A step-by-step guide to your unique and perfect productivity system.
I have tried many copy-pasted productivity systems in my life. In the last few years, I read more than 100 self-help books. And each of them gave me a different approach to productivity and goal-setting, but none of them explained the universal principles I could use to build my perfect productivity system.
So one day, I asked myself: are there any universal rules that anyone can use to build a custom-made productivity system that works only for them? There must be a set of principles that anyone can use to enhance productivity based on their personality, obligations, and life goals.
To find them, I needed to analyze the systems that already existed in literature, extract their principles, and adapt them to my personality.
So I went through all my favorite books, blogs, and forums, searching for an answer. Fortunately, on my e-reader, I selected each valuable lesson from each book, so the process wasn’t that hard.
Here is what I found.
The Perfect Productivity System according to Best-Sellers
1 — The 12 Week Year (12WY)
Created by Moran and Lennington, the 12WY system is one of the firsts I have ever tried.
The core idea of the book consists of the supremacy of commitment over motivation. With the 12WY, every 12 weeks, you develop a plan and commit to it with simple daily actions. So even if you feel undermotivated, you remain productive thanks to your commitments.
According to Moran and Lennington, there are four keys to creating successful commitments:
- The strong desire you develop by setting long-term ideal goals.
- Keystone actions that activate your productivity immediately and remove the process of thinking about what to do next.
- Cost evaluation of your commitments to make you choose whether you are willing to pay the price of success.
- Actions based on commitments prevent you from working based on your motivation levels or mood of the day.
You can learn more about the 12WY method from this summary by Mike Fishbein.
2 — Getting Things Done (GTD)
Getting Things Done is one of the most popular productivity systems in the self-improvement environment. Its creator, David Allen, based it on a simple principle — getting every thought on a paper and organizing them into clear and concise tasks.
The entire process involves a step-by-step approach:
- Collect, where you add to a list anything that comes to your mind.
- Clarify and break down tasks into simple steps to work on singularly.
- Organize, where you categorize your tasks based on their priority.
- Review, where you analyze and refine your tasks.
- Engage, where you complete the assignments and remove them from the list.
3 — Time Blocking (TB)
While reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I noticed how its entire thesis stands upon the time blocking system. In the introduction, Newport reports a study by Sophie Leroys that explains how task-switching destroys productivity. In particular, there is an attention residue preventing us from instantly switch context between one activity and another.
Time blocking is a great way to counter attention residue and remain accountable throughout the day. With this system, you split your workday into unrelated blocks of time, and you allocate them to different activities. This way, you can reach deep work while also maintaining your stress levels limited.
4 — The Eisenhower Matrix (EM)
The Eisenhower matrix is a popular productivity tool used by many writers because of its simplicity. I applied it to explain how to defeat procrastination thanks to the proximity principle, and Tim Ferris himself adopted it for The 4-Hour Work Week.
Shortly, the Eisenhower matrix is a tool that helps you divide your tasks into four categories:
- Important-Urgent things that you need to do immediately.
- Important-Not-Urgent jobs that you can schedule for later.
- Not-Important-Urgent activities that you can delegate.
- Not-Important-Not-Urgent tasks that you can remove from your list.
How to choose the starting perfect productivity system
If you pay attention to the productivity systems above, they all start with a list of tasks. For a system to work, you could use a to-do list, a brain dump like in the Getting Things Done method, or any other type of list you wish. However, you need to have a clear vision of the tasks you need to complete.
Once you have done it, you have to organize and clarify those goals. This way, I can concentrate on productivity instead of losing time creating graphics.
Short VS Long-Term
There is a difference between short and long-term tasks, and some productivity systems might work differently for each of them. GTD and TB, for example, focus mainly on short-term tasks, while the 12WY system also embraces long-term visions.
Team VS Individual
If you need to work on a task with a team, you will have less freedom than working alone. For instance, team members might freeze the work pipeline, so you need to wait for them to finish before continuing. This prevents you from using systems like GTD but enhances those like the EM.
Concise VS Chaotic
Tasks might also differ in structure — some of them concentrate on creative processes while others on efficiency. Systems like GTD or the 12WY can manage both types, while others, like TB, deal better with concise and time-limited tasks.
How to make your system unique
A perfect productivity system becomes unique when it sticks to your habits, sensibility, and personality. Each human being has its dreams, necessities, feelings, and efficiency with different tasks, so we should all develop a productivity system taking into account those characteristics.
For example, it could take me less time to write an article than you, but your editing may be faster. Also, I could work for 45 minutes with a 15 minutes break, while you could work continuously for more than an hour and then take longer breaks.
These differences become the deal-breakers of a productivity system, so before defining your own, ask yourself the following questions.
1 — Does my productivity system work with both short and long-term tasks?
For a productivity system to be perfect, it needs to contain techniques to deal with short and long-term goals. The 12WY can teach you how to define your long-term purpose and deal with the absence of motivation. But you cannot manage short-term goals without a system similar to GTD.
If you are a rule stickler, you can use techniques like time blocking for your short-term goal. On the contrary, if your productivity depends on the euphoria of the moment, you can use something more similar to GTD.
In both cases, the Pomodoro technique could be a helpful tool for short bursts of productivity.
2 — Is my productivity system strictly related to fixed-time tasks?
As I said before, you can split tasks into two macro-categories.
Many activities are concise and limited in time. So once you define what to do, there are clear steps to take to achieve the goal. For this kind of task, time blocking is one of the best techniques you can adopt because it enhances your flexibility and time management.
Other activities are more chaotic and creative, and they require an unlimited amount of time to be productive. When you deal with a new idea, for example, a fixed time frame could not be enough and interrupt your stream of thoughts. Techniques similar to the Eisenhower matrix enhance these activities. They keep track of the urgency of your projects without limiting them.
3 — Does my productivity system take care of my mental and physical health?
The worst enemies of productivity are burnouts, and for this reason, you should include in your system tools to prevent those catastrophic events.
Focusing on long-term goals, creativity, and efficiency is crucial. But without mental fortitude, the entire system collapses. For this reason, introduce in your system elements that break the flow of the work, allowing you to relax.
You can choose anything in the range between taking simple breaks, meditating, or even working out. During those activities, make sure to oxygenate your brain with deep pauses and self-reflection. Sometimes, when stressed by work, you won’t think about having a correct posture, drinking enough, or even relaxing your eyes. So make sure to allocate some time for these activities too.
4 — Is my productivity system sustainable for long periods?
Your productivity system should be easy to follow and sustainable. So if you feel awful and exhausted after an entire day using it, something is not working.
Every time you decide to follow a new habit or system, consider the friction and effort it takes from you. If there is friction, you need to change something. If there is effort, you need to simplify. So make sure to include methods for simplifying tasks in your model and make them SMART and easy to achieve.
5 — Does my productivity system include a self-regulation pattern?
Finally, avoid applying a productivity principle again if it didn’t work the first time. When you build your system, you based it on values, but not necessarily the right ones.
Sometimes, when dealing with our flaws, we tend to hide them. So even if you are disorganized, you could try time blocking as a productivity system. But the results will be negative in most cases.
For this reason, your system should include a self-regulation pattern to change everything that is not working. This pattern doesn’t have to be complicated. A weekly review can spot problems in your system and their solution.
To practice self-regulation, I give two marks to my productivity system every evening. The first one values my ability to finish tasks. The second evaluates my mental health score instead. You can use the printable graphic below to do it too.
From here, you can download the printable perfect productivity system evaluation.
Even if a perfect productivity system for everyone does not exist, each of us can build its own in a couple of steps.
Getting inspiration from the best is always a good choice, but it is not mandatory. All you need is a process of self-reflection and an accurate system that organizes them adequately.
You need a tool to work on short-term tasks while also being aware of your long-term goals. A scheduling system is always good to have, but you will use it only for concise and time-limited tasks. Also, you should consider mental and physical health, or you will soon burn out and give up everything. And finally, you need self-regulation to tweak your problems or patch them with the missing parts.
This is how you can build your perfect productivity system.
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Article first published on Curious.