When we feel like we're not being as productive as we need to be, it’s tempting to think switching tools and or changing our system will make all the difference. But will a change in our productivity tools or systems make a difference in how productive we are?
When should you change your productivity approach?
I’m frequently asked what are the best tools and systems for productivity. I don’t think there’s any one method that's best or right for everybody. We’re all individuals with different personalities, lives, and needs. Often the question comes from someone who's looking to make a change in her approach to how she manages her time or life. In our desire to live productive, meaningful lives, it's sometimes tempting to think a change in our approach to time management, or the tools or systems we use, will make all the difference. That's not necessarily true, though. Certainly, sometimes a change will boost productivity. But sometimes the change is just a diversion, and not an improvement.
To make sure we're speaking the same language, I think it's important to explain what I mean by the terms I use, and how system, method, and tool are different but related.
A system is whatever approach you’re using the manage your life, productivity, commitments, and so on. The system you choose will (and should) be affected by your personality and approach to life.
- Do you like structure or are you more freeform?
- Are you working toward long-term plans or goals, or are you more focused on a busy day-to-day schedule?
- What stage of life are you in? (The system you use can vary from person to person; a college student wouldn’t necessarily need the same system as a parent or entrepreneur.)
A method is the set of principles you follow and techniques you use to structure your days and manage your projects, tasks, appointments, and so on. Some popular methods include:
- GTD (Getting Things Done) — The foundational tenet of this method, articulated by David Allen in his book, focuses on capturing all the information from every aspect of your life into a single trusted system, followed by processing that information:
- Evaluate what it is (task? project? idea? appointment? reference material?)
- Decide if something can be done about it and, if so, what the next action would be
- Decide whether to do the task, defer it, delegate it, or delete it.
- Then take action in the next action items.
- Regular review is also a part of the GTD method — looking at all your inboxes and making sure there is a place for everything.
- ZTD (Zen to Done) — Developed by Leo Babauta in his book by the same name, this method is similar to GTD, but focuses more on simplicity, developing good habits, and structuring the day around the three MITs — Most Important Tasks.
- Don’t Break the Chain – Developed by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the idea is to start with one or two small habits you want to create by doing them every day. The approach is simply to hang a big calendar on the wall, and every day you complete your goal, mark the day with an X. We humans like the momentum of seeing a chain of days crossed out and we don’t want to see it broken.
- The NOW Year — Developed by productivity expert Mike Vardy (founder of The Productivityist), this method starts with choosing three words to form the focus for your year. (Chris Brogan initiated this idea, as well.) The NOW Year Method involves assigning a theme to your months after looking at the year as a whole. These themes will be the focus for each month. Then focus on your days and assign themes to every day. For example, one day for marketing, one day for customer service, etc. These themes help keep you focused on the things that are most important to you by providing some predetermined (by you) structure you can work within and around.
(Note: I have grossly oversimplified these methods for the sake of brevity. I encourage you to check out the materials produced by the founders/creators of these methods to learn more.)
A productivity tool is anything you use to implement the method you choose (or develop), such as capturing and organizing tasks, organizing your space and belongings, etc. Some examples are:
- To-do lists
- Day planners
- Pomodoro timer
- White boards
What Works for Me Might Not Work for You
My current system involves writing things down right away, creating and following morning and evening routines and rituals to bookend my day, consulting my task manager and calendar regularly, having things sync across multiple devices, trying to batch things like errands and email.
The method I used is a hybrid of GTD, ZTD, and an approach similar to the NOW Year method. My current primary tools are Nozbe for task management, multiple digital calendars (some shared with my husband and/or my assistant), Apple’s Reminders app, and Evernote.
I like looking at other options and alternatives for productivity tools and approaches, partly because I find them interesting (I'm kind of a geek that way), and partially to have information for this show and to be able to suggest or recommend different tools, methods, and systems to others. Still, I have to be aware that fiddling with productivity tools is not the same thing as being productive.
It’s easy to get sidetracked searching for the perfect tool, method, or system.
Be aware if you’re spending too much time looking for just the right system and consequently not accomplishing the things that matter most to you.
Remember these are all means to an end. The point of having a system is to create a framework to your life to keep moving in the direction you want to go. And no one can tell you what that’s supposed to be except you. Whatever you put into place relies on knowing where and who you want to be, then finding the tool that serves that.
There’s no perfect tool, method, or system.”
5 Reasons to Change Your System or Tools
You may find you want or need to change your system, methods, or tools for your needs.
1. The system isn’t working.
Before deciding your system or a particular tool isn’t working, though, take an honest look at what’s not working. Is it the tool or is it your habits? What is it about your system that isn’t working?
- Are you missing appointments?
- Are you not making the progress you want?
- Are you failing to accomplish things?
- Are obligations and appointments falling through the cracks?
Are you using the tool purposefully and consistently? No system or tool will work for you if you don’t use it.
Is your system built around a schedule that doesn’t work for your current stage in life? Morning routines might not work if you’re a new mom, for example, and you may find it helps to move activities of your morning routine to the afternoon.
Is your method of scheduling not working for others in your household? For example, if you’re using a calendar on the kitchen wall, but no one is home long enough to update it or consult it, consider switching to a shared digital calendar the family can access from their smartphones.
2. It costs too much.
Systems, methods, and tools can cost you money, but they can also cost you time. The whole reason for having productivity methods is to save you time and make your life easier. If your approach isn’t doing that, it’s not serving its purpose. The idea is to get stuff done, not spend endless hours adjusting and updating the tools you use. I enjoy playing with productivity tools, color-coding, and organizing, but it’s possible to get a dopamine hit from “accomplishing” something in organizing, without making any actual progress on your goals.
3. You simply don’t like using it.
Aesthetics matter. Does the look or feel appeal to you? If not, what is enticing you to use it?
Is it something you want to use? For example, no matter how efficient a digital tool might be, if you are more comfortable or prefer working with a pen and paper using a digital tool won’t be fun for you to use. A bullet journal may be a better choice for you than a tool like Nozbe or OmniFocus.
4. You’ve had a change in circumstances.
What has worked before might no longer be working because your situation has changed. Starting a new job, a new school, transitioning from school to working full-time, going from working in an office to self-employment, adding team members or finding the need to collaborate more or less with colleagues are all examples of when you may need to find new tools and methods for productivity. Digital tools like Asana or Trello, for instance, may streamline collaborative projects and tasks, while physical tools, such as a whiteboard in a central location may also help keep everyone on the same page.
5. You just want a change.
If you've been doing things the same way for a long time, shaking things up a bit can bring about a new perspective and enthusiasm.
4 Reasons Not to Change
Change for the sake of change may not always be the best course of action for you. The costs of making a change need to be weighed against the benefits. Some reasons you might not want to change include:
1. Losing efficiency.
Sometimes you can’t afford to lose the time it takes to learn to use a new tool. If you’re up against a deadline, now is not the time to switch. Remember, there is always going to be a learning curve to any new system, method, or tool. Anticipate that period of time it takes to learn a new approach or change your routine
2. You're just playing with your new system, method, or tool to avoid actual work.
It might be easier to play around with the new shiny tool than doing the things that can be harder or considered actual work, or what Cal Newport refers to as “deep work” — the work that’s harder and challenging, but more productive and fulfilling. (See his excellent book, Deep Work, for more info.)
3. You haven’t yet mastered the old system enough for it to work for you.
As mentioned above, it takes time to fully learn a new system, method, or tool. If you don’t understand it or it’s a challenge to learn, don’t give up right away and move onto another system, method, or tool. Make a commitment for at least a month or two or however long you feel you’ve really given it your best effort to learn before moving on.
4. You think having a new tool or system will magically “fix” something.
Just like having an expensive guitar won’t automatically make you the best guitar player in the world, having the best, most expensive tool won’t make you the most organized, productive person on the planet. Solve the underlying issues — like lack of focus, lack of self-discipline, lack of support — to help you use whatever tool you decide upon. Similarly, if you have too much stuff, no organizational tool is going to solve the clutter problem permanently, as we discussed in Episode 83: The Art of Decluttering: An International Conversation.
It’s not the system, method, or the tool that’s going to solve the challenges of your life — it’s you.”
How or What to Change
Identify what it is about your tool/system/approach that isn’t working. Why isn’t it working? Is it the tool itself, or the discipline it takes to use it? Is the tool too complex or confusing? If you get lost in details like layers of tags and categories, look at something simpler.
What do you need it to do (or do better)? Once you can identify what you need from a system, method, or tool, you can look for alternatives to address those needs. Don’t just focus on the look of something new — it has to be functional, as well.
Make small changes and give them time to work. Making huge, sweeping changes is seldom helpful. They are disruptive and difficult to maintain and can even be less productive in the long run. Making small changes, such as developing one or two small habits at a time, is more apt to produce long-term results. Once those habits are developed, add something new to the routine.
For example, instead of starting a completely new morning routine, maybe start with going to bed 15 minutes earlier and waking up 15 minutes earlier. After that has become a habit, add another small thing or two, like sitting with a cup of tea or taking time to read.
What do you think?
Do you have suggestions for how a system you use might work for others? I’ve love to hear your comments on this episode. Please feel free to ask your questions or share your thoughts with me by emailing me, commenting on our Facebook page or leaving a comment below.
Reminders and Notices
- If you enjoy this show, please consider nominating The Productive Woman before May 1 for the 2016 Podcast Awards to show your support. Information on how to nominate and vote can be found on the Noodle.mx network page.
- I’m available to speak at your events — women’s retreats and conferences, productivity workshops, business teams, etc. Send me an email or call me at 972.638.0308 to contact me.
- Visit the new “Resources” tab at the website. Links to resources we produce, like the project planning template, the digital toolbox, Emily Prokop’s weekly docket, and the decluttering questions tool from episode 83. Also books I recommend, etc. More to come (it’s still a work in process).
- The first The Productive Woman mastermind group will start in May. This will consist of a small group of women committed to becoming more productive and making lives that matter and who will meet once every other week via Skype. If this is something you’re interested in, please email me as soon as possible with your interest, and put “Mastermind” in the subject line. For general information on what a mastermind group is, check out “What Is a Mastermind Group?”
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