint, you stick to it as much as possible without adding new tasks. We tend to overestimate the amount of work we can do in a defined period of time. With time, you’ll learn to make better estimations.
You need to limit work in progress at every level:
- Doing right now: Limit your work in progress for what you are doing now means to pick one task and only one. We suck at multitasking. Focus on one thing until you finish it or reach a milestone.
- Today: Limiting WIP for a certain day means to define which tasks you will do today and no more. If you finish, you win. Just go procrastinate.
- In Sprint: It means that unless new critical tasks appear, nothing should be added. NOTHING. And be very critical about what a critical task is. I’m sure the next sprint will be a more realistic place to allocate the new popping tasks.
Methodologies like Kanban make strong use of this concept.
6. Learn to discard
"You can do anything but not everything"
I learnt this the hard way, but realizing that you won’t be able to do everything is one of the best things that can happen to you. I consider myself very disciplined and stubborn and I still succumbed to this enlightenment.
If a task has been there for too long, maybe it is not that important, dump it. When we have ideas, they all seem great, but don’t force your future self to execute everything that crossed your mind. Don’t feel bad for ditching ideas and notes the next day. Keep constantly sceptical about your earlier decisions on what has to be done and what not. Rinse your list until only the most relevant tasks are left.
7. Visualize progress
No matter which productivity system you make use of, make sure it has some way to visualize your progress. You need to see what you’ve already done so far. You need to see the volume of work go down. You need to feel the progress.
Visualizing progress can be something as simple as “scratching” a task from your to-do-list, ticking a checkbox off or moving tasks between columns that define the state of the task.
Above, you can see an example of how everydayCheck makes use of this principle. When marking a habit, it automatically increments the color giving a feeling of progress. Additionally, it's very easy to have an overview of the previous weeks to assess your progress.
One step further is to visualize the workflow. To see the lifecycle of your tasks, since they are conceived as notes, to when they become specific executable tasks part of your current sprint and to when they finally have been executed. Again, Kanban is a great methodology for this purpose.
8. Think about what’s next
Especially on a daily basis, it’s important to be aware of what’s next. I go to sleep thinking on what will I be doing tomorrow. Thanks to the weekly sprint, I already have an idea of what specific tasks I will do the next day and this helps me to start giving thoughts on the ways I will tackle each task. Sometimes, just the fact of thinking about them makes me realize this or that task isn’t such a big deal and gives me the feeling of starting a fresh day with some prep work on my shoulders. It feels like I have already started.
9. Do a little bit every day
Together with “just start” and “divide and conquer”, doing a little bit every day is, to me, the core of my productivity formula.
Working on a long-term goal every day gives one the feeling of constant work and progress towards the goal. Turning it into a habit has the extra benefit that you don’t see it as a task anymore. Since you are used to it, it becomes part of your daily routine.
When trying to develop new habits, it’s important to follow a couple of basic ideas:
- Every day means every day, no matter how little. If your goal is to get fit and you want to do 50 push-ups every day. Then, you’ve got to do 50 push-ups every day. However, if one day you’ve gone out, it’s late and you are tired, making 10 instead of none will make a huge difference. Just don’t break the chain!
- If you break the chain, forgive yourself! It’s not a big deal. The most important thing is to recover as soon as possible and start a new one. What is really important is to “not skip twice”.
With everydayCheck, I try to help people putting accountability to work on top of the “don’t break the chain” idea. The application is focused on this principle and nothing more. Its sole purpose is to get people to work on their goals every day, build new habits and accomplish their goals. Do it every day!
10. Complete things
Once you start something, finish it. Forbid yourself from doing anything else. Leaving things incomplete is a productivity killer, since you invested efforts without getting any gratification in return.
If the task is big, then finish an early version as soon as possible. Have completed things that you can iterate on. It is motivating and if you don’t get back to it, it means it’s good enough for you, and so, for the rest.
11. Use countdowns for tough tasks
This tip isn’t as abstract as the previous ones. I know a lot of people benefits from the pomodoro technique, and even though I think it’s a good system, it doesn’t really work for me. I don’t want techniques to be too intrusive with the way I work. I don’t want to have overhead work. Productivity methods are supposed to help me get rid of my tasks faster, not to give me more work and things to worry about! However, I think it’s a good idea to take the concept of timing your tasks in specific occasions.
If one task is too annoying, just challenge yourself, estimate how long you are going to spend on it and make sure to win against the clock. If you finish, well, you won. If you don’t, well, you are probably almost there, so it already helped a bunch!
Working on an app and starting a business completely alone requires me to be very productive and self-disciplined. I can’t always do what I want, some tasks are more motivating than others, so it’s important for me to bear these very basic yet powerful concepts in mind.
No application will do things for you. Productivity applications and fancy named methodologies will help you to a certain extent. However, my experience in this matter is that applications that are too opinionated (with advanced features that tell you how to organize yourself) tend to create a false illusion of productivity to the users, but don’t work in the long term.
Productivity applications, while taking advantage of the principles described above, should be flexible enough for users to find their own productivity systems. That’s exactly my goal when building everydayCheck. I needed a way to help me keep accountable of doing things every day that wouldn’t impose restrictions on me. I needed a tool that would help me find my own productivity system. It is certainly helping me, so you might want to try it for free!
Always iterate on your own productivity system and you will certainly reach your goals :)